Biechler and Dodge bring “untraditional” style to senior debut

Biechler and Dodge have been competing together since May of 2012.  After four seasons competing as juniors, they are moving up to compete as seniors for the first time.  Their best finish at nationals came last season when they placed 5th.  They had their best international season last year as well, earning a bronze medal at JGP Austria.  They had the opportunity to compete internationally this season, placing 4th at Lombardia Trophy.

How did you two pair up?

Dodge (DD): We paired up through ice partner search as well as through mutual connections between coaches.  Julia had seen my former partner (Cassandra Jeandell) and I at a competition and stopped to watch us because we spray painted our hair multiple colors for our program.  She remembered me because of this and as soon as she saw my name on partner search she reached out.  We had one tryout and I had basically decided I wanted to skate with her, even before having any other tryouts.  She had other prospects but luckily chose me.

How would you describe yourselves as a team?

We would describe ourselves as a unique and powerful team.  We have always tried to steer away from being “traditional” ice dancers and enjoy coming up with programs we feel show our personalities in some capacity or another.  As partners, we are up front with our expectations for ourselves and each other and this has allowed us to continue to work together without causing tension.  We are our own biggest critics and this helps us to continue moving forward to avoid complacency.

Tell me about yourselves outside of skating.

Biechler (JB): I’m currently a high school senior at Commonwealth Charter Academy (online school) and will be attending Wilmington University this fall.  I also have recently started coaching kids at the rink in Aston where we train.

I’m a senior at Drexel University with a major in health services administration and a minor in organizational management.  I coach most afternoons between our training and going to class.  My intermediate dance team, Olivia Sebastiani and Dillon Berry, are competing at nationals as well.  I also volunteer for the Crisis Text Line (741741), as a crisis counselor, to help those in imminent risk of harming themselves or others.  I try to volunteer for the Special Olympics, when time permits, because I have met some of the most amazing athletes through my time spent volunteering.

Tell me about your programs this season.

Our short dance is Why Don’t You Do Right from Who Framed Roger Rabbit with a swing remix of Tainted Love.  The overall theme is the wealthy male hoping for the attention of the attractive woman.  She continues to tease him until they start to have somewhat of a fling.  She goes for the money and he goes for the looks.

Our free is a program we both feel extremely passionate about.  Sia’s song is about a recurring negative thing and we decided to portray it as addiction.  Most people become addicted to something negative at some point in their lives.  Sometimes it’s love or money, or sometimes it can be drugs and alcohol.  Our goal is to try to show Julia’s struggle with the addiction and Damian’s strong support throughout.  Once she gets past the tough point, both can rejoice in the fact that she is “recovered.”

You won your first international medal last season at JGP Austria (a bronze).  What was it like to stand on an international podium?

JB: It was surreal.  I felt a huge amount of honor and pride to have been able to compete and win a bronze medal for our country internationally.  It was an overwhelming feeling being up there and knowing that what you have been working for and dreaming about is finally happening.

DD: It was amazing!  Being an “older team” has always been incredibly difficult and it seemed like we would never achieve our goals of being on Team USA, let alone medaling at a JGP.  Last season was our last year of age eligibility, and taking the bronze in Austria was the perfect cap to our Junior international career.

Both of you have active volunteer schedules.  Why is giving back so important to you?

DD: I love volunteering because I think it’s extremely important to give back whenever possible.  When I was growing up, with a single mother, many people helped us along the way and I will always remember how far little acts of kindness can go.  I also have learned so much about myself through giving back.  When helping with the Special Olympics, I’ve met some of the most down to earth athletes and it reminds me that sports are all about having fun and enjoying the act of competing as opposed to the results.  With my time volunteering for the Crisis Text Line, I’ve talked to people at, potentially, their lowest point in life and helped them to find the positives to realize their life is worth living. Having a person’s life essentially in the palm of my hand has shown me how valuable every day is and how just listening to a person can save their life.

Damian—you received the junior coach of the year award at your rink last year.  What do you like best about coaching and what do you think it has added to your own skating?

DD: Coaching has been such an eye-opening experience in my life.  I started teaching Learn to Skate when I was 13 and deciding coaching was something I’d never want to pursue.  Over time I started to realize how beneficial coaching was towards my own skating and how much passion I had towards helping others learn the sport I love.  The last few years I have started to coach almost as much as I skate, and my favorite thing is being able to help and watch skaters of all ages achieve their goals. There are many times I find myself telling students things I’ve been told by our coaches or judges in the past and I find myself having “aha” moments when it happens.  This, by far, has been the most valuable aspect towards my own skating because it helps me truly understand where my coaches are coming from when they make certain comments.

What are you looking forward to most skating as seniors at nationals for the first time?

We’re excited to be competing against some of the teams we’ve looked up to for most, if not all, of our skating careers.  It’s surreal to even be in the same event and we are looking forward to the learning experience this competition will provide for us.  It feels like we can relax a little and try to enjoy the event in order to learn as much as we can about being a senior US team.

You competed as seniors internationally for the first time at Lombardia Trophy.  What was that experience like?

It was surprisingly relaxed.  Although we were not completely satisfied with our performances, it was crazy to see how different the atmosphere is at a Challenger Series event than at a Junior Grand Prix.  Although it was still nerve-wracking and stressful to compete, especially as first time seniors, it was amazing to see the difference in attitude our competitors had.  It’s almost as though, in junior, everyone is so eager to gain the attention of everyone watching they let it control their skating, while in senior, the mindset is to focus on making the skating look so effortless that it forces people to watch.

You’ve traveled to a lot of European countries through skating.  What has been your favorite so far and why?

JB: Austria and Germany.  Both are such beautiful countries and everything was easy to get to once there. We also skated extremely well at both.

DD: Italy was my favorite so far for several reasons.  This was the first competition we’ve had where we had multiple days of “sightseeing time.”  In most of the other countries we’ve been to, we had one good day of sightseeing, and usually a few hours here and there throughout the week.  Slovenia was also one of my favorites because it was the first place in Europe I had ever been.

Julia—you still compete in singles skating, winning South Atlantic Regionals and finishing 6th at Eastern Sectionals in the junior ladies division.  What do you like best about singles skating?  How do you balance the training since it is a different skill set from ice dance?

JB: I love jumping, spinning, and being able to have the freedom to express myself out on the ice.  Both disciplines complement each other more than people realize.  Dance helps freestyle with footwork, edges, and everything that has to do with the components side.  It helps me be graceful.  Freestyle helps dance with lifts, spins, and even things like the one foot part of a step sequence.  It helps me be able to hold my own while skating with Damian.

Have you made any changes to your programs for nationals?

After Lombardia, we essentially scrapped all choreography in both programs, and decided to keep only the few things we felt had potential to bring the programs where they needed to be.  Sectionals helped to show us we were on the right path and we have made several small changes since.  Most of our changes have been a result of working with Galit Chait on improving our technical skating and we have worked to improve our step sequences especially.

What are your goals for nationals? For next season?

Our main goal for nationals is to stay as relaxed as possible in order to show the work we have put in this season.  We tend to stray from setting numerical goals because they do not necessarily help motivate us in preparing for competitions.  When focusing on a score, or placement, we’d like to achieve, it takes the focus away from our own skating and does not provide us with the necessary steps needed to advance our skating.  Also, as mentioned, our goal for nationals is to use it as a learning tool towards the coming seasons.  Our goals for next season are to improve on our overall finesse and look on the ice.  There are times we still feel we don’t quite look like a senior team yet and are eager to continue developing our basic skating skills.

Is there anything else you want people to know?

We’re excited to compete our first senior nationals and appreciate all the support we’ve received the last few seasons.  Skating has opened up the world to us and are we are extremely grateful for the opportunities we’ve been given while being optimistic toward more to come.  You can follow us at:

Facebook: facebook.com/teamJBDD

Instagram: @j_biechler and @tazdamiandevil

Twitter: @JuliaBiechler and @TazDamian_Devil

Bautista perseveres to earn her place in Kansas City

Photo Credit: KR Photographs Dress by Gail Johnson

Maxine Bautista made a big splash on the national scene when she won the Juvenile Silver medal in 2013.

She followed that up with an Intermediate Silver medal in 2015 and is competing as a junior for the first time in Kansas City.  She won the silver medal at Upper Great Lakes Regionals and the pewter at Midwestern Sectionals to qualify for nationals.

She is now 15 and represents the DuPage Figure Skating Club, training near her hometown in the Chicago suburbs.  She has made it through some difficult setbacks, including failing to qualify for nationals last season, but has come out stronger on the other side.

How did you get involved with skating?

My parents wanted me to get involved in different activities because I was so shy.  I started with dancing,  then swimming, until I saw this flyer from a nearby rink.  I told my parents I want to try it and that’s how I got involved.

How would you describe yourself as a skater?

As a skater, I think I’m graceful and elegant.

Tell me about yourself outside of skating.

Outside of skating, I’m a typical teenager.  I do my homework during breaks from practices, go out with friends for movies, eat out, and attend parties. My other hobbies are coloring/painting and making origami.

Photo Credit: KR Photographs Dress by Gail Johnson

Tell me about your programs this season.

My short program is called Caravan.  It’s fun and jazzy.  My long program is called Clouds, the Mind on the Re(Wind) and Rain in Your Black Eyes.  It is a modern one.

What is the most difficult element for you in your programs? What is your favorite element to complete?

The most difficult element for me is the triple lutz while my favorite element to do is the triple toe.

You had one of the strongest novice performances of the season last year at regionals, but struggled at sectionals and didn’t qualify for nationals.  What did you learn from that experience?

I learned that my skating journey did not stop there.  It was a difficult experience but life has to go on.

You had to come from behind at sectionals this year to qualify for nationals.  Do you prefer to be the front runner or the underdog?

I prefer to be the underdog because it is less pressure.

You’ve won two national medals, one at the juvenile level and one at the intermediate level.  How were those experiences different?  What did you take away from both of those successes?

The experiences were different.  When I was in juvenile, it was the first time USFSA adapted the juveniles going to sectionals then nationals. I was young and having fun.  I did not feel any pressure yet.  During my intermediate nationals, I was 7th in the short program and skated a clean long program to claim the 2nd place spot.  I achieved these successes by determination, not giving up, and enjoying what I love to do.

Photo Credit: KR Photographs

What has been the biggest difference preparing to compete as a junior this season?

The biggest difference preparing to compete as a junior this season is skating more maturely and incorporating harder elements.

Have you made any changes to your programs for nationals?

I did not make any major changes in my programs.

What are your goals for nationals? For next season?

My goals for nationals are to be able to deliver my programs the way I am capable and the best that I could possibly do. For next season, I hope to be more consistent in executing all my triple jumps and combination jumps.

Is there anything else you want people to know?

I used to do dance/ballet and perform in the Nutcracker.  My favorite part to play was Chinese.

Cain and LeDuc find perfect timing on and off the ice

If you’ve followed pairs skating over the last few years, you’re familiar with the names Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc.  Both have been missing from the pairs circuit for a while, but a chance phone call have brought these two to their first nationals together as a team.

Cain is an experienced singles skater, competing on the Grand Prix in senior ladies and winning a silver medal in the junior level at Nationals.  She is also a former US Junior Pairs Champion, finishing as high as 4th at Junior Worlds and competed on the Grand Prix.  LeDuc is a bronze medal winner in the junior level at Nationals in pairs and competed in the senior level until 2014.

They have some ambitious content for a first year team, including a triple twist in both programs and they have the most difficult side by side jump combination in the pairs event with a double axel + single loop + triple salchow.

They competed three times on the Challenger Series circuit and even took home the bronze medal from Golden Spin.  They’ve beaten out some tough competition, including 2015 US Silver Medalists Denney and Frazier at Golden Spin and 2016 US Champions Kayne and O’Shea at Finlandia Trophy.  They are in the conversation for the podium at Kansas City and could even be considered a dark horse to win it all.

How did you two pair up this season?

LeDuc (TL): I spent the last two years performing in ice shows aboard Royal Caribbean Cruise Ships, and after my contract finished in March I decided to return to competitive skating.  I contacted Mitch Moyer (USFSA High Performance Director) and he suggested that I tryout with Ashley.

Cain (AC): I received a call from Mitch Moyer while I was on the ice training one day.  He said that Timothy was coming back to competitive skating and he felt that we would be a good match.  After that everything happened so quickly and by the next week Timothy had moved to Dallas and we got to work.

Ashley—in 2013 you were focusing on your singles career but said that you hadn’t ruled out competing in pairs in the future.  What made you decide that now was the time to return to pairs?

AC: Many people thought that when Josh [Reagan] and I split up, it was because I was going to focus on my singles career. This was not the case, and when we split I felt a little lost.  I relied on myself and focused on my singles career.  I missed pairs but I was becoming a successful singles skater nationally and internationally. When I got the call from Mitch it was completely unexpected and I knew it would be a big commitment and decision in my career.  I was also unsure if my body could do it but the thought of doing pairs again sparked a huge excitement in me.  I feel like Timothy came into my life at the perfect time.  We both have the same goals and we enjoy what we are doing.

Timothy—you haven’t competed at nationals since 2014 and have been involved in show skating.  What made you decide you wanted to compete again?

TL: Good question.  After the 2014 season, I was pretty burned out and lacking the necessary funds to continue training.  I still loved skating though and found a way to save up money for training while still doing what I loved.  Show skating is so much fun and I think every skater should pursue it at some point in their career.  I had a blast on ships and now I’m very happy to be competing again with Ashley.

How would you describe yourselves as a team?

Though it’s our first year, we are trying to make our mark in American pairs by using our height and long lines to set us apart. We are also pushing ourselves technically by trying harder side-by-side jumps. 

Tell me about yourselves outside of skating.

TL: I’m still adjusting to my new life on land and in Texas, so I mostly just skate and coach right now. 

AC: Because we are gearing up for Nationals, all of my time has been dedicated to the ice, off ice training, and my off ice recovery.  After skating I coach for about 2 hours every other day.  When I have more free time I like to go out to my boyfriend’s ranch and ride dirt bikes, horses, four wheelers, and just relax. I like to go hiking, watch Netflix, cook, and play with my puppy.

Tell me about your programs this season.

Both of our programs were choreographed by Serge Onik, from Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance.  Our short program was designed to showcase our sassy and fierce side while our free skate is a display of our lyrical and effervescent style.

What is the most difficult element for you in your programs? What is your favorite element to complete?

Our most challenging element comes at the beginning of our programs: the triple twist.  It is a new element for us and we have been working hard on it.  It’s an element that we feel will improve a lot in the off season but right now we our increasing the consistency of it in the program and working on a cleaner catch.  Our favorite element is the footwork in our short program because we can let loose and be as fierce as we want.

You both have competed at nationals as singles skaters and medaled in pairs with previous partners.  Do you think that experience helps you headed in to nationals even though you’re a new team?

This is only our sixth competition and our sixth month together so we are keeping in mind that we are a very new team.  Synergy is such an important part of pair skating and we’ve been fortunate to develop a great deal of it in a short amount of time, and I think our prior experiences have assisted with that greatly.

You had the chance to compete at three Challenger Series events this year, and won the bronze medal at Golden Spin.  How did your partnership and programs grow through those three events?

Each competition bears a chance to gain experience as a team, and we took our experiences each time we competed to help us do better the next time.  We learned how to compete together quickly because we had so many competitions so early in our partnership.  We also put new elements out every competition so we constantly had a new trick to focus on.  A new partnership has so many challenges to work out that you have to triage the workload, but at each competition our speed, consistency, relation to each other and endurance improved.

Were you surprised at how successful you’ve been as a team given that your partnership is still so new?

We have many years of prior pair experience between us so we haven’t been surprised that our skating has come along as quickly as it has.  We have been very pleased and grateful with the number of international competitions that USFS has given us this season.

Have you made any changes to your programs for nationals?

We plan to attempt the same technical elements as we did in The Golden Spin of Zagreb, however we’ve made tweaks to our choreography to better display our strengths and our relation to each other.

What are your goals for nationals? For next season?

We’ve made great strides forward at each competition this season so we would like to continue that trend. We are keeping our focus on ourselves and our own personal goals as a team without too much focus on results.

Is there anything else you want people to know?

We have a really great team of skaters to train with in Texas.  We train with Alex Krasnozhon (junior men’s), Amber Glenn (senior ladies) and Brooklee Han (senior ladies, Australia).  We have a great vibe in our rink, everyone is really positive and makes a great effort to support and push each other.  It has really helped all of us progress quickly because we are all so supportive.  We also have a great team of coaches: Peter and Darlene Cain, Pierre Panayi (stroking), Serge Onik (choreographer), Michael Leeke (video analysis), Denyse Frey (costume designer), and Carly and Eric Pierce (our PTs).

Kansas City part of the big picture for Pfund and Santillan

Jessica Pfund and Joshua Santillan have each had successful pairs careers.  She finished as high as 5th in juniors and 10th in seniors at the US Championships with A.J. Reiss.  With Reiss she competed at two Junior Grand Prix events, placing 5th at JGP USA in 2012.  Santillan previously competed with Olivia Oltmanns with whom he placed as high as 6th in juniors and 11th in seniors at US Nationals.   They competed in four Junior Grand Prix events, finishing 7th at JGP Latvia in 2011.

When their partnerships ended, these two teamed up in 2015.  They quickly earned an assignment to the Skate Canada Autumn Classic last season where they won bronze and were a last minute replacement at Skate America where they finished 8th.  This season they competed at Cup of China, where they again finished 8th and at Lombardia Trophy where they finished 4th.  In their nationals debut as a team, they placed 7th last season.

With their long lines, ease on the ice, and big throw triples, this is definitely an up and coming team who are looking for long term success.

How did you two pair up? 

After the US Championships in Greensboro in 2015, Josh split with his previous partner and we scheduled a tryout.  Following a successful tryout in Florida, we had a second tryout in Colorado Springs, Josh’s old training base, and decided we were a perfect match.

What made you choose Florida to train?

Jessica moved here to Florida to train because of the high level of success that has come from the school in Ellenton.  Although it was a tough decision for Josh to move, it was easy to choose Jessica as a partner.

How would you describe yourselves as a team?

We work well together because our skills complement each other.  Jessica is a positive force that balances Josh’s perfectionist attitude.  We stay organized and prepared so that we can take whatever is thrown our way.  These complementary attitudes help us gel and work together.

Tell me about yourselves outside of skating?

Pfund (JP): At the end of the skating day I like to come home and unwind.  I’m currently in online school and when I’m not busy burying my face in books, I like to go to the beach, play with my dog, and spend time with friends and family.

Santillan (JS): Right now I’m working on my business degree, with a minor in information systems management.  I also wait tables at a local seafood restaurant.  My interests include sports and comedy.  I really like basketball and if I ever have the opportunity, you’re sure to find me on the court.

Josh – one of your favorite teams was the St. Louis Rams, do you still root for them now that they’re in L.A.?

JS: I’m sad to say that yes, I do root for them.  The team has a recent history of losing and they haven’t had a winning record or made the playoffs in over a decade.  Still, I have always rooted them because of their roots in L.A.  I’m from southern California and we never had a football team while I was growing up, but we did have the Rams that were historically from LA.  Their move back just solidified my fandom and I hope one day they can become relevant again.

Tell me about your programs this season.

For our short program we skate to Purple Rain.  We use Prince’s original version, mixed with one that we found from a contestant from X-Factor.  While some people are skating to Prince this year as a tribute, we actually chose this music before his death.  Jessica took fondly to his artistic style after watching the movie Purple Rain.  This year we had our short choreographed by Emilie Connors.  Emilie has previously competed in both dance and pairs.  She competed both domestically and internationally, representing Team USA.  It was a different experience having choreography from someone in a dance background, and we feel that it has helped us grow as a team and experiment with different choreography.  We really feel like the music builds along with the choreography and we’re excited at the growth it shows in us this season.

For the free skate we chose Madonna’s version of Don’t Cry for Me Argentina from Evita.  Compared to last year’s free skate to Polovstian Dances, we really feel like this music is easy for us to relate to.  Lyndon, our head coach, did the choreography.  It was nice having the choreography done by our primary coach because he understands our skills and what we like.  Nonetheless, he wasn’t scared to take us out of our comfort zone and challenge us.  Still, it was great that we were able to have so much input while the program was created.  Because we took a part in the creation, we have a deep sense of ownership and feel like we have a strong connection with the choreography, interpretation, and the music in general.  We are really excited to show how far we’ve come this year with our programs.

What is the most difficult element for you in your programs?

The great part about our programs is that we don’t really have anything in it that we consider difficult.  The triple twist isn’t ready yet, so it isn’t in the program; otherwise that might be the hardest element for us.  Getting through a program with elements we are completely comfortable with is still a challenge, but there isn’t one we would single out as difficult on its own whatsoever.

What is your favorite element to complete?

JP: I like throw triple salchow because I feel really comfortable with it and I am usually able to execute it with ease.

JS: I like triple salchow because it’s an element we typically perform well and is within our comfort zone.  The closeness and unison we have on this element I feel is unmatched in the whole world and I’m proud of that.

 

You earned international assignments pretty early into your partnership. Were you surprised with how quickly you gelled as a team and the success you had right off the bat?

We wouldn’t really describe our quick success as surprising.  From our first tryout, we knew that we had a lot of capabilities.  Still, it was a big surprise to receive a Grand Prix assignment our first year together.  Although our results haven’t quite risen in the same manner they did last year, we can see how much we’ve developed and how far we’ve come in our second season.

You competed at Cup of China this season. How was it different competing on the Grand Prix as a second year team?

Competing at Skate America last year was really cool because we got to perform in front of a home crowd.  However, it was an awesome experience to go overseas and perform for enthusiastic fans in Beijing.  China is home to a history of recent pair greats and it was an honor to meet Hongbo Zhao while we were there.  Since we are still relatively unknown on the international scene, it is nice to compete with little to no pressure at these Grand Prix events.  Hopefully in the future we can move up in rankings and compete for the podium on the Grand Prix.

As a team, you have one of the most intense schedules in the sport, balancing school, full time jobs and training. How do you find time to make it all work?

Well, Josh is the only one of us who works full time.  Jessica works at the rink teaching learn to skate classes, but not full time.  This year is the first that Josh has moved to full time credit hours in school, because of scholarships he received, which has proven to be burdensome.  However, thanks to some funding we’ve been able to acquire, Josh has toned down the working hours just a little bit so that he can make time for school and skating.  Staying busy keeps our minds sharp and almost gives us an advantage at competitions; if we can train while working all the time and doing school work, we can certainly compete with none of that on our minds.

You’ve talked before about the difficulties with finding funding to advance your training. I often find that the steep financial costs of skating is an issue that doesn’t get discussed. Why do you think that is? What does it mean to you that you’ve been so successful with less resources?

The financial side of skating doesn’t get discussed often because everybody has to deal with it.  Having high expenses in our sport is not unique and we’re certainly not the only ones in this position.  Since we’ve reached our level of success with less resources than others, we feel like once we’ve acquired more resources that we’ll be able to soar to even further heights.  One of our short-term goals is to get into Team B for USFSA’s funding.  This would allow us to receive what is known as PET funding from the International Olympic Committee.  Although this wouldn’t solve all of our problems, or fund our skating completely, it would ease our responsibilities.  The clearest path to this is to place top 5 at the US Championships.  Whether that happens this season or in another season, we feel like this can help guide us higher in rankings and further our skills.

Have you made any changes to your programs for nationals?

We’ve adjusted some of our transitions, mostly in the free program, to make our elements a little easier and more comfortable.  The biggest change we’ve made is that we changed our opening jump from a three-jump triple toe combination to just a plain triple toe.  While this moves our combination to the second half in the form of a triple salchow + double toe combo, it helps us relax and makes the opening of our program much less of a challenge than it was before.  We feel like if we can open with a strong set of side by side solo triples that we can set the tone for a great program.

What are your goals for nationals? For next season?

First and foremost, we don’t allow ourselves to make placement based goals.  We can only affect our own skating and if we skate perfectly and we get last place, we’ll still be very happy with our performance.  Almost anything we do in the free program will be better than what we did last year.  Even at Cup of China where we took three falls and had no value for our death spiral, we scored 95 points.  100+ in the freeskate is easily attainable and it’s well within our range.  Ultimately, we want to show the progress that we’ve made this year and how much our interpretation and leveled elements have improved from last season.

We haven’t sat down and made goals for next season, but we know that getting a Grand Prix event will be more difficult next year because we didn’t put out a good season’s best mark this year.  With that being said, we want to skate well in the summer so that we can be considered for Skate America and perform well at any Senior B’s we receive so that we can be put in the pool for a potential replacement pick.  Our goals aren’t year to year and it’s incredibly narrowminded to treat each season separately.  Instead, we treat each season as a part of our overall career that hopefully ends in Olympic glory.  Just as how we do at nationals doesn’t define our whole season (after all, we had a great season last year, despite a poor showing at nationals), one season doesn’t define our career.  We’re looking at the bigger picture and the constant state of improvement is the only path we desire to go down.

Is there anything else you want people to know?

Together we’ve made our own website, www.Joshica.net.  We keep it updated with videos and any pertinent information to upcoming events.  It was a lot of work to put it together, but we’re really pleased with how it looks.  We’ve also been keeping a blog on the site that we post on just about every month, so it’s a great outlet for skating fans to keep up with us.  We also have created a Gofundme; www.gofundme.com/joshica.  While it would be in the best interest of those who are so kind to contribute to us to use the New England Amateur Skating Foundation that we have posted on our website (http://joshica.net/supportus.html), it’s undeniably easier and more convenient to use Gofundme.  Hopefully our skating can be fully funded in the future, so that we can focus our efforts more wholly on skating and not worry about some of the other stuff that gets in the way.  It’s amazing how many people have already shown an interest in our skating and we hope that our performance at the US Championships will help us reach even more people and gain new fans.  It’s such an awesome feeling to perform in front of people who are rooting for us and truly appreciate the art that we are painting on the canvas of blank ice.

 

Paganini balances elegance with technical prowess in podium push

Alexia Paganini is a 15 year old skater who has been steadily climbing the US figure skating ranks.  Her first trip to nationals was actually in juvenile ice dance where she finished 11th in 2012.  She first started achieving success in singles in 2013 when she finished 14th as a juvenile skater at her regional competition.  The following year, she won the silver medal as an intermediate.  In 2015, she moved up to the novice level and placed 8th overall and last season she won the novice silver medal.

Her performance at nationals earned her an international assignment to the Gardena Spring Trophy where she won gold as a junior.  She competed this season at Junior Grand Prix France where she placed 6th.  She won gold at Eastern Sectionals to qualify to compete in Kansas City.  She has difficult content including triple lutz + triple toes and triple salchow + single loop + triple salchow combinations.

While the Kansas City Ballet has recently ended their run of the Nutcracker, Clara returns for an encore with Paganini’s performance.  This season she has focused on the artistic side of her skating to develop the full package and hopefully, earn her third career national medal.

How did you get involved with skating?

I got involved with skating when I was very young because my older brother skated and once I tried it I instantly loved it!

How would you describe yourself as a skater?

I would describe myself as an elegant skater.

Tell me about yourself outside of skating.

Outside of skating I’m a more relaxed person.  I like to laugh a lot and socialize.

Tell me about your programs this season. 

My short program is “On Golden Pond” and I leave the storyline open to interpretation by the audience.

Do you have a story or particular character you are portraying in your Nutcracker free skate?

In my program, I’m Clara going on the journey with her favorite toy the Nutcracker.

What is the most difficult element for you in your programs? What is your favorite element to complete?

The most difficult element in my programs right now is my triple lutz + triple toeloop because a lot depends on it, but my favorite element to perform is the double axel because it’s a more natural jump for me.

You’ve mentioned that you would like to be a technical specialist one day.  What draws you to that particular aspect of skating?

I like the technical side of skating because it’s interesting and it’s not based as much on opinions but more on facts.  I also think that it would be cool to travel to the prestigious figure skating events and meet other top athletes.

What lessons did you take away from winning the silver medal last year as a novice?  

I learned that I have potential as an athlete.

Do you feel any additional pressure being a reigning medal winner and moving up to the junior level?

No, because different things are happening in skating all of the time.  I just want to focus on doing my best.

Your first international assignment came last season to the Gardena Trophy where you won the gold medal.  What was that experience like?

That experience for me was very new.  I really enjoyed representing my country on a different continent and traveling to Italy.  It was really fun traveling with a “team” and competing with people from around the world.

You made your Junior Grand Prix debut in France where you finished 6th.  How was that experience different from Italy?  What lessons did you learn?

The atmosphere was definitely more intense in France at the competition.  It helped me to learn that I still have a lot of work to do in skating.

You used to compete in ice dance.  Do you think that gives you an advantage in your singles skating?

Yes, I think it really helped with my skating skills and expression, although those both still could be improved.

A lot of the jumps in your program were also in your programs last season.  However, your program components are much higher this year.  What other upgrades have you made as you made the transition to the junior level?

This season that [program components] was one of our main focuses.  In order to do that, we worked on my choreography in depth and how it connected my elements.

Have you made any changes to your programs for nationals?

No, everything has been kept the same.

What are your goals for nationals? For next season?

My goals for nationals are to skate the best I can, and possibly medal.  Based on my results, I will develop my goals for next season, but ultimately I would like to compete on the Junior Grand Prix circuit again, and do well enough to compete in two different ones.

Is there anything else you want people to know?

I want people to know that if you work hard and try your best you will get results eventually.

Huang making history in home state

Photo Credit St. Peters Figure Skating Association

You likely haven’t heard of the St. Peters Figure Skating Association.  St. Peters is situated about 30 minutes outside St. Louis, Missouri and only 3.5 hours from Kansas City.  Angelina Huang became the first solo skater from that club to compete at sectionals and the first to qualify for nationals just two seasons ago.  She just missed the podium in 2015, finishing 5th in juvenile.  She is the reigning Intermediate Ladies Pewter Medalist.  She won gold at Upper Great Lakes Regionals and pewter at Midwestern Sectionals to qualify to compete in Kansas City as a novice.

With a diverse background, upgraded spins and jumps and a mental toughness earned last season, Huang will attempt to make history and make the podium again in her home state.

 

How did you get involved with skating?

My parents let me try every sport when I was young and I fell in love with figure skating.

How would you describe yourself as a skater?
I am determined no matter what the outcome is.
 
Tell me about yourself outside of skating.
I’m an online student in 10th grade. I love hanging out with my friends and reading books during my free time.

Photo Credit St. Peters Figure Skating Association

Tell me about your programs this season.

My short program music is a jazzy piece from ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’.  It’s fun and entertaining, and I really enjoy skating to it.  I selected music from ‘Kung Fu Panda 3’ for my freeskate.  There are definitely harder elements in this program, and it’s quite challenging.
What is the most difficult element for you in your programs? What is your favorite element to complete?
For my short program, my hardest element isn’t a technical element.  It’s being able to perform and get the judges and audience into my program.  I love it when I see the rare smile on the judges’ faces.  In my freeskate, my 3Lz + 1L + 3S is a struggle for me.  I always feel accomplished even if the rest of the program wasn’t so great.
Most of the other ladies competing in novice ladies come from clubs with a lot of name recognition.  You were the first solo skater to even qualify for sectionals from your club.  What is like to be a trailblazer for the St. Peters Figure Skating Association?
It’s a big honor. My rink was mainly an ISI rink when I started skating.  Only a handful of skaters did USFSA.  My first coach told me to try it out, and when I was nine, I participated in my first USFSA competition.  Today, we have so many new USFSA participants.  I’m happy that I helped my club and rink grow.  I hope I continue to inspire many in my club and rink.
What advice would you give to skaters who come from clubs that haven’t historically sent skaters to nationals?
You don’t have to be from a big club with a big name to be good.  Take pride in representing your club.  You are making history in and for your club.
Tell me about your club and coaches and how they’ve helped get you to where you are today.

Photo Credit St. Peters Figure Skating Association

First of all, big shoutout to one of my coaches, Kelsey Himmel.  She’s played a big part with getting through my mental struggles.  She has the experience of competing herself, and knows what we go through.  I have been training part time in Colorado Springs with Damon Allen and Christine Krall.  Though I just started with them a few weeks before this season’s regionals, they have helped me improve in such a short time.  I thank my club, SPFSA, for their love and support.  They are always checking up on me, and they care about my status.  I am so happy to be representing them.
 
What are you looking forward to most about having nationals in your home state?
It’s comforting to know that you’re so close to home.  I know some of my friends will be there to cheer me on.  I’m excited that I was able to make it to this nationals because it’s in my home state.
 
You claimed your first national medal last season, finishing 4th as an intermediate.  What was that experience like?
I was really nervous, and I believe because of that, I wasn’t able to perform my best in my short. Unfortunately, I ended up in a disappointing tenth.  Afterwards I wasn’t so nervous.  I felt like I had no chance of making it on the podium.  I told myself that I had nothing to lose.  Right before I got in the ice for my free skate, I told my coaches, “I’ve got this. I just want to enjoy myself out there. I’ll be happy no matter what when I hit my ending pose.”  And because of that attitude going into the free skate, I was able to skate a clean program and place second in the free skate.  My takeaway from last season’s nationals is not to worry about the result, but to skate in the present like it was your last chance to shine.
 
Your performance at nationals last year earned you an invite to the US Challenge Skate where you won bronze as a novice.  What did you learn from that competition?
The seminars were wonderful.  I took back with me a lot of new information from that competition.  The seminars brought you closer to your competitors.  It made me look at them as my friends, and not as a competitor/enemy.  The whole camp is a great experience.
 

Photo Credit St. Peters Figure Skating Association

Your dance training is very diverse.  Do you feel that opens up more avenues for you as a skater?

I’ve been dancing since I was four.  I did ballet, jazz, tap, hip hop, contemporary, modern, and freestyle.  It really helps me to feel the music.  This year I selected two very different pieces.  One is jazz and the other one is Chinese/Kung Fu.  The previous season I chose a Spanish piece and a softer, more delicate piece.  It helps me show that I am capable of skating to different types of music.  I always try to pick music that people haven’t heard on the ice, or uncommon skating music.  That way I create something new for the judges to hear and watch.
 
Have you made any changes to your programs for nationals?
Yes. I’ve added more difficult jumps to my free skate. In addition, I’ve created and rearranged my spins to help me with Level 4s.
 
What are your goals for nationals? For next season?
My goal for nationals is just to do my best.  This whole season has been really rough.  I went through a lot of changes, so I wasn’t expecting to do very well.  I’m very happy to have made it to nationals, and get another chance to prove myself as a skater.  For next season, I would like to get my triple + triple combinations consistent, and to improve my PCS.

Wellman brings full package to Kansas City

Photo Credit: Pro Event Photo

Alex Wellman comes from a town in Illinois about halfway between Chicago and St. Louis.  While many might think that central Illinois wouldn’t be a hot spot for figure skating, several top skaters have come out of this area, including reigning US Ladies Champ Gracie Gold.  This high school student is making a name for himself on the national figure skating scene with his third trip to U.S. Nationals.  He is the reigning Intermediate Silver Medalist and will be competing as a novice for the first time in his career.  He took home the bronze at Upper Great Lakes Regionals but won gold at Midwestern Sectionals to earn his spot in Kansas City.

He already has one of the highest jump base values in the novice men’s competition along with some of the highest program component scores.  With a few updates to his program content and the ability to take advantage of the one point bonus offered to novices for triple + triple combinations and a variety of triple jumps, this is definitely one skater to watch for the medal stand.

How did you get involved with skating?

Before I started skating, I tried every other sport in my city.  After not enjoying any of them, my parents saw an advertisement in the newspaper for Learn to Skate and signed me up.  I loved skating from the first class I took at age 8.

How would you describe yourself as a skater?

I would like to think of myself as an all around skater.  I started skating loving the technical aspects, but I have learned to love the artistic side as well.

Tell me about yourself outside of skating.

Outside of skating, I enjoy hanging out with friends and traveling.  I’m in 11th grade at Bloomington High School with some of my course load online.  When I can, I love trying new foods and experiencing new places.

Photo Credit: Pro Event Photo

Tell me about your programs this season.

My programs this season, I think, embody my skating styles while challenging me artistically and technically.  My short program music to Schindler’s List emphasizes my skating style, making it more comfortable to complete my difficult elements. My long program to Les Misérables is challenging technically and artistically but I have grown to love it.

What is the most difficult element for you in your programs? 

My most difficult element in both of my programs is my triple Lutz + triple toe combination.

What is your favorite element to complete?

My favorite element is the triple lutz.

You’ve talked about the mental block that you faced in developing the triple jumps.  Now your program includes the most difficult triples including the lutz and the flip.  How did you make that breakthrough?

Once I started with an off-ice trainer my strength began to improve.  With the new strength I was able to have more speed and height going into the jump which improved my confidence.  My coach and I reworked my arm technique to improve rotational speed which also helped.

As part of your off-ice training, you take dance lessons.  What has that brought to your skating?

I think it has brought an elegance and ease to my skating.  The lessons have helped me understand how to embody the music and perform it, instead of just skating to it.

You took home the silver medal as an intermediate last season. What did that experience teach you?

That experience taught me to be mentally tough.  I felt my jumps were shaky.  While at the competition, I decided that it wasn’t worth fighting myself, and I let the jumps happen.  Nationals also taught me to never give up in the program; fight for every point and skate until the final note of music.

One of the young skaters at your club has listed you as her favorite skater. What does it mean to you to be a role model for local skaters?

It means a lot.  To me, being their role model is a great way to help everyone at the rink.  Being a role model to them is an honor.

Photo Credit: Pro Event Photo

Have you made any changes to your programs for nationals?

Yes. My program now includes a triple + triple in both the long and short programs.  I also added a triple flip-double toe-double axel combination.

What are your goals for nationals? For next season?

I want to podium and would love to win.  For next season I would love to be placed on the International Selection Pool and start the next phase in my skating career.  Maybe even represent the USA at a competition, who knows.

Is there anything else you want people to know? 

I want people to know I love skating and will not give up until I reach my goals!

Pogrebinsky and Benoit bring beauty, strength, and passion to their senior debut

Elliana Pogrebinsky and Alex Benoit teamed up in the spring of 2014.  They saw immediate success as a team, claiming the bronze medal at US Nationals as juniors less than a year after their partnership began.  They are also the reigning US Junior Bronze Medalists.  Their international credits include a bronze medal at JGP Spain in 2015 and a 4th place finish at Junior Worlds last season.  The team is based in Novi, Michigan and trains in Igor Shpilband’s renowned camp.

They moved up to seniors this season and earned a 7th place finish at Skate America and a 6th place finish at Rostlecom Cup, in addition to a 4th place finish at Nebelhorn Trophy and a bronze medal at Tallinn Trophy.  They earned personal bests in all segments of competition at Tallinn Trophy, and have the 17th best total score of the season internationally for juniors and seniors.

In addition to their competition demands (they flew a whopping 32,000 miles this season already) and daily training regimen, they both are attending college and find the time to give back through various volunteer work.

They are an incredibly warm and likable team on the ice (just check out their Elvis Presley themed short dance) and those same attributes can be used to describe them off the ice as well.  There’s a level of openness and honesty that makes their skating accessible, even to people who are not knowledgeable about the intricacies of ice dancing.  Behind that, there is a wealth of thought and detail put into their choreography and the nuances give way to a different experience for the audience with each performance.  If you haven’t seen Ellie and Alex skate yet, you’ll definitely be a fan after Kansas City!

How would you describe yourselves as a team?

Wow!  You started off with the difficult questions!  Currently in the discipline, many of the teams are artistically similar to one another, embracing the soft, lyrical, yet emotionally detached programs which are the trend of the moment.  In contrast, we feel that we are a unique team and that our strength lies in creating a classic beauty with underlying sophisticated power, and a genuine, palpable chemistry on the ice.  Obviously, we are a physically large team and that allows us to utilize our leg length not only for line, but for speed and ice coverage, too.  Coupled with Ellie’s love of dramatically intense programs, along with Alex’s theatre background, we are fortunate to be able to change up our program concepts each year, while still delivering a performance that can touch the spectator with a mix of emotions.  It has been fun for us to play the angel or the devil or the temptress or the rockstar and hopefully entertain the audience as well!  If we were forced to be succinct, we would describe ourselves with these six words: classic beauty, contemporary strength, palpable passion.


Tell me about yourselves outside of skating.

Pogrebinsky (EP):  I am a very artistic person and love photography.  I also enjoy drawing, painting, and playing the guitar.  Recently, I started cooking and baking, and after some experimentation with easy recipes, I’m now starting to feel natural in the kitchen and have enjoyed creating my own dinner and dessert ideas.  Another big part of me is my love for animals. In addition to donating to a local shelter, I will be volunteering there after Nationals. At various times in my life, I’ve had a dog, hamsters, a gerbil, and have a guinea pig. Recently, I adopted a 9-month-old cat (Tux) from the shelter, and he has been a wonderful addition to our family!  In my free time, you can almost always find me hanging with my pets and laughing at all the silly things they do. 

Benoit (AB): I love spending time with friends, researching fast cars, hiking outdoors, or enjoying film and other pop culture.  I also spend my free time creating ……whether it is writing, photography, art …. Which ultimately helps me to figure out who I am as a person.

Tell me about your programs this seson. 

Our short dance  (“Trouble” by Elvis Presley) is a story told from two perspectives, as a rock star (the King) interacts with one of his adoring fans.  Initially, the King is full of bravado, bragging about his bad boy persona while the fangirl is swooning.  But her persistence and cuteness ultimately win him over, and while he insists that he’s trouble, they end the dance together.  Fabian Bourzat and Rohene Ward both had significant roles in this program, and it has been a fun process to bring this story and these roles to life.


Our free dance tells the Persian legend of Layla’s temptation of Majn
un, using classical and contemporary music.  In our story, the beautiful Layla tempts Majnun to the edge of insanity, since he is prohibited from marrying her. The element placement and choreography is fascinating in this program, because the intention is to draw the spectator (along with Majnun), through the temptation (represented by the sinuous, fluid curves and elements of the first two minutes) to the brink of insanity (skated with tight, complex curves, rotational elements and increasing tempo from the twizzles through the end of the program).  The ending pose of the program is intentionally ambiguous, to let the spectator decide whether Majnun gets Layla or loses her.  We have absolutely fallen in love with this program — the music is mesmerizingly seductive, and it allows Ellie to have fun being provocative and little bit bad, all at the same time!

What made you decide to move up to compete as seniors this season?

We made the decision to forego our last year of junior eligibility and move up to senior, because we (our coaching team, our parents, and us) felt that we could benefit from the move.  We had finished our 2016 season with a very successful World Junior Championships in Hungary, and when we had our post-season team meeting, the question was asked whether we would grow as a team more from remaining junior or from challenging ourselves as seniors.  The two of us were very intrigued with the prospect of moving up, although we knew that we would likely be turning down an opportunity to compete at the Junior Grand Prix Final.  It was ultimately decided that moving up would be the better challenge, Igor approached US Figure Skating about the move, and they were supportive of the request.

You were assigned to two Grand Prix events this year.  How was that experience compared to the Junior Grand Prix circuit?

It was exhilarating to take the ice with most of the top ice dancers in the world, even though we have the pleasure of training with many of them on our home ice in Novi.  However, when you add in the excitement of the crowd, the officials, the television cameras and the “supersized” atmosphere of a Grand Prix event, the entire experience takes on a life of its own.  We felt pretty prepared for the event by the time we got to Skate America.  USFS does a great job with simulations at Champs Camp, plus our coaching staff has so much experience in guiding teams down this path, that our job was made much easier.  We got to enjoy the process of pushing ourselves so much further than we could have otherwise, and to start to discover just how much we could achieve!


In addition to your two Grand Prix assignments, you competed twice on the Challenger Series, winning bronze at the Tallinn Trophy.  What was it like to win your first senior international medal?

Actually, our first event as a senior team was the Senior B event at the Lake Placid International Championships, in July.  To win that event, even after getting a late start to our season, was just amazing, and it helped us to believe in ourselves and in this first senior season.  That being said, to finish our fall competition season with a podium finish in Tallinn was awesome!  From June (Dance Camp) through late November (Tallinn Trophy), we had 7 major skating events, flew 32,000 miles, had 48 time zone changes, and were both attending college.  Needless to say, we wre feeling some mental and physical fatigue by the time we reached Tallinn Trophy, and the bronze medal, along with personal best scores in both events, was a really wonderful acknowledgement of what we had achieved.

Having competed so many times internationally before nationals, what have you learned before your senior national debut?

We were fortunate for the opportunity to perform in front of such knowledgeable and appreciative audiences at Skate America and Rostelecom Cup, and we learned to stay in the moment when we are performing.  A truly memorable performance is created when the technical elements are balanced with the artistic aspects, AND the spectator (audience member or official) has a positive, visceral response to what is being experienced.  As athletes, we train to perform the technical; as artists, we train to perform the artistic.  But as actors, we must connect with one another and with the audience, while we are in the moment, to create the desired response.  We feel that we improved this process significantly during our fall competitions, and are prepared to get out on the ice in Kansas City and share something truly incredible with another wonderful audience!

How has your training changed now that you’re both in college?  What do your studies
(Kinesiology and Acting) add to your skating

EP: I take all of my classes online, which allows me to be more flexible and free to skate in the mornings before Alex goes off to his classes.  We still get a good amount of time on and off the ice before we have to leave the rink.  It isn’t our training schedule that has changed this season, as much as what we used to do after our practices.  Knowing that kinesiology will be my profession has made me more aware of my body and how to keep it in prime shape.  I am so interested in this path, due to the fact that sports have been such a major part of my entire life.  Dealing with pains is something that every elite athlete endures.  I have already gained so much knowledge through experience, and now gaining the education to back that up is a really exciting process.

AB: School has definitely helped our training!  While Ellie gets to develop her knowledge about the human body, I get to study culture and human interaction.  We each bring these new elements to our partnership, both on and off the ice.  Obviously, my studies involve a tremendous amount of work to develop characters and movement styles, in addition to performing in front of an audience.  There is a direct connection between this work and what the ice dance discipline rewards, so I feel that I have a significant advantage over skaters without this type of training.

Alex—what interested you in becoming a figure skating judge?

AB: Growing up, my mother served as a USFS National Dance Judge & Technical Controller, but she also was very active locally as a test judge for my home club (Skokie Valley Skating Club).  I was always impressed by how she could be so impactful in multiple roles at the same time — incredibly knowledgeable about the sport and helpful to developing skaters on one hand, and yet fully committed to staying home to raise my brothers and me on the other.  I saw how many skaters were helped by her knowledge, and how selflessly she gave of her time and expertise to help them become the best that they could be. When she resigned from judging for the sake of my skating career and to eliminate the potential for conflict of interest, she never made me feel as if she were making a sacrifice, even though I know how important judging had been to her.  I love my mother and have an unbelievable respect for what she did for me, and for what she has done for this sport.  And it was this respect that inspired me to give back to my sport and to serve as a USFS judge.

Elliana—you’ve worked with three very famous coaching teams in the U.S.  What have you taken from each of those experiences?

EP: Every coaching team has a special aspect about them.  I think I am fortunate to have been with those who have passed on their skills and have helped mold me into the skater I am.  Each training location is different and is based around certain focuses.  By coming from multiple coaches (including Olympic Champions Klimova and Ponomarenko and by the coaches at Wheaton Ice Skating Academy), I am able to have a mix of all the qualities that help an ice dancer grow.  I could not be happier learning from Igor Shpilband and everyone else in Team Novi.  I believe I have found my permanent location and look forward to all that the future may bring for Alex and I as we train with Igor. 

Talk to me about your work with Touch My Heart USA.

AB: I have worked with Touch My Heart USA for a while, as they are headquartered near my home in Chicago, and I have known the founders of the not-for-profit organization for a number of years.  The charity serves a community that frequently goes unnoticed, and the idea of helping others who are less fortunate resonates with me.  The organization creates leisure and educational opportunities for people with special needs, in addition to collecting and distributing goods to their group homes.  When I was still in Chicago, I visited the group homes and assisted with the collection and distribution of donations.  Due to my move to Michigan, my involvement with TMH is severely restricted, so when I realized that I could use our participation in Skate America to help TMH, I asked Ellie for her help, and we created the glove drive.  Our fan response was outstanding and we collected so many pairs of gloves during our two events.  They were donated to TMH and shared as gifts from Santa for the 500 special needs guests at the TMH-hosted holiday party in December.

Have you made any changes to your programs for nationals?

We are both laughing at this question!  There is an urban legend that Igor once changed a team’s program between the free dance five-minute warmup and when they took the ice to compete the program, so needless to say, all of us in Novi are continually updating our programs.  Frankly, we have made so many changes — some big and some small — since Tallinn, that it is hard to remember exactly what our programs were like then.  Some changes are made to boost levels and GOEs and others are made to help with PCS.  But inevitably, the changes make the programs better and keep them fresh after all of the mileage they have already seen.  It is a wonderful process to see the evolution of each program over the course of the season.

What are your goals for nationals? For next season?

Oh wow — another incredibly difficult question to answer!!  If we were being overly politically correct, we would say that our goals are to skate our best and to deliver two strong performances and let the chips fall where they may.  If we were being completely frank, however, we would say that with the amount of dedication, sacrifice, time, money, and pure hard work that skating demands, EVERY competitor strives for more than that.  Truth be told, our US dance field is so ridiculously deep right now, that stating a placement goal would be impulsive.  Instead, we know that we are trained and we expect ourselves to perform well in Kansas City and to enjoy the experience.  As a sidebar, we hope that our skating will engage the audience enough to encourage them to follow us on social media, and to continue to grow our Ellie & Alex following!  

Is there anything else you want people to know?

We are grateful to have so many wonderful experiences through skating and we love to share them with our fabulous fans.  We love to hear from our fans and we personally respond to our inquiries.  You can follow us at: 

  1. Instagram: pogrebinsky_benoit
  2. Twitter: @Ellie_and_Alex
  3. Facebook: www.facebook.com/PogrebinskyBenoit
  4. http://pogrebinsky-benoit.ice-dance.com

Pulkinen aims to jump to the podium in Kansas City

Photo Credit U.S. Figure Skating

Camden Pulkinen might not be a name that many casual skating fans are familiar with.  He has qualified for nationals three times previously, finishing 5th and 16th at the juvenile level and 11th last season as a junior.  After a trip to the Youth Olympic Games last winter, where he finished 7th, he is evolving into a top junior men’s skater in the U.S.   He moved to Colorado Springs to train with Tom Zakrajsek and won the US Challenge Skate by over 30 points this fall.  He placed 9th in his Junior Grand Prix debut in Estonia.

Armed with a triple axel and a focus on component scores, this high school student has his sights set on the podium in Kansas City.

How did you get involved with skating?

I initially started with ice hockey. My sister, Elena, was going to all these competitions for figure skating and one day I decided to give it a try. I absolutely loved skating as fast as I could, and I still do!

How would you describe yourself as a skater?

I like to think of myself as a very powerful skater. I have always wanted to turn into a more artistic skater, along with powerful elements.

Tell me about yourself outside of skating.

Outside of skating, I am attending online high school.  I enjoy spending time with friends and watching professional soccer.  I also love eating at Noodles and Company, my favorite place!

Tell me about your programs this season.

This season, my short program is Piano Concerto 2 by Sergio Rachmaninoff.  I have never skated to a somewhat classical piece of music and this program has really helped me grow into the skater I am as of now.

My long program is Sarabande Suite (Aeternae) by Globus.  I really love this piece of music because it is so unique.  It is very powerful and there are so many different rhythms which allows me to show different emotions.

What is the most difficult element for you in your programs? 

The most difficult element for me in my programs are the flying camels.  I have been working diligently on my spins and I’m excited to show the improvement at U.S. Championships!

What is your favorite element to complete?

My favorite element to compete is the triple axel.  The triple axel is such a difficult element and not many people in the world can perform it.

Your first international competition was the Youth Olympic Winter Games last season.  What was that experience like and what did you learn from it?

My time in Norway was very enjoyable.  I met so many people, from different sports.  I am so thankful to have received the Olympic experience at such a young age and I will always remember the atmosphere.  I learned that I had a lot of work to do.  Competing against other competitors who have qualified for the JGP Final and medaled at World Junior Championships inspired me to work harder than I was.

You finished 9th at your first Junior Grand Prix in Estonia.  How did that experience differ from the Youth Olympic Games?

At the Youth Olympic Games, I felt more like a celebrity and I felt a lot more pressure.  The entire city of Lillehammer was supporting this event.  Almost everywhere I went in the town, I found posters, or advertisements of the Youth Olympics!  At my Junior Grand Prix, the skating was at a higher caliber, however, there was a lot less publicity.

What is your favorite part about traveling internationally with skating?

My favorite part about traveling internationally is representing my country.  I love it when the announcer says “representing the United States…” It gives me chills.

You have the triple axel in both of your programs.  What was the process like acquiring that jump and what do you feel it does for you as a skater?

The process of learning that jump required a lot of trust. I had to trust in what my coaches were telling me even if it didn’t feel right.  I worked on the technique every day.  One day, (at a 6:00 am practice at Glacier Falls) I landed it.  It took me two months of constant work to land the jump.  Now, it feels so easy.  Doing the triple axel is such a pivotal part of men’s figure skating.  I think it boosts my component marks and it makes me a tougher competitor.

Your sectionals score was significantly lower than the US Challenge Skate and the JGP, and a lot of that can be attributed to program components.  Is there anything you’ve changed with your programs to try and get those particular scores higher?

Yes, I have reworked some second half jumps and I have changed part of my footwork sequence. I think that the program that I am executing now is more expressive and shows a full range of motion.

As a returning junior level skater, how do you think competing at nationals will be different this year?

This year, there are not too many returning junior men from last season.  I feel that this year, I am more seasoned and I have a better understanding of the mental process of competing.

Some of the things I noticed about your skating last season was your great posture and choreography.  Can you talk a little about your off ice training and the choreographic process you use to achieve that look on the ice?

I have been taking ballet lessons twice a week.  We work for one hour a week on pure ballet, and an hour a week on the program.  I think ballet is such an important part of being a figure skater because so many of the movements are the same.  I have a lesson a day on choreography.  I work with Tom Dickson, Drew Meekins, and Ben Agosto.

Have you made any changes to your programs for nationals?

Yes, we have changed the three jump combo from 2A+1Lo+3F to a 3Lz+2T+2Lo.  We have also added a solo 3F and have changed the 3Lz+3T to a 3F+3t.

What are your goals for nationals?  For next season?

My goals at nationals are to not only put out two clean programs, but to perform.  I want to show that I’m not just a jumper.

Is there anything else you want people to know?

Last season, I feel like I was at nationals for the experience, and that I was not in contention for a medal spot.  At nationals this year, I want to show that I’m not just there to fill out the competition, but to be in contention.

Andrews ready to shine in Kansas City

Photo Credit T. Andrews

Starr Andrews is a bit of a skating celebrity.  She is 15 now, but at 9 years old she skated a program to Whip My Hair complete with Converse style spats over her skates and hot pink hair extensions.  The video went viral, received millions of views, and Andrews was interviewed on major media outlets.  It wasn’t long after that she started to make a splash on the nationals scene, winning the Juvenile Pewter medal in 2014 and finishing 6th as a novice last season.

Some of the things to notice about her skating include the soft, fluid use of her arms (perfect for skating to Black Swan) and the intensity with which she delivers her performances.

She earned her first international assignment this season, traveling to Croatia to compete in Golden Bear where she won gold.  She returned home to earn a silver medal at Pacific Coast Sectionals in junior ladies to qualify for nationals.

It is evident in her performances that she is a fighter and does not give up.  She has big goals for nationals this season and seems poised to have her moment in the spotlight.

How did you get involved with skating?

I watched my mom skate when I was little.  I wanted to get on the ice with her because it looked so fun. When I was given the opportunity to finally skate, I loved it!

How would you describe yourself as a skater? 

I would describe myself as interesting, emotional, and outgoing.

Photo Credit U.S. Figure Skating Association

Tell me abut your programs this season.

This year I kept my short program to Pink Panther because I love it so much.  I wanted to keep it and add more difficult elements to make me more competitive.   My long program is Black Swan and is my absolute favorite!  It has depth, drama, and intensity.

Tell me about your life outside skating.

I have a cat, a dog, two sisters, and a brother.  When I’m not skating, I like to spend time with them.  I also like to draw in my spare time when I’m not doing homework.

What is the most difficult element for you in your programs? What is your most favorite element to complete? 

The most difficult element is my triple flip. My favorite element is double axel + triple toe.

Last season you didn’t have a triple flip or lutz but you have both this year. What was the process to add those this season?

I tweaked my ankle mid-season so it was a little difficult to do toe jumps on my landing foot. Now that I’ve healed, I’ve been working on the flip and lutz to become more consistent.

Photo Credit U.S. Figure Skating Association

You were a YouTube sensation receiving over 44 million views and landing mentions in the Huffington Post. How do you think that has affected you in your skating career? 

I am happy that the “Whip My Hair” video has brought recognition to skating that it can be fun as well as technically solid.  To have such an impact on people from all over the world makes me feel that maybe even I can make a difference in the sport.

How do you balance your desire to be creative and show a different side of yourself with your skating with the demands of competitive programs?

It is good to have different type of programs even if it is not your typical flow.   I like programs that are challenging and unconventional because that is just who I am.  I like different genres of music that allows for diversity and expressions full of passion.

You earned an international assignment to Golden Bear earlier this season where you won gold. What was the experience like? 

I had a great experience at my first international.  The environment, the culture, and the beautiful scene of Zagreb just made me thankful to have the opportunity.

Last season I noticed your connection to the music and your performance quality, which was reflected in your international component scores. Does that come naturally to you or do you have to work on that element of your programs? 

The components come naturally, but I still have to work on them because it is something that I can always improve on.

You have an impressive triple salchow + triple toe + double toe in your program.  How did that come about? 

I work hard to get that jump consistent and it is now one of my best jumps.

In an addition to the technical strides you’ve made this year, you have great spins, routinely earning Level 4, and you received a Level 4 on your step sequence at sectionals. How do you balance training the jumps while also working to achieve the highest levels on the non-jumping elements? 

I’ve made sure that everything in my program is the best that it can be so that I can get extra points even if I make a mistake.  My coach also makes sure that I am doing those elements to the best that they can be.

Have you made any changes to your programs for nationals?

 No changes in my program.

What are your goals for nationals?

My goal for Nationals is to become Junior Ladies National Champion and to be sent to Junior Worlds.

Is there anything else you want people to know?

I want to people to know that if you work hard you will get results and you will feel very accomplished and proud of yourself.