The 90s were a difficult time for Russian figure skating. At a time when the country was undergoing fundamental changes, many athletes and coaches rushed abroad, seeing better career prospects there. It was problematic for the state to retain valuable personnel – there was not enough time and resources.
Among others, Rafael Harutyunyan, now famous, had to leave Russia. For many years, the former Soviet figure skater tried to get into the Moscow coaching elite, but the specialist was never allowed to prove himself.
For 23 years he has been raising world stars in the United States.
“Yes, because they were informers…”
Harutyunyan was born in Soviet Georgia, where he dreamed of a career as a figure skater. His mother taught him to skate, later handing him over to the section. Rafael reached a professional level, but never achieved great success, hanging his skates from a nail at the age of 20.
However, the Armenian was not going to give up the sport. In the 1970s, he received a coaching education in Yerevan and began working in his profession. Harutyunyan achieved the first notable results from him already in the 80s, when his student Sahak Mkhitaryan won a bronze medal at the USSR Cup, and also showed herself well at the world junior championship.
In 1985, a talented specialist was invited to work in Moscow, where he moved with his wife Vera, who is also a coach. Arutyunyan was included in the headquarters of Tatyana Tarasova, and at that moment, it seems, huge opportunities opened up for Raphael: he could break into the elite of Russia, and then into the world figure … However, the path turned out to close.
To be a real star, the coaches at that time had to personally like the head of the All-Union Federation, Valentin Piseev. Those who were not among the elite were only allowed to work with beginners; the experienced Arutyunyan, for example, continued to work with young people. According to another specialist, Nina Moser, Piseev’s favorites looked down on the other Soviet coaches. Many of them, in the absence of career prospects, had to seek their fortune in the West; Rafael made such a decision in 2000.
“Rafik went to the United States and settled down. He told me an interesting thing: “Ning, you don’t even understand why we couldn’t get through…” And then he added: “Yes, because they were all informants,” Moser quoted RIA as saying.
World fame came to Harutyunyan a decade and a half after moving to California. There, the specialist and his wife continued to work with young people, subsequently raising several world stars at once, including Adam Rippon, Ashley Wagner and the famous Nathan Chen.
The Chinese-American began working with Harutyunyan when he was just 11 years old. At first, the boy only came occasionally to meet with a specialist, but then he moved to California with his family to train with an Armenian specialist on an ongoing basis.
– Rafael entered the situation and, thanks to his good heart, he kept working with me and taking all the money we could pay. At some point he said that there was no need to pay and that he really wanted to help me achieve my goals. I will be grateful to him for this support all my life,” Chen said later.
Harutyunyan’s gamble was justified. Under his leadership, Nathan became a six-time United States champion, a three-time world champion and also an Olympic champion last year, after bouncing back from an unexpected failure in Pyeongchang.
According to the coach, it turned out much easier for him to prove himself in the United States than in Russia. However, Harutyunyan continued to work abroad according to the Soviet system, which he always appreciated very much. In one of the interviews, the Armenian partially explained Chen’s success by the fact that the athlete’s mother, who at first arranged training for him, inadvertently reproduced all Soviet principles, and most of the specialists with whom worked were Russians.
According to Rafael, Soviet coaches, who moved to the United States en masse shortly after the country’s collapse, made an important contribution to the development of the modern American figure. Apparently, they help American sports even now.