By Hiro Yoshida
Later this week, Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc will be among several pairs vying for what will be the United States of America’s lone spot at the 2018 PyeongChang. In just their second season as a team, the Americans have their sights set on fulfilling their Olympic dreams in South Korea next month.
Cain and LeDuc formed their partnership after both having taken a break from pairs. Following her split with Joshua Reagan in 2012, Cain focused on her singles career. LeDuc left competitive skating altogether and performed in shows on Royal Caribbean cruise ships for two years.
“I think we came together at the perfect moment in our skating careers,” Cain said. “We are just such stronger performers. We’re different as people now because we have experienced so much more and gone through so many things. Tim being in the shows has brought so much to the performance side of how he skates and me being away from pairs for a while made me appreciate it so much more when I did come back.”
As junior skaters, their paths crossed many times and they both represented the U.S. with different partners at the 2011 World Junior Figure Skating Championships in Gangneung, South Korea. In 2012, when Cain had put her pairs career on hold, they found themselves at the same rink and tried a few elements together. For whatever reason, things did not click at that point.
“I had just split with Josh and went up to Colorado Springs to work with Kathy Casey on singles and he was up there just training,” Cain recalled. “I had no intent to find a partner or do pairs at that moment. He wasn’t looking for a partner when he was there for that week. We didn’t really think anything of it. It was for 15 minutes and we never talked again about it.”
“We came together when we needed to come together,” LeDuc added.
In May 2016, that time came. Their international debut competition was the Nebelhorn Trophy in September 2016 where they came fourth. They also were fourth at Finlandia Trophy the following month before picking up a bronze medal at Golden Spin in December.
“At every competition we were adding new elements and our score was going up every time,” Cain said. “When we were doing pairs before, it wasn’t at the level that pairs skating is now. That was a big thing as well – the sport has grown so much since the last time we did pairs that we not only had to learn everything over again, but we had to learn more.”
At the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Kansas City, Missouri, the relatively unheralded pair surprised everyone by coming first in the short programme. However, the free skating did not go as well, and they dropped down to third place overall.
“I think we got fatigued,” Cain said. “It was the biggest thing I felt mentally because I think that we knew that if we skated the short programme like we do in practice, and honestly we were doing it clean every time at home, we would be able to score a higher score and do well at Nationals.
“I think for us as a team it was about learning how to pace ourselves into the long programme, especially mentally, because here we are – we haven’t even been together seven months and we are sitting in first place at the national championships. I think it was a moment where we just needed to understand how to pace ourselves.”
“We were seeking a lot of validation too going into our first national championships because we are this new team and we feel we have a lot of potential to be a world level team,” LeDuc continued. “We wanted to show everyone that.”
“We wanted to do well and to be at the top because we know that we have so much to give to the sport,” Cain added. “In the long programme, we tried almost too hard to have that perfect moment, but I think in the end everything happens for a reason.”
Cain and LeDuc were assigned to compete at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in February 2017. They finished ninth. They travelled to the 2017 World Figure Skating Championships as observers the following month. The pairs who represented the United States were able to maintain two spots for 2018 Worlds, but, due to the strict quota on places at the 2018 Olympics, there will be only one American pair in South Korea in February of this year. Seeing Worlds live motivated Cain and LeDuc to assess their skating and analyse what they needed to work on to be on a par with the best pairs.
“We went back to our hotel rooms that night and we sat down and made a list of all the things we want to start doing in our training,” LeDuc said. “It was just a list of observations we had of what the top teams in the world do to be the top teams and how are we going to get there. What do we need to add to our skating so that we can be in that final group at the World Championships and be on the podium? It was amazing to watch the World Championships live and to have that experience and gaining that perspective was so valuable for us.”
An opportunity to get an insight into how the top pairs in the world train presented itself when renowned Russian pairs coach Nina Mozer was invited by U.S. Figure Skating to hold a pairs camp in Denver, Colorado in June 2017. Cain and LeDuc quickly developed a rapport with Mozer.
“We really meshed well with her,” Cain said. “We clicked with her right away.”
“She has a great skill of observation,” LeDuc said. “She’s very astute and she would watch all these pair teams flying around the ice and was able to pick out things all these pairs were doing, all these throws and lifts that were going around and say, ‘You need to do this, and you need to do this.’ She’s very quick regarding technique. It was also the way she was very personable with us. The way she picked out the things that we needed and the way she administered those suggestions was worked really well for us.”
Cain, who is regarded as tall for a female pairs skater standing at 168 centimetres, has faced her share of naysayers who believe that her height made her unsuitable for pairs. She found validation from Mozer that it really is not an issue.
“She was extremely respectful of my height which I’ve obviously dealt with a lot of criticism about,” Cain explained. “I never got any ‘Why are you trying to this?’ or ‘You can’t do this because of your height or your body size.’ She would take me and say, ‘Because of your length, this is where you need to put this hand. This is where you need to put this leg.’ I immediately felt very comfortable and better because Nina Mozer was telling me it’s fine that you’re this tall.”
“I think it’s so cool that Ashley is an inspiration for all girls out there who are told ‘You are not this enough’,” LeDuc said. “For all the girls that get body-shamed, Ashley’s kind of a beacon for them.”
Cain and LeDuc spent another three weeks working with Mozer at a training camp in Italy during the summer of 2017. When she learned that the pair had been assigned to Lombardia Trophy and Nebelhorn Trophy in September 2017, she insisted that they come and train in Moscow during the week in between the competitions.
“When we were in Italy, we had told her that we had Lombardia Trophy and we had Nebelhorn Trophy,” Cain said. “She said, ‘Are you going to stay in Europe?’ And we said, ‘No, we are going back home.’ She said, “Absolutely not. You are going to come train with me for a week. You’re not going home. It will be good if you come to Moscow. You won’t be jet lagged and you can rest. You have a place to stay.’”
Cain and LeDuc came fourth at Lombardia Trophy and seventh at Nebelhorn Trophy. At the latter event, they earned two new personal bests for their free skating (120.88) and total score (176.35).
“I definitely felt a big difference on my body,” Cain said. “Last year, our season was very unknown. We were going home and being called for a competition the next day. It was a big factor on our bodies just because of jet lag. It was nice to be able to go to Moscow for a week and be able to rest and only have a three-hour flight.”
The Americans also received their first Grand Prix assignment as a team for Cup of China. In Beijing, they finished sixth.
This season Cain and LeDuc have chosen to skate to the bluesy “I’ll Take Care of You” by Joe Bonamassa for their short and “The Great Gatsby” film soundtrack for their free. The latter is a big contrast to the more lyrical free they skated to during their maiden season together.
“Last year “The Prayer” was the vehicle we needed to take us where we needed to go last season,” LeDuc said. “I think so far so good with these programmes. These are the vehicles we need to continue that forward progress. There’s just a continuation of the way we want to market ourselves as a team that are great performers with great technical ability and passion on the ice that also showcases our long lines.”
“What’s funny is I think that “The Prayer” was perfect for last year,” Cain concurred. “We needed a programme that was slower paced because we were still learning elements and our elements were a lot slower. Our elements have grown a lot in speed and how much they cover the ice since last year. They’re very different because we were different skaters last year.
“When people saw us originally teaming up, they saw lines and extension, so they immediately thought ‘lyrical, slow music all the time.’ Which is why this year we went with something that was fun and upbeat because it’s still our style and incorporates extensions and long lines, but we can do it in a fun way.”
LeDuc took up skating at the relatively late age of 12 inspired by watching the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
“I had seen a couple of ice skating specials on TV before, but watching those Olympics I was hooked right from that point I knew that is exactly what I wanted to do,” LeDuc recalled. “I had done a little bit of dance because my mom is a gymnast, so she had taught us gymnastics and dance. Movement had always been a part of my life, but I had never really found the vehicle for that. When I saw ice skating, I knew that was what I wanted to do, and they had just built a rink right by my house that year. It’s never too late to start if you have the passion and you work hard.”
For Cain, the Olympics have been something altogether much more tangible her whole life due to her father and coach Peter Cain. He represented his native Australia in pairs at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, participated in the torch relay for the 2000 Sydney Olympics and served as a technical specialist at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
“We have in our house this whole thing dedicated to his Olympic experience because he’s been able to experience the Olympics three times, but in all different ways,” Cain said. “Obviously now he wants to go as a coach. What he has talked about the most is the camaraderie between every single athlete. He said it’s such an amazing experience to be in the athletes’ village and be surrounded by all these amazing athletes who are at their peak shape and wanting the same goal and representing their country.”
For Cain and LeDuc to make their Olympic dreams a reality, they first must clear the steep hurdle that is U.S. Nationals this week. It will be a tough task with many pairs with the same goal in mind, Cain and LeDuc believe that they have certain qualities that set them apart.
“I see a lot of excellent qualities in all the other teams,” LeDuc said.” I think the biggest thing that Ashley and I have on the other teams is being fully well-rounded. The only disadvantage we have on the other teams is time because we haven’t been together for long. Ashley and I are growing and working on consistency. We have the performance. We have the extension. We have the lines. We have the technical ability. There’s really no area that we are missing in and that’s what sets us apart and will continue to set us apart and be the top American team. It’s now just a matter of time and putting all the pieces together.”
“I think we have to keep moving forward in that way and not be too localised in certain elements,” Cain added. “Just keep everything as a whole and keep improving as a whole.”
Whether they are successful or not in being selected to represent the U.S. in PyeongChang, Cain and LeDuc appreciate being able to find each other and work with a common purpose towards that objective.
“I think it is amazing to have a person that shares the same goal as you and is going to do whatever it takes to achieve that goal and will work every single day by your side to have that goal together,” Cain said. “I did singles for four and a half years alone and I had that goal within myself. When I started pairs again, you are sharing this goal and you are going to do whatever it takes to do it together. That is what makes it so special.”
“It helps with the day to day training that can be difficult sometimes just knowing you have somebody by your side that is experiencing all of this along with you, the ups and the downs. and is continuing to work and push themselves,” LeDuc said. “Ashley and I have a really great synergy between us which I think is really think is one of the most important qualities in a really good pairs team. That is part of why we have had a lot of success and have grown so quickly is because we are in synch in that way. We know what we are fighting for and we take that with us every day.”