Skating double duty requires plenty of discipline

Active, former skaters describe challenges of competing as singles, teams

Ashley Cain has been building up leg strength since becoming solely a singles skater.
Ashley Cain has been building up leg strength since becoming solely a singles skater. (Getty Images)


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By Sarah S. Brannen, special to
(07/29/2013) - Every now and then, after years of training and success, a skater makes the life-changing decision to switch from singles to pairs or dance, or, rarely, from pairs back to singles. Several skaters discussed their decisions and talked about what it's like to make such a big change.

Mary Beth Marley won the novice silver medal at the U.S. championships in 2009 before she took up pairs with former U.S. pairs champion Rockne Brubaker. She had never skated that discipline before her tryout with Brubaker, and she wasn't sure about switching in the beginning.

"At first, I really didn't want to," she said last week. "I had never even held someone's hand on the ice. I was as fresh as you could get with pairs skating!

"I thought, 'Well, I'm a good singles skater, this won't be hard. A pairs spin can't be that hard! All I have to learn is some lifts.' And then I was like, 'Oh my gosh, crossovers are hard!' It's completely and utterly different from singles skating. There was nothing similar to singles for me."

Naomi Nari Nam, now using her married name of Naomi Poor, won the silver medal at the 1999 U.S. championships, and, years later, took up pairs and won the bronze medal with Themi Leftheris in 2007.

Poor had also imagined that pairs would come easily for her; after all, she had been a top singles skater.

"Pairs was a lot harder than I had expected and anticipated," she said. "I woke up sore every morning for about a year straight."

Tim Koleto recently switched from singles, in which he went to the U.S. championships several times, to ice dance, with partner Yura Min. Injuries had hampered his career, and when he was offered the opportunity to switch to dance, and to compete for Korea, he jumped at it.

"I had three severe injuries in a year and a half," Koleto said. "Dance just looked like a really great option. I already speak Korean, and it was very serendipitous. I loved the environment and the opportunity. I've always loved Korean culture and Korean music, as well."

Like Poor, Koleto expected the transition to be easier than it was.

"I was surprised how much higher the bar is in dance," he admitted. "I was surprised at how much I had to make up with skating skills, using my knees, extending through my toes, posture, head. There are so many tiny little details that I was just touching the surface of in singles."

Even for experienced skaters, learning new skills has plenty of challenges. Pairs skaters have to learn a whole set of new elements. In addition to twizzles, lifts and a host of steps, dancers must learn to skate very close to another person and maintain the "frame," the relationship of the team's upper bodies.

For Marley, the throw triple twist was the hardest element to learn. For Poor, lifts presented the biggest challenge.

"I was able to do all the throws on my own; it was just learning the height and timing," Marley said. "But twist was completely new: twisting sideways, snapping your legs in a new way, holding your arms a different way, getting caught instead of landing. The hardest thing about pairs skating is just skating with another person, tracking and timing. I fell on crossovers at nationals!"

"The hardest thing would have to be lifts," Poor said. "It's not just a guy lifting you; you have to go up there and hold the position. Especially with the international judging system, you have to hit all these positions. You have to move, but you have to be stiff as a board and you have to look good at the same time."

Koleto, who only made the switch a few months ago and has yet to compete as an ice dancer, has been on a steep learning curve.

"I considered myself a good spinner; I got Level 4's," Koleto said. "But spinning with a partner, you have to create an axis between you and create tension around the axis, rather than being the center of the axis yourself. I had to learn how to create space for her and adjust myself so the center of our balance is in a totally different spot.

"In singles skating, we're always moving and shifting, and in dance there's a lot more structure," he continued. "I'm supposed to be more of a foundation, which was a little bit of shift for me physically and mentally. In singles, I was allowed to be a control freak and now I have to let some of that go and understand that we're both going to do our jobs."

All three skaters commented that they needed a lot of new muscles for pairs and dance. Koleto has been putting in extra time in the gym to build upper body strength for lifts. Marley said she needed to add a lot of strength to do pairs elements.

"You definitely figure out muscles you never knew it was possible to have," she said. "I felt sore in the weirdest places. My forearms were sore -- I didn't have much grip strength."

"You have to be strong just to do the tricks that pairs require," Poor said. "Death spirals are, like, your whole side goes numb. You can't feel that arm the next day."

"I wasn't strong enough for a pairs skater in the beginning," Marley said, "Even though I worked out every day. You need so much arm strength and glute strength."

Double duty

Occasionally, a skater makes it all the way to the U.S. championships in two disciplines at once. Kiri Baga, the 2009 U.S. novice champion, still competes in singles and is now skating pairs with Taylor Toth. Ashley Cain and partner Joshua Reagan won the U.S. novice and junior pairs titles in 2010 and 2011, while Cain also competed in singles. After their breakup, Cain won the junior silver medal, and she is now competing only in singles. Alexander Johnson competed in singles as a senior and novice as a pairs skater, with Danielle Viola, at the 2012 U.S. Championships.

The champions of double disciplines in the modern era are Kristi Yamaguchi and Rudy Galindo, who won two U.S. pairs titles and a world junior title together as well as U.S. singles titles and world medals, not to mention Yamaguchi's Olympic gold. Until the pair split in 1990, Yamaguchi had always competed in singles and pairs. Galindo, however, had stopped competing in singles to concentrate on his pairs career, and it took him several years to complete the road back to the top as a singles skater.

"I had stopped doing both because it was getting too hard, doing back-to-back long programs," Galindo said.

To help his success as a pairs skater, Galindo, who was not overly tall, gained 30 pounds of muscle. After he and Yamaguchi split and he decided to return to competition as a singles skater, he needed to redefine his body.

"That weight carried over, and it was hard doing the triples because of the muscle mass," he said. "It took a while for me to realize that I need to trim down for the triple jumps. Doing seven triples in a program, you have to be a lean and mean fighting machine."

"You need additional strength for each discipline," Cain said. "I definitely realize that now that I'm doing singles. You need a lot of core strength for lifts. Now that I'm doing singles, I need more leg strength."

"There was definitely a lot more upper-body strength I needed," Johnson said. "But, pairs is a lot about timing and using your lower body to lift. It's not as much the upper-body strength as people think. Bulking up a little helped me have overall general strength. It didn't affect my singles skating."

Like Marley, Johnson said the twist was the most difficult element for him to learn.

"Figuring out the timing and all of that is so difficult," he said. "I applaud the pairs, like Alexa [Scimeca] and Chris [Knierim], who have an insane twist. It takes a lot of time to develop that. I got my nose punched once or twice on a twist."

Of course, jumping straight into a new discipline at a high level sets the stage for some funny incidents.

"I remember the first month we started a new lift," Koleto said. "Yura jumped into my arms and I was in a spread eagle, and I face-planted because I didn't want to drop her. It's been the fast track to learning how to do all this stuff."

It took Marley a while to realize that improvisation just doesn't work in pairs skating.

"In the beginning, I would add choreography because that's what I used to do in singles," she said, "And Rockne would be like, 'What are you doing? You can't do that!'"

"I enjoyed the challenge, though," Johnson said. "My favorite pairs elements were the throws. It was fun to throw someone and see them land; it was a cool feeling. It's like you're a part of the girl on the takeoff. You have to feel their timing and their natural technique, and it was fun just chucking her in the air."

Competing in two disciplines at once makes for long training days, with extra on-ice sessions and additional off-ice work.

"It was a long day," Cain said. "I would do an hour and a half of singles in the morning, then warm up with Josh off ice, then do an hour of pairs, then an hour off-ice class with him, and then we'd get back on and I would do an hour of pairs, and then an hour of singles."

"I started with pairs, then I did two sessions of singles, then one of pairs, then one of singles," Johnson said. "I used pairs as a warm-up for my singles sessions. There were days when, by my last session, I would be crawling into the rink because I was so exhausted. I had to cut back on a few things so I could get in all the on-ice work. I cut down a little on the off-ice work."

Competing in two different disciplines at the U.S. championships is obviously challenging, with two sets of official practices and competition schedules that don't always fit together in an optimum way.

"I remember in Denver (in 1988) doing senior men's long at 11 at night, and then senior pairs was at 10 in the morning," Galindo said. "That was the hardest thing I ever did in my life."

"It definitely made for a long week," Johnson said. "It was great that I was able to get out on the ice and compete before I did my singles event; it was a nice warm-up. But it was tiring and exhausting. I was there for the first event of the week and the last event of the week."

Sharing the spotlight

Plenty of skaters try more than one discipline as youngsters, including a few well-known current skaters. Rachael Flatt and Andrew Speroff were the 2004 U.S. intermediate pairs champions. Charlie White won the U.S. novice bronze medal in 2004. Ryan Bradley went to nationals in pairs twice with Tiffany Vise. Jeremy Abbott competed in ice dance and pairs as a juvenile, Johnny Weir competed in pairs as a juvenile and intermediate, and Jason Brown also skated pairs for three years.

Several great skaters of the past were also champions in more than one discipline, like Theresa Weld Blanchard, Eugene Turner and Maribel Vinson Owen. Johnny Johns was the U.S. champion in both pairs and dance.

Poor says that the thing all disciplines have in common is the pressure. All the skaters talked about the difference between standing alone on the ice at a competition and having a partner with which to share the nerves and the thrills.

"The pressure is the same," Poor said. "You put pressure on yourself because you want to do well as a team, and there's someone else you have to be concerned about. You train the whole year for that one day at nationals, and knowing you shared all that blood, sweat and tears, it's pretty amazing having someone there with you."

"I have really enjoyed being able to share my expression of music with someone else," Koleto said. "Yura and I are both really musically inclined, and that has been a joy to experience with someone else."

"When I was out there with Josh, I was able to squeeze his hand and look at him," Cain said. "It was so comforting being out there holding someone's hand. When I went into singles, I was almost scared and shy to be out there by myself. Since the beginning of this season, I'm able to trust myself now."