Sometimes the figure skating world really is the smallest of places.
Meet Narumi Takahashi and Mervin Tran, two skaters from very different cultures who landed in the cosmopolitan French city of Montréal from two completely different directions.
The outcome? They have turned themselves into one of the planet’s most promising pairs teams in a very short space of time.
The petite 19-year-old Takahashi who hails from Chiba, Japan, had been living and training in China for five years — her family moved there for work reasons — when she approached Canadian coach Richard Gauthier at a competition in Beijing several years ago and handed him a DVD with a simple request.
“I would like you to find me a partner,” Takahashi told Gauthier. “I’ve skated pairs here in China and if you could find me a partner, I would like to train with you.”
Gauthier considered the possibility a long shot at best, given her location. Takahashi, as it turned out, was not easily discouraged.
“A couple of years later, she wrote me and said she was still interested,” Gauthier recalled. “I had to see what she looked like so I asked her come for a week. I had all my senior pair boys skate with her to see what she could do. After a week, I said I would keep my eyes open for a partner for her.”
Around that time Bruno Marcotte, one of Gauthier’s associate coaches, was driving from Vancouver to Montréal. As he crossed into Saskatchewan, a thought – and a name – popped into his head.
“Bruno remembered me because I used to compete in singles,” said Tran, 20, a Saskatoon native. “He called my coach and asked if I was interested in a tryout.”
Tran, however, needed some serious convincing. Pairs skating was the farthest thing from his mind.
“I told my coach flat out, ‘no, I’m not interested at all,’” Tran recalled. “I always thought of pairs as something for skaters who couldn’t do singles. That was my general feeling about it.”
With a little bit more prodding, Tran decided to visit Montréal and accepted Gauthier’s tryout offer. In the end, it became a life-changing decision.
“I went to the tryout not expecting too much and just for the fun of it,” Tran recalled. “But during that week, skating with Narumi, it really changed my mind and I fell in love with pairs.”
A team since July 2007, Takahashi and Tran claimed silver at the 2010 World Junior Championships.
This season Gauthier had them on a dual track, sending them to both senior and junior Grand Prix events. It has been a success story, to say the least.
A year after snaring the silver medal at the Junior Grand Prix Final, Takahashi and Tran made the leap to the top step of the podium last December, in Beijing, of all places. The duo almost qualified for the senior final as well after picking up bronze in Japan and silver in Russia.
In what could be a historical move, Takahashi and Tran intend to compete at both the senior and junior World Championships — in Japan and Korea, respectively — with a warmup at Four Continents.
“It’s really hard because it’s been a long season for them with nine competitions, many of which are in Asia this year,” Gauthier said.
Tran agreed. “It’s been an insane year. Since the beginning of September, I have not been home for more than two weeks. But we had a month at home before Four Continents and I could finally relax.”
Representing Japan took some getting used to, Tran admitted.
“I still think more that this is for Narumi and I, rather than this is for the country we’re representing,” he said. “But I’m very grateful for what the Japanese federation has done for us.”
Tran doesn’t intend to apply for Japanese citizenship, meaning he and Takahashi will not be eligible to skate at the 2014 Winter Games. But there are still plenty of goals to chase, starting with Junior Worlds this March.
“They have made a big sacrifice to be able to do this,” Gauthier said. “I’m very pleased when I see the end result. When kids put so much into it, it’s nice to see it turn out this way.”
Originally published in April 2011