The Olympian-turned-coach discusses the growth of European pairs and the importance of technical and artistic innovation
I caught up with Ondrej Hotarek at Skate America, where he coached Annika Hocke and Robert Kunkel to their first Grand Prix title. Originally from the Czech Republic, Ondrej is a two-time Olympian for Italy, placing as high as sixth with pairs partner Valentina Marchei in the 2018 Games. Since retiring from competition he has been coaching both pairs and singles at the IceLab in Bergamo, Italy.
The start of the season has been extremely busy for Ondrej. “We did the John Nicks Trophy in New York, then I did the Lombardia Trophy – but it’s at our home, so that is easy. Then I went to Oberstdorf. Now Skate America, Skate Canada, France, China, and then I have a couple of weeks off. Then the whole circuit of the National Championships – because we have so many teams from different nations – Czech nationals, Finnish nationals, German nationals, and of course the Italian nationals.”
The downside of all this travel is that it has kept Ondrej away from his wife, retired World Champion ice dancer Anna Cappellini, and their small children, two-year-old Diana, and 10-month-old Oliver.
“They are mayhem!” Ondrej laughed. “It’s fun though, it’s fun to see their personalities. I see my wife so much in my daughter, and she probably sees me in our boy. It’s really cute.”
One reason Ondrej is busy is that the IceLab training center in Bergamo continues to expand. “We took some new teams, [and are] basically still working with everyone we had last year,” he explained. “We have more coaches now, we expanded the team a little bit and we are trying to keep things like how we did last year.”
Unlike some large training centers, where everyone works with the same coaches, IceLab is organized so that each pair has a small team, with their head coach to rely on for their training plan.
“It’s hard if you have one main coach who has to orchestrate everything [for all the teams],” said Ondrej. “It also depends on what the skaters need. So if I’m the main coach who makes the plan [for a team], then I have another coach that’s the assistant, and then we have a third coach. So it’s always a team of three coaches that works exclusively with the team. It doesn’t eliminate the possibility to train with others if it’s needed, but mostly this is how we work with the most experienced teams. For example, Sara [Conti] and Niccolo [Macii] have Barbara [Luoni], with a couple of other coaches. Of course, if there is a need, if [those coaches] have other teams or there’s some emergency, the whole school will always help each other.”
This combination of the team and the one-on-one approach is a strength. “You don’t get completely overwhelmed by how many teams you have. And it still kind of feels like, for the guys, that they have one person that they can always ask what’s happening and that one person always knows.”
New teams and new federations
Ondrej explained that they want to grow the number of teams while maintaining the quality of coaching. “My goal would be every season, or every two seasons, to bring in somebody younger, somebody new. [For example], we started working with one junior Italian team [Polina Polman and Gabriel Renoldi]. We put together two skaters, and they debuted on the Junior Grand Prix circuit. Now they are at their second international in Poland. And they’re doing quite good.”
Polina and Gabriel won the junior pairs at Diamond Spin in Poland and achieved the minimum scores for Junior Worlds.
Another new team was added in 2022 when Matteo Guarise – a three-time Olympian and seven-time national champion with previous partner Nicole Della Monica – started skating with Lucrezia Beccari. Although Lucrezia was new to pairs, Ondrej wasn’t surprised that the team had already won medals in the Challenger Series, and has since gone on to medal on the Grand Prix.
“We always knew that Lucrezia was going to be a strong pair girl,” he confirmed. “I think they’re going to be strong this season. She put in so much work. And I know Matteo well because we competed against each other. I’ve seen him work really hard for how much he’s done in his career. And I see how much he’s working now. It’s actually a good example for everybody, this broad professionality of the team.”
IceLab is becoming the home not only for Italian pairs but also the preeminent center for the discipline in Europe. This is the second season that Ondrej has coached German champions Annika and Robert. He is also the head coach for the young Italian team of Anna Valesi and Manuel Piazza and the Czech team of Frederica Simioli and Alessandro Zarbo. He’s also on the coaching team for European silver medalists Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini, the Finnish team of Milania Väänänen and Filippo Clerici, and Matteo Rizzo, among others.
The small size of the pairs discipline encourages international collaboration. “Because you just don’t have so many skaters to find in the same country to skate pairs, you need to mix it up. Now I see the parallel story [to mine] with our skater Filippo, who skates for Finland. They had no pairs before, and they’re starting to get some to thrive, and people are starting to be really excited about having the full team. They have really good ladies, if they get a decent man they are thinking about the Olympic team event.”
“Finland is really invested in the project of a pair team. They always wanted it and it never really worked. I hope that we can make it finally happen, but so far, I think they were really happy, and [the team] has their technical score [for Worlds and Europeans] as well.”
Ondrej also works with both Czech pair teams: Barbora Kucianova and Martin Bidar, who train part-time in Bergamo, and Simioli and Zarbo, whom he coaches full-time. That team skated as juniors for Italy, but Zarbo also has Czech citizenship. “I talked to the federation in Czechia and they were like, ‘We’re not really looking, but it’s better to have more teams than just one.’ Actually, given the opportunity, they’ve improved a lot, so we’ll see where that will go. They’re also quite young and they have really good pair elements, but they’re lacking a little bit in single skating.”
As an ISU Center of Excellence, IceLab has a focus on international collaboration. For example, last spring they hosted a large seminar with skaters from Egypt, South Africa, and the United Arab Emirates. Ondrej has stayed involved with several of the skaters that participated.
“I’m happy because the South African skater, [Gian-Quen Isaacs] just made her minimum scores for Junior Worlds. That was her huge goal and she’s such a dedicated skater. I’ve rarely seen someone so invested. The whole family stands behind her to try to fund this. When she gets some scholarships, she comes and skates every day for five hours, she does everything I ask. It’s incredible – and she did make the score, so she’s gonna go to the Junior Worlds. She was so happy, she finally learned her triple lutz, and it’s progress.”
“We also have Julianne [Mauder] and Johannes [Wilkinson], they’re a pair team from South Africa. And their goal is to make the scores for Four Continents. It’s quite challenging because of their single-skating skills. But they were close in Poland. They got 22 points [the short program technical minimum for pairs at Four Continents is 25]. They started to make it a little bit cleaner. We still have time.”
Ondrej’s former coach, Franca Bianconi, started the pairs program in Bergamo and has been central to many of these collaborations. She is now a member of the ISU Development Commission.
“She really would like to help with the change. As a coach, she probably has done everything she desired. Because of her, Italy has a strong pair program. Because when I first came to Italy, there was nothing, zero pairs. The last pair finished last at the 2002 Olympics. I think that sometimes people forget it was her idea to find a partner for her skater, and it was me. From that, we started everything else. It’s nice, now that we have 11 teams, to think back to where it all started, in a rink when there was no time for pair skating, with nobody who knew how to teach. It’s come a long, long way.”
Rebuilding pairs by keeping teams together
As Ondrej reflected on his career, he looked back at the 2016-2018 seasons as a high point for the pairs discipline.
“I still think that I can be proud just for taking part in one of the hardest and the most exciting pair events that have ever been, which for me was Helsinki Worlds [in 2017], and then the Olympic event. If you think about how many couples got over 200 points, and how many amazing performances there were already in the first group.”
Now the discipline is in a rebuilding period. “There were countries where you couldn’t replace strong skaters, like Aljona [Savchenko] and Bruno [Massot], Vanessa [James] and Morgan [Cipres]…When I skated, there were always three Russian teams, three strong Chinese teams, two strong Canadian and American teams… I think right now we are rebuilding the category. I’m sure that there are going to be great couples to come. It’s just a matter of time.”
Ondrej cited Americans Chelsea Liu and Balazs Nagy as a team that makes him hopeful for the future. “That’s the kind of couple that we need to get back. But they need to stick together, because they are beautiful, and this is where they got in only six months.”
“The problem is that [teams] don’t stick together,” he continued. “Balasz skated for the US, then Hungary, then he switched partners. That is why we don’t have as strong a field as we used to have. Everyone is looking for something better, instead of making better what you already have.”
“The couple that understood this the best, for me, is Sara and Niccolo. Because Niccolo was also looking for a partner for a long time and then when he started with Sara, even I doubted. I didn’t believe that they could be that strong. It is a huge, huge accomplishment for Barbara and her coaches. Against all odds, you just go on your way. You change what you can change and you improve what you can improve, through hard, hard work.”
“That’s really an inspiration for me, and I think a lot is of course due to Niccolo, and to Sara [who] was able to do all those sacrifices. I think it’s a great example for all the teams and I’m really happy that they are in our rink. I’m really happy that we can all train together and it makes everyone else stronger.”
Even when teams appear to have success quickly, it is usually the result of one or both partners having put in years of work in the past.
“The challenge is that it needs a long time to get to the point where a pair skating guy can take a girl from single skating and in a year transform her and make it work as Trennt [Michaud] did with Lia [Pereira]. For that, you need first to be strong, and second, to be super sure of what you’re doing. To build a pair guy like that, you need at least seven to eight years. Usually, we say to take a guy that’s new to pairs and make him good, you need four years. When they have a good spread eagle, you can take one year off, and say three years. Because with open hips they are much better at walking the lifts.”
“We have this young skater Gabriel [Renoldi], he’s the junior skater [with Polina Polman], and I’ve never seen anyone with such amazingly developed hips for pair skating. He’s turning in both directions without any problems. He has many other issues from his single skating, but that part is good. And they’re just in their first season. But it’s so fun like with the young ones, it’s so much fun.”
Side-by-side jumps are key
From a technical perspective, Ondrej is focused on maximizing the points for each of his teams. “Now more than ever, the stronger the team is in the jumps, the better results they can get, because of the consistency of the base score. I think this year is not going to be as easy as it was last year. Everybody understands [the value] of this new sequence with the two double axels. That’s going to be the main difference [between teams] because probably the top three to four teams are going to attempt the three-jump combo with the two double axels. If you land everything up to the last axel, it’s about 11 points, which is so much in pairs. [The team] who is going to be able to do that consistently is going to have a huge advantage. When you skate together long enough, everything else is quite solid. You’re not making mistakes in anything else, so that one’s gonna be the deal breaker. We need to work on that, with everyone.”
Side-by-side jumps hurt Annika and Robert at Skate America. “Annika is a good jumper, [but] if you don’t do it 10 out of 10 at home, then when you come here, there’s a little bit of jetlag, you are a little dizzy, and it’s gone.”
“These events are really, really difficult for skaters that have to travel many time zones…It’s two people and you get here, and one has jet lag one day, and the other one is jet lagged the other day. That’s why, when you can, you choose not to [travel so far]. Sara and Niccolo, [chose to] do France and Finland, and stay in the same time zone.”
“Annika and Robert got the hard time [zones]. They were also lucky because [Skate America] turned out to be the easier one to win – because China’s not going to be that easy. China is going to be a tough one to stay on the podium. We’re not going to be talking 180 points, we’re gonna be talking 190 – and again it’s China and it’s difficult to travel. But I’m happy with the teams and how they are performing”
Ondrej was correct in his prediction about Cup of China, where the top two teams scored 201.48 and 191.00. If Annika and Robert had matched their Skate America score of 184.23, they would have held onto a bronze, but they only managed 170.65, and fourth place.
Ondrej also has some concerns about Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini, who often struggle with their side-by-side salchows. However, he is quick to note that they have many other strengths.
“They have amazing programs this year. I think that what Luca [LaNotte] created with the free is one of the best pair programs that are out there right now. I think the free skate is just amazing, and even the short program has the potential to become a contender for the top spots.”
Meagan Duhamel agreed, tweeting after the Cup of China that the team had her favorite programs of the Grand Prix.
“They had a slow start of the season, but now we’re starting to get confidence,” Ondrej continued. “They skated today [at Diamond Spin in Poland] and she still got [an under-rotation] on the Salchow, but everything else was good. They got plus five, plus four [GOE] on the throw, which was huge, their throws now are amazing. And I’m pretty proud of the lift we created in the short program, the one that starts from the corner, goes to the crossovers, and ends with the whole turnout. I think the short program has 70-point potential, and the free has 130 or more potential. It’s just on the jumps [that there is an issue], so it seems like we need to change the approach a little bit.”
Building technical skills for the Italian women
Given the importance of jumps, Ondrej thinks skaters, especially girls, should focus on being strong single skaters before switching to pairs.
“I skated with three different partners, four partners. I always went and picked the single skaters, with Stefania [Berton], and then Valentina [Marchei]. You can see it with Lia [Pereira]. You can always teach a girl who is a strong single skater. You need an experienced guy, but an experienced guy like Trennt can make it work. I’ve only seen a few [women] that were so afraid that they couldn’t do it. But mostly when they are strong in singles, they’ll find the drive to do it well. Especially when you have passionate and strong skaters. For me, Valentina was the perfect example, because she knew she could perform, she could handle the stress and everything.”
In Italy, the women have been the weakest discipline in recent years, and Ondrej has a theory for why that is.
“We have had a little trouble in the lower categories. The trend is to favor the skaters who do clean [programs with] easier things…I don’t have a problem with the judging, but it creates a problem with developing [skaters]. I have an advanced novice skater. We did a national competition, and out of all the seniors and all the juniors, all the advanced novices, the girl that I was teaching was the only one who attempted a triple toe-triple toe in the short.”
“The incentive is just not there. You can win the junior category with a double-double combo if you do good spins and you perform well. But I guarantee you that’s exactly why we have girls in their 20s who cannot do a triple-triple: because they didn’t learn it when they were 13. Everybody told them to do double jumps because they would get better results.”
“In Italy, we’ll have to start to think about it a little bit more. You have to explain to the parents that you are not competing [only to do well in] the competition at the moment. You are trying to develop and allow the skater to learn everything that she will need at the right time.”
The under-development of jumps also impacts pairs. “Our skaters, we teach them the pair stuff, we start skating, and then when they get under pressure, what they lacked when they were doing singles, that’s where they’re going to make a mistake… Especially when you’re close to the podium, close to making it, and there’s something that you always missed.”
“Sometimes I had that with Valentina. We were so close we could have almost medalled at Europeans, some Grand Prix too. And then, she missed the jump that she almost never missed, almost from wanting too much. But when there was almost no chance for a medal and when the performance was only about just being there, like at the Olympics? She was the best competitor. It was incredible.”
The importance of art and long careers
Another topic of conversation at Skate America was the challenge many European skaters had competing in the narrower NHL-size rink. IceLab helped its teams to prepare by mimicking cutting down the rink.
“Maybe 10 days before, we always draw a line [on the ice], so they all know. Some like to work on it, like Annika and Robert are really precise. But Matteo and Lucrezia, next week they’re going to Skate Canada, but Matteo was like ‘I just work the rink, I don’t care. I’ll come there and I’ll see it, and I’ll adapt.’”
“It also depends on how you skate,” added Ondrej. “If you skate like Deniss [Vasiljevs], it’s tough. It’s definitely challenging. Even when he did the first move, he almost hit the wall. But it’s exciting, because he’s amazing, and the program, I completely love it. I think that it’s important for the movement, for the sport, that you have people like this.”
“It’s a shame that we can’t create something that would give more possibilities for people like him to win medals with the skills he has, not just the jumps. It’s just a dream, but I hope people who create the rules and are thinking about the system can do something about it, and create something that would be a little bit closer to the public, a little bit easier to count, and a little bit more exciting. We could create champions that we could enjoy for a longer time than just one season. I just hate that.”
“I think figure skating was way more popular when people knew figure skaters. When you said figure skating, people would be like, ‘Yeah, like that Plushenko guy, right?’ Anywhere in the world. When you say figure skating people would know who Plushenko and Yagudin were. Right now, I don’t think they can name one.”
“I think that figure skaters deserve to get a medal for every performance they do, not one medal for two performances. There are a lot of sports where you get a medal for every distance, like speedskating you get a medal for 500 meters, for 1,000 meters. What’s the difference between short and long [programs]? It’s just the length. If other sports can get two medals for different lengths, why can’t we?”
“But I think we need to differentiate. It has to be such a huge difference that people who are creative and who are the fan favorites, who get the people on their feet with the performance, could actually win. And I think with that, we will have champions for a longer time. Because even though you cannot do quads anymore, you could still be an amazing performer and an amazing skater. I think it could bring some of that excitement back. It’s art. I saw programs without jumps from Carolina Kostner where [I thought], ‘Okay, bring the competition in because this was amazing.’ It’s just finding a way to judge in that light. It would have to change a lot. I just hope that some of the people in charge are ready to make changes.”
Read more: The development of Italian pairs, an interview with Franca Bianconi at 2023 Europeans