Team Russia, team Netherlands and team Kazakhstan 2017©International Skating Union (ISU)
Over the past three seasons, Kazakhstan has begun to feature ever more prominently in Short Track’s elite events, after forming a successful training partnership with the Netherlands. A decade ago, few people in Kazakhstan had even heard of the sport, but with Kazakh skaters starting to win ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating medals with increasing regularity, the country is now preparing to host its first ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating event in Almaty this weekend.
We spoke to several leading Kazakh skaters about how their country has become a force to be reckoned with.
Denis Nikisha (KAZ) 2017©International Skating Union (ISU)
As a child growing up in Kostanay, a city in northern Kazakhstan, Denis Nikisha (KAZ) had never heard of the sport which would one day take over his life. Like most children in his region, Nikisha was instead fascinated by combat sports, the gladiatorial pursuits of boxing and wrestling which have traditionally dominated Kazakh sporting culture. Nikisha himself took up karate, assuming that if he ever became a professional athlete, it would be as a fighter. But one day, that changed. “It all started back in 2006, when I was ten,” Nikisha remembers. “Some local coaches came to my school and told us, ‘There are free skating sessions at the ice rink.’ This was how it began.”
Denis Nikisha (KAZ) Sandor Liu Shaolin (HUN) 2016©International Skating Union (ISU)
Built for local hockey matches, Kostanay’s aging rink was a far cry from the giant arenas which Nikisha would go on to compete in. But like many other young skaters from the region, he was enthralled by the speed, the intricate technique required and, above all, the sense of danger. “People in Kazakhstan like the dangerous sports,” Nikisha says, with a smile. “It’s because all sportsmen in Kazakhstan have a strong mentality. We’re strong people. We have to be because of life in Kazakhstan. It’s a different life. It’s not like life in the US or Canada or Europe. In the summer, temperatures can get as high as 45 degrees, and in winter, they drop as low as minus-40.”
Charles Hamelin (CAN) Denis Nikisha (KAZ) Denis Ayrapetyan (RUS) Dmitry Migunov (FRA) 2016©International Skating Union (ISU)
With few Kazakhs competing on the world stage, Kostanay’s young skaters often turned to YouTube videos for inspiration. “I initially tried wrestling as a kid but I fell in love with Short Track through watching clips of top international competitions,” says Kuandyk Suleymenov (KAZ), who was later introduced to the sport through the same school program as Nikisha. “Seeing the beautiful movements, the tactics and skaters with such perfect technique on these one-millimeter blades was incredibly inspiring for me, even while we were training in this old, cold rink. All the time, I just wanted to be one of these skaters, imagining young kids watching me too and thinking, ‘This guy skates so beautifully and so smooth, I want to skate like him.’”
As teenagers, both Nikisha and Suleymenov were spotted by scouts from the national training center in Astana. Along with skaters from other regions, including Oral in the west and Shymkent in the south, they were invited to move to the capital and join the national squad as full-time athletes. With few resources, the team had long struggled to make an impact on the world stage. But in 2012, the Kazakhstan’s National Skating Federation decided to devote increased funding to Short Track in the hope of boosting the country’s medal chances at the Winter Olympics. Most notably, they hired a series of renowned international coaches, starting with the Korean Jimmy Jang. “This was when things started to get serious,” Suleymenov says. “Having a coach with Olympic experience changed so much. Until then, we were playing catch-up with the rest of the world. Many of us in Kazakhstan took up skating quite late. We didn’t even learn how to skate until we were teenagers, while the Koreans start doing Short Track at five years old.”
Under Jang’s direction, the Kazakh team began to slowly adapt their training strategies. In 2016, they formed a partnership with the Netherlands, spending that summer training intensely with the Dutch squad and learning from their philosophies. “The Netherlands have a totally different system to all the other teams,” Suleymenov explains. “Working with them has made us a lot smarter and more professional. They put all their focus in training on the relay, which is so different. Their philosophy is that this way, you can do more laps, the speed is much faster and it gives you more endurance. They do a lot of bike work, and I mean a lot.”
Adapting to the Netherlands’ cycling-heavy off-season routine was not easy for the Kazakh skaters. “It was really difficult,” Nikisha admits. “The training was hard because they’re such strong cyclists. They’re like a pro team.”But it paid off. During the 2016-2017 World Cup season, Abzal Azhgaliyev (KAZ) became the first Kazakh skater ever to win World Cup gold, when he won the 500m in Salt Lake City. Azhgaliyev would go on to win three more medals that season, as well as silver in the overall World Cup 500m standings. In Minsk, there was even a Kazakh one-two in the 500m with Nikisha winning gold, and Azhgaliyev taking silver.
Charles Hamelin (CAN) Abzal Azhgaliyev (KAZ) Tianyu Han (CHN)2016©International Skating Union (ISU)
“That season changed a lot for the team,” says Yerkebulan Shamukhanov (KAZ), who made his World Cup debut during the 2016/2017 season. “It made everybody believe that we can win medals. Abzal is very good. When he’s at his best, he can compete with anybody.”
With Kazakhstan going on to finish sixth in the men’s 5000m Relay at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics, the profile of the sport has grown markedly back home over the past two years. “More people know what it is now,” Suleymenov says. “When I was growing up, no one had any idea. They would be like, ’So what are you doing? What kind of sport is this?’”
Hiroki Yokoyama and Kazuki Yoshinaga (JPN), Yerkebulan Shamukhanov and Nurbergen Zhumagaziyev (KAZ) 2018©AFP
It has meant that the Kazakhstan team now view winning medals at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics as a realistic possibility, especially in the Relay. With considerable financial rewards awaiting them if they do, the stakes are high. “The government gave us 5,000 dollars each for coming sixth in PyeongChang,” Shamukhanov says. “But for a gold, you get 250,000. Even silver gets you 150,000, which is a lot of money in Kazakhstan. I could buy a big house and a Mercedes for that.”
But while Shamukhanov is dreaming of fast cars, for others in the team, such money would secure their future, long after their sporting days are done. “If I won gold in Beijing, the money would change my life,” Suleymenov says. “As well as the cash reward, they also give you a downtown apartment in Astana, and a good car. Plus the usual salaries the team get would increase, and perhaps be more similar to the national boxing team who always win Olympic medals. But for me, I’d use the cash to study economics or business somewhere in Europe, so I can try for a career in finance once I finish skating.”
But while the Dutch have helped elevate the level of the Kazakh team, Suleymenov believes that Kazakhstan need to invest more in improving their own Short Track facilities for them to have any chance of consistently winning medals at Olympic level against nations such as Canada, China and the Republic of Korea. “The irony is that the government offer these large sums of money for medals, as a motivation, but it’s hard to get there with the facilities we have,” he says. “Right now we’ve improved because we have international coaches and we’ve found ways to train with other national teams. But outside of Astana, there are still no dedicated Short Track rinks, and most of the equipment, the skates and helmets are two decades old. So that limits the younger skaters coming through.”
However, Suleymenov and the rest of the team are keenly aware that a successful performance at the World Cup in Almaty could go a long way to boosting Short Track’s profile in Kazakhstan, and the funding resources it receives. The pressure to win medals this weekend will be high.
“It’s very important for us, because it’s the first time we’ve had such an event here,” Shamukhanov says. “It’s so important for the team to win medals here because so many people will be watching. The rink can fit about 5,000 spectators in, and so many people will be coming, people who haven’t heard of the sport before. So if we can show them how exciting it is, and how good the team is, that will make it more popular, and maybe we will get more funding.”
Follow these amazing skaters during the ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating event taking place in their home country, in Almaty, Kazakhstan, this weekend. Find out where to watch here and join us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube to keep track of the action.