The season wasn’t supposed to go this way for Andrew Torgashev.
Torgashev came into it hoping only to remind everyone he was not done competing after two straight seasons lost to a lingering foot injury, to show that a one-time phenom who had won the U.S. junior title eight years ago at age 13 could get back in the mix with the top American men.
“I was planning to get back to training after nationals and come back to competition with more quads next season in hopes to make the world team,” he said.
His coach, Rafael Arutunian, had the same plan.
Both were duly surprised when Torgashev won the free skate at the U.S. Championships, finished third overall behind Ilia Malinin and Jason Brown, and was provisionally named with them to the U.S. team for next week’s world championships in Saitama, Japan.
“I expected he would skate the way he skated,” Arutunian said. “I was thinking he would get top 10 and next season work to make the world team. I didn’t expect some others would skate the way they skated to give him a chance this year.”
“It was surreal,” Torgashev said of making both the podium and the world team.
FIGURE SKATING WORLDS: Broadcast Schedule
But he almost didn’t get a ticket to Japan.
Torgashev, 21, had been selected for the world team with a caveat: world championships require all entrants to have earned certain minimum technical scores at an international event during the season, and Torgashev hadn’t competed internationally since 2020.
He would have one chance, at the late February Challenge Cup in the Netherlands, to earn those scores. He nearly lost it in the first 30 seconds of the short program with falls on his first two jumps.
The next jumping pass, a combination, and the final three elements would be the most significant in his career. Make a notable mistake on any, and he would miss the world championships.
“The options were I could just roll over and play dead or fight until the end,” Torgashev said. “So I choose to fight, try to squeeze out as many points as I could out of my spins and step sequence and execute that combination as well as I could.”
Even having done all that, when he finished the program, Torgashev still thought he was out.
He needed an unremarkable 34 technical points. He got a nerve-jangling 35.50. Ninety-nine men, junior and senior, have scored higher than that internationally this season.
“It was a tough situation to be in,” Torgashev said. “I was definitely feeling the pressure of that moment.”
What Torgashev did not say during our lengthy discussion of the Challenge Cup was he had the nail on a badly bruised right big toe removed a week before that moment. Asked about the problem after Arutunian brought it up in an interview with me, the skater said, “I guess I didn’t mention it because I don’t want to seem like I’m making excuses for my performance.”
Or maybe it was that a very painful big toe seemed like a minor nuisance compared to some of the other injuries Torgashev has had. (More on that later.)
“I knew that I was at that competition for solely one purpose, and that was to get the points,” he said. “Even though I would have liked to do it with a bit more elegance, I still managed to accomplish that goal. So it was easy to move on from.”
Truth be told, it is surprising that he has decided to keep moving on in a career that stalled first under the weight of trying to carry the hopes that followed his junior title. Not only had Torgashev won, but he had done it with what remains the highest score ever at the junior national championships.
“It definitely was a lot to deal with at a young age and at a point where a lot of great skaters were also coming up with me,” Torgashev said.
At his first world junior championships, when he finished 10th, the field included Shoma Uno of Japan, Jin Boyang of China and Nathan Chen of the United States. Those three would go on to win an Olympic title and three world titles (Chen), two Olympic medals and a world title (Uno) and two world medals (Jin).
A similar career path is what others expected of Torgashev, and he soon came to have the same expectations. That turned out to not be a good mental space for him.
“I think I was really putting expectations and wants in front of how I was actually going to get to those places,” Torgashev said. “And, of course, that just led to injury and frustration because I was doing things the wrong way.”
After winning the 2015 junior national title, he tried to speed up the process of learning quadruple jumps, which have become the coin of the realm in elite men’s skating. The result: a broken ankle, sustained while trying a quad toe loop, which required surgery to stabilize the tibia with three screws that were removed six months later. He would miss the entire 2015-16 season.
“My mentality always was to just grind as much as I could until I realized that if you grind something too much, it turns into dust,” Torgashev said. “So I needed to build myself instead of just work as hard as I could.”
Torgashev slowly worked his way up through the U.S. ranks, finishing fifth at the 2020 U.S. Championships. After that, he finished an unsatisfactory eighth at the 2020 World Junior Championships and decided to make his second coaching change.
For the first 10 years after he began skating, Torgashev was coached in Florida by his parents, Ilona Melnichenko and Artem Torgashev, both of whom competed for the Soviet Union (his mother in dance and his father in pairs). A disappointing 13th-place finish at the 2018 U.S. Championships led the family to relocate to Colorado Springs so he could work with Christy Krall.
That lasted until October 2020. The poor performance at 2020 Junior Worlds made Torgashev assess his shortcomings, especially technical ones. That prompted his move to California on his own to train with Arutunian, who was then coaching eventual 2022 Olympians Chen and Mariah Bell and is regarded as a master teacher of jump technique.
“Christy Krall is an amazing lady who taught me a lot I still use, but I needed Raf to fix my technique and make me a more consistent skater,” Torgashev said. “I got out all that I could from Colorado and that training environment. I needed to make a change if I wanted to see my skating progress.”
For the next two seasons, a hard-to-diagnose right foot injury forced Torgashev to learn Arutunian’s methods while observing from the stands. He was unable to compete in both the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons, and his aerobic activity was limited to low resistance pedaling of an exercise bike. Stymied, he wondered at times if he should say, “Enough.”
“I truly almost did,” he said. “I had moved out to California and was living on my own for the first time, and it was just a tough situation to be in, and I was wondering what else life held for me outside of skating.
“But then I quickly came to the realization that I just wasn’t ready to let this go yet. I still have love for the sport, and I felt like I hadn’t maxed out my potential. For all the people that helped me along the way, especially my parents, I couldn’t just let it go without giving it my best shot.”
That became possible last summer, after the Florida doctor who had done the ankle surgery diagnosed the foot injury as a dislocated metatarsal and offered him the choice of another surgery or a rehab program to strengthen the foot and keep the bone in place. He chose rehab. So far, so good.
Before this season, Torgashev was finally able to really work with Arutunian. They speak to each other in Russian, which Torgashev learned from a young age. He also helps the other skaters understand what they hear from Arutunian, who freely admits his command of English is lacking.
It still took Torgashev time to understand the meaning of the coach’s consistent message: that skaters should take more and more responsibility for their own training.
“It’s a huge change to everything I’ve been used to,” he said. “With my parents and with Christy in Colorado, the coaches had such a big role in my training and what I was doing. I felt like I was just following their steps. Whereas here, I’m constructing this plan and using the knowledge that Raf is giving to me.”
The injuries have so far made it impossible for Torgashev to expand his quad repertoire beyond the toe loop (he has unsuccessfully tried one quad Salchow), and the free skate quad toe at 2023 Nationals is one of the few he has landed cleanly. With a full off-season of training, Arutunian hopes Torgashev can do three quads in his free skate next year and four the season after.
As for the upcoming worlds, Torgashev’s first as a senior, neither has any outsized expectations.
“I’m going to observe as much as I can, get all the knowledge I can that’s going to help me in the next three years to get to the ultimate goal, which is the 2026 Winter Games,” Torgashev said.
Arutunian would be pleased if the skater finishes near the top 10. The coach thinks Torgashev can be much higher in the future.
“At some time, there’s no reason to keep skating if you don’t think you can be in the top six in the world,” Arutunian said. “Only the top six make money.”
Torgashev has needed help from his parents and does some coaching to make ends meet in as expensive a place to live as Orange County, California. Making the world team will bring him substantial support from U.S. Figure Skating for the first time. That is a nice side benefit to having his plans turned inside-out.
“I’m looking forward to skate in front of the Japanese fans,” Torgashev said. “I think every skater dreams of being in a place where the skating is so appreciated, with an audience that’s so into the sport.
“After the work that I’ve put in over these past few years, pushing on when things weren’t easy, I’m just going for enjoyment right now.”
Unexpected pleasures often are the best.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 12 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com.
OlympicTalk is on Apple News. Favorite us!Follow @olyphil