Johanna Allik Interview: Estonian Skater with an Icy Focus

Johanna Allik is Estonia's top professional figure skater,  who, after a break from the sport, switched from ice dance (skating with a male partner) to singles skating, in 2015. She's also a law student, and an impressive, inspirational person, who has come back from difficulties a better person. I caught up recently with Allik, who trains in Estonia and the United States.

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Photoshoot location: Shvips wine bar, Telliskivi, Tallinn
Dresses: Gerli A. Chantelle
Photos: Anete Palmik
Make-up and hair: Reet Gailan
Words: Stuart Garlick

"I've thought about it but I don't know!" Johanna Allik is trying to answer what she would be if she were not a professional figure skater. "Probably something related to dancing. You either go into sports or study your ass off and get really smart - and I wouldn't want to do sports part-time, and not get somewhere with that."

The 21 year-old Estonian figure skater might be very young in life terms, but she's got a lifetime of experience on the ice, where competitors begin very young. After starting out with 2nd place in the Estonian Junior Championships at the age of 11, Allik was in the spotlight at the age when young people usually get the chance to develop quietly. Her parents, who still live in the Estonian countryside, 20km from Tallinn, were the reason she set foot on a skating rink at first, but, she explains, she was not forced to try the sport. "They didn't tell me I had to do skating! They're really supportive. We're really close, and they'd support me in whatever I wanted to do."

I ask when she realised that she enjoyed her sport. "I got into skating because my parents put me into skating; I didn't know what it was, or if I was talented, it was a hobby. Then it got big, I started training more, winning, competing... But if you ask me when I started enjoying it, when I decided to make this my career, it was the beginning of this season. That's when my head was in the right place, and everything was stable."

This season is well underway, with Allik's results promising given that it is her first time back in singles skating for five years, having switched from ice dance. However, her dissatisfaction with 4th place at the last Estonian National Championships in Tallinn in December shows that the competitive instinct remains undimmed.

"It was my first Nationals for five years in singles skating. It wasn't bad... I had a few injuries and off-days, so I couldn't really prepare 100%. The week before was really nerve-wracking, really stressful; I think it's the same for all the skaters. When I got to the competition, I wasn't nervous at all, I felt quite good, but I think my mind was ready but my body wasn't; I wasn't quite physically ready to do a perfect programme, and I think that's where the mistakes came from. I'm not really disappointed, I just know where there is room for improvement."

I mention that the sports I usually watch are those involving either wheels or a ball; the result depends on many variables, but one of those is not usually the judgement of experts behind a desk. That's what makes figure skating different to many sports, and Allik is used to this, but feels it had an impact at her home championships. 

Does it make her angry when judgements don't go her way, as she feels was the case in the National Championships? She shakes her head. "To see how the other girls skated, and honestly how little they had to do to win, was such a huge push for me. If that's all you have to do to be National Champion - I don't know if it's right to say it - I think I'm even happy I was fourth, and not on the podium, because it pushes me." There were positives, she explains. "I got so much motivation. It was very different to be back on the ice, with some of the same faces that I've been with, and some new faces, new feelings... so many things have changed in five years. The rink we have is so big. It feels like a big competition now."

Allik is an athlete who has never been afraid to take a different path to her peers. In spite of this individualistic streak, she has found a young coach who shares her motivation, Jelena Glebova, who retired from figure skating in May 2014 after having had a glittering career that took her to three Winter Olympics. Still only 26, Glebova is young enough to understand how it feels to compete, but is rapidly picking up experience as a coach of adults, while also teaching junior skaters.

"I know for sure that I'm a bit different to the other skaters," Allik says, "because I trained outside so much, and also because my coach is so new - I'm her first [adult] student, so in the skating world in Estonia, we're so new, fresh and different, that I think it's taking people a bit of time to get used to us. Also, I train on public ice, I don't train in a skating club, which means my conditions are totally different, so I think it might be a bit challenging to some people to see how someone who doesn't train on a figure-skater's ice could progress as well [as someone who does]."

Public ice might be something many skaters go to great lengths to avoid, though it was the expense of hiring Estonian ice for solo training that took Allik to shared facilities; she says she likes its effect on her craft. "It's too expensive to have the ice for myself, but honestly, I think it's helped my fitness, because the ice is never that clear or good, so I learn to push myself and then when I'm on good ice it feels so good."

As mentioned, Glebova is a wholly positive influence on Allik. "Oh, definitely. Honestly I can't imagine having anyone else on the ice with me, or next to the boards when I'm competing. I've known her for such a long time, and now that she's coaching me, it's such a challenge, like a work-in-progress, we keep learning every day something new. To her it's interesting, to me it's interesting. She's so positive, so fresh, her thoughts are the same as mine. She always believes in me and that helps so much."

That positivity was something missing from Allik's career a year ago. With her and ice-dance partner, Paul Bellantuono having made the mutual decision to end their collaboration, Allik needed someone else who made her tick on the rink, but for the long term. She thought she had found the perfect dance partner in spring 2014, and she explains how she dared to believe this might be the end of an agonising international search that involved "so many different tryouts; I would go to so many different countries to try out with different guys and not know if it was going to work."

Allik moved to a base in Vancouver in order to train with her new partner. All seemed to be going brilliantly when the pair visited Estonia, taking part in one early-season competition there. "We had a lot of fun skating, it was really nice. We really bonded, he really liked it - that was what he said - but then when we got back to Canada, everything started falling apart, he wouldn't show up for practices, and I started getting suspicious as to what was going on. One day, he came in and said, 'this is over.'" 

The shock was immense. "It was so unexpected. I don't think he realised I moved all the way there for him; I didn't even step into university because I decided to dedicate everything to that partner. At that point, I knew I was done with ice dance, because I was really tired of looking for a partner, I didn't believe in it any more, it wasn't fun, so two weeks after we ended the partnership, I went home, and I did everything I could to get my mind off it." Were there any causes? "He told me some interesting reasons: he said he was going to quit skating and all that kind of stuff, but I don't know. I don't think I know the right reason. It was a shock, but I think it was supposed to be that way."

The young woman who had been a teenage prodigy was in danger of watching her career drift away, through no fault of her own. Then came an opportunity to start again in 2015, singles skating, with Glebova as her coach. "In my life I haven't really had the opportunity to choose my coach, they all kind of happened. With Lena... [When I joined her] I didn't think I could do anything any more. I was in such a hole a year ago, I was a totally different person, Canada just shook everything. I felt I couldn't just sacrifice everything."

Sport is full of great athletes who do not make great coaches, but Glebova seems to have the gift of communication and empathy. She and Allik began working together in 2015, with the skater recently telling her Instagram followers that she had lost 8kg as a result of training and a better diet. "It wasn't that hard. I was enjoying skating with Lena, and we discussed that I probably needed to lose some weight to help me jump. It wasn't a negative thing, it was all positive. Every day I knew I was moving towards something good, and she helped me."

Although Allik describes the rink as her "second home", and somewhere she gladly spends most of her day, she works out in the warm, too. "I go to the gym, depending on the time, but before a competition I'll maybe go once a week, not to get too heavy. In summer I go to the gym every day and that training is really heavy and not very enjoyable, because the muscle pain is crazy. During the season it's three times a week, plus I run, and I run and jump on the stairs a lot, for speed." What weight can she lift? "I don't want to say the number because my rivals could read it, but it's pretty heavy - many times heavier than me."

Instagram, which Allik likes (below), is full of aspirational people trying to get the perfect body, or just get fit enough for a marathon, or some other goal. I wonder if she has any words of inspiration for amateur athletes. "First of all, don't do something you don't like. Doing something against your will is such a waste of time, you won't get anything from that."

"There are so many ways to get into shape. The person who wants to get into shape has to find their own exercises that they feel comfortable with, and do them as much as possible, but not overdo it. It's okay to train with muscle pain - I know a lot of people who do squats and then say they're not going to train the next day because of muscle pain - but that makes it worse, that, I know for sure."

Away from physical exercise, Allik keeps her mind active through what she calls "distractions," like a Law degree at Tallinn University of Technology. "I need some kind of plan B. I've seen so many occasions where people get injured, and they have to end their career in a day, and they don't have anything they can do, so it's nice that I have that option that, IF something happens, I'm going to have something else."

"I'm the kind of person who might not study for two weeks, then do twenty hours of insane studying. That's how I've always been, because I went through high school only studying independently. I haven't really been to school since the ninth grade, because I was away so often, so I either studied online or on my own, and I graduated with the best [possible] grade. I'm used to being independent, so I know how to manage my time."

She also takes the occasional opportunity to try other sports, and loves watching - and occasionally taking part in - motorsport, particularly rallying. Yoga provides a calm oasis, but it is her friends who are the rock in her life. "The friends I have, they know I'll be somewhere - they can always call me, but I don't see them that often, because I'm away a lot, and I can be quite tired - but my real friends have stayed around over the years."

Spending more time in Estonia, Allik understands what she missed, even when she had thought she was content. "Sometimes I wouldn't even [fly back to Estonia] for six months. I think what's helped this season is that I've been home. You get homesick, and you don't think how it might affect your skating, but you might be more tired physically, because you spend a lot of time missing home. If you're far away, you don't really think of that, but now I'm home, I think I've learned a lot."

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