When the figure skater Stéphane Lambiel retired from competition, the two-time World Champion and Olympic silver medallist craved a new challenge. Four years ago, he founded the Skating School of Switzerland in his native Valais, in the resort of Champéry. Here he trains up-and-coming young talent from all over the world – and has found a new vocation in life.
If you choose to become a professional figure skater, training hard for success and medals, you know your body will impose an early retirement – after just a third of an average lifetime. And suddenly there you are, with your titles and medals, thinking: Heck – I’ve already experienced the most powerful emotions I’m likely to feel in my whole life. What now? The Valais figure skater Stéphane Lambiel had just these thoughts when he retired definitively from competition in 2010, at the age of 24. And it took a “painfully long time” before a new challenge was able to fill the void after a sparkling career.
Today, in the Valais resort of Champéry, the sun is shining. The strong alpine sunshine has bronzed the wooden chalets that frame the local sports centre, the Palladium de Champéry. Inside, Stéphane Lambiel is standing at the side of the rink, chewing gum, watching as the skaters perform pirouettes, fall and get up again. He claps, says a few words in French, a few more in English, grimaces and shakes his head. The scene is like a surreal puppet show: Lambiel echoes the emotions that the skaters express on the ice as they stoically try again and again – sometimes with success, sometimes less so. Later, he confesses: “Sometimes I wish I could just do it for them. But I know they have to get there on their own.”
It was in Champéry, four years ago, that Lambiel’s long search came to an end. Here, at the far end of the Val d’Illiez, the two-time World Champion and Olympic silver medallist from Saxon founded the Skating School of Switzerland. Now owner of a chalet here, he coaches ten promising youngsters from Switzerland and abroad six times a week – such as the Swiss siblings Noah and Noémie Bodenstein, and Deniss Vasiljevs from Latvia. Top international skaters often come to Champéry, too, to hone their choreography or style with Lambiel.
Previously, Lambiel had been put off by the idea of becoming a coach. “I saw how hard my former coach Peter Grütter used to work. Every day. With the students, it’s like with children – you have to be there the whole time.” After retiring from competition, Lambiel continued to skate in shows, choreograph routines for other skaters and give talks. He noticed that people paid great attention to him. “I would never have thought I could have such a great effect on anyone,” he says.
Still, the spirit of competition kept a hold on him. After he and the figure skater Sarah Meier had both retired from competition, there were no Swiss skaters performing at top level. “The Swiss Ice Skating Association could have done more to support the next generation of skaters,” he says. After the Olympic Games in Sochi in 2014 – without any Swiss figure skaters competing – Lambiel knew that it was now or never. The idea of opening the school in Champéry was born. The location was perfect: peaceful and secluded, and the ice rink still had plenty of spare capacity.
Now Lambiel has glided back onto the rink, where he is pushing one of his students slowly across the ice. He may not be a strict coach, by reputation, but he is exacting. “When I want to see something specific, I can be very fussy,” he says. Like his own trainer in the old days, at every competition Lambiel sends his protégés onto the ice with encouraging words. “Peter always used to spur me on with the words ‘Lambiel – do it for Valais!’ He’d often say: ‘Go out there and show them how we skate in Valais!’”
Lambiel works virtually non-stop: until March, he is away every weekend at competitions all over the world with his students. And the 33-year-old needs to keep himself fit, too. He has just spent two days training for the “Art on Ice” figure skating gala. He would also love to stage his “Ice Legends” show once again – ideally in Valais, but he would need to find a venue large enough. Figure skating has become my life,” he says. “Whenever I have any free time, I head back onto the ice.”
During his competitive career, he had a different take on the sport. “I was very ambitious. I always wanted to win.” With time, his attitude changed. “Towards the end of my career I realised that I could also experience thrills on ice without always having to win.” They may not be as intense today as at the Olympic Games. “But they are still there – just spread over a longer timescale. Thanks to the school and the students.” The second third of Lambiel’s life, then, promises its own rewards.
Text: Manuela Enggist
Photographs: David Carlier