A packed arena and high production values added to the drama at the 2024 European Championships in Kaunas
With the 2024 European Championships now complete, which impressions from Kaunas will stick in our minds? It was a great event in both performances and in the overall experience for the audience and skaters. There are lessons for future event organizers to learn about what to do (and occasionally, what not to do).
Performances to (Re)Watch from Europeans
The podium fights were interesting, with high drama in all disciplines thanks to close scoring and a few surprise stars. Adam Siao Him Fa and Charlene Guignard/Marco Fabbri collected their second consecutive titles. Loena Hendrickx claimed her first title, and, perhaps the biggest surprise, Lucrezia Beccari/Matteo Guarise won pairs. However, it’s not only the champions whose performances stick in your mind. Here are a few of the other skaters who made an impression in Kaunas.
Allison Reed/Saulius Ambrulevicius, Lithuania, 3rd: Free Dance
The Lithuanian champions were undeniably the stars of the event, with the sold-out home crowd lifting them to the country’s first medal at Europeans since 2006. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime moment to see that stadium of flags, willing you to succeed, and Allison and Saulius rose to the occasion. They let the energy propel but not overwhelm them and skated their best performances of the season.
While I find their rhythm dance more compelling than their free dance, they were able to showcase the best of their complex transitions and movement quality in the latter program, and secure a historic medal for their nation.
Aleksandr Selevko, Estonia, 2nd: Free Skate
The most surprising medalist in Kaunas was Aleksandr Selevko. A skater who has had the potential for top marks but not the consistency, his free skate was for many the highlight of the men’s event. It’s a historic first podium spot at Euros for Estonia.
Rebecca Ghilardi/Filippo Ambrosini, Italy, 3rd: Free Skate
Attention rightly has gone to Lucrezia Beccari and Matteo Guarise for winning their first European championship. Still, the pair programs that made the biggest impression were those of their teammates, Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini. The most experienced (together, at least) of the three Italian teams, Rebecca and Filippo have struggled with consistency on their jump elements. Here, they were able to deliver two strong programs. With the side-by-side jumps accomplished, their skating skills and expressiveness were able to shine. They went last in the short program, and when they were placed 6th (largely due to missed levels), the crowd actually booed. The free skate was a redemption, pulling them up to second in the FS and third overall. With their bronze joining last year’s silver, they are making it clear that they too can challenge for top placements.
Ivan Shmuratko, Ukraine, 14th: Short and Free Skate
I’ve been obsessed with Ivan’s short program all season. Skated to the music, ‘Melody from The High Pass’, it tells the story of a boy in Ukraine from childhood to the coming of the war. He ends the program with a dramatic fall, collapsing like he’s been shot. The first time Ivan did this, at the Nepela Trophy, he was given a fall deduction. At GP Finland, he removed the fall. In Kaunas, though, he was able to time the move so the music and program had technically ended before he fell. It was still soon enough that the shock was conveyed to the audience as part of the performance. Ivan’s free skate continues the story, incorporating elements of Forest Blakk’s spoken word piece ‘Find Me’ along with music by Einaudi and Olafur Arnolds.
Ivan is using figure skating as his medium to tell the story of what is happening in his country. He should get more recognition as one of the most ambitious artists skating today. It is all the more impressive that he also skated a clean free skate with two triple axels, given that he trains in Ukraine, and is often interrupted by air raids. Ivan said, “I don’t want to minimize my performance to some grade from 0 to 10. [With] scores, you’re judged by someone, it’s an external thing. What I want to produce comes from inside of me. I can’t speak everything I feel, there’s not enough vocabulary in any language.” Kudos to Ivan and his co-choreographer Mykhailo Leiba!
Matteo Rizzo, Italy, 3rd: Free Skate
The 26-year-old Matteo was one of the most experienced men at the event. His bronze in Kaunas secured his third European medal, and also a personal victory. Before the competition, Matteo announced that he is dealing with a serious hip injury that requires surgery, and will now take him out for at least the rest of the season. I very much hope Matteo can come back next year, but if the worst were to happen, this would be a final competitive performance to be proud of. Skating to “Fix You”, Matteo pulled off an emotional and nearly-clean performance. Asked why he chose this music, Matteo commented: “I would like every person who watches this at home to feel the emotion inside and get everything out…Don’t be afraid to cry, don’t be afraid to show your emotion.”
Loïcia Demougeot/Théo Le Mercier, France: 5th: Free Dance
The team that perhaps gained the most momentum from their outing to Kaunas were Loïcia Demougeot and Théo le Mercier of France. They earned personal bests in both programs and finished 5th. In their third appearance at Europeans, they overtook higher-ranked teams like the Taschlers, Davis/Smolkin, and Turkkila/Versluis. Loïcia and Théo’s Free Dance shows their versatility in both the elegant extended lines of Clair de Lune, as well as the fast and fluid skating they are most comfortable with. Their combination of stationary and rotational lift was a highlight and earned them +5 GOE from two judges.
Yuka Orihara/Juho Pirinen, Finland, 10th: Free Dance
Another notable team on the rise is Yuka Orihara and Juho Pirinen. Their crowd-pleasing programs were a great fit for this high-energy event. They sold the choreography with every ounce of their beings – despite Yuka having dislocated a shoulder in practice, as well as dealing with a knee injury. Their Chicago Free Dance earned them a new personal best, and they finished only four spots behind their teammates Turkkila/Versluis.
Finally, there are two exhibition programs not to miss. First was the special guest appearance of Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron. The Olympic champions skated a minimalist yet deceptively-difficult program to Bach Cello Sonata. After two seasons away, the team looked very strong. The rumors of their return to competition are getting stronger, and I, for one, would be thrilled to see more of them. They skate with an edge quality that is still unparalled, and it would be fantastic to see what kind of programs they would do with the extra life experience under their belts.
My favorite performance, though, was Deniss Vasiljevs’ heartrending exhibition program to Judith Hill’s “In the Air Tonight”. He starts with a series of tortured-seeming, twisting movements, which Deniss noted are largely improvised in each performance, before bursting into free and expansive gestures as the song builds. Deniss is playing with elements – sit twizzles into a sit spin variation, for example – that no one else does, and all in service of the music and the concept. Don’t miss it.
What the skaters had to say at Europeans:
Nearly every competitor, especially in ice dance and pairs, commented on the experience of skating to a full crowd. No one better encapsulated that sentiment than the young Lithuanian dancers Paulina Ramanauskaite and Deividas Kizala. Paulina said that they will always remember “the audience, the Lithuanian people supporting us, screaming Lithuania. I got so emotional when they introduced us, I teared up before the warm-up even started. For me, that’s the highlight of this whole week. We didn’t even hear the first bit of the music, they were still chanting ‘Lithuania, Lithuania’. I saw the referee trying to [quiet] them down, then told them to play the music because they weren’t going to stop.”
The crowd support was even stronger for medalists Allison Reed and Saulius Ambrulevicius. Many wondered if this patriotic triumph would help Allison receive her Lithuanian citizenship. Allison was very diplomatic, asserting that it was a pleasure to represent the country wherever they skate, whether or not they can get to the Olympics. But she teared up when Saulius took the mic to support her:
“You don’t [usually] get a chance to skate with a person who fits you so well and to be able to achieve what we do. I think where we are right now is a dream come true. Citizenship is citizenship, the Olympics is a competition, but our career is big for us, and I’m very proud of us,” said Saulius.
The Italians also had a very good week, bringing home the most medals of any country. Gold and bronze in pairs, gold in dance, and bronze in men. The Italian team loudly supported each other, whether that was cheering from the stands to distributing calming chamomile tea to their teammates. Nikolaj Memola described his reaction to seeing his close friend Lucrezia Beccari win. “I was having dinner and I saw she was in third my heart was racing. Then I saw Minerva [Fabienne Hase] fall and was like what is happening, when they finished I knew, and when Anastasiia [Metelkina] fell, I saw the tech score…and I started screaming in the dining area, I couldn’t sleep. I had to take chamomile tea!”
The other country with a lot to brag about was Belgium, with Loena Hendrickx and Nina Pinzarrone taking gold and bronze in the Women’s. Loena pointed out in the press conference, “Belgium is lucky to have us! Hopefully, in the future, they will invest in more facilities and ice rinks.” Belgian skaters have to piece together ice time at several rinks and/or train abroad, and the difficult conditions make the success of their skaters all the more remarkable.
Not every skater gets to come into competition with the preparation time or physical condition that they would like. Several skaters talked about missed time from injury or illness, and the frustration of competing when you aren’t at your best. For some, this was a challenge they were able to overcome. We saw Natalia Tascherova and Filip Taschler regain their form after taking time off to fully heal Filip’s back injury, and Matteo Rizzo overcame his hip pain to secure a medal.
For Annika Hocke and Robert Kunkel, they knew they were going to struggle to compete, after missing the Grand Prix Final and Nationals while Robert recovered from his back injury. Robert noted: “The judges and other skaters don’t care if you were injured…but for ourselves, it was the first step to be able to be here again, one month ago nobody thought we would be able to compete.” Annika, who used the time off to drill her jumps, was frustrated with herself for her mistakes. “I wanted to do better, and I worked so hard. I know it’s not a bad result … I’ve fought so hard, and I was really on a good track, I’m just sad that I couldn’t show it here, my jumps are the most solid they have been. But I know the work’s not wasted and the season’s not ended, and we still have Worlds.”
Lessons and Questions
The top takeaway from Kaunas is not about what happened on the ice, but around it. It’s felt like a long time since a competition outside of Japan has sold out events. Though motivated to support their compatriots, the audience in Kaunas propelled all the skaters. How did they fill these arenas? What lessons in marketing and promotion can other organizers take? Several local volunteers noted that the event was held at the arena of the popular local basketball team, and advertised heavily in the months leading up. That, combined with a history of ice dance success that is notable in a small nation, may have been enough to drive interest. International fans also noted that the ticket prices were lower than for many recent Europeans.
Part of that energy came from ideas borrowed from other sports and entertainment events. The arena DJ gave the impression that he wasn’t always sure what kind of event he was at, but he was sure it was a big deal and everyone needed to be as pumped up as possible! There was audience interaction, sing-alongs, a kiss cam, and papers to hold up in the colors of the Lithuanian flag. The audience was kept engaged and entertained, and they returned the love by cheering loudly, dancing, singing, and clapping. By the end of the gala – complete with fire dancers on the ice – the full audience was on their feet and didn’t want to go home. How much of this spectacle is necessary, and how much is a distraction (or a waste of money)? The kiss and cry was beautiful, for example, but a whole wall of live flowers? Did there need to be a live orchestra that no one in the arena could see or hear? The most important thing is to center the skaters as exciting, beautiful, and worthy of respect. High production values help, but the most important thing is the energy between skaters and the audience.
The reason I sound lukewarm about such a fantastic exciting event is the information that is starting to come out about the treatment of volunteers and members of the organizing team by the leaders of the Organizing Committee. A Lithuanian woman was harassed and expelled after passing along a request to turn down the music during the free dance. Kaja Elena Brilé claims that a member of the organizing committee was drunk and behaved aggressively toward her. Rather than helping her, Vysautas Jasutis, the president of the Lithuanian Figure Skating Federation removed her accreditation and threw her out. She also claims that she was supposed to be a paid contractor and that the organizers violated labor laws. The Lithuanian police and labor ministry are investigating, while Kalinen denies the accusations.
I spoke to several international members of the competition team, who asked to remain anonymous as they were not authorized to speak about their work to the media. They confirmed issues with the organizing committee, including that Jasutis and others on the OC from outside the figure skating world were always sure they knew more than experienced skating event managers, as well as being rude and sexist in their treatment of volunteers and staff. These negative experiences leave a sour note on an otherwise fantastic competition. We don’t need to create a spectacular event at the expense of mistreating workers.
Returning to the positives on the skating side, this Championship had many stories of persistence and the value of experience and maturity. Marco Fabbri became the oldest man to win a European title at age 36; Matteo Guarise won his first medal, a gold, at age 35. Loena Hendrickx showed that it’s possible to improve your skating in your twenties, even in the teenager-dominated Women’s field. Off the podium, we should also celebrate skaters like Nina Povey of Great Britain – who made her first European appearance at age 29 – and Julia Sauter of Romania who finished in 9th, her highest-ever placement at age 26.
We also have young stars emerging – Metelkina and Berulava are still young enough to compete in juniors, and skaters like Livia Kaiser, Nina Pinzarrone, Sarina Joos, and Adam Hagara will hopefully continue to succeed at Europeans for many years to come. But in a sport where success can be fleeting and careers short, the triumph of more mature skaters is an encouraging trend.
Finally, some interesting conversations are happening behind the scenes. I spoke to several coaches at Europeans and noticed that all are looking for ways to reward artistic skating as well as jumping prowess. In separate conversations, former champions Bruno Massot, Javier Fernandez, Stéphane Lambiel, Florent Amodio, and Ondrej Hotarek all lamented that the rules currently don’t encourage creativity, personality, or artistry. These young coaches are also speaking to each other, and increasingly, reaching out to the ISU. For the first time, a coaches meeting for singles and pairs was held at Europeans, giving coaches a chance to give feedback to technical committee members about proposed changes. If these coaches can work together to propose a strategy to increase the value of artistry, they could have a significant impact on the direction of the sport in the future.