Photos by Robin Ritoss; Instagram photos by Camden Pulkinen and Tom Zakrajsek
The 2018-2019 season was a bumpy ride for Camden Pulkinen. The 2018 U.S. Junior Champion made the jump to the senior ranks nationally, while still competing primarily on the junior level internationally. After his short program at the Junior Grand Prix Final and the World Junior Championships had him on top of the standings, unfortunate errors in the free skate cost him medals at both events.
Looking to put the season behind him, Pulkinen announced on April 24 that he was leaving his coach of three years, Tom Zakrajsek, to train with Tammy Gambill and Damon Allen.
Figure Skaters Online (FSO): This is a question we ask all the skaters we talk with at the conclusion of a season. If you could sum up your 2018-2019 season in one word, what would it be and why?
Camden Pulkinen: Perseverance. I think that’s a good description. With making gains in the short program, and then shortcomings in the free skate, I still found the courage every time to go back home, train hard and hopefully have a better result in the free skate at the next competition. It is definitely upsetting when three competitions in a row, you don’t really deliver free program that are nearly what you are capable of, especially after doing decent short programs. It is upsetting, but after that, you have to persevere. You either get up and keep skating or you walk off the ice and retire (laughs). But that is the word that I’m going to use to describe this past season.
FSO: And the other question we ask is–what was the most memorable highlight of the season? And if you had the chance, what was something that you wish you could go back and re-do?
Camden: My most memorable moment was at Junior Worlds, breaking that 82 points [in the short program] because I knew I could do it if I skated a good program. Everyone, every single guy in that event, was skating clean programs and I don’t think anyone made a mistake in the top 10 or top 11. It was a tough event and I was really happy that I could deliver in the short program, under pressure, and end up on top. So that is something I was really proud of this last season.
Something that I wish I could change was — not a moment, not a competition — but just my training at home. I felt like I was training hard, but I didn’t feel like I was training in the right way. If you are not under pressure, you can deliver elements like they are butter and it is a piece of cake, but as soon as you are under pressure, it is a little bit different. So I wish I would have done different training to kind of simulate pressure in practice and I think I would have had a better result. No regrets there, ’cause I rather learn that in my junior career than later in my senior career.
FSO: At some of your competitions this season, you saw yourself in first place after the short program, but then you ended up making costly mistakes in your free skate. Can you explain what happened? Was it your free skate program? Was it nerves? How frustrating was it for you to have these high moments in the short program, but then become almost a completely different skater in the free skate?
Camden: I think there are a lot of places where I could but my blame. I didn’t connect to the [free skate] music as much as I really would have like to. Yet, at the end of the day, I really put the blame on myself. I don’t like to use the word ‘blame’, but I put the education on myself. I put the learning experience on myself. The free [skate] never really worked out for me. I don’t blame the music [West Side Story] or anything else other than myself. It really never connected enough with me, and I never really loved it as much as my short [“Oblivion”]. I always considered myself to be a somewhat of a classical skater, and I think that is why my short was so, so good this last year.
It is very frustrating when on day one, you skate a clean short and you end up on top and on day two, it is completely another skater and it looks like I’m nervous. All four times [including Nationals] that I didn’t deliver a long as good as I would have liked to, it has been different reasons. Like the final [Junior Grand Prix Final], the Canadian skater [Stephen Gogolev] skated a very good program and had a very high score and that contributed to me not skating as well. At Junior Worlds, I was holding on to that first position and I was stuck in the past. Junior Grand Prix Czech Republic, I was focused on making the Final instead of just doing a program.
All of those are great things because I learned from them. I learned so much about why something went wrong in that moment and what I actually think is a good thing is it wasn’t the same mistake mentally over and over, although it may seem like that from a spectator’s point-of-view. It was more, ‘Okay, this time I’ll focus on someone else. ‘This time, I’ll focus on the future.’ ‘This time, I wasn’t even focused on the competition I was at.’ ‘So all of those things are great things for me to learn from because there are common mistakes that people make that I can use and say, ‘Okay, that is why it happened.’ If I ever have those feelings again in the future, I can think back to the time I made that mistake and just bring myself back to the present as I wouldn’t want to make it again.
FSO: What was it about your short program, “Oblivion” by Astor Piazzolla, that you connected with and were able to perform it so well throughout the season?
Camden: It was a connection to the process. It wasn’t necessarily just the program. I remember working with Stéphane Lambiel, my choreographer, in the off-season, trying to figure out this piece. Something I love that he did was, it wasn’t just his program, it was our program and he really emphasized the fact that he has given me guidelines and he’s given me movements, but ultimately it is my program and I need to make my own. So in a sense, it was the first time that I really had a type of program that was mine and his. In the past, the short program from 2017-18 season [“Fix You” by Coldplay], I remember my choreographer, Drew [Meekins] took a lot of my movements and put in the program which was amazing and I really liked that, but this past year, it was almost all me. He [Lambiel] gave me so many good movements, but throughout the season, I just kept adding to it at home. That’s what I loved about that piece, that I could always just tweak it and there was no right, there was no wrong, it was just the pure feeling of the music.
FSO: Moving onto next season–you have already made a big change, switching from coach Tom Zakrajsek to Tammy Gambill and Damon Allen. Can you share why you decided that now was the right time to make a change in coaches and why you chose to leave Tom for Tammy and Damon? Also, can you share what it was like to work with Tom?
Camden: I definitely loved working with Tom. He has done so much for me. I think he really, somewhat shaped me into the person and skater that I am today. But in this past year, I felt like things weren’t really going as I would like in my skating, and I felt like I needed a new direction. Of course, it is nothing against him (Tom). I really have the upmost respect for him and he did phenomenal things with me, so I have nothing against him. We are still on great terms. He is just a master of teaching and I just want to put that out there, first and foremost.
Camden: Of course. Like you see people all the time on social media or in any other capacity kind of trashing their old coach or speaking ill of them, but really I genuinely have nothing at all to say bad about him and we are still very good to each other. There’s no bad blood. I think it’s good in a way that I stayed at the same facility because we are still the World Arena Skating Academy [in Colorado Springs] and we are all still a team regardless. I think that helps with it all because it is not like I’m moving some place else and ditching the whole team. I’m still, in some ways, connected because we are still at the same rink. He (Tom) has always been a mentor to me so I’m just very thankful to have the opportunity in the first place to work with him.
Moving forward, I just needed a change and I think it is just one of those things that is part of maturing. Of course, there are personal reasons why I think I needed to change coaches, but at the end of the day, it is all maturing and it is all part of me growing up. I decided to make the choice of Tammy Gambill and Damon Allen because I felt that both of their personalities are somewhat different. Tammy is very strict and Damon is a little softer, and I think it is good to have that check and balance of two coaches and me in the equation when we are discussing things about the season or things about any decisions we are going to make. It has so far been working very well. I think we have a really good connection between the three of us and for this next year, I’m just really excited to work in the off-season and see what happens in the future.
FSO: Have you picked your music and choreographers for next season? If so, can you share any details with FSO?
Camden: I have decided, kind of. I know who is going to choreograph them and I know what I’m going to skate to for the short (program) and I’m still deciding for the free (skate), but at the moment, I think I should keep that to myself.
FSO: Even though you can’t share with us the details just yet, can you tell us how involved you are in the process? Do you have a say in picking your music and who you want to choreograph your programs?
Camden: I’m 100% involved in that. I always feel like the athlete kind of needs to make the final decision, just because it is our skating, but also maturing. When you grow up in the world, you don’t always want to be told what to do left and right, and as skaters we are already told enough what we are supposed to do . Since I’m going to be skating to that program all year, I feel like it is something that I need to say, ‘Okay, this is what I’m going to skate to.’ Of course, I don’t mean that in a way that is ‘Oh, this is what I’m to skating to and everyone else, it doesn’t matter what you say.’ I brought a lot of pieces to my coaches and some of them, Tammy was like, ‘Oh I love this one. It is beautiful. Let’s do this’ and some of them she was like, ‘I like it but it is not as dynamic.’ So it is good to have that since of I get to pick it, bring it to my coaches and they can say, ‘Oh we like it’ or ‘this is our concern.’ So I’m very much involved in that.
FSO: Are you listening to a lot of music?
Camden: I have been listening a lot on Spotify especially, trying to see if maybe I have a piece of music, what can I blend it with to make it sound good? Or what can I connect to better or what theme do I want to go in for next season?
FSO: How has training being going? What are you working on?
Camden: The off-season has been good to me. We have, of course, obviously been working with quads and not just that, but basic jumps because this past year the jumps that I messed up wasn’t the Axel, it was mainly a basic triple Lutz or basic triple loop. So Tammy and Damon and I have really been taking to those jumps, not just the quads but taking to the basic triples to fix that — make sure I have a clear edge going into it, and the timing that I use to get the jump consistent. That has been the biggest struggle, I think, because there have been some things that have kind of changed, some spots that I have been having to think of more. That is the hard part when you have to revisit the basics and re-teach yourself so that you don’t have the bad habits. I truly think that since we have done a lot of work on basic triple toe and double toe, that has made the quad toe a lot closer and a lot higher and consistent with the technique I have been using. So it is like we are working on everything.
FSO: We, both fans and media, think sometimes that it is easy for a skater to learn a quad jump, but it takes a lot of time and work to get it consistent.
Camden: So, unlike other people, I think where they can just go ‘okay, all we are going to do today is quads’, like every session I’m going through all the basic triples, then quads. It is not like you can get a quad overnight, it takes time. Media, fans and everyone thinks ‘Oh, it is so easy’, but it is not. We see the amazing skaters like Nathan (Chen), Yuzuru (Hanyu), Shoma (Uno), who can do all these different quads. It is absolutely amazing, but really they didn’t get it overnight. It has taken them years and years. Although you may not see them posting on social media that we working on a certain jump, I guarantee you that they are and it kind of gives the illusion that people get the quad in a week, or day, or overnight, but it is a long process. Everyone learns differently. Some people can learn it in three months, some can learn it in three years, some can learn it in a year. I really believe that it is just a matter of time before everyone learns the jumps that they are meant to learn.
Camden: For me, I am very much a visual person and when I’m on the ice, I see what my competitors are doing, not even just my competitors, but I see what some of the girls at our rink are doing. It is extraordinary. It is not even just jumps. Andrew [Torgashev] has amazing artistry and amazing ability to be just an acrobat on the ice. I see him do this weird flip thing on the ice and I’m kind of inspired to try for myself and then Tomoki [Hiwatashi] is inspired to do it too. So then if one person learns and tries doing it, then everyone tries. It is the same with jumps, same with spins and same with choreography. It is a good, mutual, symbiotic relationship. We all grow from each other. It is so good to see like Tomoki. who has a very consistent quad toe, go and nail it [in practice] and me and Andrew are like, ‘Okay, let’s get our act together’ and we go do it. Or I go and do like an Axel, and Tomoki is like, ‘Okay, I can do that,’ and he goes and does it too, and then Andrew does. Then Andrew does a cool spin, and then Tomoki an I try it. So it is a great relationship that we have. Of course, there is no bad blood ever with each other. I think a great thing about men’s figure skating is that we always support each other. At the end of the day, I feel like we are friends first and competitors second. So like if Tomoki beats me, it is like ‘Okay, good job, I’ll get you next time!’ (laughs) It is not like I’m mad at you because you beat me. It is like, ‘Oh no, I messed up and this is what I’m going to do better?’ Same with Andrew. It is just a fantastic environment. I wouldn’t really trade it for anything.
FSO: What club or summer competitions are you planning to take part in?
Camden: I think for now that I’m going to be doing the Peggy Fleming Trophy and the jump event [Aerial Challenge, both at the Broadmoor Open in late June], but I really don’t have any other competitions set for like a short program and free program. We kind of have to wait and see for Grand Prix [selection] and see what happens with that and then decide.
FSO: What are your goals for your first full senior international season?
Camden: I want to show improvement in all areas — that’s my goal. I don’t just want to improve on my jumps, I don’t just want to improve my artistry or my spins, but overall, I really want to elevate every single bar that I have set for myself with that jump to senior. I know the first year of senior is a tough one, for most people at least, so I’m not expecting myself to win Worlds or win Four Continents, but I do just want to improve in every way. That’s very corny and cheesy to say, but it is true because the ultimate goal of any athlete should be consistent improvement. Especially this next year with seniors, you really have to show that you are a senior skater, because I’ll be at events with Nathan, Yuzuru, Shoma and Vincent [Zhou], and they are all going to be looking like the seasoned seniors that they are. So I need to really set my bar higher and improve spins, jumps, artistry and everything, the whole package.
FSO: Which countries have been your favorite to visit (besides Austria where you have traveled twice for Junior Grand Prix events ) and why?
Camden: A lot of places that I have been to, you have to realize that we compete there too, so I think a lot of us have thoughts about the competition, like ‘Oh I don’t this place because I didn’t skate too well, or I love that place.’ But if we are talking about just places, my two favorites places have been, first and foremost, Japan, because just the people are amazing, everyone there is so supportive and everyone is so polite; it is such a clean place. So Japan is up there, but I think the second one would be Vancouver. I really liked it there. It wasn’t rainy the week that we were there [for the Junior Grand Prix Final], so I think my judgement might be a little swayed, but the whole week it was sunny. We were in the middle of the downtown and there was shopping nearby, along with a lot of great food. It was very familiar to me because it was North America. It was a beautiful place. I absolutely loved Vancouver and I hope to go back soon.
Camden: I went to Cancun, Mexico. I went with a lot of ice dancers from Montreal like Jean-Luc Baker, Kaitlin Hawayek, Olivia Smart and a few others. It was a good trip because I think we get caught up in train, train, train, work, work, work 24/7, but having a week to relax by the pool and just decompress really helped me. I think everyone needs to take a vacation whether it is a few days, whether it is a week, but everyone needs a vacation. Especially with us skaters, it is honestly the best way to relax and recover our bodies from the hard working season. So it was good. I’m excited for next year’s vacation (laughs).
FSO: Any other summer plans?
Camden: Training, training. Got to get my programs choreographed, so I think I’ll be going in a few weeks to get them choreographed. It [the new season] is coming up soon, it is already May! It is already happening.