On March 26th 2009, 15-year-old Denis Ten single-handedly put Kazakhstan on the worldwide map of figure skating. This ambitious young ice skater stunned the crowd, the media, and the judges with a magical performance that catapulted him from an initial 17th place to finish eighth overall. This was the best-ever placement that any skater from Kazakhstan had achieved at a World Championships.
Since then, Ten has continued to set new records in both junior and senior events, but it is his bronze medal at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics that looks set to cement his place in Kazakh sporting folklore. He won the country’s only medal at the Olympiad and ensured Kazakhstan made it onto the final medals table, albeit taking last place.
Ten was born and raised in Kazakhstan. He is a product of a new generation of ambitious young Kazakhs eager to make Dancing on Ice: Kazakh Sochi Success Interview Feature with Denis Ten, Olympic Bronze medallist 2014 their mark and crossing boundaries. Although his family is part of the Korean minority in the Central Asian country, his native tongue is Russian and he feels very much part of his nation’s multi-ethnic population.
Given that Kazakhstan is no figure skating hotspot, it is intriguing to find a young man able to display his talent so well. “My parents introduced me to sport,” he starts, as he explains his overwhelming love of sports and culture. “Besides skating, I went to classes in acrobatics, swimming, taekwondo, karate and dancing. I also studied music and painting. That is probably why I was well suited to take on one of the most beautiful sports, because skating includes three of these elements – music, dancing and acrobatics.”
By dabbling in this rich range of childhood activities he found his niche, but given that Kazakh investment in figure skating back then was next to nothing, how did Ten manage to break through to the international ranks? “Fifteen years ago, when I started training, there were no proper facilities for ice skating in Kazakhstan. I was skating on a rink that only functioned in winter, and on the arena in a shopping mall. However, today the situation has changed dramatically. There are massive athletic facilities in Kazakhstan and all of them meet world standards. Figure skating is developing rapidly and many children have the opportunity to train and perform. I am happy to be a witness of this current progress.”
Ten’s first outing on the Olympic stage came at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010 where he finished well outside the podium places, but was showing promising progress. Since then expectations have risen and after the years of hard training, often away from his family, the reward of a medal is nothing less than he deserves. “I am very glad to finish this major international sporting event on a positive note. My life changed dramatically after Vancouver. I moved to Los-Angeles for the sake of winning an Olympic medal.”
Coached by Frank Caroll, who also developed Olympic Champion, Evan Lysacek, Ten’s whole regime and skating technique has changed for the better. “It was difficult for me, but I managed thanks to the support of my parents, fans and the Samruk Kazyna fund. In February 2011 I won a gold medal at the Asian Winter Games in Astana. Last year I came second in the World Championship, and in Sochi 2014 I managed to win the bronze medal.” All these events are historic for Kazakh figure skating.
Most notable about Ten’s Bronze-winning performance was the fact that he wore an odd pair of boots to do so. Probably the first medallist to use such a tactic to gain a competitive edge, Ten is very practical in his response. “I do not want anyone to go through my experience. I am very sensitive and it would usually take months for me to change my boots,” he explains. “This year I had many obstacles to overcome, beginning with some health problems and ending with outfit surprises. I broke one of my skates shortly before the Olympiad, and I had to replace it. It was very uncomfortable, because professional skates are handmade from, so no two boots are exactly the same. When I replaced one of the boots, I had to fit into the new one in a short period of time which meant that sometimes I was doing elements blindly.”
So what does Ten make of the Sochi experience now that he has had time to reflect? In Vancouver, Kazakhstan won only one medal, and only two sportsmen were in the top 5 in their sports. While the medal haul hasn’t changed, this time, many more joined the top of the ranks and were potential medallists. “All of this demonstrates the huge development of winter sports in Kazakhstan. I am going to work hard. I will not rest on laurels and will continue to gain new medals for my country. I am confident every Kazakh sportsman has the same intentions and the next Olympic Games in South Korea in 2018 will be even more successful for Kazakhstan.”
With Kazakhstan looking to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in Almaty, Ten is positive about the city’s prospects, having helped represent the bid. “In Sochi, I was honoured to represent Almaty in the 2022 Olympic Games bid and also become a member of the Almaty 2022 committee. I think every city has equal chances. The Olympiad is a unique sporting event, an international festival of sport. And an Olympiad in your home country is an unforgettable event that will change a whole generation and leave a wonderful heritage.” He cites Kazakhstan’s previous experience of organising similarly large games, for example the Winter Asian games in 2011. “In 2017 Almaty will hold the Winter Student Games, which is going to be the perfect rehearsal for the Olympic Games themselves”.
By 2017, Almaty says it will already have in place 80% of the sports facilities it requires. “That is awesome!” Ten enthuses. “First of all, this will decrease the cost of the Olympics, and secondly, sportsmen will have the chance to try out the venues in advance. Besides the new sport facilities, we have still the old ones, which are now historic places, like the alpine rink in Medeo. During the days of the Soviet Union, this rink was the centre of ice skating. Its second name is the “Place of Records” – there have been more than 120 world records set there!”.
With Almaty’s growingly competent and comfortable transport system, it now takes only 25 minutes to go from the centre of the city, with its 1.5 million people, to the 2500m high Shymbulak ski resort. Understandably patriotic, Ten finishes by saying, “Our country has everything: wonderful conditions, an athletic population and a growing sporting history. What’s missing though is the Olympic Games! I really hope Kazakhstan will have the chance to hold the Winter Olympiad in 2022. And for my part, I will do my best to help fulfil this dream!”