Following the 2009 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, Tiffany Vise, 25, and Don Baldwin, 33, found themselves without a partner with whom to compete. Vise’s longtime on ice companion, Derek Trent, decided to retire from skating, while Baldwin ended his one year partnership with Jennifer Brunn. With both skaters at a crossroads in their respective careers, Vise and Baldwin reluctantly agreed to a try out to determine if this was the right move for both of them.
“When I first found out that Donny wanted to have a tryout with me, I didn’t want to give it a shot,” Vise admitted candidly. “At the time, my coach said for me to give it one tryout and see how it goes. I was shocked at how well we felt skating together. We would do stroking patterns, and we easily matched. It felt natural.”
At the time, Baldwin was contemplating retirement, and had his own reservations about entering into the partnership.
“My parents approached me with the idea of having the tryout,” Baldwin recalled. “I felt that if I wanted to continue skating (after the split with Brunn) I would have to have a partner that was a better match for me in my skating style and ability. I reluctantly agreed to give a tryout with Tiffany a chance.”
Like Vise, Baldwin realized that the raw potential in the partnership was palpable, and soon committed to teaming up for the 2009-10 season.
“On the first day of the tryout I knew that Tiffany and I were a very good match,” he said. “It was the first and only time I had ever felt this way in a tryout. In the past I usually had to be convinced to give it a little time to develop to see what could happen. This time it was obvious to me that I had found a good match for my ability. It was still a difficult decision for me to continue skating and move from California, but in the end this was going to be the only shot I had at finally being able to have success as a pairs skater.”
With the partnership confirmed, the duo settled on training at Vise’s training center in Peoria, Ariz., with former Olympian Jill Watson. Since July of 2010, they have trained in Scottsdale, Ariz., with another Olympian, Doug Ladret.
“I was hoping that Donny was willing to move to Arizona to skate with me,” said Vise. “I have lived in Arizona since 2005 and I have made it my home.”
Once Baldwin was settled in his new surroundings, the duo began preparing for their first competitive season. As with any new partnership, Vise and Baldwin were up against the clock to not only create programs for the first time as a team, but also had the additional challenge of learning the technique involved in skating as a mirror team.
“This was one of the reservations I had about skating with Tiffany,” Baldwin confessed. “I was not sure how I would be at throwing in the opposite direction. There is very little in skating that I have been scared of, but this was one thing that I did not have confidence in. I decided to put my fear aside and give myself a chance to learn. Other than the throws I was not worried. I knew that if we did the other elements well, there would be very little to scrutinize with regards to being mirrored. Just like in conventional teams, spins, when matched well, can be very impressive. Jumps can be the same as well.”
Vise, who is in the minority of skaters who rotate clockwise, was used to skating with partners who rotated in the opposite direction. In fact, she finds it more comfortable to do so at this stage of her career.
“I learned all of my pairs elements counter-clockwise,” she explained. “I only do throws, jumps, and side by side spins in my direction. When learning to skate pairs, it was safer to do everything the man’s way so that he would be comfortable on his feet. Before skating with (Trent), I did have tryouts with clockwise rotating skaters, but even a pairs spin felt awkward and I honestly preferred doing it the way I learned. I have competed pairs for 16 years now so trying to do pair elements my direction would be hard to get used to.”
That’s not to say that everything comes easy for the team.
“For me, the twist is the hardest thing to do because I am rotating in Donny’s direction,” Vise said. “I don’t think many people realize that I’m not rotating my normal direction. We have an easy beautiful double twist which gets a lot of height, and a lot of people including skating judges ask us why we don’t do a triple. The problem I have is crossing my feet in the air. I can get by with not crossing my feet tightly for a double, but for triple, my legs aren’t tight enough to make it all the way around in time to be caught.”
Though he isn’t the one rotating in the air, Baldwin was and is most concerned about executing throw jumps.
“Not only did I have to learn Tiffany’s timing and technique, but having to do it in the opposite direction has been a challenge,” he explained. “It was interesting because we were able to do triple throws very well in the very beginning, but as time went on it became a little harder because both of us became more comfortable and began to revert back to our previous techniques and problems started happening.”
It has been a struggle, however, Baldwin and Vise have finally become much more comfortable and confident in their throws.
“It is kind of funny because throws have always been the least I would worry about, but now it is something I have to actively think about,” Baldwin explained. “After skating for so many years in one direction your body becomes accustomed to it and builds strength in your muscles to do elements in that direction. You then have an imbalance that is hard to overcome, and it takes time to build new connections between your brain and muscles to feel comfortable. Having confidence going into an element makes a big difference under pressure and having one more thing to think about in a program can make a big difference in the effort being put out.”
With just a summer of training under their belts, Vise and Baldwin qualified for the 2010 U.S. Championships in Spokane, Wash., where they finished in an impressive eighth place.
“Our first year was all about getting experience together competing,” Vise said. “We wanted to show that we are a strong team with strong elements, and we wanted to get the judges and fans talking about us. We went into nationals to attack our programs and show no fear, and we definitely accomplished that.”
Before the competition, Baldwin suffered a shoulder injury in an off-ice lifts class, and was forced to get Cortisone shots in order to compete in Spokane.
“We only did the lifts that we needed to do, saving them for our programs,” Vise said of the week in Spokane. “After the competition, Donny got an MRI done and found out that the labrum in his shoulder was torn. In April 2010, he had surgery to repair it and had the arthritic AC Joint shaved down to relieve the pain. He got back on the ice late May, and he didn’t start lifts again until the end of July. As a pair, we didn’t get back to 100 percent until October.”
Despite the injuries, Vise and Baldwin were impressive enough in summer competitions to earn an invitation to skate in the Ice Challenge in Graz, Austria, in November 2010. They won the silver medals.
“We were so thrilled to have the opportunity to represent Team USA,” Vise said. “Winning a medal gave us a boost of confidence heading into nationals, and will help us if we get assigned to Grand Prix events in the future.”
Heading into the national championships in Greensboro, N.C., Vise and Baldwin had the luxury of time on their side for the first time in their partnership, and were excited to showcase all of the hard work that they had put in over the summer.
“We improved on all of our elements from the previous year, and just having more time to skate with one another helped out with getting each element more comfortable,” Vise explained. “We really worked on our connection with one another on the ice. Although we are very strong and fast skaters, we wanted to show off our softer side and connection in the slow music in our free skate.”
Their sixth place finish was nothing short of miraculous given the fact that Vise wasn’t even sure if she would be able to compete.
“The bottom of my landing foot started hurt a few weeks before the competition,” Vise shared. “I developed plantar fasciitis, and I got a Cortisone shot about a week before to get the inflammation down. It hurt so bad that my coach told me to not do any throws or jumps. For two full weeks before the competition, I was not allowed to do jumps or throws, which was very hard. We got on a plane to Greensboro not knowing if we were going to be able to compete.”
At their first practice in Greensboro, Vise further injured her foot, and was forced to leave the ice because she was in so much pain.
“I did a single loop and my foot hurt instantly from the take off and landing,” she recalled. “After that it hurt doing crossovers so I had to get off the ice because I was in pain with every step. I was thinking about pulling out of the competition. The next day, I had an appointment with the medical staff provided for by the championships. I got an ultrasound on my foot, and the doctor found no tears. The plantar fasciitis had some inflammation but was not bad. I had pain in the posterior tibialis tendon, and the ultrasound showed two pockets of fluid around the tendon. The doctor gave me a lidocaine injection that morning and I was able to jump on my first practice.”
After the competition, Vise did not skate for two months in order to let the foot heal properly, and she and Baldwin are now preparing for their third season as a team.
“This is the first year for Donny and me to be able to have a full year to train,” Vise acknowledged. “This year we have all this time before to work on being creative on transitions in and out of elements before we compete for the first time in August. Hopefully we will be injury free so that we can compete healthy.”
In addition to working on the basics and their connection on the ice, Vise and Baldwin are looking to increase their technical content this season.
“We have been working on triple twist for about a month now,” Vise shared. “We had to take a little bit of a break from it because I sprained my ankle on it, but we plan on working on it again within the next couple weeks. We are also working on triple toe loop-double toe loop-double toe loop combination to add to the long program. We plan to keep our triple Salchows in the program as well.”
The couple has decided to keep their Pirates of the Caribbean short program from last season, and is currently working on a new free skate to an instrumental version of Time to Say Goodbye and selections from the movie Legends of the Fall.
“We feel like we can build on the short program and make it better, and except for the twist, we have planned all level four elements,” Vise explained. “We selected the music for the free skate because we want to show a more lyrical side that many people wouldn’t expect to see out of us.”
The team has lofty goals this season, and is hoping to make their Grand Prix debut in the fall.
“At this point we are only eligible for Skate America because we have not previously competed in either a Grand Prix or ISU Championship to gain a season’s best score,” the ambitious Baldwin said. “We want to medal at nationals this year. It’s anyone’s game. We want to complete two decent programs at each competition this year and peak at Nationals with two clean programs.”
Off ice Vise and Baldwin are romantically involved, but want to set the record straight about their rumored engagement.
“We have heard also that we are engaged but that came as news to us,” Baldwin laughed. “It seems like someone started that rumor recently, but it is not true at this time. We would definitely let our fans know if this happens.”
The couple shares a house in Peoria, Ariz., and have recently taken in a new roommate, so to speak.
“We have recently adopted a baby…” Baldwin said sheepishly. “A Kitten. His name is Lightning, and he is three months old.”
Both Vise and Baldwin come from families heavily involved in skating. Vise’s parents were heavily involved with the Broadmoor Skating Club in her hometown of Colorado Springs, Colo. Her younger sister Brittany was also a pairs skater who competed on the Grand Prix circuit and at the Junior World Championships twice.
“She has been in South America performing in skating shows for the last year and a half,” Vise said of her younger sister. “Currently she is traveling around Venezuela performing as Snow White in the company Hollywood on Ice.”
Baldwin’s family has a very rich skating tradition—his father was a junior national champion in pairs and singles and was an alternate to the 1972 Olympic team in singles, and his mother competed nationally several times. His younger sister Donna competed in novice pairs and dance on the national level with Baldwin, and is preparing to enter college in Texas. And of course, Baldwin’s older brother John, Jr. had a long career in figure skating, and competed in the 2006 Olympic Games with Rena Inoue.
“John and Rena are now working full time in the family’s car business and medical billing professions, respectively,” Baldwin shared. “They are expecting a baby in November.”
Baldwin has a bachelor’s degree in Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering from the University of California-Irvine. Like his big brother, he works for the family’s car business.
Vise coaches part time at the rink, beginning at 6:45 A.M. each day until she and Baldwin begin training in the middle of the morning. After lunch and more training in the afternoon, Vise puts her coaching hat back on until her day ends at 6:00 P.M.
“It keeps me busy but I love teaching and passing my knowledge along to my students is such a rewarding gift,” she said.
Outside of the rink, both Vise and Baldwin enjoy being outdoors and like being adventurous whether in just about every facet of their lives.
“We just returned from Cabo san Lucas, Mexico, where Tiffany improved on her surfing skills,” Baldwin said proudly. “We were able to swim with dolphins, and we traveled up the East Cape to a small village called Cabo Pulmo where we had the amazing opportunity to snorkel with a sea lion colony. We also traveled up the Pacific Side to a great surf break and visited an old colonial town. We also love to travel in my 1989 VW Vanagon Camper Syncro to go camping and snowboarding in Flagstaff, AZ. We had the great opportunity to go snowboarding in Austria after we finished the Ice Challenge international competition. We both enjoy eating at new and interesting restaurants and traveling to new places.”