Smart and Diaz: Rolling Into Beijing

By Hiro Yoshida

Olivia Smart and Adrian Diaz have had the season of their dreams so far and this weekend they will finally get to perform on the biggest stage in the world four years on from narrowly missing out.

There have been few storylines as compelling this season as the race to decide the team to be awarded Spain’s sole spot in ice dance at the Beijing Olympics. Smart and Diaz were slated to compete against Sara Hurtado and Kirill Khaliavin in three competitions – Finlandia Trophy, the Spanish Championships and the European Championships. The team with the highest combined total score from all of these events would be named to the Olympic team.

Smart and Diaz started their season in mid-September at the Autumn Classic International at home in Montreal, Canada where they won the silver medal. In early October, they faced off against Hurtado and Khaliavin at Finlandia Trophy in Espoo, Finland. While they finished over two points behind their teammates in the rhythm dance, they reversed the deficit in the free dance to edge ahead by 0.25 points in the race to Beijing.

October 2021 was a hectic month for Smart and Diaz. In addition to Finlandia Trophy, they also competed at back-to-back Grand Prix assignments at Skate America in Las Vegas, Nevada and Skate Canada in Vancouver, British Columbia. After missing out on the podium by the slimmest of margins at Skate America, the Spaniards came back at Skate Canada to pick up a bronze medal. It was the first Grand Prix medal of their careers.

Smart and Diaz resumed their battle with Hurtado and Khaliavin in December at the Spanish Championships. This time round Smart and Diaz assumed a narrow lead after the rhythm dance and stretched ahead further in the free dance to win their third national title by over eight points.

Despite holding a healthy lead over their rivals, Smart and Diaz still needed to go to the European Championships in Tallinn, Estonia to seal their place in Beijing. They placed in front of Hurtado and Khaliavin in both segments of the event and ended up in fourth place overall, the highest finish for Spanish ice dance in the history of the championships. Most importantly, they had booked themselves a trip to the Olympics.

“It was a long race and it’s been exhausting mentally and physically to move forward,” Diaz said. “We did our best to take it step by step.

“We had some weeks during this period where we felt very tired, and we did a good job of pushing each other and helping each other to go forward and not fall back from our goal.

“Even if the result wasn’t this one, I think I would feel pleased with everything that we’ve done and how much we improved.”

“We both went into the start of the season with the exact same goal,” Smart continued. “We both wanted to go into the rink giving everything and leaving the rink satisfied and positive and we really pushed and strived for that this year.

“The seasons before this are in a way like nothing compared to what we’ve gone through this season and what we’ve grown to be as athletes and as people.”

In addition to the pressure of competition, Smart and Diaz also had the added stress at Europeans of avoiding testing positive for Covid-19 which could have potentially crushed their dreams.

“I didn’t sleep,” Smart said after the free dance in Tallinn. “I wasn’t even thinking about skating. I was thinking about Covid. Before I went to sleep, I had to take a test for my mindset.”

Anyone who has followed ice dance over the past decade will know the history of the two Spanish teams and the split that created them. Hurtado and Diaz skated together until 2016 and had become the first ice dance team from Spain to compete at the Olympics in 2014.

It is true that when we split, there were a lot of people that took a side and some others stayed in between,” Diaz said. “I always stayed very far from social media and commenting and answering people. She went back to Madrid. She said what she wanted to say. She spoke to people and I never really got into the game because I found Olivia very soon. Quickly I moved my attention to my new relationship, my new goals, my new partnership.”

Smart had recently ended her partnership with Joseph Buckland with whom she had represented Great Britain based in Detroit, Michigan. Fellow ice dancer Jean-Luc Baker messaged Smart on Facebook letting her know that Diaz was available. After trying out together Smart moved from Detroit to train at what is now the Ice Academy of Montreal with Diaz at the end of 2016.

At the 2017 World Championships in Helsinki, Finland, Smart and Diaz picked up a quota place for Spain at the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. However, they narrowly lost out on Olympic selection on that occasion to Hurtado and Khaliavin. It was a bitter experience but it steeled the duo to ensure they were chosen for Beijing.

“I remember it was tough,” Diaz recalled. “It was a few difficult months of training for Worlds as we didn’t do Europeans or Olympics.”

“Unfortunately, our Olympic experience four years ago was pushed back by the political sides of ice dance, and things that you can’t control,” Smart said. “What we’ve had to learn over the past couple of years is we are here to do a job and we can’t control the rest.

“That experience and that negative moment that we had four years ago, I think has really helped us grow as athletes mentally so much, because this sport has its major ups and downs. In the five years we’ve been together, which isn’t long for an ice dance team, we’ve been through everything. It has been a really, really good learning experience.

“We’re grateful for the experience we had four years ago, regardless of the outcome of it. It made this moment even bigger for us.”

The road was certainly not smooth. They were not selected for the 2019 World Championships, got the nod for the 2020 edition only for it to be cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic and missed out again in 2021 due to a subpar performance at a virtual screening.

“It was hard during that season to fully motivate yourself and train and we did but when it came to competition day, from not competing for so long, I shocked myself and made so many mistakes in the rhythm dance,” Smart said. “We had a new free dance that we’d never performed because of Covid and it was a very unique programme that we thought could work well with a crowd. However, our Worlds qualifying competition was filmed on a small camera video online and it didn’t show the way we wanted to even though we felt like we skated well.”

Back in Montreal while Worlds took place in Stockholm, Sweden, Smart and Diaz got working on their rhythm dance for this season using music from a previous programme. The Spaniards had used “Proud Mary” sung by Tina Turner for their short dance in their first season as a team.

“For us ‘Proud Mary’ is a special piece of music,” Smart said. “We still enjoy hearing it and we still dance and sing along to it and that doesn’t usually happen. You can get really tired of a piece of music after a full season.

“When we were playing that piece of music and practicing the (midnight) blues , before we choreographed the programme, we felt really good skating to it. We couldn’t imagine doing the blues to something else that wasn’t ‘Proud Mary’ and we did look for other pieces.

“We weren’t planning on choreographing until a couple of weeks later. Romain was going to choreograph it, but then naturally, Marie was the only coach left at the rink. Everybody else went to Stockholm and she felt the music and we start playing around. After a week we had a full programme. It was crazy.

“I think a lot of people were expecting the same choreography and the same costumes. Our plan was to be completely different skaters skating to the same piece of music, which I hope we showed. The only thing we did keep was our beginning, which we didn’t realise was iconic until we did it again this season. As we’re performing it on practice, or in the crowd, you see people doing it with you. It’s a very nice feeling.”

“We knew the pattern dance because we did it five years ago, so learning the compulsory dance was an advantage for everybody this season,” Diaz said. “We also did a lot of off-ice lifts and worked a lot during the whole Covid pandemic year. We were able to find the elements pretty quickly and put them in this programme.”

“We looked for music for the free dance consistently, but didn’t have much luck until later on in the summer,” Smart said.

Eventually Smart and Diaz settled on “The Mask of Zorro” film soundtrack for the free dance. When they revealed their selections, the reactions were not what they expected.

“When we actually announced our music, the feedback and response that we got from social media and fans was quite negative, due to us choosing a piece of music we’ve already skated to before and ‘The Mask of Zorro’ in their mind”s being a little cheesy and Spanish style.”

“A lot of comments said we were doing Tina Turner again and ‘The Mask of Zorro’ is not original,” Diaz said.

“The response of some of our coaches – some people liked it, some people thought it was a bit kitsch,” Smart said. “But Patrice (Lauzon) said, ‘If you think it could work, you believe in it and you want to do it, do it, because it will work.’ He mentioned that he said the same thing to Tessa (Virtue) and Scott (Moir) about ‘Moulin Rouge’, but they were so set and solid on knowing that they wanted to do that. They could do it well and it really worked for them.”

“As soon as people actually saw the programmes, I then saw responses like, ‘Oh, I wasn’t expecting that’ which was great,” Smart said. “After that people’s responses to the programmes just grew more and more positive and people really got invested, especially in the free dance.

“The more we skate it, we get more into the characters. I think by Worlds, we’re going to really peak with this programme.”

“It’s been a year that tells you how important it is to find a good choice of music and how important it is that judges and crowd likes what you are doing,” Diaz said. “We knew that we had to find music where there were clear characters and a clear story, because that’s always a little bit easier to bring people into it. The feedback from the beginning has been great from the Federation, from friends, from coaches, from the public. That helps a lot with your confidence.”

Smart and Diaz will be part of a large entourage from Montreal who head to Beijing. Out of twenty-three teams competing in the ice dance event, eleven are under the tutelage of the Ice Academy of Montreal coaches. Despite the fact most of the contenders for the Olympic podium train at the academy, Smart and Diaz maintain while there is rivalry it is all in good humour.

“I think everybody could say at our school that the rivalry is there,” Smart said. “But it’s a very healthy rivalry.

“I can’t thank the coaches enough for putting us all in this safe and friendly environment.”

“Even the years that there was maybe more tension between some skaters, between Gabriella (Papadakis) and Guillaume (Cizeron) and Tessa and Scott, it was still so healthy that you did not feel bad going into the locker room,” Diaz said. “It was with respect. You can have a better relationship or be closer with one team than another, but there are no bad feelings.

“I know that it’s not easy to forget the competitive side, but we’re capable of doing that. We can rent a cottage and go for a weekend and have fun all together. Then the next day we’re on the ice trying to be better than the other one, but always with respect and with love.”

“We all push each other in the best way possible,” Smart continued. “Even when the school was bringing in new teams, instead of being angry or annoyed about that we were excited to have more teammates and more of our friends come and join our circle. You see your friends and your rivals training hard and pushing themselves every day just like you and you want to do well yourself. You want to finish on top but you also want your friends and your teammates to feel good and also finish the best they can.”

Having realised their goal of being selected for the Olympics, Smart and Diaz are going to go to Beijing and enjoy the experience without too much pressure.

“Top ten would be the main goal,” Smart said. “At Europeans, we knew fourth place was an option for us, but we didn’t focus too much on it and it happened.”

“We’re going to go to Beijing with the same intention,” Diaz said. “To do two very good, strong performances and I think that’ll be enough.”

After the Olympics, Smart and Diaz will have just over a month to come down from the high point of their careers and get into training for the World Championships in Montpellier, France. Unlike in 2018, the assignments for the Olympics and Worlds will not be divided between the two Spanish ice dance teams.

“At the beginning of the season, both teams agreed that whoever went to the Olympics also would go to Worlds,” Diaz said.

They know it will be a challenge to motivate themselves and possibly secure a top ten finish there too which would mean an extra spot for Spain in ice dance at 2023 Worlds.

“The Olympic season is a hard one,” Diaz said. “Nobody feels like training after the Olympics. I remember that after Sochi. Everyone is done after the Olympics. Who wants to keep doing run throughs for the next three weeks? I’m not surprised when sometimes the people that win, they don’t want to work.”

“I understand why Tessa and Scott didn’t,” Smart said. “We are just going to keep the ball rolling and not change too much for the Games and for Worlds and hopefully get two spots for Spain at Worlds, but also just put out two good performances to close the cycle for us.”

Beyond the end of this season Smart and Diaz have set very few plans. Diaz will marry fiancée and fellow ice dancer Madison Hubbell in Spain in June 2023. Hubbell has announced that she and on-ice partner Zachary Donohue will be calling time on their career at the end of this season. The jury is still out for Smart and Diaz with them leaving all their options open.

“After the Covid year, Adrian mentioned to me about wanting to be present and live just every single day one at a time and not think too far into the future,” Smart said. “I agree with that.

“We both have future plans. We’re putting so much energy mentally and physically into this season that I think when this closes as a cycle, we’ll take it step by step from there and see what we think and see how we feel about it and then go from there. I think we’re having a good run upwards and I guess some people would want to end on a high, but maybe we’re hungry for more. We’ll see what comes and what opens up for us. Hopefully the world is back to normal in a couple of months and then you never know. There might be something else that pops up.”

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