Patricia Andrew is a 4-foot-8 dynamo, looks a tad like 2002 Olympic pair champion Jamie Sale, and is an emerging force in pair skating.
She’s only 11 years old.
She and her partner Paxton Knott surprised everybody, perhaps even themselves, perhaps anybody who put reason above spirit, when they won the silver medal at the novice level at the national figure skating championships on Wednesday.
They had been third to Quebec-trained Chloe Panetta and Steven Lapointe in the short program. (Should we mention there were only five pairs in the novice event?)
Andrew and Knott had been together only since September. Somehow, in the four months that whizzed by as they toiled at the London Competitive Skating Centre, they learned how to set sail a nice little double twist, a floating lift, and a throw double Salchow, just as the music launched into “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and forgive me if I misplaced a consonant or two.
They were like, together, the little engine that could. When they launched their side-by-side spins, tiny Andrew made the vocal calls for the team to shift positions, her little voice delivering the message quite well enough. As coach Alison Purkiss says, she’s the boss.
Knott couldn’t stop grinning through the whole thing. He had found his home.
They out-finished teams from Quebec and Alberta, chalking up 92.91 points, their best score ever, to win that silver medal, about 20 points behind the more experienced gold medalists. Mind you, Panetta is only 13, Lapointe, 19, but they train every day with talented senior skaters, such as two-time world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford and world team candidates Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro.
The secret weapon possessed by Andrew and Knott is coach Purkiss, a former pair skater who is an unsung gem in the skating world. She also coached new junior gold medalists Evelyn Walsh and Trennt Michaud, crowned within an hour of the novice contest. Neither Andrew nor Walsh had skated pairs before Purkiss gently gathered them into the pair fold. Both had been lifted – for fun – by experienced male pair skaters during club shows. They had been exposed to it all at an early age.
Walsh and the very talented Michaud got together only four months ago. Walsh, who also competes in the junior women’s event, which ends Thursday night, never imagined she’d be standing atop a national podium a few months after she signed up. She gritted her teeth through the steep learning curve she experienced with death spirals – and she hasn’t had time to learn all four of them, just the ones she needed at hand. She still hasn’t been taught all the lifts – just the ones needed to get to Ottawa. The first lift Walsh learned was one of the most difficult. She skipped all the rest of the steps, just to be ready.
“She did her job,” Purkiss said. Michaud sells it. He’s also a good patient partner, a budding star, as is Andrew with her partner. She’s led him gently to success, too. They’ve all done what they could in the time they had, with what they had, a little collection of happy misfits.
Last year, Michaud won the novice title with partner Hope McLean, and they lit up the Halifax arena with their emotional Tango Roxanne, from the Moulin Rouge list. The piece, choreographed by Purkiss, sent shivers down spines. In the end, the crowd gave a standing ovation to a novice pair. After they finished, a judge walked by Purkiss and blurted: “That gave me goosebumps.”
Right now, pair skaters are as scarce as fiddlesticks on a frosty January day. Only five pairs contested the novice event. Also only five showed up for the junior event. And Wednesday, rising Canadian senior stars Julianne Seguin and Charlie Bilodeau were forced to withdraw after Seguin suffered a concussion in December – and hasn’t yet been cleared to compete. That withdrawal drops the senior numbers to seven.
Yes, Canada, traditionally a force in pairs at the highest levels, is running a little short. And the country has never been so short of teams.
“I come from a time when we needed to eliminate pairs [leading to the national championships in qualifying events called divisionals, now called Challenge],” Purkiss said. “There were alternate spots, particularly in novice and junior.”
Actually, this week, there had been seven pairs listed to start juniors, but some dropped out along the way for reasons that had nothing to do with the perceived dangers of pair skating. Missing in action from pairs competition this week: One had a blister that became infected from an ill-fitting skating boot. One got an ankle injury that occurred during a foot fumble while walking. In shoes. A young pair trained by former Olympic pair competitor Annabelle Langlois dropped a coffee mug on his foot and suffered a stress fracture. Really? Really.
There are so few pairs on the national scene (actually it’s a world problem) that Skate Canada had a meeting of pair coaches this week to discuss the problem and figure out how they could change things.
“It’s hard to get people involved in pairs,” said Langlois, based in Calgary with husband and former pair partner Cody Hay.
It seems that folk think it best to fulfill their singles career until they can’t do it any more, then switch to pairs. But pair skating requires many more sorts of skills that can’t be learned overnight. If they show up later in their careers, it can just be too late.
Strangely enough, there is a statistic showing that some skaters that have doubled up on disciplines, are not going to route of the more usual singles/pairs combination, but are moving more toward singles/ice dancing.
Case in point: junior singles skater Bruce Waddell also skates with Natalie D’Allessandro, with whom he won the novice dance title this week. In fact, there is only one team around Canada that is currently doing singles/pairs doubles right now.
Michaud lost his former pair partner to dance. She no longer wished to be thrown or tossed or generally soar through the air any more. Pair females have to like this sort of thing.
Still, Purkiss says parents need to know that if skaters are taught the skills when they are very young, they don’t have to start out with dangerous feats. “Everybody seems to think you have to be like Meagan and Eric, but we have to remember that they are two-time world champions and they had to start somewhere as well,” she said.
Another problem? Canada is a large country. And if an intrepid coach finds a male skater from Vancouver, who is just the one for a female skater in Toronto, somebody has to relocate, leave home, and incur extra expenses. “That’s a big hurdle at a young age,” Langlois said.
Her novice team did, too, even if the miles weren’t vast. Novice pair Josh Venema moved to Calgary from Edmonton. Langlois scouted out his partner, Takara Dei, who she found in Grand Prairie. They’ve been together only since July. “It’s a big commitment,” Langlois said.
It’s just easier in Montreal, which has a large population and the most powerful pair school in the country.
To salve the fears of worried parents, Canada has a clever juvenile pair program that does not allow overhead lifts. Purkiss has a juvenile team that has spent a year learning how to do an overhead lift off the ice in preparation for moving up to the pre-novice level.
Langlois feels that some pair scouting is in order, whether nationally or regionally. “People need to have a talent identification so they know what their best opportunity in skating is, because unless parents are educated about it, they may miss the boat completely,” she said.
All these potential teams need is a start, even if they are ultimately mismatched in the beginning. Few skaters stay with the same partners throughout their careers. Dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir are an exception (19 years in the trenches,) Purkiss says. Breakups need not be traumatic. Hopefully, by the time they are junior skaters, they will have met their matches.