A Conversation with Stéphane Lambiel

A Conversation with Stéphane Lambiel

Stephane Lambiel smiles at the camera. He is sitting next to a low table. He is wearing a black coat and black scarf and has his hair pushed back off his forehead.

Two-time world champion Stéphane Lambiel reached a milestone last year, when his student Shoma Uno also succeeded in becoming a world champion. Like Shoma, Stéphane is not resting on his laurels, but pushing himself and his students to keep innovating and improving. His passionate love for skating is clear from everything he says and does. Listening to him, you have to believe that skating can be more than a sport; it can be transcendental, connecting people through art and emotion. 

I spoke to Stéphane at the Ondrej Nepela Memorial Trophy in Bratislava, after the Men’s free skate practice had finished. His student Deniss Vasiljevs was in 4th place, after a disappointing short program where he’d taken a hard fall on his opening quad salchow. 

How are you feeling about the competition so far? I mean, yesterday was hard. But how has your experience been overall?

The experience overall, I think…for him, the first step is challenging for sure. It was a first step for the season, it was the first time to try the quad sal in the short program. So there were many first attempts with the new program. According to that, I feel he didn’t do his best for sure. But I appreciate the work that he has done and that he has put in and the way he has prepared. And I know that with the discipline, and with trust and faith in what he does, and what he is, he’ll be able to show the product the way he imagines, and the way I have imagined too. So yeah, I feel the first step is done. And now we build up from there.

Get that first one out of the way.

 Exactly, exactly. 

How do you reset after a hard day, like yesterday, for you and for Deniss? What do you do to be able to come in today and leave yesterday behind?

I think what is important is to stay focused, the competition is not over after the short program. So to really stay in the competition and debrief quickly about the short, what was good, what was bad, and what needs some work. That’s what we did, a quick debriefing. And, then recover and recharge for the long. Not getting too emotional, but saying what we need to say, to let it out and not distract ourselves too much. There is the long today, so it’s pretty short between the two programs.

Stéphane leans at the boards of the ice rink, in profile to the camera. He is wearing a black coat with a hood, and a black backpack. Deniss is turning away from Stephane toward the center ice. He is wearing a collared shirt in two tones of grey/blue and pants of the darker color blue. His hair is half up in a bun.
Deniss and Stéphane before the short program. “I really enjoy working with him because he commits to that excellence.”

What was the thinking behind putting the quad in the short program this season?

I think he has proven himself that he’s able to do it. So I would like him to feel free to work on it and to do it in competition in the short and the free. It takes bravery to take that risk. For the long term, that’s what he needs and what he wants. He’s quite a strong skater in the sense that he’s physically very strong. But he’s also technique-wise, very strong. The way he manages his edges and the way he jumps is the textbook technique. So I think, even though it takes him longer, the foundation is pretty solid. I really think that in skating, the way you do things is super important. So I really enjoy working with him because he commits to that excellence. And for the long term, this is very useful.

There was one beautiful quad Salchow in the practice yesterday and seeing that it’s like, you know, it’s there. It’s just a matter of getting it to be consistent.

And yeah, I think it’s also mentally being ready to succeed. And it’s a big challenge. For him, it’s a big challenge. He’s a big boy, he’s tall. So for him, the physicality of it is more difficult than someone that is shorter, and that has a quicker timing. But it’s possible for him. So with trust and with consistency, he will be able to do it more often.

Could you share a little bit about the process for choreographing Dennis’s free skate for the Dvorak piece? How did you get the whole symphony down into a program?

I think the hardest moment of that program was cutting the music. Because I love the whole symphony, but the whole symphony? I don’t know, it’s probably 30 minutes. 

40 minutes, maybe

Yeah, exactly. So from 40 minutes to four minutes. It was just like, ‘Oh, my God, how we will do that?’ And Salome [Brunner, choreographer who frequently works with Stéphane] and I listened to the symphony a lot, and we were kind of highlighting the parts that we think are important. But then there are so many parts that are important. And when you put them together, it feels like everything is too much. So the challenge was really to find a pattern that allows the dramaturgy to have a harmonious flow. And that it’s not only because this one music builds up, builds up, builds up, and then there are so many highlights. So we had to find a rhythm to it.

One of the moments I look forward to, that I adore, is when the step sequence starts. It’s quite peaceful. And the time is almost suspended before the last wave that takes you up there with the big ballet jump. And I really like that moment of silence before the huge hurricane at the end. I feel he’s so balletic, the way he skates, the posture. We had the concept of this symphony for a long time. And we listened to that music in the car many times going back from training or going back from competitions. And the way he has developed and the way he expresses himself, I think he has matured enough to skate to that masterpiece.

Stéphane living his favorite moment in Deniss’ free skate, when
“time is almost suspended before the last wave…”

Is there a story that you think of that he is telling? Or some narrative?

There are some emotions and scenes that we have talked about. I don’t know if it’s very present in him. But it was present in me when I choreographed it, and I tried to share it with him. But I feel like he’s a singular character. And this symphony of the new world is really about bringing this singularity to the world. As a character, he’s in a small world, and he doesn’t really know what’s outside there. And for example, when he’s starting the step sequence, he’s making his way through to discover the new, big, world and to kind of make a revolution, with his singularity into this new world.

So that was kind of the image because he’s so special. His personality is…it’s him, it’s like no one else. When he explains things, sometimes we don’t follow, he has his vision of things. Even when he texts me sometimes I don’t even know what he’s talking about. And I’m just like, What do you mean? Like, is it skating related or…? So this singularity needs to go out there. I think he’s that special, that it matches this new world that needs him.

Deniss and Stéphane smile at the camera. They are standing side by side backstage, and are in front of a wall covered in sponsor logos. Deniss is wearing his free program costume and skates. Stephane is wearing a black coat, white and blue checked shirt, and black pants and black shoes.
“[Deniss is] a singular character. And this ‘symphony of the new world’ is really about bringing this singularity to this new world…that needs him.” – Stéphane Lambiel

I’m really looking forward to people getting to see this program! How do you decide which programs you are going to choreograph for your skaters versus having them work with other choreographers, is there a process that you think about?

I definitely like when skaters have the possibility to work with other people. And not only skating choreographers, but people that are very interesting and, and interested in movement, in creating and bringing something new. So as far as I remember, we had Sarah Dolan [Canadian dance choreographer] working with Dennis and with Koshiro [Shimada]. We had Khoudia [Toure, Senegalese dance choreographer] making a show number for Deniss, and I worked with her as well. We have also choreographed with Khoudia for a kind of internal show that we did within our group. We have created a few pieces where we let ourselves really develop skills that we want or that we feel and in that process sometimes we find music or some person that comes to guest coach at the school has an idea and this idea matches maybe some skater’s personality.

So it’s really with the randomness of meeting people and working with people and getting to know someone who brings some new ideas to create. And we are not stuck in ‘Okay, I’m gonna do one year, the short next year, the free,’ we don’t have a pattern that is really fixed. But I definitely want to take in for the skaters as much as possible, so that they grow and they highlight what they have, and also feel comfortable. For example, Koshiro choreographed Sing Sing Sing together with Jeffrey [Buttle]. He had this wish to work with Jeffrey for a long time, and during COVID, it was impossible to organize it. And then well, I was touring with Jeffrey during Fantasy on Ice. So we got to find the time to do it. And so, it’s really that we have ideas, we have wishes, we have some drive to do things. And then when the opportunity is there, we grab it and enjoy it. That’s how basically it was done with the skaters that I work with.

Koshiro seems to be really enjoying that short program. And it’s going well for him too, I saw yesterday. [Koshiro was first after the short program at Tokyo regionals at the time].

Yes, yes. It’s very nice. Yes. 

You’ve been working with both Deniss and Koshiro for a long time now. How has your coaching with them changed over the years since you started?

I feel they have become big boys, men, actually, adults. Both of them are now in a moment in their career where they’re much more aware of what they need, and how to do things. They still need my guidance, but I need also to give them the freedom to be themselves. I’m not there to tell them: do this, do this, do this, do this. But I’m there to tell them: this could be better, this shouldn’t be like this. Before it used to be much more orders, or I had to probably influence them much more than then nowadays. The personality has already developed. I see Koshiro and Deniss, they have two very different personalities. That’s the beauty of having them grow and grow up and grow old and become who they are, with their strengths and weaknesses.

And Shoma has also made, I think, a big step in his life, where he’s enjoying what he does, and he’s in another stage in his life. I mean, when I work with kids, you need to give them so much framework. And now, I think they know their framework. And sometimes I just need to remind them that there are other things than what they know and what they do. So it’s just to keep them alive and to keep them curious to learn things, even though they already know a lot.

Stéphane leans at the boards of the ice rink, back to camera. He is wearing a black coat with a hood. Deniss faces Stéphane on the ice, with an intent and serious look on his face. He is wearing a red ombre turtleneck top with a gold epaulet.
A last moment of advice for Deniss. “They still need my guidance, but I need also to give them the freedom to be themselves.”

You’ve just had Shoma with you in Champéry. How was his training looking?

He’s doing actually pretty good. And technically and artistically, he’s improving and challenging himself, even after winning the world championship. In April, when he came, he was working really hard. So I’m really impressed with his motivation to work hard, and not give up even though he has reached something that he has looked for, for a long time. So I’m very impressed with him being that focused and that motivated, and he has a good team surrounding him, also helping him and supporting him. And he’s so much fun. He’s just a genius. We were just saying with my colleague Angelo [Dolfini], it’s unbelievable. Unbelievable to see someone like this being World Champion and being punctual, on time for practice, no excuses, responsible, doing his things, and pushing forward. You don’t need to push him. It’s so inspiring.

What did you think of him trying the quad Axel?

I’m really impressed with his motivation to work hard, and not give up, even though he has reached something that he has looked for for a long time.

Stéphane Lambiel on Shoma Uno

We haven’t talked about it. And he hasn’t tried in front of me. I mean, yeah, why not?

We’ve talked about the skaters that you’re the main coach for, but of the skaters that you worked with the summer either in camps or for choreography, who did you particularly enjoy working with? And you know, who should we be looking out for this season?

Well, I really liked the little Estonian girl. Maria Eliise Kaljuvere. She worked already for a few seasons together with me in the summer. And she has such a nice personality. She’s also a very hard worker. She did pretty well at her first Junior Grand Prix [4th at the JGP Courchevel]. She’s very refreshing. I hope that in the future, she will develop, and stay healthy…we have started working together, and I hope that within the next years, I will be able to give her something to step up and to bring her personality to another level. I think the long-term plan is to develop more and more of her beautiful skills. 

It was nice to see her do so well in her Grand Prix. She definitely has a good future in front of her.

Yes, yes.

So I wanted to ask you about the changes in the rules this year. There was the removal of the step sequence from the junior program. Do you think that that sort of differentiation between the short program and the free skate is a good idea?

I personally don’t understand the changes. For me, the ISU is not thinking deeply enough when they are making those changes. And I don’t agree with any of them. So yeah, I don’t have anything else to say. They’re just making changes to make changes. And I would prefer to have deeper thoughts about the system.

I had an interesting conversation with Jeroen Prins from the Netherlands, and he was talking about some of those changes, and the idea that maybe it will take two more Congresses but they should make the singles be more like ice dance, with the rhythm dance and the free dance. To try to have more of the compulsory elements in the short program and then maybe more choreographic elements in the free skate. Something like that could be the long-term goal.

I don’t agree that they have looked into it very much. Because in ice dance, like you just mentioned, they have removed the most specific thing for ice dance, which is the pattern dance, which is for me, like removing jumps for single skaters. An old ice dancer told me that they usually work on pattern dance, I don’t know, like 60% of the time. And then you ask them to remove that specific thing from the rhythm dance, for me, it makes no sense. So all the decisions made don’t really seem to have been thought about.

I feel like, what is the sense of doing those changes? Even, for example, the difficult exit of the spins. The skating has become very dirty. And by giving those changes or restrictions or whatever features, they call it, you just give the skater more details that are useless to do in their program. And they don’t follow any aesthetic. They don’t follow any musicality. They are just there to check a box. And I feel that we are just putting more and more boxes into the checklist.

So many ugly illusion exits to spins this year.

Like, I haven’t seen a difficult exit that brought something positive to the performance.

Your school is one of the ISU Centers of Excellence. What will that mean for you in the future? And what are you thinking about in terms of developing the Skating School of Switzerland in the future?

We have been in contact with the other Centers of Excellence. I think it’s important –  since we are talking about the system. I mean, we are a small, small community in figure skating, so we need to be in solidarity and discuss things, discuss the problems and discuss solutions for those problems. And this could be the judging system, this could be also the material that we are using for skates and blades. I’m convinced that the material that we are using is not efficient enough to see a beautiful quality of skating. So those little things that are actually very important for skaters.

Those are the opportunities among the Centers of Excellence to discuss and to implement.  Also to educate young skating coaches. To educate, maybe judges, because judges are coming to competitions,  they’re judging and they’re giving us feedback. But maybe they are not so much out in the field where we are working when they are making those changes. They don’t know what we are facing every day as a coach when you work with a skater. And it’s maybe interesting to say, let’s put a difficult exit in your spin or a difficult change of position in your spin. But we are working with skaters every day. And I want to feel what the change is giving to the skater, like what are you looking for? And then you go to local competitions and all those little kids. They don’t know how to do a basic change of foot spin, but they are already asked to do a sit side, sit back, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. But I prefer to see a basic change of foot spin which turns, where actually the position is beautiful. I would prefer to have the emphasis be on the quality of the element rather than on those features. So I think the Center of Excellence is a great opportunity for us to share our opinions, and to maybe then have also some communication with the ISU and discuss all those matters.

No, that sounds great. On the spin rules, my coach spent so long and tried to talk to so many judges, just to try to understand what the changes were.

What they were looking for in the skaters. Like right now, no one has a highlight. Many skaters do good spins. But it’s hard to see someone doing something special. Everyone is doing the same features, and the panel is rewarding the features that they know. And then if you take a risk, you don’t know if you might be rewarded or not. So it doesn’t allow so much creativity. 

Yeah. Yeah, I like the idea that maybe there would be a choreo spin in the future, just because it’s something that would reward people being creative – but it will be hard to judge.

Like you said the idea of having a short be compulsory elements and the free being more free. I think this is a good concept. We would need to get into the details of how this works. Compulsory as in everyone needs to do exactly the same, or compulsory as with some flexibility, and the free – how free you are? To be defined.

It’s amazing that we’ve had figure skating for so long, and we’re still trying to figure out, what are we even looking for. Like what is the sport, is sort of always an open question.

Nowadays, we are kind of lost in details that are not making skating more beautiful than before.

Stéphane Lambiel

Well, I think the 6.0 system allowed figure skating to be much more beautiful. And I miss those times. Because nowadays we are kind of lost in details that are not making skating more beautiful than before. We are a little bit losing ourselves with too many details.

I want to ask you about your experience at Friends on Ice and working on the collaboration there with Satoko Miyahara and Shizuka Arakawa. What was it like working on that program and doing the lifts with Satoko?

I’ve worked with Satoko for so many years, and I have admired her even more than that. So it was such a beautiful moment to work together with her. And Shizuka had the idea of this trio and the Miss Saigon theme. So when I came back from Fantasy on Ice, I had the wish from Shizuka to do this concept and I started listening.

I was not aware of Miss Saigon. Like I knew that Satoko had skated to it and probably Shizuka as well. But I was not aware of the music. I knew it was beautiful music, but without knowing so much about the songs and then I started listening to it and I was falling in love with so many songs from the soundtrack. Then slowly we were deciding which piece we will use, and which piece Shizuka will skate to and yeah, we were all three super interested in working together. In the past, I have skated Shizuka. So it was nice also to have her input and to have her presence with that number. It was so dramatic. And I think all three skaters, we are very dramatic. So it was such a good idea from Shizuka and I enjoyed it so so much to skate.

Like the moment, every time we met with Satoko on the ice, it was so special. Like every time we looked at each other at the beginning of the piece because she had a little intro and then I was coming towards her and that moment of the meeting was every night so special. Yeah, I remember that specific moment of the first meeting, and then a little another moment. We were doing a split jump, after that split jump I was going on the knees and she was scanning around. And after that, we were holding hands, and then we were separating each other, and we were looking at each other going into the spin. That moment was also very special. Like, what was happening between us, was very special.

I was very impressed that you learned multiple lifts for that program. too.

Yeah, I was actually working with Liubov [young Ukrainian skater training in Champéry] as she was playing Satoko. That was funny.

Fun. So, away from skating, what are you reading or watching or listening to lately that is giving you inspiration or that you’re enjoying and can recommend?

So in competitions, I’m doing Sudokus, a lot of Sudokus.  And I usually read, but I’ve been reading this book for such a long time [here he pulls Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century from his bag] but I prefer to do Sudokus. You can see that this book has traveled a lot. I like it because –  it’s quite depressing –

It’s been a depressing century already!

It is! But it’s quite realistic. I like to understand a little bit more about who we are and what’s going on. And then also I think by knowing a little bit more, we are also able to function a little bit better. So it’s helpful. So little by little, but next time you will see me I will probably still be in it! But almost there. 

It has 21 lessons so you kind of just, you know, slowly absorb each…

Exactly. There was a little part about religion, and society, technologies…so I actually appreciated it. And there’s one concert that was the highlight of the summer, it was Paolo Nutini at the Montreux Jazz Festival. That was such a big impact and every time I listened to his new album, I was super, super excited. And I just love this artist. I was looking yesterday at what other concerts he’s giving. Everything is sold out and far away – he was in Zurich two days ago, I think. But yeah, I’m a huge Paolo Nutini fan. He’s so generous when he’s on the stage. And I saw John Legend a few days before Paolo Nutini and John Legend was great. He was a fantastic performer. But he had a very rehearsed concert. He did very well, but it was just the product that he rehearsed. Paolo Nutini was not as perfect, but so real. I should not compare but I really loved that about it. That it was [mind exploding noise] free to give, free to share. I really love his music

Yeah, those are the musicians that you want to see again and again because they’re doing something different each time.

Exactly, like I really want to see every single concert, like sometimes I just feel like, oh my God, I need it.

My last question for you is, what do you know now as a coach that you wish that you had known when you started out?

So many things. Twelve years ago. So many things. I would have loved to know that skating was easier than coaching *laughing*. 

I think when you’re a skater, you see something so short-term. And that’s a good thing because you’re in the action. So you need that, you need to be spontaneous and when it counts, you need to do it. But sometimes it’s so good to have a little bit of distance so you’re able to understand that figure skating is everything to you, but it’s also not everything to the world. Like that distance is helpful. But as an athlete, you don’t get to have it because everything is instant like you always feel pressure. And you will always feel like today is the day. Today is the day, today is the day, and every day is the day. That’s the part that as an athlete it is really difficult to manage.

I was thinking about the pressure of time on the competitive athlete when Deniss finished his free skate later that evening. “Its always a matter of expectations,” Deniss shared. “The next four years are important to me, on a personal level, it will be the highlight of my career, at least in my vision. I’m expecting a lot and I want to grab a lot.” It is good to know that Stéphane is there to help Deniss find perspective, as well as to help him to achieve his goals and bring his “singularity” to the world.  

Deniss Vasiljevs and Stephane Lambiel pose in the kiss and cry at the Nepela Trophy. Deniss has a mole plushie on his knee and is wearing a red top and black pants. Stéphane is wearing a black coat and pants. Both are smiling.
Happy coach and skater after Deniss’ Free Skate

Stéphane will have a busy schedule in the coming weeks as his students skate at four Grand Prix events (Koshiro at Skate America, Shoma and Deniss at Skate Canada, Deniss and Koshiro at MK John Wilson Trophy, and Shoma at NHK trophy). He’ll also be skating himself in shows in Italy and Switzerland.

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2 Replies to “A Conversation with Stéphane Lambiel”

  1. Wonderful interview! Stephane really gets to the heart of ‘changes without thinking’, especially in ice dance…. So well written.

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