Stéphane Lambiel - I want my students to develop charismatic and passionate personalities!“

by Judith Dombrowski

Talking to Stéphane is really something special. You can tell from every word, every smile and every gesture how much he loves what he is doing. You feel the energy and the passion for the sport of figure skating. You sense the deep care and love he has for his students and his Skating School. Our conversation fueled me with a lot of positive energy and inspiration, and I genuinely hope it will transfer a little bit of its power to the readers.

Stéphane, thanks a lot for taking time. You are having the intense Summer Camp at your Skating School right now. What differs the Summer Camp from the usual work and coaching you’re doing at your school?

It’s the last time before the season starts, that we are involved in doing something really intensive. So the rhythm of the day is rather heavy in the sense that the students have six hours of intensive work. We are trying to give them something new that they are able to learn from. For example Hip-Hop dancing with Khoudia Toure, or last week Nicolas Fischer was giving them challenges with coordination, with rope jumping or things that they are not used to. I think it’s really important to be a beginner. Because to do things that you already know is something that is comfortable but it doesn’t teach you a new ability. So the challenge during this camp is to give the students intensive work, but also to learn something from almost the scratch and to build up something that they will be able to use for their own training.

The other thing is also that during the season everyone has their own schedule according to their competitions and to their goals. During the summer camp there are many things that are group related. So this is a nice energy to feel the group and to motivate each other even though the day is long.

Additionally this year is special because we had four weeks in total. The first two weeks were for the younger kids, where we focused more on educative topics. For example we had seminars about spins, about creation, about the new judging system, about basic turns - Peter (Grütter) is amazing for that. And now these two weeks where we have a little bit of advanced skaters, it’s more specific for what they need at their level. So it was very interesting to have these two separate groups. It’s been 7 years since we do this camp, we started in 2015 and every year we have so great memories among the coaches and skaters. There is a very good spirit and we look forward every year to the new summer camp, to the new groups. It’s a very nice tradition.

You have the Olympic season coming up with a lot of uncertainties regarding to the pandemic. How do you and your team approach this upcoming season?

The Olympics is the main goal for most of the athletes. We have of course the season scheduled as the main goal being the Olympics for Shoma, for Deniss and for Rika. But that’s three students from the school. Of course they are the priority but around that we need to take care of the others and we need to give them all the best conditions and help them with their objectives. I think it’s important for the school to have an environment that allows them to fulfill all their goals. So the uncertainty is not only on the Olympics but it’s really on everything. It starts on the amateur level where we don’t know what is going to happen or if any competitions are going to take place. So from that to the Olympics it’s such a big range of competitions where we don’t know what is going to be allowed, what is going to happen. We assume that everything will happen and we plan for that scenario. But we saw last year and the season before that from one day to another a competition can get cancelled and we need to change everything. We have learned to have a perspective from a further point, but at the same time to be able to focus on what we need to do to get those objectives in the schedule. You need to be very flexible in these circumstances and I think the year that we have had taught us a lot. Everyone has made a big step forward. But at the same time it would be nice to get to a point where the rhythm is a little bit more intense. We have to get more competitions in the legs so the skaters are more confident about competing and getting those objectives on the way.

So the preparations are different because of the situation but not that much different because of the Olympics?

For me the Olympics is really a cycle of four years. So that cycle has started a long time ago. We plan around those four years and they are step by step leading to that final goal.

You told me during the practice session this morning that sometimes the hardest but most necessary thing in coaching is being totally honest with the students. Of course honesty is important in every aspect of life but what makes it especially hard in coaching?

I think it’s hard because first of all figure skating is a sport where you have a judgement. It’s not like you jump the highest and you are the winner. Figure Skating has also a very emotional aspect because of the artistic side. The personality of the athlete is so important. I remember when I started skating I saw those stars on TV and every skater had such a strong personality. I was impressed of so many ladies and men - watching them was so inspiring. And I think this is what I am looking for as a coach: To really develop these charismatic personalities. That it’s not only performing and executing the elements but it’s really coming from deeper inside of you, that you feel the passion. Then they will become special. Because these are the athletes that inspire you and you watch them and you are just forgetting the whole world. But to teach that is kind of difficult. It’s within yourself. And you need to make that little seed grow. And as a coach you need honesty but at the same time you need care. I really want the best for my students. I see their potential is big and I see they stay in their comfort zone and if they want success they need to get out of the comfort zone and they need to push their limits. And of course - when you’re a high level skater - to get out of your comfort zone is a very high limit. So you need to push them to a level where it’s really risky. They are already very special if they are where they are. To be honest at this level is sometimes a bit harsh but it’s not being mean, it’s just being honest and I want the best. I want them to be able to know that self-satisfaction to have gone out of the comfort zone. Because hat satisfaction is priceless. As an athlete that makes you so proud and this dignity is something that I want for them. It makes them stronger, not only as a skater but as a person and that’s a value that I want to share and I want to give them. Not only the passion for skating but that self determination and satisfaction of: YES! Not: okay, I made it. But: I am proud of it! I did it and I want to repeat it again because I felt something that I never felt before and I want to feel it again. Because it felt so good and it felt different.

Deniss landing the Quad Salchow at Nebelhorn comes to my mind.

Yes, exactly! That feeling of: wow, I am so satisfied. I have it in myself. And it’s not me pushing them. It’s them pushing themselves, I am just guiding them. They have the speed, I am just making a frame for them and they are just going through it with their own determination. But that is an art. It’s a big, big art.

Next to coaching you are choreographing programs for a lot of skaters - from your school and also for external skaters. Can you talk a bit about some programs you choreographed for the upcoming season?

I did a few choreographies but not too many of them. I don’t like to do too many. I choreograph also for national skaters or amateur skaters and I enjoy any level. I just want to keep my inspiration free and not start to just repeat myself. It needs to be fresh, spontaneous and honest. The ones that come to my mind right now are of course Koshiro’s Free Program - the Charlie Chaplin program, that is so theatrical. He just creates images that I really enjoy. And his Short Program as well. It’s very bluesy and very passionate and letting go. It’s a really beautiful moment. I like the Deniss’ new Short Program a lot, especially the step sequence - the Battle Drums“ from the movie Princess Mononoke - it has so much animal instinct. He is a lion, and in that moment I am really feeling his feline mood and his animal instinct and that’s something that I really appreciate about this program. Additionally it has a little bit of romance at the beginning with the concerto for violin and orchestra. The piece is called Sarakiz - Romanza“.

When I listened to that concerto first, I immediately loved it. I heard it and I immediately saw Deniss skating to it. I was looking for something romantic at the beginning so it sets a mood of romance and also of power and this power develops in the Battle Drums“.

I was really wondering indeed how you got the idea to combine those two pieces?

I was looking for pieces, I had a lot and I knew I liked that piece (Sarakiz) very much and I was thinking to use it for a program. I loved that mood. And then I heard the Battle Drums“, and I liked it and I was looking for something romantic to combine with the Battle Drums“. So these two pieces became a perfect match.

I personally find these processes very fascinating!

Thank you. I mean that’s what I like to do - sometimes I just wake up and I just have a vision. So when I was putting ideas together for the finale at the showcase here at the Summer Camp the vision was clear to me, to have my student Anna as the storyteller. It was just a vision. It made so much sense with the development that she has done throughout the Summer Camp. So everything came together and it feels kind of nice.

Other programs I choreographed for the upcoming season: I did the Short Program for Yasmine Yamada. I always loved and admired her skating so I was happy to work with her. I also choreographed the Short Program for Gerli (Liinamäe from Estonia), who is here right now during the Summer Camp. I choreographed the Free Program for a Junior Skater from Estonia and of course Shoma (Uno). The Bolero and a new Short Program to Michael Jackson’s music. He will be performing it probably right now in Japan (at the show The Ice). It probably will be online soon. I got a video of the rehearsals. It’s very exciting. I am looking forward for the final product at competitions.

Shoma Uno is a potential medal candidate for the Olympics. What do you concentrate on working with him for the Olympics?

Shoma is a fighter. I want him to have a complex technical content. And also a combination of all his abilities. He is not only a jumper, he is really a three-dimensional skater. Emotional, strong, charismatic and attractive. I want him to perform his complex technical content with all those dimensions. That’s what we work on: that he is as powerful as he can be.

Let’s talk a little bit about your own skating. You participated in the music video of the Swiss-Chinese composer Mélodie Zhao to her song Love instead“. What led to this collaboration and what does the message of the song mean to you personally?

Let’s start with the story how I met her because destiny is quite incredible. We finished last years Summer Camp Sunday evening and there was a concert of the pianist Kotaro Fukuma here in Champéry. But because of the Corona Virus he was not able to come. And Mélodie was replacing him. So I went to the concert at the end of the Summer Camp and it was so inspiring, her music was so powerful and so beautiful and also what she talked during the concert - her passion was very contagious. So we talked at the end of the show. Koshiro and Isold also had come to the concert. It was such a nice moment to share with her. We shared our contacts and a few months ago she contacted me when these Anti-Asian-Hate campaigns happened. She wanted to do something through music for her community. I usually don’t want to be a voice of any political movement, but you see, my mom is Portuguese, my dad is Swiss. I am a mix of two countries. And being a Portuguese in Switzerland was not easy I would say. Because every nation has their own patriotism. So as a Portuguese here my mom was very afraid to talk to us in Portuguese because she wanted the kids at school to accept us as being Swiss and not as foreigners. So I remember that feeling, I totally understand how it’s sometimes difficult to have this judgement on people. So when she contacted me I was first of all very interested to work with her in the artistic dimension, because I love to perform, I love music, I love what she does, so I was interested to do something with her. And then of course the movement of supporting someone against racism, which is something I cannot accept. So it was the reason I accepted and I was so happy to collaborate with her. We did that here in Champéry, she came and wrote the song by herself, she showed me the demos. It was really nice to do something for that cause.

Do you still keep preparing your own programs to hopefully show them in shows soon?

Yes, actually I can give you a little secret but I will not say too much: We are starting from Tuesday (3rd of August) on to work on some material for a show. You will have news with more information about it soon. We are very happy that it’s scheduled and pieces will get together at some point. So, something is happening.

This information makes me and - I am sure - will make everyone very, very happy and excited and we will be waiting in pleasant anticipation.

Thank you so much again for your time and all the best for you and your students for the upcoming season.