Deniss Vasiljevs operates on a battery that doesn’t quit, that causes his eyes to twinkle and his feet to dance.
“He is energizer,” said his coach of one year, 1994 Olympic men’s champion Alexei Urmanov. “He have a few batteries inside of him, I think. I believe. That’s why I call him the Energizer. The good Energizer.”
At the world figure skating championships this week, they have become the event’s comic relief – but very, very serious, too.
Vasiljevs comes from a Baltic country – Latvia – that has never been a power in figure skating. Somehow, he has emerged as a skater with a powerful talent to move beautifully – and with great speed – with music at his young age. Exquisite. Then he heads to the kiss and cry and charms, his eyes googling like a cartoon character, grinning good-naturedly all the time. It seems there are all sorts of facets to Vasiljevs.
So far this week, Vasiljevs has been astonishing. At age 16, at his first senior worlds, he sits tenth after the short program, a very young man among men, holding his own. At the world junior championships about a month ago, Vasiljevs sat third after the short program, then unraveled to finish eighth. A lot has changed in a month. And a lot hasn’t. Vasiljevs has definite ideas about his hobby/sport/life pursuit.
Skating is about more than jumps, Vasiljevs said. “It’s my life, figure skating,” he said, with no small amount of passion.
Step sequences, spins, how they make Vasiljevs’ mind burst. He has an entire list of favourite skaters/role models. First on his list is Stephane Lambiel of Switzerland.
“He was the first skater that I really loved his skating,” he said. As a boy (he’s still a boy), Vasiljevs watched Lambiel all the time, every time he could. “It was like the first moment of work that I would try to skate as him,” Vasiljevs said. “I was always trying to reach his level.”
Besides, his mother, a former dancer, was a Lambiel fan.
His second love was Daisuke Takahashi. “In my opinion, he is so talented and so unbelievably great skater,” said the beaming Latvian. “He could do every music you going to give him. Like for me before, I could do only classical.”
Next on the list? Patrick Chan,the three-time world champion known for his uncommon skating skills, who steams from one end of the ice to the other in a couple of gulps, who skates on the edge, pushing the limits like nobody else. Yes, Vasiljevs appreciates that.
Chan is the first skater of the highest level that Vasiljevs has met “in real life.”
“I love his performance,” Vasiljev said of the Canadian. “It is in my opinion something special, that I never saw in other skaters.”
He liked Chan before and he likes him even better now, he said.
And just for good measure, he throws in Javier Fernandez. “He’s from Europe, come on,” he said. “Always it’s Canada or United States or Japan. And here he is coming from Spain and he is a very good skater.”
Perhaps he feels a sort of kinship with a skater who has bolted to the top from an essentially non-skating country. Like maybe he will.
Vasiljevs start didn’t come in traditional ways, of course. It doesn’t in a country that doesn’t have a history. Vasiljevs can’t explain how he has come to understand the beauty of the stroke and the movement that goes with it.
But he tries.
“I never tried to learn somewhere, like a school,” he said. “Skating for me is like free movement. So every time I’m skating in my home country [in hometown Daugavpils] alone, my mom – she’s not a coach but she’s simply a huge fan of figure skating – she’s always correct me.
“So I hope everyone likes it because she is very good critic.”
He also credits his first coach, Ingrida Snieskiene, from the time he was nine, oh some short seven years ago. “She showed me that I must skate free, to try to do good curves,” he said. His choreographer has pushed him in that direction, too.
“They are trying to give me something new,” he said. Perhaps this explains why he is skating to Daft Punk for his free skate. It’s different, for sure. He bursts out with a black costume with white figures on it, taken from the movie “Tron: Legacy” from which the music comes. It’s definitely not classical.
And he says Urmanov has become an important addition to his learning curve, too. Urmanov said that before Vasiljevs came to skate with him about a year ago in Sochi, Russia, the kid didn’t have a reliable triple Axel. In the short program in Boston, he rose to the occasion and he did one that earned him 9.50 points. It helped him edge closer to the technical scores of seasoned senior skaters.
In the short program, he outskated folks like Denis Ten (12th), Maxim Kovtun (13th ), and his technical score is nudging those of former U.S. champions Max Aaron, and Adam Rippon.
Urmanov says he’s training quads, but they are not ready yet.
Vasiljevs started with Urmanov before last year’s world junior championships and the young Latvian trains almost full time in Sochi now.
“It’s always a lot of work with some of my athletes,” said Urmanov. “He didn’t do triple Axel, so we fix it in August-September. And we put it in program.”
Later, Urmanov stepped up the kids’ challenge, putting two triple Axels in the long.
Vasiljevs is an eager learner, Urmanov said. “He grow a lot and he becomes a man.”
And he has extremely novel spin positions. “Yeah, he has seriously unusual positions,” Urmanov said. “This is good because in figure skating, we want to see something new. This is good that he have such a nice position, different from others.”
The positions come from Valsiljevs’ heart, from his personality, Urmanov said.
“Some people are born to be skaters,” Urmanov said. “And somebody not.”
He admits that Vasiljevs sometimes scares him because he moves so fast across the ice. “I just sometimes ask him: ‘Please, don’t do short track for me. We’re doing figure skating.’”
And in this moment, Urmanov sounds so much like his own coach, Alexei Mishin.
As Vasiljevs spills his wishes, hopes, dreams, beliefs, all in a vocal tumble of words, his mouth always turned up, Urmanov returns to the mixed zone, like a hovering parent.
He grabs an elaborate cloth flower someone threw on the ice for Vasiljevs (yes, he now has Japanese fans, too), and slips beside his student, using the flower like a microphone.
“Leave something for after the free program,” Urmanov tones into the flower, but the message is for Vasiljevs. “Say to journalists [after] free.
“Keep your energy because your battery is running low.”
And with that, Urmanov whisks his protégé into the wings. The show is over, for now.