With Past as Prologue, Paul and Islam Carry On

by Jacquelyn Thayer

It was a classic quote of much-debated origin — “Success is not final, failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts” — that concluded the ice dance team’s reflective Facebook post, a season wrap-up tradition begun in the wake of a devastating Canadian Nationals, where an element error meant the difference between a podium position and lost championship assignments.

Paul and Islam perform at the 2016 Margaret Garrison Ice Show. Photo by Danielle Earl.

Paul and Islam perform at the 2016 Margaret Garrison Ice Show. Photo by Danielle Earl.

Since that first commentary in 2013, the two can count three years more of partnership — both on and off the ice — two national bronze medals (added to 2011’s first) and Worlds berths, and a cherished status as 2014 Olympians. And in 2016 they could count another disappointing national championships — and a most recent addition to the Facebook chronicle.

For Alexandra Paul and Mitch Islam, their competitive career from an early stage has been neither marathon nor sprint, but something more like obstacle course. Such a history of calamities can create pause. After the season’s disappointments — beginning with low marks and injury, culminating in a free dance lift error and fourth-place outcome at January’s Nationals — both twentysomethings momentarily contemplated retirement, Islam “probably the most seriously” to date.

“I think it’s hard not to after you have something happen to you like happened to us at Nationals,” he said. “But we came to the decision that we weren’t done with this yet and we know we can be better, and we think we know what we have to do to get us to that spot and we’re excited for this challenge.”

For Paul, the risk of unknowing was too great. “We have so many options outside of skating to continue our lives,” she said. “It definitely crossed into my head that I could kind of get on with my normal life and finish my degree” — both skaters are a light semester shy of earning their bachelor’s degrees from Michigan’s Oakland University and are contemplating graduate-level study — “go to professional school. But I knew that if I stopped skating now that I would regret it either within a few months, within a year — that it just wasn’t going to be worth the regret to retire from skating.”

And so for these veterans, 2016 is, you may say, a beginning.

Following a spring 2015 move to Marie-France Dubreuil, Patrice Lauzon and Romain Haguenauer’s in-vogue school at Montreal’s Centre Gadbois, the couple saw something of a flatline, if not setback, from some of the placements and scoring marks built up over the course of three seasons at the Detroit Skating Club. But, as Islam recalls, that first Detroit season also concluded with that 2013 misstep.

“A big factor with our decision this year to continue was that we hadn’t given it really enough time here yet,” he said. “Our first year in Michigan was kind of disappointing as well, so Alex and I maybe just as people take a little bit longer to, I don’t know, warm up to the circumstances and to how people work here. I think now we have a much better handle on how things work and it’s going to be much easier moving into this season.”

With no assurance of a Grand Prix assignment, next season’s competitive schedule is for the moment concentrated on summer’s smaller contests, the couple for now intending to undertake multiple events — most likely the Quebec Summer Championships and Ontario’s Thornhill Summer Skate — as part of a larger mission to regain their “mojo” on the main stage. “We know that we need to compete a lot,” said Paul with a laugh. “We need to treat all the competitions with the same importance as the most important competition we do in the year.”

On the ice itself, the couple identify two lines of improvement: the technical and the expressive. Their basics are strong; the elements themselves can present more of a conundrum. Excellent lifting skills for both have led in the last two years to greater experimentation, something that can bring its own downfall in the form of a lower level or lesser GOE, whether thanks to a tangled skirt or a missed foothold.

“We’re trying to narrow our margin of error on the elements,” said Paul. “I think that we’ve had elements that are a little riskier, especially when it comes to lifts — they can go wrong pretty easily and it’s difficult to try to get back into it when you’ve made a small mistake at the beginning of a lift and there’s absolutely no way of saving it. So we’ve tried to narrow that margin to allow us to get Level 4 even if we make some small mistake at the beginning.”

“This year already we have most of our lifts figured out,” said Islam. “For us they offer a little bit more peace of mind, because we know we’re confident in these elements.”

They’ve also crafted a new spin, and made a few twizzle tweaks, in the interest of maximizing level and GOE.

“The last couple of seasons, we’ve lost some crucial points — received Level 2s and 3s on our spin, and it’s cost us,” he continued. “I know this year at Nationals the focus was the missed lift, but we also didn’t get a Level 4 on our spin, which [with only a 0.22-point difference between third and fourth place] you could also argue cost us our world team spot.”

Too, the team who showcased a splashier side performing in this season’s Shall We Dance on Ice — and who have scored well in the past with bolder material than last season’s more lyrical approach — are determined not to fade away aesthetically in competition, beginning their 2016-17 program plans with a short dance to skating staples “Big Spender” and “Sing, Sing, Sing,” choreographed at home with Haguenauer.

“We tend to be more introverted performers, and we need something that’s going to force us in the beginning to be out there, force us to do a different dance style, force us to be bold and kind of in your face,” said Paul. “We know that it’s music that people skated to before, but it’s something that just makes us want to dance on the ice and we knew that that was the direction we needed to go this year.”

The strict 86-90 BPM requirement for the Midnight Blues pattern eliminates easy use of many pieces more common to blues dance away from the ice, adding another wrinkle to the ever-challenging music selection process. “There’s a very strict rhythm that you have to stick to, tempo-wise,” continued Paul. “So it’s difficult finding a blues that really sticks to the correct tempo and maintains it throughout. But I think we’ve found that.”

If the short dance demands a change, options for the free dance, at time of discussion, have called for even more careful consideration.

“We’re still in the process of figuring everything out, making sure it’s the right choices, making sure that we’re in love with the music and really feel it,” said Paul.

“We’ve got some options, obviously, but like Alex said, we’re just trying to make sure we make the right decision for our season,” added Islam. “We’re taking a lot of advice from the people that we care about and the people whose opinions we value. So right now it’s kind of like a match game — we’re just trying to figure out the best solution.”

But between the aspiration and the achievement falls the effort. In 2013, heartbreak kindled new determination — and the couple’s most consistent season success. So it only follows that like deserves like.

“‘Enough is enough’ is kind of where we’re at with things right now, and we know that we can be so much better than we’re showing in this sport,” said Islam. “Obviously that’s frustrating, but we’re looking to channel a lot of that frustration this year into hard work and into smart work and into committing ourselves like we did Olympic year to being excellent every day, and being the best athletes and the best versions of ourselves that we can.”

Islam highlighted the subtle differences between working hard and working smart.

“The two of us love to work hard, but we need to make sure that when something doesn’t feel quite right that we push through it,” he said. “We tend to overanalyze and it can be a detriment to our training. Our goal is to be physically and mentally in the best shape of our careers.”

“It’s just getting more of a mindset, I think, going into the rink every day knowing that you have to do exactly what you need to do in order to achieve your goals,” said Paul. “Not hoping that things are going to work out, just hoping that training hard is going to be enough, but you really need to put your mind to everything that you’re doing.”

Confidence, strong in the Olympic season and waning since, is perhaps the most potent ingredient.

“We just need to get that bounce back in our step,” said Islam. “Alex and I know deep down that we’re good ice dancers and that we can be at the top of the world, but we just have to believe it, and we have to believe it every day.”

It’s a belief that’s bolstered further by additional sources of skating support, including Islam’s father David, the team’s first coach, and Kelly Johnson, Mariposa choreographer and ongoing partner in exhibition creation.

“Whenever we go home, they’re willing to help us with whatever it is, be it show numbers or to get a different opinion on a key point from my dad or whatever,” said Islam. “I think the coaching staffs where we have moved — DSC or here in Montreal — these coaches all respect my dad as well and are willing to kind of share in the dialogue of ice dance.”

But self-belief, always at war with self-doubt after the injuries, the errors, the inconsistent feedback — and so easily challenged in such doubt’s reinforcement — is in its way a fundamental incentive.

“A big part of our decision to continue comes from the fact that we love what we’re doing — we love to skate, we love to work, we love to challenge ourselves,” said Islam. “We know we haven’t reached our potential yet and the challenge of achieving this is what’s driving us. Ultimately, I knew that down the road I would regret not trying to be the best I could.”

Paul agrees. “The big driving force for me in the decision to continue is that I know we can be better,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave the sport thinking we haven’t reached our full potential.”

It’s Pyeongchang 2018 that forms the central goal; it’s the daily process that composes the steps needed to battle back under conditions now, with the return of Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, perhaps more daunting than last year’s — though otherwise strangely closer to 2014’s.

Islam asserts that the post-season frustrations can be channeled effectively. “I think the strides that we make when we’re operating on that kind of level — you know, we’re going to get to where we want to be,” he said. “Life is short. You don’t get a lot of opportunities to face such awesome challenges and we’re looking forward to this season for sure.”

Continuing demands well more than courage and a healthy sense of history. There is, too, the desire to write a better ending — and the conviction that it can be done.


**The Disson opportunity — the team’s first appearance in a major televised skating show — came courtesy of a recommendation from coaches Dubreuil and Lauzon, who declined an invitation to make a repeat appearance after skating in 2014’s Shall We Dance on Ice. Islam says the chance proved a “confidence-booster” in the midst of an already difficult season.

“It’s fun to skate with people that have been there in the past, successful past ice dancers, to watch them and learn little things from them,” he said. “It was nice to be there and feel like we belonged and fit in on and off the ice, and we’re excited to hopefully do the show again this year” — in Las Vegas, a rather livelier locale than last year’s Bloomington, Illinois.

**Support also begins closer to home with the newest member of their household: dog Fitzgerald.

“I could talk about my dog for hours if I wanted to,” said Paul, drawing laughter from Islam. “I think getting a dog has been a lovely addition to our apartment. It’s so nice having something to come home to that’s just so excited to see you every single time you leave the apartment. I could be gone for two minutes and walk back in the door and it’s like he’s never seen me before and I’m the most exciting thing he’s ever seen in his life and I just get jumped on and everything. So it’s kind of an immediate happiness booster every day, waking up in the morning or coming home from the rink, so it’s been a really great addition to our daily lives, I think.”

“He brings us a lot of joy, that’s for sure,” added Islam.

“We get outside a lot more now, too,” said Paul. “I feel like I live in a rink, so it’s nice to have an excuse to…”

“Go for walks,” interjected Islam.

“For a long walk and kind of hang out in the dog park, that sort of thing,” concluded Paul.

**Johnson’s show efforts include the couple’s latest exhibition, a romantic contemporary piece to Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud,” debuted at May’s annual Margaret Garrison Ice Show and choreographed during an extended stretch in Barrie while they contemplated their future plans.

And not a small amount of inspiration came from the song’s original music video, famed for its intricate four minute-plus dance between Sheeran and ballroom/contemporary dancer Brittany Cherry, choreographed by Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo. “We wanted to try to incorporate some of the moves, because it’s such a different music video the way that it was done,” said Paul.

“I actually hadn’t seen it,” admitted Islam. “But Kelly had seen the video and brought it into the rink one day and showed us, and we picked a couple parts we thought were really cool.”

Also key to this number and others? A bit of pairs lift training with coach Lee Barkell, acquired during their days at Mariposa. “We thought it would be great for just teaching us how to be stronger lifters,” said Islam. “So we’ve kept some of those little gems that he’s taught us and incorporated them into some of our show programs” — gems, including an overhead drape lift, that the couple also laugh could readily disqualify them in ice dance competition.

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