Olympian Profile: Meagan Duhamel & Eric Radford

Long before Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford started to skate together, they knew each other. They both grew up in small northern communities, she from Lively, Ontario, (population 7,000) and he from Balmertown, Ontario, (population 1,000) which is as far north as you can go by train in northern Ontario.

“Balmertown makes Lively look like New York,” Duhamel would joke. They never dreamed of a partnership. Radford is tall and lean with classical lines, Duhamel tiny and muscular with an athletic style. “If I had ever thought of somebody I could skate with,” she said. “I would never have even thought of skating with Eric because we were so different.”

Both ended up skating in Montreal and when Duhamel’s former partner, Craig Buntin retired, Buntin suggested to them that they try out together. Strangely enough, Duhamel had no intention to continue skating after a disappointing season in which she and Buntin missed a berth to the 2010 Olympics.

“That year was a nightmare all around,” Duhamel said. “I had a stress fracture and a bulging disk in my back for a year and a half. I had nerve damage in my leg. And with the stress of the Olympics and everything, I just didn’t want to live through anything like that again.” She took eight weeks off at the end of the season – and then eventually found herself waking up every morning with no pain. She rediscovered the joy of skating.

Radford, meanwhile, had had a discouraging pair career, and had travelled the world, trying to find his niche, even training for a time with Ingo Steuer. “I feel like I’ve waited a while to get to the level that I felt I could be at,” he said. With Duhamel, he was finally where he wanted to be: a contender on the world stage, not just there to compete. “It’s been a big and exciting change for me,” he said. “It totally changed my entire outlook on skating.”

They had doubts in the beginning. After their first tryout, they were skeptical. Coach Richard Gauthier asked them to give it a week and assured them it would work out. In less than a week, they found that everything was just so easy.

Duhamel found it fun. “When I used to close my eyes and dream about skating, I would envision being able to skate freely, like so light, instead of being so heavy,” she said. “How we skate is how I’ve always dreamed I could do.”

Duhamel and Radford joined forces to get to the Sochi Olympics, but along the way, they’ve become three-time Canadian champions and world bronze medalists, always with a close eye on the points, as indicators of the steps they need to get to the top. Where she was weak, he was strong and vice versa. They filled each other’s holes “and met right in the middle,” Duhamel said. He’s into music, she’s a registered holistic practitioner and a vegan.

Always strong singles skaters, they have powered onto the international scene with some of the toughest tricks in the business. Duhamel was the first to land a throw triple Lutz with an earlier partner and she and Radford adopted it too. It’s still rare. No other skaters attempt side-by-side triple Lutzes, either. That carried them far, and then they started to do acting classes to bring out their relationship on ice.

It hasn’t been clear sailing. Radford found it surreal to defeat four-time world champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany for the first time in the short program at the 2013 world championships, particularly since he had once trained with them and had looked up to them. Then the Canadians narrowly defeated the Germans on the technical mark in the long program. But others had thundered into contention, too, namely Russians Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, who’s every move is big, spectacular and good for maximum grades of execution.

Duhamel and Radford encountered stiff adversaries at home, too, in Kirsten Moore-Towers and Dylan Moscovitch, who defeated them in the long program at Four Continents last year, and who actually drew a higher technical mark than their fellow Canadians in the long program at the world championships.

Over the past two years, Duhamel and Radford have had to break Canadian-record performances turned in by Moore-Towers and Moscovitch to win their Canadian titles. They came to the table with two outstanding routines this year, the short program to “Tribute” a musical composition created by Radford himself to honour Paul Wirtz, one of his coaches who died some years ago, and their winsome “Alice in Wonderland” routine for the long. They finished both programs with a great deal of emotion – their best efforts of the season. They tend to hit their peak at nationals, not early in the season.

“I think it was the best long we’ve ever skated,” Duhamel said. Those efforts were especially gratifying after a rocky early season. Duhamel and Radford were first after the short at Skate Canada International in Saint John, N.B., then were taken aback to finish third after making several mistakes and getting a standing ovation in the long. Their Grand Prix in France had mistakes too, but they took the silver medal and got to the Grand Prix Final, which didn’t go as they hoped. There, they finished fifth in the short and sixth in the long.

“Being successful at skating is kind of like a puzzle,” Duhamel once said. “If we have one piece missing, we have such a great coaching staff, and great choreography and we have each other. I think all of the pieces will fall into place.”

Want to read more about the figure skaters who will compete at the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi? Pick up Beverley Smith’s new book SKATING TO SOCHI! The book profiles the top 40 athletes/teams with full-colour photos! Order online: Amazon.com, Lulu.com (ebook) or iTunes (ebook).

Beverley Smith

Olympian Profile: Alexandra Paul & Mitchell Islam

Finally, their time has come.

Alexandra Paul and Mitchell Islam first twizzled their way into the Canadian consciousness when they showed up at the 2010 Skate Canada International Grand Prix event in Kingston, Ont., as first year seniors – and in only their second season together.

They entranced the crowd with their lyrical routine to “As Time Goes By,” earned their first standing ovation and placed second in the free dance ahead of seasoned British skaters Sinead Kerr, 31, and brother John, 30, ranked fifth in the world. At the time, Paul was 19, Islam, 20.

Vanessa Crone and Paul Poirier had won the event, but Islam and Paul won the technical mark in that free dance, ahead of an athletic Canadian team always known for difficult technique. Even then, Paul and Islam skated with an ease of movement, with effortless freedom and close-together positions.

At the time, Paul and Islam evoked memories of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who missed that Skate Canada international because Virtue had undergone surgery on her legs. “We love Tessa and Scott,” Islam had said. “We’ve both looked up to them a lot as young athletes, but we definitely want to distinguish ourselves as a new team in Canada in senior.”

Paul and Islam had a year left of junior eligibility, but wanted to forge ahead to senior. Everything seemed “surreal” at this event. They finished fourth overall, after being sixth in the short dance, but they had created a buzz.

But their road to the Sochi Olympics since then has been anything but smooth. Paul pulled muscles in her ribs in training before their next event, Cup of Russia. They couldn’t train leading into the event. They had a fall in the short dance, and then realizing that she could not do the lifts in the free, because of the injury, they withdrew. “It felt like the wind was knocked out of me every time,” she said. But they did mount a comeback to finish third at their first senior nationals.

The next season, everything went awry. “As soon as I got better, something else would happen,” Paul said. They finished only eighth at Skate America, and then when they got to the NHK Trophy, Paul was cut at the back of her thigh in a practice collision with an Italian team and they had to withdraw from the free dance. They got no Grand Prix assignments during the 2012 season and dropped to fourth at nationals.

Their biggest heartbreak came at the 2013 Canadian championships, when they had gathered their forces, moved their training site to Detroit to snap out of their dry spell, and finished in third place after the short dance. A berth for the world championships in London was on the line. But Islam slipped in the free dance, and the dream was gone in an instant. They finished fourth. Only three could go. “It was a wakeup call for us,” Islam said.

“It’s one of those things that feels like rock bottom,” Islam said. It had all been too much: two years of hardship, and then this. For two weeks, their chins were at their boots. “But it’s how you handle things that happen to you like that,” Islam said later. “We had a lot of support from people that gave us confidence, something that we definitely needed after something like that happened.”

They decided they needed to change the way they trained, if they were going to make it to Sochi. “You have to train every day like you mean it,” Paul explained. “You have to go through things, no matter what. You have to recover from mistakes faster. It’s just a no-excuse attitude.”

It wasn’t easy, Islam said. They had to focus on their goals every day, every minute. But it made training a lot easier, he said, because they could take the confidence of being ready, mentally and physically, to competition. “The dividends are quite nice,” Islam said.

Both dancers have histories that suggest success. Islam has skating in his blood. His father, David, was a former ice dancer, now director of ice dancing at the Mariposa School of Skating in Barrie, Ont. His mother, Debbie Islam, was a former national medalist and Olympic judge, who worked the men’s event at the Vancouver Olympics. Shortly after Islam was born, his father carried him onto the ice in his arms. By the time he was two, Islam had skates on his feet.

Paul began skating at age five, but already has a long history of ballet training, quite evident in her beautiful posture and back, and body movement. She and two other sisters enrolled in CanSkate in Barrie, but Alex was the only one who persevered.

She had skated singles up to the novice level, but started dancing with Jason Cheperdak when she was 16, because she was not a fan of attempting triple jumps. Meanwhile, at the same arena, Islam was already making a name for himself with Joanna Lenko, who eventually had to retire because of heart issues.

Both Paul and Islam, of course, had learned the same stroking style from the head coach, who matched them together. “It felt so easy,” she said. Their career took off like a rocket. They outfinished the previous year’s junior champions at a summer competition, got a Junior Grand Prix assignment, and missed a bronze medal by only a point. When they won the Canadian junior championships, Paul thought: “It hit me this could be real.” She had been nervous; she didn’t want to let down Islam, who was a more experienced skater.

They continued on to finish second at the world junior championships. They were so new, they hadn’t established themselves on the junior circuit. And they had been together only five months.

Skate Canada International in Kingston was their “coming out party,” Islam said. It left stars in their eyes. But they have grown in many ways since. And now finally, the Olympics.

Want to read more about the figure skaters who will compete at the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi? Pick up Beverley Smith’s new book SKATING TO SOCHI! The book profiles the top 40 athletes/teams with full-colour photos! Order online: Amazon.com, Lulu.com (ebook) or iTunes (ebook).

Beverley Smith

Olympian Profile: Liam Firus

Liam Firus knew it was going to be a dogfight, the showdown for the men’s Olympic spot at the national championships. “But that’s when I skate my best,” says the 21-year-old from North Vancouver.

The young man with the quiet grace has had a shorter season than most as he recovered from a groin injury that had bothered him the previous season. For weeks, he suffered painful injections, did physiotherapy, and centred his life around rehabilitation. He didn’t start jumping again until July. He didn’t start introducing triples back into his training until the middle of August, and it wasn’t until the beginning of September that he started doing full programs. He had only five months to go to the Olympic Games.

He was taken aback when he finished second in the short program at the national championships – ahead of Kevin Reynolds – even though he fell on a triple Axel. Firus held his hands on his head in anguish when he left the ice.

Could he possibly see himself winning the bronze medal when he started his difficult season? Well, yes, Firus said. “I thought, ‘You know what? You’re going to be on the Olympic team,’” Firus said not so long ago. “It’s going to be tough. Nothing is going to be easy. This is my goal. I told myself I was going to be here. And I was.”

He’s not the type to be boastful. He’s mannered, quietly confident, respectful, shows up to train every day. He started out as a hockey-player-turned skater, learning the ropes from Lorna Bauer in Vancouver. And last summer, to position himself for that Olympic spot, Firus left to train with Christy Krall in Colorado Springs.

“There are no hard feelings,” he said. “She [Lorna] is still part of my team. But Christy runs things now. If I ever need advice, I go to Lorna. But I am now officially at Colorado Springs.”

“It’s a change,” he added. “I miss my old life, my social life. I don’t really have a social life any more, although one of my best friends in Colorado is Max Aaron. We are good buds.”

Alas, Aaron didn’t make the U.S. Olympic team, as Firus triumphed in Canada. The vibes were working, just not quite enough. Just before the long program, Firus called Aaron, who was in Boston at the U.S. championships. “He told me to go out there and be amazing,” Firus said. “He’s a jumper. He knows how to be amazing to the crowd. He’s fun to watch. He’s what people want to see. He brings excitement to the sport.”

Firus is grateful to have an array of top skaters to train with: Jason Brown, Joshua Farris, Agnes Zawadski, Brandon Mroz. “It’s nice to see that when you have an off day, everyone else has them too. Even the best ones,” Firus said.

But he hasn’t forgotten home. He was born and raised in Vancouver. He’s been happy to live there. “I have the best friends there, and I truly feel that they’ve kept me grounded,” Firus said. “They’ve given me support. In high school, being a male figure skater, it isn’t the easiest thing, but they were unbelievable.”

One of Firus’ best friends, Luke, was also a track competitor in elementary school. They’d run neck in neck in 100, 400, 800 metre events. “We had a rivalry, but we were best friends,” Firus said. “He made me the competitor that I am. I owe that to him.”

“It was the hardest thing to leave home, because they made me who I am,” Firus said. “But now I’m so focused on skating.”

His father, Trevor, is an accountant. His mother, Lois Sullivan, is a real estate agent. Firus’s grandfather was the figure skating fan. “My family supports me so much,” Firus said. “Mom has really made this possible for me. I owe it all to my mom.”

When it came time to make a decision to leave Vancouver, Firus’s mother let him leave to see what he could be. “She just said: ‘You’ve got to get there. Just do it. You have all our support.’” Firus said.  Coach Lorna – who he regards as a second mother – told him “You do what you need to do to get to the Olympics.”

“And that’s exactly what I did,” Firus said. “It’s been an awesome year.”

Not surprisingly, Firus lists as two of his idols the consummate artistic skater, Stephane Lambiel – and his younger brother, Shane Firus.  “I’m not joking,” Firus said. Shane was the bronze medalist in junior dance last season, but is currently looking for a new partner.

“I think Shane is absolutely amazing,” Firus said. “I was on the ice with him when I went back to Vancouver after Skate Canada Challenge and he was doing just simple stroking. He’s been off the ice for a while, but he was there…and I was in awe. He’s absolutely amazing.”

“I look up to him. It’s his edges, his presence, even off the ice. Shane really makes me grounded. He makes me laugh. On the way to the long program [in Ottawa], he picked me up and he drove here. We are very close. He’s one of my best friends. He’s truly amazing on and off the ice.”

Another Firus? He’ll bear watching. Never underestimate them.

Want to read more about the figure skaters who will compete at the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi? Pick up Beverley Smith’s new book SKATING TO SOCHI! The book profiles the top 40 athletes/teams with full-colour photos! Order online: Amazon.com, Lulu.com (ebook) or iTunes (ebook).

Beverley Smith

Olympian Profile: Paige Lawrence & Rudi Swiegers

Who could have guessed? Paige Lawrence and Rudi Swiegers grew up in two tiny Saskatchewan towns, 23 kilometres apart, where pair skating is perhaps 25th on the list of things to do behind rodeo.

Actually, Lawrence’s parents own a rodeo production company in Kennedy, Sask. (population 241), home to the Moose Mountain Pro Rodeo, a post office, a bank, a restaurant/bar and a grocery store/gas station. Her father is an ex-professional bull rider and travels all spring and summer to rodeos. On their ranch, they have bucking broncos and bucking bulls. Lawrence’s brother rides bulls. Paige would like to, but coach Patty Hole won’t let her. (“But not for lack of trying,” says Swiegers.)

“It’s on my list, though,” Lawrence said. “It will happen someday.” She has competed in barrel racing, not the usual prerequisite for figure skating. But obviously, she’s fearless, perfect for pair skating.

Their tremendous moxie has driven Lawrence and Swiegers to become perhaps one of the few, if not the first figure skaters from Saskatchewan to make it to an Olympics. They earned the berth when they took the bronze medal at the 2014 Canadian Tire National Skating Championships in Ottawa, seemingly an impossible dream for a couple of prairie kids.

They weren’t matched up in the usual way. Swiegers, born in South Africa, but raised in Kipling, Sask., (population 1,100) had just lost his pair partner and eyed up Lawrence, a tiny skater who, like him, was a leftie. In other words, they both rotate in the direction opposite to which most skaters do (although Swiegers is left handed and Lawrence is right handed, they both naturally rotate to the left). It’s rare to find two lefties, and there they were, in the same little club (they train in Virden, Manitoba).

Hole asked Lawrence to help out Swiegers and before she knew it, she was trying out pairs. Lawrence discovered she liked the feeling of being thrown in the air. They landed a throw triple Salchow during their second week together.

Lawrence started skating when she was four, the daughter of a figure skating mother and a hockey-playing father. There wasn’t much to do in Kennedy during the winter, but there was CanSkate. She landed her first triple Salchow when she was 16.

Swiegers’ mother was a doctor in Saskatoon, before she moved to Kipling, but he started skating late, at age 10. A succession of injuries as a singles skater turned him into a pair skater by age 15. He was 18 when he started to skate with Lawrence during the summer of 2005.

Hole brought on board an old friend, Lyndon Johnston – a world silver pair medalist in 1989 – for some technical expertise. Johnston arrived, expecting to see beginners, but saw a young pair team already doing amazing things. “Paige is probably the toughest girl I know,” Johnston said. “She is fearless when it comes to doing stuff, so now when they want to do more scary tricks, Patty sends them to me. I lose sleep over it.” Lawrence would love to do a throw quad.

They made a splash when they competed at a Skate Canada International in Kingston, Ont., in 2011 with a lift they called “The Missile” or “The Bullet” partly designed by David Pelletier. At one point, Lawrence’s feet are above her head, with her blades near his head and “hopefully he catches me,” she said. The first time they showed it to Hole, she covered her eyes. “That was the reaction we wanted,” Lawrence said.

The team has always shown so much promise, but has been foiled so many times by injury, however. Just before the 2012 Canadian championships, Lawrence suffered a concussion during a practice fall, but a month later, the team won a bronze medal.

They started the Olympic season with high hopes. They were thrilled with new programs choreographed by Lance Vipond (going back to their comfort zone of fun with “Rudy’s Rock” by Bill Haley and the Comets) and the long, designed by Bernard Ford, who gave them the soundtrack from “Oz the Great and Powerful.”

Their long program is not about Oz at all, but they skate to their own story: Lawrence is a mechanical doll, who after a change in melody and some side-by-side double Axels, becomes animated. At first she skates with robotic movement, and that changes when she comes to life.

With these arsenals in hand, Lawrence and Swiegers hoped for big things at the beginning of the year. “Paige and I believe that we are a very strong team and we are very confident with ourselves this year, especially with the new programs,” Swiegers said. “So we’re not going for that third spot. We’re going for national champions and everything is going to come from that.”

However, Lawrence developed an Achilles tendon problem in her left (landing leg) over the summer. By the time she got to training camp in September, her hamstring was pinching her – as her thigh muscles overcompensated for the initial troubles. All season long, the hamstring/groin injury hampered Lawrence. Even at the Canadian championships, she skated with her left thigh heavily taped, although there was less need for it as time went on. They could not do everything they planned. Still, they made the Olympic team.

They are known as a fun-loving team that brightens a room with their presence. At the 2011 Four Continents championships, Swiegers saved the day for U.S. team Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig, after Ladwig broke the heel of a skate and had only three minutes to repair equipment. Swiegers, who had already skated, handed Ladwig his own boot and Ladwig was able to continue.

Later, U.S. Figure Skating flew Swiegers and his mother to Chicago to a Governing Council Meeting, where Ladwig presented the Canadian Samaritan with the U.S. Sportsmanship Award. Swiegers met the “higher ups,” as he put it. They both have come far from small-town Saskatchewan.

Want to read more about the figure skaters who will compete at the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi? Pick up Beverley Smith’s new book SKATING TO SOCHI! The book profiles the top 40 athletes/teams with full-colour photos! Order online: Amazon.com, Lulu.com (ebook) or iTunes (ebook).

Beverley Smith

Les Supremes earn synchro skating bronze at French Cup

ROUEN, France – Les Supremes from St-Leonard, Que., gained a spot in its long program to win the bronze medal Saturday in junior competition at the 10-country French Cup synchronized skating event.

Finland teams were 1-2 with Fintastic first at 171.68 and Mystique second at 167.95.  The Supremes followed at 164.60.    The Supremes team members were Rebecca Allaire, Kelly Arenas, Patricia Alexandra Batista Ruivo, Alexandra Bernardo, Emma Maria Corona, Alessandra Criscuolo, Marina Dina Dentico, Sara Gilbert, Kathleen Grandchamp, Nadia Lemay, Dana Malowany, Christina Marie Margiotta, Alexia Nadal-Plante, Alessia Polietta, Stefa Saddi, Emily Santella, Adriana Rose Spatan, Sofya Squalli, Ashley Stendel and Tuyet Mai Stephanie Vu.

Les Suprêmes junior placed eighth at this event last season, seventh in 2012, and fourth in 2011. The 2013 Canadian junior silver medallists are coached by Marilyn Langlois and Amélie Brochu.

Leaside Synergy from Toronto took ninth spot.  Team members were Alessia Chiovitti, Courtney Hardy, Emily Bird, Haleigh Cowan, Hannah Corbeil, Hannah Coyle-Asbil, Ewan Hilary, Jenna Child, Julia Chiovitti, Lauren Hutchison, Madisson Biel, Mara Spence, Melissa McCrae, Melissa Pulenzas, Rachel Hennick, Rachel Moore, Rebecca Francis, Rebecca Moore and Rebecca Solomon.

This was the first international assignment for Leaside Synergy, coached by Stephanie Klein. Leaside Synergy junior placed fourth at the 2013 Skate Canada Synchronized Skating Championships.

In senior competition it was a Finnish medal sweep.  The Supremes took sixth place with Élodie Marie Achéron, Audrey Bédard, Karyane Bélisle, Lydia Bergeron, Jessica Bernardo, Lou Ann Bezeau Tremblay, Josyane Cholette, Sara Irma Corona, Alexandra DelVecchio,  Laurie Désilets, Maria-Victoria Langon, Sarah Leblond, Sophie-Anne Lemay, Clémence Léa Marduel, Agathe Sigrid Merlier, An-Kim Nguyen, Chloé Perrin, Geneviève Rougeau, Marina Rousseau and Claudia Sforzin.

Les Suprêmes placed fifth at this event last season, fourth in 2012, and won silver in 2011. Representing Québec, they placed sixth at the 2013 ISU World Synchronized Skating Championships. Les Suprêmes are coached by Marilyn Langlois, assisted by Pascal Denis and Amélie Brochu.

Full results : http://www.frenchcup.fr/en/event-info/results/2014/