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.”
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.
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 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.
Ice dancers Allison Reed and Saulius Ambrulevicius, who represent Lithuania, have both been part of the international ice dance scene for many years now. Reed began competing internationally in 2009, while Ambrulevicius’s ice dance career began in 2014. But, it’s only since the couple teamed up and started to compete together that they have gained increasing recognition from ice dance judges and fans alike.
This week, Canadian ice dancers Marjorie Lajoie and Zachary Lagha will write the final chapter of their season at the 2022 ISU World Championships. The duo are hoping to put out season’s-best performances of two programs that have served them well this year: Their “Funkytown” disco rhythm dance and their signature “Birds” free dance set to the Rio soundtrack. At practice this week in Montpellier, I caught up with Lajoie and Lagha to talk about their programs and what makes them tick as a team.
Both skaters were born and grew up in the suburbs of Montreal, Quebec. Lagha said that his parents are of Algerian descent. Both started out skating singles, but Lajoie was drawn to ice dance from an early age.
“When I changed coaches at seven years old, I was training in an area where there were also ice dancers. So, since [I was] a very young age, I saw it and thought, ‘I want to do this,’” Lajoie explained. “Then they found Zach.”
‘“Her coach [also] coached in my club. And he was like: ‘Oh, I have a girl [whom] I really want you to try with.’ And so at one point I tried,” Lagha said. “And then I just kept going.”
Lajoie, 21, and Lagha, 22, have been partners for over ten years already, since 2011 (except for a six-month break in 2015). The duo see the longevity of their partnership as a bonus, as they try to make their mark in senior ice dance.
“I think it’s cool,” said Lajoie. “I see older skaters who are at the end of their career, and they’re celebrating their 10 years. And we are [just] starting to be seniors, and it has already been even longer. So I think it’s a very good advantage for us, that it’s already as long as some of the top seniors. We are very different, and I think that’s also very good for a couple, to grow together as two very different people, two different mindsets of working. It works super-well.”
Lagha agreed that their personalities are quite different.
“I’m more serious, and she’s more light-hearted. That’s pretty much a summary of it,” he said, with a smile.
Lagha admits that his intensity and analytical nature can make competition challenging for him.
“I get nervous. Really, really nervous,” he said of competing. “I overthink. I love the feeling right after the competition. That’s an amazing feeling, when you skate well and have good results. That is really cool. But the day of the competition … It’s not cool,” he said wryly. “Although I try to stay in my zone, so I don’t really know what’s going on around me.”
Lajoie has a slightly different perspective.
“I enjoy competing, yes, for sure,” she said. “Of course, like most people, I don’t enjoy being stressed. But I like the adrenaline that I have just before a program. It’s something that I can’t find in my life, other than in competition. It’s such a special feeling, always. But just like Zach, my favorite feeling is when I’m done competing. It’s so cool, especially when you did super-good.”
Lajoie and Lagha have enjoyed a successful season so far in 2021-22, capped by a trip to their first Olympic Games in Beijing last month. Both skaters said they learned a lot about how to handle the special pressure of the Olympics at the event.
“I think the stress, the pressure, the adrenaline [of the Olympics] is so much bigger than anything else. It’s really unique,” said Lajoie. “And we skated very well. So that’s proof that, under stress or pressure, we can still perform well. That’s why I’m very glad that we went at such a young age, so [that] we practice [coping with] that stress. I think it was a good learning experience for us.”
Lagha said that the long time span of the Olympics makes it much different than other competitions.
“Knowing that you have 13 days before the [ice dance] competition, it’s long. The competition starts in the practices. That’s where the judges see you, and that’s where they start to think. So you have to be on point at every practice,” he commented.
However, with it being their first Olympic Games, Lajoie and Lagha competed without the stress of being medal favorites.
“It wasn’t our competition,” Lagha said. “Everyone’s got their own league. And we’re not in the big league, for now. We’re just trying to improve all the time. In our case, it’s almost like smaller competitions are more important, because that’s where we can [make] a difference in the rankings. The Olympic Games–we were thirteenth, I think. And even if we skated even better, we would still [probably] stay thirteenth. So in terms of stress, for me, it was fine. It was like a normal step.”
Lajoie and Lagha do see potential for upward progress at the World Championships in Montpellier, but don’t want to make it their main focus.
“After the Olympics, there’s usually a lot of movement in the standings. And I think we have a chance now to move up the rankings,” Lagha said. “But even though we know that, it’s important not to think about this and [to] really focus on the performance. We want to perform well. This is the main goal, as usual. And there are some little technical things that we want [to achieve], also. And whatever will happen, will happen. We just want to do a really good performance for the fans. And in this, we can do something cool. Sometimes we focus in [too much] on the technical, and then that’s it. It’s over with.”
Lajoie and Lagha feel confident in the programs they’ll be showing in Montpellier. Their rhythm dance, set to “Funkytown” and two other songs, has been a fan favorite this season. It’s a fast-tempo piece that places a lot of cardio demands on the skaters.
“I really have fun doing it, and every time I go to the practice and it’s this program, I’m happy to do it. Definitely, this program is really cool,” Lagha said. “And no, it’s not hard, because compared to a free dance, nothing is hard. For us, it’s almost–not a piece of cake, if you are talking cardio. But, because we have such a difficult free dance, and it’s mentally so hard and draining to do the free dance, the rhythm dance for us now feels not that hard. It’s hard, but not as much.”
The couple said they’ve been happy with audiences’ reactions to their rhythm dance.
“They reacted [well] almost every time,” Lagha said of the crowd’s response. “Only the first competition they didn’t react–that was Autumn Classic. But we didn’t really perform full out. Coming back from Autumn Classic, we knew that something needed to change. And we needed to attack a lot more. Since then, every time we did it, the public reacted. So we’re going to try to do the same here in France.”
Romain Hagenauer, one of Lajoie and Lagha’s coaches at I.AM, created and choreographed both their programs this year. This is the second year that the duo are skating their bird-themed Rio free dance, set to Brazilian music. Unlike many current free dances, the Rio program is very uptempo and fast, again requiring a significant cardio effort. Lajoie and Lagha explained that they intentionally chose the program for this purpose, to help them stand out to judges and audiences.
“Romain came up with the idea. He has always choreographed our programs,” Lajoie said. “He sent us the music, and we said yes. We hadn’t seen the movie before.”
“Because everybody’s trying to do something lyrical, we thought that this would be a good program so that people can really notice us,” Lagha explained. “So that’s why we’re doing it.”
“We love it,” Lajoie said. “But, we’re kind of excited that it’s our last one [at Worlds]. It’s been two years of very hard cardio. It’s a hard one.”
“Really, the biggest challenge [of the program] is the physical,” Lagha added. “Now, after two years, the elements are pretty much like bam-bam-bam. We do it without really thinking much. However, we always have to focus on turns and do the technical [aspect]. But it’s really automatic right now. I would say that another challenge is to get clean lines, even though the music is really fast. It’s much easier to do it when you have time–you can really extend your arm and do a really big movement. But when the music is fast, it’s a lot more messy when you try to do this. So you have to do smaller movements, but pretty precise, and it takes a lot of energy. I’d say this is one of the big challenges of our program. And also, to get connection between us two. In a program like this, it’s not really easy.”
“The music doesn’t build [to say], ‘Look at each other,’” Lajoie commented. “It’s bird-y. The other ones who are doing slower music, they can really connect. We’ve tried to work on it.”
“It’s been a critique of this program,” Lagha acknowledged.
Still, Lajoie and Lagha have enjoyed the Rio free dance and have no regrets about taking it on.
“Maybe eventually, when we get older and more mature, we’re going to go to this lyrical style,” Lagha said. “It’s a style that, personally, I really like to do much better than the one that we’re doing now. But I think it’s necessary for our development. And I think in terms of skills, we’ve improved a lot from this free dance.”
With their season ending this week at Worlds, it will soon be time for Lajoie and Lagha to make plans for next fall. They have yet to choose music or start choreography for next season’s programs. Like other teams, they are awaiting the ISU’s announcement of next year’s rhythm dance theme and compulsory section.
However, Lajoie and Lagha are already looking forward.
“I’ve started to think about lessons that we need to take,” said Lagha. “Off-ice training, and weaknesses that we need to absolutely improve for next year. I didn’t want to lose time preparing this [only] when the off-season started. We made a little game plan.”
Lagha noted their preparations for next season are “much more complicated’ than just choosing music.
For the next few days, though, the team’s attention will be on this year’s programs.
“We don’t want to take our minds away from this competition,” said Lagha.
I adore ice dance & mens, but don’t follow these disciplines as closely as pairs & ladies. So instead of doing full reviews, here’s a post with my own personal highlights from these events!
Piper Gilles/Paul Poirier
Piper/Paul were definitely my favorite couple in the dance event. I absolutely love their programs this season and find them so innovative. The music selections are unusual, and the choreography is intriguing. I know that some people feel their programs border on the bizarre, but I really enjoyed them at Skate America.
One thing that makes Piper/Paul’s programs work so well is they appear very well trained and prepared this season. Watching them on practice and in the competition, they looked very secure in all their steps, lifts, and partnering and had very good flow over the ice. I didn’t see any slips, mistakes, or bobbles. Their odd, quirky programs work because of Piper/Paul’s solid execution.
Another thing I noticed, seeing Piper/Paul live, is how well matched they are physically. They have similar builds and a great height differential for dance (not too much or too little). And their contrasting coloring is striking. They just look good together. I think they are well matched in terms of personality as well. Paul has such strong partnering skills, but it’s Piper who really sells their programs and choreography with her exuberant personality.
I was disappointed to see Piper/Paul place only third. I’d have liked to see them higher. Their total score of 157.58 was well off their personal best of 165.22, set last year at Worlds. I can’t speak to their technical levels, but I’d like to see their PCS much higher, particularly in the FD. Hopefully their scores will improve over the season. For now, they’re a great pleasure to watch for any audience lucky enough to see them!
I quite enjoyed Sinitsina/Katsalpov’s Swan Lake SD. This is a traditional waltz that works. I thought their movement fully captured the sweeping, joyful feel of the waltz, and the dance was lively and light, rather than staid. Viktoria’s white tulle dress and Nikita’s white-ruffled shirt matched the theme nicely.
This couple seems to be gelling, after a slow start last season. They look more like a team this year. Watching them on practice, I was most impressed with Nikita’s skating skills. His flow over the ice is very smooth and his knees are soft.
Anastasia/Colin’s Beethoven FD was one of my favorite dances at the event. They express this music so well, the program goes by very quickly, and there is much joy and passion in their dancing. It was just a lot of fun to watch.
Anastasia/Colin placed a solid 5th. They scored well with their FD, but were held back a little bit by their SD. Hopefully we’ll see them in another competition before U.S. Nationals.
I really like Baz Luhrmann’s surreal, fantastic film version of The Great Gatsby, as well as the score from the movie, so I quite enjoyed Yanovskaya/Mozgov’s FD to this music. I thought they did well capturing the decadent romantic glamor of the move. Their costumes reflected the theme well, too, especially Anna’s.
This young Russian couple placed 6th. Just up from juniors, their look is not as polished and developed as the top teams. But I enjoyed them.
Wang/Liu’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon FD was a nice surprise.
We don’t often get to see Asian-themed programs in ice dance, so I really enjoyed this number. There’s a lot of cool lifts and transitional moves that use Wang/Liu’s significant height differential to good advantage. The costumes were great, and the program was crowd-pleasing. A good package for them.
What a gift it was to see this young man at Skate America. He is truly special; one of the biggest talents I’ve seen. His long program was thrilling. The whole program went by so fast, and the last third amazed me. When he hit the quad/double combination, the crowd started to go wild, and it just built from there. The cantilever into his final spin was so cool, and the crowd was on its feet even before he finished. Wonderful. As I said to a friend, these are the moments you live for as a skating fan—the moments that just sweep you away and remind you why you love this sport.
I love almost everything about Shoma’s skating—the softness of his knees, his gorgeous jumps, his commitment to his choreography, his flair, his daring, spontaneous quality on the ice. Even his costumes get an A+, as far as I’m concerned. I already can’t wait to see more of this young man.
Max deservedly won the event with 2 very good programs. I was so happy to see him landing his jumps with ease and flow here, and his speed is very good. He really is doing a much better job carrying his performance through the whole program, not just doing moves here & there between jumps. He is a far more complete skater these days than when he won his national title.
I quite enjoyed Max’s Black Swan LP; the program suits him surprisingly well. My favorite moment is when he flaps his “wings” toward the end. Instead of the usual refined flapping you see in Swan Lake programs, Max moves his arms up and down in a stiff, purposeful, masculine way that’s very effective and a real highlight. Fun to watch, and a great victory for him.
Han Yan’s SP/Practices
I loved seeing Han Yan on practice and in the SP. His skating skills are so strong and gorgeous. I love watching him enter his jumps with so much speed. It makes the jumps look fantastic. His short program was quite good.
Unfortunately, Yan once again had a very disappointing LP with many mistakes. It’s such a shame. He has tremendous potential as a skater–I hate seeing him flop like this.
Jason had a decent outing at Skate America to win the bronze.
I like his programs this season, especially The Piano LP. But I worry the choreography is just too complex and intricate and does not allow Jason to build sufficient speed and flow for his jumps. Seeing him live, the difference in speed/power between Jason and skaters like Shoma, Max, and Han was unfortunately quite apparent. Unless things improve significantly in his next Grand Prix, I’d like to see Kori/Rohene dial back the complexity of the choreo a bit before Nationals. I love the programs, but the bottom line is, Jason has to be able to build enough power for the jumps.