The door is wide open
During an interview, Coach Bruno Marcotte pointed out that the door is wide open for a new generation in pair skating. He also hopes to fight the stigma that pair skating is a less well-regarded discipline than singles.
“An Olympic medal is an Olympic medal to start with,” said the 48-year-old from Montreal. “Right now, there is more opportunity because a lot of great teams that were around for a long time have retired or will retire. I think it’s important that clubs and federations are doing more pair workshops within some singles seminars, so they’re exposed to it. And if there are too few boys, you can put two girls together for side-by-side jumps or throws.”
The importance of early exposure to pairs comes from Marcotte’s experience with Canadian champions.
“If you look at most of the champions, they were all really good in singles, but all their singles coaches were also coaching pairs,” he pointed out. “So, you look at Meagan [Duhamel]. Meagan was a junior single champion, but her coach was Lee Barkell when she was young, and Lee Barkell was a pair coach. My coach was Josée Picard, who’s here with the Canadian team. She was a singles coach, a pairs coach, and a dance coach. So, we were exposed, and we never once felt that pairs were better or worse. But there is a stigma for those who don’t see it on a daily basis.”
Lots of factors go into the difficult task of putting together a good team, and Coach Bruno Marcotte of Canada points out that when many skaters start, they are very focused on themselves.
“They are individual athletes, and a lot of those athletes like that aspect of figure skating,” he explained. “Then, when you do pairs, it’s a different ballgame. To have a good pair team, you need people that have more or less the same skills as athletes. You need the genetics to match, you need the same mindset. You need people that have the same goals, and they agree to go about the same way to reach those goals. There are so many things that have to go right, that I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s hard to get more numbers.”
Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara
Marcotte began coaching the Japanese pair team of Riku Miura and Ryuichi Kihara nearly four years ago in Oakville, Ont. In their very first international event, the talented duo took fifth at 2020 NHK Trophy. Since then, they have been steadily on the rise, medaling in nearly event with historic “firsts.” This season, they are undefeated and recently took the 2023 Four Continents title.
Marcotte affirmed the main purpose of every competition this season has been to prepare for the World Figure Skating Championships in Saitama, Japan, next month.
“We knew that it was going to be challenging to come and compete with the altitude,” he said, regarding the Four Continents. “We haven’t competed since the Grand Prix Final, but that wasn’t so long ago, and I felt very good coming here. They were training really well, and every practice has been extremely strong.”
Neither program was clean Colorado Springs, Colo. Miura fell on the triple toe in the short, and there were bobbles on both side-by-side jumps and the throw triple flip in the free skate. Nonetheless, Marcotte “still felt that they did a lot of good stuff.”
Many of the lessons that Marcotte identified after the short program have to do with the team’s mental approach.
“It’s crazy what I’m going to say, but you should not try to skate clean,” he said. “You should just trust your training and be in the moment and not overthink. Maybe they tried a little bit too much to be perfect.”
While there may have been some pressure on the team going into the event as heavy-favorites, Marcotte doesn’t feel they were too bothered by this. In fact, he felt they dealt “quite well” with the expectation.
“I wouldn’t say they are used to it, but they understand that expectation is coming from outside noise,” he said. “This is where we have to focus on our own expectations, which is just to be the best version of ourselves.”
A focus for the team this year is the introduction of new jumping content. In fact, they introduced the triple toe-double toe-double Axel sequence into the free skate at Four Continents. Earlier this season, they were using a triple toe-double toe-double toe, however, the sequence combination comes with a two-point higher base value.
Miura and Kihara dealt with a setback to their plans to increase their difficulty when Miura suffered a shoulder injury last July. This hindered the team from training to their fullest until September. In fact, the injury was severe enough the team is unable to use new, or even old moves.
“This is just to make sure that we don’t make the shoulder worse,” said Marcotte, adding that she has not fully recovered. “I don’t think that’s the type of injury that she will be ever fully recovered from. We’re going to have to always manage how she feels on that day, and there are some moves that I don’t think we’ll be ever able to do. But having said that, everything that we’re doing, she can do without fear of getting injured. We’ll be able to be creative, just in a different way.”
While injuries are an inevitable part of skating, Marcotte feels that “clear communication” can help keep skaters healthy.
“I think it’s important as a coach, or even as skaters, to be really aware of the mental state of your athletes, or even their fatigue on that day,” he said. “It’s important that a coach and skaters work as a team to be able to have great communication, to know what’s going on, and not to be afraid to change the plan according to where you feel they are mentally and physically.”
In terms of communication, Marcotte is comfortable in his ability to connect with the team without a significant language barrier.
“I mean, English is none of our first languages,” pointed out the French-speaking coach. “But I think Ryuichi’s English has gotten quite good. I’ve been teaching Riku since she was 12 or 13. When she used to come in and see me, I used Google Translate quite a bit. I got to learn a lot of the Japanese terms related to skating. I know them so well; I often know what they are thinking and their body language. Sometimes they’ll come to the boards and they’ll talk Japanese to each other. And I will say, ‘you just said this’ and they look at me, like ‘how did you know, do you speak Japanese?’ ‘No, no, I just know you guys.'”
Expanding the pairs’ discipline
Marcotte hopes that Miura and Kihara will be the start of a stronger program for pairs in Japan. He identifies the biggest need as more coaches that have pairs experience.
“There’s one thing about knowing the technique, but there’s also how to manage a couple, how to manage the relationship,” he pointed out. “You need a lot of experience to work with pairs or to have done pairs for a long time to understand how to manage this. If Ryuichi and Riku, when they retire, go back home and start coaching, I think they could do something really, really good in Japan. Right now, they are so strong in singles, and their work ethic and their mental mindset are so amazing. I think Japan could be a major super powerhouse in the pairs field as much as the singles.”
Marcotte is also passionate about expanding access to pairs’ expertise worldwide. He pointed out that the International Skating Union (ISU) has been doing a lot in that they conduct seminars every year to promote the discipline.
“Every year, I’ve been involved with a seminar in Berlin,” he said. “They bring the young skaters and the young coaches and a lot of people that have gone through those seminars. I see them in the world scene now.”
COVID-19 was also a blessing in disguise for connecting pair coaches and skaters around the world through zoom sessions.
“Ultimately, there’s going to be more coaches with maybe less pair experience that will not be afraid to reach out to me and reach out to other coaches,” said Marcotte. “That’s what I want. I want to help out younger coaches, or coaches that want to try pairs. What I want to do, is to promote pairs in the world, and I hope that people will be using the technology to be able to make this happen.”
Same-gender pair teams
In January 2023, Skate Canada announced a rule change to allow pairs and dance teams to be composed of two skaters of any gender, for all levels of competition up through the Canadian National Championships. While Marcotte expects that this change may impact dance faster than pairs, he’s sure that there will be same-gender pair teams as well.
“I’ve seen in the past two guys doing pairs,” said Marcotte. “I’ve seen lifts, twists and throws. I did some shows with one of the guys that did that, so I think it’s going to happen. Like with everything that’s new, a lot of people ask questions. One thing I was really impressed with about Skate Canada is that they came ready, because they’ve already adjusted the rules. In pairs, you have skater A and skater B, right now the girl and the boy, and right now the girl cannot throw the guy. It’s against the rules. You cannot go from somebody doing the throwing and somebody else lifting. So those are the rules. Canada was already ahead of that and came up with skater A, that’s what they’re doing, and skater B, that’s what they’re doing. I really feel that as far as they could, they did their major due diligence. I think they’re trying to adapt to the times, and they’re trying to give an opportunity for everybody to express themselves.”
Marcotte also wonders, however, how the ISU will react to this change, and whether the lack of international opportunities would hold back same-gender teams.
“There’s going to be some young talents that are going to say, ‘I want to go to Worlds. I want to go to the Olympics,'” he noted. “So, I wonder how that’s going affect some of those same-gender teams, if that’s going to put a block to them or not, I don’t know. But I’m curious about what happens next, once they reach another level.”‘
Decline in technical difficulty and the ‘hole’
While the technical difficulty of pair programs has fallen over the last few seasons, in part due to the Russian ban, Marcotte doesn’t see a reason for alarm. He cited COVID and the lack of training time for younger teams as one reason for a smaller field at the top. However, he also pointed out the need to put the current situation into context.
“In the last eight or 10 years, in my opinion, we’ve been in a golden age of pair skating,” he noted. “We’ve had a lot of pairs teams that stuck around for a long time, and that created competition and this standard of excellence. Then all of a sudden, we know what happened with the Russians. Then all those teams retired. So obviously there’s a big hole, and right now, I don’t think there’s a lack of talent. I see a lot of amazing, promising young teams. Some teams that did a double at the beginning of the year are doing a triple now. I think a year from now, we’re going to see a lot of this.”
Marcotte also expressed his hopes and opinions on the technical and artistic progression of the pairs discipline.
“My ideal of a pair team is somebody that does the pair elements and that skates like an ice dancer,” he explained. “For me, this is like the ultimate pair team. I don’t think this is new. I think when you look at the past the Russian, Canadian and American teams. They brought our sport to different places as far as the second mark.”
Marcotte would also like to see the ISU reconsider the scale of values for pair elements to increase the points for throw quad jumps and quad twists.
“Right now, when you do make a mistake in the throw triple, compared to planning a beautiful throw double, you know that the points are either the same or more,” he explained. “I do also understand that the ISU and the fans don’t like to see skaters making mistakes. At the same time, I think to keep the fans interested, it’s important to be able to combine this amazing art with pushing the technical elements to the next level.”
“I really believe in pairs, it’s possible,” he said of a theoretical change. “Like when you look at singles, you see the guys that do five quads in a long program. It’s hard, physically, to be able to have a program to the next level. That’s why a lot of those skaters have unbelievable shorts, and you can tell in the long, they have to find a way to manage their energy. But I don’t think we’re at that place in pairs. I think if you see a pair doing a throw quad or quad twist, I don’t think it’s going to affect the performance and the ability to be more creative as far as the lines and movement.”
Marcotte is also part of the coaching team for Japan’s Haruna Murakami and Sumitada Moriguchi, who debuted this season on the Junior Grand Prix. They qualified for the Junior Grand Prix Final where they came in fourth, and then went on to win both the junior and national title. Miura and Kihara were unable to compete at nationals due to a plane delay and their skates being lost in baggage.
Other current students include Canadian junior champions Chloe Panetta/Kieran Thrasher, Tilda Alteryd/Gabriel Farand (CAN), Jazmine Desrochers/Aidan Wright (CAN), and Austrian Champions Sophia Schaller/Livio Mayr.