In the summer of 2010, Isabelle Knaute found herself in an unusual position. Originally from Germany and a veteran of the Swiss national team staff, the physical therapist was hired by the Russians to work with a small group of skiers.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a foreign staff member for the Russian team,” star athlete Alexander Legkov told Russian website skirun.ru at the time.
Knaute, who took five years of Russian in school, had originally met Legkov when a friend of his was injured in France, and Knaute rode to the hospital in an ambulance with him. After the 2010 Olympics, her contract with the Swiss was up, and she “saw the opportunity.”
Since then, Knaute has taken the position and run with it. Despite repeatedly insisting that she is “not a coach”, she helped Legkov and Ilia Chernousov break away from the rest of the national team and form their own training group. In 2011, former Swiss racer Reto Burgermeister joined the squad as a head coach, and the group is now its own entity.
The development of an entirely separate team within any national team would be unusual, but it’s particularly surprising in the Russian federation, where the program heads have almost total control over athletes’ day-to-day lives.
Has it been hard?
“I don’t stop when I feel that it’s difficult, that’s not me,” Knaute told FasterSkier in an interview at the 2012 Tour de Ski.
“It Was All on His Back”
Knaute said that it didn’t take long for Legkov to realize her value in the notoriously closed-in Russian system.
“In the end of July, 2010 I spoke a little bit with Alexander and Ilia about the system from the Russian coaches,” she explained. “I had worked for ten years with the Swiss guys, and when I saw the philosophy of training in Russia I remembered the philosophy of the Swiss or the Norwegians, which I know because some of my old coaches came from Norway. I thought [laughs] ‘you guys, I think you need to change your system of training a little bit.’”
At that point, both men had two World Cup podiums to their names, and Legkov had also collected a fourth-place Olympic finish. But based on brilliant junior careers, they were expecting more.
“Alexander thought that he worked nine years with [the old] training system, and he hadn’t taken a step higher,” Knaute said. “He was at a good level, but he was there, not worse, not better. When I came to the team and spoke a little bit about the philosophy of training, they understood very fast that maybe this is a philosophy they want to explore more.”
She explained that Legkov approached the federation and discussed whether it would be possible to train on his own. After much hemming and hawing, he received approval, and Legkov and Knaute worked out a training plan. He also asked Chernousov, who he knew only through training camps and racing trips, to come aboard; a couple of second-tier Russians have joined, as well.
“I come from East Germany, so I know how the system was in the 1980’s,” Knaute said. “I was young, but I know it – and [the Russian system] is not a new system. It is twenty years old, or older. And they had no idea about the gym. Or about fast work, and I think you need that because cross-country is changing.”
In that first year, Knaute was not technically a coach, and Legkov knew that the brunt of the federation’s criticism would fall on him if the endeavor failed.
“He thought, okay, I’ll take all the [flack]… It’s all on his back. When I make mistakes, it’s his problem,” Knaute said.
And there were problems. Legkov caught swine flu and had to drop out of the 2011 Tour de Ski. He then tried to make up for lost time and overtrained in the second part of the season, leading to a disastrous World Championships in Oslo.
“I knew Alexander, but I didn’t understand that he wanted more than was possible,” Knaute said. “I didn’t know how to tell him stop. I’m not a trainer, and I’m not a sports scientist at this level, so for me it was a difficult situation.”
Despite the challenges, however, there were also successes. Chernousov won the Rybinsk 20 k pursuit, podiumed in the pursuit at World Championships, and won the prologue stage of World Cup finals. And before the swine flu debacle, Legkov had won the Kuusamo World Cup mini-tour. On the strength of those performances, the team – because it now was one – got the green light for a second season.
In some ways, though, the approval made Knaute’s life harder. The team was okayed by the ministry of sports, not the ski federation (FLGR), and the other coaches weren’t pleased that several star athletes had slipped from their control to be trained by a German therapist. Elena Vyalbe, who was at that time the head of the FLGR, publicly stated that she didn’t want Knaute to have anything to do with the team, which reportedly blindsided the Swiss therapist.
“The federation doesn’t like it, but they accept it,” Knaute said. “The Russian system, it is maybe not an easy system to understand, but they like control. Control of the athletes. Of everything. So Elena does not like [us].”
With a season’s-worth of certainty in her pockt, Knaute asked the ministry to hire a head coach.
“When the minister decided, okay, you will have a team, I understood very quickly that it was impossible for me to do everything,” she explained. “I can’t do the training, the organization, the therapy, and the medical things. It’s impossible.”
After casting about for ideas, they settled on Burgermeister, a Swiss three-time Olympian. After retiring, Burgermeister had begun coaching the Swiss juniors, but decided to accept the position with the new Russian group.
Knaute and Burgermeister live in Davos, and the team does most of its training camps in Switzerland – “we know everything there and we have good infrastructure, so it’s easy for us,” Knaute said – although they’ve also worked in Oberhof, Germany, and in the Italian Alps. Training camps last 20 days, after which the athletes have ten days to spend at home in Russia.
The small group is completely separate from the Russian national team, and shares only race support on the World Cup. They have their own budget, which Knaute must organize.
“It’s difficult, because I’m not a secretary or an accountant,” she said.
The group seemed to have an easygoing, friendly dynamic. Knaute described Legkov’s personality as strong, saying he could have a lot of energy, and be high and then low. He loves ice hockey and hunting, and BMW’s.
“He is crazy about cars,” Knaute said. “I don’t understand it, but he likes speed.”
Chernousov is “a more relaxed guy,” and Knaute thought that the two were good friends and perfect teammates. Burgermeister, she thought, was a good match for the pair.
“Reto is quiet – he doesn’t speak too much,” she said. “He is a very thoughtful guy. He is calm, which I think is good for Alexander. I think it helps him a little bit more when he can see, okay, Reto is not nervous, so I don’t have to be nervous. And Reto has a lot of experience because he raced also.”
The best thing about Burgermeister’s involvement, she said, was that the Swiss veteran could actually train with Legkov and Chernousov, at least during slower workouts.
“Sometimes in the summer, he tells Alexander, ‘go behind me, you are too fast, do my tempo.’ And Alexander doesn’t like it, of course, but, okay, he went with that.”
“The Pressure Is Much Higher”
Neither Legkov nor Chernousov had a fast start to the 2012 season, and their results at the Sjusjoen and Kuusamo World Cup races didn’t impress either the FLGR or the public. And that, says Knaute, is typical. Now that they have left the fold of the Russian ski system, the standards to which the two men are held have grown much higher.
As an example, Knaute compared her athletes’ treatment to that of Maxim Vylegzhanin, another Russian star.
“It seems like Alexander and Ilya are interesting, not popular, but interesting to the other Russians,” she explained. “When Alexander started the season with 11th place, all the newspapers and the internet were saying, oh, Alexander had a bad start. Max was maybe 18th or 19th, and nobody wrote that; what he did was not so interesting. But if Alexander maybe started with a first or second place, 100 percent of the media would have written, oh, Alexander is in good shape too early.”
The pressure, she said, was enormous. Here’s an exchange from the interview:
FasterSkier: So the pressure that is on him and Ilya –
Isabelle Knaute: It is much higher.
FS: Do they feel that?
IK: Every day, and in every competition. No joke.
FS: But there’s no Russian media here right now.
IK: There’s pressure from the federation.
In the spring, the team chose – and was partly given – goals for the year, and they have been held to these goals. Every competition, Knaute said, was a test, and if the FLGR did not feel that the athletes had passed, they would be demoted to a lower level. Knaute and Burgermeister were given no say in the federation’s decisions.
Luckily for Legkov, his season improved after the opening World Cups. He finished seventh in the Kuusamo mini-tour and fifth in the Davos 30 k; then, in the Tour de Ski, he won a 5 k stage, was on the podium in the 35 k point-to-point, and had the fastest time up the final climb.
Chernousov, however, has faced obstacles from the FLGR, thanks to his early-season results.
“After Davos, the federation decided, without asking Reto, that Ilia will not go and start in [World Cups in] Slovenia, because he was too bad…He had to go to the Continental Cup,” Knaute said. “The federation made it a very big question for the Tour de Ski. They told us that if he wanted to go in the Tour de Ski, he has to go to the Continental Cup, and he had to win there.”
So Chernousov went to Austria, and won both a freestyle sprint and a 10 k classic race at a lower-level race.
“He won, and the Russian behind him also started in the Tour de Ski,” Knaute said. “But if he hadn’t won, he wouldn’t have started.”
He seemed to have deserved the start, as he ended up tenth overall in the 110 k series. But even performances like these, Knaute said, give the team no more leeway.
“This is the pressure we have all day, and in all the competitions,” she said. “It’s difficult.”
He’s No Dope
And then, of course, there’s the external pressure. For one thing, she said, her racers face extra scrutiny simply because they are Russian.
“They had a lot of problems, the Russians, with doping,” she said. “We know it. And it’s already – it’s a stereotype.”
But it’s a stereotype, she said, that shouldn’t be too heavily applied to her athletes.
“Right now, people can catch him,” she said of Legkov. “When he’s always fast, when nobody can catch him, when he is all the time on the podium, then it’s a legitimate question. But right now he is fifth, he is eleventh. Do you understand what I’m saying? We have a lot of tests, every camp.”
When Legkov was sick with swine flu and sleeping in her apartment in Davos, she said, doping control arrived to test him.
But despite her frustration at the attention her athletes get from anti-doping administrators, Knaute understood the reasons for it. She related a joke that Germans tell about Russian skiers, saying that they have two strengths – one being medical.
“You don’t have this joke in English?” she said.
Jests aside, Knaute said she was sure that her athlete was clean, and that whatever the rest of the Russian program – or any other program – was doing didn’t concern them.
“Alexander tells me all the time, I train very hard, and what the other guys are doing is not my problem,” she said. “In his mind, he knows that he is strong. And for him it’s not a question. It’s not interesting, you don’t think about it.”
Maybe one day, she hoped Legkov and Chernousov would be treated like the other stars of the circuit, and their nationality wouldn’t be an issue.
“[Northug and Cologna] are much better,” she said. “But on Alexander’s back is written, ‘Russia.’ And for the athletes it’s not fair because they’ve had no positive tests, always negative.”
Despite the difficulties, Knaute hopes to stay with the fledgling team through the Sochi Olympics in 2014. Whether she can do so, she said, depends on how fast the men ski.
“Results, we need results,” she said.
She didn’t anticipate the political situation getting any better with the FLGR, but didn’t find the squabbles prohibitive, either.
“I think that at the moment we are not in a bad way,” she reflected. “Of course, I see that the federation does not want this team, because it’s not comfortable, to have another team besides the national team. I understand this a little bit.”
Did she know what she was getting herself into when she signed up for the job?
“If I knew before I started that it would be like this, then maybe [I wouldn’t have come],” Knaute said. “But now I have decided, and I’m going to keep going. [At this point] I’m doing it for myself, too.”