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Striving to become the top Swiss figure skater


Jamal Othman has been wedded to figure skating since the age of six – a passion that finally paid off when he picked up the title of Swiss national champion.

The 22-year-old took over from Stéphane Lambiel as Switzerland’s top male competitive skater in December, after winning the men’s national championships in La Chaux-de-Fonds.

He developed an affinity with the ice after taking his first steps on a rink in his home city of Bern.

“I was always a skater. From the first second I was on the ice I really liked it. There was no question any more what I was going to do,” Othman told swissinfo after a training session at Bern’s newly revamped Post Finance Arena.

“I started with one practice a week but soon it became a daily thing. I went to school and I practised. That was pretty much it. But it was what I wanted.”

At his side ever since has been coach Jacqueline Kiefer, under whose tutelage he started competing at the tender age of six and travelled to the Netherlands aged nine for his first continental competition. She knew from the start that she was onto “something special”.

“He stuck out. You didn’t even have to tell him anything. He just moved. He turned without knowing what to do,” Kiefer remembers.

Without any prompting, the young boy quickly showed an ambitious streak, winning his first competition. “He wanted to be the best even then,” Kiefer says. “As a coach you work with thousands of skaters and you are very lucky if you find someone like him.”

Constant work

Born to a Swiss mother and a Malaysian father, Othman cuts an unusual figure, with striking looks and a tall physique. Self-assured after years in the skating spotlight as a junior champion, he appears older and wiser than others his age.

“To me figure skating is quite different from other sports,” he muses. “It really requires a lot from when you are a child. You need to have a lot of discipline, a lot of sacrifice. You spend weekends doing choreography or getting new skates. You work constantly. You have to really want it.”

As the trophy cabinet in his bedroom started to fill up, so did his calendar with competitions around the globe, from Europe to Japan. He has been Swiss vice champion for four years and in a career highlight took part in the 2006 Olympic Games in Turin.

Both Othman and Kiefer agree that success depends on both talent and hard graft.

In their experience the Swiss system does not give its sportsmen and women a helping hand, compared with some countries where coaches are employed by the state to teach people with talent or where high achievers are financially supported.

“Here it is completely different. If you don’t push yourself when you are young nothing will ever happen,” says Othman.

“We have successful sportsmen but everything they did, they did on their own.”

Kiefer adds: “In different countries like China if you are a top sportsman you don’t have to do anything afterwards because you are paid. You have brought the country all that fame. Here in Switzerland you can be a sportsman but after that you have to do something else. Even if you have been a world champion it doesn’t mean you can live off that afterwards.”

“If I was paid by the government I would have more time to focus on my good skaters but in Switzerland that is not possible.”

Patriotism in sport

Nor is there necessarily the public support that sportsmen might enjoy in other countries, with many Swiss regarding sport as a secondary career.

“Sport is not a big thing to do in Switzerland. Every time I tell someone I am a figure skater they say ‘and what else do you do?’. That’s the mentality,” notes Othman.

Which explains why he has also begun a law degree at Bern University, although studies have had to take a back seat recently so he can concentrate on skating.

He may not have received any handouts to make his career any easier but Othman says as a sportsman he still feels a strong sense of national pride whenever he performs.

“Your country is quite important when you are doing sport, whether you are a patriot or not. Since I was nine years old, they have introduced me saying,’and representing Switzerland…’. Before you become known, you are known as ‘the Swiss guy’.”

The home crowd

Othman’s next big Swiss undertaking will be qualifying for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

To make the grade he will have to place among the top 24 in the World Championships in Los Angeles in March, which he is on track to do after gaining a 12th position in the European Championships in Helsinki in January.

Key will be integrating the holy grail of figure skating, the triple axel, into his routine. His one attempt so far failed to sufficiently impress the judges.

“This is really the last technical difficulty I will need. Everything else works. I have my triple-triple combinations, my level four spins. That’s the thing I will need, so I will be working on that.”

Beyond the Olympics Othman’s vision is also firmly fixed on 2011 when the European figure skating championships come to Bern.

“It is going to be my first big championships in Switzerland and in my home rink, where I have practised for the past 15 years,” he says.

“That is one of my big goals, to be in shape at that time and show the people who are very close to me what I have been doing.

“I think it is beautiful because you have the whole rink behind you but also you have the whole rink expecting something from you. I hope to be ready at that time to take that pressure.”

swissinfo, Jessica Dacey

Full name: Jamal Aziz Othman
Date of birth: August 13, 1986
Mother: Gertrud Othman, teacher, Swiss
Father: Aziz Othman, chef, Malaysian
Club: Schlittschuch Club Bern
Profession: Law student
Coach: Jacqueline Kiefer
Various choreographers
Hobbies: sports, travel, dancing
Music short programme 2008-2009: Ice Queen by Paul Dinletir and Raks Afrika by Paul Dinletir
Music free skating 2008-2009: Asturias by Isaac Albeniz

Personal best (men): bronze medal at the 2008 O. Nepela Memorial international competition in Bratislava

Personal best (junior men): gold medal at the 2004-2005 Pokal der Blauen Schwerter Junior Grand Prix

Personal best total score: 182.14 at the European Championships 2007

Personal best score free skating: 121.29 at the European Championships 2009

Personal best score short programme: 63.71 at the World Championships 2007

Swiss National Champion (men) 2009

Swiss National Champion (junior men) 2000 and 2001

Swiss National Champion (novice men) 1999

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR