by Jacquelyn Thayer
Even quick on-ice successes for a new U.S. pair can come with a struggle increasingly common — and increasingly public — for athletes in Olympic sport.
Jessica Pfund and Joshua Santillan, based at the rising pairs camp in Ellenton, Florida, have seen limited funds make an impact at the most fundamental level of training.
“Our head coach, Lyndon Johnston, has been very generous with his time with us already. However, we still take by far the least amount of lessons of anyone in the rink due to monetary problems,” said Santillan. “Originally, we were taking a few lessons a week with Jim Peterson and Amanda Evora when we first teamed up. This proved to be out of our reach and we could not afford to stay on that path. So, we have cut down on lesson time and only have our lessons with Lyndon.”
To build on some provisions from U.S. Figure Skating and other sources, the two, then, have, like others, turned towards an additional means of support through GoFundMe. Supplementary instruction is the pair’s central desire, with an eye towards improving basics at the skating level, along with additional work in choreography — “While we spend time doing our programs in front of the mirror, we can only improve so much on our own,” said Santillan. The optimum schedule would include stroking and singles lessons three times a week, choreography sessions twice, and an expansion to their once- to twice-a-week ballet slate.
“We want to improve our strengths. I haven’t had a singles lesson in over four years because I simply can’t afford it,” he continued. “Both Jessica and myself have previously qualified for the U.S. Championships in our singles skating and done all of our triples consistently. Without singles lessons it is tough to get back to doing these again—we know we would both like to do side-by-side triple lutzes and/or flips in the future.”
To help cover living and training expenses, Santillan works full-time at Bonefish Grill, also taking online coursework in business half-time through Colorado Christian University. The skater detailed a typical Tuesday:
“Wake up at 7; off-ice lifts at 8:30; first pairs session, 9:10-10:10; stretching & lunch break until 11; warm-up for the next session and get on the 11:30-12:15 singles session; 12:30, do our programs in the ballet room in front of the mirror; 1:10, second pairs session; 2:10, on-ice edge class with Lyndon; 2:40, ballet; 3:30, off-ice workout; 5-11, work; 11:30, home. By the time I get home, put all of my stuff away, eat and prepare dinner, and get ready for bed it’s almost 1 AM and I’m supposed to wake up in 6 hours.”
The demands faced by the athlete juggling an elite-focused career with practical economic needs can prove frustrating. “I knew I was going to be very busy when I moved here, but as the weeks of non-stop work moved into months, it’s grown truly tiresome,” Santillan admitted. “I like to think this gives me an advantage at competitions because if I can do it on 6 hours of sleep and after endless days of work, I can certainly do it fully rested and single-focused. However, I can’t imagine how much more progress we could make if I didn’t have to work all the time.”
As the skating itself goes, Pfund and Santillan have faced technical challenges typical of a new pair. “I think it goes without saying that our twist is not our strongest element,” they agreed, given the difficulties of adjusting timing to a new partner. So far the pair have competed a double twist, with levels fluctuating between 1 and 2.
But other things, evident in their early achievements, have come more fluidly. “We really came together with our synchronization from the start,” they said. “Even during the tryout it felt like we had already been skating together because everything was so in-sync. From our first day together, Lyndon said that he hadn’t seen anybody jump as close together and as similarly as we do since Russians in his heyday.”
A good early showing at events including Skate Detroit and the Southwest Florida Fall Classic helped the pair to a first international assignment at October’s Autumn Classic International. As a Senior B, rather than Challenger Series event, marks here wouldn’t count for a Season’s Best; the final roster’s pairs field featuring representatives of only two countries meant one too few to allow the competition to count towards World Standing points. So the pair instead focused on meeting the ISU Worlds technical minimums — achieved — while a bronze medal, along with addition to USFS’s Team C envelope for funding, came as “a huge bonus.”
“There were many positives to take away from Autumn Classic, but we also knew where we needed to improve,” they said. “Little did we know that we would be trying to apply those improvements so soon.”
One week later, Pfund and Santillan were tapped as quick substitutes when training mates Gretchen Donlan and Nate Bartholomay withdrew from Skate America. The pair departed for Milwaukee a day after receiving the call — the pairs short contested just two days after official announcement of the assignment. “With this last-second assignment, we barely even had time to make goals,” they said. “Still, we knew we wanted to try to improve upon our performance at Autumn Classic. It was a dream come true to compete at this event and skate so well, regardless of placement.” The two improved upon the previous event’s total score by over two points — this time counting towards all ISU statistical categories.
Next came training for Eastern Sectionals in mid-November. With four or fewer non-byed senior pairs in each section, all teams automatically qualified for Nationals, but many without late fall internationals still opted to compete as additional preparation for the championships. Though Pfund and Santillan took gold in their own three-team field, it came via a rocky set of skates that included falls in both programs and an invalidated death spiral in the short.
“While we definitely did not skate our best, I think it was good for us to get out there another time and even to experience what it was like to make mistakes in competition,” they said. “Although we came away with the win, our goals were score-related and we did not meet them. Sometimes it’s okay to not meet your goals — it just makes it that much more gratifying when you do attain them.”
Goals at season’s outset focused on a top eight finish at next month’s U.S. Championships and an international assignment — the latter now achieved twice over. With time, the two have come to see their goals as based more in performance than placement. “We can’t control what other people do and how they skate, but we do have a say in how we do. We hope to put our best performances of the season on the ice for Nationals and we are training with that in mind.”
And long-term, the aims grow larger. “Our ongoing development includes technical goals such as triple twists and maybe even a quad throw,” said Santillan. “I think as a competitive athlete it’s hard not to have your sights set on the highest goals, so yes, world and Olympic teams are in our long-term goals.”
The move to Ellenton has inspired a new motivation for Santillan, who with former partner Olivia Oltmanns trained in Colorado Springs under Dalilah Sappenfeld. Though he enjoyed work with his previous coach, a new scene has meant a fresh approach.
“Knowing the potential that Jessica and I have together, I feel that I have really organized myself and I am motivated to work as hard as I can to improve,” he said. “Whereas in Colorado Springs I didn’t really workout very much or go to ballet classes or any of the extracurricular activities that could have really helped my skating, besides ice dance, here I stick to a strict schedule that ensures I am always doing all of the activities I need to do for my skating.”
In 2014, Pfund made her own move to Florida from Jenni Meno and Todd Sand’s camp in Aliso Viejo, California, after training with Peter Oppegard in Artesia with partner A.J. Reiss. “It was a very big change moving from an independent working environment to a completely structured team-oriented environment,” she said. “From the ballet classes and the personal trainer we use, everything I need is right where I need it.”
The growing camp, which also includes 2015 U.S. bronze medalists Tarah Kayne and Danny O’Shea, is an added incentive. “Lyndon and Amanda have given us all the tools we need to succeed and I go into the rink every day in an attempt to use them to my best ability,” she continued. “The competitive environment provided with the presence of the other top teams fosters growth by everyone and we always feel motivated and encouraged by one another’s progress. I can’t say enough about how the incessant planning and support has helped improve my skating.”
Their first set of programs, choreographed by two key members of Ellenton’s coaching crew, have helped emphasize the new pair’s connection. A contemporary short to “Gravity” by Sara Bareilles, created by Evora, takes an emotional angle. “Our interpretation is that of a love story that she doesn’t want; I portray a lover that has hurt her in the past, but she can’t help but come back to me because of the power of love,” said Santillan.
The free, from Peterson, tackles an epic theme on two levels. “Set to selections from Prince Igor by Alexander Borodin, it is an intense piece of music that tells a love story,” continued Santillan. “Although it is not the original intention of the music, we have taken up the story of David and Bathsheba from biblical history to interpret the story. In this tale, David and Bathsheba have a forbidden romance while her husband Uriah is out at war. Long story short, Uriah ends up dying in war and David and Bathsheba eventually fall in love and give birth to the eventual King Solomon.”
And the pair has created a team website, Joshica.net, providing an introduction to each alongside updates on their progress. While it also offers a link to the pair’s GoFundMe account, Santillan noted the larger aims behind the team’s outreach.
“First, we have another way to help support us, through the New England Amateur Skating Foundation. Donating through this non-profit organization allows someone to make a tax-deductible contribution to us,” he said. “Secondly, our website is not all about raising money. Do we want all the help that we can get? Of course. But we want people to get to know us and see who we are and what we are about before they make any sort of decision to help support us. If someone looks through our website, they will eventually come across the ‘Support Us’ portion of it and that means they have probably read about us, watched our videos and hopefully come to like us.”
And in the end, even the smallest offering can build on the foundations they’re seeking to establish.
“It may not seem like much, but if 100 people visited our site and each left even $5 we would be making a lot of progress towards our goal,” said Santillan. “Just the spare change in your pocket can add up over time.”
CORRECTION: The article initially misidentified Meno and Sand as Pfund’s coaching team with partner A.J. Reiss. Pfund relocated to Meno and Sand from Oppegard after the conclusion of her partnership with Reiss.