Skater pairs have complex relationships
By NICHOLAS K. GERANIOS
SPOKANE, Wash. — Boy meets girl. Boy picks up girl. Boy tries to not drop girl on her head.
This is the world of pairs figure skating and ice dancing, the beautiful sports where a woman and a man skate in perfect unison across the ice.
But how do these pairs hook up, how do they stay together and what is the secret to success?
Pairs skating — one of the few athletic pursuits where men and women compete as equals — turns out to have a lot of parallels to relationships in real life. Not the least of which is the potential for conflicts while in proximity to very sharp objects.
Pairs meet by accident. They are matched up by coaches or friends. They seek each other out on the Internet. Despite the success of the movie "Blades of Glory," pairs are always a male and a female, and the risk of decapitation during a skating routine is minimal.
At the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Spokane in January, all manner of pairs were on display. The most successful was Caydee Denney, 16, and Jeremy Barrett, 25, who won the U.S. senior pairs title and will be competing in the Vancouver Olympics.
Denney and Barrett began skating together in Florida in 2006, but the partnership was brief as Denney and her family moved to Colorado. They moved back to Florida in 2008, and Denney and Barrett picked up again.
They practice their routine every day. Like a lot of successful partnerships, they are careful about what they say. Barrett blamed himself for some "poor throws" during the competition, and praised his partner for landing them anyway. Their routine is fast-paced and explosive.
"We just let our bodies take over and enjoy it," Barrett said.
Finishing second and also heading to the Olympics were Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig. In the tangled world of pairs, Barrett has dated Evora for years. The two teams skate at the same rink and have the same coaching team, making them training partners yet rivals at the same time.
Pairs skating is a complicated effort. The partners have to have absolute faith in each other to pull off all the jumps, spins and landings, some with names like "the death spiral." The male partner must be strong enough to hoist the female into the air and set her down without apparent effort. This puts pressure on the man to stay strong and the woman to stay thin.
Finding a partner can be difficult, but there is plenty of help on the Internet. Coaches sometimes bring partners together. Pairs hopefuls also advertise in skating magazines, through e-mail, and on Web sites such as www.icepartnersearch.com.
Skater Ameena Sheikh used that site, which is endorsed by U.S. Figure Skating, to find partner Aaron VanCleve. The site currently lists 59 males and 235 females looking for partners, which illustrates a fact about pairs skating: There are more women than men doing it.
Women are encouraged to look for potential partners among hockey players, roller skaters, dancers or gymnasts, who might be able to pick up the skills quickly. There are also events where potential partners try each other out.
Often, one skater has to move to be closer to the other for practice purposes.
VanCleve, for instance, moved from British Columbia to Detroit after he and Sheikh decided to skate together. Spokane was their second competition, and while they only finished 14th, they are staying together.
"We are going long-term, all the way," Sheikh said.
Ice dancer Tanith Belbin was born in Canada, but moved to Detroit in 1998 because she was not able to find a good dance partner there. She was partnered with Benjamin Agosto by their coach Igor Shpilband. Their chemistry seemed good, and they have enjoyed a lot of success since.
At the Turin Olympics, Belbin and Agosto won the silver medal in ice dancing, the highest Olympic result of any American team in the discipline, and the first American ice dancers to win an Olympic medal in 30 years.
They finished second in ice dancing in Spokane, behind Meryl Davis and Charles White, but both teams will be heading to the Vancouver Olympics.
Agosto contends they have never had an argument in 11 years of skating together. Successful skating partners have to be able to work through mistakes without exploding on each other, at least in public.
Marissa Castelli made a mistake during her performance with Simon Shnapir in Spokane, and they ended up in 10th place.
"You just have to let it go," she said.
Brooke Castile and Ben Okolski, who started skating together eight years ago and were the U.S. champions in 2007, finished fourth in Spokane, in part because they blew a jump.
Partners can have long careers together. John Baldwin, 36, and Rena Inoue, 33, have skated together with a lot of success for a decade, and missed making the Vancouver team by a fraction of a point. They are hinting they may retire.
But that won't mean their days as a team are over. Inoue and Baldwin have been engaged for several years, to the point where they have grown weary of people asking when they are going to marry.
"With skating, there is no chance to set it in stone. Soon. After we are finished skating," Baldwin said in Spokane.
Not that he expects that to make much difference.
"We skate together, live together, train together," Baldwin said. "You don't get much more married than that."