The Future of Pairs (Part 2)

The Future of Pairs (Part 2)

Part II: Motivation and Building Pair Programs

Sara Conti and Niccolò Macii of Italy compete at the 2023 World Figure Skating Championships in Saitama, Japan. Photo by Jonathan Moscrop – International Skating Union/International Skating Union via Getty Images

Over the last year, I have been investigating how to grow interest in pairs skating. I have looked at possible rule changes (see part I), as well as the expertise and resources that developing pairs require. In this second part of the series, I talked to skaters and coaches about what motivates them, and the structural and logistical barriers that hamper the growth of the discipline.

Right now, when skaters dream as children of being an Olympic champion, they tend to picture standing alone on the podium. Many pair skaters resisted the discipline until injury or other discouraging events in their singles career made it an attractive option. A common refrain was the need for more exposure – because once skaters give pairs a shot, they tend to discover how enjoyable it is. 

Japanese coach and choreographer Cathy Reed explained that one contributing factor can be the lack of high-profile role models for skaters to follow. “I think the biggest challenge in Japan is still getting skaters interested in doing ice dance and pairs since singles is very, very popular in Japan…Everyone wants to be the next Yuzuru Hanyu, the next Mao Asada, it’s hard to get kids interested in other disciplines…But everyone has their different strengths…So I think it’s important for skaters and coaches to have an open mind. I hope that coaches in Japan will be open to show students that there are other opportunities and find the best path for each student.” 

Reed’s comments highlight that skaters can be both pulled and pushed into the discipline; pulled by the desire to emulate skaters that went before them, and pushed by coaches who encourage them to switch disciplines. 

In this section, I look at efforts to increase the “pull” factor and make pairs a more attractive option, to increase the “push” of proactive recruitment by coaches and federations, and to reduce the barriers that inhibit the formation and success of new teams. 

A total of 57 pair teams were listed on the ISU Season Ranking list for 2022/23. This compares to 94 ice dance teams, 138 men and 155 women. In this list, we see ten US teams, seven Canadians, six Germans, five Italians, four French, and four British. Japan, Australia, and Hungary each have one strong team. 

Missing from this list are the traditional powerhouses of Russia and China, but it is also notable how nations like Korea and Estonia  – nations with emerging strength in singles and/or ice dance – are under-represented. This might indicate which disciplines take priority as the competitive field develops since a certain level of singles skating is required to succeed in pairs and coaching expertise also tends to lag.

I spoke to skaters and coaches from the United States, Canada, Germany, Italy, the UK, and Japan for this article. There was a remarkable degree of commonality in their struggles and successes  – but it is also important to note that these perspectives do not represent a complete picture of the field. 

Making the Case for Pairs

Rebecca Ghilardi and Filippo Ambrosini of Italy compete in the Pairs Short Program during the NHK Trophy in Osaka, Japan. (Photo by Toru Hanai/International Skating Union via Getty Images)

Many young athletes are drawn to figure skating because it is an individual sport, so the first hurdle to recruitment can be getting the skater interested in training with another person. “They start skating and they’re very focused on themselves,” commented coach Bruno Marcotte. “They are individual athletes, and a lot of athletes like that aspect of figure skating, and then when you do pairs, it’s a different ballgame.” 

European silver medalist Rebecca Ghilardi of Italy at first resisted trying pairs, explaining that she found the lack of control scary at first. “I was a single skater and [thought] I just wanted to be by myself. I don’t like to share the ice with someone. But then I tried  – and now I’m here [as a European medalist], so just try!… If you never try, you never know.”

Many pair skaters now say that working together with another person has become their favorite part of the sport. “It’s just such a more fun way to experience figure skating when you can walk through these trials and tribulations with a partner,” said Canadian Kirsten Moore-Towers. “You can experience your highest highs and lowest lows with somebody and it not only brings you so much closer, but it’s so helpful to have another person to lean on as you go through these things.” 

German pairs skater Annika Hocke concurred. “I can’t imagine anymore standing on the ice alone because I would freak out, and I’m so happy somebody’s next to me. I guess that’s the most encouraging point, just that you’re not alone on the ice.”

British champions Anastasia Vaipan-Law and Luke Digby came together having both been singles skaters and learned pairs together. Luke shared, “Being on a journey together, both of us feeling the same emotions and pushing for our goals together, it’s special and a bit more comfortable sharing the ice with someone else as well…you don’t feel like every set of eyes is on yourself, but you as a team.” He added that in hindsight, he wished he had started pairs earlier, rather than waiting for an injury to push him away from singles.  Ana agreed, “I was always a nervy singles skater and I felt a lot more comfortable in our first competition together…to talk to each other in between the programs, it was just nice.”

“I can’t imagine anymore standing on the ice alone,” said Annika Hocke.

Other skaters emphasized the versatility of pairs as one of the draws. “I think that pair skating is the best discipline because you have so many things to do,” said European Champion Niccolò Macii of Italy. “You don’t just have seven jumps and three spins, you have lifts, throws, so many different things.” 

Annika Hocke agreed. “We’re a bit biased but to me, pair skating is the most entertaining, the most happening, the most versatile and it’s just fun to watch.”

“One reason why I love pairs,” said American silver medalist Spencer Akira Howe, “is that I did ice dance when I was younger, I did singles when I was younger, and when I came to pairs, it felt like I’m doing ice dance and single skating merged into one.”

The versatility of pairs can also be an opportunity for artistic freedom. Cathy Reed said she enjoys choreographing pairs. “You can do anything you want, you can separate for as long as you want or you can be together as long as you want and you can do lifts and hold them for several seconds. [Unlike ice dance] you don’t have to worry about the time limit really, so there’s a lot more freedom.”

However, many skaters never have the opportunity to follow Rebecca Ghilardi’s advice and “just try.” One barrier is simply the lack of exposure to pairs and opportunities to pursue the discipline. 

Exposure and Encouragement

Max Fernandez always dreamed of being a pair skater.

American coach and former pairs champion Jenni Meno reflected, “It was probably always difficult to get skaters into pairs. For me, I wanted to skate pairs. I had gone to watch Worlds when I was young, and I saw Gordeeva and Grinkov. From that moment, I wanted to skate pairs.  I think there are skaters like that, they want to skate pairs.”

“But then on the other hand, there’s a lot of skaters that you look at and you think, ‘They should be skating pairs. They’d be amazing.’ It’s a little bit challenging in the US because a lot of boys who would be suitable for pairs are going into hockey. But there are a lot of very good skaters in the US that could do pairs. The thing is, how do we introduce it to them? That’s always the challenge.”

American Maximiliano Fernandez is somewhat unusual in that he always wanted to do pairs, but wasn’t able to pursue it until later in his career. He believes in the importance of exposure to elite training and role models at an early age. “When I first started, I wanted to do pairs, but my coach said that you had to be a good singles skater to be a good pair skater. I worked so hard to be a good singles skater, and I never really saw pairs unless I went to a couple of competitions where I saw Jim [Peterson]’s teams skating. But then I went to his training school, and I saw him working with his past students. You just stand there in awe…”

Exposure is easiest when teams are training in the same rink as up-and-coming single skaters. “If you look at most of the [Canadian] champions,” Marcotte pointed out, “they were all really good in singles, but all their singles coaches were also coaching pairs. So you look at Meagan [Duhamel], Meagan was a junior single champion, but her coach was Lee Barkell when she was young, and Lee Barkell was a pair coach. My coach was Josée Picard. She was a singles coach, a pairs coach, and a dance coach. So we were exposed, and we never once felt that pairs were better or worse…there is a stigma to the people that don’t see it on a daily basis.”

Bringing pair skaters and coaches into rinks to do seminars also can play a big role in exposing young skaters to the discipline. Meagan Duhamel would like to see the expansion of travelling pairs seminars in Canada. “[It would] introduce pair skating to skaters at smaller clubs, where they may not see it all the time. You get a female pair skater, a male pair skater and you have them go together to do all the seminars, where they can skate with all these other skaters.”

Anastasia Vaipan-Law and Luke Digby train alongside two younger British teams. Coach Simon Briggs thinks this group set up is important.

It also helps new teams when multiple teams are training together. British coach Simon Briggs talked about the importance of developing a program, not just one team.

“For our junior team, I think it’s easier when you have a senior team that they can see. In the UK, my honest opinion is you need a setup where people can train in one environment, where you’ve not just got one pair team by themselves because then they’re kind of alone. We even have an even lower team, a baby team, as we call them…I think building [the discipline] in the UK means having people under one roof and putting a structure together. That way you can then develop pairs in a positive way.”

Meno agreed about the importance of camaraderie among teams. “We’ve worked very hard from the beginning with our pair teams to create an environment where they all work hard together, but they all support each other, and it’s more of a team environment. They’re all doing their off-ice together.”

“I think especially older teenagers and boys in their 20s need that camaraderie,” she added. “It’s kind of like the baseball team or football team. They push each other and they become better, yet it also is fun for them. My son is playing baseball in college, at the University of Washington, and they’re working their butts off. But there are 40 of them so they push each other and support each other. So that’s the kind of environment we are also trying to create.”

Having multiple teams also helps with the challenge of finding ice time. “If we have too many [teams] then there comes a point where you need separate ice,” said Briggs, “and if you’ve not got enough, you’re buying ice for a one pair team and that’s difficult. If you’ve got, let’s say, four or five teams that you can utilize the ice with, I think it’s doable. It works.”

Cathy Reed also pointed to ice time as a barrier to the development of the discipline. “Rinks in Japan are limited. There are not as many as there are in the States or Canada. And so finding ice time is incredibly difficult, even for single skaters in Japan. It’s not uncommon to see top Japanese skaters skating in public sessions…It’s even more difficult for pairs and ice dancers because what they do requires a lot of space, and it’s not possible to do it in public sessions. So you have to buy ice time and it’s incredibly expensive here in Japan.”

Celebrating Pairs in the Media

The NBC commentary booth is empty as US skaters Isabelle Martins and Ryan Bedard take the ice at the 2023 Skate America Pairs Free Skate

To draw in skaters and audiences, and create the “pull” factor for pairs, the discipline also needs more exposure in the media and ice shows.

“I think we need to do more promotion to show how nice pairs can be, with the trust between two people,” said 2018 Olympian Champion Aljona Savchenko. “Of course, everyone has a lot of respect for the discipline. But it’s also beautiful, and you can create something special. I think we need to put more work into showing that.”

 “Also in the media, they could be showing more pairs,” said American skater Valentina Plazas. “You’ll see a lot of women and men and ice dance, but there’s also a fourth discipline that’s not talked about as much. I know we have fewer teams now, but there are up-and-coming teams they can show.”

Her partner Max Fernandez went further. “It’s very disappointing to see what happened with Alexa and Brandon’s (Knierim/Frazier) exposure after winning Worlds and not being able to expose them to the normal NBC media circuit, like going on Jimmy Fallon… that kind of promotional boost. [As an American pair winning Worlds] they did something that hasn’t happened in almost 40 years, you know?”

In the US, pairs were not included in any 2022/23 primetime broadcasts on NBC; when it was shown at all it was on the less-prominent USA Network. The pairs short program was not included in coverage of the US Championships or Worlds – the only event to be left out. At Skate America in 2023, NBC did not provide commentators for pairs, though Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski commentated on the other disciplines, and Ben Agosto joined for ice dance.

Pairs also suffers from its placement within competitions.  Pairs are frequently the first event, taking place on weekdays or at midday times that limit live audiences or primetime broadcasts in the host country. This makes sense when pairs are the least popular discipline – but also contributes to it remaining so, as audiences have limited exposure. 

Ice shows – which also contribute mightily to promoting figure skating – are a mixed bag when it comes to pairs. Many of the major Japanese ice shows do not include pair skaters (although Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara are starting to change that) making it harder for teams to earn resources during the off-season. From 2013 until 2022, no pair teams were included in the main cast of the US Stars on Ice tour –  in fact, not until Knierim/Frazier became world champions was a pair team included. 

Ironically, popular media about figure skating often focuses on pair skaters, as in the recent bestseller ‘Icebreaker’

However, the Canadian tour during the same period always included one or two teams. This might make sense considering it was a period when Canadian pairs were World medalists and contenders and American pairs were weaker. Nonetheless, the lack of exposure to the discipline also discourages young skaters – one of the primary audiences for shows like Stars on Ice –  from dreaming of doing pairs.  

“From a U.S. perspective, I do think a lot of this could be the result of the narrative of sports in general as something of an individual pursuit,” noted analyst Jackie Wong. “Even within team sports, there’s huge value in knowing who your ‘star’ is and naming ‘MVPs’ because of individual contributions. There’s something to the belief that you often need the greatness of an individual to enable the success of a team – and that has historically drawn in viewers and created story lines.”

“Just as doubles tennis or synchronized diving or track relays don’t have the same draw as their individual counterparts, pairs probably comes to the table with that kind of disadvantage. That’s not to say that audiences aren’t fascinated by pair skating – when you go to a show or a competition, and someone sees a triple twist or even a death spiral for the first time, the sense of awe is very much there, and alive. But the disconnect between sport and spectacle is very apparent – it just doesn’t translate.”

Oddly, pairs have a substantial presence in the popular fiction around skating. Films like “The Cutting Edge” and “Blades of Glory”, the Netflix show “Spinning Out” and the recent bestselling book “Ice Breaker” all focus on bringing together unconventional pairs for drama. In reality TV, you have the Canadian shows “Battle of the Blades”, which brings together pair skaters and hockey players, and “I Have Nothing” where a comedian learns how to choreograph her dream pair program. 

All of this suggests that pairs – thanks to both the tricks and the emotional connection between two people – is not inherently unappealing to audiences. Therefore an urgent question is: how can pairs be better marketed to create stars and to encourage young skaters to dream of following in their footsteps?

“You should do pairs” The push factor

Deanna Stellato-Dudek would like to see more proactive efforts to encourage young skaters to try pairs, even if they don’t fully switch disciplines.

For most skaters, the advantages of pairs became clear after they made the switch. Though some always dreamed of doing pairs, the initial push was often external – a coach that encouraged them to try it, often combined with an injury or disappointing competitive career in singles. 

Often, the reason they do pairs boils down to the simple fact that someone – a coach, their federation – told them they should. This fact points to the important role that these authority figures play in bringing teams together and encouraging the discipline. 

Simon Briggs noted that “we are always going to have an issue [increasing pairs] unless the coaches are prepared to work together, unless the coaches are prepared to push the skater into pairs because it’s the best for them. They may well lose the athlete [as a student] but they’ve nurtured them to this level. I think it’s important that people see that and allow the athletes to go the way that’s going to benefit them because there’s a route in pairs skating for more people [that is better than] losing in singles.”

“Luke [Digby] is a great example,” Briggs added. “Who knows what he would have done in singles had he not had the unfortunate injury [which limited his ability to train a triple axel or quads]? But he’s a perfect build [for pairs]. He’s one of the great people to work with. And once you see that door kind of opening in the pairs, [he thought] ‘This is not so bad. I’ve now got a vision of where I want to be.’”

Deanna Stellato-Dudek thinks that more flexibility in the transition between singles and pairs can benefit skaters.

“I was asked to do pairs a lot when I was younger because I was the same size I am now, and I wish I would have done both…But we have some baby pairs at the rink, they’re like 10 years old, 13 years old. I think learning another skill when you’re young is a really great thing to do. Then if you do pairs for a couple of years when you’re a kid, and you go to single skating and you do that for five years, you’ve got those pair skills in your back pocket if you ever wanted to do it.”

“I think that if there’s the possibility, they should have boys and girls at a yearly camp where they try to pair people together,” Stellato-Dudek continued. “To me, it’s all about if there’s a kid in juniors who got last, but he’s got the body for pairs, why aren’t we telling that kid, ‘Hey, we think you got a lot of talent. We just think you’re doing the wrong discipline. Why don’t you try this? Listen, there are five girls that are interested. Here you go.’ I don’t understand why that’s not being done a little bit more. I think there could be probably triple the number of teams in North America, simply if that was done.”

The coach shortage

Many recent competitors, like Ondrej Hotarek (left), are helping to grow the ranks of experienced coaches

A successful pairs program relies on having coaches who can teach the sport at all levels. However, pairs expertise is in short supply in many parts of the world.

“It’s really hard, and it can be very scary, to start a pair team for somebody who has never done it before,” says skater-turned-coach Kirsten Moore-Towers. “It can be terrifying to start a discipline that is so crazy dangerous and to have all the onus and responsibility on you to keep these two athletes safe. And we know that there are very few pair skating coaches… I think a lot of the time it comes down to the fear of starting something that you don’t have 100% knowledge on.”

Bruno Marcotte points out that expertise goes beyond teaching the dangerous technical elements. “There’s one thing about knowing the technique, but there’s also how to manage a couple, how to manage the relationship. I think that’s the one thing – you need a lot of experience to work with pairs, or have done pairs for a long time, to understand how to manage this.”

US High-Performance Director Kyoko Ina noted that knowledge is why so many coaches are themselves former pair skaters. “A lot of our former competitive athletes are now coaching, which is so exciting, and I think that’s giving more opportunity for a lot of different athletes across the country. Still, we have pockets of larger training centers. Jenny [Meno] and Todd [Sand], though they are veterans, they are still former athletes…Drew Meekins in Colorado is a former Junior Champion, and he’s got a great school in Colorado. Alexei Letov – again, he’s a former pairs skater, and he’s in Boston, so we have all the coasts and the Midwest covered. It’s exciting to see the next generation of pair skaters starting their own schools and it’s just gonna take time. Even internationally, it’s nice to see all the former skaters be on the side of the boards.”

“There are not that many pairs or ice dance coaches in Japan,” notes Cathy Reed. “That’s why a lot of the top Japanese ice dance and pair teams are training abroad – because that’s where the coaches are. That’s where the training bases are. I think the Kinoshita Academy hopefully one day will be a great training base for all disciplines.”

Cathy Reed is working with pair teams that are among the first to train based in Japan. They have benefited from visiting foreign coaches such as Bruno Marcotte, and the knowledge of Narumi Takahashi, who represented Japan while training with Marcotte in Canada. 

As well as specialized pair coaches, it is important to expand knowledge among singles coaches as well. A traveling pairs seminar, according to Meagan Duhamel, could also “help instill confidence in the coaches, the singles coaches, that you can start a pair team. I think sometimes coaches are a little bit hesitant because they feel like they don’t know pair skating, and they don’t want to lose their skaters to a big center, so they just don’t bring up the opportunity for them to skate pairs. I think that a lot of coaches could coach pairs at the beginning stage if they were just kind of given a couple of tools in order to do so.”

New pair coaches, like Kevin Dawe (left) have learned along with their skaters, thanks to mentorship programs

Kyoko Ina agrees, noting that the US started a video series to be able to teach singles coaches the fundamentals of pairs, as well as a mentorship program.

“Logistics is the hardest thing because you can only learn so much on Zoom, but if you’re hands-on, it’s a lot easier. If you are travelling a few hours to learn as a coach for yourself, you’re giving up your personal income to educate yourself which is hard. So there’s that fine balance of, ‘Can I bring my skaters and still make an income, yet still learn from another coach?’ Just like the athletes relocating to work with a coach, it’s hard for a coach to go someplace to learn hands-on.”

That it is possible to grow a strong pairs program can be seen in the success of the Ice Lab in Bergamo, Italy, which also shows that building such a program takes time.

It has taken many years to build a strong pairs program in Italy. “We work step by step, and now I will say, generation by generation,” said director Franca Bianconi. “I started actually with Ondrej Hotarek, and I didn’t even know anything about pairs in the beginning, but then I was going abroad and learning, listening, and gaining some experience. This is the second generation because it’s me and Ondrej and the coaches who grew with me. It is so much easier now, we have more knowledge, and it’s a very good team. We respect each other, we work so well together, and all of us aim at the same goal.”

Another success story is the emergence of Canadian pair teams outside of the traditional power centers in Toronto and Montreal. Kevin Dawe, who coaches the junior team of Ava Kemp and Yohnatan Elizarov, credits the support of many of his fellow coaches, and structured mentorship programs through Skate Canada, for allowing him and his team to develop.

(A full interview with Kevin Dawe is available here)

The role of the federation

When skaters are already training in the same rink – like Lia Pereira and Trennt Michaud – building a team can be straightforward. For many pairs, though, the federation has a role to play

There are limits to what a coach, however determined, can do on their own. A singles coach can encourage their skater to go into pairs; if that coach has some pair expertise, or is part of a center that also teaches pairs, they may not even have to lose that student in the process. An example is the recent recruitment of Canadians Lia Pereira and Fiona Bombardier into pairs while they continue their singles careers at the same time. Both women train in rinks with a strong pairs program. 

However, when we talk about the push factor, federations play an extremely important role in recruiting potential pair skaters and matching teams.

This is particularly true in countries like Canada where a code of professional ethics prohibits coaches from soliciting skaters away from other coaches. Meagan Duhamel pointed out, “If I’m a coach, and I’m not working for Skate Canada, I can’t go to Bob in Toronto and be like, ‘You know what, Bob, you’d be a really good pair skater.’ If Bob’s not my student, that’s solicitation. It’s Skate Canada’s job to go to them and tell them this. Coaches can’t do that, it’s against our code of ethics. So I was getting a lot of DMs from parents and skaters being like, ‘I wish that somebody would have told me and somebody would have directed me, I would have loved to do pairs.’ And we can’t, that is Skate Canada’s job, and I really wish that they were doing [more] to find those people and tell them, because there’s so many skaters that are really great single skaters, but they could be really excellent pair skaters.”

Canada used to do a large pairs try-out event alongside the National Championships, a “mix-and-match” as Meagan Duhamel called it. She credits that event for some of her early interest in pairs. 

Team USA skaters pose at the 2023 Pairs Camp (photo @ vmskates on Instagram)

Jenni Meno noted that efforts like that can go a long way toward strengthening the pairs community within a country. “We have pair camp in June and the coaches and skaters of all levels are welcome to come. Several of us [more experienced] coaches put on Camp this year, and there were younger coaches there watching. I think we can encourage that more.”

She also noted that competitions provide an opportunity to exchange ideas. “We have our pair final [in the qualifying series for US nationals]. I have ideas for that going forward. I don’t love the schedule, because they have the juvenile and intermediate competitions early in the week, and then junior and senior at the end, and I think that’s a mistake. Scheduling is difficult, but I think they should put them all on the same couple of days, so maybe some of the younger coaches could observe, and also the older skaters could talk to the juvenile pairs and encourage them.”

So many factors go into making a strong team – not only similar skating skills and compatible body types, but a good match in personality and goals. Finding the right partner is complex, and can benefit from the support of a federation that can scout talent across different training centers. This need for federation involvement may also be part of the reason why pairs has thrived in more centralized and state- and federation-directed systems such as Russia and China.

In the United States, the high-performance staff do have conversations with singles skaters about opportunities in other disciplines, but there are significant challenges. “The US is a very large country, and we don’t have that many pair coaches,” noted Kyoko Ina. “Having that conversation becomes very difficult because most of the athletes are underage. Saying to a parent ‘Hey, would you be willing to relocate to another part of the country because there’s a great pairs program there,’ that becomes very difficult.”

“We never tell them to give up their current discipline,” she added, “because obviously singles is so important, whether you’re going into dance, synchro, or pairs, it’s just fundamental. It usually takes a few years before that athlete and that athlete’s team, parents and coaches, sort of understand, hey, this might be an opportunity where this athlete will succeed in the pairs discipline, at least internationally and possibly to the Olympic Games.”

International Collaboration

Milania Vaananen and Filippo Clerici of Finland are an example of the many teams that are made possible by international collaboration (Photo by Jurij Kodrun/International Skating Union)

Developing pairs also requires international collaboration between federations and through the ISU.

Franca Bianconi and the team at the IceLab Center of Excellence in Bergamo grew a pairs program in Italy more or less from scratch over the last fifteen years. This makes her sympathetic to the struggles faced by coaches and skaters in other countries, and she is now a member of the ISU Development Commission.

“The whole movement should share the knowledge more,” she said. “Because now we have let’s say six, seven, maybe eight points in the world where this discipline is okay. Where everybody knows what it is, how to train, and what to do. But then many other places in the world have no clue of what this is about, and maybe they’re not as crazy as me to start a new thing from nothing. So we should bring that knowledge to other countries who do not have this. The ISU has been doing very good things with the development camps and programs in the past, and maybe that should be even enlarged.”

Ondrej Hotarek now works at IceLab with teams from five nations. Originally, from the Czech Republic, he was instrumental in the development of Italian pairs as a skater and now as a coach. He sees his story repeating with skaters like Filippo Clerici, an Italian who is skating with Milania Väänänen for Finland.

“Because you just don’t have so many skaters to find in the same country to skate pairs, you need to mix it up. Now I see the parallel story [to mine] with our skater Filippo, who skates for Finland. They had no pairs before, and they’re starting to get some to thrive, and people are starting to be really excited about having the full team [for the Olympic Team Event]. Finland is really invested in the project of a pair team.”

Jenni Meno noted that international collaboration can be easier for European coaches and skaters when the countries are all closer together. “Maybe the US and Canada need to come together more because we’re at least close together here..maybe some kind of North American camp.” She cited the John Nicks Pairs Trophy, held in New York each September, as one effort to increase international exposure, with pairs travelling from Canada and Europe to participate.

For several years, the ISU Development Commission has held a seminar in Oberstdorf, Germany that attracts both coaches and skaters from around the world. Bruno Marcotte, who has been deeply involved in these efforts, noted how a lot of people that have gone through those seminars, I see them in the world scene now.”

Nika Osipova (left) of the Netherlands, Violetta Sierova of Ukraine, and Anastasia Vaipan-Law of Great Britain pose at the 2023 ISU Pair Seminar in Oberstdorf

Luke Digby and Anastasia Vaipan-Law participated in the seminar in 2023. “We loved it,” Digby said. “It’s just great to be around other top-class elite athletes and train alongside them, and also to learn and get a few different visions and ideas. It’s always good to have different sets of eyes who can give you new things to try.”

Emily Chan and Spencer Howe accompanied their coaches Aleksey Letov and Olga Ganicheva to the 2023 ISU Singles and Pairs Seminar in Thailand. “We were able to go out and show what pairs is, and from what we heard the feedback was really good,” said Howe. “Everyone was inspired and really enjoyed just having a taste of pairs because there’s not a lot of exposure to pairs in [most parts of] Asia.”

While these in-person opportunities are important, virtual collaboration is also a big opportunity.

“If we can take something from COVID,” Marcotte noted, “I feel like there’s been a lot of Zoom classes, a lot of people are connecting with each other more, with the entire world. So I think ultimately there’s going to be more coaches, who have maybe less pair experience, that will not be afraid to reach out to me and reach out to other coaches. Because at the end of the day, that’s what I want. I want to help out younger coaches or coaches who want to try pairs. Because what I want to do is to promote pairs in the world, and I hope that people will be using technology to make this happen.”

Implicit in his comments and the comments of Bianconi is that the desire to grow the discipline for the love of the discipline requires being open to competition from other countries as opposed to hoarding resources in knowledge and training for your own country.

Tackling the dark side of the sport

All the skaters and coaches I spoke with share a passion for pairs and a desire to see the discipline grow and attract new athletes and audiences. Their passion and dedication have brought about some remarkable success stories.

Nonetheless, another thread runs through discussions about pairs – what about the physical and mental damage that the sport can do to young athletes? How concerned should we be about the frequency of large age differences in pair teams and the gendered power dynamics that can emerge? How can we reduce the prevalence of concussions, abuse, and eating disorders – issues that are not unique to pairs, but which seem to crop up in the discipline at a concerning rate?

The pairs discipline needs to tackle these issues if it is to attract more skaters and more fans – and preserve the well-being of the people who dedicate their lives to this beautiful sport. A forthcoming third section of ‘The Future of Pairs’ will examine the cultural changes that the discipline must make.

Read Part 1: Is There a Problem with Pairs?

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The Future of Pairs (Part 2)

Over the last year, I have been investigating how to grow interest in pairs skating. In this second part of the series, I talked to skaters and coaches about what motivates them, and the barriers that hamper the growth of the discipline.

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