When Kate Finster and Balazs Nagy began their pairs partnership in late fall of 2017, they were a bit of an unlikely duo. The new partners had a five-year age gap–and also came from different disciplines.
Nagy, 20, had been a singles skater for the majority of his career, with only one brief season of pairs skating at the Juvenile level in 2011. Finster, although five years younger than Nagy at 15, had significantly more pairs experience. She started competing in pairs at age 10, and won the 2015 Novice National title in pairs at age 11 (with former partner Eric Hartley). In the course of her pairs career, Finster has worked with noted U.S. pairs coach Dalilah Sappenfield, as well as Jessica Miller, former competitive pairs skater from Canada. Finster hails from the area of Louisville, KY, while Nagy was born in Budapest, Hungary, and later moved to the United States.
But despite the disparity in their ages and backgrounds, Finster/Nagy immediately sensed potential when they tried out together in fall 2017. They decided to become partners, and relocated to Colorado Springs to work with Sappenfield. Success followed quickly. The team earned a Junior Grand Prix [JGP] berth in fall 2018, took silver in Junior Pairs at 2019 U.S. Nationals, and were named to the U.S. team for the 2019 Junior World Championships, where they placed 11th.
Now, as they start their second season, Finster/Nagy look to build on their success from last year and show continued improvement. The team recently took a few minutes to chat about how their partnership formed, their different backgrounds, and their plans for this season.
Q: So my first question is to Balazs. What’s the proper way to pronounce your name?
Nagy: You have the first name correct [Ba-lazh]. The second name is … impossible. Nazh … Nay-jee ….
Finster: Just say Nay-jee.
Nagy: Yeah. Whatever you want. (Laughs)
Q: You two are fairly new on the U.S. pairs scene. Let’s talk about how you got into pairs skating. Kate, you started pairs at a very young age. And you’ve competed in pairs for almost your entire career. What drew you to the discipline, initially?
Finster: When I was younger, I liked the feeling and the aspect of skating with somebody. And to be lifted and thrown–that’s what I liked about it.
Q: Are you a bit of a daredevil when it comes to trying big tricks?
Q: You became national champion in the Novice division in 2015, when you were just 11 years old. What was that like?
Finster: It was a good experience. It was very eye-opening to see what could happen. The opportunities.
Q: Were you surprised at becoming National champion?
Finster: At such a young age? Absolutely.
Q: After your success at Nationals, you and your partner, Eric Hartley, split up. You had a few more partnerships, some of which were short and didn’t work out. What were those years like? Was it hard to keep up your motivation for pairs, when you had partnerships that didn’t pan out?
Finster: Keeping motivated was hard. But I guess it helped me in some ways, because I learned how to do different techniques and persevere [toward] my dream.
Q: Did you have to change technique each time you started with a new partner?
Finster: Yes. It definitely got frustrating at some points.
Q: Balazs, unlike Kate, you competed for most of your career as a singles skater. You started out skating in the United States. Then you competed for Hungary.
Nagy: Yes. When I was 14, we moved to Hungary. I was born in Budapest, and both my parents are Hungarian. So we have dual citizenship. And we moved back to Budapest for a couple years. I represented Hungary for about two years, internationally. And then I went back to the United States, to finish high school here. I was going to compete another season in singles for Hungary. Then, that year, I got injured.
Q: You did try pairs once earlier, when you were younger, right?
Nagy: Right. In North Carolina, my coaches were Oleg Efimov and Natalia Efimova. Oleg had been a Soviet pairs skater, and Natalia had been a dancer. So they had a strong dance background. I partnered up with a girl at my rink [Krystal Edwards], and we tried pairs for a year . At the time, I was just not ready. And it was really close to when we were moving [to Hungary]. So it didn’t work out.
Q: What drew you back to pairs?
Nagy: I was struggling in my singles career. (Laughs) And I really liked this aspect of pairs …. When you watch a singles program, it’s all jump, jump, jump, spin, jump, jump–and it gets kind of repetitive. In pairs, everything’s different. You do twists, jumps, throws, lifts–it’s a lot more diverse. There’s more variation in a pairs program. Not to mention the partnering and [the aspect] of skating with your partner.
Q: How did you and Kate team up?
Nagy: I had actually quit skating for a while. And then I decided to come back, that I wasn’t ready to quit. So I started training, and I got my jumps back. Then I made an account on Ice Partner Search. It was very rudimentary. I didn’t really post much about myself; I don’t even think I had pictures. I was like: We’ll see what happens. And I woke up in the morning to my inbox full of emails. And Kate and her mom were the first email, with the strongest [resume]. I could tell that Kate meant business, because I got a bunch of pictures and videos of her skating. So I knew it was serious.
Q: Did you know anything about Kate’s prior experience in pairs?
Nagy: I knew some. Not much. I just knew she had the Novice championship, like you mentioned. And I once competed against her first partner when I still did pairs [in 2011].
Q: Where did you try out?
Finster: We were in my hometown, in Kentucky, training with my coaches, Stephanie Miller and Jessica Miller. They helped us.
Nagy: The first tryout was right after Thanksgiving. It was for two or three days. I didn’t really know what to expect; I thought it went well. So I went back for a full week to see if we would click and match, personality-wise. To see if we’d get along, on and off the ice. That was when we decided to team up.
Q: What are some things you do in a pairs tryout, to assess if you’re a good match?
Nagy: A lot of it, in the beginning, is off ice. Off-ice lifts, walking through stuff off ice, to make sure that it’s going to be safe to transfer to the ice, and if it will be feasible. Obviously, part of the off-ice part is [to see] if your personalities match, if you can get along, if you work well together. And then, the on-ice part …. A lot of it is just stroking and seeing how you move together. And then putting some of the most basic stuff on the ice–the side-by-side jumps, stuff that isn’t necessarily pairs-specific. Very basic lifts, like mini-lifts, and death spirals, pairs spins.
Q: Kate, you mentioned your coaches in Kentucky. Had you been with them since you were young?
Finster: Yes, for the most part. They got me my double Axel, when I first started learning it, and my triple Salchow. And they started working on the triple toe loop with me. When Balazs and I teamed up, we were training there. But there weren’t any pairs teams there. And then we realized that we needed to be at a center with pairs teams. And I’ve been with Dalilah [Sappenfield] for a long time. So we reached out to Dalilah, and we came out here to try it out, and we really liked it. [Note: Finster trained part-time in Colorado Springs with Sappenfield during previous partnerships, including her partnership with Eric Hartley.]
Nagy: We knew she was the best pairs coach in the United States.
Q: Balazs, it was your first time skating pairs in a long while. How big was your learning curve on elements like the lifts, the triple twist, etc.?
Nagy: I didn’t really have that much experience with pairs. There was that one season back in Juvenile, but I wouldn’t really say that compared. I feel like I picked it up relatively quickly. But Kate is more qualified to answer this, because she has more experience.
Finster: I feel like he’s very good at picking up the pairs elements; just learning how to move with somebody else on the ice. He’s obviously very strong, so that is definitely helpful.
Nagy: The most difficult thing to learn was the triple twist. But we’ve spent a lot of time working on that with Dalilah.
Q: In terms of mastering the triple twist–and lifts and other elements–was your learning process mostly focused on direct coaching from Dalilah, or observing the other pairs skaters at Colorado Springs?
Nagy: The basic technique of the twist was all Dalilah. That was all doing what she said. What I looked at from other [skaters] was more the features on the twist–how to get the timing right, how to get arms. And [there was] another thing that I could learn from the others. When Dalilah would give me a correction–and let’s say somebody else was making the same mistake–I could then see it. And I could understand how that was going to affect the twist, and correct it in my own [twist].
Finster: I feel like the triple twist is all timing. There’s obviously some strength and technique. But, it’s a lot of timing and figuring out how it’s going to go up.
Q: You had quite a bit of success in your first season. What were some highlights of the season for you?
Nagy: Getting our first international assignment was definitely one of the highlights for me. And just traveling internationally with Team USA was a great experience. Nationals in Detroit was also fun. It was my first national medal for the United States. I felt like our program and skating built as the season went on. Of course, Junior Worlds was the most stressful competition of the season– and that showed.
Q: You competed against the top Russian junior pairs teams, and other good teams, at Junior Worlds. What impression did that leave on you?
Nagy: That was kind of humbling. Because you could really tell where everybody else in the world was, and how they train, and what they do, and how they compete. It really showed us what we need to work on for this season.
Q: You’ve already started competition this season. You won the junior pairs event at Skate Detroit, and you have two JGP assignments coming up in Lake Placid and Gdansk, Poland. What are your goals for this season?
Finster: To hopefully medal at a JGP. We’d also like to win [junior pairs] at Nationals, qualify for Junior Worlds again, and place in the top 5 or 6.
Nagy: Additionally, with the JGP, I really want to grow the programs, component-wise. And stabilize our elements, in the sense that I’d like to be getting consistent levels. I want to make sure it’s not: “Oh, we had a really good twist at this competition, and then a not-so-good one at the next one.” I want to make sure the levels and the scores are consistent. And more of a larger goal is, obviously, performing well at the JGPs and hoping to qualify for the JGP Final.
Q: Are you doing the same elements as last year, or adding new elements?
Nagy: Our twist and our jumps are going to be basically the same. Our lifts are going to be a bit different. Death spiral … obviously, in the short program [this year], the requirement is a back inside death spiral, so that’s going to be different . We’ve put a back outside death spiral in the long [program]. But for the most part, the maturity level of the choreography is our focus for this year. Because we feel like, for the most part, our elements are there–although not necessarily, as I mentioned, consistent on the levels, or always on the jumps. We really want to build on our components.
Q: Last year, your music for both programs was jazzy/showy. This year, you’ve gone with more lyrical pieces, “Hallelujah” and “To Build a Home”/”Rain, In Your Black Eyes.” How did you choose these programs?
Nagy: For the short, we wanted to have a program in honor of loved ones and friends whom we have lost. We wanted to make it a more emotional piece. And for the long, we wanted to illustrate our journey–how we’ve been building trust together in our partnership, on the ice and off the ice. We wanted to have a more emotional, gritty piece.
Finster: More mature. Because last year’s music was very jazzy and upbeat; less mature.
Q: How do you like practicing and performing to these pieces, so far?
Finster: I enjoy it a lot. I think it’s a very fun experience to emotionally connect to the judges and the audience, to show them how our skating’s been going. And I like the choreography aspect of it. I really like the styling of the programs.
Nagy: What’s funny [is that] for both programs last year, they were kind of happy and exciting, and we had to smile a lot, even when we didn’t feel like it. So now, if I don’t want to, I don’t have to smile. And it’ll still look good.
Q: If things aren’t going well, it must be hard to keep looking happy on the ice.
Nagy: If you miss an element and you’re frustrated … Last year, that was something I had to learn and work on a lot. That, even if you missed [something], you stay in the program and you smile and you do whatever the choreography is. So obviously now, I still have to stay in the program. But I don’t have to get up from a fall with a smile on my face. (Laughs)
Q: Who choreographed your programs this year?
Nagy: Both of our programs were done by Dalilah.
Q: Moving on to other topics …. Kate, what do you enjoy doing off ice?
Finster: I like to hang out with friends. My brother Chase and I will go get coffee sometimes. I like to hang out with friends that are somewhat closer to my age, because a lot of people here [at the rink] are a lot older than me. [Note: Finster’s brother, Chase Finster, 18, competed in the Junior Men’s division at 2019 U.S. Nationals.]
Q: What’s it like, living and training with your brother in Colorado Springs?
Finster: It’s great. It’s nice to have him out here, so I’m not completely away from family. He’s a very supportive brother. He drives me to the rink every day. He has his license, so that’s very helpful, and I don’t have to get rides from other people. We usually have the same training schedule. And for the most part, we get along.
Q: Your parents and siblings live in Kentucky, while you and Chase are in Colorado Springs much of the time. How hard is that?
Finster: It’s really hard. But I get the chance to mature and grow up, while having a good support system.
Q: How often do you get home for visits?
Finster: Usually after competitions, I’ll go home for maybe three or four days. On holidays, I go home for a week.
Q: Are you attending school in Colorado Springs, or are you home-schooled?
Finster: I’m home-schooled through Connections Academy. My brother does Connections, too.
Q: And Balazs, what do you like to do off the ice? Any hobbies/pastimes?
Nagy: I hang out with my friends from here at the rink. We have a great group of guys, and we spend a lot of time together. Sometimes we’ll go on hikes on the weekend, when it’s nice. And, with my friends who are into cars, we’ll go on drives and stuff. I don’t really have all that much free time, because I also go to university at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, where I’m majoring in exercise science. And then, I also cook a lot. Which isn’t really a hobby, but I just have to do it! So it takes up a lot of my time.
Q: Where do you live?
Nagy: I live in a house with my roommate, TJ Nyman. [Nyman, 19, is also a pairs skater in the Sappenfield group.]
Q: And here’s a question for both of you: What is about the two of you that makes you click and work as partners?
Finster: I feel like we just get along really well.
Nagy: I think both of us are really motivated. And when we get frustrated on the ice, it’s usually about our mistakes.
Finster: Not at the other person.
Nagy: We try not to take it out on each other. Because I personally feel–and I think Kate views it the same way–that when we get frustrated on the ice, it’s about our own mistakes, not the mistakes of our partner. Because we know that the other person’s trying. And they want this just as much as we do.
Q: Thanks & good luck with your season this year!
Note: Finster/Nagy will compete this week at the Junior Grand Prix event at Lake Placid, NY, starting Thursday, August 29.