Julianne and Alissa, November 2008
I don’t know which was more sweet – Alissa Czisny’s dreamy, flawless Short Program at this year’s Nationals or her and coach Julianne Berlin’s emotional reactions upon finding out that she’d won the title after the Long Program. I just re-watched both and cried for the second time.
It’s easy to get mesmerized by Czisny’s soft interpretation of The Swan in the Short and, in turn, hypnotized by her Long Program to Doctor Zhivago. She is the epitome of grace and elegance. In addition to her famously competent spins and her excellent jumps, there is a quietness to her knees and an effortlessness to her turns. She is, in my opinion, a skater’s skater.
Besides, amid a sea of little girls, she is a woman. At 22, of course she is a baby in the grand scheme of things, but she is 5-7 years older than her closest American competitors. To me, the longevity of Czisny’s career is a victory in and of itself in the same way it was for Michelle Kwan.
With all the injuries these girls withstand in this era of infinite triple jumps, all the travel, and all the pressure, it’s becoming more and more difficult to get to the top and to stay there. Czisny’s been competing and succeeding internationally, at either the Junior or Senior level for about eight years. She’s had her share of ups and downs, she’s persevered. And there she was in Cleveland, shyly weeping in the Kiss and Cry, what seemed to be tears of relief and joy when she realized she’d won. And her longtime coach right at her side, was equally moved. Uh oh, my eyes are welling up again…
Czisny has been training with Julianne Berlin for 12 years, since Czisny was 10 years old, a fact that I think makes this story all the more heartwarming. Czisny has, by her own admission, struggled with nerves (who hasn’t in this sport?) and, while watching, I couldn’t help wondering how Berlin has helped her through this along the way. I contacted Julianne after Nationals and she was kind enough to answer all kinds of questions about that winning moment, team teaching with Linda Leaver and Brian Boitano, and their strategy as they lead up to Worlds at the end of this month.
Berlin lives in Huntington Woods, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, and coaches at the Detroit Skating Club. She has been coaching for 26 years, since she was a student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She has been married for 13 years and has two boys, ages 10 and 12.
Jocelyn Jane Cox: So what was Alissa like, growing up?
Julianne Berlin: The main thing I remember about Alissa is that she has always been so neat, so on-time and so organized. She is very precise, from her hair, to her skating dresses. We are very similar in that way. Also, ever since she was little, whenever I first walk into the rink, she has always given me the cutest smile. Even if I’m not working with her that day, she’ll look up from what she’s doing with a smile that seems to say, “I’m so happy you’re here.” She takes a moment to make that connection.
JJC: What do you admire most about Alissa?
JB: I admire her dedication, her discipline and her determination to never give up. Whenever she hasn’t done as well as she wanted at a competition, she has tried to learn from it. She has a good attitude and keeps working hard. Even now, if she finishes everything she has to do, and there are eight minutes left in the session, I have to force her to get off early. She does go on vacation once a year but she is so driven that I have to encourage her to pamper herself, like to just go get a massage, or get her nails done.
JJC: What has it been like to watch her develop as a skater and a person?
Alissa and Julianne at her first International, Triglav Trophy, in Slovenia where she won, in 2001.
JB: Being with her for so long, it’s almost like watching your own child. I know everying thing about her– her highs and her lows. I would move the moon for this girl. She has always been lovely and well brought-up — kind, respectful, and polite, almost as if she’s from the 1950’s. She has the manner of a soft-spoken princess, not a diva at all.
Alissa is very capable. I have always known that she was very talented, but she was kind of a late bloomer. Over the years, she has always given more than 100 percent, so she deserves everything she’s gotten. It think her story is kind of like the American Dream.
JJC: Tell us what’s different about this year. What changes have you made?
JB: Well, working with Linda Leaver and Brian Boitano has been really positive. In 2007, when she was third at Nationals, we were talking to Linda and Brian at an alumni breakfast. We all really hit it off, so I suggested that Alissa go out and work with them. I feel like the luckiest coach in the world to be working with Linda. I feel like she’s mentoring me and that all of my up and coming students will benefit from what I’m learning from her. Even though she’s out in California, we are team teaching, and we really see things eye to eye. Brian is a great influence on Alissa – they are more like friends, talking about what it’s like to compete, etc.
The fact that we’re working together is almost eerie: I remember watching Linda Leaver with Brian Boitano at either the Olympics or at Worlds one year and noticing the bond that they had. To this day, they are like family to each other. I wanted that with my students, too. They have both had a really positive effect on Alissa.
The other difference is that we got Alissa out of her hinge boots and into Jacksons. Alissa has always been in tune with her equipment, her body and her balance, and things just weren’t working. She originally started in the hinge boot in 2004 because she had fluid on her ankle, and they did help correct that and also helped to make her ankles stronger, but, at a certain point, I don’t think they helped with her overall technique and her progress. In the last few months, she has been feeling really good in her skates – the sharpening, the mounting, the fit.
The other thing is that we started training earlier this year, in June. She has competed every month since then. In 2007, she did the Champions on Ice tour. This was kind of a setback for the following season, because she didn’t get to start training early enough.
JJC: So it seems like you’re a fan of team coaching. Tell me how this has worked for you.
JB: I have always known that was something I had to do because of my two boys. My own kids would always come first, and if something happened, I wanted my students to be with coaches who were also knowledgeable and who they were comfortable with.
When I first started assistant coaching in Detroit, both Alissa and her twin sister Amber, (who was also a great national competitor) were both working with Diana Ronayne. I was young and pregnant and helping out. Then, Diana moved to the Broadmoor. After that, we worked for a long time with Theresa McKendry.
I think that the more you can expose your skaters to good people, the better they can be. Alissa has worked with lots of different coaches and choreographers such as David Wilson, Yuka Sato, Lori Nichol and others. She has worked with ballet teachers, trainers and psychologists. Through this, I gain a lot, and my other students are going to get better as well. I am her manager, I am in charge, but I pick who I think would be helpful to her. Right now, we have assembled a perfect, customized team for her. I didn’t realize until recently that Linda Leaver did the same thing with Brian Boitano.
I used to have other coaches travel with my students to competitions. At a certain point, I noticed that I needed to travel with Alissa to provide a sense of stability. I am someone she can trust, and count on. I am always there for her, unconditionally, whether she’s in 9th place or 1st place, it doesn’t matter.
JJC: What were you thinking while she was skating the Short Program at Nationals?
JB: Well, of course I practically have a heart attack every time she skates! I’m always wanting her to show the world what she can do, and what she shows me every day in practice. During the short, she did that. Whether or not she lands all of her triples or not, I think she’s the most beautiful skater in the world. There is something special about her. She’s got a lot of heart and you can almost feel the struggle. No matter what she gets at Nationals, she always gets called to do a lot of shows. She is a feminine skater, a woman, and I think that really showed.
JJC: What about when she was skating the Long?
JB: I was beside myself – there was so much pressure. I couldn’t stand by the boards, I was walking around, pacing. She had two errors. She’s human.
JJC: What about when you found out that she won?
JB: I thought she really deserved it. It was her time. I am glad that she was so far ahead in the short.
JJC: What advice would you give to coaches to help skaters persevere through disappointments?
JB: I treat every event as a learning experience. We keep strategizing and we keep developing goals. I always try to find the positives, first. For example, maybe you didn’t land the triple lutz but you did do a great combination.
And again, I think keeping skaters inspired comes back to variety. Bringing different people to the table keeps things fresh. And, Alissa still has fun working with her sister Amber, once per week on spins. They have always done that together.
Keeping the skater healthy is also obviously important, so we do a lot of off-ice training, and incorporate rest and recovery.
JJC: What is your mentality and Alissa’s mentality as you now get ready for Worlds?
JB: She is clearly at her best. She has been struggling with performance anxiety for a long time but we are getting cleaner and the nature of the mistakes has changed. Competing at Four Continents was a really fast turnaround, but we felt it was important because that’s the rink where the Olympics will be.
Leading up to Worlds, we are continuing to improve her consistency. In the long, we are considering adding one more triple in order to give her more of a buffer.
JJC: Thank you so much, Julianne. All the best to Alissa and to you.
Did you see Alissa’s performance at Nationals? Were you also touched by it? Click on comment, below…
Thanks to everyone who commented last week.