A love letter to the partnership of Stolbova and Klimov

It’s been over a week since it was officially announced that Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov will no longer skate together, and yesterday Fedor announced his retirement from competitive skating. I have so many mixed emotions on the topic. For sure, the future ahead is uncertain. But what they’ve already achieved is incredible.

I warn you this will be a very long post.

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Part 1: My love affair with Ksenia and Fedor

As many of you know, I started watching skating when I was 11. I will never forget the magical feeling I got when I saw this young Russian couple skating to “The Addams Family”. They were fierce and charming and beautiful all at once, and instantly I became a fan.

I love pair skating in general, and I admire every couple for their own unique strengths. But I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Ksenia and Fedor. Their skating is so powerful; they move with such ease across the ice, as if they’re flying. They can interpret nearly any piece of music – my friend once said “They could skate to ‘Row row row your boat’ and make it work.” They’ve created masterpieces out of the comical, the classical, the sensual, and even the avant-garde. They are artists as well as athletes.

After the 2015 Grand Prix Final, I read every article and interview I could find about this couple, and I fell even more in love with them. They spoke so honestly about the ups and downs of their partnership, and they always fought to overcome their differences. One of my favorite things was how he always hugged her after a bad performance so she wouldn’t blame herself. To me, this real, human relationship seemed so much more beautiful than a fluffy fairy tale, and as a 13-year-old I promised myself, “I will marry a man who looks at me the way Fedor looks at Ksenia.” I will admit I used to ship them a lot, and I was heartbroken when Fedor broke the news that they weren’t dating. But still, my love for them continued.

I have so many good memories of their skating that I don’t know where to start. I was lucky enough to see them skate in person, at 2015 Skate America. It was not their best performance, but I was in awe nonetheless. They landed the first side-by-side triple toe loop-triple toe loop-double toe loop combination in the history of pair skating. I won’t forget that anytime soon.

Events like 2014 Rostelecom Cup, 2015 Grand Prix Final, 2017 Nationals, and 2017 NHK Trophy all bring back such happy feelings, and when I am having a bad day, I just watch one of these videos. There is something in their skating that speaks to my heart and makes this confusing world seem a little clearer. A few weeks ago, I was awake crying because the revolutionary skater Denis Ten had been murdered in an armed robbery at the age of 25, so I watched their Addams Family FS.

But there will always be painful memories as well as beautiful ones. I remember logging into Twitter on the night of January 23, 2018 and seeing all these tweets that didn’t make sense. How can somebody be banned from the Olympics without any explanation why? The Olympics in Korea were beautiful, and I cried many happy tears for the medalists, but my heart still aches so much for Ksenia and Fedor.

They were blessed with a burst of unexpected success – they were relatively unknown before the 2014 Olympics and left with the silver medal, then picked up a handful of major medals over the next year and a half. But after every dawn comes darkness. Fedor struggled with severe shoulder injuries that almost ended their career; then Ksenia developed problems in her leg, keeping them out of the entire 2016 Grand Prix series. And while they were recovering, their countrymen Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov stormed to the top, claiming the spot Ksenia and Fedor had worked so hard to earn. But they did not give up.

I will admit, I struggled with many mental health problems in the past few years. I was a hot-tempered, lonely, confused little girl looking for a hero, and I found it in Ksenia. She was strong and fierce, but she was also a flawed human being, and she was a completely new kind of hero for me. You didn’t have to be a giant brute to be strong. You didn’t have to be a long-legged blonde model to be beautiful. You didn’t have to be calm and demure to be a lady. I found this confidence I never thought I could have, and my life has been better for it.

I know I’m not the only one who appreciated their skating (I have many enthusiastic fan friends who would take a bullet for them). But they were also severely criticized. While I completely embraced Ksenia’s fiery personality, there were plenty of people who accused her of mistreating Fedor if she ever dared to get angry at him in public and called her a b*tch every time she wasn’t smiling for the camera. At the same time, Fedor was criticized for being too reserved on the ice, just because he didn’t have a big diva personality. They also took some hard hits because they weren’t a romantic couple off the ice (“They have no chemistry!”), because the Russian judges were sometimes generous with their scores (“home cooked victory!”), and because she was not invited to the Olympics (“She must have been doping!”). I’ve seen and heard some downright ugly comments about them both as skaters and people, and it turns my stomach, but “what John says about Jane says more about John than Jane”.

I don’t want to waste any tears in mourning this split. Partnerships end all the time, especially in the year after an Olympics. There are much greater tragedies in the world – the death of Denis Ten has put so much in perspective for me lately, and no partnership split is even close to that level of heartbreak. Remember that.

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Part 2: The Future

Ksenia herself said it best: “You can’t find a future living in the past.” So now looking into the future: what does the world have in store for Ksenia and Fedor now that they have gone their separate ways?

For the past few months, Ksenia has been training with Andrei Novoselov, a 28-year-old Russian-born pair skater currently skating for France. They have been sighted together in the audience at test skates, and we can only assume they will formally announce their partnership soon. They are currently training under Nikolai Morozov, possibly in both France and New Jersey.

Fedor, on the other hand, has expressed interest in coaching. He has been teaching master classes for young skaters this year, recently earned his degree in sports management at the Moscow State University, and participated as an assistant coach at Team USA’s pair camp over the summer. I can only imagine he will be an amazing coach. He said he has not ruled out a comeback, but it is unlikely. I wish him all the best.

Right now, this story reminds me so much of Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy. Robin was ready to retire and become a coach, but Aliona was still determined to win the elusive Olympic gold medal, so she teamed up with Bruno Massot, a French skater who at the time was far below her level. But he worked hard to match her skills, and four years later they achieved their goal and stood atop the Olympic podium together, in one of the most emotional and satisfying victories I’ve ever seen.

The story of Savchenko/Massot is the kind of real-life fairytale that keeps us watching this sport despite all the ups and downs. But I also think of another couple: Elena Ilinykh and Nikita Katsalapov.

When Elena and Nikita won the Olympic bronze medal in ice dancing, everyone believed they were Russia’s new rising stars. But they shocked everyone by splitting before the start of the next season. They found new partners quickly – Elena teamed up with Ruslan Zhiganshin and Nikita with Ruslan’s former partner Victoria Sinitsina. But neither team had the success they were hoping for: Ruslan retired from health problems, followed by Elena, and Victoria and Nikita failed to qualify for the Olympic team this year.

It is my hope that the story of Stolbova/Novoselov follows the path of Savchenko/Massot and not Ilinykh/Katsalapov. However, I cannot be certain. Ksenia and Fedor were unique in the way that they mirrored each other perfectly on the ice; it is rare to find two individuals who move as one machine in a program. They were successful because they were such a strong pair together. Andrei will have some big shoes to fill, but it has been done before.

The main benefits I see for them are:

1. Andrei has very consistent jumps. Jumping was always one of Fedor’s strengths, and my main concern was how hard it is to find a partner who rarely misses his jumps. Andrei stayed on his feet for most of last season, so I am hopeful.

2. Andrei is very big. Most pair teams rely on a big size difference between the partners (many of the girls are barely 5 feet tall and most of the men are over 6 feet). While some teams are fairly close in size but still manage to succeed (Sui/Han of China are a stellar example of this!), it’s just one more thing to overcome. Ksenia and Fedor never had a huge size difference for pairs and managed to make it work, but I’m really eager to see how she looks with Andrei.

3. Andrei does not have chronic shoulder injuries. Since 2015, Fedor’s severe shoulder injury hampered Stolbova/Klimov’s twist, lifts, and throws. They coped well, but I think it will be much easier to skate with someone who has two perfectly working shoulders.

4. They have Ksenia’s reputation as an Olympic silver medalist. It’s no secret that Olympic and World medalists get some special treatment from the judges – often your reputation can earn you a few extra points. This won’t help them against established teams like Sui/Han or Tarasova/Morozov who get reputation points of their own, but it should keep them afloat against some of the lower teams.

The main struggles I see for them are:

1. The triple twist. Everyone who watched Stolbova/Klimov together knows the struggle of the twist. Besides Fedor’s shoulder injury, Ksenia also had a habit of rotating too slowly in the air to fit in the necessary amount of rotations. Andrei’s twist technique with his previous partner Lola Esbrat was not great, so I don’t know if twist is going to be a good element for them. The only way I see it possible is if Andrei throws her very high so she has plenty of time to complete the rotation.

2. They have different side-by-side jump techniques. Ksenia’s jumps were always toe loop and salchow, while Andrei’s jumps were toe loop and loop. It’ll be interesting to see which jumps they include in the program. Also, one of Ksenia’s secret weapons was her triple-triple-double jump, and I’m not sure if Andrei will be able to learn it too.

3. They need permission from their federations to let them compete together. Ksenia has Russia’s federation mama Tatiana Tarasova on her side, and as an Olympic medalist I think Russia will try to keep her at all costs. So the logical solution is for Andrei to switch from France to Russia. But there’s one little problem: the president of French figure skating, Didier Gailhauget. Yep, the same crooked fellow who made Savchenko’s fed pay 30,000 euros before he would let her skate with Massot. He plays dirty games with his skaters, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he tried to do it with Andrei.

There is one loophole here: a trade. Rumor has it that Pavel Drozd, a Russian ice dancer, wants to skate with Angelique Abachkina of France. So perhaps Gailhauget will let Andrei go to Russia if he can take Drozd for France. It’s all one big political game, and I don’t know what’s going on in those closed-door meetings, so I can’t comment.

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No matter where Ksenia and Fedor’s careers end, they have already left a mark on the skating world and in my heart. Thank you, my beautiful pair, for never giving up even when the whole world was against you. You are legends in my heart.

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