Reed/Ambrulevicius: “We haven’t reached our limit”

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. 

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Roman Sadovsky: “I’m proud that I finished the season well”

For 22-year-old Roman Sadovsky of Canada, the Olympic season was one of peaks and valleys. The peaks included qualifying a second men’s Olympic spot at Nebelhorn Trophy in September and placing fourth at Rostelecom Cup in November. Unfortunately, the low point came at the Olympic Games in Beijing, where Sadovsky struggled and placed 29th in the individual men’s event, failing to make the long program. How satisfying, then, for Sadovsky to rebound at the 2022 ISU World Championships in Montpellier, France, where he recorded his highest placement so far  at a major ISU championship (12th). 

I talked with Sadovsky and his longtime coach, Tracy Wainman, in the mixed zone at Worlds to get their reactions to his performances in Montpellier. The duo also spoke about the war in Ukraine and how it’s affected Sadovsky, whose parents both emigrated to Canada from Ukraine.

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Bruno Marcotte: “Miura/Kihara are very special”

“I have mixed emotions,” coach Bruno Marcotte confessed Thursday night, after his students Riku Miura, 20, and Ryuichi Kihara, 29, won the silver medal at the ISU World Championships in Montpellier, France. Seeing Miura/Kihara reach the World podium–less than three years after they first teamed up–was exciting. However, Marcotte also knows that his team is capable of more than they delivered in their free skate at Worlds.

 “Their practices here were great,” Marcotte said. “After the Olympics, I felt like they needed to come down a little bit [from their Olympic peak]. After every competition, you need to come down. But it was like they were resisting that. Training was a struggle for a bit.” 

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Lajoie/Lagha: “We want to do a good performance for the fans”

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.

Lajoie/Lagha performing their Rio free dance (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)

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/Lagha after practice this week in Montpellier

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. 

Lajoie/Lagha at NHK Trophy in November (Photo by Zhang Xiaoyu/Xinhua via Getty Images)

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. 

Castelli and Shnapir Reunite for a Cause

When Marissa Castelli and Simon Shnapir parted ways in 2014, they didn’t expect to ever skate together again. As a pairs team, based at the Skating Club of Boston, they won two U.S. national titles (2013-14) and an Olympic bronze team medal in 2014. But despite their success, Castelli and Shnapir didn’t always get along well. So they ended their partnership after the Sochi Olympics and went their separate ways. 

Now, seven years later, Castelli and Shnapir are unexpectedly teaming up again to perform at A Night of Stars, a benefit show in the Boston area to raise funds for cancer research. The show takes place on Saturday, Dec. 4, with all proceeds going to the Scott Hamilton CARES Foundation, Mass General Brigham, and the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. A Night of Stars is also the Grand Opening Celebration for the Skating Club of Boston’s new facility in Norwood, MA, completed in 2020. 

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Drew Meekins: “Pairs skating is ready for a rebrand”

On first sight, you could almost mistake Drew Meekins for a current competitor in pairs skating (especially these days!). Fit and youthful at 36, Meekins retains an energetic passion for the sport of figure skating. It’s this drive that inspired him throughout his competitive career with pairs partner Julia Vlassov and culminated in the 2006 World Junior pairs title. Indeed, the former champion admits that the idea of competition still crosses his mind at times.

Today, though, Drew Meekins’s focus is on making his mark on the other side of the boards. For over a decade since his retirement, he has worked with top national and international skaters as both a coach and choreographer. Now, he’s fulfilling a longtime personal goal by launching his own pairs skating group in Colorado Springs, CO. Meekins hopes to help grow and reshape the discipline of pairs skating in the United States. 

Recently, Meekins took some time to chat with me about his competitive skating career, his development as a coach and choreographer, current trends and challenges in pairs skating, and what he hopes to accomplish with his new pairs skating group. 

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Getting to Know Olga Ganicheva

Over the last decade, Olga Ganicheva and Aleksey Letov have quietly moved toward the top rank of American figure skating coaches. The husband-and-wife team, who are originally from Russia, started coaching in the Dallas, Texas, area in 2002. There, they built up a skating school based at one of the Dr.Pepper StarCenter rinks in the area (now Children’s Health StarCenter). Their skaters started appearing regularly at U.S. Nationals. In 2016, Ganicheva and Letov’s coaching success was recognized with a Developmental Coach of the Year award from the Professional Skaters Association. 

Last year, Ganicheva and Letov started a new chapter when they moved from Dallas to Boston to become High Performance Directors at the Skating Club of Boston’s new three-rink facility in Norwood, Massachusetts. They brought their skating group to Boston with them. Ganicheva and Letov are unusual among elite-level coaches in that they coach both singles and pairs. Their top pairs teams, Audrey Lu/Misha Mitrofanov and Emily Chan/Spencer Howe, finished just off the podium, in fourth/fifth place respectively, at this year’s 2021 Toyota U.S. Figure Skating Championships. 

Recently, Ganicheva took a few minutes between coaching sessions to talk about her and Letov’s background, their move to Boston, and her thoughts on the pairs event at the 2021 ISU World Championships in Stockholm, Sweden.  

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Roman Sadovsky: Figure Skater & YouTuber

The Grand Prix season always seems to bring its share of new stars and surprises. Roman Sadovsky was a bit of both in November, when he unexpectedly won bronze at NHK Trophy. 

Not many picked the 20-year-old Canadian skater to medal at NHK, which featured an impressive field of men’s competitors, including two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu. But Sadovsky seized the moment in Sapporo, impressing judges and fans with his sweeping quad Salchow jumps and elegant programs. His medal was a bit of a surprise; yet, it was something he’d been building toward for several years.

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Finster/Nagy: Young Team on the Rise

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.

Finster-Nagy-spiral

 

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.  Continue reading “Finster/Nagy: Young Team on the Rise”

Mark Mitchell and Peter Johansson: Finding Success on Their Terms

Mark Mitchell and Peter Johansson are the definition of skating veterans. Both have been involved with figure skating at the elite level for over 30 years, first as competitors and more recently as coaches.

Mitchell competed internationally for the United States in the early 1990s, attaining two top 5 finishes at the World Championships, as well as three medals at U.S. Nationals. Johansson, who hails from Sweden, competed in the 1988 Olympics, as well as at four World Championships. After retiring from competition, Mitchell and Johansson started coaching together at the Skating Club of Boston. There, the duo built a strong group of talented students, including Ross Miner, Emily Hughes, Christina Gao, and, more recently, Megan Wessenberg and Emmy Ma.

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