Canadian choreographer David Wilson was surprised and delighted when he got an “out-of-the-blue” email last week from Kazakh figure skater Denis Ten.
In the email, Ten asked if Wilson would help rework the free skate the choreographer had done for him last season so the program would fit the new time limit, 30 seconds shorter.
Wilson was surprised because he did not think Ten was going to compete next season after enduring another losing struggle with chronic foot problems.
And Wilson was delighted because it would give Ten another opportunity to show the world a beautiful program to a song called, “SOS from An Earthling in Distress,” that the injuries had kept him from performing the way the skater and choreographer hoped.
“I was really touched Denis wanted to keep this program and thrilled that he was going to have another chance with it,” Wilson said from Toronto Thursday morning. “Now it is gone.”
Ten, 25, died Thursday after what Kazakh media reported was an altercation with two people trying to steal mirrors from his car on a street in Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan.
The reports said Ten had been stabbed in the thigh and suffered damage to the femoral artery that led to massive blood loss. The news agency Kazinform said a pedestrian who saw Ten lying in the street called an ambulance that took him to a hospital, where he underwent surgery before dying from the injuries.
Ten had become a national hero in Kazakhstan when he rallied from ninth in the short program to win the men’s singles bronze medal at the 2014 Olympics, the first Olympic medal by a figure skater representing the country.
“We called him the Prince of Kazakhstan after that,” Frank Carroll, who coached Ten in Los Angeles and Lake Arrowhead, Calif., from 2010 through the 2018 Olympics, said Thursday.
Last season, Ten again had battled courageously against injuries caused by structural problems with his feet. He was determined to honor his Korean heritage by skating at last February’s Olympics in South Korea.
“He tried, he tried very much,” Carroll said.
It would become a bittersweet, painful moment: Ten did not qualify for the 2018 Olympic free skate after finishing 27th in the short program.
“The problems with his feet, which also caused pain in his hips, were so bad there were barely any seasons when he could do consistent training,” Carroll said. “There were weeks he could skate a day ore two, and then he would come to the rink the next day on crutches.”
Despite that, Ten won not only the Olympic bronze but also world silver (2013) and bronze (2015) medals and the Four Continents Championship in 2015.
“Denis was very mature and intelligent, very much an artist and focused on the integrity of the performance,’ Wilson said. “It was exciting for me to work with such a great talent.”
The performance highlight of Ten’s career – and a landmark moment in the history of skating – had come when he won the silver medal at the 2013 World Championships in London, Ont.
Using music from the film, “The Artist,” choreographer Lori Nichol ingeniously created short and long programs for Ten that were like a two-act play, allowing him to tell a story over more than seven minutes of skating rather than just the length of a single program. It was the first time I had ever seen a top skater take such a unified thematic approach for the two programs.
“It was brilliant and iconic,” Wilson said. “It was very ballsy, very brave. It made a strong statement of what skating could be - more than just a sport. It was bringing it up to another level by saying that we can tell stories. That’s what he did with `The Artist,’ and the story took more than one program to tell. I thought it was magnificent.”
Ten skated both programs with élan, interpretive brilliance and near flawless execution, getting second in the short and winning the long. Nearly everyone felt Ten deserved the world title except the judges who placed him 1.3 points behind Canada’s Patrick Chan, who stumbled badly and repeatedly in the free skate.
“I have friends in other sports (who watched Denis do `The Artist’) say to me after that, `That’s the way a man should skate, looking classic, the masculinity, the musicality,’” Carroll said. “They all said they enjoyed watching figure skating for the first time when they saw Denis do that program.
“The costume, the interpretation of the music, it was wonderful. Lori did an incredible job selling the idea to Denis, and they had a great time putting it together.”
That Ten got to such a level was a remarkable testament to both his drive and the unstinting support of his mother, Oksana – especially since, according to Carroll, Kazakhstan provided little support for the skater until he reached the sport’s elite.
Starting to skate on outdoor rinks in Almaty, then moving to Russia for better training conditions and coaching (but no support, since he wasn’t Russian), Ten finally wound up in California with Carroll, who had then just coached Evan Lysacek to the 2010 Olympic gold. Coincidentally, Ten was a flower boy when Lysacek won his first world medal, a bronze at the 2005 championships in Moscow.
"When I started skating in Kazakhstan, we only had open (air) rinks and could only skate in the winter," Ten said at the 2013 worlds. "We had a very cold winter, (so) I remember my mother putting three pairs of pants on me, and I looked like a cabbage.
"And that's how I learned all the doubles; it helped me to be quicker. Then I would train in shopping malls, at a small rink. We had an exhibition every Friday for all the shopaholics.
"I took a long way from skating like a cabbage to skating here at worlds."
Carroll, who turned 80 this month, had told Ten last season of his plans to retire from working with elite skaters. Carroll said he had not been sure Ten intended to continue in competition until he spoke Thursday with a devastated Nichol, who told him she had expected the skater to begin work with her on a new short program Wednesday in Toronto.
Carroll recalled how at the 2014 Olympics, where Ten was 13th of 24 to skate in the long program, the coach and skater were pleased when his performance ended but then went separate ways for the rest of the event, figuring the skater's medal chances were gone because of the short program result.
“I was sitting in the stands with the Americans as the final group skated, and Denis kept going up (in the standings),” Carroll recalled. “I said to Mitch Moyer (U.S. Figure Skating high performance director), `Holy shit, Mitch, I think Denis is going to win a medal.’ And he said, `You better get down there (backstage).’
“I ran out of the stands and went back down and found him. When it was over, we were jumping up and down and screaming. It was great for him personally to be successful but that was also a huge thing for Kazakhstan.”
Ten was universally admired in the sport. Among the outpouring of condolences on Twitter was this from two-time U.S. Olympian Jeremy Abbott, punctuated with a broken heart emoji: “You are so missed my friend. I have tried a hundred different ways to find the word, but there aren’t enough adjectives to describe how incredible this man was, and there is no language.”
In a statement, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said, "Denis Ten was a great athlete and a great ambassador for his sport. A warm personality and a charming man. Such a tragedy to lose him at such a young age."
Olympic consultant Terrence Burns worked with Ten, one of the athlete ambassadors on the Almaty bid for the 2022 Winter Olympics and a key speaker in both of the bid’s presentations to the IOC. Burns too felt compelled to express his feelings about the kind of person Ten was.
“I’ve worked with dozens of athletes over the years on Olympics, and Denis was a very special young man, wise beyond his years, very focused on his future,” Burns said Thursday. “At age 22, he was a gentleman who really understood how to treat people.
“He recognized how fortunate he was to be doing what he was doing at level he was doing it. He didn't take anything for granted and treated everyone with respect. You don’t often see that type of grace in people his age.”
I asked Carroll for his fondest memory of Ten. It turned out to be a recent one.
Carroll was not feeling well when Ten did his short program at the 2018 Olympics, and the coach decided to return home as soon as he learned Ten had not qualified for the next day’s free skate. U.S. Olympic officials arranged for a car to pick up Carroll from the athletes village at 3:30 a.m. and take him to the Seoul airport.
A few minutes before that, Ten and his mother met Carroll at his room, carried his bags to the car and said goodbye.
“They got up at that hour, and they weren’t going anywhere,” Carroll said, his voice cracking. “That was Denis. Sweet and kind.”
And an artist. The Artist on ice.