Deniss Vasiljevs: “I want to challenge myself”

The Latvian champion reflects on the start of his eighth season on the senior Grand Prix

Deniss Vasiljevs spoke with Anything GOE after Skate America in Allen, Texas

Deniss Vasiljevs is one of the most thoughtful and introspective skaters in the field, as well as one of the most expressive on the ice. In recent years, he has begun to experience more competitive success, winning bronze at the 2022 Europeans, and a silver at Grand Prix Sheffield last season.

After a tough competition at Skate America, where he placed 9th, Deniss reflected on his readiness for the season, and the challenge of balancing analysis and instinct. Deniss sets extremely high standards for himself, which he admits can sometimes make his life more complicated, but he finds fulfillment in chasing his own vision of excellence. 

How are you feeling about the competition and starting your season so far?

As usual, mixed feelings. I’m disappointed with the performances I’ve delivered, but at the same time, I’m trying to stay productive and maybe feel good because there is a lot of good stuff. There is always an improvement. I just wanted to put it in the main puzzle of the performance. So on one side, I’m not stressed about it, because every single failure teaches me something. But I do consider that so far I have had failures.

From your comments in the mixed zone, you were able to find something that was positive from each program.

I’ve become way more aware of numbers and statistics. I guess I read too many financial books over the summer…The performance is a very isolated piece, taken out of a much greater picture and, as much as I agree that it looks awful, the picture is not as dark [as it seems]. I mean, today, in one day, I have had success landing just one [quad] salchow, [but that is] more than I landed in a whole year, if you look back a few years.

Deniss Vasiljevs confers with coach Stéphane Lambiel during practice at Skate America

My general stability in body fitness, and all the parameters that I can consistently control through my discipline, has improved. My skill in each of the elements too, I think they are much better and much more confident. Yet I feel perhaps I’m being a bit too concerned with refinement [of each part] rather than putting them all in one cohesive program.

Because right now, let’s say a simple example of the last jump [in the free skate], triple flip. I don’t even think of it when I warm up, yet under the stress of a full, accumulated performance…I haven’t seen it yet, but apparently it looks like the whole world is crumbling…. So I still need to confirm that opinion, but there is some grain of truth in it. 

I still need to go over the performances, but what I think is the most satisfying [part of] this experience, which I think was better than in Bratislava [Deniss’ first competition was Nepela Memorial – AGOE], is my conduct and the way I managed through the whole long day, even with the jet lag and some other stuff. I’m very satisfied with this conduct and the way I went through it.

I just recognize the numbers game is too weak … And yes, if it were a perfect world, I would not compete right now, because clearly, I’m not competitively ready. If that’s not the truth physically, it’s mentally the case. But at the same time, I’m also a person who recognizes I will never be fully ready, because if I improve and climb one peak, I automatically scout where the next peak is.

I think I’m very clear where I’m heading. Now it is just bringing the number game and managing exactly all those things that are under my control. Because performances always will have a certain luck involved. But I think my loss or failure in this event, and in the previous one, is because I couldn’t put it all together in performance, because it’s too early still.

Building a “bank account” of success

Deniss Vasiljevs in the mixed zone after his free skate at Skate America

How do you get ready for the competition feeling and the repetition of those conditions, except by competing? Is there a way to simulate that?

You need to have a number of successful run-throughs, to create this bank account, and I feel I had an excessive focus on individual elements. And my obsession with the quad – it is an obsession at this point. I neglected to keep those resources for the performance, because perhaps I’m too confident with executing individual elements. 

The problem of the performance is it’s always an attrition game. The short program is always much easier than the free program [when it comes to] the state of body readiness. Usually you carry the short program fatigue into the free program, and it’s always about rest [between them]. The short is always super complex and difficult [mentally, though] because you need to enter a competition and find this first step, while I find the free program is always much easier because you’re already going. You can rest only if you’re certain and organized in your mind, when you’re clear about what you’re doing, and you’ve run through [your program] enough times that you don’t think about.

What made yesterday’s performance so enjoyable was because I was living, I was performing. I am getting more and more comfortable with the sensation of feeling committed, but not too eager, this healthy balance of pushing it [and having] a certain composure. Due to extensive off-ice preparation laying out the program, it somehow worked. It’s not fully under my control, unfortunately, but yesterday was a lucky shot. Judging by my best performances, usually it’s a matter of combining this on-the-spot mindful moment with preparation that happens way in advance, when you need to create a bank account of success.

In comparison to previous years, I think I had an excessively cerebral approach [to my skating] –  because I am curious about it and I try to understand it. I think among all this education and preparation, I tend to lose some ability to act by instinct because I want to control and I want to minimize the influence of luck.

Deniss Vasiljevs warms up during practice at Skate America

This is also because I want to bring quads into the performance. I’ve demonstrated before that I can do it without them. I’ve had a growing number of landed quads in the practices. And these past weeks after I started the season in Bratislava, I felt a big increase of eagerness. Those two weeks truly demonstrate that I can accomplish a very high volume.

You’ll have a longer time than some years between your Grand Prix, since you have the first and the last events.

I’m very lucky on that point. Because as I said, right now, I’m not ready to compete. And of course, I want to bring the best performance. So I really hope to use this time and finally get the shit together! I know it sounds very mean but…

You have very high expectations for yourself.

I have a great ambition of self-mastery. Previously, because I managed to let go of the competitive side, I managed to enjoy the performance, and excel and grab some other areas that are valued by the system that competition is based on. But at the same time, I recognize the years I have left to compete. I want to bring a little bit of a balance, so that I become better also by the standard of competition. Because I really feel I’m improving physically and understanding more, and exhibiting more control in my lifestyle, my professional approach. Yet, by losing this certain instinctive approach that I had before, this “YOLO YOLO let’s go” [attitude]…there is still something to learn. I’ll go at it until I manage it.

Rising to the challenge of new programs

Deniss Vasiljev’s Blues Deluxe Free Skate is about expressing freely and ‘opening his chest’, said choreographer Stéphane Lambiel

You said about your ‘Blues Deluxe’ free skate that you are searching for a feeling of “groove” with the music and choreography. It seems like setting yourself an especially difficult challenge with this music – but it also reminds me of your ‘Papa Was a Rolling Stone’ [2018-19 SP] and ‘Lotus Feet’ [19-20 FS] programs from previous years. What draws you to these more fluid blues and rock programs?

I want to challenge myself. I challenge my own abilities and capabilities, and my understanding of culture. I do not prioritize winning in the system. Even though I desire it very much, [it’s not] what makes me wake up and grind. It’s probably the same mistake why I’m not ready right now – it’s because I really want to make perfect jumps. Not just good enough, but really understand how to reliably and consistently do them with top excellence, in the program. Same goes for individual elements like the step sequence. At the end of the program, I do them very crappy in comparison to what I can do outside the program if I just randomly go for it.

That is also the reason why I don’t choose music that is easier and more familiar and that offers moderate dynamics. I want to excel, and I want to demonstrate performances that challenge the vision of skating itself. And that’s why I made a very ambitious choice. And perhaps there’s a certain truth that I’m complicating my life. But, by now everyone knows I can’t make it simple!

At the end of the day, if you’re not enjoying it and you’re not feeling motivated by it, you won’t be satisfied.

I feel quite fulfilled. Yes, this performance sucked – I’m sorry for my slang. But the whole journey always has difficulties. It was still worth the journey. This personal fulfillment is what deeply roots me in continuing my journey, deliberately climbing that steep hill. It’s not just because I managed to get to the top that I will feel fulfilled. I started to recognize it as enjoying the process. And there’s some downsides to that way of seeing it. But I’m very grateful that throughout my career, I had an opportunity to see all sides of the journey.

You had a new experience this year, working with Shae Lynn Bourne for your short program. What was that like for you?

A smile in practice from Deniss Vasiljevs

Well, first of all, it was in the US, which is extremely different from Europe. I had also just come from Worlds in Japan and with all the jet lag and stuff, I was probably at my lowest fatigue level of the season. Yet through all the grumpiness, it probably left one of the most profound marks of the last season. It was like my scale [for good skating] instead of zero to 10 became 0.1, 0.2. It shrunk, and unfortunately, I haven’t managed yet to bring that detailed work of a dance choreographer [into my skating]. She showed me that what I thought about the world and how to work can be done even better. I’m still figuring out how to do it.

Are you getting to revisit it with her, to do touch-ups or to continue growing?

I haven’t even managed to get what she gave me to an adequate level to feel confident to present it to her. Because the way she did it, the way I did it with her…already back then I understood it will be a great challenge. I haven’t yet lived up to [those] expectations. Because truly, how she did it and how we worked, she showed me a way that sincerely shook my perception of a work ethic. It was an amazing experience.

I have heard many skaters talk about working with her and how amazing she is. What is it that makes her so special?

Attention to detail, and building [the choreography] gradually. She put so much work into the program. This tremendous volume is being refined, and there is still a possibility to refine, no matter how good of a skater you are. And she does it herself, showing you that you know nothing about skating and the whole concept, the vision of it. The way that she uses certain metaphors, you can recognize that her world has more colors than yours. The discovery of it is, in a way, shocking. That’s perhaps why everyone says it’s an amazing experience and what makes her so valued.

And that’s why I’m not feeling comfortable even showing my best performance that I’ve done at home, because I know she has done a much better job than I delivered. I have done clean performances at home, just not enough of them to do it under stress here.

Finding good in the European and North American mindsets

Deniss found some positives after his short program at Skate Amierca

What did you think about LA?

As a European, it is very difficult for me sometimes to understand certain things about the United States. But most of my books, especially regarding innovative thinking, leadership, and financial books, come from authors that have this North American mindset. So in a way, I admire this thinking, this openness, but the extreme vision of capitalism makes me feel it’s too material. And it sacrifices mental well-being. I think the constraint of resources that shaped the society in Europe, and a deep-rooted history and certain beliefs, have made it way more diverse, while here, the economy of scale and the abundance of resources gives a certain negligence.

I wish we would have roads with six lanes! But the truth is, here, the traffic on those roads is almost nonexistent. You see those massive Dodges and, yeah, it’s an impressive car but with the amount of pollution and waste of resources by just having it and the parking space it takes, I do not comprehend why would you not stick to something smaller. It’s very impressive, all this hollow space, because it’s all big –  and perhaps Texas where everything is bigger is not the best example of it. But I love to walk, and yet here you cannot live without a car. I understand why people take a car from one building to another building, even though it’s a 300-meter walk. It’s a very different world and I find a lot of positive things that I, in a way, envy, but I think my choice will be to stick with European constraints and a certain authenticity.

I’m an American, but I would not disagree with that. Texas is maybe the most extreme example of that American excess.

But, for example, one thing that really blew my mind is, I stopped eating bacon at home, and here I had a chance to try their bacon. That is the culinary masterpiece. It was just so good.

That’s the thing, you can find some good things wherever you are in the world.

There were plenty of positives, and especially in LA, where it was maybe less intense work-wise, and I had an opportunity to go to Six Flags and get a taste for what America has to offer. I would repeat those experiences, maybe in a little bit of a different way, but from an exploration standpoint, they left a strong imprint which changed my view of the world. I’m very grateful because learning and seeing how different places are allows better shaping of the vision for your own improvement and growth. So that’s why the experiences are good…I generally try to focus on the bright side.

You said you read a lot of financial books over the summer. Is that for your own interest, or for your course work for your master’s degree?

More for my own interest in that subject. I read many many areas and yet I find certain concepts that blend together… Like right now I am reading a book on the psychology of money. And it’s surprising how much I can relate to sport in it, how much I can relate to many other books regarding the brain function. I find that things can be applied in so many different areas, and finding those patterns to mix, this satisfies me and my curiosity a lot. At the very least it keeps my mind exercising and sharp.

This is the final year for your studies, is that right?

I’m conducting research and next summer I will defend my masters.

Do you have to pick a topic for a thesis?

Yeah, but I’m not ready right now to talk about it because honestly there’s still a lot of work to be done and my priority is skating right now. I really want to fix my performance before I can put the second priority toward education.

Imagining a better system

Going back to your approach toward competition, would you like it if there was an artistic program, or some other change that might make it easier for you to excel, or do you feel like the challenge is to try to do as well as you can within the system that exists?

There’s always space for better improvement and refinement of the system. And yes, I would be open to ideas, but I haven’t reflected on how to make it better, because I also enjoy the challenge.

Yes, I wish that it would be perhaps less dependent on the technical side…my vision for figure skating is way more balanced, being a jack of all trades. I find the modern system is very narrow-minded. It clearly highlights the athletic side of it, and that comes with the sacrifice of the artistic side. That’s what makes our sport so unique, in a way, and what I think makes it better entertainment, [when] you are not just watching for the result, but you’re appreciating the whole journey of a performance. Yes, I would love a reform that would bring us closer to art, and less of a numbers game.

I think many people would like to see that, so maybe someday.

Who knows, maybe one day I will be the one doing something about it.  I mean, right now I’m a competitor that has lived many years [under the current system]. And the future is unknown, so who knows which pivot I will take. It would definitely be interesting, considering my education degrees, to perhaps gear myself towards this.

Because change will happen. The question is which direction will we choose, will it push even further towards this athletic part? Will it push towards the artistic part? Or will it go in a completely different direction, because clearly sports are also a lot about the economy. And as the world shrinks, our focus is becoming diluted and very short. The sport is going to adapt to the modern day of overwhelming information flow. Who knows where we’ll end up? The future is still to come.

You’ve had the experience of training in many different environments. This summer, you had a stint at the Kinoshita Academy in Japan, plus your years in Switzerland and in Russia. You can probably see some of the pros and cons of different approaches.

Yes, but if I’m asked to make the best concept, I’m still completely lost…and different cases and situations are different.

The way I train, I depend more on my quality of preparation. It’s not like in Russia [where] you are told something, you do it, and that’s it, but you have no brain. It helps on the ice if you become much more instinctive, but as I said, you lose it as soon as you become more aware, more cerebral about it.

So it’s a complex topic and I need to keep going and perhaps by the end of my career, I can say something more about it. But at this very moment, I think each form has a place to be. Also, so many moral concepts get mixed in. Like, do you prioritize your success at the cost of your longevity? A very solid topic. Is it better to be extremely self-centered, and no matter the cost, the end justifies the means? Or is sport really less of a war, and more of a gentleman’s club, where you are less focused towards the result, but more towards the way you get this result, and the way you push yourself? Not necessarily in competition [with others] but in a personal competition.

My vision is, I want to add, a Blue Ocean Strategy, like in finance or any development. [According to Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, who coined the term, Blue Ocean Strategy ‘is about creating and capturing uncontested market space, thereby making the competition irrelevant.’] It’s much less of a war for survival. Yet you cannot completely remove the law of the jungle, eat or be eaten.

So I’m very fortunate that I have this opportunity to be at the highest level for so many years. I’m not sure a complete avoidance of competition, and this constraint, [would be] actually healthy for the most optimal progression. Sport, to me, is much more than just victory. It’s also the lifestyle, the way of personal mastery. I prioritize this concept, perhaps more than it’s useful for me to succeed in the system.

Prioritizing the search for excellence

Deniss Vasiljevs and coach Stéphane Lambiel during practice at Skate America

As you talk about the very individual, almost by necessity self-centered nature of being a competitive athlete, I started thinking: if your career had turned out differently, would you ever have done pairs or ice dance, something with a partner? Would you enjoy being part of a team, or do you think that would be less fulfilling?

It depends on the time. Today, I think it would be super difficult, because perhaps excessive idealism holds me back in many ways…So if it’s not under my direct control and I have to really trust [someone else] for the way of my career… I think it would be very difficult to see me as anything but an individualist, partly because of the strong opinions and ideals I hold dear. I don’t know where I started this journey of cultivating some of the virtues that are perhaps less observed in modern day society, but those things also do not make me better at actually being part of society.

I desire certain personal excellence, and I’m willing to drive to the edge of extremes. Like when I make my tea, I’m not satisfied with just warm water and the tea inside. I need the timing to brew, the good water, I need the whole thing. I’m so picky about details, out of knowledge and trying many ways and being very curious about it, [yet] it doesn’t necessarily improve my life appreciation and well-being, because I become very judgmental. I don’t like that about myself. Strong opinions are good, but also open-mindedness, tolerance and understanding.

Today, I don’t see how it would translate to [skating with a partner]. If I reflect and start cultivating myself in the right direction, it’s of course possible. But again, my priority is my individual sport. Since I’m often quite constrained in time and resources, I tend to prioritize things for that.

Are you still enjoying cooking?

As much as I can, but it’s clearly become way more functional and way more geared towards my sport. I don’t remember when was the last time I cooked something just for the sake of this crazy amount of preparation, like a whole day in order to make one meal, with some elaborate things like fruit caviar.

But it’s still my passion that I would love to revisit. I’ve become disciplined in order to nourish my body with what it needs for performance, rather than just purely explore my passion. It’s not always simple cooking, it’s still sophisticated, but it becomes more mundane…rather than “I feel like doing this, let’s do that.” Because my priorities have shifted towards perhaps a little bit more professional approach to skating.

That’s where your priority is. It still takes work, but with a different goal in mind.

I’m quite anxious in a way, because I want to do better. And of course, since it’s currently not there, it takes a lot of mental resources just to ground myself and trust the reality, rather than take counsel in fear. Well, such is life.

Thank you to Deniss for sharing a glimpse into his thought process and emotions at this challenging point in the season. We wish him all the best for his next competition at NHK Trophy! 

Read More: Anna also spoke with Deniss’ coach Stéphane Lambiel at Skate America. Read Stéphane’s thoughts on Deniss and his other students here.

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