Interview with Russian skater Alexander Kibalko

Interview courtesy Clara Hughes.

The following is an interview I did with Russian speed skater Alexander Kibalko last year. It has always been interesting for me to talk with other athletes about the different paths that have brought us all to the same place: here, now. Alex is one of the most intriguing and mysterious athletes on the curcuit, and has a great sense of humor as well. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I enjoyed speaking with Alex.

Alex is known not only for his incredible talent on ice, but also his smooth good looks which have graced the pages of GQ magazine. I spoke with Alex during a World Cup in The Netherlands about life, sport, the Russian sports machine and his goals for the future. From Russia with Love, here is Alexander Kibalko:

Clara Hughes: How did you get your start in speed skating?

Alexander Kibalko: I don't really recall. I think it was in the playing yard in our apartment. In the winter I would see the ice, and there was a lot of people skating. And one day I saw those long blades, and I think, 'what is this?', and they say, 'If you want you can come with us, try them'. I was ten years old.

CH: Were you put in a sports school, where did you go from there?

AK: Well, it was kind of, in Russia in the past we had still the same program, you don't have to pay for anything. The government give you skates, bike, sunglasses, that was the program. And if you were good the government would pay you salary.

CH: You could make a salary that young?

AK: Yes, yes. I started to earn money from sport when I was thirteen or fourteen. So, that was the program.

CH: So…where are you from in Russia?

AK: Actually I am from Khazhakstan. Those time it was the Soviet Union. It was just a republic. Skating was very popular in my country because of Madeo, high altitude ice rink, 1600m. Every spring and every fall I was waiting, impatient, 'we go to Madeo'…so nice, very beautiful. Very fast one, that's why a lot of skaters came from Kazakhstan, I was from Tselinograt, Kazakhstan.

CH: When you were young did you have a dream to go to the Olympics, did you know what they were?

AK: My first dream was participation in the World Championships. That became true in 1993, when I was twenty. I went to the juniors. It was, 'whoaaa…I'm in the junior world championships', in Basilga di Pinne, Italy. It was nice, very nice. First time abroad, my eyes like big balls. It was my first time out of Russia.

CH: What is your strongest first memory of 'the outside world'?

AK: I was surprised even in the airport in Moscow. It was so impressive. Big glass, it was so fun. And then by bus all the roads from Milan, I was watching. When not skating I was walking around. I was impressed by how clean it was. In Russia in those times it was not so clean.

CH: It's changed a lot then?

AK: The people changing. You know, when they start traveling abroad, and they know how nice it's here, and now people are more open. Especially my generation. From us to my parents, such a big difference. More open, more free.

CH: In strictly athletic terms, has it changed a lot? If so, for the better or worse?

AK: For me it is better. From one side, in the past if you earned some money, you will pay everything to the government. And some percent you will get. But now I am earning everything for myself. I have to pay only taxes. That's good idea of how to live now. So it's like normal job, not like in the past.

CH: In terms of your federation, is the support the same?

AK: No, it's a very bad situation between our federation and national team. Federation only like twenty years, twelve years one guy is president, and he don't care about athletes. He can say in your eyes, 'Kibalko, I don't need you. You can go.'

CH: Do you feel that you have as many opportunities or more now that things have changed?

AK: Ya, for me it is better, for my age, but I don't like what I see for young people. The government program crashed. For example in Moscow, during Soviet Union, there were 17 sport schools for speed skating, and now there are only four. And, kind of fake ones. Maybe one of them is working. Same all of Russia. Every sport like this. I don't like this, I want to change it.

CH: Are you able to find sponsors in Russia?

AK: It's possible, but someone has to work on it. I don't have time. Like a manger or agent. And maybe big companies, oil companies, gas companies, they sponsor big sports like biathlon, soccer, cross country. They can do it. Speed skating the president is the problem. He sits in his chair and waits.

CH: What do you love the most about speed skating?

AK: I don't know, actually, difficult to say. Mostly people say they like the speed. Everything. I like cycling for example, and doing weight training, running, training. I like training. The spirit of competition is very nice. Not like…very friendly. I think speed skating is most friendly sport. People… nobody will stand on the start line, looking at you, thinking, 'I will kill you'…like in the books… That's good. I like it.

CH: What were your first Olympics like?

AK: Nagano. My biggest memory was some kind of Olympic spirit, a lot of different countries in the same place. All different sports. I had bad presentations there, not good memories (performances).

CH: What is your greatest accomplishment as an athlete?

AK: The winning of the World Cup in 2001. Those moments I was watching Rinje Ritsma (Netherlands). I just had to beat him by one place and I was the winner of the World Cup overall. I was watching him in Calgary, waiting for him to finish his race, wondering. And I was so happy when I won. This moment I like. And maybe the moment of waiting, after you've done a good time, and you are waiting. That's a good one.

CH: What is your worst memory?

AK: Salt Lake City (2002 Winter Olympics). I was over trained and uncomfortable.

CH: Watching you skate is awesome because you are such a good technical skater. A lot of people say that the Russians have some of the nicest technique. I watched your 500m in the second World Cup and it looked like you weren't even trying. How is this possible, is it the Russian system?

AK: I don't know. Somehow just feeling. I didn't always skate like that. I started to skate like that when I came to commercial team: Wehkamp [Alex trained and raced with them]. I just worked hard on skating. We worked hard and, just feeling. You have to have feeling of gliding on ice. Pushing. You have to know physiology, biomechanics.

CH: What do you think makes a good speed skater?

AK: Most importantly, technique. Maybe on the same level physical condition: endurance, power. Mental things. You have to be good in the head, good in the body. The third thing is you have to have fire in your eyes. Sometimes you can see if the skater don't have fire. He can be good, technically good, mentally powerful, but doesn't have fire. He will do nothing.

CH: Do you want to live in Russia in the future?

AK: Yes. Definitely. People always asking me questions, 'you always visiting other countries, which one do you like?' First of all Italy, it was the first country I visited, the food, the people are so good to me. Second I am always saying Canada. I always like Canada. It is kind of similar to Russia. The people, the weather. But I definitely want to live in Russia. What I like about Russia is you can wake up in the morning and you don't know who is the president. That's a good thing, you know, you're always waiting for some changes. Because for example, in Germany, everything is so stable, predictable, like here in Holland. Boring, it's boring. I can't live here for one month, I'd shut down. And what I don't like about foreign countries, the people not…how do you say…we have this saying in Russia, 'man to man'….okay, like for example, I will give you everything I have on my fridge, and tomorrow I won't have anything. But it does not matter. He is my friend. I will give him everything. That is one thing about Russia. Another thing, I can go to my neighbor at three o'clock in the night, 'can I have some bread, some salt?', and he will say, 'of course'. But here, try to do it, it will be like, 'get off of my property, I will call police'. Russia is hospitality country. The more south the more generous. Kazakhstan is close to China, and when you go to a house the table is full. It's nice.

CH: Do you know what you want to do after sport?

AK: What I will do? I have some dreams. I would like to open a bike shop. Do repairs. Another one, I would like to try track cycling. Because the road is too tough, but track is good for skating. Some of the best skaters do track. Maybe Olympics. I would like to be busy with a fitness center. Inline skating park, skateboard park. When I am watching from my apartment I am seeing teenagers smoking, drinking beer. My heart is splitting from this. In the winter they are skating not on the ice, but on the snow. They don't have ice. I hate seeing this.

Clara: Thanks Alex!