National Team member Kharis Ralph retires from competitive skating

OTTAWA, ON:  Kharis Ralph, 22, Toronto, Ont., who had a long career in ice dance with Asher Hill, 23, Pickering, Ont., has retired from skating.  The duo trained at the Scarborough Figure Skating Club’s Ice Dance Elite with coaches Carol Lane and Juris Razgulajevs.  They competed at one ISU World Figure Skating Championships, finishing 13th at the 2012 event in Nice, France, and were 6th at this year’s Canadian Tire National Skating Championships.

In making her decision, Ralph said, “It has been both a privilege and a challenge to be on the National Team for the last five years and I am grateful for the opportunity. I would like to thank Skate Canada for all the support through the years, and wish everyone well for the future.”

“For eight years Kharis and Asher were mainstays on the international scene. Their hard work and determination resulted in them being one of very few teams to have ever represented Canada at both a junior and a senior world championship”, said Mike Slipchuk, High Performance Director, Skate Canada.  “Kharis’ positive attitude and charismatic personality made her a role model for other skaters and she will be truly missed.”

Ralph’s immediate plans include finishing her undergraduate degree at the University of Toronto, majoring in History, and minoring in Political Science and Philosophy, and then to pursue graduate studies. She hopes to stay involved in the sport, possibly in the area of judging or as a technical specialist. Hill is currently looking for a new partner and hopes to continue competing in ice dance.

At just 11-years-old Alison Schumacher is always rising to challenge

Alison Schumacher looks up at you with earnest brown eyes and an air of maturity.

This, despite the fact that she is only 11-years-old and the youngest athlete at the Skate Canada Development Camp for singles skaters in Markham, Ontario.

Garbed in a royal purple sweater, she takes everything in and pushes on, listening intently to coach Lee Barkell, who is handing out technical tips on jumps. She’s up for the challenge. She always has been.

Jennifer Jackson has been her coach at the Riverside Skating Club in Windsor, Ontario since almost the beginning. Her first vision of the girl was as a five-year-old sprite. Like many others, Schumacher showed up in moulded skates and a helmet. And there the story began.

Schumacher has blossomed very quickly since. “She’s very dedicated and she comes to the rink all the time. And she has a definite passion for skating,” said Jackson, a coach for 27 years. “She has some fast-twitch muscles and she has a lot of things going for her as far as talent goes, but her number one asset is her work ethic.”

You see, Schumacher is driven, even at her young age. She’s very coachable. She’s smart and listens to everything her coach tells her. Jackson doesn’t have to tell her twice. “She’s always been that way,” Jackson said. “She’s always been able to focus and listen and get on her task.”

As a little sprig, Schumacher competed with girls her own age. But she started to progress and Jackson figured she’d better keep her moving up the ladder. “There’s no point in standing still,” she said. A couple of years ago, when she was nine, Schumacher began to compete against girls who were as old as 15 and 16 – and they were doing triples.

That year, Jackson entered Schumacher at an international competition, Skate Detroit, across the border. With a club that has perhaps one skater a year that makes it to the national championships, Jackson knows she has to get her skaters out to see others. “It would be nice for her to see what she has to do if she’s serious about this,” Jackson said. So she entered Schumacher in a novice competition, although that was a level above her head.

Even Jackson was surprised when Schumacher finished fourth, just off the podium. “She’s always been that way,” the coach said. “You give her a challenge and she rises to it.”

Schmacher’s next goal was to master the double Axel by the time she turned 10. The Skate Challenge competition – where Schumacher was to compete nationally as a pre-novice skater – was 1 ½ weeks after her tenth birthday. She finally hit that double Axel when she turned 10 and then landed the thing at the championships. She won the bronze medal.

Then Schumacher went after the triples. She mastered her first triple –a triple loop of all things – last fall. And a lover of the edge jump, she also has a triple Salchow in her arsenal. Jackson advised her to try both triples out at Skate Canada Challenge, to test them out before competing at the novice level at the Canadian Tire National Skating Championships last January in Ottawa.

Schumacher admitted to nerves when she competed at her first Canadian championship. Under this sort of pressure, Schumacher finished 15th in the short program, but then she collected herself and finished seventh in the free skate, earning level fours in all three spins. That put her in 11th place overall in a novice women’s competition that was deep, very deep with talent.

“I was sort of nervous because I was with older girls,” she said in her tiny voice.  “And they’re probably in that category longer than me, so they had more experience.”

Edge jumps have been her thing so far. She also loves the triple Salchow. But now she’s working on the triple toe loop and even the triple flip – and sometimes the triple Lutz.

A sixth-grader in Windsor, Schumacher watched the Sochi Olympics, and found someone to admire: Julia Lipnitskaia, the Russian youngster who, at 15, became one of the stars of the Games, with her exquisite spins and winsome choreography. What does Schumacher like about her? “Her consistency,” the little skater said.

Does she aspire to the Olympics? “I’m not really sure,” she said. “I do like skating in general. I like competition and I like having the pressure and I like seeing my friends when I compete.”

In school, Schumacher is a math whiz.

At the camp, Schumacher soaked up tips from some of the best. “The coaches have different strategies and they’re all good and it’s just something new and I find it really helpful,” she said.

Jackson, too, benefitted from the development camp. “It’s always good to listen to whatever people have to say,” she said. “You take what you can out of it.” She loves Joanne McLeod, because she starts skaters out from the grassroots level and develops them. “She deals with so many levels,” Jackson said.

Jackson also found it valuable to hear the tips and tricks that the veteran coaches gave the young skaters. “Then I don’t have an 11-year-old coming home and trying to translate for me, what she thought she heard,” Jackson said. She also likes to see how her students stack up against the others, just in terms of work ethic. “We always think they’re working really hard here, and we’re doing everything,” she said. “It’s nice to see to make sure we’re on track.”

As for Schumacher, the sky is the limit for her, if she stays healthy and can always feel the passion, Jackson said. “She’s still in the learning phase. Every week she comes in, there is something that is better.

“I don’t think there are a lot of limits,” Jackson said.

Beverley Smith

From carbon copies to iPads, Nicole Guerin has seen it all after 40 years at Skate Canada

With retirement waiting in the wings following a memorable 40-year career at Skate Canada, Nicole Guerin has a confession.

She almost backed out of the original job interview, all thanks to an elevator.

After four decades in the same Finance position she has held since day one, Guerin is bidding farewell to Skate Canada and stepping into well-deserved retirement. She will punch the proverbial clock for the final time on May 6th, exactly four decades to the day that she walked into the offices of Skate Canada, then known as the Canadian Figure Skating Association, for her first day of work.

Guerin laughs as she reflects back to that first interview, admitting she almost took herself out of the running for the job because of a fear of elevators.

Back in 1974, the shy 20-year-old answered an ad in her hometown Hawkesbury newspaper for an accounts payable/payroll position with the CFSA. Guerin, at the time working part-time in the finance department of a grocery store in Hawkesbury, borrowed a friend’s car and made the hour-long trip to Ottawa for an interview. Unfamiliar with what she refers to as “the big city”, not only did Guerin park in the wrong lot, but the large building on River Road that housed the CFSA head office cast a rather imposing shadow for the self-proclaimed small-town country girl.

When she walked through the front door and realized the office was on the 10th floor, Guerin, having never stepped in an elevator, turned around and walked back outside towards her car.

Not speaking a word of English was something Guerin figured she could overcome. Getting on an elevator for the first time, however, didn’t seem to be an option.

“I told myself I was not going, I could not get on that elevator,” says Guerin. “But then I said ‘I can do this, I have to do this.’ I went back in and got on that elevator. It was such a weird feeling. Everyone was speaking English. I was petrified.”

After riding the ten floors up, Guerin, walked off the elevator and straight into the CFSA office, telling the receptionist the only words she knew in English.

The same sentence she had been practicing all day.

“I’m Nicole Guerin and I have an interview.”

After filling out her application, she met with office manager Lois Hyland and was offered the job. She has handled accounts payable and signed payroll cheques at the CFSA/Skate Canada ever since.

To put the length of Guerin’s tenure in perspective, in 1974, Pierre Elliott Trudeau was Prime Minister of Canada, the average price of a new car was about $3,500 and you could pick up a quart of milk for under 50 cents.

And 20-year-old Nicole Guerin was about to set out on the journey of her life.

“Those first five years were not easy,” admits Guerin. “I was calling my mother almost every day. But I knew I had to do this for myself.”

For Guerin, it’s no coincidence her last day of work will come 40 years to the day that she started. May 6th, 2014, has been circled on her calendar for the past three years.

Guerin welcomes retirement and the freedom it will bring, even if the transition is going to take a little getting used to.

“It’s hard to say goodbye, a lot harder than I thought,” says Guerin. “This is a new, exciting time in my life, but I’ve been doing the same routine, day after day, for 40 years. It’s tough to say goodbye to the people.”

Of all the close relationships Guerin has developed at Skate Canada over the years, there is none closer than the one she shares with Diane Vanier. The two met when Vanier worked at the National Sport & Recreation Centre, located in the same building as the CFSA, 38 years ago. Six years later, Vanier joined the CFSA team.

They’ve been best friends ever since.

“Nicole is such a wonderful friend, and we’ve developed a very special relationship over the years,” said Diane Vanier. “It won’t be the same without her.”

“Yes, Diane means the world to me,” adds Guerin. “We’re like sisters. She is very special, she has been my closest friend for a long time.”

Skate Canada staff honoured Guerin’s remarkable career last week in Ottawa. Among those in attendance were former CFSA Director General David Dore and current Skate Canada CEO Dan Thompson.

“Nicole has been an integral member of the Skate Canada team over the past 40 years, and we would like to pass on congratulations as she celebrates her retirement,” stated Dan Thompson.

“Nicole has consistently been a model for service excellence and integrity throughout her entire career. On behalf of the Skate Canada family, I would like to wish her well as she sets off on this new, exciting chapter in her life.”

Over the course of her career, others who have sat in the Skate Canada CEO chair include Douglas Gunter, Hugh Glynn, Lou Lefaive, Patrick Sharp, Pam Coburn and William Thompson.

Guerin began her career in the era of adding machines and carbon copies, and finished with laptops and iPads. One thing that never changed, however, was her love of numbers.

“My job was changing for me all the time, but I was always very happy to learn new technology,” she adds.

“My specialty has always been numbers. It is my passion.”

So much a passion that Guerin watches the odometer on her car to make sure she doesn’t miss those moments when the digits roll over to match exactly. There haven’t been many times when Guerin has missed seeing the numbers change, whether it be 33,333, 88,888 or any other combination.

“Sometimes I’ve had to pay attention to the road, miss when the numbers change and get upset,” laughs Guerin.

“I have a sickness for numbers.”

As she gets set to ride off into the retirement sunset, Guerin says she plans on travelling the world, doing some fishing and golfing and “reading books in weeks instead of months.” She would also like to volunteer her time at local hospitals to assist patients filling out complex forms.

Guerin will not head into retirement alone – her husband, Denis, retired last month.

“He’s waiting for me,” she says. “We are going to enjoy this. We’ve waited a long time.”

“It seems like yesterday that I was taking that elevator for the first time. I’ve enjoyed every minute of this. I’ve never been great at words – numbers have been my specialty. I love being around people, and the people here are very special. I knew a long time ago I was in the right place and I wanted to stay for good.”

And now, four decades later, Guerin gets a little choked up at the thought of walking out the front doors of Skate Canada for the last time.

“Right now, I’m trying not to think about it too much,” says Guerin with a smile, her voice breaking. “I don’t want to cry.”

Retirement? That’s the easy part.

Saying goodbye will be a little tougher.

Saskatchewan pair skaters Paige Lawrence and Rudi Swiegers end partnership

OTTAWA, ON: Saskatchewan pair skaters Paige Lawrence, 24, Kennedy, Sask., and Rudi Swiegers, 26, Kipling, Sask., have ended their nine-year partnership. Lawrence and Swiegers achieved a lifelong dream of being Olympians earlier this year when they competed at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

Lawrence and Swiegers are four-time Canadian bronze medalists (2011, 2012, 2013, 2014). In 2010 they won their first international medal, a bronze at Skate Canada International. That same season they also won the bronze medal at the 2011 ISU Four Continents Figure Skating Championships.

The team trained in Virden, Manitoba with coach Patricia Hole and in Florida with Lyndon Johnston. In 2014 they qualified to compete for Canada at the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi and placed 14th. They then went on to place 12th at the 2014 ISU World Figure Skating Championships in Japan.

“I’m so thankful for all the opportunities and adventures that Rudi and I have had the chance to experience throughout our nine-year career together. It was amazing to fulfill our dream of competing at the Olympics and world championships and I have never been happier than I was while skating those programs,” said Lawrence. “We have reached a point now where we both want different things and I wish Rudi all the health, happiness, and continued success in whatever path he follows.”

Lawrence continued, “I would like to say thank you to my coaches Patty Hole and Lyndon Johnston for their unwavering commitment and belief in us, my support team back home for always being there for me, and to all our fans for cheering us on and sharing in this incredible journey. I am so grateful!”

Lawrence is looking to find a new partner and continue skating but is keeping an open mind to whatever life may throw her way.

“I’m so glad to have had the opportunity to skate with Paige and represent Saskatchewan nationally and internationally. One of my greatest joys is that we’ve been able to succeed and achieve our goals while staying true to our small town roots; proving that you don’t need to move away to large centers to train,” said Swiegers. “I’d like to personally thank Patricia Hole and Lyndon Johnston for everything they have done for me, untold hours on and off the ice. Their dedication to me as a person and an athlete has been paramount in making me the man I am today.”

Swiegers finished, “I am truly grateful for all the sport has given me. This isn’t goodbye for me but rather see you later!”

Swiegers is taking a year off from competitive skating for personal reasons.