Dick Button, Kristi Yamaguchi, Paul Wylie, Natalia Bestemianova, Jozef Sabovcik, Meagan Duhamel, Elena Bechke, Trixi Schuba, Tim Wood... Olympic medallists ALL and each one of them wonderful, wonderful people I've been so fortunate to have become acquainted with through having the opportunities to share their stories in their own words on this blog. It's my absolute honor and privilege to be able to add one more name to that list of Olympic medallists I've been so fortunate to have chance to interview... in this case the current Olympic Bronze Medallist Denis Ten. A world medallist, international champion, three time National Champion of Kazahkstan, ambassador of skating in his country and absolute joy to watch, Ten rose to the occasion to win his country's first Olympic medal in history at the 2014 Sochi Games. What I think you're going to really appreciate from getting to know Denis a lot more through this interview is just how intelligent and fascinating a person he is. From talking about his past, present and future in skating to his background in music and his ancestor Min Geung-ho, Denis was so kind to share so much and he was just an absolute treat to interview. I think you're going to love it:
A: Thank you! Of course, it meant a lot to me, to my family, coaches and the whole country. Kazakhstan never had figure skating before. I started skating at an open air rink and then my training location moved to a shopping mall until I turned ten years old. Looking back now, we can see that it was a long way to get where I am at the moment and I’m incredibly thankful to my parents for their unbelievable support throughout my career. Anyway, since 2011, when I won the gold medal at the Asian Winter Games (and it was held in Kazakhstan) the sport started getting recognition among people. The government built lots of wonderful ice arenas that are corresponding to the highest international standards. People got an opportunity not only to enjoy watching our beautiful sport but also to try skating themselves. Since 2011, the popularity of skating tremendously grew… officially one of the biggest ice rinks in Kazakhstan served over 200 000 people on public skating. Not to mention that in Astana alone we have about seven rinks and all of the learn-to-skate groups are overcrowded nowadays. Kids love figure skating. I really enjoy seeing such progress and I truly understand that from my point it's a huge responsibility to present myself well at competitions as there are so many young skaters looking up to me. That is why my position in sport is not just an athlete but also as an ambassador of figure skating in Kazakhstan.
Q: What do you see as your biggest strengths and weaknesses both as a skater and as a person?
A: It's hard to say. I had to deal with so many challenges and in particular with injuries for last two years. These problems sometimes didn't let me train properly and also to compete well at international competitions. However, when it's a very important event I know how to get myself together no matter what's going on and I was always like that... in music school, in school and now skating. I think that this is my biggest strength.
Q: What does the future hold for you? Do you plan on going full steam ahead and working on new programs or is professional or show skating something you'd like to explore more?
A: It took some time to decide what was going to be next after the season was over. As I mentioned earlier, I struggled with injures for the last two years. In this way, this year was like a nightmare! I had one injury coming after another one. Just two weeks before the Olympics, I could barely walk as my ankle ligaments were completely damaged. It was a lot of stress. Did I mention that a few weeks before it happened my skates broke? I take my hat off to Mr. Carroll for being so patient with me! After the Games, I had some time to recover after injuries and to find myself doing other things. I've been pretty busy. I did some shows, lots of media activities and for the second time organized my own show which had great success. I got to hold a five day seminar for young skaters and their coaches in Kazakhstan after shows. Doing all these great things actually inspired me to keep competing for another four years. As you might know, Almaty (which is my hometown) is one of the bids for the Winter Olympic Games in 2022. I am an ambassador for the Bidding Committee and I truly hope that someday the Olympics will be held in Kazakhstan. I know we have a great chance and people have recently started to ask me "If we win, would you consider skating until 2022?" We will see. For now, my goal is PyeongChang 2018.
Q: You attended music school and competed as part of a choir, winning the silver medal at the 2002 World Choir Games in Korea. How important is music to you in your life and what pieces of music or songs to you listen to constantly?
A: My Mom is a professional violinist. She graduated from the Kazakh State Conservatory and performed all over the world before I was born. So since I was a child, music would always take an important part in my development. I used to go to a music school where I studied piano and sang in the choir. Unfortunately I had to quit the music school when we moved to Moscow for training and I graduated only five grades. I used to hate solfeggio but now I really miss it. After Sochi, there was some time to do what I enjoy and I slowly started getting back to music. One of my friends is a very famous composer in Kazakhstan, Renat Gaissin. He is incredibly talented! He actually wrote the music for my skating show. So this summer, I got to the point to record the pieces I wrote and we could work together. Although, the tracks were a bit personal and I don’t think anyone will ever hear them, he found them to be "ingenious". That makes me feel a bit more confident that in the future I’ll make a return to my music school.
Q: You have worked with some of the best coaches and choreographers in the business - people like Frank Carroll, Tatiana Tarasova, Stéphane Lambiel and Lori Nichol. What has each brought to your skating that has helped you grow as an artist?
A: I am truly the luckiest athlete in the world to have an opportunity to work with so many great coaches. They all gave me a lot. I became a professional skater by training in Russia with Elena Buyanova and Tatiana Tarasova. It was a wonderful time and I'm really grateful to them for everything they taught me. It was a priceless experience. I grew as a skater by working with Frank Carroll, Lori Nichol and Stéphane Lambiel. Frank is the most polite and wise person I've ever met in my life. Lori is the biggest professional in the whole world of skating choreography and it is an honor for me to work with her for four years in a row already. As for Stéphane, he was always a skater I looked up to and when I met him I realized that he is the most gifted skater I've ever seen. The things he does are impossible to execute unless you’re HIM. He does all the triples both ways. Can you imagine? Starting in 2012, all my exhibition program are choreographed by Stéphane.
Q: Tell me about some of the friendships you've formed through competitive figure skating. Who are some of the nicest skaters you've met or worked with?
A: I’ll start with Stéphane. He is not only a skater or choreographer for me but also a great friend of mine. Even though he achieved so much in our sport, he remains as a very nice and easy person. We have so much fun together and the memories I have with Stef are just priceless. Carolina Kostner is also a wonderful person and friend. We stay in touch throughout the season and always support each other. There are actually way more people I want to mention but I am afraid there won’t be enough space on your website!
Q: Who are your three favourite skaters of all time and why?
A: Alexei Yagudin... he's a legendary skater. He was always my idol but he is also an awesome buddy.
Stéphane Lambiel... as I previously said, he is the most gifted and talented skater I think. He is truly an artist!
And Yuna Kim. Just because.
Q: If you were stranded on a desert island and could bring only three things with you, what would they be?
A: Definitely not skates. It's a tough question. Maybe a solar power generator, a knife and… a friend?
Q: Your great-great-grandfather Min Geung-ho was a Korean independence fighter general during the era when Korea found for independence from Japan. What can you share about his story?
A: It's so inspiring. You know, when I was a kid I didn't even know about my grandfather. I always knew of course that I'm Korean but we never talked about him until 2010 I think. In January of 2010, the Four Continents Championships were held in Jeonju, South Korea. About a month before the event, the Korean channel KBS was filming a documentary about Min Geung-ho and his descendants and they wanted to film me as well. That was the time when my Grandmother told me all the stories about Min Geung-ho and I got so inspired! I couldn't believe that there was a real hero in our family's tree! After Four Continents, we went to Wonju with the TV crew to visit his tomb which is a very special place located on the mountain and has a huge territory. We also went to the monument of him which was constructed by the city in 1999 in honor of his patriotism. That inspiration made me interested in world history but in the Korean War of the 1900's in particular. I remember when I moved to the U.S., I would spent nights reading about him thanks to some fans who'd send me Korean-English translation of articles about him. His army was the largest in the country and had the strongest fighting spirit. They won around a hundred battles and most memorable fights were in Jeocheon, Jucksan, Janghowon, Yeoju and Hongcheon. "He was a man of integrity and fairness and held in great respect by his subordinates. Also he was a strong-willed commander with an excellent leadership skills and thus had many followers" it says on the monument of General Min Geung-ho. In 1962, he was posthumously awarded the Republic of Korea Medal of Order of Merit for National Foundation (the most prestigious civil decoration in the Republic of Korea) for his efforts for Korean independence. Only after getting to know the history better, I realized what he really has done for my second home country Korea and how great, smart and brave he was. In the beginning, I even felt ashamed that once there was one show where I was given to wear a headband which says Japan and back then I didn't know about my grandfather. When I got to know his biography better, I thought to myself "what if he saw it and got disappointed with me?". In the beginning, I got a bit frustrated but then I realized that the war is over and things have changed but since then I always skate with a thought of him. I try to be a worthy descendant and I want him to be proud of me.
Q: What's one thing most people don't know about you?
A: Most of the people think I’m a very serious person but I bet they are wrong. Completely wrong.
Q: What do you love more than anything about being on the ice?
A: I might sound strange but in skating I enjoy only one thing and it's not about my feelings. I like bringing joy to people. When I see people enjoying what I do, that means I do it for something. I do it for the love.
If you enjoyed my interview with Denis Ten, the best advice I can give you is to take just a moment of your time and click through to this blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard and "like it" - you'll end up with daily figure skating news, videos and interesting articles right in your Facebook news feed, as well as new content and interviews on this blog as they happen. I'm also just in love with the Twitter - it's so fun! You can also tweet me at http://twitter.com/SkateGuardBlog anytime you feel like talking about skating... that's what I'm here for!