Part 1 of a two-part feature
by Jacquelyn Thayer
Perseverance: few virtues are more celebrated in sport. For athletes grappling with injury and long odds, it becomes a mantra. But just as fundamental is the confidence to know when it’s time to close a door.
Canadian ice dancers Alexandra Paul and Mitch Islam initially entered the 2016-17 season with a declared intent to carry on after a tough season, and not the first.
“I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that we maybe thought we had a little bit of unfinished business because we had the mistake at Nationals — it wasn’t like we had gone to Nationals and skated well and not made the world team, you know what I mean?” said Islam of an error in their free dance at that key event, which placed them fourth overall. “So I think part of it was that we had that drive, that determination to want to get back onto the world team. We had the feeling that we even thought we could do that.”
The two committed themselves to training hard through the summer — and then Paul sustained a hamstring injury, prompting their withdrawal from two planned club competitions in August.
“Things started kind of unraveling a little bit,” said Islam. “For me, personally, I kind of knew after Salt Lake that this might be the end for us.” In their season opener at the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic there in September, the couple finished with only bronze overall, including a set of far from best scores.
“So much of it for us — which isn’t necessarily right — is about the results,” he continued. “When you’re putting in all this hard work, obviously you want to enjoy the process, which we were, but you also want to see improvement in the results, and we weren’t doing that as last season progressed. So after Salt Lake City I kind of got to a bit of a low place.”
In their fourth trip to Skate Canada International the ensuing month, another sort of negative trend continued. After finishing fourth and fifth at their first outings there in 2010 and 2013, the team had ranked sixth in 2015. This time out, they placed eighth of ten couples.
“For me it was more after Skate Canada,” said Paul. “We thought we skated fairly well. We didn’t see an improvement we thought we would see and it was very disappointing to us. We hadn’t got to the point where we were going to retire right then and there; I had the feeling that we would probably last the season.”
Then came Cup of China three weeks later, the team traveling to Beijing only to see their event cut short when Paul twisted her knee after a bad fall in practice the morning of the short dance. “That’s never really a good thing for me considering my knee is not my best body part right now,” she said. Loose ligaments from early career injuries have left the joints a perpetual weak spot, prone to popping with even minimal movement.
“It was sore on practice but manageable,” she continued. “And then I went and had a nap, and I woke up from my nap and it was kind of game over from there. I tried to do the warm-up, but it was just unbelievably painful and we made the decision that it wasn’t going to be possible to complete the competition.”
The choice from there wasn’t difficult. A candid discussion between the two upon returning home settled the decision to retire immediately, replacing a few months more of skating with their final semester at Oakland University; they wouldn’t return to training ice.
“Cup of China was just such a big disappointment that I don’t think I had it in me to be able to continue, and knowing that it would be our last season, going to Nationals didn’t really seem all that important any more when we had the opportunity to go to school,” said Paul.
“A lot of this decision had to do with the fact that we could be back at school in Michigan in January and then with these further plans that we have to go to school post-grad, we wanted to get started,” said Islam. “That was a pretty easy decision when our hearts were where they were.”
It was not, of course, the first time the couple had grappled with the question; indeed, the choice between staying on and moving on had arisen several times previous to this past year, including in the period between a disappointing finish at the 2015 World Championships and a last move, some weeks later, to Montreal’s Gadbois Centre headed up by Marie-France Dubreuil, Patrice Lauzon and Romain Haguenauer. Had those Worlds played out differently — had their strong eighth place finish in the short dance carried through to the free dance, where they ultimately dropped five spots skating a still-rough new program after scrapping one choreographed by coaches-to-be Dubreuil and Lauzon — would the final choice have been the same?
“I think that’s a difficult question to answer — I never like thinking in hypotheticals,” said Islam. “I know that that last season in Detroit was a little bit tough for Alex and I. We had maybe that sentiment a little bit even before Worlds — it’s hard to kind of remember that — but, you know, that is what happened. We had changed our free dance that season a couple months before that, so I think a lot of it had to do with the fact that we just didn’t have a lot of mileage on that program. But that’s just kind of a microcosm of the bigger picture there that season. I think we were definitely ready to try new things.”
But the change made little to no positive impact on results and scoring; component numbers that had largely trended upward in the previous period of their career stalled, and technical elements — once the area where the team could most bank on moving up in a competition’s ranks, even despite the periodic infamous hiccup — became more of a liability, including in both of this season’s short dance outings. But though I don’t ask them directly about regrets, they express none regardless.
“A change of environment is always a good thing, I think — just a new perspective on the way that we push or our artistry,” said Paul. “It’s refreshing for an athlete because when you’re doing the same thing over and over again, it’s sometimes nice to hear something totally new and get a totally different view on your skating.”
“Yeah, when you’re in a situation like we were, coming out of Detroit, a little down on ourselves and wondering where we were going to be going with our career, just injecting a little bit of freshness into your daily routine is rejuvenating and that was definitely the case, especially that first season in Montreal,” said Islam. “We don’t regret moving to Detroit, we don’t regret moving to Montreal. It was all part of the journey and I think we learned great things from incredible people in both cities.”
Not in the cards after relocating to Gadbois, however, was the prospect of another move. “As our career wound down in Montreal, there was no question, for me at least, that this was going to be it,” said Islam. “I was totally ready to move on.”
But through their years at the Mariposa School of Skating, the Detroit Skating Club and Gadbois, Islam estimates they trained with about ten different coaches.
“I think we got to see so many cool different delineations of different approaches to the sport, whether it was a more creative angle, whether it was a much more technical angle,” he said. “The team in Detroit all had their own kind of shtick, from Massimo [Scali] to Angelika [Krylova] to Pasquale [Camerlengo]. You had Pasquale with the creation and Angelika was the trainer, and Massi was kind of the combination of the two, and then you had Natalia [Annenko Deller], who was forever the technician.”
“Nobody can skate like Natalia,” noted Paul. “Nobody can stroke like her.”
“Then in Montreal, you had Patrice, who was an incredible technician,” continued Islam, who likened Lauzon’s tech focus to his father’s as coach. “He really connected us to how you feel when you’re on the ice. Marie, at least for me, really got me in touch with my inner performer more than anyone, I think. And, you know, we loved working with Romain. We worked with him for so long and his creative ability when it came to things like choreography was second to none. So we’re really fortunate that we got to work with all these incredible people.”
And at one point, early, the rather essential aspect of competition was one they enjoyed far more than they would in the later years. “I would say the first two years, probably, we enjoyed it the most,” said Paul. “We were so fresh in the competition scene together–”
“We were young and stupid,” interjected Islam with humor.
“We didn’t really have any expectations then, so everything we did and every time we succeeded in something, it was just so exciting,” Paul continued.
2010’s junior national title and World Junior Championship silver, and a first senior national medal the next year, characterized what Islam calls a “whirlwind” period of success for the young team. But the injuries and competitive woes that shortly ensued made later achievements sweeter.
“Those kinds of successes meant a little bit more to me, at least, because we had gone through struggles,” said Islam. “You definitely appreciate more how hard it is to get to that type of level and to be successful in this sport, just how fine a line it is.”
Never moreso than at the 2014 national championships, where a bronze medal performance meant the realization of career-long Olympic goals, and came as redemption for bitter disappointment at the previous year’s event.
“We were so ready and we were so prepared and our minds were so strong and we just had such a great attitude about the whole thing,” continued Islam. “I don’t want to say it was effortless, because it was definitely a lot of stress and nerves at that national championships, but you know what? A part of me just knew the whole time.”
“I think that it was more of a mentality that we just didn’t have anything to lose,” said Paul. “We were either going to get the [Olympic team] spot or we weren’t — we knew that we had to work hard to get the spot and that’s what we had to do. So we trained our programs exceptionally hard — I wouldn’t say any harder than we did in later seasons, but we were just so focused on making it happen and just making sure that no matter what, you did all your elements, you did them to the best of your ability and every day going to the rink with that mentality really helped us, I think, for the Nationals.”
Time away has already given them a new perspective on style — and the choices that may have let them down. They agree on a favorite program in 2013-14’s Finnstep-pattern short dance to Gershwin selections, a program that made a particular impact at those pivotal Nationals.
“It was just so bubbly and fresh and so easy to perform – it felt so natural, and you just got to be happy the whole time,” said Paul. “It’s so fun to perform a program like when you get to be excited the entire time and nothing’s going to bring you down, because you’re performing throughout the whole thing.”
“It showcased what we were best at, kind of being bubbly and happy and light,” agreed Islam, who highlighted two additional favorites in another lighthearted short dance — 2012-13’s Yankee Polka/waltz program to pieces from Edith Piaf — and their debut senior free dance to “As Time Goes By.”
Indeed, on the heels of two consecutive lyrical free dances in their last two Gadbois-based seasons — and years more of typecasting as a lyrical team based less on actual program genre and more on introverted performance quality and Paul’s ballet training — the two have reassessed their strengths.
“Hindsight is 20/20, right?” asked Islam. “But I definitely think now that we’re out of it that those lighter, more lighthearted, happier, upbeat kind of programs were stronger for us.”
“But that’s part of the challenge, is making [a lyrical program] special,” said Paul. “Casablanca was lyrical in a way, but I think we were able to bring something different to it and maybe that was part of our struggles in later years — we were struggling to find that special little something to bring to our lyrical programs.”
“Subtlety,” acknowledged Islam, “isn’t necessarily going to get you noticed.”
Though he suggests musical theatre as one unexplored program route that may have taken fine advantage of those newly-recognized strengths, both partners feel satisfied with the range of other genres they tackled over the years — including tangos and waltzes, Latin and ballet.
And they’re satisfied, too, with the extraordinary ways in which an elite athletic career has shaped their young adult lives.
“Skating gave me a very amazing life,” said Paul. “It allowed me to do so many things that your average person isn’t able to do. I was able to travel the world, I was able to meet so many different people. I was able to go to the Olympics. I was able to create huge goals and achieve them. And so I would say that skating just gave me one of the coolest young adult/childhood lives I could have asked for.”
“I think the things that we got to do at a young age are pretty incredible, and we’re grateful that we had the opportunity to pursue our goals and reach some of them,” agreed Islam. “I think that any sport at a high level teaches you so many things about yourself.
“I think Alex and I both leave the sport knowing exactly who we are as people. I think that sport in general makes you more tolerant, it makes you more respectful. It makes you more critical at the same time. It makes you disciplined. There’s all these incredible things that we’ve engaged in that have really made us better people, and I think for me that’s the biggest thing that we take away from this sport — just the confidence that it gave us to be our own people.”
Stay tuned for part two and a closer look at life after retirement.