Annika Hocke and Robert Kunkel: “We try to keep the bubble close”

Annika Hocke and Robert Kunkel perform their short program at Skate America (US Figure Skating / Melanie Heaney)

At Skate America, Annika Hocke and Robert Kunkel stood on top of the podium at a Grand Prix event for the first time. The team, which formed in 2019, has been building their resume over the last season, winning a bronze medal at the Grand Prix de France, and again at the European championship.

Despite the challenges of jetlag, the team was able to hold off Canadians Lia Pereira and Trennt Michaud to secure the gold. “I don’t know why but there was a certain kind of dizziness to my skating,” Annika shared after the free skate. “For me, it’s always a little difficult to realize what we did and the placement when I made a mistake, because my mind is still in that moment. But when you take a step back it is a huge thing that we have won a Grand Prix. It is everything we dream of.”

Annika also reflected on how far she has come since her first time at Skate America. In 2018, she and former partner Ruben Blommaert came in next to last.

“I think it was the worst Free Skate of my life, I just cried the whole day after. I was so jealous of everybody who was able to skate in the show, and I wanted to get there. Now I’m here, I can skate in the show, it’s now a normal thing, and we even won! So in the end it is a huge accomplishment for us.”

Finding places to improve

Annika Hocke and Robert Kunkel train their Free Skate in practice at Skate America

Annika and Robert have worked hard to improve every aspect of their skating and find places to pick up points. 

“We had a pretty intense summer. A very, very productive and hard summer,” said Annika. “This year, we have all new lifts. We put the throw flip in the short program, which we decided right before Bergamo because Ondrej [Hotarek, their coach] was like ‘It’s half a point more, let’s do it.’ We’ll take it, it’s important to have that half a point.”

They have also worked on their stamina and expression for the short program, to ‘I Love Rock and Roll’ and ‘Voulez-Vous’. “If you’re not 100% there it won’t deliver, so we had to skate that a lot of times, especially in the step sequence,” said Annika.

One way they have tried to set themselves apart is through fun and energetic choreography by former ice dancers Anna Capellini and Luca LaNotte. 

“We really love the feedback that we’ve gotten for our short programs, this season and last season,” said Annika. “We always try to do something new. While I understand that there are people who love the artistry of figure skating, I get super bored with all the slow music programs. I understand it’s easier, but we want to be different and we want to entertain. So we really have fun going into that niche and that is our USP [unique selling point].”

“Of course, we have a lot of work still on our technical side,” she added. “The jumps need to be more stable and also the lifts can still improve. We’re very happy with how our throws are going. But we know that even on those we can still get some more [positive grades of execution.”

“We are pretty happy with the levels in this competition,” said Robert. “Because our last feedback was at Shanghai Trophy where all the levels got split in half. We didn’t get a really good explanation for this. So it’s good to see that’s not the general thing”.

A Celebrity Experience in Shanghai

Annika Hocke and Robert Kunkel warm up together at Skate America

Shanghai Trophy was a new experience for Annika and Robert, and a highlight of the season so far.

They were excited to be invited. “We were immediately on board,” said Annika. “We knew that it was going to be a little tough because we had Nebelhorn right before, and the Grand Prix right after. But it was just a huge opportunity for us. Especially prize money wise, because we were at a point with our federation where we knew that we could use every money to spend on our training. When we came there we were just so grateful because it was an amazing competition.”

“The volunteers were super nice,” she added. “The people were so appreciative of figure skating, the audience was great… people were so interested, they wanted pictures, autographs, were coming to the hotel. You felt like a star! And for Yuzuru [Hanyu], that was a normal thing but for us, it’s not normal. So it was amazing.” 

Robert agreed. “If you look back, you’re not enjoying [the most] the competition where you got the most world ranking points. You enjoy the competition that was just super nice for you personally, and [you remember] how you felt there. We went there with no expectations because we had never been to China before…we were just overwhelmed by the people, the organization, the hotel, the ice rink, and the other skaters who were there, by the show… we did a new exhibition program with Luca just for this competition. And I think they really liked it, and it was it was very fun to skate.”

The challenge of funding

Annika Hocke and Robert Kunkel practice at Skate America

Annika and Robert have made no secret of the fact that they are struggling to fund their training, with the German federation cutting back support for many athletes. In an interview over the summer, they mentioned they were uncertain about their ability to continue.

Robert confirmed that the situation is essentially the same. “We’re just here because we made a lot of arrangements, we look where we can earn something or organize something. Our club helps us out, Diamond Ice helps us out by doing funding or donations. We are luckily now invited to some shows…Then we had the Shanghai Trophy, we had the Grand Prix here where we got out with pretty good prize money. I mean after taxes and the federation 10% and all this stuff, it’s not the figure which is on the paper. But we’re safe for the season.”

“For us, it’s always a little sad,” Annika added. “We don’t want to blame [the federation] the whole time and pretend that they are doing nothing. Of course we are trying to make the situation better for ourselves, [and] we are also thinking of us a few years back. We want to make it better for everybody, and everybody’s in the same boat right now. It’s always a little difficult when you get hate back. It’s not like we try to just poke them and anger them [by speaking out], it’s really for a reason, and I hope someday maybe they will realize.”

Annika Hocke and Robert Kunkel work on their expression and emotional connection

Like many German Olympic athletes, Annika and Robert are members of the German Army and have yearly training requirements to fulfill during the spring.  

“We’re super thankful because they’re the ones that support us and give us our salary,” said Annika. “So we’re not mad, but it’s still difficult. And especially when you see all the other pairs having the time to train and you come back and you just feel horrible. It was a tough time for us to get back. Really, really tough this year. Coming back, you feel like you’ve never skated….Obviously, for us, the summer always feels a little too short, because we’re missing five weeks.”

“For some people, it’s easier,” Robert added. “They just go after this time off the ice and they are fine, but we feel like we’ve never skated before. I think we take a little more time and really have to push over our limits and know that we will not feel good for the next month, whatever we’re doing. But then, when we’re back, I think we’re pretty consistent and then we can rely on the work we did in the summer.”

Finding strength in their differences

Coach Ondrej Hotarek helps Annika and Robert express their inner rock stars

One thing everyone notices about the team is Annika’s big smile and bubbly personality, on and off the ice. Robert is more reserved. Their different personalities can help them to work together as a team, however.

“In training, it helps me a lot,” said Annika. “Robert is more of a structured and rational guy, which helps me sometimes because I get a little lost in emotions. That is good in some situations, like on the ice, of course, you want to express emotions, but in the element, it doesn’t really help to be too emotional, especially in everyday practice. You just need to work it off and sometimes if you get lost too much [in emotions], you spiral down and it doesn’t help.”

“We’re really working on a presentation and Robert is getting better day by day. It’s just a different thing for him because, for me, it’s very natural. I never had a problem, I never thought about it, it just comes. And for him, he needs to think about it. I think often with pair boys it’s more difficult to show expressions because they have a lot to do. It’s difficult when you are lifting and you have to keep a nice face. So it’s a work in progress, I would say.”

Robert emphasized how their rock short program has pushed him to express more emotion on the ice. “Last year, it was still enough to just smile on the short program, with the Mamma Mia program. But this year it needs different expressions. We worked a lot with our choreographers, but also with Ondrej because you have to be so over the top or people won’t see it. For me it’s not natural, it feels very weird. We also practice in front of the mirror to make it look hopefully good.”

Keeping the Focus Tight

Annika Hocke and Robert Kunkel pose with the medal winners at Skate America

Next up for Annika and Robert is the Cup of China Grand Prix. To qualify for the final, they will have to face their teammates from Bergamo, Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini, Skate Canada champions Deanna Stellato-Dudek and Maxime Deschamps, and the new team of Cheng Peng and Lei Wang, who beat them at Shanghai Trophy. 

Annika and Robert are also contenders in what is likely to be a heated battle for the podium at Europeans. While 2023 champions Sara Conti and Niccolo Macii have set themselves a little ahead of the pack, many European teams remain neck-and-neck. Ten points separated the 2nd through 5th place teams at Lombardia Trophy: Minerva Hase and Nikita Volodin of Germany, Annika and Robert, Lucrezia Beccari and Matteo Guarise, and Ghilardi/Ambrosini. At Nebelhorn, just over 5 points separated Hase/Volodin, Beccari/Guarise, and Annika and Robert.

Annika and Robert train alongside these top Italian teams at the IceLab in Bergamo. This is their second season of training in Italy.

“We really love the environment,” Annika confirmed. “It’s great to have a lot of teams around, and it’s very motivating that we’re all trying to keep up with each other and pushing each other…It’s nice to have a European base with a lot of pairs.”

Annika Hocke and Robert Kunkel pose with coach Ondrej Hotarek (left)

“I think it’s good for your ego when you’re not the best in everything,” Robert agreed. “I mean you can look on Instagram or YouTube. But I think it’s good to see ‘Okay, I could improve there, and there and there.’ Then you don’t think you are the best and you don’t have to improve. I mean, you also have a coach for this – because we could never get arrogant. If we would ever say [we didn’t need to improve] our coach would just put the plan so high that we will never feel good. Every day he’d just adjust it. But it’s good to know that there are higher limits.”

They try not to worry about making the Final, standing on the podium at Europeans, or peaking at a certain competition. “There are such big chances in every competition,” explained Robert. “For me, the main goal is to stay healthy, to be honest. Because everything is out when my back is hurting, or you get sick again. So the main focus is to be able to train.”

“Even if there was a goal like this,” he added, “it would be the goal from our coach and not from us because we don’t want to put extra pressure on ourselves…He saw last week that the Japanese had withdrawn, so he saw the chance. But he would never tell us, ‘You have to win there, you can take it there.’

Annika Hocke and Robert Kunkel won their first Grand Prix gold at Skate America

Annika added that one of the advantages to their team is having coaches to think about those goals. “Because we have to put in the work, and we are so happy to have somebody who is planning. Sometimes you don’t want to know what is the strategy, you just want to execute it. And that is what we missed in Berlin and why we went to Italy because we didn’t want to make the plan ourselves anymore.”

Annika and Robert are the reigning German champions but the new team of Minerva Hase and Nikita Volodin won in their two head-to-head match-ups this season. 

They are not too focused on that particular contest, however.

“If you’re not first, there’s obviously somebody above you, and then I don’t care about the nation,” said Robert. “If they’re South Africans who are better than us, Australians, or Germans, it doesn’t make any difference.”

“I think Robert is very good at just focusing on us,” said Annika. “I am still learning and I get better every day but he’s totally right [about] just looking at yourself. We want to improve ourselves. We want to be the best version of ourselves. And if that means we’re the best team great, even better, and if not, there’s something we still have to work on. We have still so much potential left that we want to get out, that we try to keep the bubble close and look at us because otherwise you get lost.”

Learn More: Our 2022 video interview with Annika and Robert is available on our YouTube Channel

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