Lajoie/Lagha: “Worlds is the little piece that is missing to have had the perfect season”

Marjorie Lajoie and Zachary Lagha have had a breakout season in 2022-23. But when the rhythm dance starts next week at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships, they will  unfortunately be missing from the roster. It’s their misfortune that Canada has only two ice dance spots at Worlds this year–and three high-ranked ice dance teams. So it was always a given that one of the talented Canadian teams would have to stay home from Saitama.

It’s extra-disappointing for Lajoie, 22, and Lagha, 23, because they’ve had their best season by far. The duo notched two Challenger Series wins last fall, secured their first-ever medals on the  Grand Prix, and mounted a strong challenge for the title at the 2023 Canadian National Championships (ultimately falling just short and taking silver).

Not only did Lajoie/Lagha have great results, they also connected with skating fans via two crowd–pleasing and popular programs. Their “Cha Cha Slide” rhythm dance, with its spoken step commands and infectious melody, was an immediate hit and showcased their speed and energy. And the couple’s free dance to “Nureyev” from the The White Crow soundtrack revealed an emotionally intense, dramatic side to their skating that hadn’t been seen recently. Their free skate also got more exposure in a beautifully staged video from Jordan Cowan of On Ice Perspectives, which has over 11,000 views on YouTube.

Before this season, Lajoie and Lagha were already fixtures on the international ice dance scene. Their four-year junior career culminated with the 2019 Junior World title, and they’ve been competing in seniors since then. But it’s perhaps only this season that Lajoie and Lagha have captured the full attention of skating fans. The duo–who have been partners for 12 years–convey the impression of opposites on the ice. Lajoie’s wide smile and vivacity contrast strikingly with Lagha’s intensity and dramatic quality. It’s a unique partnership, in which the individual qualities of each partner are not subsumed to the whole, but rather, stand out in relief and complement each other.

Lajoie and Lagha–often known as “Marjo” and “Zak” in the skating world–train at the I.AM ice dance center in Montreal, Canada, with coaches Romain Hagenauer, Marie-France Dubreuil, and Patrice Lauzon. Although they regret that they’ll miss Worlds, they were happy to finish their season on a high note by winning the bronze medal at Four Continents. 

When I spoke with them in Colorado Springs, Lajoie and Lagha expressed satisfaction with their accomplishments this season. Off the ice, Lajoie has a sunny charm befitting her surname (which means “joy” in French), while Lagha is thoughtful and incisive. We talked about their season, how they developed their programs, why they find competition difficult, and what they want to work on in the off-season. 

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Kam/O’Shea Seize the Moment

Photos by Robin Ritoss Photography

Three competitions, three medals.

It appears the new partnership of Ellie Kam and Danny O’Shea has found instant success. Last month, the new pairs team won the bronze medal at the 2023 U.S. Championships in San Jose, California. They will compete this week at the 2023 ISU Four Continents Championships and next month at the 2022 ISU World Championships.

“To be where we are in a really short period of time, it’s very exciting,” O’Shea said.

So how did Kam, a 18-year-old who had just moved up to the senior level, find herself skating with O’Shea, the 31-year-old who has won U.S. and Four Continents titles?

Read more: Kam/O’Shea Seize the Moment

Following his split with (and eventual retirement of) Tarah Kayne in December 2021, O’Shea teamed up with Chelsea Liu, who had previously skated with Brian Johnson, in spring 2021. Liu and O’Shea trained with Jenni Meno and Todd Sand in Irvine, California. The duo competed in three international events that fall. However, Liu and O’Shea suffered a devastating fall at the Warsaw Cup competition in November 2021. The injury ended their season, and ultimately, ended the partnership.

“I was unsure what the next steps were, really,” O’Shea said of the situation. “I just focused on my recovery for a while.”

Following the accident, O’Shea went to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs to work on his recovery. He said it was two months before he was even cleared to be back on the ice. He returned to California to do some coaching for a bit, but then decided to go back to Colorado Springs.

“I had a lot of fun working with some amazing students there [in California], but decided that no matter what I was doing, I wanted to be back in Colorado with my family,” O’Shea said, noting that he owns a home in Colorado Springs and had always considered Colorado Springs home.

O’Shea consulted with U.S. Figure Skating to see what his options were. He had a few tryouts at the end of last season, but none of them worked out in terms of skating compatibility and wanting to be in Colorado Springs.

“Family is a priority for me, and I wanted to be around them,” he added.

Upon moving back to Colorado Springs, pairs coach Drew Meekins invited O’Shea to come and work with his younger female students who didn’t have partners. O’Shea coached three days a week, helping girls who did not have partners with lifts and throws, as well as working with the established pairs teams at the World Arena Skating Academy (WASA). One of those teams was Kam and her partner at the time, Ian Meyh.

“She was doing a great job,” O’Shea said of his future partner’s development as a pairs skater.

When O’Shea wasn’t at the rink, he focused on working in real estate with his father, Don.

“I flipped two homes,” he shared, in regard to his real estate work. “I was actually in the homes doing the remodeling myself; it was a bit fun for me.”

Although he was enjoying his life outside of skating, as O’Shea continued to skate more, he talked with Meekins about his options for competing again.

“I was still feeling like I had a lot to give to this sport and to show what I was still capable of,” O’Shea said, noting that Meekins was very supportive of his decision to return to competitive skating.

Around this same time, Kam and Meyh ended their partnership. The team had qualified for the 2022 U.S. Championships on the junior level, but withdrew after the short program. They competed seniors in two club competitions over the summer.

“The partnership I had with Ian was an amazing experience,” Kam said, noting that it was a mutual split. “I learned everything, pairs-wise, with Ian. It was hard emotionally, because [the split] was in the middle of the season, and that’s not something you can really plan normally. But we both decided that that’s what we thought was best.”

Just days after the partnership dissolved, Meekins suggested that Kam and O’Shea start skating together in order to ease the transition, but also as a possible partnership.

“We started skating a little bit and it worked very well, very quickly,” O’Shea said. “That first week, we started trying to get things rolling.”

“When we started to skate together, it was really crazy,” Kam added. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, I get to skate with Danny O’Shea. This is really exciting.’”

Kam and O’Shea officially became a team in September.

“It’s a pleasure [working with Ellie],” O’Shea shared of Kam. “Ellie’s such a hard worker and has a great positive attitude on the ice.”

“He’s an amazing human being. I’m really lucky just to be able to skate with him,” Kam said of O’Shea. “His experience is like a bonus to all of that. It’s something I hope I’m able to take and learn from, and we can both build it up together.”

In November, they were assigned to the IceChallenge in Graz, Austria, where the team rose to the top of the podium, claiming the gold medal. The following month, Kam and O’Shea competed at a Challenger Series event, the Golden Spin of Zagreb in Croatia. They brought home the silver medal there.

“I had a good feeling about things from that first week [we started skating together],” O’Shea told A Divine Sport. “The way we were skating from the beginning and the quality of the components and the skating skills and the overall performance aspects, was something that I could tell was very strong from the very beginning.

“Did we expect to go and win our first competition? Not necessarily,” O’Shea added. “But we were very comfortable going out and performing and felt that we were going to have a good experience at the very least.”

Meekins, who serves as the team’s head coach, says the partnership has been something really special to guide. 

“The way that they have come together, and really become a true team in just under five months is quite amazing, and it’s due to the dedication of them both and their passion and love for the sport,” Meekins wrote in an email. 

Last month, at only their third competition together, Kam and O’Shea won the bronze medal at the 2023 U.S. Championships. The event marked their first competition together in front of a U.S. crowd, and also Kam’s first senior Nationals.

“This whole season is a lot of firsts for me,”  Kam said. “Skating on the ice with Alexa [Knierim] and Brandon [Frazier], that was something special. We kind of made sure that we took our time with everything and made sure to enjoy each moment.”

Kam said they also looked at Nationals as a learning experience. Although they have had exceptional results in just a few short months as a team, they know there is still room for improvement and development. Currently, Kam and O’Shea are only doing double throw jumps. They are also still working on improving the timing of the catch of their triple twist. In San Jose, their twist received a level 3 in both the short program and free skate, and Kam fell on landing of the twist in the free skate.

“It’s one of the elements that we want to continue growing on, ” O’Shea said of the triple twist. “There’s a lot of potential for it to be better than it is already. We got level 4s [on the twist] the first two competitions that we did. And when we didn’t here [at Nationals], that was a focus for the long program, and we ended up putting the energy in the wrong places a little bit.

“There’s a few things that we’re definitely going to attack when we go home,” O’Shea added. “We’ve been playing around with side-by-side triple toes, as well as some throw triples. The mentality for us for the season is to show strong skating [and] elements that we feel comfortable with and are confident in, and really lay it on thick with the performance.”

With their third-place results at Nationals, the team received one of the three U.S. pairs spots for the ISU Four Continents Championships in Colorado Springs, Feb. 7-13. Kam and O’Shea have a bit of an advantage for Four Continents: The competition will take place in the World Arena, which is their home rink.

“We love the altitude,” O’Shea laughed. “The World Arena is an amazing venue and to have people from around the world be able to come to our hometown, it’s going to be an awesome experience,” he added.

Kam and O’Shea were also named to Team USA’s World Championship team. When they first found out they were named to the World team, Kam said she was a bit shocked by the news, while O’Shea gave Meekins a massive hug.

“We didn’t know what to expect, being so new, and being that we did make some mistakes out there,” O’Shea said, referring to their free skate at Nationals. “We know that we have room to grow, but we’re excited to have the support and the trust that they’re giving us to go perform at these competitions, and we’re going to go out there and prove them right.”

Worlds will take place March 20-26 in Saitama, Japan. Ellie Kam was born at the Yokota Air Base in Japan.

“I have some family there and, hopefully, they will get to come watch,” said Kam, who will be competing in her first World Championships.

Kam and O’Shea are just hoping to keep improving with every competition, and are glad to have these opportunities to develop as a team.

“If we can keep building on this competition (Nationals), Four Continents and Worlds, I think that we will definitely check this off as a successful season,” O’Shea mentioned.

“This season has been a blessing for us, but also a whirlwind,” Meekins said. “When the dust finally settles on their first season together, I think there will be a lot of room for growth and development, both technically and artistically, but also for them to find their voice and point of view on the ice together.”

Looking beyond this season, O’Shea wasn’t shy in saying that they have long-term goals, which include the next Olympics in Milan, Italy, in 2026.

“We have the ability and we have the right set of skills. The opportunity is there in front of us,” said O’Shea.

Roman Sadovsky Prepares for New Season

After an eventful Olympic season–which saw him swing from a 29th-place finish in Beijing all the way up to 12th place at Worlds–Roman Sadovsky is back and ready to start a new four-year cycle of competition. This past weekend at Skate America in Norwood, MA, he finished fifth in a strong men’s field. American phenom Ilia Malinin grabbed headlines–and the Skate America title–when he landed a quad Axel in the free skate. But Sadovsky also impressed the crowd and judges in Norwood, landing some quad Salchows and debuting a new long program. His next Grand Prix event is the MK John Wilson Trophy in Sheffield, England.

The day after the men’s competition, I spoke with Sadovsky to get an update on how his off-season went, the process of creating his new programs, and his progress with quad jumps.

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Hawayek/Baker Stay True to Themselves

Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker are excited to be kicking off their Grand Prix season this weekend at Skate America. They have big plans for this year’s Grand Prix–and this season in general.

“We are absolutely aiming to be at the [Grand Prix] Final this year, which would mean podiuming at both of our Grand Prixs,” Baker said. “We don’t go into an event trying to be second. We want to be the best we can. We want to be in the top 6 at Worlds, absolutely. And we want to be stepping into the role of being National champions. We know that Chock/Bates have been [there] for a very long time, but we have to believe we can push into that space. Otherwise, we’re only ever going to be behind them.”  

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Skate America: Notes from Pairs Short Program Press Conference

Schuster: It was a great experience for us. It was a little bit shaky. But we did our best. It was not a clean skate, but I think we can proud of new stuff for us.

Roscher: It was a really great experience because it was the first big Grand Prix, the first time in America, and the first time with such a lot of people watching us. I really liked the crowd cheering for us.

Stellato: We are very pleased with our performance, happy to be here. It’s kind of a homecoming for me. It’s like my wedding (laughed), it’s like I know everybody.

Knierim: We’re very happy to be back on competitive ice. It felt weird to compete again, because when you compete, it feels like high sensitivity.

Frazier: I never started my season off at a Grand Prix before. There was a lot of positivity out there tonight. It was a little bit of a fight tonight, but it was our starting base.

Knierim: The music choice was strictly from Shae-Lynn (Bourne). In the beginning, Brandon come into my world, and I try to save him. [Music is from Stranger Things.]

Frazier: [on starting season in Boston for second year in a row]: I remember last year when we started, it was the same vibe, we had some things we were working through. Last year, we were on a mission. When we came out here tonight, it felt exactly the same.

Knierim: Every event is important. Whether it’s a Grand Prix [or not], we attack it the same way.

Stellato: [On her expression in lifts] Both my former partner, Nate Bartholomay, and Maxime are so strong. They both made me feel very safe and very strong. I feel very secure over Maxime’s head, and I really like performing even in a lift. The whole last minute of the program, I’m being carried, I love it, it’s my favorite part of the program. This was our first real off-season as a team [previous summers, there was either Covid or she was not released]. We really took that time seriously, and we think that’s why there’s been such a great improvement from then to this time. We’re trying to keep together and centered, so we don’t let [pressures] get to us.

Gilles/Poirier: Focusing on the Now

For Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, the 2021-22 Olympic season proved draining and difficult. The duo considered retirement, but are now back for another season of competitive skating. On a press call today with reporters, they talked about the process of rediscovering their motivation for the sport. For the 11-year veterans, it’s all about their mindset and approach to competition.

Gilles and Poirier started the Olympic season as reigning World bronze medalists. They acknowledged that this wasn’t necessarily the easiest position for them. 

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Coach Spotlight: Jim Peterson

Jim Peterson is a familiar face to U.S. pairs skating fans. He’s been a leading coach in the discipline for many years now. At his former base in Ellenton, Florida, Peterson worked with a number of top U.S. pairs over the last decade and successfully guided three of them to the Olympic Games: Caydee Denney/Jeremy Barrett, Amanda Evora/Mark Ladwig, and Felicia Zhang/Nate Bartholomay. Peterson also coached  2016 U.S. champions Tarah Kayne/Danny O’Shea.

During the last few years, Peterson’s coaching career has changed a bit. First, his former student Amanda Evora has joined him as co-head coach of their students. And, after over a decade in Florida, Peterson and Evora decided to move their school north to the Arctic Edge Ice Arena in Canton, Michigan. They now work in the same rink as the Michigan Ice Dance Academy (MIDA), recently launched by Charlie White, Tanith White, and Greg Zuerlein.

Last month, Peterson accompanied his and Evora’s students Valentina Plazas and Maximiliano Fernandez to the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic, where the team won bronze. After the event, Peterson gave me an update about his new skating school, his partnership with Evora, their work with Plazas/Fernandez, and his thoughts on recent happenings in the pairs discipline.

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Ilia Malinin: Ready for Skate America

On a press call today, Ilia Malinin said that he is happy, but also nervous, to compete in front of a sold-out audience at Skate America later this week.

“It will be pretty packed. It gets me really excited, but is also kind of nerve-wracking, to see that I’ll be performing in front of a lot of people,” Malinin said. But the 17-year-old looks at it as good practice for major competitions. 

Last month, Malinin drew international notice when he landed the first quad Axel in competition at U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Lake Placid, NY.

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Coach Spotlight: Alex Johnson

When Alex Johnson stepped away from competitive skating in spring 2019, his goal was to pursue a career in business, while staying involved with figure skating. Two years later, Johnson is thriving professionally, having recently started a new job as a financial analyst with Amazon. He’s also taking on a new, high-profile role as head coach for Camden Pulkinen, who finished fifth last season at both U.S. Nationals and Worlds. Pulkinen is a student at Columbia University in New York City. Johnson recently accompanied Pulkinen to Lake Placid for the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic, where I had a chance to chat with him.

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U.S. Classic: A Look Back at Lake Placid

A couple weeks ago, I had a chance to go to Lake Placid, NY, to cover the 2022 U.S. International Figure Skating Classic. The competition turned out to be pretty exciting, with Ilia Malinin making skating history by landing the first quad Axel. 

It was my first time visiting Lake Placid–a small town that has played an outsized role in the history of U.S. winter sports. Lake Placid hosted both the 1932 and 1980 Winter Olympics, and will host the 2023 Winter Universiade event next year. It is also a center for events and training in other winter sports. I didn’t really know what to expect from the town, but I had a feeling it would be pretty cool, one way or the other. And it was.

Lake Placid lies in the Adirondack mountains, at 1800 feet above sea level. Although it’s not, of course, as high up as the Rocky Mountains out west, I did feel the altitude a bit while walking around town. You can see hills all around in the distance, and the village sits directly on the shoreline of small but lovely Mirror Lake. The whole area is super-scenic and a really nice place to visit for a skating competition.

It’s pretty cool being near a lot of sports history, too. Directly on the other side of the street from the arena is the speed skating oval where Eric Heiden won five gold medals in the 1980 Winter Olympics. And U.S. Classic itself took place in the same rink where the “Miracle on Ice” happened and the U.S. hockey team won Olympic gold in 1980. Not too many skating arenas can boast that kind of history!

The Miracle on Ice rink at Lake Placid

The skating itself was pretty great. U.S. Classic is an early-season event, so you know going in that skaters aren’t going to be in the same kind of top condition as at Nationals or Worlds. However, the upside of the early-season timeframe is that you get to see a lot of new-program debuts and, sometimes, witness skaters trying out new things that they’d be hesitant to go for in a larger competition. I’ve attended this event three times now, and it always winds up being quite fun.

Here’s some news & notes from the unofficial mixed zone about each discipline.

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