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Finding a partner: When skating feels like dating

Pairs and dance competitors shed light on the process of being matched

Ice dancers Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier hit it off almost immediately.
Ice dancers Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier hit it off almost immediately. (Skate Canada/Stephan Potopnyk)

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By Sarah S. Brannen, special to icenetwork.com
(05/02/2012) - Reaching success as a singles skater is hard enough; making it to the top as a pairs team or dance duo is more than twice as hard. Not only do skaters have to reach the highest level of athletic ability, but before they can even begin training, they have to find a partner, and sometimes that can be the hardest element of all.

The subject is a touchy one, given that telling the story of a tryout that didn't work would be akin to sharing details of an unsuccessful blind date. The process can be stressful, and it's often difficult to find the right match.

"It's a big challenge," coach Bobby Martin said. "You can see and feel the angst that goes along with this process. So much of it's being in the right place at the right time and getting lucky."

"Non-skating people find the partner search to be very intriguing," said pairs skater Taylor Toth, who has recently teamed up with Kiri Baga. "They're able to relate to it because it's like dating. It's awkward. You don't want to say the wrong thing; you want to skate your best."

"Pair skating is like a marriage," pairs skater Timothy Leduc said. "You're working very closely in a relationship with someone, and when you break those ties it can be bitter."

Martin says the process varies depending on the level of the skaters involved, from singles skaters who want to give pairs skating a try all the way to the upper echelon pairs skaters who sometimes change partners for a variety of reasons.

"You have to handle them differently," Martin said. "It's very tricky."

In the small and close-knit skating community, when a skater is looking for a partner, word gets around. Sometimes coaches prime the grapevine by calling their colleagues. Skaters also pass the word to their friends by word of mouth and on social media like Facebook and Twitter.

"When you get into the international ranks, the partner pool is very small," said ice dancer Paul Poirier, who split with Vanessa Crone in 2011. "And the skating world is small, and news travels fast. I'd heard about other teams that had split up and who was available. I sat down with my coaches and discussed who I wanted to try out with. It's a process that can go fairly quickly because anyone can be so easily reached."

Poirier and Piper Gilles teamed up last year. Gilles, who formerly skated with Timothy McKernan and Zachary Donohue, said that her two partner searches were very different. The first time, her coach made the arrangements. The second time, Gilles searched for a partner on her own.

"The process was really different this time, from the first time when I switched from Tim to Zach," Gilles said. "Tim and I were outgrowing each other, and my coach heard of this boy Zach Donohue through Matthew Gates. So we called [Gates] and asked if Zach would come and do a tryout."

"This time, I had a tryout, [right after splitting with Donohue], but it didn't feel right. I ended up taking a whole year off of skating."

Gilles got an offer to skate in a show, but right at that moment three top dance teams split up and she decided she wanted to return to competition, under any circumstances.

"I wanted to skate so badly that even if it wasn't right, I would do it. Then Paul called me and within the first couple strokes I knew that was it. Paul and I were just perfect."

Gilles says it didn't take long to know she had found her match.

"It takes about five to 10 minutes. You go and do some crossovers and you kind of feel it. The more technical you get about it, the more it's not going to work. Each stroke is important; if the timing is off, even if you do a two-week tryout, it won't work."

"There are not that many things to take into consideration," Poirier said. "You want a partner who's a good match in terms of skill and ability. But your style or timing might not mesh well. My coach always says you can tell within five minutes if it will work. The next thing was, do we get along as people, do we have the same goals? In the end, that ends up being the most important thing."

Martin also says he can tell immediately if a new pairing has potential.

"You notice an awful lot very quickly," he said. "In that first 10 minutes, you get a feel for whether or not it will work. Right off the bat, the first thing you've got to determine is whether there's any human chemistry. I can do those first tryouts in two sessions, tops. I don't need to see if they can do a one-hand lasso lift.

"I want to see what they look like together, how they communicate, whether or not they feel good about each other. I spend a decent amount of time with the parents and get a feel for what they're like.

"The next step would be an extended tryout, which allows the new partner to get to know the area for a week or two, what their life would be like, the staff, the other kids in the rink," he said. "Then we talk about whether this team would be viable and worth continuing. I'm very much about longevity. Everyone's very eager to get a partner, but you're investing so much, it warrants all that time to do it properly."

Leduc is currently looking for a partner, following up leads and doing tryouts. Many pairs and dance skaters post profiles on icepartnersearch.com (IPS) when they're looking for partners.

"I've considered putting up a profile on IPS," Leduc said. "I'm trying to sort through offers and decide what I want to do. I will be honest about the things that went wrong in my partnership, to try and be better in the future."

Icenetwork.com blogger Drew Meekins and partner Jessica Rose Paetsch split up during the 2009-10 season; he had previously skated with Julia Vlassov for six years.

"Right now I'm 100 percent actively looking for a partner," Meekins said. "My situation for the last few months has been interesting because I had shoulder surgery in November. I've been rehabbing my shoulder to the point where I can do tryouts and be competitive. I've just now accomplished that goal, so I'm moving on to the next step in the process, which is contacting people and setting up tryouts."

Meekins admits that finding a partner is an extra challenge for him, after not competing since late 2009.

"The longer you sit out, the less relevant you become," he said. "It's a very in-the-moment sport. I don't feel discouraged in my ability to come back to skating, but it's more of a challenge for me than for people who have been competing as recently as last season."

Asked who his dream partner would be, Meekins said she would be someone a lot like Vlassov, with whom he won the 2006 world junior pairs title.

"The longer I've gone, the more I want someone who is like Julia," he said. "I've been trying to search for someone with whom I could pick up where I left off. My goals are really challenging, and that's why finding a partner has been really challenging for me. My goal is also to leave a lasting impression on skating. I'd like someone I could do that with, to push the sport in an artistic way."