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Ukraine-born Yaroslav Paniot shakes up U.S. figure skating ranks

U.S. Figure Skating Championships

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - JANUARY 17: Yaroslav Paniot skates in the Men’s Free Skate during the U.S. Figure Skating Championships at Orleans Arena on January 17, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

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At the 2021 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Las Vegas last month, Elvis was definitely in the building.

In a hip-swiveling routine to a medley from the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elvis Presley, Yaroslav Paniot landed three quadruple jumps to defeat bronze medalist Jason Brown in the free skate and come within 0.36 points of silver medalist Vincent Zhou’s score. Overall, he placed fourth, a leap up from tenth place last season.

“It felt very smooth,” Paniot said. “Every single element felt a lot easier than usual to me. Technically, everything felt great.”

“It was a bit of a surprise, but not a big one,” the skater’s coach, Todd Eldredge, said. “I see Yaro every day in training and I know what he is capable of doing. He has made a ton of improvement in the work we have done, and in the work he and Misha (Ge) have done to package him in the right way.”

According to Eldredge, a six-time U.S. champion and the 1996 world champion, “all the pieces of the puzzle” fell into place for his skater over the past few months.

“The equipment, the training, everything just worked,” he said. “Crazy kudos to him for getting out there. He is still new to the U.S. scene, so it’s hard to put out a program like that. Too bad there wasn’t an actual audience, he would have had them rocking there in Vegas.”

Things haven’t always gone so smoothly for Paniot. At times, he’s dwelt at the Heartbreak Hotel.

Born in Odessa, Ukraine, birthplace of 1992 Olympic champion Viktor Petrenko, Paniot took to the ice at age 5. As a youngster, he spent several years training in Moscow, where his coaches included 1972 Olympic silver medalist Sergei Chetverukhin.

An only child, he and his mother, Oksana, moved to California a decade or so ago, settling in Tustin, about 35 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Another Ukrainian, 1996 European champion Vyacheslav (“Zag”) Zagorodnyuk, took Paniot under his wing and coached him at Lake Forest Ice Palace.

“I was a boy, 13 or 14, when I moved here so it was not my decision, my life just went this way,” Paniot, now 23, said. “I was still in Ukrainian distance school, but there was nothing keeping me in Ukraine. This is my home. My mom remarried and my new family is here.”

In 2012, Paniot competed at the inaugural Winter Youth Olympic Games, placing ninth. Later that year he began competing on the Junior Grand Prix. He won his first Ukrainian title in late 2014. In early 2016, after placing second at the Ukrainian Championships, the president of the Ukrainian Federation suggested he change coaches to Nikolai Morozov, and for a time, Paniot moved to Hackensack, New Jersey. By early 2017, he was back in California, training with Tammy Gambill’s group in Riverside.

“From Zag, I learned all of my jumps, and he was a very important person in my life,” Paniot said. “Nikolai, I got from him a lot of skating skills. Tammy, she taught me how to work, how to be an athlete, how to push yourself forward. Todd Eldredge, he helped me put it all together, do all the jumps in one program. Plus, he has big experience in his figure skating career, [which is] is also helpful to me.”

Paniot earned an Olympic berth for Ukraine at 2017 Nebelhorn Trophy and reclaimed the Ukrainian title in December 2017, but at the 2018 European Figure Skating Championships, he fell twice in his short, placed 25th and did not qualify for the free skate. His short at the 2018 Winter Olympics was disastrous, with three falls and a 30th-place finish.

“He has never been one to do run-throughs and programs on a daily basis,” Eldredge said. “That’s been one of his consistency issues, and it’s one of the things I’ve been pushing with him: make sure he is doing his run-throughs, make sure he feels good physically, so that mentally he’s got it all together.”

After placing 12th at 2018 NHK Trophy, Paniot cut his ties with the Ukrainian Figure Skating Federation and decided to compete under the U.S. banner.

“It’s not a good story, between me and Ukraine Federation,” he said. “I thought they were not being responsible for what they are supposed to do.”

Last season, Paniot again trained with Zagorodnyuk. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced California’s rinks to close, he took more than six months off the ice before he resumed training with Eldredge in Irvine last July.

“He and his stepdad approached me and asked if I would be interested in taking him on, and I said, ‘Yeah, let’s see what we can do,’” Eldredge said.

By the time he came to Eldredge, Paniot said he had a full complement of quadruple jumps – “All except for the salchow; I don’t like that jump” – but he had trouble pulling them off in competition. That changed in Las Vegas, where he landed a quad flip, triple toe loop combination in his short program, as well as a quad flip and two quad toe loops in his Elvis free skate.

“I’ve shown him video of when he first came in July [and said], ‘Here is what your quad flip looked like when you came, here is what it looks like now,’” Eldredge said. “I attribute that obviously to his training and also to some of the tweaks we’ve made, timing and little things. He has also worked with the athletic trainers at the rink, trying to get the balance of his strength and a little bit more flexibility.”

Conditions at Great Park Ice & FivePoint Arena, home to Rafael Arutunian and his students Nathan Chen and Mariah Bell, have not been ideal. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has closed or limited ice time at other area rinks, and Great Park is a bit crowded.

“I skate there on open sessions; they don’t have elite sessions, and I’m not allowed to skate on the sessions with Rafael because I’m not his student, so I have to skate around little kids,” Paniot said. “It’s almost like public sessions. Thankfully, Jenni [Meno] and Todd [Sand], they will let me skate on their pair sessions. I appreciate that, it helps me a lot.”

Eldredge thinks the ice situation will be resolved by next season.

“Hopefully, after his performance and showing what he is capable of, we can go to the rink and say, ‘Hey guys, can we get a higher-level session a couple of times a day?” he said. “They have tried to help him out as much as possible. They have understandings with other people and hockey groups. Hopefully, it can improve as conditions for everybody improve, and we can really get the ball rolling on his training.”

Paniot has big goals. He and Eldredge want to include a second quad in his short program and add the quad lutz – Eldredge says Paniot can do it with both of his arms overhead – to his competitive repertoire.

“[Las Vegas] should really help his confidence,” Eldredge said. “He knows he’s capable, and now we build on it.”

Jumps aren’t everything; Paniot will have to improve his program component scores (PCS) and performance quality to compete with the top men. On the NBC broadcast, Johnny Weir called a portion of his free skate “purposeful and ponderous,” adding that if you’re going to do Elvis “a little lip curl never hurt.”

“Oh, I so agree with Johnny,” Paniot said. “I have to work more on this program, of course. I will come back better with it.”

“That’s been one of the things with Yaro I have really enjoyed,” Eldredge said. “He is very receptive to constructive criticism, taking that and being like, ‘Okay, yup, I need to get better at that.’ His previous programs have been, I don’t want to say bland, but pretty generic, and his personality isn’t that.”

The skater, who works with Ge, a former Uzbekistan competitor, on choreography, plans to keep his Elvis free skate next season, and create a new short program.

“Misha is like magic,” he said. “He is fun, sometimes, but most of the time he’s really focusing on details. He’s always learning – ballet, music – trying to improve himself in every way. He is very focused on what he is doing. He’s not casual, like some coaches, I won’t say who.”

Paniot and Eldredge also want to get the ball rolling for the skater to represent the U.S. in international competition this fall. For that, he needs a release from the Ukraine Federation.

“We talked to U.S. Figure Skating to see what was going on, because they (Paniot and his stepfather) weren’t getting anywhere with it,” Eldredge said. “We finally got an answer back. In May, he will get his release from the Ukraine. He has had his green card for five or six years now. His intention is to get his [U.S.] citizenship. After what happened last week, the ball is rolling quickly right now to at least be able to compete at the Olympics next year. That wasn’t really on our radar, we were looking at 2026, but the way things are happening it’s a little bit more realistic.”

“My goal is, I want to make Olympic team for the U.S.,” Paniot said. “I am not yet a citizen, but I will be soon – this year, I think. I’m not doing it casually. It is all serious.”

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