Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Interview With Violetta Afanasieva


If you want to talk about a talented AND fascinating skater, Violetta Afanasieva fits the bill. This fearless Russian born skater started her professional career as a teenager with the Bolshoi Moscow Circus On Ice, toured with Holiday On Ice and in 2006 won the Extreme Ice Skating World Championships with her husband and pairs partner Pete Dack of Canada. She wowed Canadian television audiences as part of the cast of CBC's Battle Of The Blades and now couples a professional figure skating career with the beginnings of a coaching career. I'm always enthralled by people and skaters who take "the road less travelled" and Afanasieva's story (and skating) is bound to have you on the edge of your seat wanting to read more:

Q:: You grew up in Russia and obviously have both skating and circus in your blood, your mother being a pairs skater and your father a graduate of the Russian School Of Circus Art. I understand that you actually started your professional career at the age of fourteen when you joined your parents to skate in the Bolshoi Moscow Circus On Ice. What can you share about your early career as an "amateur" skater and what brought you to the Moscow Ice Circus?

A: I started skating when I was about five years old. In Russia at that time any sport was free, but the coaches had a choice of taking you or not. One of my first memories of skating was being on the ice with a bunch of other kids while coaches observed us. Then I remember being picked out to join my coach's group. Training was very organized. My group stayed together through out the whole day. We skated in the morning then went to school together. We had our own school schedule which was different from other non-athlete children. Then more skating, then off-ice, then school home work and sleep. I never played on the street with my neighbours but I would play with my skating teammates between school or training. I remember having a lot of fun. My best friend now and then was one of my teammates. Our training was very strict. We all were afraid of the "worst thing that could happen" - being kicked off the ice. Staying by the boards or retying skates was not allowed. So was chatting. Parents were not allowed to be present by the ice, they would watch us through the little crack in the arena doors and would flee away if they saw my coach approaching them. I remember being very nervous at the competitions but I couldn't resist the feeling of joy of skating in the front of people! Very often when my parents would work in Moscow, I would come and watch them. Since a young age I was captivated by the idea of performing. My transition to Circus On Ice was very easy and desired but before joining the Circus I spent a year or so travelling, performing and competing with the Children's Ballet On Ice where I started learning to hula hoop. The Children's Ballet On Ice is a very popular activity in Russia even now.


Q: You joined Holiday On Ice in 1994 and toured with them for over ten years. I understand that is where you met your husband Pete Dack and developed your adagio pairs act. What can you share about your Holiday On Ice experience and the process of learning adagio pairs skating? 

A: My six years in Holiday On Ice were a non-stop creative, learning and fun experience. It was then when I understood the joy of pair and adagio skating. When I was competing, I'd been constantly told by my parents and many pair coaches that I would be good for pair skating. But for some reason, no one could make me skate with a boy. They tried. I have no reasonable explanation why I did not become a pair skater. Holiday On Ice hired me as solo hula hoop act and principal adagio and they found a partner for me. That was before Pete. My Holiday On Ice partner Sergei and I were given a lot of help from previous adagio performers and we learned a lot of tricks. Sergei (he is a Ukrainian pair skater) also taught me some pair skating. I learned that it was a lot of fun to share the ice with someone, interact during the performance, act, be lifted and fly high in the air. We had a lot of opportunities to act out the stories on ice, which I loved to do. I always say that in my parallel life (not the current one, because I love it) I want to be a stage actress. Actors fascinate me. Beside fun on the ice, Holiday On Ice gave me a lot of great friends. Pete and I were a part of a group that hung around together. We went sightseeing in every city the show travelled to. With shared interests, we had a fantastic time. We all still remain friends, even though I haven't seen some of our group in a decade. The wonder of social networking keeps us close.

Q: Since teaming up with Pete, the two of you had some pretty amazing accomplishments as a professional skater, winning the first Extreme Ice Skating World Championships in St. Petersburg in 2006 (and earning six perfect 10.0's in the process) and of course touring with Katarina Witt and in Canada, Europe, South Africa and South America. What have been some of the most memorable experiences from your professional career - both positive and negative?

A: I would say the thrill of competing in 2006 was the most memorable. We were trained and ready, but of course nervous. There were so many things that could go wrong. Hula hoops are very close to juggling and potential mistakes are countless. It takes a lot of concentration to keep everything under control, while performing and interacting with audience and each other. After skating clean and getting that desired energy charge from the audience, from the adrenaline and from feeling accomplished we both had a full range of happy emotions. These were great feelings that I will never forget. As for the negative memories, I can truly say I have no examples. Of course there must have been small bumps and maybe a couple of unpleasant moments, but negative does not really stay in my memory. It seems funny or silly with time. So when I look into my past or look at the present, I understand how lucky I am. I do what I love. I think my family, my husband and his family are the best. I can rely on my friends and I always had plenty of time to enjoy life and nature.

Q: What is one place in the world where you HAVEN'T skated that you would just love to? 

A: Oh, there are a lot of places, but number one on Pete's and my list would be New Zealand. My parents toured there with the Circus On Ice and they loved it!



Q: You were a huge hit on the CBC show Battle Of The Blades which was unfortunately cancelled after its fourth season (boo!), pairing up with hockey players P.J. Stock, Cale Hulse and Jason Strudwick. What were the biggest challenges of putting your trust in a hockey player and how did you make it work as well as you did?

A: There were no challenges in trusting my hockey partners at all. My job as a partner comes with a "built in" trust factor. After meeting each of them, I quickly realized how responsible and trustworthy all of them were. Their and Pete's part in this show, on the other hand, was much harder. Pete had to be always alert, teaching and checking technique and being on the lookout for potential malfunctions. I was simply enjoying my work with the hockey players, Pete, our choreographers and everyone involved in the show. The hardest part was on the shoulders of my partners and I am not only talking about my weight. They had my well being in their hands, while being thrown into unknown environment where everything was uncomfortable. I still can't believe what they were able to achieve in the short period of time. I also think it shows that while perfecting sport specific skills, sports teach us work ethics, ability to self motivate, discipline and responsibility. That was a great show to be a part of, Pete and I have tons of wonderful memories and many good friends because of it.


Q: If you were a contestant on Survivor, what would your strategy be?

A: Oh, I love Survivor! Pete and I watch it all the time and of course, I picture myself in their environment and try to question "what I would've done". I've been trying to answer this question for many years now and now answering you, I just don't know! Nice question, by the way! Really digs deep. It's like when someone asks you what books you like. The answer can reveal a lot of information. My strategy... First, enjoy the experience. I learned that through my skating career. Things go by very fast if you don't pay attention. Second, take the opportunity to hear what others have to say, I am sure with all the chit-chat that they do all day, a lot of interesting stuff about different lives will come up and it could help in the competitions. Then, observe as much as possible, and work hard. I probably would anyway. I am not a fan of sitting on the beach. I think, I feel not spoken energy of the situation well, so I would try to read between the lines. Find good people. But after I said all that, I would not make a good Survivor I think.

Q: Who are your three favourite skaters of all time and why?

A: Kurt Browning! I think he has perfected all aspects of figure skating. His skating is excellent, footwork is outstanding and there seems to be no end to his creativity and flow. He has an unbelievable connection with audiences on and off the ice. His charisma is strong and the fact that he has been skating for many years without losing the spark and love for skating is amazing. Katia Gordeeva. She is my idol and my friend. In my eyes, her and Sergei are yet to be overcome by any other pair team. They had everything: flawless line, elements, charm, character, connection between each other... Off the ice, Katia is a super human. She is a fantastic mother, very down to earth and easy to speak to, very responsible and reliable, but besides all of that she is the life of the party. Katarina Witt! Katarina was my idol growing up. I always watched her with admiration and fascination. She was artistic and shined more than anyone in competitions. Like Kurt and Katia, she is super charismatic. Her post skating career revealed her as a very successful businesswoman. She is as smart as she is talented. There are definitely more skaters that affected me or I look up to or I find inspirational. When I was growing up, Victor Petrenko was one of them. Elvis Stojko, Brian Orser and Brian Boitano also. Now it is Jeff Buttle, Stephane Lambiel, Patrick Chan, Shae-Lynn Bourne, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, Joannie Rochette, Carolina Kostner and of course many others.


Q: What is one thing most people don't know about you?

A: I am an introvert. I think due to my profession and my behaviour in public, I come across as an extrovert.

Q: What can you share about your life as a figure skater today?

A: I can truly say I am getting a second wind in my involvement with figure skating. My husband and I still perform, but a bit less since we are starting to transition into the coaching community. While watching Worlds in Shanghai, I noticed that I was looking at the competition from a different viewpoint and it gave me a lot of new interest. At the moment, I have only completed the first step with my Skate Canada coach certification, so I cannot have students. What I do now is teach off-ice fitness, core strength, stretching/flexibility and I also teach hula hoop classes which are a fun way to get your exercises in.

Q: What is the biggest lesson that figure skating has taught you as a person?

A: First, discipline. Second, better understanding of people. Travelling and encountering different cultures really lets you see different motivation and reasons behind people's actions.

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