The Future of Pairs: A Coaching Success Story

Ava Kemp and Yohnatan Elizarov at the 2022 Junior Grand Prix in Riga (Photo by Joosep Martinson – International Skating Union)

In the series “The Future of Pairs” I’ve been investigating how to strengthen skating’s smallest discipline. A major theme that emerged is the need to develop and support new pair coaches around the world.

Kevin Dawe coaches the 2023 Junior Grand Prix Final silver medalists Ava Kemp and Yohnatan Elizarov. Dawe went from no pairs experience to bringing a team to Junior Worlds within two years. I spoke to Dawe at the start of the 2023/24 season.

His story illustrates the challenges of starting a pair team outside of a major training center, as well as the importance of coaching mentorship programs.

How did you get into coaching the pairs discipline?

It came out of necessity. I had a boy who was interested in doing it, and I had a girl that would be a really good fit. Being located in the middle of the prairies [in Winnipeg, Manitoba], there wasn’t another option. You know, we have coaches in major centers, but we don’t have anyone that would be able to do that development outside of Montreal, Toronto, or Calgary.

But Skate Canada was good at recognizing that this was maybe a talented pair that could do something and offered some mentorship for me. I started in the National Pair Mentorship Program, and I was lucky enough to be paired with Anabelle Langlois-Hay, who helped me out a lot in the first year of that program as I was learning the basics and the technical aspects of it. And then I was also really lucky to have Andrew Evans [Kemp/Elizarov’s other coach in the 2022/23 season] and be able to work with him.

As I kept going and got further along, the peer coaching community was really great. Everybody’s so collaborative and willing to help and chat and talk, and it’s been really helpful while I was trying to navigate my way through going from absolutely no pairs experience to Junior Worlds within those two years. Having people like Bruno [Marcotte] encouraging you to keep going, saying you’re doing a good job, those are really helpful things for me. I went from the National Pair Mentorship Program into the Skate Canada High-Performance Coaching pathway. So I ended up getting able to pair up with Manon Perron and Lee Barkell, who were able to continue to help with my mentorship, as well as Anabelle and Cody [Hay] and Andrew Evans.

Kevin Dawe (left) celebrates with Ava and Yoni after their recent free skate in Gdansk

I think it’s like anything, if you put the time and the effort into it, and you really want to learn, you can do it. That’s my takeaway for everybody. I never skated as a pair skater, so I had to learn it all from scratch, but it’s like with any new task, if you’re passionate about it and you want to do it you’ll figure out a way.

I do see the need for resources to develop more pair coaches. A lot of it is not understanding the development of the elements. That was one thing that I had to keep asking about and keep going back to the mentors. Video was a big help, being able to ask, “Is this the right step for the next part of it? Or am I missing something? Or, it just looks unsafe and we’re not doing that, but what’s your next corrective exercise?” I think that was a big, big part of the learning curve. And a lot of the time, [the answer] was to go and try it.

We think a lot about safety, but at some point, you have to move forward. And I think as a new coach, that was something that I had to learn and know that yes, scary things are going to happen, but you have to go for it. There may never be the right time when you are exactly ready for it. It’s not like singles where there’s a lot of expertise, and it’s still dangerous, but you’re not throwing somebody over your head.

A lot of what was stressful for me in the first year was safety, and I think that’s something that we need to continue to focus on when we are trying to develop new approaches and new coaches. 

Ava Kemp and Yohnatan Elizarov perform their Short Program during the World Junior Figure Skating Championships (Photo by Leah Hennel – International Skating Union)

We’ve been doing a lot with our national coaching certification programs, too. In Canada, you go from CanSkate Coach, which is our learn-to-skate, to Regional Coach, which is that beginning level through our active-for-life level. And then we go to Provincial Coach which is where we start coaching at the pre-novice and novice competitive level, and that’s where we start really splitting up the disciplines. So we did a little bit of intro [to pairs] at the Regional level but we aren’t starting to teach the specific discipline coaching courses doing the skill analysis [until the Provincial level]. We have the option to do singles, pairs, dance, or synchro and we want to make sure that coaches can continue to develop in different pathways.

I am trying to help get those newer coaches involved and invested in pairs. I’ve heard many coaches coming to that program saying “We might have a pair team but we didn’t know where to start,” or “We weren’t sure where to go from there.” The revamp of our certification program at that Provincial level is where we help them with those basics, as well as lining them up with mentors that may be able to help them, so people like myself, Stephanie Valois, and Yvan Desjardins from Quebec, who is one of the mentors there.  Annabelle and Cody [Hay], Stephanie, and Ekaterina Gordeeva are all part of the national pairs mentorship program which is a Skate Canada program dedicated to helping new pairs coaches with teams at the pre-novice/novice level gain experience. The whole idea is that new coaches have mentors they can bounce ideas back to and feel motivated to keep pushing through and pushing forward. 

We’re really trying to reach out and develop into smaller areas. Because it’s not feasible for everybody to pick up and move to a training center. Maybe at some point, you might have to, just for resources, but not at that developmental level. So you want to be able to train them closer to home.

That makes a lot of sense. There’s a drive to bring people together in centers, but, especially for younger kids, being able to stay close to a support system must be really helpful, to not have to uproot your whole life for skating from the very beginning.

Ava and Yohnatan during their Free Skate at Junior Worlds (Photo by Leah Hennel – International Skating Union)

Yeah, pairs is interesting because elite training doesn’t start as early as other disciplines, since there’s a physical component and we don’t know how bodies are going to turn out as we go through puberty, especially for males. I do think there’s a lot of value in staying home and being with your whole family for as long as possible, and not losing that family atmosphere as you’re going through this process.

If you look back at our history in Canada, I don’t know if it’s the same in other places, but our champions don’t come from major centers. Patrick Chan was probably the only one that was maybe close to one in Toronto but if you look at someone like Katelyn Osmond, she came from Newfoundland, Andrew Poje’s from Waterloo, a small town outside of London. Meagan [Duhamel] and Eric [Radford] are skaters from Northern Ontario. So making sure that we can get them exposed to these disciplines by using [local] coaches is a big deal. Because we’re not hearing Olympic champion from Vancouver, Olympic champion from Toronto. They may end up training in the bigger areas but that’s not where they start.

One thing that always occurs to me when I talk to people outside of the US and Canada is just how lucky we are to have rinks in so many small towns. And then you talk to people who have one rink in the whole country. Even in many European countries, there aren’t many rinks. So we do have an important resource. 

From what I know, the ISU has been trying to do the same thing as Canada and get experts in the field to go to these countries and start developing more pairs there. I know a lot of them are still developing singles programs, but just trying to promote the discipline in other countries. And as you said, it’s hard when you’re competing with the hockey team, and the singles, and the dance, and whatever other things that may be monopolizing the ice. But yes, in Canada, and in the States, we are a bit more fortunate that we have that resource.

What were some of the things that were the most challenging when you were first starting pairs with Ava and Yoni?

Ava and Yoni during their Free Skate at Junior Worlds (Photo by Leah Hennel – International Skating Union)

The most challenging thing was that it was a slower development. It’s not going to be like singles and ‘here’s your progression,’ there’s going to be a lot of back and forth, a lot of things where we may not feel like we’re going anywhere. It may take a couple of weeks to get a lift up. But once things start happening, you’ll see a much quicker progression.

So one challenge was to try to explain to the skaters, as well as the parents, that this would take time. And Bruno was the one who told me that it could take three years to know if a pair team would really work. So I thought, ‘Okay, well, three years, as long as each year you’re seeing a progression then you know you’re on the right track.’

Another thing was the athletes themselves, are they going to gel together? There’s a [four and a half year] age difference. How does that play into their relationship? I lucked out that they gelled very well together, and they still get along well together. The other thing was talking to Ava’s parents about safety issues. That’s a big barrier starting off, as a lot of parents are scared to put their daughter into it because of the injuries. And unfortunately, some of the horrific accidents that are viewed millions and millions of times on YouTube don’t help us. But that was another big, big challenge.

Another challenge was ice time, and how to divvy up the ice to make sure it was safe for all people to be on it. You know, in Winnipeg, I like to think that we have all these resources because we’re Canadian, but we still have issues with ice time. It’s expensive. So you want to make the most use of it, but we fight with hockey to get the ice time. And we have to get everybody on the ice safely, and not take away from any of the other programming that was happening, because it’s not a dedicated pair school. But we made it work. It took a little adjusting on everybody’s part to make it happen. [Eventually] it became so it was kind of weird to not have them on the ice if they ever went away for a week to train or for a competition. They were built into the pattern.

This past year [2022/2023 season] it was exciting to see Ava and Yoni doing so well through the Junior Grand Prix and then going to Junior Worlds and placing 6th. What was it like, for you and them, to be on that international stage for the first time?

Ava and Yoni won a silver medal at the 2022 Junior Grand Prix in Riga (Photo by Joosep Martinson – International Skating Union)

It was a wild experience. I thought it was reasonable, based on the teams in our progression, that we’d try to go for that third slot at Junior Worlds. That was our goal. We knew we had three spots and there are a limited amount of pairs in Canada, but we knew we had to get a good score. So having success and growing in the summer was great.

I think the success in Latvia (a silver medal at JGP Riga – AGOE) was an accelerator for them, and then they qualified for the final. That was just great for them, it just kept them motivated, and me motivated to keep pushing it and making sure we could get everything that we could get out of it. I always said it was very surreal.

We had ups and downs. We started doing harder tricks, and we started having more injuries come up. So we had to figure out how to manage that (An injury caused Kemp and Elizarov to withdraw from the JGPF in Torino – AK).  But it all came together for a great Junior Worlds.

At Junior Worlds, it was very surreal to be at the warm-up standing between Bruno Marcotte and Todd Sand and be like, “You two are real championship coaches, I’m just here hanging out!” It was a really cool moment for me as a coach, but also a cool moment to watch all the team’s hard work and for them to step on and shine and show that.

You know, Winnipeg isn’t such a small town but we’re kind of considered a small town. We showed that we did this in the prairies, and we’re not a major training center, but we’ve pulled in our resources. And this was a great showing for them, and I think we were all proud of the work that was put in.

I think it’s such it’s such a great story and it hopefully will be inspirational to other people who may be coming from smaller rinks and smaller programs to feel like they can do that.

Back in Manitoba, everybody wants to get into pairs now, because of Ava and Yoni. It’s just the visibility of it, making it known that it can happen. 

How is your work going now with them? You’ve just moved to Toronto, and they are also in Toronto now. 

Ava and Yoni perform during the World Junior Championships Gala Exhibition (Photo by Leah Hennel – International Skating Union)

Yeah, I’m figuring it out. They’re doing well and adjusting well, and their parents said the same thing… they are doing great and enjoying it.

I think as a coach, you’ve got to evaluate yourself and what you can offer. And that’s the one thing that I kind of pride myself on is that if I can’t offer something, I help them find who they need, whether it’s a twist expert or a triple Axel expert or somebody to help with their mental health. And I can’t travel with them all the time. I can’t take five weeks off from my other job [as a physician’s assistant]. So it’s making sure I have those collaborative approaches to make sure their training is going well. Most people want to help as much as they can and understand when we want to keep people where they are in their home base.

I have been very impressed with the collaborative atmosphere between pair coaches, and also the long commitment that it takes to grow strong programs – often over multiple generations of teams. And it seems like the development of pairs goes in phases, too. 

This was a fun year for pairs. At the the beginning of the [2022/23 season], everybody was saying that the junior pair discipline was weak, that we had a problem with pairs, and the pair discipline suffered, but by the end of the year, it was fantastic. The pair teams were amazing, and I think it just took a bit of time for the pairs to gel after COVID, to get moving, and I think there were a lot of new teams figuring things out.

When I look at it, all the way to the final two or three flights at Worlds, and everybody was doing everything so well, you had to be on top of your game to make the top seven, top ten. And I think that’s going to continue this year. I think you’re going to see the depth increase, and maybe there are fewer teams, but the quality of the teams is going to get better and better.

I think one of the cool things about the junior category this year was that you could really see teams improve. You could see Ava and Yoni, and the Japanese team (Murakami/Moriguchi), start to hit their stride at every competition, and I think that was a very cool thing to see. And it was nice to see the Australians, the Ukrainians, and the American teams on the Grand Prix series early, and realize we were competing against them. And in September it was like, ‘Okay, we’re not near them.’ But it showed us, these are the things we have to do. This is what we have to work for. It was just fun for everybody to watch all the teams, and see the progress.  

Since I spoke to Kevin over the summer, Ava and Yoni had a very successful season in the Junior Grand Prix. Despite Yoni’s serious illness during the off-season, they won their second assignment in Gdansk and qualified for the JGP Final for the second year in a row. In Beijing, they achieved new personal best scores and won the silver medal.

Their story, and Kevin’s as a new pair coach, shows how a team approach is essential to supporting development in a region without a legacy of pairs success. This theme is explored in more depth in The Future of Pairs, Part II.

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