By Hiro Yoshida
Lilah Fear and Lewis Gibson have captured the imaginations of skating fans and judges alike this season with their performances. The British duo make their third appearance at a World Championships in Saitama, Japan next week and are all set to step onto their biggest stage yet.
At the beginning of their third season as a team, Fear and Gibson competed at the Ondrej Nepela Trophy in Bratislava, Slovakia and the Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany last September. They finished fourth and fifth respectively at these events. They made their Grand Prix debut at Skate America in Everett, Washington the following month where they came fifth. For their second Grand Prix assignment, they skated at the NHK Trophy in Hiroshima, Japan and recorded new personal bests for their free dance (113.29) and total score (177.20) to place fourth. They were ranked second in the free.
They regained their British title in December after finishing second in 2017 and were selected to represent Great Britain at the 2019 European Championships in Minsk, Belarus which took place in January this year. After posting a personal best in their flamenco tango rhythm dance (69.77), they earned sixth place in the free to put themselves in sixth place overall with another personal best total score of 182.05.
“This year has really been a jump forward for us,” Gibson said. “Each competition has gotten a little bit better and we’ve received good scores and skated well.”
“It’s really exciting and our goal was top 10 and to have achieved that by quite a bit is beyond our expectations,” Fear said about their Europeans result. “We’re happy to have broken 180. That was definitely a goal of ours which seemed quite far off in the distance, but it’s amazing to have done that.”
Their improvement in the standings is due in large part to their choice of theme for their free this season. A disco number with music from Donna Summer and Earth, Wind and Fire has proved to be a big hit wherever they have skated and has contributed to a boost in confidence in the routine.
“When we first choreographed the free dance, we had a lot of the big name skaters saying ‘Oh we really love your programme’ and that was really exciting for us to hear that kind of feedback instantly,” Gibson said.
“We just skate and we don’t really know what people think about it,” Fear said.
“We knew it was a little bit different as well, but then we went to our first event and our short dance wasn’t what we wanted in terms of points and it was like that at both of first two events,” Gibson recalled. “Our free dance started to gain more points as each one went on, so we knew it was a good programme. Then at Skate America our short dance was good and the free dance was pretty well skated. Even though we had a big error in the programme, we still got a good score.”
“There’s a lot of people that love the programme and are excited to watch so there’s that energy around it and we just hope to deliver for them every time,” Fear said.
Until they teamed up at the end of 2015, Gibson had been a singles skater, but had come to the realisation that his pathway internationally was limited. Fear had been in a partnership with Jacob Payne that had just ended and the skaters found themselves in the right place at the right time to come together. The fact that Gibson had zero experience in ice dance did prove to be challenging in the beginning.
“The reason I switched is that I want to go to the Olympics, like many skaters, and I realised I wasn’t the most consistent skater,” Gibson said. “My strength was more in the creative side and the performance side. I guess I was persuaded by a few of our judges in the federation to give it a try for many years and I kept saying ‘No, no, no. I’m happy in singles.’ To make it in men’s now you need so many quads. Everything would be so difficult to qualify, so I took their advice. I gave it a shot and we got together.”
“I was just finishing my partnership with Jacob, my partner in juniors,” Fear recalled. “He decided to stop skating and obviously I wanted to continue because I love it so much and our federation suggested we try out. But really I think it was just the timing that was perfect because there aren’t that many men that are available in the UK. I was just lucky to have ended the partnership at the right time when Lewis was switching before someone grabbed him.
“We had to get to know each other and in the try-out we had a coach guide us through it because Lewis didn’t know any dance holds and we didn’t know what to do,” Fear continued. “Once we were left alone to skate together, we realised our personalities fit very well and that we have a great working relationship.”
Initially Fear and Gibson divided their training between the Alexandra Palace ice rink in London, United Kingdom and Montreal, Canada. Fear had previously been coached by Romain Haguenauer who moved to Montreal to work with Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon in 2014.
“I’ve known Romain since I was 10 years old which not many people know,” Fear said. “I had a solo dance career back in the day. He did my choreography for a few seasons of solo dance until I found my partner. That’s how the connection was made initially. We were really lucky to have the base in London at Alexandra Palace as well and to have that team work together. We travelled back and forth, but it was always that sense of a team. Then I started university at McGill in Montreal so that’s why we made the permanent move there, but we’re still lucky to be able to have London as a base too.
“We’re really thankful for Romain and the team in Montreal to take us on as well when we were literally at zero,” Gibson added.
“We were really bad,” Fear admitted. “We have videos of our first day there and it’s really embarrassing.
“We’re really happy that they had trust and patience with us because it took a while, but now we’re just really loving being there and we love our training mates.”
“Even now we laugh because we can’t do some of the basic things that just appear so simple,” Gibson said.
“We don’t have that foundation together really because we had to accelerate to start competing,” Fear said. “Lewis knows three compulsory dances. We’re really thankful for our team in Montreal and in the UK as well.”
“Killian position I hate,” Gibson said. “I would say in general it’s skating in hold so close together with someone is difficult and I think it is underappreciated when you watch how hard it is to skate so close to someone.
“I would have to say that’s the hardest thing. This year with a lot of the elements more side by side I felt more of a freedom in the programme and I enjoy it. I think that maybe helps translate in the free dance as well.”
Haguenauer choreographed both of their programmes this season and the Britons appreciate the level of collaboration and input they have.
“He’s really great to work with and he listens to our ideas,” Gibson said. “It’s back and forth and we come up with a finished piece.”
“He’s obviously the mastermind behind the choreography, but he really allows us to play around with ideas,” Fear said. “Lewis is very creative with choreography to make it based on what we all have in mind.”
“When we bring a crazy idea like disco to him he says ‘Let’s try it,’” Gibson said.
“It’s great to have somebody say, ‘Let’s go for it’ instead of ‘Oh it’s a little risky’ because it was a risk and we’re just happy it paid off,” Fear said.
The presence of three-time World champions and Olympic silver medallists Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron and a whole host of other top ice dance teams in the same training environment has been beneficial to Fear and Gibson as one of the newer partnerships at the Gadbois rink.
“We see them most days and we’re always in awe of them,” Fear said of Papadakis and Cizeron. “They’re really great role models as well because they are going in defending the title for these many years and they handle it with such grace. They come up with new creative projects every year. It’s amazing to watch.”
“It’s really nice to have some new teams in Montreal for a fresh perspective and fresh energy as well,” Gibson said. “The energy was already fantastic. They are all very kind people and really supportive. They just make the team even stronger.
“It’s great for us to learn from the teams that have such experience every day.”
The World Championships in Saitama will be their second trip to Japan this season after having already competed in Hiroshima at the NHK Trophy. They are looking forward to seeing a different side to the country this time around.
“It was a huge incentive for nationals to try and be the team that was sent to Worlds because we just wanted to go back to Japan,” Fear said.
“When we went to Hiroshima, it was great to get a sense of a laidback Japan and the smaller city and the more rural side when we went onto an island (Miyajima),” Gibson said. “That was really great to see, and I think that will be a contrast to Tokyo.”
Whatever happens next week in Japan, Fear and Gibson believe they have definitely found their groove and are already looking ahead to next season to building on all they have accomplished.
“I think our approach is just to work hard and to hopefully have that translate into results,” Fear said.
“I know that this season we have definitely started to find our style that we can skate together and that works and translates with the audience and the judges and in our scores,” Gibson said. “Hopefully next year when we go into choreography we can take that strength and get something special for next year as well.”