by Daphne Backman | On-Ice Photos by Robin Ritoss
Estonia’s Solene Mazingue (20) & Marko Gaidajenko (21) had a whirlwind 2021-22 season. They relocated to Montreal in the off season and were preparing for the 2022-23 season when an accident during practice resulted in the season turning out much different than planned and Mazingue needing emergency brain surgery to save her life. Learn more about this young team’s individual journeys as well as how they’re moving forward after an unpredictable season.
Both Mazingue and Gaidajenko started their skating journeys at the age of three, but their early experiences couldn’t be more different.
Mazingue was born in Paris, France. Her mom brought her to a rink local to her neighborhood to see if she would like it. She fell in love with skating and the ice. She never left. At six years old, she started competing in small competitions in her city, which she really enjoyed.
“Before 15, I was just skating because I liked it,” Mazingue said. “I really love skating, and the thing I love the most is to compete. I like to feel the music and to give some emotion feeling to the public who watches me.”
When Gaidajenko’s parents put him on the ice for the first time, there were 20 or more kids going from one side of the rink to the other in one direction. When coaches arrived, they pushed him, but his legs went into a split.
“I started saying I don’t want to, I don’t want to,” Gaidajenko said. “They took me back home. The next time, I was seven, and then I stuck to it. It all started for fun, but at one point when you start to understand that you like it, you’re getting better and keep going. It just becomes your lifestyle like you’re a professional athlete. You skate, you work out and you compete, and that’s what drives you from competition to competition. This adrenaline and emotional boost is the thing what pushes you and also like drives you.”
The COVID-19 pandemic impacted the world of figure skating with the World Championships being the first event casualty in March 2020. While the skaters found creative ways to continue training and showcasing their skills, forming a new partnership during travel restrictions presented its own set of obstacles.
In 2020, Gaidajenko was training for the Junior Grand Prix with partner Darja Netjaga when the ISU announced the events would not be held that fall. In fact, there were no competitions being held at all.
“We decided to stop skating for a moment because there was no goal to go somewhere,” Gaidajenko said. “It was like really hard to push to do still the run-throughs.”
When the partnership ended and even though he had yet to announce it, he started to receive messages about tryouts from prospective partners.
“The world of figure skating is so tiny,” Gaidajenko said.
Mazingue split with her partner at the end of the 2019-2020 season. Because it was impossible to travel, she spent a lot of time looking for a new partnership by viewing video trailers of skaters from the U.S. and Russia. Then, she heard about Marko.
“I right away texted my coach, who texted him, and he said yes to a tryout,” Mazingue said.
“All of a sudden, Solene texted me because she was without a partner as well,” Gaidajenko added.
It was December 2020, and travel was still restricted to and between certain countries. The duo decided that having the tryout in France would be the best option.
“I said let’s try,” Gaidajenko said. “Let’s go to France.”
“We tried out for two weeks,” Mazingue added.” “It [the tryout] was perfect for me and perfect for him too, right?”
“Yeah,” Gaidajenko said. “I went for New Years back to Estonia. I came back to France, and we started to skate together and to think about maybe we should try for our future.”
Mazingue & Gaidajenko moved forward with their partnership for the 2021-22 season. They were still age-eligible for the junior level and debuted at the second Junior Grand Prix event in France, where they won the bronze medal, followed by a ninth place finish at the Cup of Austria JGP.
A month later, they competed at their first senior event, Warsaw Cup Challenger Series event in Poland, where they finished 15th. After winning their first Estonian senior national title, they finished ninth at Golden Spin of Zagreb.
While competing at both levels brought its own set of obstacles, the rhythm dance theme lended itself to an easier transition.
“It’s usually more challenging because it’s usually absolutely two different rhythm dances, but last season that was the same subject, like a hip hop and street culture,” Gaidajenko said. “Also, it was both the blues. It’s Midnight Blues (senior) and Blues (junior), so it was easier.”
Being Estonia’s newly-crowned national champions, they were assigned to the 2022 European Championships, which took place in Gaidajenko’s home city of Tallinn, Estonia. The teams who finish 1-20 in the rhythm dance move on to the free dance, so Mazingue & Gaidajenko’s 20th place finish (out of 27 teams) meant they qualified in their first attempt. They were then assigned to the World Championships.
“We went there with the idea of quality technical qualification for the free dance,” Gaidajenko said. “We’ve worked a lot before before this Worlds, and we also had the really good draw for us. We were in the fourth group.”
For a new team, they exceeded expectations and qualified for the free dance in a familiar 20th place.
“When we finish our rhythm dance, we can right away see if we qualified or not,” Gaidajenko said. “We did one of the best rhythm dances for our whole season. Me and the coach are sitting in kiss ’n cry and already understood this because we saw the points. Solene didn’t get it yet. We saw the ‘Q’, and she said ‘what does it mean?’ We qualified for the free dance, and she’s so excited.”
“I didn’t understand if we qualified or not,” Mazingue added. “When we passed, I was super happy because we worked for one season. And that was so much emotion because actually one year working every day, five hours, even more.”
Their first season, where they straddled junior and senior events, ended with the duo finishing 19th at their first World Championships,
“It’s kind of tricky, and it’s playing with your mind a bit because we started the season as a juniors, and then we slowly moved to the seniors,” Gaidajenko said. “It was a nice experience. and also pretty successful for us as seniors and also juniors. Also, we watched all the obstacles we went through. It’s a great experience, of course competing in one category it’s much easier.
The Move to Montreal
In preparation for the upcoming 2022-2023 season, Mazingue & Gaidajenko made the decision to train at the renowned Ice Academy of Montreal under the guidance of coaches Marie-France Dubreuil, Patrice Lauzon, and Romain Haguenauer.
“We were skating in Moscow before that, but there was a lot of troubles with Visas because of what’s going on in the world in general even before it started the situation with Ukraine,” Gaidajenko said. “It’s already complicated to get in Russia because of they didn’t want to give a Visa to anyone, so all the last season we tried to find was trying to find where to skate and ice times all across the world.
“Then the situation with Ukraine started, so there was no chance to stay there at all. We had a good relationship with the coaches from Montreal before, and we had ideas already to move there. At this point already, we don’t have any other solutions, and plus we really want to go there. We just after Worlds had two to three weeks break, and then we went to the Montreal. Everything started here.”
According to the team, one training location is not really comparable to the other.
“It’s really two different methods,” Mazingue said. “For example, in Russia, it’s more by yourself, and there is a coach, and she comes to help you, but here it’s more like a private session. We like both. It’s really how the skater likes it.”
“Here they have their own methods, which works absolutely brilliant and perfect,” Gaidajenko said. “They’re different than others and the so much effort, they put in the school and in the skaters. You feel here as a family. You feel support from from the skaters and from the coaches. We have mental coaches. We have so many so many people around us, and the greatest part is that you every day you learn something new. It’s knowledge. It’s a lot of lifestyle changing because here you’re living the life of an actual athlete. You do your own choice. if you don’t want to skate today, you can not skate, but then it’s how it will affect you in the future.”
The transition from Moscow to Montreal was a smooth one for Mazingue & Gaidajenko, until September 29th when everything changed for the couple. Falls happen in figure skating for different reasons and even on elements that are practiced over and over again.
The team’s first competition of the season would be the 2022 Finlandia Trophy event, which is part of the ISU Challenger Series. The team was skating run-throughs of their programs and were working on their free dance.
“He was helping me to do the assisted jump,” Mazingue said. “There was a hole, so his blade gets stuck in the hole. He fell back, and at this one he was lifting me, so my head was down, and my foot was up. When he fell back, I fell on my head, and at this moment I lose consciousness for 10 seconds.”
“It was a simple lift that we’ve done like gazillion times before that and was entering to the twizzles,” Gaidajenko added. “I was stuck on the ice, and she hit her head. Sometimes we hit our heads on the ice. Sometimes there’s nothing, and sometimes there is a concussion. Skaters really struggle with the concussions for like a year or so after because we just don’t stop our season. In this case, she hit her head really hard. We went to the hospital because the swelling on her head was a lot, and she was she was in major pain. We called the ambulance right away with the coaches after the fall.”
Gaidajenko continued, “When we arrived to the hospital, I went right to the waiting area and during this time it was two and a half hours. They did this head scan, and it showed that that her skull was broken, that there’s a fracture, and then there was a bleeding, but they didn’t really see how exactly it’s affecting the brain yet. They saw that there is bleeding outside and inside.”
“I had a fracture and was bleeding a lot and fast, and this was pushing my brain in the left parts and middle,” Mazingue added. “This was really bad because that is how people can lose how to walk and how to speak. My doctor’s nurse who was doing my head scan called right away to the surgeon. At this moment, my body stopped to react. My pupils stopped responding, and I fell into the coma. My body dropped to 32 degrees. I went to surgery. It was about three hours.”
“They started to do operation and during this time the nurse came to see me and say that she’s in critical conditions, and he’s not sure she’s going make it through operation,” Gaidajenko said. “The nurse told me if she’s going to make it we don’t know if she’s going to talk again or walk again. Three hours ago I saw her. I talked to her. Practice was great and at this point, somebody was telling me that it might be the last time you see her.”
Gaidajenko continued, “I was in a fog. It was really hard to take it because I was alone there for like these three hours. I was on the phone with my dad. He’s also in medicine, but back in Estonia. God bless Tim [Dieck] and Olivia [Smart] who came to see me right away. Patrice [Lauzon] came after practice and at this time she was in the operating room.”
At 10pm on the same day as her accident, Mazingue had an emergency craniotomy. They opened the skull, drained the blood and checked her brain activity. They put in titanium plates with six anchors. The nurses told Gaidajenko they would try to wake her the next morning at noon. They warned him that she may have amnesia or be panicked and not remember where she is, or why she is there.
“I came back home and next morning I received a call at 7am,” Gaidajenko said. “It was Solene’s voice asking are you coming to see me. She was doing great. She was smiling, and we explained to her what happened. The next day, her mom arrived and was visiting her every day in the hospital. The progression went really fast.”
Early on in her rehabilitation process, Mazingue decided she wanted to share her progress with others to be an inspiration to others.
“I was looking for someone like me to talk to me about what my future will be and actually, there was no one. It’s really hard to find someone because people who had surgery don’t talk again. They don’t work, or they are still in hospital. I was feeling really alone. I was like, what will be my future? What will be happen with me? To get on social media, I want to give hope to to everyone and inspire everyone, and I want to be this person who is here for help. In this case, whatever problem this is, it’s not just only for surgery, it can be for any injury or any problem. I want to be this person who can give hope and tell you that it’s not impossible.”
The Journey to 2023 Worlds
While Mazingue had a long road to recovery ahead of her, she decided two days after her surgery that she wanted to skate again.
“In hospital, I was already thinking about Worlds,” Mazingue said. “When I started my rehabilitation with my doctor, the first thing that he asked me was ‘what is what is your goal?’ He told me that for every patient, for every athlete he always sets the goal. My goal with my partner was to go to Japan five months after the surgery.”
Mazingue continued, “It was not 100% sure that I will go. It was really day by day. I really took my time. I started to skate like 15 minutes a day, 30 minutes, one hour and then one hour 30 minutes and calculate everything for maybe going to Worlds. Two weeks before Japan there was a meeting with doctor. There was a meeting with federation, with coaches. We really took our time and discussed everything to be sure that if I go it’s ok. It’s really about the doctor because I need to wait for him to say yes. He said yes. It was my goal to do it in five months and I did it. It was just incredible. It was just like impossible to believe that I’m going.”
“I also grew a lot from this accident,” Gaidajenko added. “Like everything changed. My mindset changed a lot and like my habits and everything. I had the idea that what are we going to do if we don’t go Worlds and also what we’re going to do if we go to Worlds. I was ready for it each scenario. She was doing all this hard job. Since the first day after she woke up from surgery, her mentality started to work in a way to prepare herself for Worlds already. It felt amazing seeing her being so happy doing this.”
Both Mazingue and Gaidajenko knew that they were heading to Saitama not at full strength, but for them it was more important that they were able to compete versus any result achieved. The Estonian team finished 28th in the rhythm dance and did not qualify for the free dance, but it was just being there that made all of the effort worth it.
“This competition wasn’t a competition to show our best skating performance,” Gaidajenko said. “We did show our best. We were there to show that if you don’t quit, you can make it. After we finished our rhythm dance before in front of 20,000 Japanese fans, I was clapping and that felt right. We are in the right place where we should be at this time. It felt amazing.”
“I was really I did it,” Mazingue added. “Just to be on the ice at the World Championship in Japan with plenty people around me. This was just an experience, an incredible experience.”
The team is still reminiscing about their accomplishments and starting to think ahead to next year and beyond.
“The main goal for me since I’m six or even seven years old is to go to the Olympics,” Mazingue said. “Just to go to Worlds in Japan was the first step after the accident on the way to the Olympics. My next goal is Olympics Milano 2026. Three years.”
For the immediate future, Mazingue & Gaidajenio are looking forward to the rhythm dance for next season, set to music from the 1980s.
“Right now, we are preparing for the next season and we’re listening the 80s music,” Mazingue said.
“Everyone is looking forward to next season,” Gaidajenko added. “After competitions, in almost every playlist, there is music from the 1980s. We’re listening to this stuff and absolutely like when the ISU gives us an opportunity to do something interesting to show cool stuff, some dancing moves. For 80s music, we’re absolutely in!”
Mazingue continued, “I really like the 80s music when I warm up before practice. It’s 80s music, but I’m listening because it (creates a) really good mood for me.”
“We already heard some songs teams here are choosing,” Gaidajenko said. “There will be interesting programs. Not everyone is coming back yet to build them, but when everyone is here, we will have an 80s vibe on the ice for sure.”
Off the Ice
While most of their time is focused on training, the duo finds time for relaxation and hobbies when they can.
Gaidajenko is a big gamer and plays Call of Duty, Hogwarts Legacy and God of War: Ragnarok on Playstation. Both have a Nintendo Switch, but Mazingue doesn’t currently play because she’s still working on her brain recovery. They hope to start a Youtube or Twitch Channel at some point to stream some of their gaming activities.
Mazingue does color books as part of her therapy. She is learning to write again and keeps a journal of her daily activities. Her mother is helping her with math and calculations. She also loves to play board games, including Seven Wonders.
Both love to build with Legos, including a bonsai tree that is under reconstruction. During a recent trip to New York City, Gaidajenko made a Solene lego character for her.
The team also makes a point to buy a pop figure at every competition destination.
How You Can Help
As you can imagine the cost of Mazingue’s ongoing therapy is costly on its own, but coupled with training expenses the team needs help to continue fighting for their dream. You can support the team via their GoFundMe page.