Deniss Vasiljevs - I don’t follow the mood, I create the mood“

By Judith Dombrowski

Deniss Vasiljevs had been my very first interview partner back in 2018 after the Grand Prix in Grenoble.

Back then he impressed and inspired me so much that I wanted more: More interviews with Figure Skaters, more stories and more impressions behind the scenes of this amazing sport. Quite some interviews followed where I got to know many amazing personalities. But coming back together with Deniss and talking with him about his programs, his goals, his philosophies and his multiple hobbies and interests, is and will always be something special to me. This summer we met on a Wednesday evening in July. After it had rained all day the evening sun had finally come out and we could sit outside on a bench enjoying the beautiful mountain sights of Champéry, Switzerland - the village where Deniss moved five years ago to train under double World Champion Stéphane Lambiel.

Deniss, thanks a lot that you took time after a long day of training. You are taking part in this intense summer training camp of the Skating School of Switzerland. In which way does this camp help you best?

It’s a great opportunity as there are a lot of other coaches here in Champéry, that we don’t see on the regular basis. They come and they go. For example we have Khoudia Toure for the Hip-Hip classes and last week we had Nicolas Fischer for the parkour lessons. There are a lot of things that we usually don’t do and I personally like them. It’s also a great opportunity because we usually don’t have so many people here. This atmosphere of everyone being invested in it is something really beautiful.

But I think its the toughest time of the season in general. Its more like a survival game. Its two blocks of high level compressed work. Now its the second week. And I feel already, on the second day of the second week, that I have not much left. But the good thing is that we have a few days off afterwards. Its good to climb to a certain plateau of physical fitness.

Which of the off-ice activities of the camp do you like best?

I love the ballet a lot, with Lesli Wiesner. She and Salome Brunner have a great synergy, you can see a lot of connection in the work they do with us. Then for example we have Hip-Hop. That is something completely different and something I am not very accustomed to. The time we had with Nicolas (parkour) was amazing because the work turned into a game and we were working more than usual. To me this is an impressive way of keeping the moral high. It especially helps me because the next year is my last year in University and I need to write a big deal or work and he just inspires me. I try to learn as much as I can all around.

What are your main goals going into the next season:

Of course the elephant in the room is the quads but I am maybe a little bit more focused on overall. I am really looking forward to start competitions and getting to them. I do have some troubles with my skates right now, but we are solving it. I’d say I am a bit stressed right now but once we solve the problem, it will give me even bigger freedom and boost. Especially confidence. And I think that’s the most important part. I do look forward to the Olympics, getting there and presenting myself. I am trying not to step on the same shovel as last time. Last time I really wanted to do the best and I was pretty much too locked in my performing the technical elements. This time I want to let loose a little bit of this stress and just enjoy and bring everything I’ve got from the passion perspective.

What is different for you going into these Olympics compared to the last:

I think maturity and in general understanding the sport a little bit better. I am in my 6th year into seniors already. I think this experience is now done to apply it. Especially in the way of preparation. I think this time with the Covid I got a little bit more into philosophies and really understanding of self mastery and self development. I look forward to implement that inner strength in my skating and in my performance. Because thinking of the last World Championships: I think I did a great job in the Short Program holding this inner core of the idea and I want to bring more of that confidence.

You decided to keep your Free Program. What led to this decision?

There weren’t many possibilities to skate it and as usually the programs that are not too mainstream need some time do develop. Like good wine needs some time to age. I feel like this program needed more of this. On the other hand my Short Program last year was the tango and even though it was a very unique piece, there is a lot of tango in figure skating.

And in this Romeo and Juliet, I also worked with a ballerina and it’s just something that needs to live it’s story, to tell it’s own story.

In this program I am sharing my experience of the story. So imagine someone telling the story and he starts to showing something. So I am trying to re-call the whole thing as best as I can with the flow of emotions.

Let’s go on talking about the new Short Program - Sarakiz and the Battle Drums from Princess Mononoke.

I really enjoyed the movie Princess Mononoke, because it really inspires me. I especially enjoy the strength of both of the main characters and their ability to maintain their morality.

But it’s not the main kind of music part, it’s only the last piece but it gives the program a very nice taste. It contributes to the first part which is Sarakiz (Sarakiz - Romanza by Karl Jenkins). And this piece is a little bit difficult to explain. I think I am still not fully grasping the idea: it’s gentle but at the same time it brings some kind of a brave feeling. I need more time to fully understand it. But further down it will develop into something beautiful. Both pieces together from Sarakiz and the Battle Drums from Princess Mononoke will be very different from Romeo and Juliet. And I think this difference of style and approach is quite a good thing for the Olympics and in general I think it’s very entertaining.

I just hope there will be some people to actually connect with because it is really important to me. I have a hard time of skating for the cold venue. I know there are a lot of people watching in front of the TV, but it’s not the same as really being face to face with the audience. Hopefully Covid goes home and we party.

Then we will party for sure!

When I watched the movie, knowing you would skate to it, I thought of you and could really imagine that being a movie that you would enjoy!

Yes, it’s definitely one of those. Especially the music. For me particularly the characters’ morality stands out. Their desire to do something, this kind of hero approach. It’s a little bit like last Samurai: Give everything you’ve got for a higher purpose. I love that kind of movies. They make me smile and even sometimes cry… okay definitely cry. It’s my way of letting go and come back to the grinder.

After Worlds you said you want to go through your performances again and hear what the different commentators had to say. What did you ever learn from their comments?

I mainly take from it that many people have many opinions. I had learned definitely that - like everywhere in the figure skating world - there are two camps, one that is really technically orientated and one that is slightly less technically orientated and allows some kind of art. And I am thinking: Okay, to a certain point I agree with you but at the same time I disagree with you because I wish Figure Skating would have a little bit more of a beauty-charm around it. Less of a pure run and jumps. Because if it would just be the athletics then you don’t need to come and watch it. Then you just read the score board.

As I focus also quite a lot on the technical aspect, it’s interesting for me to watch the performances of my competitors as I found a difference between my own jumps and the jumps of others. Perhaps my skating and my ability to control the skate is exactly that plasticity that doesn’t help to jump purely. Because the jumps are rather rough and small and the effort is big but it’s more of into the controlling of precision. Because when you skate you also put a lot of effort. It’s just that the effort is way more fluid when jumps feel way more aggressive.

Coming back to the commentators, they do sometimes say a truth. Personally I was very disappointed with my own skating of the Free Program at Worlds. It was quite pathetic. But I remember why it happened. The competition itself was very not like usually. Because when you have people around you, it’s like you want to give that slightly extra more. And you receive that slightly extra more back. That’s where the aging of the program also comes from. In a cold venue it’s very similar to the training. You don’t give as much to it. And that’s the part where it becomes different. Because at the competition you have to present yourself. It’s an extra difficulty of the sport itself.

The audience does really help me actually. Then I don’t get too grumpy.

Now Stéph loves to say: Mustacheee! Because I was saying: I want to have a mustache. And he was saying: You have to make your mustache: Just smile! And sometimes, especially when it gets hard I go inside myself and outside it’s just like a shell. For example it was like this today after yesterday. Because yesterday was so fun after a day off. I felt like: Life is wonderful. And today life is raining.

The weather the day we did the interview was really rainy indeed and the day before had been sunny. So I asked:

So your mood also depends also on the weather?

Actually it’s usually the opposite. When it’s sunny outside I can be hunting the balance. And when it’s pouring rain outside and everyone is gloomy I can be the sunshine. I think I am just naturally a bit a rebellious person in this case. I dont like following precisely the mood, I like to create the mood. But I have a hard time tracking myself. It depends a lot on how much I can navigate myself because I hate complaining and if I manage to stay focused I have the tendency to go too much inside myself and then I am maybe less expressive. On the other hand when I am fully engaged in something I usually put so much energy outside that there is not much left to keep me actually on the track and it feels like: I am a balloon.

Last year at Nebelhorn Trophy you won the gold landing your first Quad in competition which was an amazing achievement. How is it going and what influence did that great success have on your further training?

I don’t know for how many times I rewatched all my Quad videos. But it somehow always ends up that there is something that works against it. When I feel like I am finally hopping on it, it moves away again. It’s like I am ready and not ready. I am doing it and I am not doing it at the same time. It’s really difficult for myself to grasp. Because I am in physically fit shape. I am in mentally fit shape. It’s just that eventually I will aline those stars and they will work. And I think I really finally need a date when I am going to a competition. I would love to know when I start.

Let’s move away from skating a little bit, you recently visited your family back home in Latvia after two years.

I was happy to see my parents and it was super hot there. laughs

I did almost everything I had to do, I ate the best strawberries I think I’ve ever ate. These wonderful sun-made strawberries, the last ones, when they are the juiciest and the sweetest. I had also really missed the Schaschlik - the dish - and I was amazed how much my parents have made out of the garden around the house. And I finally got to know Erna - my parents dog - that I hadn’t been able to meet before. She somehow connected with me very quickly and I was always around her. It was really surprising how nice she was. I am looking forward to come again but I unfortunately can’t say when that will be.

You have many hobbies next to Figure Skating. One is writing, and I know you have been working on your own fantasy book. How is that going?

I am still working on it for sure. So what happened is that I created one line. But you have to explain certain things. And explaining them directly is not fun. So you end up bringing some other things into this world. So initially it was one story and I followed that one story, but now I eventually created a whole world with its own logic and how it functions. And thanks to philosophies I created a universe. And explaining this universe and differences of these cultures inside contains many different stories. So there is one main story that I initially wanted to follow. And now I try to find a way to combine and intertwine the stories. I want to tell the story not just from one main stream but from many points of view and many angles and give many different perspectives. But the more I go into it, the more I build on. So right now I almost finished the full map building.

So you are drawing this map?

Yes, I am also drawing. I am writing and drawing and I put a lot of notes. I finally started to do it in a digital format so it gets more organized. So I have a lot of material but it’s difficult for me to decide finally which is the way. Once I think: Oh, this is great and this is great and this would also be great. But how should it all go together?

As I have been writing stories and books - that are unpublished - myself, I can recognize a lot of that from my own writing experience. One thing that really helped me is you have to know the ending of the story. You have to know where exactly you are going.

Yes, indeed, I need to know where the story ends. And that’s exactly where I have a big indecision. Because I don’t have a precision. I have an idea, I have a direction. But what will happen in the end, how it will end or if there will be a continuation, that’s exactly where I am stuck. I cannot explain why that one possibility is better than another one. And because there is this intercross at some point it’s what also makes the character look different. I want to portrait them in a certain way. It’s pretty complex but it’s definitely so intricate and interesting that it’s a journey for me that I look forward to walk.

To finish this book it one of the things that is really on my to do list. So right now I have basically three lines away from figure skating: It’s reorganizing my third floor - it’s my storage place where I try to make some kind of atelier. I want to organize it and try to get rid the things that I don’t use. But it’s a constant process: You get more and you re-do it, you get even more and you have to re-do it again. And now I am getting the shelves and boxes so I finally have a beautifying moment.

Then I have this book, the story, but I unfortunately don’t have that much time right now to work on it. Right now during the Summer Camp, my days are really packed and full. But when we have less work I will have more chances to do it. So that - when I get an idea - I can just start drawing and do something. It’s also my first world that I creating myself. Before that I wrote some Star Wars stories or my Japanese story, they were nothing but ideas. Now it’s actually collecting into something real.

Finally, the third big thing is university: This will be my last year and therefore I need to write a 50-pages essay in Latvian about a specific topic. It’s quite tedious but there’s also a fun part in researching and writing about it.

This is already a traditional question: You always discover something new during the off- season. What was it this year?

Oh yes, and I wish no-one to try to do: Making home-made tagliatelle by hand alone. laughs

So, I rolled out the pasta, I prepared the filling, and that was already quite a time consuming thing because I made literally a kilogram of flour and ten eggs and that’s a lot and a lot of mixing. And then you start rolling it. And then you made the sheet and you cannot roll everything because it will dry, so you have to take it piece by piece and you roll the thing. And then you roll another thing and then you put the filling in, then you put it on top, you be gentle so that it doesn’t stick, then you cut it, cut it, then you use the fork (Deniss showes the process with gestures), each and one of them on their own and THEN I decided the idea was to hook them under again, diagonally. So… oh boy! (Sighs and laughs).

But they tasted well in the end?

They tasted fantastic. I was happy and I don’t know what was more satisfying - the fact that I did something really delicious or the fact that I finished the five hours of this self - masochism. It was my first time I did it - and it was - probably - the last time I did it by hand. At least I need some kind of machine. When my mom used to do these Russian dumplings, she could directly put the upper layer on top and then it is of course much quicker and easier. At least I would need something like that. It’s really fun, it tastes delicious and it’s even more satisfying but it’s so much work and I was not expecting that I was spending basically a whole day off on doing them.

You successfully passed your driver’s license last winter. Where would your dream road trip take you?

Right now mine and Koshiro’s road trips go to Lausanne every Thursday to see our coach Philippe (Clément). And we are staying in the traffic of Lausanne for one hour just to get out of the city. With our recent schedule we finished always exactly at 5pm., and that’s the perfect moment to enjoy standing on the highway around Lausanne. It’s just the perfect time to drive a manual car and be laughing with Koshiro.

But looking a bit further ahead, my dream road trip would take me to Italy. Because of the Roman Empire and all these historic sights. And they have these wonderful meals and the sun and cultural sites. I would really love to go to Asti. Because Moscato di Asti is my favorite sweet drink and I would really like to buy a bottle from THERE. Plus I’d like to find some liquors for cooking. Especially lately I am trying to make a cookie box and there is many ways you can do it. So far I’ve never been to Italy for tourism and I would really love to go.

It doesn’t sound that unrealistic…

Oh yes, it’s very realistic, I just need to say at some point: Basta, it’s time for Pasta. (We were both laughing for at least 10 seconds)

But I hope that doesn’t mean basta with skating?

No, it wouldn’t. But let’s say I will skate these Olympic Games maybe another 4 years and then it’s definitely time for basta and pasta.

2026 is also in Milano, so you can right away afterwards take the car and drive deep into sunny Italy.

Exactly, that’s the plan!

Deniss, thank you very much for another long, deep and fun conversation. All the best for your Olympic season, we all can’t wait to see your programs grow and bloom over the season.