It’s as if Aljona Savchenko and Bruno Massot have been skating since past lives. She, from Ukraine. He, from France. Competing at the Winter Olympics in South Korea for Germany, the pair snatched historic gold on February 15th, 2018, but more than that. Once their performance was finished, they knew that perfection had been reached. Here, we’ll just call them Aljona (pronounced Aliona) and Bruno. And this story, by the name of their song, La Terre vue du ciel – or The Earth seen from the sky.
Born in Obukhov, Aljona started skating at the age of three. Still very young, she trained in Kiev – a two-hour trip, repeatedly throughout the week. She’d wake up at dawn to get to the capital at six in the morning. At the age of 13, the idea of having a pair interested her, but young Aljona was afraid to place such trust in another skater.
In 2003, the athlete moved to Germany, a country she would represent in the next four Olympics. Alongside skater Robin Szolkowy, Aljona won five world titles – but never gold. At the Turin Winter Games (2006), sixth place. At the Vancouver Olympics (2010), her tears disclosed frustration while receiving the bronze medal. Following, bronze again in Russia (2014). But the story on top of the blades that cut ice surfaces had to go on – you can’t stop, as Aljona says; it took living one year at a time.
The partnership with Szolkowy came to an end, and the search for the new pair began. A skater who was elegant in his movements and who could literally throw Aljona high. Once the work of Bruno Massot was watched, it was obvious that he’d be the best choice possible, and, after a prolonged process for him to be released by the Fédération Française des Sports de Glace, the new team was officially formed.
Bruno tells me about the initial shock between the two of them: “Practicing with Aljona is very difficult, as practicing with me, actually. I mean, it’s always difficult to accept the character of the person next to you. But when you have a dream, you make compromises, and then it’s fun!”
Now 31, the athlete explains he didn’t have the same experience as his partner. “When I started with Aljona, I was far behind her in the way to success. But I knew that I also had something to add her, so I worked hard. And then it went well!” He started to throw her so high that, in the first times, she even screamed. Today, he jokes that it’s never high enough for Aljona. Bruno also had to adapt to the Ukrainian’s rigidity in contrast to his French lifestyle – he felt as if he had never trained before working with her, such was the rigor.
After second place in the Finland World Championship (2017), they advanced to the PyeongChang Winter Games (2018), where Bruno would make his Olympic debut. After a flawless performance directed by coaches Alexander König and Jean-François Ballester, the pair knew it had been a sui generis performance even before becoming aware of the score. Ecstatic, Aljona smiled and collapsed, lying on the ice. Bruno, relieved, burst into tears, also collapsing on the rink.
It took Aljona 30 years of work and five Olympics to, on the fifth, arrive at the main podium and get the desired gold. She even kept all her previous medals in the basement, and would only bring them back when the dream of a golden medal came true – a promise kept. Today, at 36, she lives in the Alps, in Oberstdorf, and tells me her vision of the story: “For this question, I will say that it is a hard walk. It’s nice, but it is everything. Everything! Nice, but sometimes stressful. In the end, there’s the result… And what we create on ice is what we love to do. Whatever we feel inside we try to put out completely. We try to create a piece of art.” With her accent full of tones that go from Ukraine to the German mountain ranges, she adds: “It’s a lot of walking, it is the day by day. However, it is nice.”
Bruno confesses not to feel the same pleasure as his partner during competitions, because that is when he reaches psychological exhaustion. So I ask what drives his passion for the sport and keeps him in the running. “When I am on the ice, it’s something special. I feel free. Free of my movements and emotions. I can forget all of my problems when I skate. It all started when I was seven years old. My sister was skating and I was all the time in the ice rink. So after trying rugby and swimming, I went to the ice.”
Back from South Korea, the pair took time out of competitions and dedicated themselves to artistic shows for fans, as well as both venturing out as coaches. But Aljona makes it clear: there’s a strong desire to return for the 2022 Olympics so that they can break their own record.
What else for them to do on ice after revealing Earth seen from the sky? They don’t know it yet, but their whole universe is taking care of babies now. By the way, Aljona and her husband, Liam James Cross, already have the habit of taking little daughter Amilia, born in 2019, to the rink. “It’s an unbelievable feeling! It’s just wonderful to be with my baby, and skating. Maybe one day she will also want to skate and enjoy it as much as I do”, says Aljona. “It makes me very happy to be able to already show her skating, at this age!”
Bruno and his wife, Sophie Levaufre Massot, are Louka’s parents, and had Charlie this year. The oldest, of course, has already experienced the sensation of skating in his father’s arms. “He’s still too young to understand what it was for me and how it changed my life.” Nevertheless… “Louka has already seen me skating, and also skated with me.”
There are still 16 months left until Beijing 2022, and their story is now open for the next performances. But, more than ever before, it’s all about taking one winter at a time.
Special thanks to Polish artist Zosia Witaszczyk, who provided the illustration for this article.