Kaitlyn Weaver and her ice dance partner Andrew Poje begin their season at the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic, being held Sept. 12-15. As she herself writes, from moment one, they'll be building "the best possible path to Sochi."
It seems as if there are no definitive confines or boundaries to the seasons, despite what the almanac would tell us. Spring lazily rolls into summer and slowly, but surely, we begin to feel the cool whispers of a fall breeze. We are excited when the first snowflakes grace our sidewalks and windowsills, but we never quite know exactly when that day will come find us from year to year.
That is, unless you're a competitive athlete.
There is nothing more definitive than the start of a competitive season. Athletes work for months during their respective off-seasons, knowing exactly when and where they need to be ready. For us winter athletes, training does not cease as soon as the snow melts and the sun comes out to play. That's when training becomes more intense. It's our time to push our bodies, minds, limits to every maximum possible, for that is when true growth is achieved. But then, as if in the blink of an eye, competition is upon you and you find yourself narrowing every focus and climbing back into the cockpit to start racing again.
The U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Salt Lake City starts the season for which my ice dance partner Andrew Poje and I have been training, dreaming, sweating, and praying our entire careers in this sport. This season marks our seventh year together, a relatively short time to climb the ranks compared to a few of our competitors who are working on what seems like short lifetimes together of 16-plus years. On a night like this, I find it difficult to not reflect on how far Andrew and I have come in those seven years, but particularly in the past quadrennial.
The last time I was in Salt Lake City, I was a wide-eyed, quiet yet driven 17-year-old. Days before, in my home of Avon, Conn., I received the most life-changing news of my young adolescence: After a two-day tryout, the incredible (and incredibly handsome) ice dancer Andrew Poje had chosen me to be his partner.
How it happened, I had no idea. But the sense that anything was possible was instilled in me at a young age, and remains with me today as you will soon find out. I was a young junior-level skater just breaking onto the international circuit, and Andrew was an established and reputable senior-level skater. When we found ourselves without partners in June 2006, our coaches contacted each other and organized a tryout. I was up against stiff competition, but Andrew and his coaches picked me.
I couldn't have been more elated. The first time we skated together, it just felt right. A towering six foot-three, Andrew carries an immense amount of natural speed and I remember feeling like I was riding the wings of an eagle while we matched our strides on our first practice together. It's slippery out there on the ice, but something about skating with Andrew made me feel safe, and still does today. So Salt Lake City was where I was sitting, waiting to join my new partner as we made our first trip together — to Sun Valley, Idaho — to create a new program.
It wasn't long before Andrew and I were launched onto the international scene, finishing on the podium at two junior events, then a bronze at our first Canadian championships after five months together. In what felt like a whirlwind, we travelled to the Junior world championships in Germany because we still met the age requirements, and also to the "big" world championships in Tokyo since we were ranked third in Canada.
Six months, five countries, four bronze medals, three coaches, two World Championships and a berth on the Canadian National team. It was quite the start for two seemingly naive kids who just liked to dance together.
But that was just the beginning. From that moment forward, an Olympic dream was born. We all wish to go to the Olympics when we're kids, and I was no different. But it wasn't until skating with Andrew that I realized just how I could make that dream a reality. It was 2007, and if we could remain in the top two in Canada for a few years, a spot on the 2010 Olympic team was ours.
Fast forward 24 months, add a few growing pains and a couple new coaches (we were now under the tutelage of Shae-Lynn Bourne, my idol since I can remember, along with Italian champion Pasquale Camerlengo) and we were preparing for our first Olympic season. I was a wreck. I didn't know how to treat our preparation time and handle my own pressure correctly. Not exactly what I imagined for myself in my years of training leading up to this year. Every decision I made every day became about my future of qualifying for the Olympics, and it became an obsession. I wasn't training or performing to the best of my ability. Nevertheless, we were improving and achieving decent results on the international scene. The Canadian Championships rolled around by January, and despite our great performances, we slipped to third place by 3-10ths of a point — the equivalent of a photo finish — and missed making the team.
Fighting for a medal
We were gutted. Heartbroken doesn't begin to explain what we felt when the marks came up, or when we had to explain to the best of our ability "what happened" in countless interviews. We had to stand on the podium and smile, and watch as the Olympic team marched on to fulfill what we believed was OUR dream. But being first alternate, we were assigned to the Four Continents Championshipsm one impossibly quick week later.
Coming home was a nightmare. Getting back on the ice on Monday, hopes shattered, but still having to will our bodies to train and stay in fit condition for another round of performances. But we realized, helped by some motivating and loving words from Mom, in that moment we had a huge opportunity. We had only two directions to go: Down, if we wanted to feel sorry for ourselves and finish out the season on a low, or up, despite how hard it would be, to show the skating world that we were fighters.
We chose the latter and won Four Continents in Korea. It wasn't the Olympics, but it was a prestigious international gold medal, and it ignited a fire within us to start fighting for what we wanted. I vowed to lay off the crazy pressure, because clearly that didn't work for me. We decided to have a little fun during our training because that was the reason we were training in the first place.
The following three seasons couldn't have been more different than the previous. We had established a fantastic training location in Detroit, worked under world-renowned coaches, and were clawing and scratching our way up the world ranks. Andrew and I are often asked how the experience of missing the the 2010 Olympics helped shape who we are as people today, and I can never stress enough how motivating it was. We would not be where we are today — ranked fifth in the world and fighting for a medal — without finding ourselves at the bottom of the barrel. Since then, we've truly enjoyed ourselves each season, held nothing back, and let the chips fall where they may.
And here we are together again, in Salt Lake City, poised and ready for our Olympic season to begin. This first competition will help prepare us for the larger and more important ones ahead, but that doesn't make it even a fraction less important. Each day, event, and experience in the next five months it is imperative for us to build the best path possible to Sochi. Sure, we'll encounter speed bumps, detours (obviously of the scenic variety), speedy straightaways, and a few pit stops, but Andrew and I are ready to start. Countless times we've made the seemingly impossible possible, and that is priceless in times like these.
I can feel the butterflies fluttering in my stomach now, on the eve of this season, ready to soar.