Over the last decade, Olga Ganicheva and Aleksey Letov have quietly moved toward the top rank of American figure skating coaches. The husband-and-wife team, who are originally from Russia, started coaching in the Dallas, Texas, area in 2002. There, they built up a skating school based at one of the Dr.Pepper StarCenter rinks in the area (now Children’s Health StarCenter). Their skaters started appearing regularly at U.S. Nationals. In 2016, Ganicheva and Letov’s coaching success was recognized with a Developmental Coach of the Year award from the Professional Skaters Association.
Last year, Ganicheva and Letov started a new chapter when they moved from Dallas to Boston to become High Performance Directors at the Skating Club of Boston’s new three-rink facility in Norwood, Massachusetts. They brought their skating group to Boston with them. Ganicheva and Letov are unusual among elite-level coaches in that they coach both singles and pairs. Their top pairs teams, Audrey Lu/Misha Mitrofanov and Emily Chan/Spencer Howe, finished just off the podium, in fourth/fifth place respectively, at this year’s 2021 Toyota U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
Recently, Ganicheva took a few minutes between coaching sessions to talk about her and Letov’s background, their move to Boston, and her thoughts on the pairs event at the 2021 ISU World Championships in Stockholm, Sweden.
Q: Can you tell me where you’re from in Russia, and about your skating careers there?
Ganicheva: Aleksey is from the biggest and strongest club in Russia. It was called “Red Army” (now the CSKA Moscow club). He is from Moscow. His coach was the most famous Russian coach, Stanislav Zhuk, who raised a lot of Soviet Union Olympic and World champions. So that’s where Alexsey was trained. Alexsey did singles and pairs.
And I am from Ekaterinburg. It’s a few hours from Moscow. My coach was Oleg Epstein. He’s in America right now. He used to work with Marina Zoueva. They brought two teams, Virtue/Moir and Davis/White, to the Olympic podium.
Q: Did you skate singles or pairs, or both?
Ganicheva: I did singles, and then ice dance. And Aleksey did singles, and then pairs.
Q: Did you compete internationally?
Ganicheva: We were both international masters of sports in the Soviet Union [a formal designation for athletes competing internationally]. And we both competed in international competitions and in Grand Prix [events]. But we never competed at Worlds or Olympics. We stopped skating [competing] in 1996. The country was broke. And our families couldn’t support us, because no one had money [at that time]. Ice rinks closed. So we decided to stop skating and start working. That was Aleksey’s decision and my decision.
Q: Did you know each other when you were growing up and competing?
Ganicheva: Yes. From 12 years old. Aleksey and I were both on the Soviet Union national team. So in Russia, we trained together, competed together, stayed at the same hotels. Yes, we knew each other for a long time, since we were young. We weren’t friends together, but we knew each other. And we met as husband and wife [a couple] when we started to do show business. After we stopped competing, we did shows everywhere in the world, and we got married.
Q: So you skated together as a pair team professionally?
Ganicheva: Yes, as pair skaters, but only in shows. We never competed together, because he was in pairs and I was an ice dancer. But in the show, we started skating together, and we were successful principal pair skaters.
Q: What was it like for you to transition from ice dance to pairs?
Ganicheva: The only difference was the big lifts and very scary tricks. But it was fun, because Aleksey is a very professional pair skater, so it was easy. And I was a dancer. So it was like beauty and power on the ice. It was actually a lot of fun.
Q: Did you do throw jumps and lifts?
Ganicheva: Oh, yes, everything. And back flips! Aleksey used to throw me over in back flips. We did the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, with Sarah Kawahara [well-known skating choreographer]. She invited us to skate. And five pairs teams were doing back flips in the opening ceremony.
Aleksey and I also opened [did opening shows for] the first Royal Caribbean ships with ice rinks. We opened the Royal Caribbean Explorer of the Seas (2000) and Voyager of the Seas (2001). That was a special moment, because it was the first time in the world that ships like this hosted figure skating shows. We did a really big production in America—Broadway on Ice. And we worked with a Russian show producer, and traveled everywhere in the world: France, Germany, Canada, everywhere.
Q: What happened after you retired from professional skating?
Ganicheva: David Kirby [skating judge and owner of the Dallas Galleria Ice Skating Center] had invited us to do shows for him at Christmas. We did two years of shows there. And he said: “Guys, if you ever want to do teaching, I would like to teach with you.” After the Salt Lake City Olympics, we decided to have a family. So we called David. Aleksey and I never planned to actually live in the United States. And we never, ever thought to live in Texas. But David said: “Well, guys, I need you.” And we came, and had our first tryout, and that’s it. We started teaching at the Galleria mall rink [later moving to a StarCenter rink]. We were successful; our group won 27 National medals in Dallas.
Q: What led you to move to Boston?
Ganicheva: Well, in Dallas, we worked for 10+ years. Then the management in StarCenter changed. And they decided that they didn’t really want figure skating any more. They only wanted to focus on hockey. So they cut a lot of ice time from us, and basically killed our program. A lot of senior skaters could not practice, and ice was just staying empty [in some cases]. We asked them why they do that. And they said: “Well, we are trying to save money, that’s how our business is going.” We explained that we cannot survive and produce medals like that.
People found out about our situation, and we started to get offers. We got an offer in California and from the Skating Club of Boston. And we decided to move to Boston, which I think is the best facility in America right now, and is hopefully going to be a very big training center. Our federation [U.S. Figure Skating] supported us. You know how in Colorado, at the Broadmoor, they have a training center? They want the Boston club to have a training center like that.
Q: So U.S. Figure Skating was glad to have you move to Boston?
Ganicheva: They strongly suggested it. Because at this facility, we have everything, from a medical team to training technology. Everything that you could wish for figure skaters. I’ve said, if you cannot succeed here, in this environment, in this building–then you cannot succeed anywhere. Because it’s everything [you need] to train. To get your dream, and to succeed.
Q: Do your skaters like the facility?
Ganicheva: Oh, yes. I feel like they are more motivated. Before Nationals, we had just moved. But now, they’re very motivated and working very hard. They’re just happy to be in this rink and skate. It’s beautiful ice. If you need a spinner, there’s a spinner. If you need research in the medical [area], if you’re injured, there is a doctor right there in the building, helping you, with X-rays. Good coaches, good skaters. A bright, warm rink. What else can you wish for? Even the music system cost $800K, to play your program beautifully. I think for any figure skater, any coach, it’s a dream place. If you want to work hard and produce medals or results, it’s the place to be.
Q: That’s nice, because not all rinks in the U.S. have those amenities for skaters.
Ganicheva: Most rinks in the United States, they are hockey rinks. Figure skating is supplementary. Our rink in Dallas was also good–of course, not as professional as this [Boston]. But figure skating was supplementary to hockey.
Q: You and Aleksey were trained in Russia. Do you feel like you bring some of the Russian coaching style and methods to your work?
Ganicheva: Yes. Every coach’s teaching is a little bit based on experience, right? Of course, figure skating has changed so much. From when we skated, to what’s going on now, it’s changed completely. We have to grow and adjust our teaching style or approach. But I think discipline, high expectations …that’s what makes us different. Basically, our idea is that we need to pull out the maximum from the skater. But we try to do it in a positive way. We try to make it fun. If you watch my Instagram, you will see that we work hard, but we’re also very happy and very creative with our skaters. We do dancing; we do lots of motivational things.
Q: How do you and Aleksey divide the work in your school? Do you have areas of specialty?
Ganicheva: Aleksey is more in charge for the jumps, and I’m more in charge for the skating and artistic side. But we work as a team. We also invite different coaches and choreographers. We are open-minded, and we like to learn from others.
Q: Your school is unusual, in that you have both high-level singles skaters and pairs in the same group. How does that work out?
Ganicheva: Actually, it works out perfectly. We don’t have any preference. It’s like with your kids–you don’t have a preference. Each of our skaters is independently prepared, and it doesn’t matter if they are pairs or singles. The kids train together, too. There is no separation.
Q: So you have singles skaters and pairs training on the same practices?
Ganicheva: Always. It’s not a problem if you are all high-level. The singles learn from pairs about emotions and eye contact. The pairs learn from singles about jumps. That’s why our pairs do their jumps very consistently and nicely. Triple jumps are not unique for them, because everybody around them is jumping. They do the same stroking and jump classes, the same ballet classes and off-ice training. The singles skaters see the connections and feelings of pairs, and they’re learning from them. It works perfectly together.
Q: With side-by-side jumps becoming so important in pairs skating, it seems like this type of approach may be helpful.
Ganicheva: I hope so. We will see over the next year. (Laughs) But I think it’s really working, and I think it’s helpful. For example, pair girls, they overcome a lot of things, like falling on the throws. The singles skaters ask them how they do that. For the singles skaters to fall on a double Axel, it’s nothing, after they see a boy throw the girl across the ice for throws. So it works. They feed off each other.
Q: Right now, you have two top pairs in your group, Lu/Mitrofanov and Chan/Howe. Are you also working with lower-level pairs as well?
Ganicheva: Yes. We are open for all levels. After this, I’m meeting with a five-year-old girl for a lesson. And I’m so excited. She just started skating, but she’s very cute and has talent. So she’s my client. Actually, for twenty years, we raised from zero. Not many [experienced skaters] really came to us. Most of the medals we got, it’s from the beginning.
Q: Having more lower-level pairs in the United States would be good, and hopefully help the U.S. pairs program.
Ganicheva: Well, that’s a goal. Here, with the opportunities in this rink, we can actually do a pairs program. Because it’s three rinks. Ice from 6:00 a.m. until 10 p.m. So you can make any program you’re capable of. That’s why we’re here, because the opportunity is huge. Hopefully we will stay healthy and strong, and be working very hard. And in a few years, we will produce.
Q: The World Championships recently took place in Sweden. Were you able to watch any of it?
Ganicheva: Everyone on the ice [at the rink], whenever there was an American or Russian or Japanese skater, everybody stopped. Everybody opened computers or phones. And everybody is watching, and screaming! [Laughs] It was a really nice atmosphere in the rink–everybody cheering. There were like twenty skaters on the ice after my company class, and we were watching Nathan Chen. You should have heard the screaming!
Q: Yes, it was an exciting Worlds. Any thoughts in particular on the pairs event?
Ganicheva: Of course, I have lots of thoughts. The Russians are very strong. And the Chinese pair, Sui/Han, I really like them. Well, we have to work hard to be like them. What else can I say? Our pairs can jump. They just need to work on the polish, and style, and skating skills.
Q: Were you surprised to see Mishina/Galliamov win gold in just their first try at Worlds?
Ganicheva: I wasn’t surprised, because we knew they were strong. They did a clean program, and others messed up. Right now, I think the situation is, whoever will do the most clean program, they’re going to be the champion. So, no, I wasn’t surprised. All three [Russian] teams can be the champion. Or the Chinese. They just skated the cleanest.
Q: Are you a fan of the programs and style of the younger Russian teams?
Ganicheva: No, I’m not. I’m a fan of their lifts. I think their lifts are extremely acrobatic and new. But for style, I’m a fan of the Chinese team, actually.
Q: Yes. Sui/Han brought an extra level of emotion to their skating at Worlds.
Ganicheva: Yes–connection, the level of emotion. They are professional. They definitely have a great style. Unfortunately, they couldn’t skate their best [at Worlds]. Russian pairs are new and fresh and young. Let’s see what they’re going to be in the future.
Q: This past year, the Russian federation arguably created more competition opportunities for their skaters than any other country. Did that give the Russians an advantage going into Worlds?
Ganicheva: I don’t think so. Because the American federation also did a video competition [the ISP Points Challenge], and Skate America. No, I don’t think so. You can use this as an excuse, but on that level, not really. If you want to feel pressure, you can always do small competition [simulations] in-house. When you’re a professional, there are no excuses. You use what you have.
Q: Right. I thought that Sui/Han showed that. Even though they weren’t able to compete this whole past year, they still put out great performances.
Ganicheva: Exactly. And they’ve had so many injuries, too. But look how beautiful they are, and how strong they are. No, I never agree with any excuses. In any situation that the world gives you, you deal with it. That is what makes the difference between being professional–and not professional.
Note: You can follow Ganicheva and Letov on Instagram at @olgaalexcoaching.