Youth Time speaks to ice dancer, Sara Hurtado, who is set for her third Olympics next year. We speak about her career and her future.
Hi, Sara Hurtado. Let’s start with introducing you to the Youth Time audience. Becoming a figure skater in Spain is not a very obvious choice of sports. Can you walk us through your childhood – when and how did you start figure skating?
My childhood was a very active one. I have an older brother; he is only one year older than me. Our parents took us to any kind of activity possible – we played violin, I was dancing, we were swimming, playing tennis.
We were very curious about everything, so I guess they were trying to give us an option to find what our passion was. And suddenly, my mum saw that the ice rink was opening a school.
We already tried skating at our friends’ birthdays, and we liked it. It was random like that, we started learning how to skate and it just became the best day of the week for me.
I don’t even know how to describe it, but it was a very welcoming place where I could express myself in the best possible way, and just feel like myself.
The sound of the ice, very charismatic moves, so I fell in love, literally I fell in love and there was no coming back from that point.
Okay, so at what point did you realise – this is it… This is my future career?
This has a lot to do with passion. It’s not as if the lightbulb turns on in your head and you think: ‘Oh, yeah, this is what passion feels like.’ No, you just realise through the little things, step by step.
Suddenly I prioritised figure skating over other things – over meeting my friends, going out, even over staying at home and doing nothing.
From Singles to Pairs
You started as a single skater, how did the transitions from singles to ice dance happened?
The transition from single skater to ice dancer was… Honestly, it was like learning how to skate all over again (laughs). If I could describe it, it’s probably like suddenly having a third arm, or having a body extension that you just can’t control.
But at the same time, you count on it and follow the flow, making everything as symmetrical and as connected as possible. But you know, at the same time it was extremely fun and so cool to just play with it. At the beginning everything was new, there was no real expectation.
But every step somehow counted, and it was a real phase to just go through. When you start from zero, you see possibilities – as a single skater you can only add to what you already know.
You try to work together with your partner and create together, but it’s really a lot of fun. We had our issues, of course. For example, the hardest thing for us was spinning – suddenly we weren’t rotating under our own axes, we had to share the spin.
It took us a long time to just spin, leave alone fast spinning. We would go in with a lot of energy, but the spin would be like zero kilometres per hour.
At some point we felt like it’s never going to work, but then after days of work it improves and you get that incredible feeling, like you can actually fly with your partner and it’s amazing.
In one of the interviews you said – “We begged the Federation for two years, please, please, we want to do ice dance.” Is it true? Why did you want to do ice dance so much and not, for example, try pair skating?
Yeah, it’s absolutely true, like you are saying ‘we had to beg’. In Spain there was simply no ice dance before, so we needed the Federation and the organisations to support this project and to start something nobody knew about, here in Spain.
We chose ice dance because we were not great jumpers. It was hard for me; I didn’t have that talent as let’s say Javi Fernandez [first Spanish figure skating medallist] or Sonia La Fuente had.
I was training with them and I could see them day after day learning new jumps when it took me forever to land a triple jump. They would try for just a few weeks and suddenly it was happening for them.
I believe ice dance represents parts of figure skating that fit mine and Adri’s (former Sara’s ice dance partner – Adrian Diaz) personalities the most. We loved to do steps, spins, all the creative parts of it. I really liked expression and interpretation inside the skating.
To me it was about finding the discipline to connect myself to things I love the most in figure skating. It came naturally and became close to my heart. I was like: ‘Oh my god, I really like it, this is all worth it.’
As a teenager full of energy, at first, I just wanted to keep going with both disciplines – doing morning sessions of ice dance and afternoon sessions of single skating.
But after a month of doing that I was so dead (laughs) that I knew I had to choose. And of course, it had to be an ice dance and I think it was a great decision.
Years later I realised how grateful I am to that teenager Sara who didn’t know what she was getting herself into. But she followed her heart and found her place of happiness and could enjoy all the great things that came with that decision.
‘Creating Something Unique’
What is the best thing about ice dancing?
To me it’s about the opportunity to create something unique, to share a certain message with the audience.
You can truly connect with an emotion, with a story. It’s like having a conversation without words – you can convey it to the audience in a very special way, just with the power of your moves.
Feeling that moment of intimacy and vibration is something else because it’s going to create a memory for both of you. Doing it with a partner feels even more special.
I don’t know how to exactly explain this, but you open the movements even more through this duality and it creates so many more options, 200 times more moves and lines you can create. I can’t compare this feeling of creation, of generating this magic to anything in this world and I just love developing it together with Kirill [Khalyavin – Sara’s current ice dance partner].
You and your former partner Adrian Díaz were the first dance team to represent Spain in ISU (*International Skating Union) competition and the first to qualify for the Olympics. How did it make you both feel?
At our very first ISU competition we just felt happy there. Seriously, just being there already felt like a huge achievement.
Everything else felt like a cherry on top of the cake. Imagine, for the past two years we were just hoping that this project would work so during our first competition we basically just went there trying not to be the last. (laughs) It was really the competition of challenging ourselves to start something new.
We just had to be there, however we could – even if we make a lot of mistakes, it doesn’t matter. As long as you are there and you are doing your best, and you bring something new to the table.
You are doing it not just for yourself but for your country and for sports development. Honestly, I am realising what we did back then only now, because at the moment you have no idea about the actual impact and what it means. You are just there doing what you love and that’s it.
Only with maturity and more experience, later in life comes this feeling: ‘Wow, that was big. That was actually me changing things and making history.’
That feeling is huge and to me it equals the Olympic medal, achieving new things is my Olympic medal.
The Sochi Olympics was your first Olympic Games, and you finished 13th. What were the feelings like back then?
Honestly? We didn’t care about the result. Being in Sochi at the Olympics was already a dream come true. I felt absolute and pure happiness. It was like conquering the elite of sportsmanship.
The Olympic experience is something that changes your life forever. It’s not just about the actual competition days but also the preparation around it. You are building yourself in order to be at the very best of your abilities and to compete in the field of the very best athletes.
There is nothing bigger than the Olympics. Being there and opening the doors for future generations of athletes. It felt like suddenly you have superpowers. You get this feeling that everything is possible.
If I am here, coming from Spain and making it strong through our journey, when everything can happen in sports – it means something. The Olympics felt like a big lesson for myself.
When you doubt yourself and can’t make it, making it – going to the Olympics feels important and experiencing this feeling of having superpowers after all the doubts is huge.
You and Adrian have parted your ways, and you started skating with a Russian partner Kirill Khalyavin. Who was the initiator of such a drastic change?
To change the partner was probably the hardest thing I had to do in my life. It was harder than deciding to do an ice dance. This change represented the end of the long dream. Everything that I achieved with Adri was amazing.
But suddenly things started to change, and we didn’t see them in the same way. I knew I had to make a decision because I couldn’t stay that way. We were not being productive.
When you already made so many sacrifices for the sport, we trained in Montreal. I think it was just not fair to anyone to keep that situation going as it was. In that sense I think it was the best thing we could do for us.
If participating in the first Olympics was about realising anything is possible, going to my second Olympics was just adding more to those superpowers.
So I decided to go back to Spain, and I didn’t expect to find Kirill. People should know that finding a partner is very complicated. Especially when you are a girl because there are less male skaters than females.
We just had our Olympic season and usually after it there are not many changes, not many pairs decide to split after. I was not very hopeful to find the partner, but suddenly I got a message from Kirill saying that Ksyusha [his partner back then and now his wife] was injured and didn’t feel very motivated to keep skating.
And he felt like he wasn’t done with figure skating. In that way we had the same mindset. When we did a trial, I could really feel a connection between us.
You seem to not be afraid of change?
I see change as a motivating factor. Change keeps you alive, it allows you to learn so much about yourself through different experiences. It helps you to find the person you want to become.
Through gathering many experiences, you learn what you want and what you don’t want. It’s all a growth process. If you stay comfortable, you’ll never know what you’re capable of. Knowing that I could live somewhere else and learn from the other cultures was very exciting.
Moving to a new country, for example, comes with a difficult side of leaving your family and your loved ones, but honestly, I would do it all over again. I am the person I am now because of all those brave choices I made.
Did you and Kirill Khalyavin immediately synchronise as a couple, or did it take some time for both of you to get adjusted?
Oh my God, I wish it was an immediate thing. Absolutely not. It took us a few hours of practice, that’s it.
It’s so hard to get synchronized from the very beginning. We also came from very different techniques and ways of skating. Just stroking forward was already a challenge, imagine. I didn’t even go into the other aspects of it.
The rhythm, the power, the height, the shape of your body and how you place yourself in that togetherness. It’s all crucial for ice dance success. Oh gosh, ‘it was a challenge’ is the easiest way in which I can describe it.
Alexander Zhulin is one of the top figure skating coaches in Russia. How is it working with him?
Working with Sasha is special. You can feel his experience just by the way he looks at things. His eyes are unique. He just looks at some transition that we execute and suddenly he knows how to bring the best in you.
And that’s one of the greatest assets that you can bring as the best coach. The coach should understand that every skater is different and he does exactly that.
It was a great match and we immediately clicked. I never skated the way that they taught me too though (laughs), but he could see everything that I was capable of.
He put so much trust in me through that and he made me feel like I can do anything.
From Sochi to PyeongChang
How was it participating at your second Olympics in PyeongChang with a new partner?
If participating in the first Olympics was about realising anything is possible, going to my second Olympics was just adding more to those superpowers. I thought my career as a skater was over after the first Olympics.
So, everything that happened with Kirill was just extra special. Going through that moment where you don’t know if you would be able to ever compete again and then have this opportunity to be back on the ice, makes it just more exceptional.
It was Kirill’s first ever Olympics and I could see in his eyes the same energy that I felt during my first Olympics. It felt like reliving my first Olympics again yet it felt completely different too.
Like I said, the Olympics is just all about the superpowers.
Meeting Royalty and Next Targets
You and other Winter Spanish Olympians met King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia, who invited all of you personally to their residence. What did it mean for you to be there?
Oh yes, that day, wow, it was just something else. It felt like the Olympic experience was not over yet. We were all back to Madrid right after the Olympics, Javi just won his medal (Javier Fernandez, the first Spanish Olympian to win a medal in figure skating) and we were going to visit the King and the Queen. It was surreal.
I am used to seeing these official visits and events on TV or in magazines, but being there in real life? I still think about this experience and can’t believe it happened to me.
It was a way to get recognition for us. You really feel heard, like them saying to you: ‘We see you guys, we are paying attention to what you are doing’.
Of course, we do this for us and not for anyone else but having such recognition is very important.
By celebrating such achievements, you inspire the next generation. You send them a message that they also can make it.
So yeah, meeting them was extraordinary. And seeing them as parents, seeing them with their kids. I think they recognise that their kids can learn from our commitment and fair play, from all the Olympic values.
I think for all the kids it’s a very powerful message that you can follow your dreams and you can use role models as a tool to send that message to someone.
Your friend, Javier Fernandez, achieved a historic feat – winning Spanish first ever medal in figure skating. Is one of your goals to achieve the same at the upcoming Olympics in Beijing 2022?
Of course, everyone dreams of the Olympic medal. But to me the most important part of the Olympic journey is what brings you to this event. Being able to perform your best at this event is already a real achievement.
If you are looking for a medal, high score or anything else materialistic – you can find yourself very frustrated.
You just can’t predict what can happen on the day. It’s a huge moment that you worked for your whole life. Putting all the value into something so concrete like a medal is just not the best strategy in my opinion.
It would be amazing to get a medal, but I also want to be realistic about it. Right now, ice dance is on a very high level, internationally, so winning the medal will be very tough.
You suffered from a shoulder injury last summer, which made you come back to Spain for surgery. What was the hardest part about all of it?
The whole thing was very hard. First, the physical aspect of it – your whole body is going against you. You feel like suddenly you’re not you.
What I needed the most was broken and suddenly I couldn’t go on anymore. That big stop for me was tough, also combined with a year of quarantining and being at home. We already missed so much ice time, because I couldn’t travel to Russia due to the lockdown.
I felt like I already missed so much and then my sport was doing this to me?
The ice and all the risk that I take every day, it felt like it all turned against me at that moment. It was simply an accident and we know it can happen any day during practice.
But being okay with it was certainly a mental challenge. And the second challenge was when I started recovering and needed to go back to normal. I can describe it as feeling like one piece again.
Suddenly I had an arm that wouldn’t go higher than my waist. Breaking that tightness and that limitation of movement was incredibly hard – we had to work so much with the physiotherapist.
He moved my arm and it brought a lot of pain. And I knew there was no other way, that was the only way to gain my mobility. I was like: ‘Okay, it’s going to hurt and it’s the only way’.
Accepting that and going through that was something else. It felt like a test – going to a physiotherapist every day and testing my boundaries – ‘How long will I go without crying today?’.
That rehab of my shoulder was just the worst and I wish nobody has to go through the same.
Thank you so much for sharing your story. You went through some challenges but your resilience and staying in sports for so long is an inspiration to many. What piece of advice can you give to young people out there or maybe what advice would you give to your younger self during difficult times.
My piece of advice would be to be patient and to allow yourself to fail and to make mistakes. We live during the times where we want to see immediate results – now and fast.
Sometimes we just need time and trust in the process. Nature shows us that, for example. You plant a seed and it doesn’t grow in a day. With sports and objectives, it’s the same.
Stay dedicated and put something every day into that pursuit. We all want to be perfect and we get obsessed with that vision of being perfect.
But if you want to achieve something new you must do something new. You are not going to be great in a few tries, you need a lot of them.
Be gentle with yourself and don’t lose your motivation through the tough moments. That’s what I would tell myself, the little Sara.
From Sara Hurtado to another ice phenomenon, Aljona Savchenko.
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