by Anne Calder | Photos by Robin Ritoss & Melanie Heaney
Alisa Agafonova & Alper Uçar have represented Turkey for eight years. They recently announced their competitive retirement. The team and Ice-dance.com reflect on their partnership, skating careers and how they put Turkey on the ice dance map.
Uçar was a singles skater in Ankara, Turkey for ten years before moving to Hungary in 2005 for better training conditions. In 2009, at the age of 24, he made a daring switch to ice dance and moved to the USA to partner with American, Jenette Maitz. Oleg Voiko and Natalia Dubova coached the team in Connecticut and Lake Placid, NY.
Maitz & Uçar were the first ice dancers to represent Turkey at an ISU competition – the 2010 World Championships in Torino, Italy. The team separated after the event.
Agafonova skated with Dmitri Dun for nine years in their home country of Ukraine. Beginning in 2004, they won five Junior Grand Prix medals and competed in the 2007 and 2008 JGP Final. They were seventh at the 2008 World Junior Championships and 13th in 2009. The partnership ended soon after.
A New Partnership
Agafonova explained how she and Uçar began skating together.
“Alper was in USA and just started to skate in ice dance. I broke up with my partner Dmitri Dun. I had a call from the coach that never said which country he (Ucar) is from. I didn’t know that till I got there for tryout with him. To be honest I was quite surprised. It was a successful tryout, even though Alper just finished as a single skater.”
At the beginning of the partnership, there were difficulties. Obviously they had different techniques – she from her earlier partnership – he from his years as a singles skater. It was stressful at first, but they made fast progress.
Beginning in 2010, for eight years they trained in three different locations with three new coaching staffs and had several memorable skating experiences that brought special honors to Turkey.
Phase I – Training in the USA
First they worked with Voiko and Dubova in the United States. In January 2011, Agafonova & Uçar medaled at their first major international event.
“The 2011 Winter Universiade was held in Turkey and we got the silver medal, which was the most honorable and memorable moment ever in the history of winter sports for Turkey,” Uçar explained. “We talked with our government and decided to open an ice skating school in Turkey.”
The following season (2011-2012) they competed at the European and World Championships, but did not qualify for either free skate. In December 2012, they changed coaches and moved to Moscow, Russia to train with Alexander Zhulin, who told them there were no limits. One month later they placed 13th at Europeans after not making it out of the preliminary round the previous year.
Phase II – Training in Russia
Agafonova & Uçar were very happy with their results and looked toward more future success. They set the 2014 Olympics as their goal, especially since it would be a first time for Turkey. They wanted to make history. They wanted to show the world that Turkey could skate.
Unfortunately, at the World Championships in March, they were unable to qualify a Turkish ice dance team for Sochi. However, in September, they secured a spot with a fifth place finish at Nebelhorn Trophy, the final chance to qualify for the 2014 Olympics.
“Our biggest memories are from the Winter Games in Sochi because we made history as the first ever ice dance participant from Turkey,” Agafonova said.
Actually, Uçar made his own history as the first ice dancer to carry the Turkish flag into the arena at the Games’ Opening Ceremony. In 2006, Tugba Karademir was the first figure skater to carry the flag.
In November 2015, Agafonova and Uçar made their Grand Prix debut with a seventh place finish at the Trophée Éric Bompard. Unfortunately, in December for the second time in their partnership and again just one month before Europeans, their training location changed.
Political tensions rose after a Russian warplane was shot down in Turkish airspace in late November. Russia cancelled all working visas for Turkish citizens effective January 1, 2016. When the team flew back to Turkey for Nationals, it was unsure if they would be allowed to re-enter Russia.
The Turkish Sports Ministry and Skating Federation made arrangements for them to spend a week in the USA in January. At Europeans, they successfully finished 12th overall and 10th in the free dance, but unfortunately at Worlds in Boston they didn’t even qualify for the free dance.
Phase III – Training in the USA – Again
During this stressful period, Angelika Krylova and Pasquale Camerlengo invited the duo to train at the Detroit Skating Club in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan.
In the fall, Agafonova &Uçar received two Grand Prix assignments – Skate America (9th) and Rostelecom Cup (8th). They placed 11th at the 2017 European Championships and 17th at Worlds in Helsinki, Finland and qualified a Turkish ice dancing spot for the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang.
Also in Helsinki, Uçar was elected to the newly created five-person ISU Athletes Commission.
“I come from a developing country, and I want to serve all the skaters – be a voice in the ISU,” Ucar told the press prior to the election.
Agafonova & Ucar had a jam-packed 2017-2018 schedule. They participated in two Grand Prix events, three Challenger Series competitions, Europeans and Olympics before closing their careers at the World Championships in Milan, Italy.
“At the (PyeongChang) Olympics we made history again because we made 19th and got to the Finals,” Agafonova said.
“After the Winter Universiade, we said we would like to go to the 2014 Olympics. It was a long road, and we achieved that,” Uçar added. “Now we achieved our second Olympics. It was very big success.”
At the end of the day, Agafanova & Uçar know they are role models for the younger generation watching their performances.
During their partnership, Agafonova & Ucar were trailblazers for future Turkish ice dancing. They have done national and international seminars for skaters and coaches for the Turkish Ice Skating Federation. Ice dancing is already developing in Istanbul, Ankara and Izmir.
“It always has been hard to be first whatever you do,” Agafanova said. “It’s takes a long time to be a well-known ice dance couple. Also, it was very hard to show people what we (are) capable of.”
“I am very proud of Alisa,” Uçar said. “All these 8 years it was never easy for us. We need to prove ourselves each year; we need to prove that Turkey can be a strong country in our sport. We never give up – always learn from mistakes and fight to get where we are now. We are very stubborn in ice dance with hard work and passion for this sport. Lastly, we have a huge trust & support of our country. We are proud what we did and next generation (will) have an easier way to go to the top.”
Agafonova & Uçar list their favorite competitions as the Winter Universiade and the Sochi and PyeongChang Olympics. Each was also a historical moment for Turkey.
Agafonova and Uçar’s last event was the World Championships in Milan, Italy. After competing, they shared their thoughts on the final performances of their careers.
“We feel really grateful because this was the last competition of our career and that is why we are so emotional,” Agafanova said. “It wasn’t about the points this time. It was about the journey for eight years It has been a long and hard way for us and for our country to get to where we are now: to get into the strongest group and to get into the top twenty in the Olympics and get this kind of ranking. It means the eight years’ work has paid off.”
“We skated for ourselves today, and it was very emotional,” Uçar said. “There were tears from both of us before we stepped on the ice. We’re not even looking at the scores, but we’re very happy with our performance. We’ve proved that a developing country like Turkey can compete at the highest level in ice skating, and in ice dance in particular which is the most difficult category because It’s all about skating skills, and we are two-time Olympians so we’ve proved it’s possible for people from Turkey.
Agafanova will start a new life in France with her boyfriend while also coaching. She will visit Turkey to get the younger generation started in ice dance and help the country’s program grow.
Uçar will start a coaching career in the USA and open his international school for ice dance. He will also continue his duty in the ISU as an Athlete Commission member for ice dance in order to support skaters best.
“He really loves this job and wants to make life of athletes easier,” Agafanova said.