Russian skater finds unlikely home in Chilliwack
Too often, we take for granted what we have in Canada, rarely stopping to think about the freedoms we enjoy. Today, part two of a two-part story about a man who takes nothing for granted, a man who left his home and family behind, traveling thousands of miles to forge a new life in Canada.
Denis Kondrashin rolled over on his left side, then to his right. He kicked at the blankets, then flopped onto his back and stared at the ceiling.
Sleep wasn’t coming easily tonight. Sleep hadn’t come easily for months.
It’s not that he wasn’t tired. The skating left him suitably exhausted by bedtime. But his mind was like a shopping mall at Christmas, thoughts flying left and right, acting like a shot of double espresso.
How had things gotten so screwed up?
Denis flashed back to the night he arrived in Montreal, filled with optimism. He recalled the car ride to the home of the ice-dancing family that had brought him to Canada, gawking wide-eyed at the buildings and the people and the signs he couldn’t read.
The Canadian family lived in a Russian neighborhood, which had sounded great at first — a comfortable buffer against culture shock as he tried to get settled into this foreign land.
In the end, it had proven a source of frustration.
Within that bubble he hadn’t worried about speaking English or French. He communicated in his native tongue, ate familiar foods and felt closer to the homeland he left behind.
But then, he’d left it behind for a reason hadn’t he?
After a couple days, the bubble started reminding him why. He found the people there to be the same as the people in Moscow, consumed by the same petty jealousies and living the same inside-the-box lives he found so intolerable.
Worse, he found them unable or unwilling to acclimate to life in Canada. There was so much to see and do in this country, but they wanted no part of it. They wanted no part of the ‘weird’ Canadians either. Instead, they isolated themselves in their community, backstabbing the country and people who’d welcomed them with open arms.
He couldn’t stand it.
‘Why come here if you can do this crap back home?’ he’d asked himself.
Denis wanted to embrace the people and the culture. This was a grand adventure, and he didn’t want to be anywhere else. But securing immigrant status was proving very difficult and this was the source of his insomnia.
The family that brought him to Canada promised to take care of things, but they soon found they’d bit off more than they could chew. After just one month, they severed the arrangement, and it looked like Denis was heading back to Russia.
Then, another Montreal-based coach jumped in. Seeing his talent, the coach promised to find Denis a new ice-dancing partner. The coach took him out of the Russian community and moved him to the other side of the city. Armed only with a pocket English-French dictionary, Denis was left to communicate almost exclusively through hand gestures. For two years, he didn’t know what to say and he didn’t know what people were saying.
Denis had little choice but to trust people who offered to help, and he got many a free dinner.
But in the end, their well-meaning words amounted to so many broken promises.
‘If they say they’ll help and they actually want to help me, why don’t they help me?’ he wondered.
As he laid in bed, images of immigration forms floated behind closed eyelids. Denis was living on three month extensions that wouldn’t last forever. Eventually, Canada was going to tell him to get out.
One English word that he knew, and hated.
Language was the huge obstacle here as well. Had his Canadian adventure started in Ontario or British Columbia, or anywhere but Quebec, a minimal grasp of English might have been sufficient. But applying in Quebec, French fluency was a must.
Denis had already been rejected twice on those grounds.
Je ne peux pas parler français!
Skating was a distraction, to a point. But even on the ice, the language issue couldn’t be avoided. Ice-dancing required two people to move as one, to be fully in synch with each other. But to Denis, it seemed like ‘two blind people playing games.’
Communication was done through pointing, drawing pictures or watching video.
He was frustrated, though he did his best to hide it. They were frustrated too, and they showed it. They were irritated with the Russian kid who wasn’t getting it, which only made things worse.
He needed time and patience, and found both in short supply.
Still, even in those darkest moments when he laid awake until the early morning hours wallowing in despair, he didn’t want to give up.
He knew what waited for him if he went home. Canada at its worst was preferable to Russia at its best.
— 2,239 miles away, Julie Rithaler was doing some thinking of her own. Her daughter, Natalie, was an exceptionally talented girl without a partner. She’d had great success skating with her brother, until he decided to get a job and get on with life.
Natalie wasn’t ready to turn that page.
Julie had been told that the best ice-dancers lived in Eastern Canada, so she and Natalie flew there in search of a new partner. Natalie and Denis skated for a week, and it seemed like a good fit.
But Julie had a thought.
Why base themselves in Montreal? Why not bring Denis to British Columbia?
Denis was working with his third coach by then, two-and-a-half years into an adventure that looked to be at an end.
He had nothing to lose.
Moving to the other side of the continent, to some little town named Chilliwack? After all he’d done to this point, why not?
So he packed up his meager belongings, and west he went.
Once again he was placing his trust in strangers, and once again he was expecting to be let down.
But this felt different. This girl and her mother, they seemed serious. Denis felt something he hadn’t in a long time.
Denis and Natalie skated at the BC Centre of Excellence in Burnaby under the watchful eye of Victor Kraatz. Yep, THAT Victor Kraatz. Ten-time Canadian ice-dancing champion (with Shae-Lynn Bourne) and one-time world champion.
In 2003, Kraatz and Bourne became the first North American ice-dancers to win at worlds. They beat a Russian pair to do so, besting Irina Lobacheva and Ilia Averbukh at the MCI Center in Washington, DC.
Denis couldn’t have asked for a better coach. For two-and-a-half years he and Natalie practised and competed, perfecting the steps of an Argentine Tango. They won competitions in the United States, and qualified for the 2008 BMO Skate Canada Senior Challenge, where they placed 12th in a field of 13. They had reached the highest level of Canadian skating, but that competition was the beginning of the end.
The relationship started to fray, helped along by a serious on-ice accident that hurt Natalie’s back and knee. She was staring down intense rehab, and then a return to a life that was slowly burning her out.
Natalie was now ready to turn that page.
Denis wasn’t ready to give up. After all the Rithalers had done for him, he was never going to be the one to call it quits.
But Natalie was resolute. She was done, and therefore, so was he.
The lasting legacy of their two years together was a pair of custom skates with golden blades, given to him by Julie.
—By this time, his immigration request had finally been accepted and Denis no longer feared being punted back to Russia.
But without the financial support of the Rithalers, he had to get a job and earn a living.
Denis had spent so much time being coached that he didn’t consider coaching until Julie mentioned it.
For a year-and-a-half, he hung around the Cheam Skating Club as a volunteer, pitching in where needed.
With the encouragement of some parents, he studied hard and passed all the tests to become a level-one coach.
— It’s late Tuesday afternoon, and Denis is on the ice with a group of Can-Skate students. Wearing his golden blades, he glides over to the far boards and bangs his hands against the wood. The children gather around for brief instruction, and off they go.
Denis follows and from 100 feet away his voice is heard.
“Skate, skate, skate!” he shouts, before pausing to correct a six-year-old’s technique.
For all that he went through as young skater, it’s odd to see Denis coach as he was coached.
But years of reflection have led him to the belief that they had the right approach.
He looks at a large segment of Canadian coaches and thinks they’re too nice. They don’t push their students enough. Everyone gets points for trying.
He looks at the North Shore and Burnaby Winter Clubs and all the competitions they win and sees coaches who might not always be the nicest.
But they get results.
Students who aren’t interested in learning, he has little interest in teaching.
If that sounds harsh, he’s not apologizing. Everything he now enjoys, the freedom to eat what he wants, do what he wants and go where he wants — all of it is because of skating.
The sport opened doors that would have remained closed.
If skating can do the same for one of his students, he’ll do whatever it takes to help.