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Interview with Stefania Berton and Ondrej Hotarek: With David Wilson our turning point

Intervista a Stefania Berton ed Ondrej Hotarek: “Con David Wilson la nostra svolta”

Stefania Berton and Ondrej Hotarek, Italian figure skating pair, after a successful first place in the Canadian Grand Prix event, had an interview exclusively with Neveitalia. The Italian duo explained the hard work that lies behind their technical and physical preparation and revealed interesting details about their programs, besides some fun story about them. Enjoy your read!

Interview by Laura Sciarrillo and Eleonora D'Eredità.

You have just achieved a historical result for Italy by taking home the first gold medal in a Grand Prix event in the pairs discipline. How did you work during the summer in order to reach such a high level at these first international competitions?

Ondrej Hotarek: During the first part of the summer we have worked a lot on technique with Jason Dungjen, with whom we built the programs' structure. Since we have been back in Europe we based our training on building stamina, day after day, with Franca Bianconi and Giovanni Perricelli. We continued training in this way for about a month and a half, almost two, executing both entire and “interval training” programs. Under this point of view, our off-ice training has been different compared to last year's, and we kept using this method in between competitions too – for example between Lombardia Trophy and the Grand Prix. With this preparation you are able to see the first results after two weeks.

Stefania Berton: After a couple of weeks we already felt that it was not that difficult anymore to execute more than two elements in a row. We felt its positive effects at Lombardia Trophy, where we didn't skate perfectly but definitely felt more trained. Performing run-throughs everyday is not sufficient to train you: those are only four minutes of intense practice. A prolonged physical effort throughout the execution of several elements in a row was extremely effective, and that is the significant difference of this season compared to our previous ones.

Your reverse lasso lift is extremely spectacular and it is worth many points. This element aroused curiosity among skating fans. Can you explain the lift dynamics, and how did you create it? Who had the idea, did you work on it with Patrick Venerucci?

Ondrej Hotarek: In order to explain how this lift was born, we have to go back in time. It started with our collaboration with Patrick Venerucci. Three years ago we already had in mind to do a difficult reverse lift. We tried it solely off-ice for about one year, and then we came up with some variations. We wanted to use it this season, but only in the Short Program – where you cannot execute a “carry” lift – so we needed to find a different difficult position that would allow us to make a quick change of position, to hit the level and be striking.

Stefania Berton: Our initial project was different, we were planning to bring from roller skating onto the ice the Venerucci lift – which would have been a group three lift. It is very likely that in the next season's Short Program there is going to be a level three lift, therefore we would like to use it there. The position, as beautiful as difficult, was executed by Patrick in roller skating. We adapted it to ice skating as a reverse lasso lift.

We had to change it a little bit: at the beginning all of our lifts were brand new, thus it would have been too tiring for us to have so many different lifts in one season. So we decided to use Venerucci's variation in a reverse lift, to have a bigger “wow” effect. And whenever we perform it, the public loves it.

Ondrej Hotarek: When you do something new and different from anyone else, you want to use it for both programs and gain the highest points you can. Therefore we have a different project for next year's Short Program lift in order to raise the difficulty of the overall performance We try to improve step by step.

Stefania Berton: As you can see, it takes at least one year of work before being able to execute a lift in competition.

What can you tell us about the last part of this lift, where the partner is held with one hand?

Stefania Berton: That as the easiest part, it didn't take us a lot of time to realise it.

Ondrej Hotarek: It was a matter of understanding whether you are physically adapt to perform this type of lift. For example, Stefania feels comfortable in balancing the lift with her legs' strength: she closes the hold by closing tightly her legs, while I counterbalance the lift.

Stefania Berton: I keep myself up (with my legs' strength) in order not to slip on his arm. He pushes the weight towards the direction where my body is balanced up above his head. Patrick used to do that lift with the woman turned over: he could rotate his arm so much that his partner's head was in front of his.

At the beginning Ondrej was not able to do it in that way, and we were about to throw away that project. But one day I asked him if it was easier for him to turn me 180 degrees: we tried and we succeeded immediately!

Ondrej Hotarek: Yes, moreover once you are able to hit a position you have to “code” it, which means knowing how to put it into a program. You need to know exactly where is the correct position, without “wandering” (trying to feel when you hit the right position). When you execute an entire program it can become a dangerous position, there is not a moment when you can lose your concentration, and in that moment she is upside down, behind my back!

Stefania Berton: Ondrej's main doubt was: “How can I save her if something goes wrong?” I am upside down and thus not able to “save” myself. Once we were trying the lift and I was not completely rotated – a quarter of rotation was missing. This caused my body to start swinging up and down, making Ondrej trip immediately. When that happened, we both fell. It happened this summer, in June, while we were trying the lift on the ice. Ondrej was able to fall while laying me on his back, I didn't even touch the ice. At the end, the one who got hurt was Ondrej!

Ondrej Hotarek: Exactly. Nothing dangerous happened, we understood where the balance of the position was and we learned how to save it: safety is important. If she falls, I have to make her slide on my back. My arm never has to be behind my back: I always have to be under her.

Let's talk about your Short Program on The Mask soundtrack, choreographed by Pasquale Camerlengo.

Ondrej Hotarek: I wanted to use this music: I liked the idea of skating on a crazy, fun music and I wanted to see whether Stefania would have liked my idea. We of course took the final decision about the music together.

Stefania Berton: Yes, we talked about it last year, so when the time came to choose the music I barely remembered that!

What can you tell us about your yellow trousers, which raised so many discussions?

Ondrej Hotarek: Yes, many people talked about them especially at the beginning of the season. My mum listened to the Czech commentators' opinions, and at the beginning were sceptical about them.

Then one of the technicians pointed out that my outfit is the same as the one the protagonist is wearing during the Coco Bongo scene in the movie. They apologised because they haven't watched the movie! Actually most of the music of our program comes from that scene, and there the protagonists are dressed in the same way as us, that's where we drew inspiration from.

Stefania Berton: Exactly, if you watch any “The Mask” scene, or look for the movie's pictures on Google, he is always wearing that yellow suit and she has that golden dress from the dance scene.

Ondrej Hotarek: We wanted to evoke the atmosphere of that very scene when he grabs the girl, dances with her, throws her in the air. It kind of gives you that “super human” feeling and it perfectly suits our program's elements. Of course you need to adapt the theme of the program to the required technical elements, but in our opinion everything fits in the movie's mood.

Let's talk about your Long Program as well. You had the opportunity to work with David Wilson for Philip Glass' “Dracula”. It is a particular music, extremely contemporary. Do you want to talk about how you imagined this program and the story that lies behind it?

Stefania Berton: My father had been wanting me to skate to this music for five years. I was skating singles at the time, but I didn't think I was good enough. After pairing up with Ondrej he suggested it every year, but we didn't feel ready yet. It was different last summer, when we were still undecided about the Long Program – while we decided immediately which music to use in the Short. We were desperately looking for something Italian, for example Matteo and Nicole did (they are skating their Long Program to La Traviata). We had thought too – before Worlds already – of La Traviata, but we later changed our minds. It wouldn't have been a positive thing to have the same music of the only other Italian Senior pair, in the Olympic season. Moreover, we didn't think that this music could highlight our qualities and skills at its best. Viceversa, skaters such as Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte interpreted in an excellent way this theme. And it's always nice to skate to something that has never been used before!

Ondrej Hotarek: It is a special music for us, for our story. Stefania's dad suggested it to us after the first two or three days we had been skating together, because in his opinion it would have been perfect for a pair. I didn't believe in it at the time, that music sounded too complicated and difficult to interpret to me.

Stefania Berton: We radically changed it since the first time we listened to it. We added different pieces and changed the final part. At the beginning, the music my dad suggested was Philip Glass' soundtrack, very gloomy throughout the whole piece. We decided then to put a slow part in the middle, it is from a Dracula movie produced by Andy Warhol.

Ondrej Hotarek: We have always laid this music aside. I have always wanted to skate to it, also because of the hard work her dad put into cut it, but I was not confident enough. This year we used the occasion. We were undecided about our Long Program and I thought: it is the Olympic season, let's choose a music that is important to us. Not a powerful music per se, or important for other people. It has to bear a special meaning to us. Many skaters in the Olympic season look for a music that would celebrate the hosting nation, or their own country. We chose a music that is special for ourselves, it has always been special to us since the beginning of our partnership.

Stefania Berton: It is a special music also because no one has ever skated to it. It all started when we met David Wilson. We were supposed to work with him at the beginning of our career, in the second year of our partnership. John Zimmermann talked to David about us in 2011. Our collaboration with John ended, we couldn't afford to work with Wilson and above all we were not good enough yet, it was too soon for us. But nothing happens by chance, in fact I met David at the World Championships in Canada last season. I introduced myself and he remembered me and that he was supposed to work with us a few years ago. We talked for a while and I asked him to work with us for the following season. I later talked about it with Ondrej and Franca Bianconi, our coach, who approved our decision. Nevertheless, we were still hesitating because he didn't have a lot of time left to work with us. But Ondrej was extremely determined and insisted on working with him. We can thus say that each one of us pushed towards that direction.

Ondrej Hotarek: When I learned that Stefania talked to him and arranged to work with him, I decided that we had to pursue this project, with this music and in this season. It was like having a second chance, but this time we were fully ready. We could have done this four years ago, but we were not ready yet. We had this opportunity again and I understood that it was meant to happen.

Stefania Berton: Moreover, David Wilson has always wanted to choreograph on this music for other athletes as well, but no one had ever chosen it before. When I told him about our music choice, he was enthusiastic. Working with him has been an incredible experience.

Ondrej Hotarek: It has probably been the most formative week of our career. It was particularly important for me, because I became aware of what I am able to do. Seeing how one of the best choreographers in the World was happy to work with me gave me an extra motivation. I am not just talking about the choreography itself - though it is beautiful – but the whole program denotes the frame of mind we were in while creating it. This experience gave me so much.

I think that unique shows such as Opera On Ice helped you in polishing your interpretation. You were skating along with great artist of figure skating, performing at their level.

Stefania Berton: Yes, it's true. We have always tried to work a lot on softening some aspects of our characters. I have always been very determined on my point of view, and Ondrej on his. He has always focused more on technical elements, while I have always thought that interpretation that without interpretation you become anonymous. Being very firm on our opinions, we conciliated both. Now I am technically stronger and he is a better performer.

Ondrej Hotarek: I think we have never taken a step back on our ideas, but we have tried to improve the skills we lacked more. None of us has lot anything, but we have only earned one the qualities of the other. Now we have also started working with Corrado Giordani, and I really enjoy it.

Stefania Berton: I have been working with him since I was ten years old!

Ondrej Hotarek: He made me understand that I could also stand up straight and look forward. It may sound banal, but it takes a lot of hard work to do that.

Stefania Berton: We are going to work with him on the ice too, in order to bring on the ice what we have learned during ballet lessons. We think we still have room for improvement under this point of view, and we want to improve our eye contact too.

You said you want to reach the goal of 200 points, after your encouraging scores at Skate Canada. Where do you think you can still improve, and what would you like to change or improve in order to reach this goal?

Stefania Berton: Ondrej said that, but I agree!

Ondrej Hotarek: It's not true, you said that too!

Stefania Berton: Yes, but I said it after you did, I deliberately copied you! I didn't know what to say...

Ondrej Hotarek: We obtained 193.92 points. You have to aim at the mark, not at the placement. You can never know what your placement is going to be, it depends too much on the competition. In a competition a 190 points score could be great, in another one it could not be enough. On the contrary, the score reflects the quality of the programs performed. That's what we have to improve on. In my opinion our biggest turning point was between the past season and this one, rather than between 2011/2012 and 2012/2013. This year we can aim higher, and we want to grow as much as we can.

Stefania Berton: I have watched again our videos, and I think there are aspects we can improve. Starting from polishing elements, especially the spiral where we got a base level. Obviously we can improve the side-by-side Salchow, and we also lost a level in the side-by-side spin as well. In Canada we had two level 2, and it was still better than Skate America, but we trained it to reach a level 3 so we can definitely improve there too. Overall I noticed that we are lacking some connection and speed on the ice. We still need to be fully empathic towards the public.

Ondrej Hotarek: My goal in the Short Program is to become even more arrogant, as wildly crazy as Jin Carrey is in the movie. In the Short Program I want to become more intense.

Stefania Berton: I would like to have the same feeling on the ice that Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir have!

Ondrej Hotarek: Exactly. See, how much we have changed. At the beginning I was focused solely on technique while now I am digging into interpretation, performance, while she is fully aware of where we can technically improve. This makes us grow a lot. Obviously you don't forget what you have to do. For example, I am aware too that the Twist could be way higher. Everything can become faster, I am not very satisfied with the speed of the Short Program reverse lift, and it could be faster in the Long Program too. I would also like to polish the transitions at the end of the Short Program, I would like to perform them while skating rather than rushing, in order to get higher Skating Skills and Transition marks. I think we need to work a lot on that.

Stefania Berton: We can definitely reach those six points to reach our 200 points goal.

Ondrej Hotarek: If we can improve all those things we have said now, we can earn 10 or 15 more points.

What can you tell us about the side by side triple Salchow, is it still an obstacle for you, how was it during the summer training?

Stefania Berton: This summer I was able to land it everyday, so you can easily imagine our disappointment after Skate America. We haven't missed any until then.

Ondrej Hotarek: The side by side triple Salchow is a normal element for us, of course in competition you need to focus more on it but in practice it is a jump like any other jump. Regarding its success rate, in fact, we have done more mistakes on other elements during training!

Stefania Berton: Paradoxically we make more mistakes on the Toe Loop than Salchow in practice. Its success rate it is generally very high.

Is it true that you are training the throw triple flip? Do you have a good success rate on this jump, do you think you will attempt it in a program someday? Maybe in the first part of the Free Program, instead of the Salchow, or rather in the second half?

Stefania Berton: We have been working on this jump every summer, and every time we decide that it’s too risky to put that in a program. We would earn just a few points more considering the risk we would take. If you have a success rate of 70% on a jump and 90% on another one, then you pick the one you have the 90% on, it’s obvious.

Ondrej Hotarek: I don’t think that it’s the jump that makes the difference. I don’t believe there is this huge gap between Salchow and Flip, not now.

Stefania Berton: And, most importantly, we had the chance to work on many other things. We focused a lot on the twist and the lifts, and it showed.

Ondrej Hotarek: Right now the flip does not give you a real advantage. If you skate clean with a triple Salchow rather then a triple Flip the difference in terms of points is not remarkable. But the mental approach to the Flip it’s much more difficult, unless, of course, you have the same success rate for the Flip as for the Salchow. In my opinion, if you want to really turn a program upside down, you should put a triple Axel or a quadruple in it, but at the moment it’s (almost) science fiction.

What are you plans for the next few weeks?

Stefania Berton: We are still undecided about which senior B competition to attend in the next few weeks. There’s Merano Cup and Ice Challenge in Graz, we entered both but we are trying to participate just in one of them, the one that will give us points for the world ranking. We will likely choose Merano Cup because it’s at home, it’s closer. There are 7 entries for now coming from 3 different nations. For the ranking we need 5 entries from 3 different nations, so that would be enough. The problem is that there are 2 pairs from Italy, 3 from Germany, but the Austrian often withdraw. So we hope that there will be one or two extra nations in order to compete there. Otherwise we will be in Graz, but I heard there is the same kind of issue there.

We are probably going to attend Merano Cup, even if we won’t get points for the ranking. We need an extra competition to test our preparation at that point of the season, at least it’s the one that is closer to reach, and it is in our home country. After that, there will be Italian nationals, Europeans and Worlds. As for the Grand Prix final, fingers crossed, you never know!

What do you think about the team event at the Olympics? Now that you attended two Grand Prix events in a row, maybe you think it’s easier than expected? Some skaters, Scott Moir for example, underlined that “breaking the ice” before the individual competitions might be helpful.

Stefania Berton: Yes, perhaps now I agree...

Ondrej Hotarek: We consider it as one big competition, together with the individual Olympic one. We experienced how is it to attend two competitions in a row, and if it goes as good as in the Grand Prix... I’m fine with that! The problem is for ice dancers, they have plenty of time between one event and the other one, and they may get out of shape. For us it’s not a problem because we don’t get out of shape in just one week. It still works for the men event, it’s hard for the ice dance, the worst is for the ladies.

Stefania Berton: Yes, the ladies will have the hardest time, definitely. At this point, they’d better go home and train after the team event, and then come back to the Olympic Village for the competition. But it’s very stressful and it’s a long journey. For those who come from non-European countries it’s not going to work, so I believe they will book some ice time in Moscow, Armenia or other nearby areas, in order to cut the flight time to a couple of hours. When you are in the Olympic Village you are given only a small amount of training time, which is definitely not enough.

Why don’t you share some thought about Skate Canada with us.

Stefania Berton: Skate Canada was a fun event from the beginning to end. At the beginning Ondrej didn’t have his skates, then unfortunately our coach missed the free program practice session...

Ondrej Hotarek: We became popular, everyone kept asking us about the missing skates.

Stefania Berton: Ondrej borrowed Ross Miner's skates, he jumped all the triples with them but didn’t want to lift me.

Ondrej Hotarek: No, it was too dangerous without my own skates.

Stefania Berton: We had a lot of fun, we became popular even before the competition because of our adventures and everyone was worried for us. Actually his were not the only pair of skates that went missing on the first day, but they were definitely the only ones missing on the second day! The organization also gave us 15 extra minutes of training the day before the competition because of this, and we would like to thank them a lot for that.

Maybe losing the suitcase means good luck, as it happened the same to Javier Fernandez at the European Championships in Zagreb, and he won the event.

Stefania Berton: It’s the same thing that the Spanish judge told me! Ondrej wanted to change his suitcase, but now I don’t think he will...

Ondrej Hotarek: It’s risky anyway, sometime it may happen that the suitcase doesn’t arrive at all, not even the day before the competition. I always prefer to get my suitcase in time and do everything normally.

Stefania Berton: Anyway we had fun, especially when we sang the Italian national anthem on the podium, it was a very exciting moment for me.

Ondrej Hotarek: Everyone had a lot of fun watching our reaction on the podium. I misunderstood the photographers because I was going to stand next to the other pairs for the pictures, instead on standing with Stefania by ourselves as winners. It’s not the first time that I don't follow the “podium etiquette”, in Zagreb when we had to take pictures altogether I immediately stepped off the podium and Robin Szolkowy told me “I will excuse you for today, but next time you cannot make a mistake again”. Anyway at Skate Canada there was a wonderful group of athletes with whom we got along very well.

Stefania Berton: Yes, it was a very pleasant event for us. Besides the result, we met many skaters and friends we’ve been training with like Patrick Chan, Elladj Balde, Weaver/Poje. We also shared the ice with Virtue/Moir and Riazanova/Tkachenko, they were all there with us last summer and it was good to see them here. This event was especially nice to me because Rockne, my fiancée, was there watching me from the stands. It was special for Ondrej as well, because his “brother” Michal Brezina was competing in the same event so they could support each other.

Ondrej Hotarek: It’s always nice when Michal and I can get together at competitions, like this one or Worlds and Europeans. We grew up together, we are like brothers and competing in the same events is a pleasure for us.


We would like to thank Stefania Berton, Ondrej Hotarek and their coach Franca Bianconi for their kindness.