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Interview with Peter Grütter – Neuchâtel, December 20, 2003
(translated from German)

 

Could you please introduce yourself: Where you come from, when you started skating, what kind of career you had?

That's quite a while ago. (laughs) I'm originally from Berne (Switzerland) and in the 1950's I competed for the Schlittschuhclub Berne (SCB) skating club. I stopped in 1964 after participating at the Olympic Games in Innsbruck.
At that time I worked in a bank but I always wanted to leave, so in 1965 I started to coach, for the first ten years in Montana (Valais) and since 1976 in Geneva. 
You see I am not a newbie. My teacher was Jack Gerschwiler who was our coach at that time. He was the one who pioneered the method, all the way back in 1930, which we're still using. He gave me the knowledge I have today. And when you're lucky and you always have good students who can translate into action what you teach them, you learn even more. I have been lucky and I have always had skaters who became Swiss Champions like Oliver Höner of Art on Ice or Miriam Oberwiler who is a coach here in Neuchâtel. So since 1981 I've been able to go to European Championships with skaters but I've never had such an amazing skater as Stéphane.


How and where did you notice/meet Stéphane and how did your co-operation begin?

I didn't notice Stéphane. When he was nine he wanted to train with me. At that time I had a very good Turkish skater and Stéphane said to his mother that he would love to work with the coach of this Turkish skater in Geneva. And since Stéphane's family lives in Saxon and there were no possibilities for him to practice, he had to go to Sion or Villars from when he was little, so he was used to travel. Stéphane and his mother introduced themselves to me and I saw right away that he was incredibly talented. I saw that he was skating with his heart and his soul. When he was ten or eleven, judges already told him that they would see him one day at the World Championships. So that already started when he was really little and since then he has improved unbelievably without having a real role model. That means this Turkish skater soon stopped training with me. She had the feeling she wasn't No.1 anymore, so she left.
Stéphane skates with his heart and his soul; he is a real skater and that's why he could never stop, although he says that he'll quit once a week. But it's like that: if something doesn't work, he wants to quit. But he would never do it, I know that.


Was the long distance, since you're living far away from each other, and Stéphane's young age a big problem?

The traveling of course is enormous. We calculated once that he has to cover up to 1200 km (746 miles) per week, first with his mother who drove him in her car, then, when he was old enough, by train and now unfortunately in his own car. Unfortunately, because that also stresses and tires him. In the train he could do his homework and relax a little; he can't do that anymore.
The strain was always big for him. But this obstacle made me realize that he was a real skater. When one takes that upon himself and always comes back, that means he really wants to do what he does. Anyone else would have said that this was too complicated, that it wasn't worth it. That's why I have the feeling we have a really special talent here. He is in a situation where there are many such exceptional talents in the world. Now it's a lottery if he'll make it to the top or not. But to be among the top ten nowadays is the same as a victory in the past; it's equal because there are many more skaters and with that, much more talent. If I could I would have ten first places. In Ice Dancing anyway, you can't tell them apart anymore. In that category there should be a lot more gold medals because those are all such fantastic skaters. 
Stéphane's young age never was a problem. His mother always drove him; she literally sacrificed herself and even put her family life at risk because she knew what commitment it needed, she knew that he had to practice regularly to improve. Without her commitment it would never have worked out because talent is not the only thing that is necessary. 


How is working with Stéphane? What are his strengths and his weaknesses, as a skater and as a person?

Stéphane's weakness is his impatience but he knows that. During puberty it was even worse of course. Then we clashed from time to time. I let him get away with things I wouldn't let others because I knew he'd give everything again. If he was such a twit, he wouldn't be able to do all that, so you have to bite your tongue and turn a blind eye because I know it's for a good reason. Stéphane puts a lot in and has a good attitude. He's got a good head on his shoulders and that is the important thing. He can't be compulsively ambitious, which he isn't. He just wants to do good work, to improve. But he also accepts others who do good work and that is important.
One of Stéphane's advantages is also that he's a hard worker. He loves it: to do the whole program, to stretch himself.
Stéphane found out something really important and I learned it through him. I was always one of those who stopped when they were tired and Stéphane doesn't do that. I noticed that when you don't stop when you're tired, you get back the energy you let out. It's like recharging batteries. I noticed it when I was swimming. When I am tired but I go on swimming the tiredness dwindles suddenly. Stéphane found that out while he was skating. If many others also found that out, we would have many more talented skaters.
As a person Stéphane is very spontaneous, warmly spontaneous. He is very sincere and he always says what he thinks. That's not always easy but it is good anyway. Because of that he's not at all inhibited like many teenagers of his age. Stéphane never had this problem. He is open and warm and he is also very charming and with charming people you forgive many things. He's very popular everywhere we go. Maybe he's lucky to be Swiss. They always say "ah those Russians" or "oh those Americans" and then there's someone from such a small country! At the moment that could be an advantage.


What is a "normal" training session with Stéphane like? Do you give commands from behind the boards or do you go onto the ice?

I always go on the ice because I said to myself that the day I won't be able to put on my skates anymore, I would quit. This is just our way of coaching; we skate alongside so we can observe the jumps. When Stéphane comes to training, he first warms up and then we get on pretty quickly. He takes care of the difficult elements and the programs right away. That way we never lose a lot of time. He is lucky; he doesn't have to repeat the relatively easy jumps a hundred times, so he can concentrate on the quad and the triple axel. Others have to work on their triples again and again and with Stéphane this is not the case. He probably trains much less than others in this category.


What are Stéphane's goals, what do you want achieve together in the near future?

We actually never talk about goals. We never say that we want to achieve this or that ranking. Stéphane will imagine it for himself, just like I do, but we never talk about it because I don't want to stress him even more since he is already stressed enough with Matura (final exams) and traveling back and forth. I don't talk about goals with any of my students. We just try to do our best because the rankings we achieve do not only depend on us. They also depend on what the others do. But we never know what they'll do. There are skaters who skate very well but don't make it to the top because there are always even better skaters. Or you skate badly and the others even worse and you are among the top skaters.
That is why I never overrate the result. Of course I am happy if he finishes well. After becoming fourth in Lausanne, he was "only" fifth in Malmö but, nevertheless, the result was much better. Nobody said that he had lost one place. There was just one more skater who was in front of him. 
Like I said, we don't talk about goals apart from when it comes to elements. That means we say we will try this or that jump. But we don't talk about rankings.


What is your greatest memory so far? Do you have a funny story you want to tell Stéphane's fans?

I have strong memories of the European Championships in Lausanne. One week before the competition, Stéphane wasn't in good shape at all. I even thought about not letting him participate. But as we remember he skated amazingly there. That day I thought somebody must have had a hand in it; it must have been some kind of magic. Shortly before, Jack Gerschwiler and another figure skating coach, who Stéphane really liked, had died. Stéphane had a very good relationship with both of them. I then thought that these two might have been in on it from above. I just thought that and Stéphane spoke it out loud. I was fascinated that he had said what I had thought. That actually happens very often but this was probably the most remarkable experience.
And then of course the amazing Long Program in the qualification in Washington where so many people said afterwards that he should have won. But that is only one side of the story. It was an amazing performance but the same moment I thought now he had used the energy of two days. The next day he had to skate the Short Program and unfortunately I was right. He was totally burned out. If we had had one day off, he could have made it but he didn't have the time to recover. Also one of his bad qualities! He doesn't know how to measure out his energy. But if I try to stop him, I may take away his vigor and I do not want that either. 

These were two skating highlights.

I once had a very special experience with Stéphane when he was twelve years old. We were driving by car to a competition in The Hague. Stéphane had never been in Holland before and I never by car. After crossing the border in Belgium, I had to look for the right way. Stéphane then told me which way I had to take, he was my co-pilot. I asked him why he knew all that and he said that it had been written on the invitation. Those were really difficult names, hardly pronounceable. Shortly after, we arrived at the hotel and later on at the rink. He read all that when he was a little boy, he knew which way to take and I would have had to stop and ask a hundred times. That made me realize that Stéphane was not only a great skater but also very intelligent. I remember that experience very well.
There was another thing, it happened in China. It was in Beijing at a Junior Grand Prix. The first day we went to the rink and there were practically only Chinese, Japanese, American and Canadian skaters. We had a quite simple Short Program combination, triple toe loop-triple toe loop. Stéphane wasn't able to land the flip and lutz backwards yet and he was not happy at all about it. While we were watching the practice, he saw that all the skaters at least had triple lutz-triple toe loop or triple axel-triple toe loop and he said to me that he will also do triple lutz-triple toe loop. I reminded him that he wasn't able to do that yet; that he had always cursed they weren't backwards. He told me that he didn't want to be the only one with such a simple combination. Then I thought: if I forbid him now to do it, he would probably be so angry that he would even fall on the simple combination. I said to him: "Actually you are right, do it, just don't come to my crying if you fall." And he did the triple lutz-triple toe loop combination and from that day on, lutz and flip were backwards.
After that we went to Lausanne to the European Championships and the people looked at us funny because Stéphane suddenly knew how to do those jumps. Everything just happened so fast. That shows that Stéphane knows himself well enough to make such decisions.


How many students do you have at the moment?

I have four boys, Stéphane included, and some more girls. All in all I have about 12 skaters who participate at the Swiss Championships. And then I have some little ones who participate at regional championships.


Is there a "new Stéphane", a new hope for Switzerland?

There is a new talent, a young girl who was Swiss Champion in the "Minis" last year and this year in the "Espoirs". She will now move up to the "Novices". And then there is a young boy who won in the "Espoirs" and will now move up to the "Novices". Those two and some others who are really promising. I'm having a lot of fun with my little ones.
I have a really young girl, a six-year-old, who will probably follow in Stéphane's footsteps. She has a great personality and knows how to entertain. She can't do much yet but I know she will make it one day.


How many competitions do you attend each year?

During winter, I am at competitions every weekend; I am actually always on the road. After the men's Long Program at European or World Championships I have to go back because there is mostly a competition going on at home on weekends. But that doesn't bother me. The only thing that is a pity at competitions is that you do not really get the feeling of a competition. If I watched them at home on TV, I would see a lot more. You're always standing around in the hallway and you can follow the whole thing only on a small TV. You don't know what the atmosphere among the public is.
Here (in Neuchâtel) I was lucky because both of my students were the first to skate in the Short Program but you don't want to skate first in the Long Program because that means you are in the worst group! 
On the other hand it is of course great that I still have skaters with whom I can go to competitions.


Which event/country has the best atmosphere? 

Until now the atmosphere has been great everywhere, above all for Stéphane. For example two years ago in Paris at the Trophée Lalique or a few weeks ago in Moscow. He's never performed in Russia before but the people knew him already. This is probably thanks to Eurosport which is represented very well throughout Europe. When you show up with Stéphane you can be sure that people will watch. 
That is why it is actually hard to say, I like it almost everywhere. Only in Finland at the Finlandia Trophy two years ago we were not successful, there was no atmosphere at all. He skated really badly and I think that was because he wasn't motivated by the frosty atmosphere. If there is nothing coming from the audience, nothing great will happen.
 
The atmosphere in Salt Lake City at the Olympic Games wasn't good either. The seats were way too far away from the ice, you had to take your field glasses with you. And also the seats were too expensive. The people probably bought the tickets for the prestige, those people were not real fans.
I just like it everywhere the audience responds, if there is an audience at all but here in Neuchâtel it is way too cold, here you get a pyelitis!


What do you think about the new judging system?

For Stéphane it is very good. It is designed for him. All his qualities stand out. I am glad that it is coming because the run on even more jump rotations will stop and after a little while we will have more artistic skaters again. I think it will be more exciting. I hope it will be better for the ladies, too, that they will stop asking for the same from them as from the men. That is a reason why the men's competition is more interesting, because, in my opinion, the ladies are still overtaxed. Before they reach puberty it still works out but afterwards not anymore and I believe that this is the reason the number of spectators is dropping. But this will soon change, it has to!
The judges still can express their opinion. That means it lies in their hands to say, through the second mark, that a program was beautiful even though the most difficult elements are missing. We had that experience in Russia. Stéphane could profit from it in the Short Program where he fell twice. He left several skaters who skated clean but were boring, behind. It is as if the audience was giving the marks and that is what the audience wants. It wants skaters who connect with them to be on top. Of course we can not cheapen the jumps either, they are something concrete. Otherwise everybody would stop doing them and then the athletic aspect would disappear. 
I think when the audience sees that its favorites are on top again, the number of spectators will increase.


Thank you Mr. Grütter!

 

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