FOR THE RECORD
by Viktor Nikiforov
What it takes to craft an Olympic Champion, and what it takes to be one.
THIS IS NOT THE ARTICLE I thought I would end up writing when I agreed to put together an exclusive on Yuuri Katsuki. This isn’t even the article I thought I would write when I had finished interviewing Yuuri Katsuki and retreated, stripped far more raw than I ever believed possible. This is, however, the article I feel I owe the world and, more importantly, I owe myself.
The first time I ever saw Katsuki skate, he was my competitor. It was the Grand Prix Final of 2015. It was my last Grand Prix Final and Katsuki’s first. I didn’t think much of him when I saw him during the short program, dismissing him easily as a non-threat. The only thing I noted about him was an arrogant impression that his skating style betrayed him as a fan of mine.
I was right, for a given value of right. Katsuki finished up that competition in dead-last place, a disastrous free skate dragging him down from third place to the bottom of the rankings. Later that month, he broke his five year streak as National Champion with an eleventh place finish at Japan’s National Skating Championships. 2016 became the first and only year Japan did not send a representative for Men’s Singles to the World Championships. Rumours leaked to the press that Katsuki was considering retirement. The skating community was dismayed, but unsurprised.
There is an interesting contrast to be found in the next few months. Across the ocean, in Russia, I was sitting on my fifth consecutive gold medal at the World Championships and putting together programs for the next season. Katsuki was back home in Japan, haunting his old skating rink, all but officially retired. By the start of May, however, I had announced my retirement, and Katsuki had announced plans to move to Canada to train with Alain and Nathalie Leroy, the coaches and parents of 2016’s World Bronze Medallist, Jean-Jacques Leroy.
The city of Baie-Saint-Paul is small, with just over 7,000 inhabitants. It sits just under an hour and a half away from the closest airport, which is where Katsuki met me once my flight had come in.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr Katsuki,” I said. My tone was the even, inoffensive type of pleasant that my job requires.
Katsuki clearly found it neither pleasant nor inoffensive. “Call me Yuuri,” he said sharply.
So far as first impressions go, this was mine of Yuuri: he was stiffly polite, in a way that suggested he did not particularly enjoy it, and almost obsessively humble, in a way that did not particularly ring true. He sat in silence for the first half of our car drive to Baie-Saint-Paul, answering whatever questions I had for him with short, curt remarks.
“When did you move to Canada?”
“Do you like it?”
“How long is the drive?”
“When did you learn to drive?”
“Just before I left Japan.”
“I saw you skate in Pyeongchang.”
“Did you like it?”
A question. It wasn’t much, but it was more than I had gotten out of Yuuri for almost fifty minutes.
I had liked Yuuri’s programs. It was his first time working with Simon Cherry for choreography, and the switch had been a wise choice. Cherry’s jam-packed, exuberant choreography suited Yuuri well, and the judges clearly agreed. It was not the program I would have chosen for Yuuri if I had been his choreographer, but it worked.
“What would you have chosen?” Yuuri asked, glancing over from the steering wheel.
I felt my mouth go dry. “I don’t know,” I lied. “But not that.”
DURING THE SPRING OF 2016, I was working on two potential short programs for the up-coming season, and playing around with ideas for my free skate. My indecisiveness was driving my coach to distraction. He gave me a deadline of a week to choose music and to start on the choreography for my free skate, or he would be pulling in outside help.
I knew what that meant. “Outside help” was Lilia Baranovskaya, Yakov’s recently divorced ex-wife. It had been a messy affair that came to a head bare days before the World Championships that year, and I was not eager to restart the bitter arguments that had bled into training those last few months. The deadline was approaching, though, and I felt paralyzed by apathy.
The bout of inspiration that had powered me through the choreography for both of my short programs had evaporated. The more I listened to the music, the more I hated it. The more I skated them, the more the movements felt perfunctory and robotic. None of the music I found for my free skate sounded right; none of it didn’t make me itch, deeply uncomfortable down to my organs.
One day, I woke up and couldn’t talk myself into moving from bed. I called my coach and told him I was sick. The next day, I did the same. On the third day, I woke to a voicemail from my coach telling me to show my face at the rink, or he would be stopping by himself. I went to training.
Everything was a fight. I didn’t want to get out of bed, but I did. I didn’t want to leave the shower, but I did. I didn’t want to carry my skate bag, but I did. I didn’t want to step on the ice, but I did.
Afterwards, I went home and fell asleep in the bath. I almost drowned.
It was like there was some sort of connection that had become dislodged inside of me. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me.
In the middle of April, my coach stopped by my apartment and made me stand on a set of scales. I had lost over seven kilos in weight.
“This is not safe, Vitya,” he told me.
“If you do not put the weight back on, I cannot let you skate.”
I did not put the weight back on. I retired at the start of May. It didn’t so much feel like giving up as it did escaping.
YUURI LIVES ALONE IN A small apartment near to the ice rink. When he first moved to Baie-Saint-Paul, he told me as we climbed the stairs to his front door, he stayed in his coaches’ spare room.
“It was good of Alain and Nathalie to take me in,” he said. “They didn’t have to do that.”
Alain and Nathalie Leroy married shortly after taking their own gold at the Olympics, for ice dance, and are well on their way to starting a skating dynasty. Jean-Jacques Leroy, their eldest son, is Yuuri’s rink-mate, and the two have a famously friendly rivalry, whilst Vivienne Leroy recently made her Senior debut at the Four Continents Championship, and Luc Leroy, the youngest, dropped competitive figure skating to focus on hockey.
“They’re good kids,” Yuuri told me. “Alain and Nathalie are good parents.”
This is nothing the skating world has not heard before. Yuuri is notoriously tight-lipped on the subject of coaching, and the reasons behind his decision to split from his then-coach of five years, Celestino Cialdini. When he can be tempted in to a comment, however, he has nothing but praise to give Alain and Nathalie Leroy.
Yuuri’s apartment is homey. It could belong to any other 20-something living in the area, though it would have to be a 20-something with very good taste. When I commented as much, Yuuri ducked his head.
“Isabela – that’s Jean-Jacques’ fiancée – did the decorating,” he said. “She likes that sort of stuff.”
There is one noticeable difference, however, about the apartment that sets it apart as the home of Yuuri Katsuki, Olympic Champion, and that is the gold medal sitting in a locked display case in the living room.
Yuuri blushed when he noticed me staring. “I tried to send it home, for my parents, but they sent it back.”
“Why?” I asked.
Yuuri’s parents run a hot springs in his hometown of Hasetsu. Pictures online show its dining room as a monument to Hiroko and Toshiya Katsuki’s pride in their son’s every achievement. An Olympic Gold would be neither out of place nor in poor taste.
“They, uh, they wanted me to have a reminder,” Yuuri said.
“Of what I can do.”
“A newspaper clipping wouldn’t suffice?” I joked, but Yuuri’s face was very serious.
“This is more real,” he said.
I supposed I couldn’t argue with that.
THE FIRST TIME I WON a gold medal, I was eight years old. It was a domestic competition in Russia, and I had just started training with Yakov the month before. The prize money was 750 rubles, which comes to about 250 US dollars today; it was intended to cover the cost of travel to the competition, the entry fees, and perhaps a new pair of skates.
The first thing I bought with that money, however, was a safe. I had it installed it in my wardrobe and that was where I put my gold medal. From then on, every medal I won went into that safe, right up until Yakov moved to St Petersburg when I was fourteen, and I moved out of my father’s apartment to follow him.
There, I itched and fiddled and worried, until I finally talked to Yakov and had another safe put into my wardrobe.
Now, my wardrobe safe contains more than just domestic prizes. For five years, skating competitively, I won everything that mattered. Five gold medals from the Grand Prix Final. An Olympic Gold. Five World Championship titles. Even before that, my competitive record was nothing to turn your nose up at: another Olympic Gold, from the 2006 Games, and a silver, from Vancouver 2010.
Yakov has been there for every single one of my successes, and every single one of my failures. It was Yakov who picked a seven year-old Viktor Nikiforov out of a field of other skaters, and who made him a champion. Sometimes, when I pull my medals out of my safe, I look at them and feel like they say more about Yakov Feltsman then they do me.
When I travelled out to see Yuuri, I had not looked at them in over a year. I don’t like to think about skating, and about the records I set, and then let wither. I don’t particularly like to watch my old competitions, anymore, because inevitably I end up staring at a platinum-blond figure, and wondering how I could have ever been him.
After I got back from Canada last week, the first thing I did was open the safe. I was trying to prove something to myself, I think, but I did not get the answer I wanted.
All that glitters is not gold, but sometimes it glitters, and it’s gold, but it’s hard beneath your teeth.
I closed the door to the safe without taking a single one out.
A TYPICAL DAY FOR YUURI begins at dawn, with a seven mile run across the city. This is a routine he keeps even during the competitive season, though he makes exceptions for days when he is actually competing.
“I feel jittery without it,” Yuuri told me, as I struggled to catch my breath during a rare water break. “It helps me focus.”
After the run, Yuuri led us back to his apartment, where he prepared a bland breakfast of oatmeal and protein shake. “Jean-Jacques does endorsements for these,” he told me, waving the drink, which had the colour of repurposed vomit, “but he hates the vanilla ones, so he gives them to me.”
I smiled, trying to show that I, too, could not understand why Jean-Jacques Leroy took issue with that particular flavour of drink.
“I don’t do well with decisions in the mornings,” Yuuri explained to me as he cleared up our bowls and my coffee mug. “When I lived in Detroit, I used to get stuck on tiny details like what I was going to eat for breakfast, and then I ended up delaying eating for too long and would have to just skip breakfast to make training. Phichit laughed at me when I told him that, and told me just to eat the same thing each day. I felt like kind of an idiot that I hadn’t thought of that myself.”
“Phichit Chulanont?” I asked. “Your old rink-mate?”
“Yeah,” Yuuri said. “We lived together in Detroit for a bit. We’re still really good friends. We text a lot.”
With breakfast finished, Yuuri and I headed out to his morning skate. Instead of heading to the local ice rink, however, he led me to his car.
“Alain and Nathalie have their own private rink,” he explained. “It’s just more convenient for them to hold training there.”
The car journey was barely fifteen minutes, but it was orders of magnitude more relaxed than that of the day previous. Yuuri chatted absent-mindedly about the area, small anecdotes about various shops and cafés, and general impressions of the town. He spoke with the air of someone showing off their hometown, but there was something wistful in his tone, as if he missed his true hometown, Hasetsu, an ocean away in Japan.
When we pulled up outside the Leroy’s’ house, there were two young children playing road hockey outside. They were Vivienne and Luc, the two youngest Leroy siblings, and at the sight of Yuuri’s car, they immediately started to pack up.
“They were just waiting for me to get here,” Yuuri said as he climbed out of the car. “Their parents are still asleep, and apart from them, only Jean-Jacques and I have keys to the rink. And neither of us live here anymore.”
“It’s not even 8am,” I said. “They seriously want to skate?”
Yuuri laughed. “They always want to skate.”
It was the truth. As soon as Yuuri had unlocked the rink, both Vivienne and Luc started tugging on skates – dainty, white boots for Vivienne, and the chunkier, sturdier boots of hockey skates for Luc.
“Luc will just skate suicides and do some footwork drills,” Yuuri said calmly as he pulled on his own skates. Black. The same brand and model I used to wear. “It’s too dangerous to have him doing any stick work with the rest of us on the ice.”
Across the rink, already on the ice, Luc shouted something in French at Yuuri, who blushed. “Sorry,” he apologised. “When they found out you spoke French they decided that they were only going to use obscure slang whenever you were here. They’re being very rude.”
“I don’t particularly mind,” I replied. It was the truth. “I can console myself with the fact that my French won’t get me kicked out of a patisserie in Paris.”
“Telling lies about me again, Yuuri?”
In person, Jean-Jacques Leroy looks like Action Man’s leaner, more Canadian brother. He holds himself the way that only someone utterly comfortable with themselves can. His charm very nearly edges into obnoxiousness, but he speaks with a smile and a humour that pull you in regardless.
“Good morning, Jean-Jacques,” Yuuri greeted politely.
“Ugh, enough of that already,” was the reply. “I’ve told you again and again; it’s JJ.”
Something finally clicked for me. “JJ Style?” I asked. “That was you?”
Yuuri started making violent cutting motions behind JJ. I ignored them in favour of focusing on the terrifying smile that spread across JJ’s face.
“So you do remember,” he stated smugly. I had the sudden feeling that I had just stepped into an ongoing argument of some kind, and that I had just let JJ win. “I choreographed that program with the sole goal of beating you, after you beat me so soundly at Worlds.”
Behind him, Yuuri had sunk the entirety of his face into his palm.
“Oh,” I said, firmly at a loss. “That’s good.”
I USED TO BE TERRIBLE at media. My first encounter with a fan, at age 13, made Georgi Popovich laugh until his stomach hurt. I had just taken sixth place at Russian Junior Nationals, and I ended up cornered outside the rink by a young girl.
“Do you mind if we take a photo together?” she asked. She was holding a polaroid camera.
“Uh, yes, kind of,” I replied. I was coated in sweat and barely standing, angrily dissatisfied with my skate. I didn’t want this moment immortalised for future generations – or more likely, that girl’s immediate friendship group – to see.
She stared at me, taken aback.
“I’ll take a photo with you,” Georgi piped up from beside me. He’d placed fourth and was going to be insufferable about it when we got back to training.
Mollified, the girl moved next to Georgi. I was appointed photographer, and instructed to take two: one for the girl, and one for Georgi.
Later, relating the incident to the rest of our training club, he couldn’t even get through my response without bursting into laughter. I felt embarrassed at myself, cold in my stomach, because in retrospect of course I had appeared rude, and of course that had been unacceptable. I should have known that by trying to become a top figure skater I was going to acquire fans, and I should have been prepared for such an eventuality.
I taught myself how to pretend. It was just an extension of the on-ice performance, after all, and I had never been at a loss as to how to act on the ice. A year later, I was Russian Junior Champion for the first time, and I took photos with a group of girls for half an hour. Pretend, pretend, pretend. Smile, smile, smile.
It never seemed all that hard. It was never a terrible façade. At most it was akin to icing sugar, dusted over a pastry. It didn’t hide anything; it just made things look slightly better. Surface deep. Anyone looking closer could see the truth.
But no-one wants to look closer. The story of Viktor Nikiforov, the triumphant champion, the national hero, is in so many ways easier than that of Viktor Nikiforov, the fake, the barely coping.
And if that is a hard truth for an eighteen year-old Olympic Champion to learn, then I suppose that is part of growing up.
JUMPS ARE FORBIDDEN DURING MORNING practice. The rule is allegedly born out of a time when JJ caused himself a moderate injury by practising quads on his own, and ended up unable to pick himself up off the ice to get medical attention.
Skating happily through several step sequences of dizzying complexity, Yuuri did not seem to mind. I was not surprised; Yuuri Katsuki is renowned for his skating skills, and his step sequences are better than perhaps even mine were at my peak.
Stood by the boards, JJ snorted after one of these sequences. “Skate something original!” he called out to Yuuri. To me, he said, “He’s showing off.”
“What was that?” I asked.
“That’s my step sequence this year,” JJ said. “He saw it for the first time yesterday, the weirdo.”
“He picked it up that fast?”
“It’s about the only thing he picks up that fast,” JJ replied. “He’s a late bloomer, right, Yuuri?”
In response, Yuuri slipped in to another step sequence, one which made JJ curse in French. “You plagiarising—”
It was, I was told later, JJ’s step sequence from his short program. Yuuri grinned at me from across the rink, only barely out of breath.
After an hour, Yuuri and JJ began to skate cooldown laps and to stretch out. It took me a few moments to realise that Vivienne and Luc had ducked out fifteen minutes earlier. Yuuri and JJ had a short discussion in French as they went through the motions, one which ended in JJ solemnly offering Yuuri a fist-bump.
“He has yoga today, so I agreed to take Viv and Luc to school,” Yuuri said, pulling off his skates.
“Is that something you do often?”
Yuuri shrugged. “The yoga’s a new thing.”
That wasn’t a no.
For their part, Luc and Vivienne were delighted to find out that Yuuri would be chauffeuring them to school, and I was informed – in French I could understand – that this was because Yuuri is much, much cooler than JJ.
“JJ’s sort of like Canada’s figure skating son,” Luc explained. “As a nation, we pretend to love him just as much as our other, hockey playing sons, but everyone knows the truth.”
“Dad hates that you play hockey,” Vivienne pointed out.
“Dad’s basically the same as JJ to Canada,” Luc replied. “Only he did ice dance so it’s worse.”
“Ice dance is awesome, don’t even pretend it’s not.”
“I know that. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying Canada doesn’t know that.”
Yuuri was smiling quietly in the driver’s seat. It was understated and natural, and it transformed his features entirely. I thought, privately, that a smile like that could utterly complete a program.
THE STUPIDEST THING I HAVE ever done is keeping an injury secret from my coach. It’s not an easy title to win – give a teenager national fame and a truckload of money, and they’re going to do a lot of stupid things – but lying about this almost killed my skating career before I ever hit my stride.
During the 2009 Grand Prix Series, the pressure was on. With the Olympics just around the corner, all anyone could talk about what whether I would be able to successfully defend my title, and how a loss here would be a sure-fire sign that I was past my prime. I was not even 22.
Russia was revelling in the gossip. I broke a national record when I skated for my spot on the Russian Olympic Team and my quad flip, which had been tentative at best during the Grand Prix Final, was finally at a level that could be called consistent. Whether or not I would keep my title, the press gleefully said, was not the question. How many points above the previous world record I would score – now that was what they wanted to know.
The pressure did not affect me the way I thought it would. I had never been nervous about competing before, and I wasn’t about to start then. Instead, the pressure got to me through Yakov.
For the most part, Yakov is a coach with nerves of steel. He had to be, or else he would have suffered a heart attack years ago from all the stress I put him through. There was something about that season, though, which got to him. Maybe it was the Olympics, or maybe it was a new skater, or maybe it was just the usual bureaucratic nonsense he had to deal with, but whatever it was, it cracked the façade.
I was skating too much, and sleeping too little, and Yakov knew. Everyone knew. Icing sugar, after all.
When I fell – and fell badly – after a quad flip that went wrong, I didn’t even feel surprised. In fact, most of what I felt was wicked, bitter amusement.
And then I got up, skated through it, and pretended. This time, I knew, the façade would have to be more than paper-thin. Yakov could not know. Yakov would not let me skate – and that would kill both of us.
I should have told Yakov. My lies cost me my Olympic title, cost Russia its three places at Worlds, almost cost me my entire career.
“You stupid, stupid boy,” Yakov told me, as I lay in the back of his car, unable to walk. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
I can’t remember how I replied. If I replied.
“You are a fool, Viktor,” he said. “You think you are some one-hit wonder? That your career comes down to just one attempt at an Olympic Gold?”
“It’s over now,” I said.
Yakov sighed. “Viktor, you are very young, and you are very stupid, but this is something I thought you already knew was a tautology.”
I looked at him.
“It is not,” he said, “over yet.”
DANCE CLASS IS SERIOUS BUSINESS for Yuuri Katsuki. As a student of the internationally famous ballet dancer, Minako Okukawa, it would have been more surprising if he did not consider it so. I was allowed inside the room to watch, but I was not allowed to talk, or make much noise, and I was warned that if my presence disturbed any of the dancers, I would be asked to leave.
Yuuri’s background in ballet is well-known. He started dancing at the age of four and, had things been even slightly different, he has admitted he would have likely become a professional dancer. The grace he learned at such a young age is still present in his skating today, an easy, full-bodied thing that seems to sing in harmony with his program music.
He was mesmerizing in ballet class. It was a small class, with barely five students, and Yuuri was clearly the best trained out of all of them. I sat in silence, and I did not once consider ever needing to open my mouth.
Once class had finished, Yuuri picked me up from where I was sitting and loaded me into his car.
“So, what’s next?” I asked.
“Lunch,” Yuuri answered.
Lunch for Yuuri that day was to happen back at the Leroy house, and I would be finally meeting his illusive coaches. “Alain and Nathalie were at the hospital until late last night,” Yuuri explained, “so they had to miss morning practice, but they’ll be up now.”
“Was someone hurt?” I asked. It seemed like the right thing to ask.
“Yes,” Yuuri said, and left it at that.
We pulled into the drive at around one. There were no children playing on the tarmac, this time, but the lights were on in the house. Yuuri knocked on the door and was quickly welcomed inside.
Unlike JJ, whose accent is smooth and American, Alain and Nathalie Leroy both have a slight French lilt to their words. They were visibly fond of Yuuri, ruffling his hair and affording him friendly half-hugs, and thanking him for taking care of the kids that morning.
The affection made him more uncomfortable than bashful, but he said nothing.
Conversation over lunch was pleasant, and ultimately insubstantial. Yuuri was quiet and drawn, and only contributed when either Alain or Nathalie coaxed him into forgetting this fact. We talked about my skating career, we talked about Alain and Nathalie’s skating career, we talked about Vivienne’s skating career; in fact, we talked about nearly everyone’s skating career, except Yuuri’s.
The car ride back to Yuuri’s afterwards was tense. There wasn’t a single muscle in Yuuri’s torso that wasn’t held taut. We were back to the car ride from the day before, back to short answers eked out against their will.
“Alain and Nathalie are good cooks.”
“Do you eat with them often?”
“How long did it take you to learn French?”
“A few months.”
“That’s pretty impressive.”
I wasn’t sure what I had done to offend Yuuri, but I was sure there was something. He led me up to his apartment in silence, and seated me on the sofa.
“Do you want to drink?” he asked.
“Just water would be fine,” I said.
He disappeared into the kitchen and emerged a few moments later with a glass of water, which he handed to me with shaking hands.
“Yuuri,” I said, “are you—”
Yuuri jolted away from me as if I had burned him. “I,” he said, “I just need a moment.”
I watched him as he walked away. I listened as he clicked the lock of the bathroom door shut. There was a raggedy, echoic inhale, and then the sound of running water.
I didn’t move. I stayed sat on his sofa, and I sipped the glass of water in my hands.
ATHLETES IN RUSSIA GET USED to the idea of the narrative very quickly. When so much State funding is dedicated to scouting and training sportsmen and sportswomen just like me, it’s no surprise that the general public is invested in seeing us develop. Or at least that’s what Yakov told me when I asked him if it was really necessary for the press to take three hundred photos of me eating junk food.
It was a comfort in some ways, this idea of something bigger and overarching linking the individual highlights of my career. I was more than just my medals; I was a story.
And naturally, there are some stories that everyone likes that much more than others.
So, Viktor Nikiforov, I used to tell myself, just picture it: the champion returns, and he returns stronger than ever. It’s a powerful image, right? No more one gold only seasons, no more not-quite-a-records – you’re going to win, and then you’re going to win again. They won’t remember you for your total wins; they’ll remember you for your streak. You’ll hold every record that matters, and a number that don’t too. A stadium of fans will scream their support, whilst secretly thinking that there’s no way you can do it again.
And then you’ll surprise them.
So far as fantasies go, this is the one that kept me alive.
But here are the unspoken, underlying truths of that reality: you will feel hollow, like someone cracked open your ribs and scooped out your insides, and you will feel like skating is the only thing that keeps you afloat. And it is. Your coach will give you a rest day, and you will forget to eat until your dog drags you to your kitchen. Your lover will laugh at the idea of you ever retiring, and that laugh will cut straight to your lungs. You won’t really think of him as a lover, anyway, which is just as well, because he also laughs at the idea that you could ever love, or be loved. You will skate and skate and skate, and you will find yourself fantasising about your legs cracking beneath you when you land a jump, and you will call yourself morbid.
You will be Viktor Nikiforov, five-time consecutive Grand Prix Final Champion, five-time consecutive World Champion, and eventually, you will be just as boring as the skater who has never won a single thing in their entire career.
Now there’s a story for you, Viktor Nikiforov. What are you going to do with it?
YUURI DID NOT COME OUT of the bathroom. Five minutes passed. Ten. Twenty. Half an hour. I ran out of water to drink. In the bathroom, the tap was still running.
I stood up, and put my glass down on the coffee table. I walked over to the bathroom and I knocked on the door. There was no response. I knocked again.
“Yuuri?” I called through the door. “Are you there?”
“Yuuri,” I tried again. “You’ve been in there for thirty minutes. Are you okay?”
Running water. No reply.
“Yuuri, if you don’t answer I’m going to find some way to break down the door.”
Suddenly, the door was ripped open. Yuuri’s eyes were red, his glasses on the floor beside the sink, and his mouth was twisted into something angry and sour. “Don’t,” he said. “Don’t do that.”
“Okay,” I said. “How can I help?”
He stared at me. “Make me a cup of tea,” he snapped, then shut the door again.
By the time Yuuri emerged from the bathroom fifteen minutes later, his tea was cold. He stood awkwardly in the doorway to the kitchen, not a trace of the previous raw emotion left in his figure. He looked calm.
“So,” he said. “I’m sorry you had to see that.”
It sounded stiff and stilted, and there was a bitterness to the apology, as if he did not want to be giving it, but felt he ought to.
“I won’t put it in the article,” I said in favour of trying to unwrap that statement.
“No,” Yuuri said. “No, you should. You’ve been hired to tell the Yuuri Katsuki story, right? That’s not something that makes much sense without—without this.”
“Yuuri,” I tried.
“I have an anxiety disorder.”
That shut me up.
The figure skating community is insular in a way that not many other sports are. There are countless open secrets, known between the skaters, coaches, and fans, that no-one really talks about. My sexuality used to be one of them. That Yuuri Katsuki is his own worst enemy is another.
It was talked about euphemistically, for the most part. “Nerves” and “lack of confidence” and “not yet used to the mental strain of competing”: put like that, it all sounded trivial, like he would just grow out of it. He supposedly had, when he started to win, and win consistently.
There is something a lot more severe, a lot more lasting, about the phrase “anxiety disorder”.
I didn’t know what I was supposed to say to that. Yuuri smiled grimly and took the mug of cold tea off the table. He placed it in the microwave to warm it up.
“When did you get diagnosed?” I asked when the silence began to feel oppressive.
“When I was in Detroit, sometime,” Yuuri answered, watching his tea spin around and around as it heated up. “I only went to the session to prove Celestino wrong. It didn’t really go the way I thought it would.”
“Did it change much?” I asked.
The microwave dinged. Yuuri took his tea out of it. “Celestino wanted me to go on medication. I didn’t want to. We argued about it a lot.”
“Is that why you split from him after the Grand Prix Final in 2015?”
Yuuri shrugged. “Not really,” he said. “I was a bit of a mess back then. I made a bunch of decisions that turned out to be pretty stupid in retrospect.”
It seemed pretty obvious what he was talking about. “You were going to retire.”
“I sort of wavered about the decision for a bit,” Yuuri said. “I kept postponing it. I was going to retire after I failed at Nationals, and then I was going to retire after one last Grand Prix, and then Worlds were just around the corner so I didn’t think there was much harm in continuing on until then, and then, well, the Olympics were next season, and I couldn’t let my country down… It took me a while to figure out that I didn’t want to retire, at all, and that I didn’t have to.”
He looked at me whilst he said that, and I knew exactly what he wanted to ask me. Yuuri Katsuki had set himself on retirement, because he thought it was the right thing to do, even if it gutted him completely. I had had everything he had thought himself lacking, and yet I had just…
“I HAVE NO SYMPATHY FOR people who are unhappy, when they have the exact tools they need to fix it,” Lilia told me after I had announced my retirement.
I was at my least attractive: I had not showered in five days; I had not been outside in more; and I was dressed in my rattiest, oldest sweats. “I understand,” I said. I didn’t feel particularly deserving of sympathy in any form.
“You are a very silly boy, Viktor Andreyevich,” Lilia said to me, “but I think you already knew that.”
“You’ve been telling me it enough,” I replied, a touch sour.
She shot me a quelling look. I heeded the unspoken warning.
Lilia reached into her purse and withdrew a slip of paper. “This is the number of a therapist,” she said. “She is good, very discreet. You will call her.”
“Okay,” I said.
“You will shower, and you will dress yourself,” she went on. “Nicely,” she qualified. “You are coming out to lunch with Mila and me.”
“Okay,” I said.
Her frown was heavy with disapproval, only made worse by the severity of her make-up. “Pick yourself up, Viktor. Yakov is worried.”
“Okay,” I said.
I showered, dressed, and went out for lunch with Mila Babicheva, my former rink-mate. Under Lilia’s watchful eye, I ate a full three courses, and responded at all the correct moments to Mila’s stories. Georgi had broken up with his girlfriend, and was spiralling. Yuri Plisetsky had finally reached the minimum age for Seniors, and was angrily bucking Yakov’s rule. Mila had finalised her choreography, and was ready to crush any and all opposition to her quest for gold.
It all felt a world away.
When I got home that day, I found the number Lilia had left me sitting innocently on my bedside table. She had meant well, but the prospect of talking to someone, to anyone, made my skin crawl. I was a household name in Russia and no matter how discreet this therapist was, there was no way they wouldn’t have heard of me.
Instead, I changed my bedsheets, and then sat on them with my dog in my arms. “We’ve got to do something, don’t we, Makkachin?” I asked.
Makkachin huffed and then turned around to lick my face.
“Okay,” I said to the walls of my room. “Okay.”
I pulled out the phone, and I dialled.
WHEN YUURI SAYS “CLOSED PRACTICE”, I learned, he means it. There was no room for argument when he informed me that afternoon practice – his individual skate, focused entirely on him and his programs – was barred to anyone outside of his coaches and their staff. No JJ, no Vivienne, no Luc, and above all, no reporters like me.
“I don’t like people watching me when I practice,” he explained as he drove me over to JJ’s house, where I would be spending the rest of the afternoon.
“You’re a competitive figure skater,” I pointed out. “People watching you is what your career is built out of.”
“That’s different,” he replied. “That’s a performance. I’ve learnt my programs and I know what I’m supposed to be doing. Practice is when I screw up and fall on my face. I don’t want people watching that.”
“What about when you screw up in competition?” I asked.
“Then I should have practised more, and I really only have myself to blame.”
“That seems a bit harsh,” I said.
Yuuri’s grip shifted around the steering wheel. “That’s skating.”
I let it lie.
Jean-Jacques Leroy lives in a townhouse that probably cost more than Yuuri’s apartment, car, and furniture put together. On the outside, it is imposing, and much too big for the two people – JJ and his fiancée – that it houses.
I was greeted on the driveway by Isabela Yang, the aforementioned fiancée, who smiled politely at me and introduced herself. It is not hard to spot the easy grace that hangs around Isabela’s frame, or the delicate care with which she treats her body. She used to be a gymnast, competing on the national stage for almost three years in her early teens, before eventually switching tracks and becoming a full-time model just after her eighteenth birthday.
That was what I was effusively told by JJ, at least, as he stared at her, deeply besotted.
“When’s the wedding?” I asked.
Isabela laughed. “At the rate JJ’s going, not until after Yuuri’s retired.”
JJ scowled. “I should have never made that stupid bet,” he said.
The bet, I was informed, was as follows: a gold medal for a gold ring. Isabela and JJ had agreed not to get married until after he had won a gold medal at a major international competition, and he had been consistently kept off that top podium spot by none other than his rink-mate, Yuuri.
“I’m making a shake,” JJ said, tiring rather quickly of the conversation. “You want one, babe?”
Isabela made a disgusted face. “Pass.”
JJ shrugged. To me he said, “You coming? We can talk about Yuuri, or whatever.”
I nodded and smiled at Isabela, and then followed him.
“You know,” JJ said as we walked to the kitchen, “when Yuuri told me he had agreed to this interview thing, I thought he was joking. He hates this kind of press. Thinks it’s invasive.”
“It is pretty invasive,” I said. “This isn’t the normal type of article I write.”
JJ rolled his eyes. “I know. Don’t look so surprised – all of us read your stuff. You’re all ‘the politics of skating’ and ‘no one should have to crowdfund their Olympic campaign’. It’s equal parts boring and sanctimonious.”
“No one should have to crowdfund their Olympic campaign,” I replied, indignant.
“I’m not arguing with you,” JJ said. “I just don’t know why you took this job.”
“Yuuri asked for me,” I said.
“That’s not an answer.”
Yes, it was.
THE NIGHT I TRULY MET Yuuri Katsuki for the first time, I tried to sleep through my alarm and miss the banquet. I did not succeed, the guilt eating at me, along with the spectre of my coach’s disappointment. I pulled myself out of bed, showered, and put on outrageously expensive suit.
When I was younger, I loved banquets. I loved the sophistication, the charm, the glamour; I loved the way they made me feel important. As with many things, though, the allure faded. It all became routine: I would go to the banquet, schmooze and flirt, drink a touch more than healthy, and then wake up in someone else’s bed. Then back to my hotel room, a hot shower, and the first plane out of wherever.
Yuuri Katsuki changed all that, and he did it by screaming in my face in Japanese.
You won’t find many a skater willing to talk about what happens at the banquets that follow big competitions. There’s a dominant sentiment that they’re a place for skaters to kick loose and relax, all the while forming worthwhile connections with officials and sponsors. For the most part, I agree, but this is one happening that bled into my life beyond the walls of the banquet hall and for that alone, it deserves to be shared.
Yuuri stumbled up to me. He was visibly drunk, and still had a bottle of champagne in his hand that he used to gesture wildly at various guests. When he saw me, he honed in, and began shouting.
I blinked. “Uh,” I said, “English?”
“You,” he began, but that was as far as he got before he spotted the approach of my rink-mate, Yuri Plisetsky, and rounded on him instead.
It should not have been even slightly charming. Yuuri’s breath stank of alcohol, his features were messy with inebriation, and his voice was slurred. But there had been something alluring about the way he held my gaze, and above all, he was interesting. He was the most interesting thing to happen to me all night.
Everything I used to love about banquets – the class, the style, the prestige – was ground into the dust by Yuuri that night. He challenged anyone he could to a dance off, shed clothes and put them back on, swept more than one official’s wife off her feet, and most of all, he made me smile. He made me smile so hard my cheeks hurt.
He was completely gone, three sheets to the wind, and it didn’t seem to matter. He pulled me onto the dance floor and he looked at me with a gaze so intense I felt pinned to the spot, almost unable to follow his lead, and he was just light and bright and fun. I felt alive. I felt whole. I felt… inspired.
I wanted to keep feeling like that for the rest of my life.
But things do not always work out how you want them too. Yuuri woke up the next morning, and he found my number tucked into the pocket of his suit, and he dismissed it as a cruel joke. Why would Viktor Nikiforov, the greatest skater in the world, want to talk to him?
And I woke up the next morning, and spent the next three months waiting for a call that never came. That was fine, though. I had had an entire lifetime to get used to the inequality of affection. People do not automatically like you back.
I wanted, though. Oh, how I wanted.
DINNER THAT NIGHT AT THE Leroy house was an odd mix of subdued and lively. I supposed that it was the natural result of throwing a group of exuberant personalities together after a long day of athletic training.
Conversation, for the most part, happened in French, Luc and Vivienne snickering at my accent, whilst JJ rolled his eyes and told me to ignore them. It was a familial scene, one which Yuuri slotted into easily. Unlike lunch, he was completely at ease, smiling privately at jokes, and occasionally joining in to add something profound or witty. He looked fond, and it looked good on him.
After the meal was finished, Luc and Vivienne begged off clearing the table with the paper-thin excuse of homework, and Yuuri and I ended up cleaning up. As we passed JJ on the way to the kitchen sink, he gave Yuuri a fist-bump in thanks.
“I haven’t done washing up since I was fourteen,” I told Yuuri seriously.
Yuuri looked me over and, perhaps wisely, handed me a tea towel and assigned me to drying.
“I like it,” he told me. “I grew up in an inn. Doing the dishes reminds me of home.”
“Do you miss it, then?” I asked. “Living at home?”
Yuuri smiled sadly. “I miss it all the time.”
“Why didn’t you try to train in Japan, then?”
Yuuri paused. “Skating in Japan is,” he started, but did not finish the thought. “I suppose I just enjoy the training environment more, abroad. It’s easier for me to focus.”
“Why?” I pressed.
Yuuri’s lips fell into a sheepish grin. “Ah, I shouldn’t really talk about this,” he said. “Canada is just different. Figure skating isn’t as big. It’s quieter.”
I frowned. “Can I guess the real reason?” I asked.
“Well,” Yuuri said, reaching for another dish to scrub. “I suppose I couldn’t stop you.”
Competitive skating as a whole sits itself on a backdrop of oftentimes convoluted, and sometimes nasty politics. In Russia, this often presents itself as the exploitation of young skaters, and was seen multiple times in my own strained relationship with the Russian Skating Federation. Japan comports itself slightly differently.
There are two main skating schools in Japan, both of which have produced numerous international medallists. These are the Tokyo Skating Institute and the Chiba Skating Club. Both of them pride themselves on being exclusive, and for a long time the biggest conflict within the Japanese skating community was over which was the better school at which to train.
It is understandable, then, why neither of these schools are particularly eager to acknowledge that neither of Japan’s two Olympic Gold Medallists in figure skating have ever been members of them.
The beginnings of Yuuri’s skating career are well-known. He started on the ice young, training at his small local rink under the care of Mahomi Kurokawa, a retired professional figure skater. He flourished in Juniors, and debuted at Senior international level when he was just eighteen. Shortly afterwards, the Japan Skating Federation agreed to sponsor Yuuri to leave Japan and train abroad in America, under Celestino Cialdini of the Detroit Skating Club.
It was an unsubtle snub towards Chiba and Tokyo, and it did not go unnoticed. Every year, as soon as the off-season hits, retired skaters from both of the schools appear in the press, finding fault with Yuuri’s season, and declaring him overrated. To them, Yuuri is very much an easy target, and his successes only bring about further mudslinging.
When Hatsuho Arisawa, Japan’s other Olympic Gold Medallist, faced a similar reaction for a similar transgression, her response was to leave Japan and return only after retirement. Many years later, she said in interview that for a long time during her career, she “did not feel welcome in Japan.”
I cannot imagine that Yuuri’s motivations for leaving to train in Canada were all that much different.
After I said as much to Yuuri, he did not say anything, but there was a quiet smile on his face.
I let it lie.
WHEN I WAS SEVEN YEARS old, my skating coach, a middle-aged woman named Darya, mandated closed practices for myself and my rink-mates. It was not an unreasonable thing to ask, I thought at the time. It was distracting, I reasoned, for a lot of skaters to see their parents watching. In that respect I was lucky. That had never been a problem for me.
The local rink was small, and the club was considered exclusive. I shared my ice time with only one other skater, a sixteen year-old boy named Anatoly. He was not especially talented and he did not work nearly as hard as he needed to in order to make up for that, but he was better than me and that was enough for me to respect him. He treated me like an annoying younger brother and, having grown up motherless and without siblings, I appreciated the novelty of our relationship.
In June that year, Anatoly injured himself off the ice, and had to miss several weeks of practices whilst he recovered. For the first few days, he did not come to the rink, but it did not take long for him to miss the ice. He would to sit with Darya and watch me skate, occasionally calling out mocking comments about my spins. It was almost like having him on the rink with me.
One day, I saw her put her hand on his thigh. I didn’t say anything.
Another, I overheard him tell her he loved her when I ran back to the rink to fetch something I had left behind.
I walked in on them kissing days before Anatoly was due to return to the ice. I froze on the spot, feeling terrified for no reason I could name, and then I turned and ran. Seconds later, Anatoly ran after me.
When he caught me, he grabbed hold of my wrist hard enough to bruise. “You cannot tell anyone,” he hissed at me. “You can’t, or I will make you regret it, understand?”
I whimpered, trying to shake his grip on my wrist.
“Do you understand?” he demanded again.
“I understand,” I cried.
He let me go. “Good,” he said.
That night, I hid the bruises around my wrist with a long sleeved shirt and asked my father what it meant when an adult put their hand on a teenager’s thigh. He stilled. He asked me where I saw this happen.
I thought about Anatoly’s desperation, and I thought about Darya’s wandering hands. I thought about people keeping secrets and why they did it.
I told my father everything.
I think about that story a lot, even twenty years later. I think about the way the other skaters reacted, as though I had broken some sort of taboo by speaking up. I think about how Anatoly reacted, how he screamed in my face about love, and spat hurtful lies about how I would never amount to anything. I think about how the skate club rescinded my membership and I think about how this is probably one of the very few times in my childhood I was ever proud to be my father’s son.
And I think about how, when Yakov suggested I write a blog piece on the internal politics of skating, Anatoly and Darya were the first thing I thought of.
The article went viral. Even though it was published with false names and most of the details stripped from the story, Anatoly called to tell me to go to hell.
I WAS WOKEN BY LOUD banging on my hotel door at just past one in the morning. It had been two days since I shadowed Yuuri, and I had spent the time consolidating my notes before I flew back the next day.
When I opened my hotel room door, I was surprised to find Yuuri on the other side. He was dressed in messy skating kit, a thick coat thrown on top. His hair was sleep-mussed and there was a frantic quality to his eyes.
“Yuuri, what’s wrong?” I asked.
“I’m sorry to wake you,” he said, “and I understand if you want to just go back to sleep, but there is something I want to show you. If you want to see.”
There was really only one thing I could do. I put on my coat and shoes, and told him to lead the way.
It did not take me long to recognise the route we took as the one leading to the Leroy house. Yuuri’s knuckles were white as he drove, his hands clenched too tight to shake.
When we arrived at our destination, he lead me over to the rink without preamble. I watched silently as he laced up his skates and stepped onto the ice. He skated a few laps, and then came to a stop in front of me.
“Viktor,” he said, and there were a thousand meanings in that one word. “Please watch me closely.”
He handed me his glasses after he had extracted a nod from me, and drifted over to centre-ice. A beat passed. He started to move.
There was no music, but the patterns of the program he skated were intimately familiar to me. I recognised it almost immediately.
My last program before retirement was set to a piece of music titled “Stammi Vicino, Non Te Ne Andare”. It is a lonely, haunting song about despair, a desperate plea from a lover not to leave him. The tragedy of it appealed to me, but I ultimately had trouble with musical interpretation when skating it.
Yuuri skated it perfectly. Every jump, every step, every spin – all perfectly in time with music neither of us could hear. I felt pinned to the spot, throat tight and face crumpling.
A phantom orchestra sounded in my ears as Yuuri skated through the last parts of the program, his own body a crescendo in its own right. He came to a stop in the ending pose, arms wrapped around him and chest heaving.
He looked over to me, gaze questioning.
This, for future reference, is about the moment that journalistic integrity went out the window.
I stood there, rink-side, utterly consumed by the tightness in my chest. It was two years too late, but this was it. This was the sign I had waited so desperately for after the Sochi GPF.
I didn’t think about the fact that I was wearing custom Italian loafers. I didn’t think about the fact that I had barely set foot on the ice since my retirement. I just ran.
Yuuri’s eyes widened when he saw me sprint across the ice at him. He froze like a rabbit in the headlights, unsure whether to move towards me or away, and I crashed into him, with all the force of a man that had never really given up on waiting for Yuuri Katsuki.
I kissed him, hard and inelegant.
His body tensed, then relaxed, and then he kissed me back.
“That was,” I said, breaking away breathless. He stared back at me with open, dazed eyes. “That was better than I ever skated it, and Yuuri…” The realisation hit me. “You landed a quad Lutz. Straight out of connecting steps. You’ve never jumped one before, not even in galas.” Tenderness flooded my voice. “Yuuri.”
There was a radiant secrecy to Yuuri’s smile, an acute smugness that welcomed you into a private joke. I had to kiss him again.
It did not last as long as I would have liked, before he pushed me away gently.
“I had to show you that,” he told me. “You’re leaving tomorrow and I knew that… that this was my last chance.”
“How long have you been practising that?” I asked.
Yuuri’s cheeks gained a faint rosy hue. “Ever since Sochi. At first, I just wanted to regain my love for skating, but it’s not really about that anymore. This is – it’s a tribute. To you.”
Skating is not something that is capable of loving you back. I learned that the hard way. A love of the ice is doomed to be unrequited; when you fall, it does not catch you so much as punish you. But in that moment, with Yuuri Katsuki so close I could feel his breath on my cheek, I thought that this was the closest skating would ever get.
Yuuri led me off the ice and slipped on his skate guards, before settling down outside the rink.
“I was so angry when you announced your retirement,” he said.
“A lot of people were,” I replied.
“You were my goal, the whole reason I started skating, and you just walked away. I had always thought you loved the sport just as much as I did and you just walked away.”
I was not certain what to say. For a fleeting second, I thought of lying. There were many things I told the press in the wake of my retirement, platitudes and spin and sometimes, boldfaced lies. It did not feel right to give those to Yuuri.
“I loved skating more than I loved myself some days, Yuuri,” I said. I felt abruptly tired.
“So why did you just quit?” Yuuri asked. “You had everything I wanted, everything I bled myself raw just for a shot at, and it just… didn’t matter, at all.”
“I couldn’t continue.”
Yuuri made a sound of frustration. “But why couldn’t you continue?”
I fought for the words, but they still stuck in my throat. I swallowed. “Because,” I said, “I loved it more than I loved myself, and I was using it to kill myself.”
Silence. What else could there possibly be to meet a statement like that? It sounded like a cruel joke. The cruellest part, though, was that I could not find it in me to think any of it funny.
“Why would you say something like that?” Yuuri’s voice sounded hoarse. “Why would you kiss me and then tell me something like that?”
I did not know what he wanted to hear, so I did not say anything.
He drew himself up. “I think I need to take you back to your hotel, now.”
He drove me to my hotel, walked me up to my room, and then kissed me against the door. When the door clicked open and I stumbled backwards into the room, he followed.
He was still there when I woke up the next morning, hours after he should have left on his run.
THERE ARE A LOT OF things that I regret in my life. I regret never having met my mother, and I regret giving my father far too many second chances. On occasion, I even regret some of the things I have said to the Russian Skating Federation. Not often, though.
The one thing I do not regret is figure skating. It may be a symptom of all the ways that I am still broken, but given the chance to do everything all over again, I do not think I would make different choices where it counted.
One of the enduring questions in my life has always been, “Was it worth it?” The honest answer is that I do not know.
For the first time in a long time, though, I am happy. I feel alive and I feel loved.
Maybe I will never be able to take my medals out of the safe. Maybe I will never return to skating. Maybe, for the second time in my life, Yuuri Katsuki will not call.
Or, maybe not.
Viktor Nikiforov is a two-time figure skating Olympic gold medallist, a fulltime national icon, and a sometime journalist. He lives in St Petersburg with his dog, Makkachin, but if you’re lucky, you might just glimpse him on a billboard near you.