On the eastern shore of the Korean Peninsula lies the city of Gangneung in the province Gangwon-do. A city known for its rich cultural festivals this week becomes the host of the 2011 World Junior Figure Skating Championships. In recent years, ice dancers representing Team USA have made a lasting impact on this event, winning four times in the last ten years. This year, US Junior Champions Charlotte Lichtman and Dean Copely are America’s best shot at standing on the podium.
In just their third competitive season as a team, Lichtman, 17, and Copely, 21, started skating together after the 2008 Lake Placid Ice Dancing Championships. Lichtman competed as a novice in Lake Placid with another partner, and shortly after they returned home, the partnership ended. Copely, a junior level ice dancer fresh off a partner split of his own, moved to train at Lichtman’s home rink in Canton, Mich., with coaches Igor Shpilband and Marina Zueva.
“One day Marina had the idea that we could practice together just to have someone to skate with,” Lichtman recalled. “With a lesson or two, she thought that we could try a season together if we wanted to. The decision was quick as we had to make the deadline in order to compete at Sectionals. Dean had to learn the novice free dance I used in a week’s time in order for me to test up to junior. I passed, and we started creating an original dance and training for Sectionals.”
In addition to Shpilband and Zueva, Lichtman and Copely have surrounded themselves with a strong team of skating’s elite in order to progress in their athletic careers. The duo also works with Olympic level coach Johnny Johns and Adrienne Lenda on video work, Olena Martin and Michael Lee on the in-betweens, and at times, Kathy Johnson, a modern dance teacher.
“On average, we skate three and a half hours a day, starting anywhere between 11:30 and 1pm and ending between 3 and 5pm,” Copely explained. “Sometimes with breaks, sometimes without. On Monday, Wednesday and Friday we workout off the ice for an hour and a half at (the gym).”
An additional benefit to training in Canton, is the level of expertise among their training mates. Lichtman and Copely share coaches with Olympic gold medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, Olympic silver medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White, as well as the silver and bronze medalists from this year’s US Championships among others.
“Having such a large group of talented skaters on the ice with us every day is the most motivating and inspiring environment we could possibly train in,” Lichtman shared. “If we are not practicing something ourselves, we’re on the side of the boards watching and learning from everyone else.”
In their first season together, Lichtman and Copely qualified for and finished in ninth place on the junior level at the US Championships in Cleveland, Ohio. After that competition, Lichtman and Copely headed back home to train, and finished high enough at the 2009 Lake Placid Ice Dance competition in the summer to earn two spots on the Junior Grand Prix circuit. In their second trip to the US Championships, the duo moved up just one spot from the previous season, finishing in eighth place.
Again in the off-season, Lichtman and Copely went back to the drawing board, focusing on improving every aspect of their skating. With Junior Grand Prix berths again looming and with two years of experience behind them, the duo headed once again to Ice Placid to compete last August. This time, Lichtman and Copely finished in first place in both the short and free dance, and again earned entry into the Junior Grand Prix.
“Having another whole season to train together, our connections grew stronger and we challenged ourselves with more difficult lifts,” Copely explained. “This year’s programs are technically superior to last year’s and we further developed our basics in the off-season.”
For this season’s new short dance program, a required Viennese Waltz, Lichtman and Copely selected to skate to music by crooner Dean Martin. For the free dance, they decided to go a bit quirkier, choosing to compete with music from the soundtrack of the film Beetlejuice.
“Dean is a very technically strong skater, and he provides a solid frame,” Lichtman said of her partner. “He is very strong in lifts, and has quick and steady feet, but he has also developed quite a personality in our programs, which makes it even more fun to skate and perform with him. That’s why Beetlejuice was such a good choice for us.”
With just a two-inch height difference between the skaters, Lichtman and Copely knew that they had to learn to overcome that perceived shortcoming in their skating, and have had great role models to look up to who dealt with the same issue.
“I used to train with Albena Denkova and Maxim Staviski in Delaware when they were there, and it was always inspiring to see because he is a short guy, too. He’s no taller than me, and they had great success in winning Worlds two years in a row, so anything is still possible. Some of the balance lifts actually work better with less of a height difference, and we’ve learned how to work with it in our skating.”
Lichtman continued, “When we first partnered, quite a few people thought we weren’t such a good match, but after our first year, we didn’t hear much about it. I think that once they paid attention more to our skating that it became less noticeable. We’ve worked around it, and now I think it gives us a completely different look than everyone else, so it kind of works to our advantage.”
In September, Lichtman and Copely headed to Graz, Austria, to compete in their first international of the season. After the short dance the duo found themselves in first place, but it was anything but an easy win for them.
“We had a twenty minute warmup in the morning, and since it was at a fairly early time and the buses ran on the half hour, we decided to take the one an hour before our practice began,” Lichtman remembered. “Much of the technical panel was also on the bus, and we all waited until the bus was about twenty minutes late. Dean and I began to warmup outside since we knew we would be cutting it close. They called for cabs to come pick us up, but the next bus had just arrived, so we hopped on that one. As the bus pulled out, the cabs drove up to the front of the hotel. Dean changed into his short dance costume on the bus, but I was unable to perform such a feat, and practice in my warm up outfit. We finished tying our skates just as the group was about to go on.”
But it didn’t get easier after that.
“We returned to our hotel after that warmup and when we left on our way back to the rink for the actual Short Dance competition, our bus driver rear-ended a car while getting on the freeway,” Copely added. “The bus driver got out and had a few loud words with the driver of the other involved vehicle while we sat for about ten minutes. Our bus driver got back on and said, ‘He is crazy,’ then continued on our route to the rink only fifteen minutes late.”
Things went much easier in the free dance, as Lichtman and Copely again finished first, and won their first Junior Grand Prix medal- a gold.
“The thought of winning never crossed my mind, but I knew if we got a medal, I’d be thrilled,” said an ecstatic Copely. “It was a really surreal moment after the awards ceremony and it really meant a lot to me since it took years to win and I can really appreciate the amount of work it took to get there.”
Lichtman added, “As prepared and excited as we felt heading into Austria, we honestly could not even think about results because we were so focused on trying to skate our best. Of course, we wanted to do well, and I was very excited when we had such a successful competition. I felt that we trained hard, and it was great to see a result come out of that training.”
Their next assignment, just three weeks later in Dresden, Germany, proved to be more competitive, and Lichtman and Copely could only manage a bronze medal. With two medals, however, Lichtman and Copely earned a ticket to the December Final in Beijing, China. They finished there in a respectable fifth place behind four strong Russian teams.
“Just like our other competitions, we really wanted to skate our best and feel good about what we put out there,” Lichtman said about competing in China. “Since it was our first time competing at the Final, we didn’t have expectations in terms of placement, but we felt like our programs were strong enough to contend with the high level of skating that we expected there. We felt like we belonged.”
After the Final, Lichtman and Copely’s attention turned to the 2011 US Championships. As Junior Grand Prix Finalists, the duo earned a bye through the qualifying competitions, and headed to Greensboro, N.C. as heavy favorites to win the junior title.
“We wanted to have more defined goals this season,” Lichtman explained. “We didn’t want to be wishy-washy. Our goals have changed a little bit because at the beginning of the season, we just wanted to medal. But as the season progressed, we wanted to win.”
After the short dance, Lichtman and Copely were unable to earn all of their element levels, and had to settle for second place. However, in the free dance, the duo came to life, interpreting their Beetlejuice program to perfection, and earned the title by more than five points over the rest of the field.
“This is the coolest thing that we’ve done by a mile,” Copely said of winning the title. “Going to the Final was pretty cool, but this is amazing.”
Lichtman agreed. “Yes, it’s really cool. It takes so many people for someone to get to this point. It’s not just the skaters out there on the ice, our families and support team are an important part to this. Nobody can do this alone. It feels really good.”
In winning the title, Lichtman and Copely were named to the 2011 US World Junior Championships team, and hope to accomplish big things in South Korea.
“We’ve been told that Junior Worlds is a really fun competition,” Copely shared. “It’s probably the most fun that we are ever going to have.
Lichtman added, “We are certainly pushing towards the podium. We said at the beginning of the year, we just wanted to go to Junior Worlds, but we want to keep pushing our envelope and making our goals bigger. We don’t want to settle for just skating our best. We want to skate our best and have that be one of the best. It will take a lot for us to make the podium, but we definitely want to be on it.”
Lichtman is a high school senior, and carries an academic workload that would exhaust most people.
“School has always been very important to me, and I work hard to balance it with my training schedule,” Lichtman admitted. “I go to public high school and I’m in my senior year. During first semester, I go for half of the day in order to get enough hours at the rink since ice availability ends earlier. In the second semester, I attend three-quarters of the school day and then head to the rink. Mainly all of my core classes have been in school, and I do my electives through a home-schooling program. Depending on the semester, I also take an additional course online. This year, I’m taking AP Psychology, AP English, Calculus, two science courses, a semester of World History, and a few electives. I’m also a member of the National Honor Society.”
Lichtman’s father is an attorney who once sat on her hometown’s city council. During his tenure as a councilman, Lichtman’s father was instrumental in guiding her into the sport of figure skating.
“I started skating when I was six because my brother played hockey and my older sisters skated,” she confessed. “My dad was on the city council at the time, and helped open a new rink in Farmington Hills, Mich.”
Lichtman’s mother is an interior designer, while her hockey-playing brother Nathan is now a 30 year-old married law student and father to her year-old nephew. Her 27 year-old sister Lindsay works for a study abroad program, while her 20 year-old sister Anna is a junior in college.
“I love to spend time with my nephew on the weekends, and I like to catch up on a little TV,” Lichtman said of her free time. “If I don’t have too much homework, I also enjoy going to the Michigan games, which I have since I was a little girl, and shopping.”
Copely is focusing on his skating career at this point, taking a year off from his studies at Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Mich., where he was a full time student last year.
“The day I got back from our event in Austria, I bought a Playstation 3 and lately a bunch of the guys from the rink and I have been playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2,” he confessed. “It’s a great way to blow off steam after training and double as building team work. Often times it’s (fellow skaters) Tim McKernan, Greg Zuerlein, Fedor Andreev, Alex Shibutani, Zach Donohue and myself on a team working together to defeat terrorists.”
Copely’s parents relocated from Delaware to Kalamazoo, Mich., to be closer to him and his sister, Katherine, a former ice dancer who also trained in Michigan.
“My father is a radiologist at the Borgess Medical Center in Kalamazoo. My sister lives with me in Canton. She had surgery in July to repair a hip injury from last season. While recovering, she is focusing on her university studies and is still undecided on returning to competitive skating. ”
After his competitive career is over, Copely hopes to stay active in the sport.
“I’d like to coach full time and perhaps own a business. Nothing would come close to the gratification of giving back to my sport.”