Why Figure Skater Carolina Kostner Has Been Frozen In Place
Monday, the Court of Arbitration for Sport announced that figure skater Carolina Kostner's doping ban, originally set to last through May 1, 2016, would end Jan. 1. Kostner held a new conference Tuesday in Milan and said she plans to return to competition and hopes to compete in the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang.
ROME -- The day I meet Carolina Kostner in the twisting, lush, green hills in the northern outskirts of Rome, I get lost with my taxi driver. It's one of those days that doesn't hint at anything being wrong in the world: The sky is so blue that you'd swear it's painted on, the work of some Italian genius with a brush and an affinity for bright pastel. The details from Kostner's publicist are murky, her English-written email garbled in our predestined meeting point. My cabbie, with bushy eyebrows and smelling of some delightful and thick cologne, turns around as we finally roll to a stop in a gravel parking lot, dust swirling around the car.
"This is women's jail," he tells me in broken English.
"Well, that can't be right," I reply.
It's not entirely out of the question that we could be at a women's jail. Kostner, one of the most beloved celebrities in Italy, has been at an outright standstill in her figure skating career, fighting a battle much harder than the one that she was tasked with as the 19-year-old flag bearer for this art- and sport-obsessed nation at the 2006 Turin Olympics before stumbling to ninth place; or the one in Vancouver, four years later, when -- as one of the favorites -- she fell three times in her free skate, finishing a disastrous 16th.
On the day we meet in May, she is in the midst of serving a ban issued by an Italian anti-doping tribunal for her involvement in the case of her former boyfriend Alex Schwazer -- an Olympic race walker who earned gold in Beijing, a ban Kostner fought as fiercely as she skated to win a long-awaited medal in Sochi in 2014, a bronze.
"Life sometimes is very strange," Kostner tells me nearly an hour later. We are not -- in fact -- in a jail, but rather the Centro Sportivo Casal, a police academy that Kostner frequents as a training base. A signed painting of a skating Carolina, her leg stretched over her head, greeted me in the tiled lobby. We look out over a soccer field and track as a group of Italian kids go through afternoon workouts.
"It makes you live through the process first and then teaches you the lesson," she continues, sighing heavily. "You have to learn from mistakes and accept them."
Kostner, 28, doesn't believe in doing things over in her life. In a sport brimming with individuals, figure skating has never quite seen another performer like her. She glides over the ice, her face dug into an expression of sorrow that appears to be made up of Italian silk. But when she smiles, she seems to spark the rink with a kind of joy that comes from deep within her soul, an artist at one with her craft.
Sorrow is what Kostner has had to battle since a January decision to ban her for 16 months from competitive figure skating. The decision, which the Court of Arbitration for Sport announced Monday would be reduced, is unlike any before it: At her home with then-boyfriend Schwazer in 2012, Kostner told doping officials -- by Schwazer's request -- that he was not there for the random test. She maintains that she had no idea her boyfriend was using the performance-enhancing drug EPO.
The tribunal's decision included acknowledgement that Kostner did not know of Schwazer's active doping, but the doping ban for Carolina -- originally proposed to be four years to life -- was implemented because of Kostner's split-second decision to tell the testers Schwazer wasn't at her home: an Olympic-level athlete lying to anti-doping officials.
"I thought the ban was fair," professor Dionne Koller, the director of the Center for Sport and the Law at the University of Baltimore, says in a June interview. I speak with Koller on the phone a few weeks after meeting Kostner, and the Maryland resident, a self-professed figure skating fan, sees no ill will in this case toward Carolina. She made a mistake and she's paying for it.
"As an Olympic athlete, she's not just any girlfriend," Koller says. "She herself is subject to those obligations of testing and complying with the anti-doping program. This was not a 'gotcha' situation. Was she in a terrible spot? Yes. And I can see why she did it, but the philosophy of the code and the philosophy of being an Olympic athlete ... You agree to be held to a higher standard."
For the entirety of her career, Kostner has held herself to a higher standard on the ice. At 16, she made her debut at the 2003 world championships and landed in the final group of the long program alongside heroes Michelle Kwan and Fumie Suguri ("I could not move from the boards I was so nervous," she remembers. "My coach was so angry."). By 2006, she was a national star, chosen as flag bearer at an Olympics in which Italy was desperate to prove its Winter Games strength. The nation had won just one figure skating medal in Olympic history.
But it was in Turin that she earned the nickname "Cadolina" (cado means "I fall" in Italian). Four years on she built a stealth international reputation, living in Southern California and training alongside Evan Lysacek under the watchful eye of the sport's most renowned coach, Frank Carroll. But Kostner became "Cadolina" once again, particularly in a now-infamous free skate in which she fell three times, covering her face in disappointment as the final notes of Vivaldi's "Cello Concerto" faded.
On trudged Kostner, however. She won gold at the 2012 world championships and rededicated herself to the beauty of her skating, working tirelessly with Canadian-based Lori Nichol, the sport's most trusted choreographer. As she neared Sochi at the ancient (in figure skating) age of 27, admiration grew within Italy for Kostner, a beloved daughter with a twinkle in her skating and a knack for falling at big moments. Her bronze medal last February further cemented her as a national hero.
This time she didn't fall.
"There was not fear anymore about the" -- she motions with her hands -- 'What if?' The counter-thinking is, 'What if I stand up?' And then there is a whole new world of positive and strong emotions when you ask yourself those kind of questions," Carolina reasons with me at the police academy, her eyes scanning the hills.
"She is loved and respected for her hard work," says Giulio Gasparin, a freelance sports journalist in Italy. "And many people were awfully shocked when she "only" won the bronze in Sochi."
Amid Sochi's Adelina Sotnikova/Kim Yu-na scoring controversy, lost was Kostner's career accomplishment, long the outsider now standing on the podium, finally an Olympic medal winner.
"For me, if I look back at it now, that bronze is worth much more than gold," Kostner says. "For my story, for my career, for what I've gone through and what I've lived, it is so much more worth it because it was my figure skating moment. ... It was the best competition I've ever skated. I had no mistakes. A medal cannot express the value. In the history box and the newspapers, it has a certain meaning, but to myself, which I have to live with, it's different."
It meant so much to Kostner that, closing in on 30 years old, she set her sights on Pyeongchang and the 2018 Olympics. She felt as though she had more to give to the sport, more artistry to explore with Nichol and more Italian expression to be poured onto the ice.
Then came the ban. Then Kostner halted, frozen in her own tracks.
"On the one hand, it forces you to accept and to see the positive ways, and then some days you feel disappointed, you feel left alone, you feel mistreated," she says. "But sports helps you, too."
It's here that Kostner pauses, as she often does in our 65-minute interview. She is purposed in her speaking and thinking, grappling with every sentence like it's a footwork pass of complicated phrases and spins.
"Sports helps you to find a force and to stand up again," she says, landing on her words gracefully. "To give a reason."
What is not clear now is this: At 28, Kostner is a dinosaur in women's figure skating, and with the Pyeongchang Winter Games more than two years away, she faces a decision to keep skating competitively or not.
"Countries like the U.S., including Italy, countries that want to get serious about doping, there is strong incentive to show the world that they don't let their stars off easy," says Koller, the professor. "They're willing to pull the trigger, even with their stars."
Koller continues: "People need to understand what this code is about and what the anti-doping movement is about. We have to change our lens. This isn't a criminal justice system. It's a contract you agree to when you're an elite athlete and take the mantle for your country. It shifts the responsibility for the athlete very strongly. She admitted lying. That in a way, to me, is the beginning and the end of the case. He wasn't hiding in her basement unbeknownst to her."
Yet the Kostner camp disagrees with that sentiment, including Nichol, the choreographer, and Isolde Kostner, Carolina's cousin and a three-time Olympic medal winner in downhill skiing.
"Why is she [being] attacked and judged in such a strong way?" Isolde Kostner wrote in an email. "She was not personally involved in the doping."
"She's not just an individual who opened the door and said, 'He's not here,'" says Sarah Hughes, the 2002 Olympic figure skating champion. "Those are the actions that she took. She clearly had to make a quick decision on what to do. She's paying these repercussions for that decision."
On the day we meet, Kostner, dressed in black spandex pants and a loose, shoulder-less black half-sweater, is an athlete forced to the sidelines. She spends her time in Rome taking in the architecture of the city and some days attends classical ballet classes. She's also taking an art and history course, the visionary inside her wanting to expand her already-expressive ability on the rink.
Kostner has toured off and on throughout this year with exhibition shows, staying in the best shape she can. "It's hard to be motivated some days," she admits. There have been lots of meetings with lawyers, lots of waiting for a call. Lots of hoping.
"I've never touched or taken anything," Kostner says, looking me in the eye. "Alex, my ex-boyfriend, he knew exactly how I thought about [doping]. That's why I think he had never told me, because he knew that he would lose all of my respect for him as a person and as an athlete."
Schwazer did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article.
There has been no Turin to try and fix, no Vancouver to bounce back from. Now, frozen for much of this year with no certainty in her future, Kostner faces a decision: Will she skate again and go after another Olympic medal? Or has seeing through this ban been a bigger victory than anything she'll ever face on the ice?
"Whatever you encounter in life, it should not deeply change how you feel about how you live it," she says. "I have an amazing family and I'm in amazing health and there are actually real problems out there that are more life-restricting. I hope that I can go back soon to deciding if I'm going to compete [in 2018].
"I love what I do. Even more with this ban that kind of forces me to stay still. I've realized that I love figure skating, and I think that I still have a lot to give. There is never a guarantee that you can go back. But I think that for myself I still have a lot inside that I would like to share with the people. I just don't think that ... I think that I have the right to decide when I stop myself, and not have others decide for me."