In the end, a beginning for Paul and Islam

Part 2 of a two-part feature; read part 1 here

by Jacquelyn Thayer

Athletes have spoken of the difficulty in moving from the concretely goal-focused regimen of the sporting life to the more mundane concerns of life after. But in the first months since retirement, the mundane is what’s grounded ice dancers Alexandra Paul and Mitch Islam.

Paul and Islam in Beijing during 2016's Cup of China. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Paul and Mitch Islam.

Paul and Islam in Beijing during 2016’s Cup of China. Photo courtesy of Alexandra Paul and Mitch Islam.

“It’s a lot easier a transition when you have things going on,” said Islam. “It kind of seems like we’ve been retired for a long time now, actually. It’s weird, how fast it goes.”

As students and workers, Paul and Islam are, for the time being, living a busy and rather more bohemian lifestyle than they did as athletes, splitting their days most weeks between Michigan and their Barrie, Ontario, hometown region. “We’ll stay every now and then on weekends just to kind of ease the drive, but four hours doesn’t seem that bad after driving to Montreal [from Barrie] for about six and a half hours,” said Paul.

The hectic schedule extends beyond the frequent road travel; while staying with their respective parents when in Barrie, they also rely on the kindness of skating friends in the Detroit area. “We’re kind of staying in people’s spare bedrooms so we don’t have to rent an apartment for like four months,” said Paul with a laugh. “We cook for them.”

“We cook for them, so it’s a good relationship,” agreed Islam. “Honestly, it’s so great being back here. We had such a great social situation here in Michigan. We really felt that we got very close to a lot of people here, so it’s good to be back. Obviously, it’s a little weird without Kaitlyn [Weaver] and Andrew [Poje] here — we’re so tight with them and just being in Michigan without them being in Michigan, it’s a strange adjustment — but we are really embracing being back here, just like we embraced coming here the first time. It feels cool to be back.”

During the Michigan days, the two are working to finish their final semester at Rochester’s Oakland University, set to graduate shortly in late April. Paul has classes Monday and Wednesday, Islam Monday only; he’s kept busiest as an intern with Special Olympics Michigan, doing 9-5 office work Monday through Wednesday and occasionally carrying out onsite work for weekend events. “I’ve been super busy and a bit of a working man now,” he said.

While that event work has included tasks like organizing the officials at a basketball tournament, it’s unlikely any other task will be as ironically suitable as was Islam’s first outing: judging a skating competition at the Detroit Skating Club. “It was really weird. Like, the first event that they had for me to go to,” he said with some amusement. “Once they made the connection that I was a skater — which they did kind of right away — they asked me to judge.”

Although Islam thinks the work serves as an invaluable introduction to the traditional workplace setting, the Special Olympics mission is at least equally educational. “Just being at the skating event and being at the basketball tournament, it’s super inspiring just to see how determined these athletes are,” he said. “I think definitely a lot can be learned from them.”

Meanwhile, at the time of our initial talk in late January, Paul was a few days away from taking the LSAT and deep in the law school application process. “It’s a little bit of a stressful time for me right now,” she said with a laugh.

The studies will be the fulfillment of a long-range goal. “I took a couple classes in high school that were based on law, and I always kind of excelled at them and just really enjoyed the information that I was learning,” she said. “So I kind of geared my university courses around applying to law school.”

Islam, who aspires to pursue an MBA, is less firm on the timing of his plans, aiming for now to coach through summer to earn enough to pay for that post-grad business education. “Whether that’s in September or whether it’s in 2018, I’m kind of playing that one by ear through the summer,” he said. “I know [an MBA] is an ambitious goal, but I think that moving into the next part of our lives, it’s important for us to continue to set ambitious goals. I think that’s just the type of people that we are, so I think when you do that, you can accomplish great things.”

Of course, when in Barrie, the Mariposa School of Skating alumni have taken on work with the younger generation, assisting Islam’s father David with his crew of ice dance students. Paul partnered temporarily-unpartnered junior dancers like Elliott Graham, “just doing dances and stroking and that kind of thing with them, just to get them ready for tryouts,” she said.

“My dad basically uses us as partners for his solo students,” added Islam with a laugh.

They’ve also contributed in more general coaching capacities at the rink, including participation in events like Mariposa’s upcoming annual seminar in June. “It’s been really a lot of fun to reconnect to that joy of skating and share a little bit of our journey,” said Islam.

Any returns to the ice to perform, though, are for now likely to wait until 2018. While the two are keeping the door — and discussion — open for future show skating opportunities (but not, for the first time in their career, at May’s Margaret Garrison Ice Show), as of September they’ll be focused more on academic pursuits. But with contacts made via their repeat work in Disson’s Shall We Dance on Ice show, it’s largely just a matter of schedule.

“We would love to skate shows,” said Islam. “We really enjoy performing them. There was that stress element that was taken out of it, there was that technical element that was taken out of it. So I think that moving forward, if there’s show opportunities, that’s definitely something we were thinking we want to try to make work.”

And for Paul and Islam, the transition away from a schedule of training and competition is not merely one of career change. The two skated together for just shy of eight years after teaming up in early 2009 — a significant span of time for any pair in today’s field — but they’ve also been a couple off the ice since 2011, sharing residence since their first move to Detroit in 2012. The new phase, then, naturally means some adjustments.

“So far, it’s been great,” said Islam. “Nothing has really changed between us. We’re still very much in love…Alex is rolling her eyes,” he added with a laugh. “Actually, it’s been kind of weird, to be honest, because we were so together all the time before.”

“We were skating with each other, and now we only live with each other a couple of times a week and when we’re at home, we live at our respective houses, so it’s a little strange that way,” continued Paul. “But we still see each other all the time.”

“We still see each other all the time,” agreed Islam, “but there’s this kind of sense where I have to say, especially over the weekend when we’re apart for a few days, it kind of feels weird.”

“We’ve never been apart,” interjected Paul.

“We’re both kind of extensions of one another, so when we’re apart for that long, it just feels a little bit weird,” said Islam. “So yeah, it’s been a bit of an adjustment that way, just in the fact that we’re not together 24/7, but I don’t think that that’s necessarily a bad thing for a relationship. I think a little bit of personal time never hurt nobody.”

And retirement so far has meant other pluses and minuses. For Islam, small joys have come in a less-stressful holiday season and the chance to occasionally enjoy a second beer or glass of wine on a weeknight. Paul — for whom another recent benefit was the chance to downhill ski for the first time since the start of her ice dance career — has found a thin line between the challenge and the reward.

“I would say that the hardest thing is forcing myself to work out to try to stay in shape, but then the easiest thing is saying no, you know what, I don’t really need to work out,” she said with a laugh. “I’m allowed to just sit here sometimes now. I think eventually it might catch up to me, but right now I’m just kind of enjoying doing whatever I want to do and not doing what I don’t feel like doing.”

Another double-edged sword? Reminders of the competitive landscape, as Islam, a veteran of the Canadian championships since the turn of the century, recognized upon catching the junior dance competition at January’s event. “I’ll be honest with you, I got a little bit sentimental, I got a little bit sad,” he said. “Everything was still really fresh.” He kept track of the subsequent senior results at the Canadian and U.S. Nationals — but didn’t watch.

Paul, on the other hand, jumped swiftly into her new primary role as spectator, albeit opting against the most diehard skating fan’s 5 A.M. watch times. “I just love watching skating — I’ve always loved watching skating, and I don’t think that’s ever going to change,” she said. “It always just impresses me, seeing how talented everybody is at these competitions.”

Neither have missed actively competing, but do note the loss of the behind-the-scenes camaraderie. “It’s weird. It’s an adjustment not being there — it’s weird being away from your skating family. So that part is definitely tough,” said Islam of Nationals in particular. “The adjustment in and of itself carries with it negatives and positives, but I think that’s to be expected when you’re shifting from one part of your life to the next.”

So having had, apart and together, a combined 20 years on the international skating scene, would the knowledge derived from that experience — some more sobering than not — lead them to dissuade any future offspring from a similar path?

“This is my parents’ view, and I agree with it,” said Paul, “but you should allow your children to explore whatever avenues they want to, and if they love the thing, you shouldn’t discourage them from doing it just because you know that it was difficult. So I think that if I had a child and they wanted to go into skating, I would let them pursue whatever they loved doing, and as soon as they didn’t love it any more, they didn’t have to do it.”

Islam agreed, highlighting the wide range of activities both sets of parents encouraged for their children.

“But again, a big part of it was just us having our own choice and us being able to pursue whatever we were passionate about,” he said. “So yeah, I think naturally when kids come into the equation for Alex and I or whatever, it’s going to be kind of natural for them to say ‘Hey, look what my dad did’ or ‘Look what my mom did,’ you know, and kind of gear in that direction. But I would have no reservations about letting my kid start figure skating. Skating has given me so much in my life that that would be something that was pretty selfish. So, yeah, I definitely know that I will let my kid do whatever they feel passionate about.”

When it comes to guiding the next generation on the ice as coaches, though, the first and primary lesson is, of course, one of perseverance.

“It’s easy to be down on yourself when you’re training, if you make a mistake in a run-through, if you’re heading towards a competition and you’re not feeling 100 percent,” said Paul. “I think that having experienced that, it’s going to become helpful to try to get people out of that feeling and to prevent them from even getting into it in the first place.”

“I think we’re both still trying to figure out exactly what the lessons are that we can share,” said Islam. “You know, we had a lot of hits in our career, and I think we did a really great job of getting up. You know, one of those hits was after Nationals in 2013, and we got up and great things can happen.”

But maybe the best lesson, after all, can only come with a return to the bigger, ordinary world.

“You take a more lighthearted approach to the whole thing,” said Islam. “So we’re watching some of my dad’s teams before Nationals getting stressed and all the natural things that happen before a competition for a skater. You kind of have this approach where you’ve been on both sides of it and you understand how tough it is, but at the same time, you have this freshened outlook on it because you’ve been removed from it and you can maybe rein the skater in a little bit and tell them that, you know, this is just skating. You can trust your training and just go from there. You don’t have to maybe stress out as much as you are, right?”