Toronto Star ePaper

Canadian duo feels need for speed

Stellato-Dudek, Deschamps favoured at Grand Prix final after flawless record this season


From the glory days of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, Canada has become synonymous with ice dance supremacy, although the medal glitter dates back much farther and many other boldface duos that left their indelible twizzle trademark on the sport.

But the real global muscle-flexing in figure skating, what earned this country top chops as a skating powerhouse, was arguably pairs.

Jamie Salé and David Pelletier. Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford — both twice world champions. Barb Underhill and Paul Martini. Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd Eisler. All the way back to siblings Maria and Otto Jelinek in the ‘60s, and Barbara Wagner and Robert Paul, the 1960 Olympic gold medallists and four-time world gold.

And all of them had to do it against the historical domination of Russia — or Soviet Union or the “Russian Olympic Committee” when banned from competing under their national flag, flaccid punishment for the country’s state-sponsored doping program. Russians have won 34 gold, 19 silver, eight bronze in pairs at the world championships. Canada, at 12-7-12, ranks second in haulage.

Montreal is hosting the 2024 world championships in March. But Canadians will be looking to set the medal table, telescoping their podium bona fides, at the ISU Grand Prix Final, which begins Thursday in Beijing, a slam-bam weekend showcasing the top six skaters/couples in each discipline based on season scores.

Two Canadian pairs teams qualified for Beijing: Deanna StellatoDudek and Maxime Deschamps, an improbable twosome to say the least — she’s 40, a former singles skater for the U.S., long ago retired, hadn’t competed in 16 years until hooking up for a comeback with Deschamps in 2019, then socking it to the world, placing fourth at Worlds last year; and Lia Pereira and Trennt Michaud, who’ve been thrilling to a breakthrough first Grand Prix season together.

Stellato-Dudek and Deschamps, 31, are genuinely leading contenders for the tallest podium after claiming gold in every competition they entered this season, including Skate Canada and Cup of China, whilst also posting the season’s top score for pairs of 214.64.

What most distinguishes the upstart duo are their exceedingly difficult lifts and intricate footwork, her fearlessness flying through the air and his strength throwing her through the air. Pairs skating isn’t for the faint of heart. Their short routine, “Oxygene,” has earned Level 4 marks throughout the season for triple twists and side-byside triple-toe jumps. Their free program, performed to the “Interview with a Vampire” soundtrack, features a heady three-jump sequence.

Eyeballing reigning world champions Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara — who won’t be contesting the Grand Prix final because of his back injury — Stellato-Dudek and Deschamps set their sights over the summer on matching that team’s extraordinary speed.

“If we want to run with them, we have to run faster than them,” Stellato-Dudek said on the eve of Skate Canada. “We can’t be at the same speed because we’ll just keep giving it to them. We have to run faster.”

In the absence of the Japanese, the Canadians will still have their hands full with the new team of Minerva Fabienne Hase and Nikita Volodin, from Germany, the only other pairs combo with two gold medals on the Grand Prix circuit this season.

Also vying for the title are Italy’s Sara Conti and Niccolo Macii, double silver and defending bronze medallists.

Evolution in pairs skating has seen innovation in the core elements. “We have some uniqueness in our lifts that you’re not seeing from other teams because they’re extraordinarily difficult to do,” Stellato-Dudek told the Star after Wednesday practice in Beijing.

“Not only does the guy have to be a skilled lifter but the girl has to have very good balance as well. I think that you’re seeing creativity in death spirals, in pairs spin and in the choice of programs, what story you’re trying to tell on the ice.”

Revolutionary jumping however — rotations in the air — has in recent years relapsed from quad throws and quad twists to triples. Unlike quad-maddened singles skating, nobody is attempting them anymore in pairs, in large part because the technical base score and grade of execution points awarded are simply not worth the risk of moves that put tremendous stress on skaters’ ankles, knees and back, while also requiring intense practice at the expense of other training. In the past, only a handful of pairs teams managed clean quads in competition.

“Nobody wants to watch a splatfest for 10 teams in a row, falling on elements that maybe five of them shouldn’t even be trying,” says Stellato-Dudek. “But then in the same regard, it’s a lot of people doing similar things so it just becomes harder to set yourself apart. But the strong teams will always survive. Even if they brought back the quads, make the point value high enough in order to do them, I’m not so sure that the order of the teams you’re seeing at the top are going to change all that much.”

To that end, making their programs distinctive, Stellato-Dudek and Deschamps had been working with an on-ice acting coach twice a week to develop interpretive expression in their programs.

“The short is unique for us,” says Deschamps. “It brings a lot of energy. It’s a French song that we have used because the Worlds will be in Montreal, so it will be a tribute to Montreal and to the French. For the free, ‘Interview with a Vampire,’ we’re really working to be able to show character on the ice.”

The other Canadian team, Pereira and Michaud, are no slouches either, qualifying with a pair of silvers in just their second year together, making the cut for their first Grand Prix final. The couple is keeping pace with elite rivals, particularly in increasingly challenging side-byside jumps. Their long program, performed to the “Gladiator” soundtrack, features a side-by-side triple toe-double Axel-double-Axel sequence.

“It’s a big thing,” says Michaud, 27. “Before, it was an outlier to see anything more than a Salchow and a toe. Meagan and Eric set the precedent by doing side-by-side triple Lutzes. Some teams now are doing triple flips.”

For creative artistry, Pereira, 19, says the team has drawn inspiration from cutting edge ice dancers, particular Virtue and Moir. “When you watch their free program from the Olympics, any of the programs that they did, you feel an emotion, you’re so drawn into the performance. We want to push that for ourselves, have that same effect on other people. It’s what I love about figure skating, the mix of athleticism and artistry.”

Or they can just look across the practice ice in Beijing, where all the Canadian skaters were training together on Wednesday: Two pairs and three dance teams on the seniors slate, three dance duos contesting the juniors competition.

The dance contingent is, of course, led by Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, defending Grand Prix champions and reigning bronze world medallists. They’re joined by Canadian champions Laurence Fournier-Beaudry and Nikolaj Soerensen along with Marjorie Lajoie and Zachary Lagha. Both teams earned double-silver this season on the Grand Prix circuit.





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