The 2020 Russian Junior Championships take place next week in Saransk, and one of the young stars who will be vying for a top podium finish and a trip to the World Junior Championships in March is 14-year-old Daniil Samsonov.

Though Eteri Tutberidze and her coaching team are known for producing one female skating star after the next, she and her coaching team, which includes Sergei Dudakov and Daniel Gleikhengauz, have not enjoyed the same success with the young men they work with.

The last top student produced by this school was Alexei Erokhov, the 2018 World Junior champion. Unfortunately, handicapped by injuries he has since disappeared from the scene. There are some young men training in Tutberidze’s group — such as Egor Rukhin and Georgy Kunitsa — but they are not at a high level at this time.

However, in the fall of 2019, all that changed when a talented young prodigy in the form of Samsonov turned heads with his performances on the Junior Grand Prix circuit. The teenager came armed with a solid technical arsenal that includes a quad Lutz and a triple Axel, but it was his excellent skating skills and interpretation of his programs that made him a standout.

From his first appearance, it was immediately evident that Samsonov has something special. Though he is the youngest and smallest skater in his competitions this season, he has an on-ice presence that draws attention. Samsonov claimed bronze in his junior debut in Riga, Latvia, mined gold at the second in Gdańsk, Poland, and qualified for the Junior Grand Prix Final where he finished third.

The Moscow native, who began skating when he was 3 1/2 years old, said his introduction to the sport came about because he had to accompany his mother to his sister’s training sessions. His mother ultimately decided to put him into skates as well. “In my first practice, I somehow skated right away. I didn’t fall and we decided that this is probably my sport,” Samsonov recalled.

His former coach, Alexander Shubin — the 2002 Junior Grand Prix Final and 2003 World junior champion — honed Samsonov’s skating skills but did not start teaching him jumps until he was about 6 years old. Samsonov switched to another club and learned all the double jumps, but his coach then sent him away as she only worked with very young children.

In March 2015, Samsonov then aged 9, had a tryout at Tutberidze’s school. “I started doing doubles in practice, as at the time I couldn’t do triples,” the 2019 Russian junior champion recalled. “And then Daniil (Gleikhengauz) told me that they do not do doubles here, only triples. I tried triples and somehow by the summer I even managed a triple flip — probably because I really wanted to get into her school.”

Samsonov was accepted into the group and, motivated by the strong skaters around him, made rapid progress. More importantly, he had fallen in love with figure skating and said it was the beauty of the sport that first attracted him. “There are steps, high jumps, fast spins — all this is beautiful and it was interesting for me. Probably that’s why I chose this sport. But, in principle, skating skills are the most important element in figure skating.”

Since moving to train with Tutberidze, Samsonov has had the unique privilege of honing his skills in a group that includes the trio of senior Russian ladies that have taken the world by storm this season. “To skate with girls that have the kind of program content that they do is definitely motivating me to move forward. You don’t want to fall behind girls that are doing quads and triple Axels,” he explained.

“I believe our training group is so strong, because Eteri is trying to make good skaters out of each of us. She is always trying to reach the goal that she has set for herself and we are trying to show that we want everything to work out for her and for us, too. It’s really cool to skate in this group.”

At the end of 2018, Samsonov began training the quad Lutz and in February 2019 included it in his long program at the Russian junior championships. Though he landed it, he had a three-turn out, which earned a negative GOE (Grade of Execution). Though he said he was happy to have rotated the jump in that competition, he then began working on it “so that it would be without mistake. This is a valuable jump. You can get many points with it. I’ll continue working on it so I’ll get pluses for it.”

The young Russian star is enjoying his first international season in the junior ranks and is gaining valuable experience both on and off the ice. “At my first Junior Grand Prix in Latvia everything was unfamiliar to me, like everyone speaking English,” said Samsonov, who finished third. “I was also nervous because for the first time I went out and represented my country and not just my city. I really wanted to represent Russia in a good way. In Riga not everything worked out, but it was my first international event.”

Knowing that he needed to win his second event in order to qualify for the Junior Final, Samsonov gave it his all. He won the event with 5.16 points to spare, setting new records for the short program (87.33 points), the long program (163.18 points) and the combined total (250.51 points). (His scores would have been enough to claim the titles at two senior events that took place around the same time — Nebelhorn Trophy and U.S. International Classic).

“I travelled to Poland with the thought that it is not so scary to represent your country, and I tried to be less nervous. Everywhere, you just have to go out and do your job, skate your programs clean and the judges will decide. It is very cool to be among the top six junior skaters in the world. That really makes the hard work every day in practice worthwhile.”

Samsonov was also happy to have the opportunity to watch Nathan Chen and Yuzuru Hanyu compete live at the Final in Torino and said he “really enjoyed watching all the senior skaters. Kévin Aymoz, for example, is a component skater who tries to get his programs across. Yuzuru also deserves admiration. He added a quad Lutz and skated his long program clean except for the last jump.”

However, Samsonov’s favorite skater is Shoma Uno. The two met last summer when Uno attended a training camp in Novogorsk, Russia. “Shoma came for a month. He actually doesn’t know what real off-ice training is. He came to athletic training and we did a few exercises and he was already exhausted,” Samsonov recalled. “He also didn’t know what off-ice choreography is. He didn’t know some basic things. Apparently, he had never done them before. Probably they (the skaters in Japan) put the emphasis on the on-ice work and choreography on the ice.”

Samsonov comes from an athletic family. Both his parents were active in sports and his younger brother, who is 9 years old, competes in taekwondo. “He really likes to fight. He also likes soccer, but since he was fighting more than playing soccer, it was decided to put him into taekwondo.” His older sister, who turned 18 in December, has stopped skating and is now studying foreign languages.

This season he has two lyrical programs — “Rain, In Your Black Eyes“ by Ezio Bosso for the short and “Per Te,” performed by Josh Groban for the long. Both have proven successful vehicles for the talented teenager. “In principle, you need to get used to all kinds of styles. We kept the short program from last year because the coaches, the spectators and I myself liked it a lot. It truly is very good,” said Samsonov. “We had three options for the free — “Per Te,” a piece by Chopin, and one more. In this program I need to show that I am skating for someone, as the title ‘Per Te’ means ‘For You.’ Therefore, I am thinking of a person that I respect and love and I’m trying to skate for this person, not to let them go, so that they are always with me.”

Samsonov, whose birthday falls on July 13, will not be age eligible to compete at the senior level until the 2021-2022 season. But, he is already looking forward to moving up and has his sights set on competing at the 2022 Olympic Winter Games.

His maturity and the manner in which he speaks are in direct contrast to his youthful appearance. Samsonov said he realized this year that it was time for him to speak like an adult and that his serious demeanor is “probably because I am very shy. But soon I’ll soon have to go out and compete with the senior skaters, so I’m trying to talk like them.”

Shyness does not make it easy to perform in front of judges and a worldwide audience and Samsonov admits that while this is still hard for him, it is getting easier. “I’m getting older and the shyness is going away. When I switched to Eteri’s group, Sergei Voronov was still skating there and I was very shy. It was unusual for me to skate with such a famous skater. But now I’m opening up more.”

When asked about being one of the shortest competitors on the circuit, Samsonov responded, “I don’t think I’m little.” He is 142 cm (4-foot-8) tall.

Not surprisingly, the 2019 Junior Grand Prix Final bronze medalist enjoys reading (he is currently reading “Harry Potter”) and  doing puzzles in his spare time. “Reading and puzzles are developing my mind. They are good for the head and then also for practice, it helps me to concentrate.”

Like most top Russian skaters, Samsonov is home schooled but attends regular school when he has a day off. “I might go to school for the first two lessons, but I’m trying to do my homework at home,” he said. The teenager trains six days a week with two on-ice practices of up to one and a half to two hours each. Before the on-ice training begins, he works on choreography or does a one-hour warm-up. In the evenings, he has another hour of off-ice training and then a cool down.

Gleikhengauz said Samsonov is very serious about his training and is “setting himself apart with his approach, including at his practice sessions. He is always so serious and focused. It is hard to get a smile out of him, but for the job that is good. He has a goal, which is obviously the Olympic Games, and he is working towards it.”

Following a change in the rules in 2019, Samsonov was able to compete in the senior men’s event at 2020 Russian nationals in late December. He placed seventh in the short program after stepping out of a quad Lutz and falling on a triple Axel, ranked fifth in the free and finished in sixth place overall.

A few weeks later he stepped up and stepped out at the 2020 Youth Olympic Games in Lausanne, Switzerland, capturing the bronze medal behind Japan’s Yuma Kagiyama and Andrei Mozalev of Russia. 

“I tried to take the first place, but from what I had in mind it turned out 50 percent. I did not land the fourth Lutz. I need to work on it. After the fall, I tried to regroup. I rebuilt the program to get the points that I lost,” said Samsonov. “In any case, these competitions are a huge experience for me. I really enjoyed performing there. Now I will prepare for the Championship of Russia among the juniors. I want to perform well in order to qualify for the World Junior Championships.”

UPDATE: Samsonov won the Russian junior title and was named to the 2020 World Junior Championships team. However, a growth spurt and an injury forced him to withdraw.