New skates, coaches, countries, languages, techniques, mental focus and tattoos – the season following an Olympic Games allows athletes to try new things, and skaters on the ISU World Cup Short Track circuit take every chance to test what could make them go even faster at the next Games.
“I’ve changed my boots and my blades, I’ve tried a new start position, changed my gym program and a lot of other things,” Sofia Prosvirnova (RUS) said.
“We’ll see if it works or not. We have a lot of time, four years ahead for the next Olympics, so it’s just to try.”
Sofia Prosvirnova (RUS), Kathry Kathryn Thomas (GBR) and Suzanne Schulting (NED)2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
The most visible of her changes is her new starting position, in which she angles her left foot at 90 degrees in front of her body, hoping to reach the next step more quickly than her opponents.
“You can get half a step ahead of everyone,” said Prosvirnova, who turned 21 on December 20.
“It feels different and it’s a little bit uncomfortable in the beginning but I think that you have some benefits from this and we’ll see if it works. I’m not there yet but if I get used to this it will get better.”
Sofia Prosvirnova (RUS) and Arianna Fontana (ITA) at the European Short Track Speed Skating Championships in Dresden (GER) 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
The technique helped Arianna Fontana (ITA) to a gold, silver and bronze at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games. And the Italian pioneer, who took the technique from inline skating competition, has been cheering on Prosvirnova’s experiment on Instagram.
“She just said she liked my new start position and I’m so happy she liked it," said the Russian No.7 on the Overall world ranking.
“I told her it was the most challenging thing for me for the past four-five months and it’s really harder than it seems, and she said, ‘Yes, it’s really a pain’.”
If Prosvirnova’s new starts have been obvious to Short Track fans this season, Samuel Girard (CAN) is testing things that are harder to spot.
Samuel Girard (CAN) 2017©International Skating Union (ISU)
“Compared to the last four years, I work on different things this season and I think that this little edge will make me better for the next few years,” the Olympic 1000m champion said. “It’s some little details about what I’m focusing on before the race and during the race, small details about the mental bit and the vision, such as how I will do the race and how I will race my race.
“Instead of reacting to what’s happening, I’m making decisions to direct what’s happening.”
It seems to be working: in Almaty, the 22-year-old clinched his first podium positions this season with two gold medals and a silver. He gives himself two years to try out new things then identifies what worked best, sticking to that throughout the Olympic season.
“For next World Cup (in Dresden, 1-3 February) I could perhaps come back to what I did last year just to remind me of what I was good at but for now I’m trying some new things. It really depends on what skater is in my race and the energy and all of the aspects, but then I’ll decide what I want to keep.”
For Canada’s Men’s team, this season comes with another big change, now that four-time Olympic medalist Eric Bedard (CAN) has taken over as coach.
“I think he’s brought me some new things about my technique to think about during training. We are also way more in shape than we were last year. The whole team is going in a good direction and it’s getting better,” Pascal Dion (CAN) said.
“The training program is harder and the effort that we put into training is different and I think that all of the team love it.
“We had to adjust in the beginning and now we’re used to it and I think that we’ve adjusted our lifestyle around the training.”
Even the language is different at the Canadians’ training this season.
“We used to always talk English and now it’s only French, so it’s a good thing,” Dion said.
“It’s also the first time that I have a French (French-Canadian) coach and it makes a little difference. The whole team is French so it’s special.”
Abzal Azhgaliyev (KAZ) has also moved closer to his own culture this season – a physical move of more than 2100 kilometers east.
Abzal Azhgaliyev (KAZ),Shaoang Liu (HUN) and Ryosuke Sakasme (JPN) at the ISU Short Track Speed Skating in Seoul (KOR) 2017©International Skating Union (ISU)
“Just before the Olympics I trained in Netherlands for three years, but after the Olympics I’ve started to train with the Russian team in Moscow. This one for me is a new challenge,” said Azhgaliyev, who won the 500m bonze in front of a home crowd at the World Cup in Almaty, Kazakhstan.
“It’s a bit more similar food and I can understand the language easier, so it’s easier. And Moscow is near to my city (Oral, Kazakhstan), just two hours to fly, so it’s good.”
In his former home country, the changes are in centimeters rather than in thousands of kilometers. Lara van Ruijven (NED) and Suzanne Schulting (NED) are skating with 1.27cm (0.5 inch) longer blades than previous seasons.
Rianne de Vries, Suzanne Schulting, Yara van Kerkhof and Lara van Ruijnen (NED) at the ISU Short Track World Cup in Almaty (KAZ) 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
“Last year I was skating on 17 inches and now I’m skating on 17.5 inches, Overall world ranking No.1 Schulting said.
“I’ve already had it for the whole summer but I think that I’m more stable now.”
Teammate van Ruijven also comes into the season with a new helmet and matching glasses – in leopard print.
“I saw these glasses in the shop and thought, ‘That’s a badass print, I’ll take it’. Then I thought, maybe it’s nice to have a little bit of a print on my helmet,” the three-time European Relay champion said, admitting she would never go near the pattern privately.
Lara Van Ruijven (NED) at the ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating in Calgary (CAN) 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
“I’m totally not into tiger or leopard print, but when I saw these glasses I liked it. I don’t have any (leopard print) jacket or pants. It’s enough here for now.”
PyeongChang 2018 Men’s 5000m Relay Champion Shaolin Sandor Liu (HUN) has taken it even further, printing animals, symbols and inspirational quotes on his own skin to motivate himself as a new Olympic cycle starts. After winning Hungary’s first-ever Olympic Winter Games gold medal, he has tattooed a lighthouse, a crown, an eagle, the word “glorious” and the quote, “I must be the greatest”, by boxing legend Muhammad Ali (USA, 1942-2016), on his left arm.
“I like tattoos so I’m not making what the football players are making, like a full arm tattoo, I just like to do small things of something that means something to me,” he said.
The lighthouse is a reminder that “the boats are always following the lighthouse and I think that they should follow me. I’m trying to be a leader or a hero or someone to be proud of”. The crown is there because “when I have to race I’m trying to be the king leading the whole environment for the races” and the eagle because “it is the highest-flying bird.
“It’s watching everything from the top and attacks after a good decision and a good plan,” Liu said.
Having enjoyed the glorious year of 2018 the 1000m world No.2 still feels as though he has more to give, hoping to peak in the big competitions. The sketch of a crown on his arm is there to remind him of that.
Shaolin Liu (HUN) at the ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating in Salt Lake City (USA) 2018©International Skating Union (ISU)
“Everyone is asking if it’s finished or not but it’s finished, it is meant to look like something you draw in your book when you’re bored in class,” Liu said.
“It’s just like a king. When they don’t do anything they’re just lazy and doing nothing, chilling on the top. When they have to do their job, they’re there and they’re leading.”
Follow these athletes into the new year and cheer them on at the next event, the ISU European Short Track Speed Skating Championships that is coming up and will take place from January 11 to 13, 2019 in Dordrecht (NED). Be sure not to miss anything by following us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.