A couple days ago, I was reminded again of all that we lost on July 19, when Denis Ten was killed in Kazakhstan.
Russian skater Sergei Voronov announced that Denis had choreographed his new short program. Usually I love it when gifted skaters try their hand at choreography; it’s wonderful to think of their artistry carrying on, even after they’re no longer skating. But this …. To know that Denis Ten’s first year as a choreographer was also his last, just left me with an ache inside.
The figure skating world lost so much with Denis Ten’s death. I’m still trying to come to terms with it, as I think everyone is. Denis was unique, special. He stood out, even among elite skaters, an exceptionally talented group. The flame of Denis Ten’s life burned bright, so bright. He was only given 25 years on this earth, but he accomplished more in that brief span than most people ever will.
We know, of course, of his skating accomplishments. Olympic medalist, two-time World medalist, Four Continents champion, winner of 2 Grand Prix medals, first skater from Kazakhstan to stand on international podiums. Denis Ten’s competitive record would be impressive for any skater.
But it was extraordinary that Denis accomplished all this, coming from Kazakhstan. Prior to his career, his country had almost literally no presence in international figure skating. History, tradition, and accumulated knowledge count for a great deal in the figure skating world, and none of this existed in Kazakhstan. Yet Denis was such a unique talent that he transcended the lack of institutional support behind him.
The magnitude of his accomplishment is hard to overstate. If you look at the list of men’s World Championships medalists from as far back as 1980, you see the same few flags over and over again. Canada, Russia, the Soviet Union, USA, Japan. Less frequently, France and Germany. But starting in the mid-2000s, a few very special male skaters broke through to win World medals and titles and bring their countries to the forefront for the first time. Stephane Lambiel of Switzerland, Javier Fernandez of Spain, and Denis Ten of Kazakhstan lifted nations that were either small or had little tradition of figure skating, or both, into the top echelon. It’s a special distinction that falls to very few skaters.
Because of this, Denis was more than just a figure skater in Kazakhstan. He was a national icon, a hero to many, and a symbol of Kazakhstani sport. After the 2014 Olympic Games, where he won the bronze medal, Denis’s success sparked a sudden boom in popularity for figure skating in Kazakhstan. Denis was also asked to become an ambassador for his country’s bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics. He supported the initiative wholeheartedly, meeting and speaking with the press and IOC officials. Ultimately the bid failed—but not for any lack of effort or commitment on Denis’s part.
Denis was always a patriot, proud to represent Kazakhstan. He took his role as the face of Kazakhstani figure skating very seriously; and he deeply desired to support figure skating in Kazakhstan and help it grow. That’s why he started his show Denis Ten & Friends in 2013. He wanted to give the public in Kazakhstan the chance to experience figure skating at the highest level. Over the next five years, Denis attracted some of the biggest names in the sport—Mao Asada, Carolina Kostner, Volosozhar/Trankov, Daisuke Takahashi, and many others—to come appear in his show and help support figure skating in Kazakhstan.
What an accomplishment! Only a handful of competitive figure skaters have ever had the necessary support, time, or energy to launch their own skating show while still competing. Somehow, Denis managed it.
Denis did so many things, in addition to figure skating. It was amazing, really, how much he was involved in. During his competitive career, he completed his undergraduate college degree and started an MBA program. Combining his interests in business and skating, he published an article last year suggesting improvements to the ISU’s information technology platform to ease skaters’ competitive travel and partner searches.
Denis was also a gifted photographer, sharing many of his eye-catching, haunting images via Twitter and Instagram. (A favored subject in earlier years: Astana, the gleaming, modernistic capital city of Kazakhstan.) Denis was also interested in videography and filmmaking. Earlier in life, he was a serious choral singer; this musical background no doubt contributed to his artistry on ice. I’m pretty certain I also saw video of him at some point, playing classical music on the piano.
There was very little that Denis Ten wasn’t interested in. He had a level of curiosity about the world and a constant creativity that most people don’t possess, or not nearly to the extent that he did. That’s what I meant when I said that his flame burned so bright: Denis lived his life to the fullest. No time was wasted, no interests left unexplored, it seemed. Yet he still made time for friends and family. I admired Denis as much for his life off the ice as I did for his skating.
Denis was an intriguing person in so many ways. He was truly a global citizen. You might say that a certain restlessness marked his life. He lived first in Russia, then in the United States, for training purposes. During the 2016-17 season, he lived at times in both places, as he followed then-coach Nikolai Morozov on his travels. He was often on the road to competitions and shows and other events.
Yet despite his global travels, Denis had a deep attachment to Kazakhstan, returning often to his home country for business and family reasons. He also took pride in his family’s ethnic Korean background. Denis was very much a person of the 21st century and the Internet age, but at the same time had an unusually strong awareness of his own identity, heritage, and history.
Denis brought that sense of identity into his skating. His final long program, which he skated last year and would have skated again this season, was set to music performed by a Kazakhstani musician, a connection that inspired him. Another creative peak in his career was his Silk Road free skate from 2014-15, intended partly as a reflection on the historic role of his country in ancient and medieval trade, his family’s journey from Korea to Kazakhstan, and his own life, which bridged East and West.
Denis was involved in many projects. But, to the end, he remained first a skater. After he won his medal in Sochi, it was hard to combine skating and his many commitments, and he considered retirement at times. But he didn’t retire; he kept going. Even after Pyeongchang, he kept going. He was scheduled to get a new short program the week after his untimely death.
And what a skater Denis was! I first saw him at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Denis was just 16 then, one of the young talents who seemed poised for prominence after that Games. I remember being impressed with his musicality, the excitement of his skating. At that time, Denis had already been competing internationally for four years. The season before, he had become the first Kazakhstani skater to win a Junior Grand Prix event.
The next few seasons (2010-13) saw Denis slowly climbing the ranks. Then, the breakthrough moment of his career came at Worlds 2013 in London, Canada. His performances at that Worlds seemed to come out of nowhere—brilliant, inspired. Although Patrick Chan won the title, it was Denis who captured the hearts and emotions of fans in London and around the world. Denis’s silver medal at that Worlds has become legend in figure skating, part of the lore of our sport. It marked the most dramatic evidence, to that point, of how IJS could allow skaters to move up the ranks very quickly and suddenly.
It was surely fitting that Denis’s triumph in 2013 came while skating two programs to the soundtrack of The Artist. Because although Denis was a strong jumper, he was always best known for his artistry and his unique qualities on the ice.
Denis had a great ability to connect with audiences. This was apparent as far back as Worlds 2009, where he received a standing ovation for his long program, despite being almost entirely unknown at that point. When he was on, he could reach any audience. His musicality was always present, always outstanding. You could see him react instinctively to his music; you could see him pause when the music paused. Unlike many skaters, Denis was at his best performing to challenging and innovative pieces of music. He had the musicality to handle any piece. But, he could still be great even skating to the most tired warhorse.
Denis’s artistry was built on restraint. In some of his most perfect moments on the ice, he did nothing but raise an arm elegantly. It was almost casual at times, yet the movement would fit. Like his friend and fellow skater, Yuna Kim, Denis was never one for wild emotion or histrionics on the ice, but rather classic, gorgeous styling. As Eurosport commentator Chris Howarth said in 2015, “You can see the facial expression, all the effort going in, and yet [his] body is very relaxed.”
I remember some words from U.S. commentator Ryan Bradley about Denis. At one event, Bradley noted that a competitor of Denis’s had presented great programs, but you could see the effort that went into them. “With Denis, it’s like it just sort of happens for him,” Bradley remarked. That was, indeed, the most notable thing about Denis’s artistry—how easy it looked, how effortless it seemed.
The foundation of Denis’s artistry was his excellent skating skills. Ice dancer TJ Carey recently paid tribute to Denis’s skating skills. He was known for the quietness of his blades, the smoothness of his footwork and transitions. Like Mao Asada, Denis was able to perform very difficult and challenging step sequences at the end of his programs with almost no loss of speed or performance quality. His basic skating—the lovely transitions, dynamic choreographic and step sequences—were always what I most looked forward to in his programs. The jumps were almost like icing on the cake.
Which was probably a good thing. Because as we know, Denis was never the most consistent of skaters. He was, in fact, famous (or infamous) for his inconsistency. Early-season Denis was an entirely different skater than peak Denis. The Denis you would see on the Grand Prix was not the Denis you might see at Worlds. At his best, Denis’s jumps were superb in quality, with light, noiseless landings. But, when he wasn’t at his best, the jumps could be a mess. Fans learned to expect this from Denis.
To their immense credit, ISU judges never seemed to care about his inconsistency. Denis was one of very few skaters who could go from 8th in a Grand Prix event in the fall to 2nd or 3rd at Worlds in the spring. When he was on, he was so good that the judges couldn’t stop themselves from handing out high marks. His talent was that undeniable.
The silver lining of Denis’s inconsistency was that it made him among the most relatable of skaters. I always felt like Denis showed us the process of skating: How some days at the rink are great, others not so great, and it takes time to build to peak form. He showed us that even champions have their times when things just aren’t clicking. His frequent struggles in many ways made his triumphs that much more satisfying. It was not given to Denis to be an untouchable skater like Yuna Kim, Michelle Kwan, or Evgenia Medvedeva, astounding fans with consistency and medals in every event. I’m sure that, personally, Denis would have loved to be that skater! But the fact that he wasn’t made him seem more human, more approachable, to many of us.
I met Denis once, at Skate America 2015, after one of those disappointing performances. Denis had a rough skate in the short program. I encountered him walking back from the arena to the hotel afterward, by himself. Truth be told, he was looking a bit preoccupied. But when I hesitantly stopped him to say how much I enjoyed his skating and his programs, Denis was kind, friendly, and gracious. He thanked me in a genuine way and willingly posed for a picture, smiling. It’s that moment and that picture that I’ll remember from the event, more so even than his performances.
Denis faced many obstacles that kept him from attaining greater consistency. Foremost among them was chronic foot problems. Coach Frank Carroll noted that Denis’s feet were atypical and did not sit flat, like most feet. Throughout his career, it was an ongoing struggle to find boots and blades that worked for him and enabled him to skate. Denis also dealt with many injuries and untimely illnesses. And, although Denis’s success earned him many opportunities in Kazakhstan, the downside of being one of the best-known athletes in a small country was that he was constantly being pulled away from his training for events and commitments.
There are many “what ifs” in Denis’s career. What if he had been born with more “typical” feet? What if he had had fewer distractions from training? What would have happened if he’d been able to train at home in Kazakhstan? Now, we are left with the eternal “what if.” What would Denis have been if he lived to 50, 75, 100? A film director? A choreographer–as he was just starting to be? Perhaps an elected leader in his country, or business innovator? He probably had the talent to be any of those things, or all of them. We will never know.
What we do know, what we still have, is his skating. Like his frequent competitor Tatsuki Machida, I personally feel that the high point of Denis’s career came at Four Continents 2015 in Seoul, South Korea. Denis’s performances in Seoul are the programs that I will remember and treasure the most from his career. Before the event, Denis had spoken of how much he looked forward to competing in his ancestral home of Korea. And a certain magic seemed to touch him in Seoul.
He opened the competition with a flawless performance of his Caruso short program. Everything just seemed to flow so beautifully and effortlessly in this classic program, one of the most celebrated of Denis’s career. Soaring and emotional, it was pure joy to watch. “He owned the music,” commented Nicky Slater afterward for EuroSport. “The technical ability in the jumps … He lands them as if they’re effortless. And that just captures your spirit.”
Denis then clinched the Four Continents title with my favorite-ever performance from him, to his Silk Road free skate. “The ‘Silk Road’ program is certainly the most special program of mine,” Denis wrote on Instagram in 2015. “Firstly, I spent all my childhood and was literally born on a ‘Silk Way’ in Kazakhstan. Secondly, not only it brought decent results and memories to the fans and coaches, but the whole process of creating it was an absolutely inspiring experience. The idee fixe of the program was to be constantly in searching … And it [led] to new personal-best scores, the 4CC, World Championships medals … and something even more important—sincere joy and loud ovations. Oh, and Ted[dy] bears, too.”
The originality and spareness of the Silk Road music, as well as the lack of melody in some sections, made it challenging to skate to. Yet Denis seemed perfectly in harmony with the music, on that special day in Seoul in 2015. Here’s a video of his performance:
The program was exciting, fascinating, joyful, with many small, glorious moments. A leaping turn into a lunge in the second section; the elegant placement of the second triple Axel to deep, dramatic bow strokes from Yo-Yo Ma’s cello; the moment when Denis paused before a music change and smiled at the audience; the crispness of the triple flip/triple Salchow combo. And the step sequence at the end, one of my favorites ever. Sharp, rhythmic movement—and Denis fully engaged with the audience throughout. What a triumph! Denis knew it, too; he fell to his knees afterward, overcome by the moment.
The spirit that Denis showed in those special programs in Seoul can never be stilled or silenced. Denis is no longer with us physically. And we will miss him terribly. But he remains alive in our memories, our hearts, our minds. His spirit is still with us; we will hold onto it, keep it with us. Perhaps it might even guide us, in some small way, toward living our lives with the fullness and intentionality that Denis brought to his.
Rest in peace, Denis. And thank you.
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