Focusing on the Process and Learning from Experience with Ellie Kam and Danny O’Shea

After a “bittersweet” Worlds, Ellie and Danny are finding the positives in their stronger relationship

Ellie Kam and Danny O’Shea smile after their short program in Montreal

For reigning US Champions Ellie Kam and Danny O’Shea, their second trip to the World Championships produced mixed emotions. 

“I’m very proud of what we put out there today,” Danny said after the Free Skate, “because we’ve been working hard on our process, our steps… It wasn’t the outcome we accomplish at home most of the time. But the steps that we took, the way we approached each element – those things were really there. I’m very proud of the process that we went through, and the way we’ve grown in that throughout the season. And bittersweet comes in the disappointment that the outcome wasn’t what we want to show, it wasn’t what we’re capable of.”

The team placed 11th, the highest of the three U.S. pairs, but well below their hopes. Despite a fall on the throw, they achieved a personal best of 64.44 in the short program.

Throws have been a weak point for Ellie and Danny, who had falls on all three attempts in the event. This season, they’ve had falls on seven of eight throw triple loop attempts and six out of eight throw triple salchows. Last year, in their first season together, they competed with throw doubles. 

Ellie remained positive about their progress. “It’s really close and right there. But [there are] nerves when you only have one try to do it during the program and hit it right. We’re still working through the little kinks and still need a little bit more experience, which we’re working on getting. And they’ve been great here in practice and that’s already a little bit more pressure than normal practice. So both throws are getting better, and I’m excited about that. I really hope I can show you a great throw because they’ve been really good.”

Ellie Kam and Danny O’Shea perform their Free Skate (Photo by Jurij Kodrun/International Skating Union)

Danny agreed they are on the right path, even if the results aren’t yet apparent in competition. “You watch practices throughout the week, there are a lot more [throws] landed here than in previous competitions. I think that that’s another huge step in the right direction for us as far as the confidence. The consistency is there – at home and in practice.” 

The season started well for Ellie and Danny, with a gold medal at the Finlandia Trophy, before an injury in training at the Grand Prix de France forced them to withdraw from that competition. While they were able to compete at their Grand Prix in Finland, their performances suffered from a lack of training time, and they only placed 6th. 

In January, Ellie and Danny came out on top of a messy U.S. Pairs event to win their first national championship as a team. They then went on to earn bronze at the Four Continents Championships. Winning these medals has felt great at the moment, but they are most proud of the improvements in their process of training and competing. 

“Each time we compete,” said Ellie, “we learn something about each other, and that goes for elements as well as emotionally and mentally. [For example] today, we didn’t have the best warm-up, but we were able to reconnect. Even if I had a little bit of nerves or he had a little bit of nerves, we were able to understand that and sync up mentally. That’s something that we might not have been able to do even a couple of months ago in the Grand Prix, or even at our Nationals. We’ve really improved on stuff that goes on behind the scenes, that people don’t really get to see, but which is still so important for every single performance.”

Ellie and Danny use mini-lifts as transitions throughout their “East of Eden” short program (Photo by Joosep Martinson/International Skating Union)

Earning a personal best in the short program at Worlds, even with the fall on the throw, showed Danny that the judges are recognizing and rewarding the other improvements that the team has made. He is also eager to see what opportunities will open up with potential rule changes next season, including the proposal for a choreographic lift.

 “As long as it’s something that allows us to interpret more and show our ability more in some way, I think it’ll be great for the sport. I love lifts – we love lifts, right? So the opportunity to have complete freedom and creativity in lifts sounds exciting to me. I think that the rules they are preparing would make it so we have more opportunities for choreography and transitions. That’s one place where I feel we excel as a team, in our intricate and interesting transitions and mini-lifts throughout the program.”

Building an Equal Partnership

Photo Joosep Martinson/International Skating Union

Ellie and Danny have paid a lot of attention to building a strong partnership that goes beyond the skating. This is important for any team, but especially for one with a big age and experience gap between the partners. Ellie is nineteen, and is still new to pairs, having competed as a single skater through the 2021/2022 season. Danny is thirty-three and has been competing in senior pairs for twelve seasons. With his former partner Tarah Kayne, he won the 2016 U.S. Nationals and the 2018 Four Continents Championships. 

Ellie notes that she benefits from Danny’s experience. “He has so much knowledge about everything in skating and even just life in general. As I go through things that I’m going through, even outside of skating, he always has a kind word to say to me. It’s really helpful to have someone, and at the rink, we all look up to him.”

Despite their different experiences, however, they emphasize that they are equals in their partnership. “[It’s] 100% that way,” said Danny. “I am not the coach and that is what we designed it as, from the very beginning.”

Photo by Joosep Martinson/International Skating Union

Ellie confirmed, “I feel like, to get to a certain level, you have to have that balance so there is a voice from each side. Because you’re both out there. It’s not like one person is doing more than the other. As we’ve learned this season, we have to both put the same amount of effort into each element, or it doesn’t work. He knows that even if he thinks he can do it with another person, it doesn’t mean that it’s going to work with me, necessarily. So every time you start a new partnership, it’s a new process.”

She noted that, from what she’s seen, the same emphasis on a balanced relationship is true of their competitors with age and experience gaps, such as Lia Pereira and Trennt Michaud of Canada, and Lucrezia Beccari and Matteo Guarise of Italy.

“[When] the pairs field is more empty, it’s also full of opportunity. And I think that that’s also why you get partnerships like these where you have a more mature, older partner looking for another opportunity, and new people that are coming in, wanting new experiences.” 

Danny noted that their partnership has brought new experiences for him, too. “This is my third World Championship, and I’m learning so much gratitude, I’m learning so much humility through the process. And this time around, I’m just so excited. Like the last time, I was so nervous to be in every room I stepped into. This time I have so much gratitude to be here and there’s so much excitement built into it for me. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the opportunity that Ellie has given me.”

Making Pairs Accessible

Photo by Jurij Kodrun/International Skating Union

Like many skaters, Ellie didn’t think she’d end up in pairs. “Honestly, I was one of those girls that was a single skater and then I got this great opportunity. I had a tryout and I kind of fell in love with being able to do lifts and twists. It’s a different feeling that you can never get as a single skater. You know, I love single skating and it’s special in my heart, but in pairs, you have to be strong in so many different ways.”

She wants to share her experiences with others who might be interested in starting the discipline. “I think you have to be transparent: it’s hard. It’s not easy. It’s not like you start pairs and then everything is given to us. It doesn’t get easier, honestly. In some ways, it gets harder, in ways that you don’t even understand. Like, I never thought of having another person next to me. It’s easier in some ways, but in others it’s hard. It’s a relationship. To work together and skate and trust someone is something that people don’t really understand. But it’s also a gift in a sport that’s normally very singular.”

Photo by Joosep Martinson/International Skating Union

Ellie mentioned that Deanna Stellato-Dudek is a role model for what is possible as a pair skater. “She’s such a strong human being and it’s so inspiring. And having all those stories of a strong woman, it’s just like, why wouldn’t you want to try this out? It takes a special kind of person to do it. But it’s another door that opens up. I never saw myself in it, personally. But [now I’m] able to be a National Champion, to be at the Worlds.”

Danny works alongside Drew Meekins to coach the junior and novice pairs at their rink in Colorado Springs. “I’m very passionate about our sport in general, but especially pair skating. I think that the way to improve it and grow it is through all types of inclusivity. We have to make sure people understand that pair skating can be for any type of skater. Different levels of inclusivity include financial, by finding ways to make it easier and more approachable for people to start pair skating.”

“We work with a lot of girls who are looking to try pairs and just let them experience it a little bit first and see if it’s something that they’re interested in – because it’s a truly special human being who is willing to fly in the air. I know I would not be capable of the things that Ellie accomplishes. But I’m pretty good at what my portion is. So we help people find where they fit in. We give group lessons for pair skating and start to give people at least an intro to it. For the younger pairs boys, a lot of times teaching someone how to do something is the best way to create mastery of it. Drew works well with our pair guys and facilitates that opportunity for them.” 

Danny added that the many different elements involved in pairs make it fun, but challenging.

“I think it’s difficult in a different way than the other disciplines. Single skating is finely focused on a long path, where they keep going down that path to triples and quads, with everything getting more and more finely honed. Pair skating is just such a wide angle. There are so many different elements to accomplish and to perfect along the way. And you have to spend different amounts of time on training elements than you ever would in single skating. Most single skaters spend three hours a day on jumps and five minutes on spins -– maybe a little bit more, but you get the idea. Whereas with pair skating, there are so many things. You have to budget your time. If you were to deep dive into every element every day, you would be exhausted and incapable of accomplishing all of it in a single day.”

Danny explained that the prevalence of older male partners in pairs is partly explained by the fact that certain elements, such as lifts, can take a long time to master.

Photo by Jurij Kodrun/International Skating Union

“There’s just a safety issue when the guys aren’t experienced. You’re capable of learning things quickly, either way. But if you try to push a male partner to get to the level too quickly, you run into some issues that we all want to avoid. A size difference helps, and as men go through life, they continue to mature and keep growing and gaining muscle through that process. So many of my elements are very dependent on very small stabilizer muscles that I would not be able to work on with most average gym movements, that have become finely developed over the course of lifting human beings every day for a decade.”

Ellie noted that having a good coach is the biggest key to safety. “I think that there is a way to get a new man ready – look at our teammates Olivia [Flores] and Luke [Wang]. They are new to pairs, and they got the junior [National] title. So I think it is possible with the right guidance and the right training, and I think Danny especially knows so much about pair elements and how to be safe while doing it. Safety is such a big key. Especially as a girl learning, I want to feel safe doing lifts and twists. It takes a coach to have that since guidance is huge, and it’s not available in all places for sure.”

“It’s a nice thing to have coaches that can teach pairs the way we do,” agreed Danny. “I think that just speaks to the difficulties getting more pair teams. Almost everyone who’s gone through the sport understands how to jump in some way, or how to skate, skating skills, in some way. And while I could not necessarily teach an elite ice dance team, I could start someone on their journey to understanding how to use their edges properly. I can start someone on how to learn their jumps, I’ve taught through double axel.”

“That process is more foundational, whereas the pieces of pair skating are not necessarily intuitive or easy to learn how to teach if you haven’t experienced it.”

Mental Toughness and Being Human

Photo by Joosep Martinson/International Skating Union

Another thing that Danny is passionate about is the importance of the mental side of the sport. 

“Mental toughness is the word I use for it,” said Danny. “It’s not an achievement that you get. It’s the growth that you go through consistently, and having a toolset to handle all of the things that come at you in life.”

“I feel that my parents were wonderful in helping me find that tool set. I took a class when I was 10 years old, called Champions in the Pursuit of Excellence. It was on cassette tapes. And I don’t think I ended that 10-week course being mentally tough, right? But it started a foundation that there were tools I could seek, I could go after, to handle all of the difficult things that happen through life…I’ve been seeing a sports psychologist since I was 14 years old. I’ve been very blessed to have that opportunity. And I think it’s great that it’s at the forefront of people’s minds now.”

Danny’s former partner, Tarah Kayne, has spoken about the verbal abuse she received at the hands of their coach, Dalilah Sappenfield. Sappenfield is currently under restrictions by U.S. Safesport. Tarah noted Danny was supportive as she struggled with her mental health and self-harm during this time.

Dealing with mental health in sports is especially hard, Danny reflected. “We go through intense adrenaline situations. In our sport in particular you have a male and a female in an intense sports situation, which is rare. [We have to learn] how to handle things in a way that works for both of us and our backgrounds. We have to find the tools that work for us, and we keep searching for them. [Ellie and I are] starting to hit our stride with understanding how things work for each other.” 

“Life happens, and how we process things is going to change. [We have to be] open to that, acknowledging that it’s not easy for any of us to be healthy. It’s just having empathy for the situations that people are going through, being human. Yeah, we’re striving to be elite. But that doesn’t mean we’re not people along the way. That doesn’t mean there won’t be hard days or hard times.”

One Reply to “Focusing on the Process and Learning from Experience with Ellie Kam and Danny O’Shea”

  1. That was an awesome interview!! It gave so much insight into their journey, perspectives, and experiences. They are both very impressive and seem like wonderful human beings (thanks for confirming that here!) Can’t wait to see more of this team!

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