Katrina Clarke | March 26, 2015 | Toronto Star
There’s the come-hither look, the dramatic sprint into each others’ arms and finally, the near-kiss — sparking an eruption of cheers.
It’s all an on-ice act.
For competitive pair and ice dance skating teams, a key part of performance is convincing audiences and judges of their deep, passionate and meaningful bond. For some, that narrative remains an illusion. But for others, against the backdrop of partnership in a high pressure sport, that on-ice chemistry sometimes blooms into off-ice romance — to the benefit or the demise of teams.
“It’s like signing them up for Match.com,” said Doug Leigh, owner of the Mariposa School of Skating in Barrie, who has coached the likes of Brian Orser and Elvis Stojko.
Leigh said coaches can tell “within 10 minutes” of pairing skaters whether or not they have the elusive chemistry necessary to gel on ice. Coaches, he said, just have a hunch whether teams will work.
This week, Canada’s top skaters have been competing at the world figure skating championships in Shanghai. Ontarians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford claimed gold in the pairs Thursday, and Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje were in second after the ice dance short program. Their final is Friday.
Teams like these are among the most-watched and scrutinized by Canadian skating fans — not just for their performances, but for their personal lives.
It may not be surprising that romance rumours fly, considering the long hours competitive skaters spend at the rink and on the road, sharing the same goals and relying on one another for success. The fact that their hands are constantly touching bodies can’t hurt either.
“You’re going to spend long periods of times (together) with a high level of focus,” Leigh said. “It’d be a piece of cake for it to go to that next step.”
For ice dancers Mitchell Islam and Alexandra Paul, that next step came naturally.
“Two people on a skating team know one another so deeply and intimately that you’re either sure you love them — or you’re sure you don’t,” Islam said in an email to the Star from Shanghai, where the partners are competing.
Islam and Paul began skating together in 2009, and they started dating two years later. Islam, 25, said he wasn’t prepared to deny his feelings for his partner just because they worked together.
Some fans seem to crave this romance between skaters, clinging to fairy tales that are harmless to some athletes and hurtful to others.
In January, Duhamel and Radford were outspoken about the online criticism they receive from fans complaining they don’t “match” — Duhamel is short and Radford tall. There’s also no chance of romance as Radford is gay.
Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir — arguably Canada’s most famous non-couple couple — have also been subjected to obsessive speculation about their personal lives. Their bond is palpable on-ice and off.
But they’re just “terrific friends,” said their former coach, Paul MacIntosh. The intrusive questions about romance come with the territory, though he’s sure Virtue and Moir find it a bit silly, he said.
For some, the on — and off — ice relationship just works.
Former ice dance skaters Megan Wing and Aaron Lowe started dating in 1993 and have been together ever since. They’re now raising two children in Vancouver and say the key to their relationship is “patience.” For them, it was never weird to transition from working to dating.
But mixing work and pleasure is risky when the workforce is two people.
Canada’s one-time Olympic sweethearts, Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, announced divorce plans in 2010 — a time when their partnership as Stars on Ice skaters meant they had to act out a romance during love songs.
The two kept things professional, but other skaters say it’s not uncommon to see partnerships dissolve after personal splits.
Some prefer to avoid romantic minefields altogether.
“I’m definitely a firm believer in not s—ting where you eat,” said Pickering-based ice dancer, Asher Hill, with a laugh.
Hill, 24, and his former ice dance partner skated together for nearly 13 years. He describes their relationship as brother-sister-like but said he still faced questions about the team’s relationship.
“When you can feign a love connection between you then you’ve done a really good job,” said Hill, adding that the audience can tell when there’s “coldness” between skaters.
That spark is a key part of performance, particularly those rooted in romance, but some say real-life romance might be detrimental.
While some coaches say they’ve seen skating teams that click on ice and despise each other off, all agree a solid relationship is key to success both on and off ice — whether it involves romance or not.
“After a certain amount of time of being a couple . . . it’s like, pass me the salt, instead of, ‘Oh your eyes are pretty,’” said Kurt Browning, four-time world figure skating champion and an analyst for CBC Sports. “It gets to the point where the illusion of a couple who maybe are having a romance is better than an actual couple who are.”