A Soviet Figure Skating Coach and His Unlikely Path to U.S. Olympic Glory
Rafael Arutyunyan went from Tbilisi, Georgia, to Armenia to Moscow before arriving in California.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because there’s no podium for great coaches.
The 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, is a showcase for the world’s best athletes, each with his or her own compelling story and personal journey. But among those who train the athletes, few have crisscrossed the globe to get there quite like figure skating coach Rafael Arutyunyan. During his decadeslong career, he has worked with Olympic veterans like two-time medalist Michelle Kwan and first-timers like Nathan Chen, who this month earned a bronze medal and set a record by completing six quads in a single routine, and Adam Rippon, another American bronze medalist in Pyeongchang. Arutyunyan’s story begins in the farthest reaches of the former Soviet Union before shifting to California’s San Bernardino Mountains and, finally, to Gangwon province in South Korea.
“They can take my picture,” Arutyunyan joked when asked about going to Pyeongchang — his fourth Olympics — where he coached three skaters, including Chen.
But this titan of the sport will be doing more at the Winter Games than posing for the cameras. “When it’s time to compete, he’s very zoned in and focused, just like us,” says American skater Mariah Bell, who has trained with Arutyunyan since 2016 and was named a second alternate to the 2018 U.S. Olympic team after placing fifth at the national championships. “Just looking at his past and who he’s coached and who he’s developed into champions, he’s very respected.”
There were only two things on TV: Communist Party meetings and figure skating. So my mom took me to figure skating.
The 60-year-old Arutyunyan was born in Tbilisi, the capital of what is now the Republic of Georgia but then considered part of the Soviet Union. Located squarely between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, the city is actually closer to Turkey than Moscow. Growing up in such a remote part of the sprawling Soviet Empire left Arutyunyan with distinct childhood memories. “There were only two things on TV: Communist Party meetings and figure skating,” he recalls. “So my mom took me to figure skating.”
Inspired by three-time Olympic gold medalist Irina Rodnina, Arutyunyan was a regular at his hometown rink by the age of 7, but it soon became clear that he would never have access to adequate training in Tbilisi. So he eventually shifted gears, started coaching and moved to the closest region with more sophisticated training resources. For the future coaching great, that meant Armenia, still a world away from the Soviet Union’s sporting hub.
Then, in 1981, the unthinkable happened. “My student got national junior champion of USSR, which was a surprise for all,” says Arutyunyan. “They never had anybody like that from that small country.”
When that student, Saak Mkhitarian, went on to place sixth at the junior world championships, the then-23-year-old coach caught the attention of the Russian sporting federation, which invited Arutyunyan to its main training facility in Moscow, more than 1,200 miles from his hometown.
And with that, the young coach was sucked into the whirlwind of the Soviet Union’s boot-camp-like training program.
“He explained to me that they, as coaches, didn’t make money unless their athletes won medals,” says Mariah Bell. “It was very competitive. I think that’s where a lot of his competitive drive comes from.”
After spending four years obtaining the proper teaching certification in Moscow, Arutyunyan started over under the tutelage of legendary coach Tatiana Tarasova, who, alongside her father, Soviet hockey coach Anatoly Tarasov, was the equivalent of Russian royalty. For two decades, from 1981 to 2001, Arutyunyan helped power a Russian skating machine that captured 12 Olympic gold medals and 36 world championships.
Whether coaching with the Soviet Union or the Russian Federation, established in 1991, Arutyunyan earned a measure of celebrity and the opportunity to travel abroad for tournaments. Considered a luxury in Soviet-era Russia, travel opened Arutyunyan’s eyes to the West.
“It was like a different world,” he tells OZY, of seeing America for the first time, in 2000. He’d come to California at the invitation of Carol Probst, a former Ice Follies performer who, in 1988, founded the Ice Castle International Training Center in Lake Arrowhead. Located in the San Bernardino Mountains, the center had the altitude that helped skaters build lung capacity and endurance, and Arutyunyan brought the experience and reputation that could attract more talent to the facility.
Shortly after his arrival, Arutyunyan encountered an American skater named Michelle Kwan. She’d won silver at the 1998 Winter Games and, with Arutyunyan’s guidance, would go on to medal again in 2002 (he also coached her to two world championships, bringing her total to five). Kwan became the latest in a succession of star skaters trained by the world-renowned coach — others include Evan Lysacek, Jeffrey Buttle, Mao Asada and Ashley Wagner.
“I’m not Russian coach, I’m an international coach,” Arutyunyan says. “In Russia I was working only with Russian skaters.… It opened my mind and gives me more experience to understand people.”
Even so, for this Georgian expat, certain aspects of California life didn’t come easily, like navigating the local highways. And the skating icon, who has two children with his skating coach wife, Vera, still has trouble believing the winding path that brought him to the pinnacle of his sport. It’s enough to make one of figure skating’s most imposing figures crack a smile.
“If somebody would tell me, ‘You would end up in America,’ I would just laugh. In that day it was impossible,” he says. “And I live in California, don’t forget that.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified coach Nadia Kanaeva in a photo caption.