Komatsubara and Koleto: Forging Their Own Path

By Hiro Yoshida

(All Rights Reserved. Translation/Copying of Text/Images Without Permission Strictly Prohibited)

The road to the Beijing for Misato Komatsubara and Tim Koleto has had its fair share of twizzles and turns even since the Japanese ice dancers bagged an Olympic place for their nation at the World Championships in March 2021.

Komatsubara and Koleto’s journey began when they teamed up in April 2016. Komatsubara, who hails from Okayama, Japan, had previously represented Italy with former partner Andrea Fabbri at two European Championships. Originally from Montana, U.S.A., Koleto had competed internationally for South Korea and Norway with Yura Min and Thea Rabe, respectively.

After becoming partners on ice, Komatsubara and Koleto also became a couple off-ice and they married in January 2017. Following two seasons of training under Barbara Fusar-Poli in Milan, Italy, they made the move to what is now the Ice Academy of Montreal to be coached by Marie-France Dubreuil, Patrice Lauzon, and Romain Haguenauer in March 2018. In order to fulfil residency requirements for Koleto to obtain Japanese citizenship, they divided their time between Canada and Japan.

“Nationality and citizenship are something that is always on the mind of ice dancers when they move up to the senior ranks,” Komatsubara said.

“Deciding which country to represent is an unavoidable question and it is important in setting your goals as a team,” Komatsubara continued. “Of course, I thought about it when I was skating with Andrea, but I could not imagine it. Getting Italian citizenship would mean I would have to give up my Japanese nationality. I love Japan. To change my nationality for skating was difficult for me. It is not something I could stake on a dream. I only have admiration for Tim for making the decision and for the effort he put in afterwards. You can see how he values our dream and the journey to make that dream come true.”

“At that time, we did not have Zoom and were not used to being coached online,” Komatsubara said. “We were lucky if Romain was able to see us train once a week. More so than the naturalisation process, not being able to practice the way we wanted was tougher.

“If you do things by the book in Japan, the process is not usually so difficult. Of course, with residency requirements you cannot clear them by just the minimum possible. In Okayama there was not anyone who had detailed knowledge about passports and naturalisation so that was a bit hard.”

Domestically they began moving up the ranks and captured their first national title in 2018. They were subsequently selected for their first World Championships which took place in March 2019 in Saitama, Japan where they finished 21st in the rhythm dance missing the cut for the free dance by one place. The next season they retained their Japanese title and were all set for another “home” World Championships in Montreal when the event was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Travel restrictions meant Komatsubara and Koleto remained in Japan receiving instruction remotely from their coaches in Montreal and support from locally based coaches, including former Japanese ice dance champions Rie Arikawa and Cathy Reed. Prior to NHK Trophy, their first competition of the 2020-2021 season, Koleto received Japanese citizenship and adopted Komatsubara’s surname and a new first name Takeru.

“There is a law in Japan that we need to have the same surname for the family register,” Koleto explained. “To be Japanese but ask my wife to change to a foreign surname I thought was quite strange. I chose to change my surname to Komatsubara, and it is rare in life that you get to choose your own name so I started to think about it and I played around with a few.

“Someone suggested maybe Teemu using kanji characters. From there I started to search for a meaning that I enjoyed or a character so for a while I was thinking about Yuki because I thought it was a classic, masculine name.

“I wanted to ask for some more opinions. I asked Misato’s family, especially her mother, if she had another kid what would she name her other child because I’m going into their family register. I was very curious, and she actually had a really quick answer, in two seconds and she said, ‘Takeru’.”

The meaning of Koleto’s new Japanese first name is “respect” or “preciousness”.

“He got a better name than the rest of us in the family,” Komatsubara laughed.

However, long term habits die hard and Komatsubara still uses Koleto’s birth name.

“I have been calling him Tim since we met all those years ago and that has not changed. It is easy to say too. Kaori (Sakamoto) and Yuzuru (Hanyu) call him ‘Take-chan’.”

Koleto retains his original name for international competitions and his adopted Japanese name is used for domestic events only.

“I feel comfortable with both now. At my first national championships as Komatsubara Takeru, it was a strange feeling at first, but I have gotten used to it.”

The time spent in Japan to expedite his citizenship and also due to the pandemic gave Koleto the opportunity to work on his Japanese language skills. There was also a period where Komatsubara was unable to skate due to sustaining a concussion which he devoted to studying. He has now reached a level of fluency where he conducts all media interviews with Japanese press through Japanese.

“As challenging as it was, if you’re going to wear the flag of your country on your back, and you’re going to represent them in the biggest competition in the world. I think it’s very important to live there, if possible, and to try to speak the language and to spend time with the people from that country,” Koleto said. “It’s the minimum of respect that somebody can do to be in the position that I’m in and I’m very grateful.”

At NHK Trophy 2020, without any international competitors present, they became the first Japanese team to win the ice dance title in the history of the event. It was also their first time going head to head with the newly formed team of Kana Muramoto and Daisuke Takahashi who they comfortably defeated. In December 2020, they cruised to a third consecutive Japanese national title finishing ahead of the rest of the field by over twenty-three points.

At the 2021 World Championships in Stockholm, Sweden, not only did Komatsubara and Koleto advance to the free dance, but they also secured an Olympic quota place for Japan at the 2022 Beijing Olympic Games.

For the Olympic season, Komatsubara and Koleto considered a Japanese theme for the street dance rhythm dance but decided against it.

“We knew that in the rhythm dance it could be difficult for me as a Caucasian man to skate to a Japanese style,” Koleto said. “How can I respectfully portray my country that I care so much about in a way that doesn’t feel like a Halloween costume, in a way that doesn’t feel like a joke.”

Instead, they settled on a disco medley for the rhythm dance and opted to perform their free dance to the “Memoirs of a Geisha” film soundtrack by John Williams featuring Chinese American cellist Yo Yo Ma. Based on the book by American author Arthur Golden and set in Japan, Komatsubara and Koleto believed that there were enough elements that tied into their own journey together to Beijing.

“We had this feeling when the season started that we wanted to do something Japanese,” Koleto said. “We started to look at our playlist we’ve had for six years now. It (Memoirs of a Geisha) was the top selection on that playlist.

“We also found this special feature with the composer John Williams talking about how they decided to create the music for the movie. The focus that they had when creating these main pieces, ‘The Chairman’s Waltz’ and ‘Sayuri’s Theme’, which is most of the programme for us. Sayuri is represented by the cello. It’s this sad and very human sound almost like a voice. The Chairman is represented by the violin.

“There were pieces of our story, pieces of our road, all inside of this music in this movie,” Koleto continued. “I felt that we had an opportunity to show this story in a new way which is why we also chose to put in the narration and guide the story because it’s quite a complicated relationship that these two characters have. Over the season, we’ve been able to build something truly special for us.

“Rather than telling just the story of these two characters who have a complicated relationship socially and with each other, we thought this story is about Sayuri and how her relentlessness, her hope and her will to never give up on her own journey guides her through her crazy life where she starts somewhere and the wave of life just carries her through. We feel that this was something that we wanted to share in such a complicated time for everyone where we sometimes feel carried away by the current in some ways. So much of our lives together and before we met feels very serendipitous and out of our control and at times, we feel like we’re just along for the ride.”

“I do not hold this feeling about geisha myself, but I think there is some negativity about skating to geisha-themed programmes,” Komatsubara said. “We were a bit hesitant because we did not want to be disrespectful towards geisha or be judged that it was too sensual or sexual. I saw this film for the first time when I was ten years old so I was still a child. When I watched it again as an adult, it struck me that the theme was water. In the film, there are lots of scene with water, storms, the surface of the water, water penetrating through stone.

“When the path of the water is blocked, it makes a new path. It was at this time that the pandemic was disrupting so many lives and a lot of walls were being placed in front of our dreams. It really resonated with us about having to find our own path in this situation. We wanted to express that to everybody.”

Initially some of their coaching team in Montreal had doubts whether the free dance was the right fit for them, but Komatsubara and Koleto stuck to their guns.

“When we first said we wanted to use the music, Romain was positive about it,” Komatsubara said. “However, some of the other coaches proposed different music options to us. We were determined though and persuaded them as strongly as we could about how wonderful the music is and what we wanted to convey in the programme.”

“I think sometimes the coaches want to know if we really believe in something or not, so I feel occasionally they are kind of checking with us,” Koleto said. “Luckily, we had enough confidence in our own decision and enough knowledge from other couples that we should stand our ground a little bit if we thought we could do it.”

Komatsubara and Koleto engaged with Satomi Ito, a Japanese designer, to create their costumes for the free dance.

“I decided to order five costumes with five different patterns,” Komatsubara explained. “Recently in ice dance, the trend has been towards modern styles. Our team originally wanted something modern, something in a kimono style that you could not immediately recognise as a kimono, without an obi belt in case an obi did not suit the costume.

“There were many people who told me they liked the white costume I wore at Skate America and NHK Trophy, but that did not match the first image I had of Sayuri in my head. My image of Sayuri was purple and when I looked it up it seems that in Japan purple is regarded as a noble colour. My mother was a kimono dressing instructor and I wanted the Japanese audience to be proud of the costume.

“There have been many programmes to ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’, including singles skaters, but I wanted this costume to be the most authentic. I received advice from kabuki actors on the textile patterns while making the costumes. The meaning of each flower on the costume – if you say Japan, people think of cherry blossoms. The worshipping pose at the end of the programme is associated with the lotus flower. Amaryllis symbolises passion and life and death. Peony is native to China so through that we are paying our respect to the Olympic host country. The flowing water pattern is called “Korinmizu” in Japanese.

“Originally the pattern was silver, but I asked them to change it from silver to gold,” Komatsubara said. “I am sure they thought I was very fussy! Satomi really had a lot of work to do.

“As a package, I think the last costume I wore (at Japanese nationals) delivers the strongest impact.”

Komatsubara and Koleto went to great lengths to put the free dance together and consulted a wide variety of experts in the course of constructing the programme.

“Misato and I discussed working with some Kabuki actors,” Koleto said. “There are ways that women move and ways that men move. There’s this space in the movement that I needed to learn in order to properly feel confident.

“We ended up bookending the programme at the beginning and the end. I represent the wave of life carrying her because, in the end, this is Sayuri’s story. It’s not about the Chairman. Inside the middle, where the music changes are, where we first meet, and how that changes her life is where I pass in and out of this actor’s position. It was actually very fun to play with that once we understood just to see which kind of balance was necessary and where do we also draw the line between skater and performer more than other programmes in the past. I really enjoyed working together with the coaches to find the right balance for that.”

“At first I thought about embodying Sayuri too much which at times became hard for me,” Komatsubara said. “However, at Japanese nationals because we tried not to overthink things, we were able to enjoy the programme more. At Japanese nationals, we were able to take each element as it came and, in order to ensure we received good GOE, we performed precisely and calmly. It is definitely difficult to find a balance.”

In September 2021, entry restrictions to Canada were eased and Komatsubara and Koleto were able to be reunited with their coaches in Montreal. However, their stay was short-lived. Komatsubara’s visa was reviewed after she entered Canada due to her not having been informed of the status of a previous visa application.

“My visa was cancelled after entering Canada so I tried to re-apply, but it was getting close to the time where we would have to leave for Skate America. Leaving Canada meant I would not be able to get back in again. I sent some more documentation just before NHK Trophy proving why I needed to be in Canada and that I could support myself financially. I thought things would move quickly from there, but the application is still under review and I am waiting. It has been two months and looks like it will take a while longer. I asked the lawyer that Patrice found for me if I could apply for a new visa but was advised to wait until the review of the original visa was completed.”

At the end of October 2021, Komatsubara and Koleto finished sixth in their season debut at Skate America in Las Vegas, Nevada. The following month they faced off against Muramoto and Takahashi at NHK Trophy in Tokyo and, despite earning a new set of personal best scores, they finished over seven points behind their domestic rivals. Alarm bells started ringing that their dream of competing at the Beijing Olympics could be in serious jeopardy.

“Until NHK Trophy we were confident that we would be going to the Olympics,” Koleto said. “At NHK Trophy we were faced with the realisation that it was possible that our dream would not come true for the first time.”

“After NHK Trophy, my brother told me it did not look like I was enjoying the performance and nothing was coming across to those watching,” Komatsubara said. “It was hard to hear. He told me that perhaps I was forgetting the nine-year-old who started skating with a sparkle in her eyes.”
“I remember standing on the ice before the free dance at NHK and just looking at Misato and saying if all of this is gone, if there’s no audience because of corona, if there’s no more competitions or there’s no points and no Olympics, why are we doing this?” Koleto said. “We both realised it’s because we love to skate, and we love to skate together.

“Sharing our love for skating was the most important thing to us and I think that gave us the motivation we needed to make the changes necessary before nationals and come into nationals with a new confidence and a new kind of strength.”

For the one Olympic spot in ice dance, the Japan Skating Federation decided there were four criteria that they would look towards in making the team selection – the ISU World Standings, the ISU Season World Ranking, the ISU Season Best total score and the result of the Japanese national championships. Komatsubara and Koleto had the edge on the World Standings, but Muramoto and Takahashi enjoyed an advantage when it came to the Season World Ranking and the Season Best total score. The outcome of Japanese nationals would determine if Komatsubara and Koleto could keep their hopes of making it to Beijing alive.

There had never been a Japanese Nationals ice dance event as eagerly anticipated as this season. The competition began on 23 December with the rhythm dance at the Saitama Super Arena. Both teams made errors with Muramoto/Takahashi falling together on a step sequence and Komatsubara stumbling out of a twizzle. At the end of the rhythm dance, Komatsubara and Koleto held an almost five-point lead over Muramoto/Takahashi.

“Having a day between the rhythm dance and free dance was not something we had a lot of experience with at recent competitions,” Komatsubara said. “We work with a mental performance coach and talk at least once a week. On the basis that we were going to perform to the best of our abilities and, as we have no idea what kind of marks the judges will give us, we did simulations to spend that day in whatever position we might be in. There was a lot of media attention and we simulated different scenarios, but none of them matched what happened.

“I made a mistake in the rhythm dance and I was so angry with myself. I had that inner struggle both the day before and the day of the free. In a way it was a good thing as I was not focusing on anyone else.”

The free dance took place on Christmas Day. This time both teams skated without any clearly visible errors and, although Komatsubara and Koleto finished behind Muramoto and Takahashi in the free dance, their points cushion from the rhythm dance gave Komatsubara and Koleto their fourth consecutive national title.

“Right before the free, there was a moment where my body felt surprisingly light,” Komatsubara said. At that moment, I thought, ‘I can do this’. It was a feeling I had not had before. I felt like an athlete! Before our turn, I could see Kana and Daisuke were happy with how they skated. I went into our performance knowing that they had done well and we would also try to do our best too.

“Tim knew what the result was when he heard our scores, but I had not been listening to the scores (for Muramoto and Takahashi) so at first when I saw ‘2nd’ I thought, ‘Oh well, that is the end of one of our dreams.’

“I was surprised to see we were in first overall. I was overjoyed. So much that I apparently kicked the cardboard cut outs of our coaches. I was happy though. Tim started crying so I cried. It was rare for him to be the one to cry first.

“I remember in the kiss and cry being so relieved that we were able to do it because it’s very challenging to stay in front for four years and to hold inside our hearts that feeling of being the underdog while we’re leading,” Koleto said. “You have to keep pushing because the people behind you are fighting to catch you. It’s a very different kind of sensation.”

“Thinking about it now, there were some small errors and there were a lot of things we need to work on, but at that time I felt we had given it everything we had,” Komatsubara said. “I was happy that there were people who appreciated our performance.”

The Beijing Olympic team announcement was made live on national television the following evening with all the hopeful skaters gathered in the same room. Komatsubara and Koleto were selected for the Olympics and Muramoto and Takahashi for the Four Continents and World Championships.

“During the competition for about four or five days I was not able to sleep at all,” Komatsubara recalled. “Of course, on the day of the announcement I did not sleep. Four years ago, we had been there and saw what our friends like Wakaba (Higuchi) had gone through.

“I remember it really well. Wakaba was sitting crying in the women’s changing room and I thought I cannot leave her on her own so we cried together. The three of us were selected this time so I am so excited about that.

“Four years ago, we took a photo together. On that evening the three of us spent time together eating sweets. This time we were all selected and she asked me, ‘Do you remember the photo we took four years ago?’ and I said, ‘I remember. I still have it.’ We were so relieved and happy about how things turned out this time.”

The moments before Komatsubara and Koleto found out they were heading to Beijing were filled with tension.

“My stomach hurt,” Komatsubara said. “Everyone wanted to find out. It was so quiet.

“I was praying to hear the “K” in Komatsubara. My palms were sweating. I forgot to breathe.”

Eventually, they received the good news when they were named to the Japanese Olympic team.

“We had to wait while the single skaters were being announced and there were those who had not been chosen near us so it was not an atmosphere where you could celebrate,” Komatsubara said. “But as soon as our names were called out, I remember thinking ‘Yes!’ in my mind.

“Kaori was sitting right in front of me. The chair she was sitting on swivelled and when the announcement was done, she turned around and shook my hand smiling.”

While it was a happy moment for Komatsubara and Koleto, it was a more difficult time for others in the room.

“We were excited about our own selection, but I was sitting next to Satoko (Miyahara) and Mai (Mihara) and I just remember feeling really heartbroken for them,” Koleto said.

“Even in those circumstances, Satoko and Mai congratulated us and wished us good luck,” Komatsubara said. “I was so impressed by how thoughtful they were even though it must have been hard for them.”

The selected athletes were ushered away to prepare for the television press conference and change into team jackets. There was a poignant sight awaiting them.

“When we went into the changing room, there were jackets with each athlete’s name on it (including those who were not selected),” Komatsubara said.

“I thought how difficult it would be if we had not been chosen, were not able to wear that jacket and just had to leave it there. The other skaters seemed to all be thinking the same thing and we left that room quite quickly.”

Koleto will make history in Beijing by becoming the first naturalised citizen to represent Japan in figure skating at an Olympic Games.

“There aren’t many naturalised Japanese representing Japan so I’m grateful of having the honour to do so,” Koleto said. “I want to do my best for Japan.”

Their first opportunity to compete in Beijing will be the team event where for the first time since it became a part of Olympic programme Japan has a realistic shot of a medal. There will be unfamiliar expectations on Komatsubara and Koleto as well as the Japanese team.

“If we are going to skate there we want to contribute to the team and be proud of what we have done,” Komatsubara said. “The only thing we can do is our best.”

“At (2021) Worlds I was quite nervous before the rhythm dance,” Koleto said. “I remember watching Riku (Miura) and Ryuichi (Kihara) in the short programme and just seeing how happy and excited they were and how much fun they had really helped release a lot of pressure in me. In the team event, I hope to be able to give that back to my teammates as well with our performances.”

The individual ice dance competition will take place almost a week after the team event with the rhythm dance on 12 February and the free dance on 14 February. With only twenty teams advancing to the free, the immediate objective will be to place high enough in the rhythm dance.

“While watching Europeans, I thought that the teams we have been competing against at World Championships had really improved, whether that was because they were being pushed by their rivals or whether they had found motivation due to the pandemic,” Komatsubara said. “The rhythm dance is going to be important.

“In order to inspire ourselves, we talk about aiming for Japan’s best placement ever. It will be difficult, but that is our goal.”

After all the highs and lows of the past seasons, Komatsubara and Koleto believe what they have overcome will undoubtedly aid them in Beijing and beyond in their career.

“Being able to do your best really comes from all the experience that we have built up over the years,” Komatsubara said. “Each year we have overcome various obstacles. I think our strength is the stability we have now. We have a solid core.

“This season our preparations started late and practicing remotely did not go as well as we liked so our performances at Skate America and NHK Trophy were far from perfection. We were able to improve on that a lot before Japanese nationals. We are not going to change much at all leading up to the Olympics. We will just fine tune some details.

“When you watch wonderful ice dancers like Gabriella and Guillaume, as ice dancers we understand the technical side, but you are so mesmerised by what they do you forget about it. We also want to go to that space. The beauty of ice dance is that it can take you to a place where you forget it is a sport.”

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