In Conversation with Dr Valtter Virtanen

The veteran skater aims at unfinished goals

Valtter Virtanen after his short program at the 2024 World Championships

Valtter Virtanen has one of the most interesting stories in figure skating.

At 36, he was the oldest skater competing in men’s singles at the 2024 World Championships. He is a fully qualified medical doctor and the father of a three-year-old daughter. And at a time when most of his contemporaries are long retired, he is enjoying skating and competing more than ever. 

Valtter’s career longevity is remarkable.

His first ISU championship was the 2004 Junior Worlds. He’s a seven-time national champion and fifteen-time national medalist. He has made 9 trips to the European Championships, where his highest placement came at 14th in 2022, and 5 trips to the World Championships. 

At the start of the 2023-2024 season, Valtter announced he would be switching to pairs and teaming up with Swedish skater Tilda Alteryd. When that partnership dissolved in September 2023, he quickly switched back to training singles and was able to earn the required technical minimum scores for Worlds. 

Although 20-year-old Makar Suntsev won the Finnish men’s title this year and was given the spot for the Grand Prix in Helsinki and the European Championships, Makar was not able to secure the minimum score for Worlds. Valtter was sent to Montreal, where he placed 34th of 40 men. 

Why not do it?

Valtter skated a clean short program at Worlds, with a triple Lutz, a triple toe-triple toe combination, and a double Axel, plus all level-four spins and steps. The base value of those elements, however, was 35th out of the 40 men – meaning that Valtter knew he had an uphill battle to secure a place among the 24 men who advance to the free skate.  

“I have my jumps which I can normally do like 95%. Either it’s enough or it’s not, because to get qualified, I depend on mistakes from the other ones. I don’t have a quad or a triple axel, so there’s nothing I can do to influence the results. So in the last three weeks, I just try to enjoy the practice.”

Given that technical disadvantage, what keeps Valtter motivated to compete?

“Maybe the better question is, why not do it? At this point of my life, I have a lovely daughter, my family is there, the work is there…. There is no hurry anymore for education.” 

“Eight years ago, I [became a doctor], and I got my PhD in 2019…it’s been busy times. I look back to 2010 – 2020, and sometimes I wonder [how I did it]. But now it’s it paid off, and I can enjoy what I worked for. Of course, I lost my best years for skating, but I wouldn’t change it for what I have now.”

All that education means that Valtter is able to work a flexible schedule in a private medical practice. “I get paid for every patient that I treat, so it’s pretty simple. I can work two hours if I want, I can work twelve hours a day if I want. It’s up to my practice schedule, and competition. I think I have the best work for combining with figure skating because I can work weekends, evenings, mornings, anytime.”

“It’s really good, but it cost a lot of time and energy to get to this point. That’s why it’s also so hard to make the decision to quit because I have worked so hard to finally be in a position where the study and the work isn’t disturbing my practice anymore. When I was in Germany, in the summer of 2018/19 I had three-to-four night shifts and one or two weekends in a month in addition to the normal hours.”

Finding a choreographic style

Valtter Virtanen performs his short program at the 2024 World Championships (Photo by Joosep Martinson/International Skating Union)

Another reason that Valtter is enjoying skating these days is that he’s found a style of choreography that suits him. 

“I have spoken with my wife a lot about this theme, and I think it goes back to when I was getting started skating. I’m really from the old school of skating. I was at Junior Worlds under the old system, and even at the beginning of the new system, the first five years, the kind of programs were completely different.

“When you watch nowadays, advanced novice or junior skaters, they’re already at least trying movements with the upper body – and it didn’t exist when I was skating 20 years ago. Nobody did it, it was not necessary. I think I would have had the ability if I did it earlier. And that time it was normal that there was just random choreo. Even when I was top twenty at Junior Worlds in 2005, the choreo didn’t have any value, it was such random choreography, we chose some music and then skated it there.”

“Now there is so much more value for this. It took pretty long before I started to work with real choreographers. Of course, with a long career, I have skated and improved my skills generally, but I also started to work with a real choreographer. It has helped me to find my own body language. Now, for the last few years, I believe I found this kind of contemporary style, which is mine.” 

In the 2023/24 season, Valtter’s short program music was “Saturn” by Sleeping at Last. The choreography was done by Monica Lindfors, while Adam Solya choreographed his free skate to Other Side of Sea by HAEVN. 

He explained that short program has a deep personal meaning for him.

“It’s pretty tough. My mom died last February from cancer and the whole lyrics are about somebody dying, giving their last words to the universe and the stars. It has been a really hard program to compete. In the beginning of the season, I was kind of crying every time when I went into the step sequence. This is how it’s supposed to be, we’re trying to show emotions and trying to give emotions to the audience, but in some competitions, it went too deep inside me. I got too emotional and it’s hard to transfer it to people especially when they don’t know the story behind it because I didn’t really speak about it at that time. Now after one year, I started to say something more. So that has been a challenge, but now, since I started this spring season, it has started to be that I can do it more professionally, how it’s supposed to be, in that I still have the right emotion but not going too emotional.”

When Valtter thinks about what, if anything, he’d change about his career, the focus on choreography is a point that stands out. “It would have been nice to start work with real choreographers earlier, because at the moment I am having my best skating, [in terms of] the points but also in what I get as an athlete from skating and from the competition I am enjoying it more. Earlier, I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t like to compete. It was too much stress and I didn’t feel good with my body in the programs, and the programs weren’t such a pleasure to skate. It’s good that I finally have gotten to this point, that I enjoy the programs, that I enjoy competing, but it would have been nice to have that a bit [earlier] and not start enjoying competing at the age of 33. There was a really long time that I was struggling.”

Olympic Dreams & Quads

Valtter Virtanen performs his short program at the 2024 World Championships (Photo by Joosep Martinson/International Skating Union)

The upcoming Olympics are also a big motivation to continue. 

“It’s so close. If it would be in two or three years, then I would say. ‘Okay, now it’s enough.’ But the Olympics is still missing. And, of course, I now look at the results here, does 24th [the free skate cut – ed] feel really far away?”

Valtter knows he’ll have to increase his technical difficulty if he wants to have a shot at an Olympic spot. He has previously landed the quad toe loop and triple axel in international competition, though never with positive GOE. He’s not giving up on the goal of bringing those jumps back into competition and noted that he’s started practicing the quad again.

“Last season, I was – not afraid, but I didn’t have the orientation to go for it. And if you don’t trust 100% then there is no way to do it. So I was kind of mentally blocked, even if technically [the toe loop] is my best jump. I wasn’t mentally plugged in. I couldn’t do it the whole season. This year, I have been doing it a bit, but not enough to do it [at Worlds].” 

Valtter said the (now postponed) potential rule changes for next season may have also played a factor in his decision making. “I will wait and see what happens, as there are also other big changes that will probably come in [next season] with one jump less [in the Free Skate]…If it feels like this is not going to help me or I don’t want to go through this process, then I probably will just quit. But it feels like it might be also good for me, like with one jump less there is maybe more room for the skating…but let’s see what they decide.”

One aspect of Valtter’s long career is that he has experienced competition under both the 6.0 judging system and the IJS in all its iterations. His first trip to Junior Worlds, in 2005, was the first time IJS was used. 

“With the 6.0 there were no changes [to the rules] in my whole time. Of course, I was still a Junior and advanced novice, but from what I know there was not really any change in 10 or 20 years. Then we changed the system and then we changed the rules every year. In the beginning, it might be necessary because it was completely new but it’s already been 20 years [of the IJS]. So I think there should be already some vision that they want to keep, and not be changing like ‘now we want to see more quads, now we want to see more skating, now we want to see more choreo’.”

An experiment in pairs

Valtter and Tilda at the announcement of their partnership (Photo by Tilda Alteryd on Instagram)

In pursuit of his Olympic dreams, Valtter has also been looking at opportunities in the pairs discipline. In Spring 2023, he teamed up with Swedish skater Tilda Alteryd.

“I tried pairs for the first time in 2011. To be honest, if you look at the pairs field, there are not that many pairs competing in the World, it could be… I don’t say easier, but it could be a good way to the Olympics, right? I knew it’d be tough, but now when I have done it for four or five months, it’s really tough. It’s really tough to find the right person to work with where the technical and mental work. So I appreciate what the pairs are doing. But that was the main motivation –  to try to get to the Olympics.”

Valtter is proud of how quickly he and Tilda picked up pair elements.

“We skated basically four months together and we learned all the basics. We did all the lifts –  without any levels, but we did all the lifts already for the short and the free and did them in the program. The only thing we were missing from the compulsory elements was the double twist on the ice, but we did that off-ice. We did throw triple sal already at the end of the time we had, so we were doing really well for this short time.” 

“For me, partnering up with someone who doesn’t have experience was not a big deal,” Tilda shared with Anything GOE. “As long as we both did our best to work towards our goals then it didn’t matter if my partner had experience or not. It wasn’t long ago I was new to the discipline myself and I know how difficult and frustrating it can be to take in so much info at the same time, so I tried to be understanding, patient, and encouraging.”

Alina Mayer-Virtanen, Valtter’s wife and coach, was also excited about working with a pair team, and served as their main coach. 

“She did pairs,” Valtter noted, “Not that much, but she also had a tryout herself in Canada, many years ago, and trained pairs several months by herself.  She has been two or three times now to the ISU pairs development seminar in Berlin, and [trained] a few novice pairs in the last few years. We got help also from Alexander König, and also Bruno [Marcotte] helped us a bit, but not that much. Then in summertime, we organize summer camps, Lorenzo Magri was there and he has also a pair background, and then we also had Jekaterina Nekrassova from Estonia, who is also an ex-pair skater…Alina was the main coach, but in the beginning, we got a lot of information from other coaches. That was not the problem. Technically, we learned a lot in a short time. So that was not the problem.”

Unfortunately, the experiment came to an end in September 2023. 

Valtter and Tilda in training (Photo credit Tilda Alteryd on Instagram)

“Eventually, [the decision] came from [Tilda’s] side,” said Valtter. “She was skating previously in Canada with Bruno Marcotte, and she didn’t adapt or find the balance [to living in Finland] because of course, we didn’t get any [financial] support.”

“Yes, funding would’ve helped,” Tilda noted. “But I chose to end the partnership because I didn’t feel that it was a good fit and wouldn’t be sustainable in the long term. After I left Finland, I moved back to Sweden where I am from. I knew I wanted to go back to Canada but I needed time with my family and just some time to figure out what the next step would be for me. I came back to Canada last November and have been looking for a partner since. Pair skating is something I love and hope to be able to do soon again.”

Valtter is also keeping his eyes open for another opportunity in pairs. “I think with the right partner, it would be still possible [to skate pairs for Finland] – or it could be some county where I would easily get a passport, but that’s not so many [places]. So it’s really unlikely, but if I get some good option I would of course like to try it.”

He’d also need to find a partner with a similar skill level in the singles elements. “I would need somebody who can really jump and was not struggling with triples, because the fact is, in just one year or even two years, when you’re a beginner to the lift and twist, they’re not going to be your best elements. So then, if you can do something else well like skating and good jumps, good spins, then I would need somebody who is really good with [those elements].”

“I have many requests [for a partner], I guess,” Valtter acknowledged. “It’s the only way it makes sense….Of course, you need to make compromises but in this basic stuff it doesn’t make any sense.”

Readjusting to singles 

Valtter Virtanen during practice at the 2024 World Championships (photo by Allekha)

After half a year of prioritizing pairs training, the switch back to singles was difficult. “I started doing my workouts completely differently,” said Valtter. “So for six months I worked with my upper body and with strength [training] and I had around three kilos more in September than I normally have. Then we made the decision ‘Okay, we are not skating [pairs] anymore’ and I went back to singles and I had like five weeks before the first competition. Like, how? I can’t skate singles! Of course, I was able to do the basic jumps still, the basic triples, but the first free, was like a punishment. So I tried to get rid of this extra weight and extra muscles that I had worked six months to get. So that was pretty tough, but I took it as a challenge for me.”

“I like challenges,” he explained, describing his mindset at the time. “This was one challenge, how can I manage this completely unusual preparation for the season? How can I manage to be again on the same level or even higher? I tried to be really calm because, to be honest, in the beginning, I was struggling sometimes in the practice with my triple Lutz, which is at the moment is really good and stable jump, but it was just not fully rotated. Just the fact that I was gaining three kilos more, not [jumping any higher] and I was just too heavy for this.” 

“Mentally it was really tough because you had the pressure [of competitions soon]. Normally when you start to prepare you are in summer, so you don’t stress about it. But I didn’t have so many competitions, I had only two Challenger assignments and I needed to skate well to qualify for further competitions. I didn’t have that much time, and the jumps were not working, I was too heavy. So that’s pretty tough.”

Ultimately, he was able to overcome the challenge and could reflect on the advantages of this unusual preparation. “Sometimes, maybe, it’s also good to have some other input for the body, physically and also mentally. Because I’m doing these things that I’ve had in programs for over 20 years. So they’re not going to disappear anywhere.”

A skating family

Valtter Virtanen, his coach and wife Alina Mayer-Virtanen, and their daugter Lija, celebrate Valtter’s seventh national championship win in 2022 (Photo Valtter Virtanen on Instagram)

Valtter is coached by his wife, Alina Mayer-Virtanen, a former competitive skater for Germany. They met when they both trained in Oberstdorf. What is it like for them to have the dual relationship of coach/skater and husband/wife?

Alina explained that they’ve already had this working relationship for ten years. “It’s familiar. I think we had a kind of arrangement from the beginning that we really tried to separate things. As soon as we enter a competition or as we enter the rink, we are always professional on both sides, so now it’s really easy.”

“I’ll be honest, it was easier before we got our baby,” Valtter noted. “Now, of course, she’s three, and it’s normal that you have some stress at home with a kid, and for me, it’s harder to separate. For [Alina] somehow it is easier, but for me, sometimes I’m stuck in the mental state of what we are having at home. But the rest is good!”

Their daughter Lija has been skating since she was one year old. “This is mostly having fun…if she wants [to skate] at least she has good [guidance]. We have both done many mistakes in our lives, in our careers, so we can avoid many mistakes and guide her in the right direction – if she wants. I don’t mind if she doesn’t skate.”

Valtter’s own family got him into skating – a sport that is unusual for boys to pursue in Finland.

“Hockey is the main opponent. Hockey is a really big, big thing in Finland, so it takes all the boys. There needs to be something exceptional in the family that they put the kid in figure skating. In my case, I just followed my older sister. I was just supposed to learn basic stuff and then I continued, and then I started to be pretty okay. And then I just kind of stuck there. There are not that many boys in Finland whose sister is a skater and the parents put the boy into figure skating. Or like Makar [Suntsev], the boy who represents Finland, his mom is coaching. There must be some previous link, from the parents or the sister.”

There can also be prejudice against male figure skaters.

“This is the cultural attitude. It’s a big problem from the hockey parents. And this is also one reason why I lived almost 10 years in Germany and practiced there because I just got fed up with this. There’ll be these 10 to 13-year-old hockey boys and then they start to hit the plexiglass and are shouting there and it’s really annoying. Even though you know that okay, they have nothing to say, but it still affects you, and it destroys the atmosphere. You want to be practicing, and they are shouting, and also for the concentration, it’s just not nice. And then the problem is the coaches and the parents are standing next to them and they don’t say anything. So the problems are really deep in the culture. Of course, the federation could do more. But still, there need to be so many changes in the generations to accept figure skating more.” 

“We need also good role models. It’s not like my mission, but I hope that [my skating] helps a bit to encourage boys to skate also. It’s a small city where we practice, [Peurunka], and we have a lot of boys in the skating school, sometimes more than in the bigger cities –  but they see us there.” 

Valtter is assigned to compete at the GP Finlandia Trophy this fall.

2 Replies to “In Conversation with Dr Valtter Virtanen”

  1. Best of luck to Valtter! He’s a delight and I hope he keeps skating and bringing experience and positivity into the sport!

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