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.

Q:  A year or two ago, you moved your skating group from Florida to Michigan. What led to that? And how is it going?

Peterson:  Well, Amanda got married [to husband Dustin Will]. And her husband lives in Michigan. I think it was a good fit. We’d been looking around a little bit, previously, for about two years. Marina [Zoueva, ice dance coach] had moved from Canton to Florida. We talked with her about the rink [in Canton], and how much she liked training there and how good the management was. So we checked it out in January 2020. We met the management. It was just a really easy, good fit. They made us feel very welcome. So Amanda got married, and we finished up our tenure in Florida.

It was just Maximiliano and Valentina, and Amanda and me. We had hoped to take other skaters with us, but it didn’t pan out. But I think it was probably for the best. We were able to start fresh. The skating director at Canton was very generous in pointing us in the direction of skaters that she thought would be great pairs skaters. And we were able to build a couple of teams. We had a team last year that won in Intermediate, and we had a team that did very well in Novice. This year, we have a Novice team and two senior teams. We’re slowly building our program up. 

Having Charlie and Tanith and Greg Zuerlein in the rink is really exciting. We’re able to take stroking classes with them, and work with them for choreography. Instead of having to travel somewhere, we can just walk to the next rink over. It’s a good environment, because there’s a lot of athletes training for the same type of competitions, and the schedule is very similar. Management and coaches all see where things are going, and it’s very easy to accommodate. 

We love the facility–great off-ice training, ballet, etc. We wanted something similar to what made things work so well in Ellenton. We didn’t want to lose that magic that we had before. We do a lot of our work off ice, and we wanted to make sure that we had the space and the time for that. The trainer upstairs who does our strength training, Aaron Stickel, is very specialized in figure skating. He worked with Olympic ice dancers over the last two quads. We can just send our skaters upstairs, and we don’t have to worry about it.

Valentina Plazas and Maximiliano Fernandez

Q:  Your new senior team, Plazas and Fernandez, are having a great season so far. Can you talk about your work with them?

Peterson:  This is a new team, still, to me. She’s only been skating pairs for two years, and they’ve only been together for two years. So it’s a lot. With what’s been happening in the pairs world–the discipline–there is a lot more opportunity now for younger teams and new teams. We’re ready for it. It’s just happening so quickly, and it’s about trying to manage the expectations and nerves. And just trying to keep the performances nice and even-keeled through our training.

Q:  Russian pairs are banned from international competition right now, which is a really big change for the discipline. How does this affect you?

Peterson:  I think it affects pairs more than any other discipline. If you’ve never been to a Grand Prix, it eases you into things a little more comfortably now, if I’m being frank. I do miss the excitement factor that Russian pairs bring; the high level, pushing everybody to be a little better, just by being on the ice with them. They’re inspirational and innovative. I miss their influence. But I understand why it’s happening. 

Q:  Does this give the U.S. federation an opportunity to help build up the U.S. pairs program? 

Peterson:  I think so. I think it’s important. I’m really happy that we have leadership [in U.S. pairs] with Alexa [Knierim] and Brandon [Frazier]. They’re staying in. I think it’s important to have their leadership as World champions, to inspire everybody else to skate up a little bit, as I was talking about with the Russians. That’s a big responsibility, being World champions, to be the country that holds that title. The other [U.S.] teams want to live up to that, I think. I feel it, as a coach. I think to myself, “We have the World champions in pairs; we need to put out our A game.”

We had a great pairs camp this year. [The 2022 U.S. Figure Skating Pairs Camp took place this summer.] We talked about this next [Olympic] quad, and the quad after. And trying to find more men who are interested in our discipline, which is always a challenge. Ways of recruiting, etc. I must say that we’ve been really lucky in Michigan. We’ve just been working within our rink. That’s honestly been my career. I really haven’t had someone throw me a team, and say, “Here you go.” It’s been a lot of growing and building. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I think it makes it easier once they get to that higher level, if you’ve been coaching them from the beginning. 

Peterson’s coaching partner, Amanda Evora

Q:  Let’s talk about Amanda Evora. She’s gone from being your student, to initially being an assistant coach with you, and now co-head coach. Also, she’s taking on a new role as the current Vice President of U.S. Figure Skating and USOPC Athletes Advisory Council. Tell us  what it’s been like seeing her career develop. 

Peterson:  It’s been exciting. She’s always been probably the most positive person in the room, since I met her. I was lucky enough to coach her and see her reach her goals as an athlete, and to now work together and reach different goals as a coaching team. She’s very organized and analytical, and, along with her positivity, offers a very organized approach to training, as far as lesson times and scheduling. She does that for everyone. 

I think she has a Zoom call every night with U.S. Figure Skating. She has so many responsibilities with the organization, and she loves it. She loves to work and give back. She wants nothing but to promote our sport, and our discipline of pairs, and make it more popular with the masses. She’s been working on some different projects that will be coming up soon that are [intended] to pique interest in our sport, in a non-Olympic year. 

I’m proud of her. Her work ethic is second to none, and I couldn’t pick a better coaching partner. Honestly, I would travel to the ends of the earth to work with her. We have such a comfortable relationship. I don’t have to say much. I just give her a look, and she knows what I mean, or vice versa. It’s a great partnership. 

Peterson, Plazas, and Fernandez at U.S. International Figure Skating Classic

Q:  Another former student of yours, Tarah Kayne, has become a voice for change in the pairs discipline. Tarah, along with other former pairs skaters, has pointed out problems and abuses that have plagued the discipline for years. As a coach, how do you feel about what she’s said? And has it changed your coaching practice?

Peterson:  I think it just makes me more mindful. As coaches, we do have such a responsibility, as does anyone working with young people to teach them a craft. I don’t take it for granted. When I hear Tarah and other skaters, it’s almost like having a glass of cold water thrown in your face, waking you up a bit to the situation.

The pairs discipline continues to be brought up [in regard to coaching abuses and other scandals]. It’s frustrating to me, because I want [to see] interest in our discipline. I want skating moms to feel comfortable that their daughters can take part in this and to be safe. We are double-downing on safety issues, making sure that all lifts are done on the floor and are perfectly organized before we even think about putting them on the ice. Making sure that safety protocols are in place, and that everyone is treated fairly and given the right amount of lessons. 

I think one reason why our school has always thrived, for 20-odd years, is that we give everyone an equal amount of time. It’s not like one team is special, and everything trickles down. We even give them the time whether they can afford it or not, sometimes. The discipline of pairs has a lot of men who are supporting themselves, going to college. Women too, sometimes. It can be difficult if you’re trying to budget; figure skating can be astronomical [in cost]. So that’s something we’re always looking at, too. 

But as far as the treatment of the female pairs skater …. The female pairs skater, to me, is the linchpin of the whole thing. They are the catalyst to success. If the woman feels strong and comfortable and supported, she’s going to skate that much better, and the team is going to thrive. So I always put a great onus that the female pairs skater feels good in her training, and that the partnership is solid and strong. There are times when we’ll have sit-downs, as I’m sure any dance and pairs coach has. Just making sure that everything is being addressed. That’s something I’ve learned through the years. 

Tarah and Danny were definitely a team [with whom] I really learned the value of clear and open communication. I loved coaching Tarah, and our time together, with the success that they had. It’s something I’m proud of.  

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