By Debbi Wilkes

Skating Coaches Karen and Jason Mongrain are nervous.

It’s not because their students are competing at Sectionals next week or because of the demands their community and rink are facing this week at Skate Canada International in Kelowna, BC. As top-notch figure skating coaches with some 40 years of combined experience, this husband and wife coaching team is accustomed to that kind of stress.

What makes them worried this week is the fact that for Sunday’s Exhibition Gala they have to design and teach close to six minutes of choreography to over twenty international skating stars, most of whom they have never met, many of whom do not speak English … and there is only ONE 45-minute rehearsal Sunday morning at Prospera Place in which to make it happen.

Sounds like a nightmare.

When Skate Canada called to ask them if they’d take the job, they instantly knew it would be a tough assignment but they also knew it was a rare opportunity that a coach may have only once in a lifetime. The chance to work with this elite level of skater, regardless of the situation, would be considered a coach’s dream. They agreed to the challenge despite the fact that this time of year is one of their busiest, with competitions and training at their most frantic pace.

So what’s the plan?

Key to the success of the number will be selecting great music. Karen and Jason have decided to use what they describe as “cheesy, 80’s hard rock”, made up of super-popular, positive and energetic music.

Keeping their choreography simple and showcasing individuals will also help build a great number. Between now and that first step on the rehearsal ice Sunday morning, Karen and Jason will do some additional research on-line to get to know the performers’ individual skills a bit  better and to look for any special tricks that will help make the number original. They’ll also encourage skaters to come up with a few of their own unique ideas to add to the choreography and give it some extra sizzle.

The team is well aware that after a week of competition and the stress that goes along with performing, the skaters want to break loose, show their personalities and have some fun. They’ll be counting on those motivators to engage the athletes who are an eager bunch and easy to inspire with new ideas.

Logistics will come into play once the teaching process begins.  The skaters will be spilt up into teams, likely playing the girls against the boys. And as always, the music will dictate exactly who goes where, does what and when.

Six minutes is a massive amount of choreography but, despite their nervousness, Karen and Jason will use their considerable experience to get the job done to create a finale hit which is memorable and fun for both the skaters and the fans. And the Mongrains have come to this challenge with the same kind of dedication, enthusiasm and energy that have been the trademarks of their successful coaching careers.

Jason admits it was just pure luck that got him into coaching. As a skater, he didn’t have any desire to coach … it seemed like a very stressful job! He’d just completed his second year of college and was unsure where he wanted to head when he received a phone call out of the blue from a club in the tiny remote village of Nakusp, BC, asking if he’d be interested in coaching their 60 members, over half of which were at the CanSkate level. Recognizing it would be a fascinating experience, Jason thought it would also give him time to make some decisions regarding his future. But once he started, he was surprised to realize just how rewarding coaching could be, and after the first season, he knew he was hooked!

On the other hand, Karen, his wife and coaching partner, always knew she wanted to be a coach. She was twenty-five or so the day she found a time capsule from her own Grade 5 school project. In it was a Q & A page that asked what she wanted to be when she grew up. Her answer? "Skating coach!"

Karen also started in a small community, Grand Forks, BC, and like Jason, counts herself fortunate to have begun her career in a small town where she learned to value different perspectives and was forced to develop her craft with limited resources.

Looking back, some of the couple’s happiest moments teaching have been seeing little kids having a blast on the ice. Watching children have fun on skates and being eager to learn are the qualities they notice most in skaters that become lifelong participants in the sport. Karen and Jason teach a lot of competitive skaters … and there is often high pressure involved … but at the end of the day, both coaches attempt to create an experience that’s still full of fun and adventure, one that will help build a desire to remain involved with the sport in some way after their competitive careers end.

“Nothing is more satisfying than coaching a skater from CanSkate all the way to the end of a long and productive career,” says Karen. “We will often get visits from our past skaters, updating us with their current lives … this is something we both cherish!”

Both partners find that coaching is a great competitive and creative outlet and are particularly proud of the amazing accomplishments of their skaters in Kelowna. In recent years the club has produced a good number of podium finishes at nationals up to the junior level, a special achievement for their club, thanks in part to the support and commitment of the club’s amazing volunteers.

“I love coaching and developing skaters,” adds Jason, “but I think the most important contribution I make is in working with young coaches. This has a greater impact on more skaters and on future generations. I’m also very proud to be part of a team with our club volunteers … a team that is raising the profile and value of figure skating in our city.”

Karen and Jason feel skating is a great life skill. The patience required to learn at all levels, to cope with fear, challenge creativity, fulfill fitness needs, deal with the ups and downs in both practice and performance, and most importantly, to persevere … are all skills to be transferred to life.