by Jacquelyn Thayer
One could say that the reports of Canadian ice dancer Thomas Williams’s retirement were an exaggeration.
“I planned on continuing—that was my original plan all along,” said Williams, who split from partner Nicole Orford in early 2015. Certain reports, however, suggested that he had publicly concluded his career. “I never announced anything and I definitely didn’t retire. I was trying out, I was ready to go. It was funny, because it’s always interesting to find out things like that, right?”
Indeed, the idea of a comeback applies far less to Williams, who last competed at 2015’s Canadian Nationals, than to new partner Sarah Arnold, whose last major competition also came at Canadian Nationals — in 2011.
It began, as other pairings have, as a notion between friends. Arnold, who after competing coached, obtained her Pilates certification, and became a licensed massage therapist, had relocated to Vancouver from western Ontario a few years earlier. “I lived a little — I lived life,” she said.
Williams’ 2015 tryouts included a meeting in Philadelphia in addition to some at his BC base. “Sarah and I are good friends off the ice,” he said, “and we thought it would be fun to skate together — you know, just for the heck of it, because it’s been so long since Sarah had skated with a partner.” The February 2015 tryout — casual enough to take place away from the eyes of coaches Megan Wing and Aaron Lowe — took.
But Williams opted to take a year to live his own life in Calgary, taking time away from the ice — including much work as a test partner — to recover from a nagging Achilles injury and to earn some needed income. “So I decided to move home and work for my dad in construction and just take that time to go to physio and try and completely recover from that injury, and pay out some debt and decide if I wanted to continue,” he said.
Given their diverging schedules and locales over the 2015-16 season, Williams estimates that between the February tryout and their formal beginning this March, the team “maybe skated eight times together” — from sessions during Arnold’s trip to Alberta to attend Skate Canada International with Williams, to a few opportunities during his own Vancouver trips for work purposes.
“Even though we had those long stretches of time in between, each time we skated, it felt better and better,” said Williams. But before the two could ease into a full-time schedule, the new pairing was announced in February in a way that came as a surprise to one partner.
“I didn’t know he posted the GoFundMe,” said Arnold, who was at work when Williams tweeted word of a fundraising page for training expenses. “I’m with clients because I don’t really have a lot of time between clients, and all these people from out east and all over started messaging me, and I’m like ‘How did you find out?’ And then someone took a screenshot of the GoFundMe and I just was like ‘Oh my God, Thomas.’ That’s how I found out. I was not a part of it — I like to lay low.”
“I’m coaching, I’m still doing my car detailing business, and I’m working for a financial services company now,” said Williams. “I’m doing as much as I can, but there’s just no way that I could jump right back into full-time training with what I had available, funds-wise. So, yeah. I didn’t really tell Sarah, I just started on it.”
As Williams reports, the comeback came as news even within the skating community, as he learned when attending Stars on Ice in Calgary last month.
“I went out with some of the skaters after and they were like ‘Sarah’s still skating? I thought she was done a long time ago,'” he said. “‘I’m glad to hear she’s skating again, but how’s she doing? It’s been so long.’”
“It’s like riding a bike,” added Arnold with a laugh.
While Williams spent early March handling the last steps of his move, Arnold had two weeks of solo training to regain her sea legs — and readjust those legs to training. Wing and Lowe limited her skating time on a graduated basis, moving along by half-hour increments, but the process remained unavoidably painful.
“‘There’s no amount of running you can do because you’re using such different muscles. You just have to get used to it,’” recalled Arnold of Wing’s advice. “And so there were some days I just felt like I was walking in sand. It hurt. But maybe it’s just because I’m educated on the body now, but the body’s amazing, how fast it can adapt and how it changes.”
But after the weeks of careful effort, “I can skate and train,” she remarked. “It’s crazy!”
“It’s coming together pretty quickly,” said Williams. “It just felt pretty natural. The first time we skated together, Sarah was in super broken down skates — she could barely skate in them.”
“I had these skates for, I want to say, like four years of just coaching,” said Arnold, laughing. “I didn’t have them sharpened […] I don’t know how I was skating on them. And I came home and I showed Aaron and Aaron’s like, ‘Oh my gosh, you’re skating on those skates?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I don’t know how.’”
Time — and stronger skates — have meant a chance now to zero in on the fundamentals: refining technique as a duo.
“The only thing that we’re still having to really work to get together is probably our twizzles,” said Williams. “But our spin came together right away, nice and fast; the lifts have been easy to come up with and figure out, and just the actual partnering and stroking feels really good right away. It felt good the first time out there. I thought there’d be a lot more adjusting and a lot more figuring things out, and it’s just kind of worked — it’s been really nice.”
The trick of those twizzles? Both partners favor opposite directions in rotation.
“We can both twizzle in both directions fine,” said Williams, “but with some of the features we have to do to get the level, like jumping in or the different leg features, it makes it a little more difficult for Sarah to do the twizzles in my direction, and then it makes it almost impossible for me to do some of it in her direction. So it’s trying to find that happy medium, something that works for both of us. So it is tough when you have that, but we’re figuring it out now. Things have gotten a lot better.”
With no ISU points or exposure, the team is starting from competitive scratch, planning towards the summer season. Their season will begin in earnest with July’s Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships, followed by the local BC Summer Skate. From there, it’s up to Skate Canada.
“Our first and foremost goal is to be selected or assigned to an international, because we want to start getting world ranking points,” said Williams. “One for sure, and two would be great, because the chances of getting something like Skate Canada being brand new after this long out are pretty slim.”
If their long-term goals are those of most high-level athletes — in this case, Four Continents, Worlds and perhaps the Olympics, though Williams admits the battle just to make Canada’s championship teams is challenging — those in the immediate future start closer to home.
“We want to do well at Challenge and then at Nationals,” he continued. “Our goal would definitely be national team again — top five. When we found out Tessa and Scott were announcing their comeback, it kind of changed things up a little bit, but still, we think top five’s a very realistic goal for sure.”
Given a late start, choreography came quickly. The Midnight Blues of the short dance is a new compulsory for both partners, one they’re enjoying, and Wing and Lowe began work on the blues/swing program within two weeks of training’s start.
Vera Lynn’s rendition of “As Time Goes By” forms the blues base, with an instrumental of “String of Pearls” comprising the swing. “It’s fun, it’s a nice way to end the program,” said Williams. “It’s been working really well. It came together pretty quickly and we’ve been training it for well over a month now, so it’s good.”
Good, even if a few official revisions to Midnight Blues marking reared their head at an inopportune time last month.
“We just had a little break–Sarah was the maid of honor at her best friend’s wedding and I went home for some work and to go to my cousin’s wedding,” said Williams. “So before we left, we were trying really hard to focus on a couple of the key points, and we came back and ‘Oh well, that’s completely different now.'”
Mark Pillay, mastermind behind Orford and Williams’ final, Titanic-scored free dance, has returned to tackle Arnold and Williams’ first free, begun just before their break.
“He brought us a few different ideas,” said Williams, “and we really liked Downton Abbey the best.
It’s a lot different for me, doing choreography with Mark. It’s fun, it’s been good.”
“[He has] a lot of passion for the sport, for sure,” said Arnold. “He’s a very talented choreographer.”
“He doesn’t like all the restrictions we have in dance. ‘What do you mean you can’t be apart for this long?'” added Williams with a laugh. “It’s always funny. He’s like ‘Dance and their silly rules.’”
At 26 and 25, Arnold and Williams are the most senior — if newest — team among Wing and Lowe’s crew, bringing to their comeback the additional responsibilities of adult life.
“I wish I could say that it’s been easy, but you can imagine, being out, it’s not the easiest,” said Arnold. “But Thomas has made it pretty easy and he’s awesome to skate with. I would say the hardest thing is because we’re both supporting ourselves financially, so it’s just trying to figure out time management — how much you can work and not work but still have energy to skate and train.”
And the physical aspects of maturity can take their own form for an athlete, as Arnold learned in her return. “I will say it’s different working out — it’s a lot more rehab now than what you normally do when you’re, like, 18 years old,” she said with a laugh. “I think it helps that Megan and Aaron competed when they were a little bit older, too — they were in their thirties. So they know what it’s like to kind of train when you’re younger and having to change things up eventually, which definitely helps.”
But the youthful crop of training mates contributes, in Arnold’s words, “a good energy on the ice.”
“Everybody kind of cheers everybody on and they’re always there for one another on the ice — it’s a good environment, for sure,” said Williams. “It makes it easier to push through a run-through or through your tenth set of twizzles when you have other teams on the ice, cheering and clapping for you when you’re near the end.”
And despite any late starts, any growing pains and readjustments, the team set the bar for the Vancouver crew in one aspect of season preparation.
“We got started probably the latest out of all of Megan and Aaron’s teams for choreography on our short dance, but we’re the first team to do a full run-through,” said Williams.
“Yeah, I just turned my brain off,” said Arnold. “I just didn’t feel my body.”
“We were supposed to go and do a good chunk of it, a little breather, and then the rest of it,” continued Williams, “and Sarah’s like, ‘Well, we may as well just do the whole thing.'”
It’s a similar spirit motivating this comeback of sorts into a difficult field. “We have goals, we’re both very competitive people, and we both push each other in that sense,” said Williams. “But we’re having a lot of fun and we wouldn’t be doing this if it was just work. We’re enjoying it, having fun together.”
Williams summarizes for both.
“It’s been good, coming back,” he said.
**Arnold’s career path has proven especially useful in her return to the ice.
“I’m a registered massage therapist in Vancouver, which was pretty intense for school,” she said. “But I love it. It’s an awesome career.”
“She’s able to fix me,” added Williams.
“I’m able to fix Thomas when he has a problem, or when I hurt him,” Arnold continued with a laugh. “And then I teach Pilates, so I rehab clients through disc bulges, rotator cuff injuries. So it’s really interesting going back into this sport with having this new knowledge of how the body works and how it functions. I know it took me awhile just to kind of get out of my head and just even work out without overanalyzing how everything worked and how all the muscles function. And I think I’m doing a pretty good job with that.”
**Williams credits his aunt, who, as Michelle Morton, competed for Canada in long track speed skating at the 1994 and 1998 Winter Olympics, and performed as a figure skater in the opening ceremonies of the 1988 Calgary Olympics, with mentoring him in goal-setting and life planning as an athlete from an early point.
“If it wasn’t for her, I wouldn’t have ended up coming out to Vancouver in the first place to try out with Nicole,” said Williams. “So she’s been a big help and influence and she started a fundraising thing back home — she’s the one that helped me write up the GoFundMe page and all that.”
In a coincidental turn, Arnold, before the 2015 tryout, contemplated relocating to Calgary for another route — long track speed skating.
“It’s so much fun,” she said. “The run of the blade — you go so fast and it just feels so nice to go fast. So I really liked it, but it was kind of weird only skating in one direction, and there were no extra components” — though she could, she jokes, have adopted “a bedazzled onesie for my speed skating suit.”
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