Training partners or rivals: figure skating’s unique dynamic
The kind of scene that plays out on a daily basis on a sheet of ice inside the Gadbois Center in Montreal would never be replicated in the NFL, NBA, professional baseball or hockey or most other sports.
On the same rink at any given time, you’re likely to find French ice dance world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron training alongside U.S. champions Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue, while two-time Olympic medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir wait in the wings.
All under the watchful eyes of coaches Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon.
It would be like the Patriots and Steelers sharing a practice field. The Lakers and Celtics working in the same gym. The Cubs and Cardinals swapping trade secrets.
You see, one of the oddities of figure skating is that training partners are often your biggest rivals. They’re the teams that you’re likely to run into at major events, trying to knock you down each step of the podium — their every success dovetailing with your own failures.
“They have so many teams, so there is only so much ice,” Hubbell said. “We skate four hours a day, so usually two of those hours will overlap. It’s pretty rare we’ll all be on the ice together because there has to be space, but we share the ice. We often train at the same time. We do simulations. We make a fake competition, warm up together, go one after another and cheer each other on.”
Yes, they cheer each other on.
The fact they’re competing for the same medals — indeed, those three ice dance couples trained by Dubreuil and Lauzon are medals favorites at the Winter Games in South Korea — doesn’t change the fact most training partners tend to be close friends.
It beats the alternative: soul-shaking awkwardness.
“Oh, absolutely. Marie and Patch are certainly running their school,” Donohue said. “No matter who you are, you’re going to learn. They don’t allow drama or negativity or rivalry. There’s no bad blood allowed. We have a certain level of respect, so with that at the forefront of everything we do, it’s almost impossible not to root for each other.”
Nathan Chen and Adam Rippon, two of the three American men headed to South Korea, train with Rafael Arutunian in California. Two-time world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain and reigning Olympic champ Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan work under Brian Orser in Toronto. The favorites in the ladies event, Russian stars Evgenia Medvedeva and Alina Zagitova, train with Eteri Tutberidze in Moscow.
The reason this strange dynamic occurs so often is simple: Just as few skaters ever climb to their sport’s pinnacle, there are few coaches capable of taking them even higher.
Besides, the competition that exists in training sessions is often tougher than in events.
“Zhenya and I are good friends,” said Zagitova, using Medvedeva’s pet name, after topping her at the recent European championships. “There’s obviously a rivalry at the training sessions, but it’s not a bad one. It’s playful. We encourage each other. It’s good motivation.”
Medvedeva points out that figure skating remains an “individual sport,” and both Russian skaters choose to focus on their own routines rather than what the other is doing.
“I have my own way and I try to follow it,” she said, “because time has taught me that you don’t need to watch others. There are moments where, like Alina said, competition can stimulate you, but you need to concentrate on your own elements and that’s especially important for me.”
Virtue and Moir, back for one more Olympics, are certainly accustomed to skating with their biggest rivals. They took gold ahead of training partners Meryl Davis and Charlie White at the 2010 Games in Vancouver, then silver behind the now-retired Americans four years ago in Sochi.
“To be honest, we don’t directly compare. We don’t feel like that’s a useful tool for Tess and I,” Moir said. “That strategizing against other teams, that’s something I got into in the past and it wasn’t helpful. It got me away from what I love about the sport and that’s skating with Tess.”
Hubbell called it “inspiring” training alongside the top French and Canadian teams, and along with Donohue, she credited their unique training environment in Montreal with helping finally ascend to the top of the podium at the U.S. championships after several close calls.
“There are three spots on the podium at the Olympics and we all know we’re going for one of them,” Hubbell said. “I guess the thing that Marie-France has always said, ’If you shoot for gold, maybe you’ll land silver or bronze, but you’ll land on the podium.
“We’ll be happy to be standing up there, representing the team we have in Montreal.”
AP Sports Writer James Ellingworth in Moscow contributed to this report.
More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org