Just One Word

 

Mr. Kunkel, what do you think about ...

CONNECTEDNESS?

Robert Kunkel, 20, is a great up-and-coming hope in figure skating. This year, Robert, born in Berlin, and his partner Annika Hocke have whirled across the ice to music from Dirty Dancing. The duo has repeatedly won over jurors with fresh and coordinated performances during the Junior Grand Prix: they won bronze twice in a row and thus qualified for the finals. No German figure skater pair has ever managed that before.

Illustration Elisabeth Moch

When my figure skating partner Annika and I skate out onto the ice together, we’re holding each other tightly. Before we get into our starting position, we give each other a high-five. That is our little ritual and increases our bond, our connectedness. Contact as a figure skating couple is almost even more intense than in a romantic relationship. If for no other reason than because we spend so much time together. But also because we share emotional highs and lows.

We’ve only been training together for just a few months now, but up to six hours a day: on the ice, practicing gymnastics, athleticism, dancing and at physiotherapy. We travel together to competitions and training camps. Together we select the choreography, the music and the costumes for our performances. We coordinate our movement sequences on a daily basis until they are completely harmonized and synchronous.

In pairs skating, I lift Annika. She lets herself fall into my arms. I catch her and hold her tightly. We’re basically entrusting our lives to one another with dangerous jumps. Trust is the foundation for success. It doesn’t come about on its own, rather it grows with experience, particularly when something goes wrong from time to time. Once, during training, a lift exercise went a bit awry, and I took a blow and broke my nose. Despite the extreme pain, I held Annika securely and brought her safely back down to the ice. That showed her that she can count on me, even in extreme situations, and that I’m not just thinking about myself. As a figure skating pair, we are always both responsible for our successes or failures and must find joint solutions to problems. We’re both in the same boat and couldn’t succeed without each other.

So far, we’ve actually hardly ever experienced really negative situations as a pair in figure skating. Nonetheless, we have successfully gotten through phases when we had to show consideration and empathy. That’s when it helps to see the common goal before us. It also makes it easier to deal with setbacks.

The fact that Annika and I are so harmonious as partners is really a stroke of luck for me. Maybe you could be successful as a pair in figure skating even without this strong interpersonal connection—with athletic skill alone. But it definitely helps that we understand each other very well.