Canada’s newest successful pairs team is that of Elizabeth Putnam and Sean Wirtz. The couple took the bronze medal at the 2003 Canadian Nationals in Saskatoon in January in their first year together. “We were only hoping to be in the top five so we could make the international team,” Wirtz stated. “Of course, we’re hoping to go to the Worlds and Olympics some day and hopefully win some medals. Next year we want to make it to Worlds, but getting to go to Four Continents was a good start for us.” The event was their first international and the couple finished ninth in Beijing in February.
Putnam, who hails from Richmond Hill, Ontario, began skating when she was five. “My mother tried me in ballet, gymnastics, and figure skating,” she remembered. “I only did ballet until I was seven, but I did both gymnastics and figure skating until I was ten, then I had to choose.” In gymnastics, the floor exercise was her favorite discipline. She didn’t play any team sports. Putnam has been competing in both singles and pairs, starting pairs when she was 15. Before joining with Wirtz, she finished ninth in 2002 with Mark Batka.
They plan to continue as long as they enjoy it. “I love to compete and be in front of a crowd,” Wirtz stated. “I like performing together with Sean,” Putnam said, “especially at the gala.” “We’re easygoing people,” Wirtz continued. “We laugh and we joke, so we have a lot of fun working together.”
Putnam was one of the busiest skaters at the 2002 Canadian Nationals. She was also the most successful, winning two bronze medals, one in junior ladies and the other in senior pairs. “Competing in two events wasn’t that bad,” she said. “I was really well trained before we came. It helped that there wasn’t any pressure and I was so busy that I didn’t have time to worry about pairs. I got to get comfortable in front of the crowd and got a good warm-up for the pairs.”
Wirtz didn’t begin skating until much later, when he was 13, after he moved from his hometown of Marathon to train with his famous uncles, two-time Canadian pairs champion Kris Wirtz and his brother, noted pairs coach Paul Wirtz. “Paul put me into lots of sports,” he noted. “I was an athletic kid. If it had anything to do with sports, I was into it. I played baseball, football, and soccer on my school teams. I the 100 and 200 meters in track and field and competed in the long jump and triple jump. But I didn’t take to skating until later. Once I started skating, the other sports just stopped.”
He competed in singles, and then switched to pairs when he was 18, winning the Canadian novice pairs title with Jennifer Dubois in 1999 and second in juniors in 2000. Then he switched back to singles, finishing fourth in senior men in 2001, but then missed the 2002 Canadians entirely. “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do,” he said, “but finally I decided I wasn’t right for singles.” That left him searching for a pairs partner last spring and he found Putnam while both skaters were doing tryouts at the Toronto Cricket and Curling Club. They began training as a team in July.
“We were training every day in the summer,” Putnam said. “Two or three sessions every day, probably five hours every day. The twists and lifts were the hardest to learn. Because I’m tall, I had to work to get my legs up and we had a lot of timing issues.” “Elizabeth had to relearn a lot of what she had done before,” Wirtz stated. “Sometimes we’d work for hours and hours on lifts and twists to learn the technique before we’d go on the ice. But things are getting simpler now.” Since Canadians, they are down to two 45-minutes sessions daily, but continue off ice work on twists and lifts. Paul Wirtz said, “I wanted to go slowly and really work on their technique. Sometimes skaters try to go too far to fast. I wanted to be sure they had a real high double twist this season, then worry about working on a triple twist next summer.”
In addition, Putnam took lots of singles practice. “Paul wanted me to get a lot of experience with the jumps so I could do the triple salchow under pressure,” she noted. The triple salchow was the first triple that each of the skaters had landed, Wirtz at 14 and Putnam at 16. “I can do triple salchow and toe loop, but I’d like to learn a triple lutz,” Putnam said. “But because my technique was different, I had to work an hour a day on double salchows in the summer to break my old habits so we could have triple salchows in our pairs program.”
Putnam didn’t plan to use that singles practice to compete in ladies this season. “I didn’t even expect to compete in singles and didn’t submit an application until the day before sectionals. We thought that I’d have a bye since we were scheduled to compete in Croatia, but when we couldn’t go, Paul had to throw together some programs for me for singles. I won the sectionals, and then was second at divisionals, but there wasn’t any pressure on me at Nationals. To get third was a bonus for me. I plan to do both as long as I can. It’s good practice for the jumps.”.
Since they are nearly the same height, the pair is able to accomplish a lot of side-by-side moves that would be difficult for couples more mismatched in height. They have already developed a style that shows amazing unison, more like ice dancers than typical pairs skaters. Trademark moves include side-by-side nested Ina Bauers and spread-eagles and a beautiful spread-eagle, spiral combination.
“Paul has really worked with us to develop our line from when we first started,” Wirtz said. “We tried a lot of different moves like that. We watched some old pairs skating and went back to some of the basics.” “We really wanted to focus on the quality of our line and an elegant look on the ice,” Putnam added. “I did the Ina Bauer in my singles program so one day Paul told us to go try it. Now it’s our trademark.” Coach Paul Wirtz added that, “Anyone can learn the big tricks, but for a young team to stand out, we needed something special. With the new judging system, all of those special moves will result in more pluses in the score.”
Paul Wirtz and Steve Belanger choreographed the couple’s programs, “Meditation” for the short and “Violin Fantasie” and “Nessun Dorma” from “Turandot” for the long. “We both liked the music right away,” Putnam said. “I like something fun, something with personality, but we’re both open minded.” “We wanted something that would show the quality of our skating, something elegant and classical,” Wirtz said.
Wirtz has finished secondary school and plans to join the family business when he finishes skating, coaching with his uncles. “I’m into the technical part,” he said. “I used to help Paul with stroking classes and stuff. I like helping kids skating.” Putnam, who is in her last year of school, plans to go to the university to study English and psychology, her two favorite subjects, possibly to become a child psychologist.
She enjoys reading and writing poetry, but keeps her poems secret. “I like writing more than reading,” she said, “but I read a lot of everything.” She also likes to watch movies and listen to all kinds of music, while Wirtz prefers 80s rock. Both skaters have had musical instruction, with Putnam learning the violin and Wirtz the piano. “My grandmother was a piano teacher, so we all had to learn,” he said. Wirtz continues to enjoy sports, playing football and baseball in the summer and watching them on television in the winter. He gives Putnam all of his stuffed animals, and she saves them all.