by Jacquelyn Thayer
Though Skate Detroit will mark a competitive debut for U.S. pair Winter Deardorff and Max Settlage, it’s also the culmination of nearly a year’s preparation.
Settlage, whose six-season pairing with Madeline Aaron concluded last summer, faced the prospect of re-entering the partner search scene while dealing with an additional complication.
“One of the biggest challenges of it was just finding someone who was a left-handed skater,” he said. “You know, there’s not a lot of option in figure skating in general, and then when you look for a left-handed pairs skater, it’s even more impossible.”
He was — “absolutely.”
This was in mid-August 2016, and Kentucky-based Deardorff, who had to that point competed as a novice lady, was in Colorado Springs for the Broadmoor World Arena’s Rising Stars Mini-Camp while mulling the prospect of changing disciplines.
“My coach had set up a tryout with Dalilah and Max for like three days that we were here,” said Deardorff. “It was when my school started — I missed my first three days of school.”
Though no set plans were made in that week, the tryout was successful enough to encourage what Deardorff calls a “continuous” tryout. Settlage worked with her in Kentucky; Deardorff spent another week in Colorado Springs in January. From there, the decision was settled, and the busy months of training since have proven, in Settlage’s term, a bit of a blur.
“So skating for a week and then we felt like it was really a good pairing, and we were really excited,” he said. “And it’s just been a really good experience. Because I haven’t had a new partner in quite a while, it’s been a new adjustment, kind of adjusting to new timing and new skills. But I definitely think our chemistry is really good, and I’m really excited for what our season holds.”
One-time singles skater Deardorff, meanwhile, has had to tackle the “difficult but really fun” adjustment of simply having a partner. First committing to the throw triples and a double twist was, she noted, a challenge, but ultimately easier to master than expected. The process itself has offered another kind of lesson.
“I had to learn another person’s timing and how to adjust to another person next to me, and learn how to speak up,” she said. “I can’t just talk to myself in my head or something like that, but I have to actually speak up and voice my concerns, and everything like that.”
In Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, this week, the pair will finally unveil the fruits of their labor, including a character-centric long to selections from Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady, choreographed by Catarina Lindgren.
“We have to have fun with it while still completing really difficult elements and everything, so I think it’ll really connect to the audience well,” said Settlage.
It’s a pick they feel should showcase their styles nicely. “When we first started skating together, we sat down and talked about programs for a little bit,” he continued. “I think the biggest thing that we both agreed on is we both have a strong connection with musical theatre and we both have a very strong passion for music in general. So we kind of agreed that for our first program together, we should do something that’s more lighthearted while telling a story. And so we listened to a lot of musicals and movie musicals and stuff like that, and My Fair Lady really stood out to us.”
The road to finalizing the short was slightly longer, but has led them to a contrasting piece — Phil Collins’ rock classic “In the Air Tonight,” choreographed by Sappenfield with help from Lindgren and plans for additional choreo tweaks later in the year.
Typical for a new duo, the big elements — including a double twist at time of interview which they hoped to develop into a triple as of Detroit — are for now in a state of development. At season’s outset, they’re planning a throw triple salchow and throw triple loop, along with double axel and triple salchow for their side-by-sides, but “looking for working on harder things later in the season,” said Settlage.
But if the tricks are the obvious mark of a pair’s progress, a valuable week in June at U.S. Figure Skating’s pairs boot camp shifted focus to a great pair’s underpinnings: unison, timing and sheer skating skill.
The Russian perspective included tutelage from coaches including Nina Mozer, coach of Olympic medalists Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov and Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, and Robin Szolkowy, world champion and coach of world medalists Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov — lofty advisors, to be sure.
“It was so amazing to learn from all those fantastic coaches and learn all their techniques and exercises,” said Deardorff. “And it really made me realize how much more I need to work on those things, like the skating skills and the exercises.”
Those exercises have focused primarily on aspects like stroking and edgework, as well as improving timing in the spins. “Pair spins are very important — they’re just as important as the throws and the jumps,” said Deardorff.
“They broke down the fundamentals of skating so much that it was like by the end, the fundamentals of skating were equally as hard as the triple twist or a triple throw,” added Settlage.
The off-ice schedule has also been intensive, incorporating at least an hour of skating-related exercises a day in addition to two to three days a week of cardio and strength training with secondary coach Larry Ibarra, who brings additional insights courtesy of his own background as a competitor.
And if the pair isn’t routinely surrounded by the packed field of that June camp, they do train daily at one of the nation’s top centers for the discipline, which has marked something of a shift for Deardorff.
“It’s been a little daunting, because there’s so many amazing skaters here that it’s making me a little bit more determined to become the skater I want to,” she said. “In Kentucky, there are still amazing skaters there and they still push me to work my best and work my hardest — just coming here was a very big transition, because I went from a big fish in a small pond kind of thing to a small fish in a big pond. It was a good decision.”
Indeed, working alongside training mates Alexa and Chris Knierim — who bounced back late last season from a series of significant health concerns to achieve a top ten finish at Worlds — has proven particularly inspirational. “You know, we train with them every day and the passion and the work ethic they have is just unmatched,” said Settlage.
Meanwhile, another U.S. pair — Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc, who made quick inroads in their own debut season together — have also impressed. “The way that they move together,” said Deardorff. “We worked on our short programs at the pair camp, and the way that they portray their music and interpret it, it was very good.”
The brass ring, meanwhile, is best represented by those at the top of the world. “Tatiana and Max have always been someone who I look up to,” said Settlage. “You know, Aliona [Savchenko] and Bruno [Massot], Meagan [Duhamel] and Eric [Radford] — that’s the ultimate goal, to get to that point, to make things fluid and to do these incredibly hard things and make them look effortless, basically.”
But for now, with a full season ahead, the pair are focusing on the immediate. Skate Detroit will be closely monitored by U.S. officials, with a good performance possibly, ideally, paving the way to an international assignment in the fall. From there, goals are rather open-ended.
“We definitely want to be international competitors this year and we’d like a high placement at Nationals, hopefully opening up doors to more internationals in the next season,” said Settlage. “But ultimately, we just really want to get our names out there and show the world who we are.”
Though Detroit will mark their competitive debut, the pair did get an early chance to showcase their progress courtesy of a club show for Deardorff’s Northern Kentucky Skating Club in April — “nerve-wracking,” she admitted, “but also fun.”
The pair skated an exhibition to La La Land’s “Another Day of Sun,” hewing to the show’s Welcome to the Cinema theme as well as lining up with their own musical theatre leanings.
“It was really cool, especially just because Winter had a lot of her family there,” said Settlage. “And it was cool to show them what she’s doing now and, you know, how much we have gotten done within a couple of months.”
In his limited time away from the ice and rink, Settlage has continued to build his artistic portfolio — while still keeping close to his primary line of work.
“I do a lot of projects to do with figure skating,” he said, including, for the third year, U.S. Figure Skating’s Summer With Team USA, cutout illustrations of the year’s national champions. “I’ve had some companies — like, I had John Wilson Blades contact me a year ago for Worlds and we did a collaboration. And it’s just little side art projects like that.”
Deardorff, who will be starting her junior year of high school in the fall, has spent her summer growing acclimated to the Colorado Springs environment.
“The woman I’m living with, I’ve been doing a lot of planting for her yard lately, so we have a lot of flowers out everywhere,” she said. “We go on lots of walks with her dog, and then we also go to a lot of [Colorado Rockies] baseball games. I’ve never really been to a baseball game, so she’s been taking me a lot and that’s been really fun.”