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The R-Word (A Tribute To Artur Gachinski)

  • The R-Word (A Tribute To Artur Gachinski)

It's a slippery slope. You're watching skating. You don't have a favourite skater to watch, nor anyone in mind. Out of the corner of your eye, someone catches. They might not be the most technically correct, or the most visually exciting, but there's just that special something...

You hit up Wikipedia. You hit up Youtube and watch old performances. And suddenly, before you know it, you're setting your alarm for three am, searching for sketchy, low-res streams of potentially dubious legality just to watch them skate.

Before you even realise, you've become invested, and that skater is your favourite. You watch every competition they skate in, and follow their results religiously. You follow them on social media and a response brings a smile to your face. And then you fall into the worst trap of all: you begin to take for granted that your skater will be competing next season, and never question it.

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And then reality hits, the r-word is mentioned, and it all comes to a brutal, crashing halt.

The r-word, of course, is retirement, and the skater who has announced it unexpectedly is Artur Gachinski, from Russia.

At twenty-two years old.

The skating world was first introduced to Artur Gachinski as an adorable eleven year old, small and shaggy blond, already with the beautiful textbook jumps that are Alexei Mishin's specialty, and doing the Biellmann spin that had been the great Champion Evgeni Plushenko's specialty. When interviewed, Artur made no secret of his ambition: he wanted to be just like Plushenko, whom he idolised, and getting to train alongside him was an honour.

As he grew older, it became apparent that Artur had the potential to be a superb skater in his own right. Raised with Mishin's impeccable jump technique from the very first single jumps, his triples and quads were solid and beautiful, his spins held promise, and he started to develop a strange, quirky style on the ice. The accolades soon followed. At sixteen he was the World Junior bronze medallist (behind none other than a young Yuzuru Hanyu) and at seventeen, to the shock of many, he stepped up onto the Senior stage to win a Senior World bronze medal.

So often in sport we apply the tag of "the next such-and-such", believing it to be a compliment, and for some competitors, like the younger Artur, they in fact invite and encourage it, desiring to be like their role models. But it is a tag that can often harm more than it helps, and fans, press and indeed, athletes themselves should be more careful about applying it.

At eighteen, Artur became the European silver medallist, bested only by Plushenko, and had actually outscored him in the short program. But when it all went wrong, it went wrong disastrously, and only a month later at Worlds, it was a completely different Artur Gachinski that popped, fell and stumbled his way through the programs he had once delivered so beautifully.

It was a classic rooster to feather duster tale. Only the year before, Artur was the hope and pride of Russian men's skating; now he was the bane and the curse, single-handedly blamed for losing the two places (the fact that his compatriot, the older and more experienced Sergei Voronov, did as badly as he did was quickly forgotten). Even the officials of his own skating federation turned on him in the press.

Psychologically, some athletes would not care for such criticism and would not let it affect them. Australian F1 driver Mark Webber even called out to such critics on the occasion of his first victory. Plushenko was famous for taking strength from it. But athletes should not be expected to "suck up" such harsh criticism; it should not be that the general reaction to such is that the athlete is tough and should get over it - especially when the athlete is very young.

Artur's career went into a free fall from which it would never recover. Very soon after he sustained a back injury, had an unexpected growth spurt which affected his balance, and struggled with numbness in his legs. Above all else, what little self confidence he had was gone, and received another blow after Russian Nationals that year - he managed a credible fourth, but was overlooked for the Europeans team in favour of the fifth-placed Maxim Kovtun. The stated reason for Kovtun's selection? Youth. Kovtun was only a year younger than he was.

Finally, the injuries, the psychological demons - or, as Artur himself once put it, "the cockroaches in the head", and the fiercely political nature of Russian figure skating wore him down. After one injury too many damaged some nerves in his hand, he decided it was time to finish. True to the form of his career, there was no press conference, no big flashy announcement, no crowds of fans to see him go. He simply did not register for Russian Nationals, and during the course of the broadcast of the event his coach confirmed that he would not compete again. And that was it.

At twenty-two, the dreaded r-word came into play, and the skating world lost one of its most underappreciated talents. Of course, in Russia, retirement is not a death knell, and does not mean the skater must go forth into the "real world". Even in the week his retirement became public knowledge, Artur had skated in three separate professional shows, and already looked happier. His talent will play out on a new stage - one with more freedom and fewer rules, even if he is already forgotten on the competitive scene.

A European silver medallist, a twice Russian National medallist, and the only Russian man to win a Senior Worlds medal in the last decade.

To me, he will always be the memory of that first love, the one who caught my eye while I was watching another, the first one I got up in the night for, the first one I cried for. He was, is, and always will be a part of my skating legacy, someone who inspired me to skate and to write.

And when the athlete I care so much for is happy, then how can I be otherwise?

I have to move on, and it's time to finish this career and go in a new direction. I can say that my decision was quite easy. - Artur Gachinski to TASS Sport in Russia, December 24, 2015.

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