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A New Generation Chase Their Olympic Dreams

With so many retirements following the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, the door is wide open for the young guns to take center stage this season. Our cover story profiles a number of rising stars with Olympic dreams.

Adam Rippon

Adam Rippon was pretty much an unknown quantity in 2008, and few outside the U.S. had even heard his name.

But people sat up and took notice when he claimed the World Junior title that year. When he wrote himself into the history books a year later by winning his second global title, the first skater to ever repeat as a World junior champion, Rippon became a household name in skating circles.

VALUABLE LESSONS

Rippon made the leap into the senior ranks last season with one goal in mind – to earn a berth on the 2010 U.S. Olympic team.
But the talented young skater discovered that things do not always work out as planned.

A disappointing outing at the 2010 U.S. Championships left him in fifth place, and his Olympic dream vanished in an instant.

“That I was not going to the Games did not really sink in initially, but as it did I asked myself if there was anything I could have done to make it happen,” Rippon said. “I kept asking myself if there was anything that could have changed the outcome.

“I knew I was young and only had an outside chance of making the team, but it was still disappointing.”

Returning to the ice at his Toronto training base to prepare for Four Continents was tough. “I could not take a break, I had to resume training right away,” he said.

“I was upset, but I knew that I had to stay focused and move forward. I had spent all that time training for nationals and it did not go as I planned, so I really had to push myself to get ready for Four Continents in Korea.”

His adventure at Four Continents did not get off to a stellar start. “I skated a really bad short program, and then I realized I was still carrying all the bad energy that I had been feeling since nationals. It was at that moment I knew I had to turn it around,” he said.

Rippon’s strong free skate propelled him on to the top step of the podium in Seoul, but the moment was bittersweet. “Honestly, it did not feel like a victory. It was more of a feeling of a revalidation of myself as a skater,” the 20-year-old said. “It was not like it was the moment I had been training for, but I felt really proud because all the work I had put in finally paid off.

“But those two competitions in a row were such a learning experience. Before if I made mistakes in the short, I would not have been so aggressive and pushed myself in the long. I think those two competitions taught me at least five years’ worth of lessons. It was really challenging.”

NEW PERSPECTIVE

Rippon’s approach to the upcoming season is completely different, he said.

“This year, I really feel that I am one of the guys in the race,” Rippon explained. “I don’t feel like I am one of the juniors coming into the seniors, and mentally that has done a lot for my preparation. I am really pushing myself and handling myself more as a seasoned competitor rather than a spring chicken as I was in the first year in seniors. I feel like my time is now.

“My training went really well over the summer, and Ì am gearing up for the new season. I am focusing on what I need to do, and that is to go out and skate well and put down solid performances,” he said.

Incorporating a quad flip into his long program sometime this season is also part of his plan.

SETTING GOALS

Rippon is happy that his two Grand Prix assignments, Skate Canada and Skate America, are on home turf. “It is an honor to be the leading U.S. guy at Skate America. That is incredibly cool,” he said. “And I am really happy about going to Skate Canada because it is almost like skating at home as well. I am happy I don’t have to travel far.”

One of his goals this season is earning a Grand Prix Final berth. “I plan on skating really well and hope it will be enough to make the final,” he said.

With two of the top U.S. men sitting out the season, Rippon knows the door will be wide open at nationals. He expects the competition will be fierce.

“There are a lot of the guys in the U.S. who will be looking to make a jump onto the podium,” he acknowledged. “It will be really interesting to see how it all plays out. I definitely have my sights set on skating really well and making the World team. I am focusing on doing my best at every competition.”

OLYMPIC DREAMS

Looking back, Rippon now views the experience at 2010 nationals as enlightening. “Watching Jeremy Abbott skate amazingly and seeing how Evan Lysacek paced himself heading into the Olympics was a great learning experience,” Rippon said. “I really paid attention to what happened, and I learned from it.”

Though the next Olympic Games are still a little over three years away, Rippon is already in Olympic mode.

“Every season is important, but this one especially because it is the beginning of a new quadrennial. It is going to be interesting to see what the other guys are doing, who steps out, and who is willing to push the envelope,” he said.

“This year will set the stage for the Games in Sochi, Russia, so it is going to be a really cool season for a lot of people. I am really excited and feeling really prepared.

“I intend to keep moving my skating forward, and achieve better and better results as I go along. All I can hope for is that it all comes together even more so than I feel it is now. I hope to be as artistically and technically polished and as ready as I can be when 2014 rolls around.”

Rippon knows all too well the hard work that is required to achieve his Olympic goal. “I have trained with an Olympic champion, and I am coached by a two-time Olympic silver medalist. I know what it takes to get to that level,” he said.

“I would love win the Olympic title in 2014, that is my dream.”

Christina Gao

Christina Gao has a brand-new game plan in place this season.

And no matter what, the talented young skater is determined that this season will end on a higher note than the last one did.

Not that the 2009-10 season was without success for the 16-year-old Cincinnati, Ohio, native. She just knows she can achieve a whole lot more.

CHANGE OF PACE

In 2009 Gao relocated to Toronto to train with Brian Orser. “My parents and my coaches knew it was time for me to move on. I really like Brian’s way of teaching, and my preparation is way more efficient,” she said.

The move paid off. Gao skated into third at both of her Junior Grand Prix assignments last season and claimed bronze at her Grand Prix Final debut in Tokyo, Japan.

“I was so happy to win a medal at the final,” she said. “It was interesting because throughout the competition I felt no pressure. I did not even think about winning a medal.

“Actually, after my long I got off the ice, changed out of my costume and took off all my makeup. I was about to leave the arena when I learned that I was third,” she added with a laugh.

But her eighth-place result at the World Junior Championships was disappointing. “I had a good season, and even though I was happy with everything I did, it did not end the way I wanted it to,” Gao explained.

Singling the back end of a combination jump at that competition was a costly mistake. “I won’t do that again,” she said. “Every day in training since then I execute the combination jumps completely, no matter what. Junior Worlds was a good learning experience.”

LEARNING CURVES

Gao claimed silver at both her Junior Grand Prix events this season, a step up from last year, and earned a berth to the final in China this December.

She admitted to feeling hesitant at her first Grand Prix event in Austria. “I was pretty nervous heading into that competition. I really wanted to have a strong showing because I had worked so hard during the off-season,” she said. “Even though I did not win, I know that I have made a lot of improvement since last year. I am very happy that I performed the way I did.”

Though things did not go as well at her second assignment in Germany, Gao took a positive stance. “I fell on my triple flip in both the short and the long, which is really weird because I don’t usually miss that jump,” she said. “But I am happy because even though I fell, I did not let that error ruin the rest of my programs.

“Last season if I fell on a jump, then for me it ruined the entire program. This season I have a different perspective. Despite the fall, I earned all my levels for the spins and footwork, and everything else in the programs was great.

“Brian made sure during my training that even if I fell on a jump, the rest of the program did not go down as well.”

“I am looking to do very well at the final,” said Gao, who is of Chinese descent. “Of course I want to win, but I can’t focus on that. I can only focus on myself and be as strong as I can be and lay it down when it really counts.”

MOVING FORWARD

Gao has increased her technical level by incorporating a triple flip triple toe into both of her programs this season. “I am really happy because I have done that combination at every competition so far,” she said. “That was something I wanted, to get that out there this year.”

Her solid jumping ability carried her through last season, but Gao is not relying solely on that element any more. “Last year that was the strongest part of my skating, but everything else was not as good,” she said. “If you have a good program, strong skating and solid presentation skills, then you have a base, and even if you fall on a jump, you still have a good program to fall back on.

“I spent the off-season improving my spins and skating skills so no matter what I would have strong programs.”

Music selection plays a major role, she said. “I feel like my music this year fits me a lot better as a person. I can express it more. David Wilson really helped me with that. It has been a great learning experience.”

She will compete at the senior level at the U.S. nationals in 2011. Gao placed fifth in her senior debut last season but is looking to improve on that result.

Making the senior World team is one of her goals. “I have a lot more experience than I had last year, and I hope that all the hard work will pay off,” she said.

When asked what motivates her, Gao said the answer is simple. “I love skating, and I love the feeling of accomplishing something every day. Working hard in training pays off in competition and that is an amazing feeling. When I give it my all in training, I always feel really good at the end of the day.”

Though the 2014 Olympic Games are her ultimate goal, she is taking it day by day, competition by competition. “I prepare well for each competition and focus solely on what I need to improve on so that when 2014 rolls around every aspect of my skating will be polished and I will be the best I can possibly be.”

Training alongside Yu-Na Kim as she prepared for her Olympic year was an insightful experience Gao said. “I watched Yu-Na train every day leading up to the Olympics and saw how she prepared for competitions. I learned a lot from her.”

And watching Kim win the Olympic title was an added inspiration. “It was so great seeing her win, knowing what it took for her to get there and that all of her hard work paid off,” Gao said.

“When I saw her standing on the podium I was like ‘Wow, I really want that too.’”

Andrei Rogozine

Canada’s Andrei Rogozine likely can’t imagine a bigger — or better — scenario.

Standing on the podium at the 2014 Winter Olympics in the land of his birth, watching the flag of Canada, the country he now calls home, rise toward the sky.

“It would really be exciting,” said the Moscow-born and Canadian-raised skater. His eyes are squarely focused on the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.

“For Canada, it would be a great thing but also for Russia because I was born there. It would be a win-win, I guess. I think I’ll have fans from both countries if I make it.”

While those Olympics are still just a little more than three years away, Rogozine is already making impressive strides.

In a period of a month, the 17-year-old from Richmond Hill, Ont., recorded victories at both of his Junior Grand Prix assignments (Courcheval, France and Karuizawa, Japan), which ensured him a berth in the Series final in Beijing.

Rogozine stood second after the short program at both events but seized the gold by winning the free skates with a routine jammed with seven triple jumps — including an opening triple Axel-triple toe combination.

“The combination is the newest thing I’m doing,” he said. “I only had one triple Axel in my long program last year, but we’ve switched it two now to get more points. I’ve also worked on the other stuff, like power, transitions and footwork. Those were weak points. Every little thing, I can safely say I’ve improved.”

After closely watching the men’s competition at the 2010 Winter Olympics, Rogozine knows there is one other thing he and his coaches — Inga Zusev and Andrei Berezintsev — need to add to his repertoire.

“I’m learning that having just the triple Axel isn’t the safest thing,” said Rogozine. “So I am working on quads right now, mainly the quad toe, but I’ve tried a lot of the others. I’m just experimenting right now, seeing what works and what doesn’t. Having a quad will certainly be a big help.”

He enlisted former World ice dance champion Shae-Lynn Bourne to craft his short program (Berezintsev choreographed the long), and believes her expertise brought more to his overall package.

“Shae has so much energy and is really fun to work with. She has amazing choreography skills. It was really fun and energetic,” Rogozine said.

After the Junior Grand Prix Final, Rogozine will turn his eyes toward the 2011 Canadian championships, where he aims to improve on the 11th-place finish he earned in his senior debut earlier this year.

“Nationals last season was my first time competing in seniors,” said Rogozine, the 2009 junior national champion. “I didn’t do so well. I wasn’t prepared enough, I didn’t know what to expect, and it wasn’t one of my best performances. This time, I am hoping to place in the top five.”

Rogozine moved to Canada at age 5 and took up figure skating a year later. Even then he had dreams of following in the path blazed by former Russian Olympic champions, and now he wants to get there himself, albeit under the Canadian flag.

“The next Olympics is definitely a goal for me,” he said. “It’s going to be in my birth country, so it would be really exciting for me. I have not been back since I moved to Canada. So if I don’t go for a visit in the next four years, it would be pretty exciting to go and skate there.

“I’m sure it’s going to be a great Olympics. It is an awesome experience, I am sure, so I’m hoping that is in my future.”

Kharis Ralph and Asher Hill

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before.

Two talented skaters are paired as an ice dance team at a very young age and grow together as one, winning titles aplenty as they steadily rise through the ice dance ranks.

If it sounds like an early chapter in the story of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir … well, let it be said that Kharis Ralph and Asher Hill are doing their best to follow in the footsteps of the reigning Olympic champions.

“Longevity is definitely a key. You get used to each other’s body movements and know how the other feels,” said Hill, 19, of Pickering, Ont., as he pondered a partnership that is entering its ninth season.

“You don’t even have to look for each other’s hands when you’re skating, and if there’s a stumble — you catch up to each other. You develop a kind of a telepathic connection and don’t really have to say much.”

Given that thought, it’s not surprising to hear his partner echo those same sentiments.

“The fact that we started young has helped a lot,” said Ralph, 18, of Toronto. “We’ve gotten used to each other’s personalities and how we both work. Sometimes we don’t have to say anything – you just know what the other person is thinking. For some newer teams in competition, nerves are harder to deal with.

“But Asher and I have found a way to deal with that by incorporating it into a routine. I find we’re able to work off each other.”

It wasn’t long after coach Carol Lane first paired them in 2002 at the Scarborough Figure Skating Club that Ralph and Hill began their ascent in the world of Canadian ice dance.

They have already collected a trio of national titles — pre-novice (2006), novice (2007) and junior (2008) — and are targeting a medal at the senior level after placing fourth at nationals in 2010.

“We definitely want to be on the national podium in 2011 and earn a berth to Four Continents at the very least,” Hill said. “Worlds would be a plus.”

Ralph and Hill will dive into the senior Grand Prix Series for the first time, having been assigned to Cup of China and Trophée Eric Bompard.

While the young couple placed fourth at the Junior Grand Prix Final last season and 10th at the World Junior Championships, this foray into the senior international ranks promises something completely different.

“We’re not really sure where we stand now,” said Ralph. “Our goal this year is just to have strong performances and skate cleanly at our Grand Prix events.”

Both skaters see it as just another step on the way to the ultimate goal. “We definitely want to be in Sochi,” Hill said with an eye toward the 2014 Olympic Winter Games. “That’s definitely our goal. We’re just going to work our butts off to get there.

“Progressing every year and staying healthy is the key. We want to become more innovative, stronger, faster … everything. Any aspect of our skating that we can improve, we will.”

Ralph and Hill don’t have to look far for an example. Their longtime training partners Vanessa Crone and Paul Poirier made their Olympic debut in Vancouver, finishing 14th. They share the same coaching team of Carol Lane, Jon Lane and Juris Razgulajevs.

“We’re really good friends,” said Hill. “I’ve known Paul and Vanessa since we were maybe 8 years old. They are really supportive, and when we are on the ice we have a ton of competitiveness and feed off each other.”

Of course, there can be no bigger inspiration than that supplied by Virtue and Moir, who captured the biggest prize of them all on home soil.

“I was so ecstatic. I was jumping in the air when they came first,” said Hill. “It was awesome. They are just amazing to watch, and I really aspire to that.”

Ralph agreed. “It was very inspiring. I was proud to be Canadian.”

The duo has already displayed their ability to skate to a wide range of music, though Ralph professes a preference for “cutesy routines.” This year, their short dance is set to Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” while their free is to “Summertime,” performed by Angelique Kidjo.

“I think we’ve proven ourselves to be very versatile,” Hill said. “We’ve done a lot of different things. The type of music doesn’t really matter to me. I like skating to different music and different genres. I think it makes you a better skater and a better performer.”

Kaleigh Hole and Adam Johnson

Someday soon, the newness of it all will finally rub off completely.

But that day hasn’t quite arrived for Kaleigh Hole and Adam Johnson, a promising young Canadian pairs team who have already enjoyed their share of success but who are still far from being a finished product.

It is understandable, to be sure, to sense a bit of a wow factor when Hole and Johnson talk about their first foray into the senior Grand Prix ranks, which arrives at Cup of China in early November.

“It’s super exciting. We weren’t expecting much,” Johnson, 21, said of the opportunity to take the next step in their career. “We’re just trying to break out on the scene. We want to go out at Cup of China and show the world that we belong. We have some good tricks, and we want to make a name for ourselves.”

Hole and Johnson didn’t do a bad job in that area last season, their first as a pairs team. The young couple struck gold at their first international event, a Junior Grand Prix competition in Lake Placid, N.Y., and wound up earning a trip to the final in Tokyo, where they placed fifth.

After a seventh-place finish in senior pairs at the 2010 Canadian championships, Hole and Johnson closed out their debut season by placing 10th at the World Junior Championships.

“I definitely wasn’t expecting all of that to happen within a year,” Hole, 17, of Virden, Man., said in summing up the duo’s promising start.

It’s especially remarkable given that Hole had never competed as a pair skater until she teamed up with Johnson. But Scott Rachuk, who coaches the team in Strathroy, Ont., with Alison Purkiss, noticed something about Hole when he watched her skate at the 2009 junior nationals.

Johnson was in the market for a new partner, and later that spring Rachuk contacted Hole’s mother, Patty, who is also a pairs coach.

“Scott and Adam flew out to Manitoba and we had a tryout,” said Hole. “Two weeks later, I moved to Strathroy. That was the hard part.”

They then began the process of introducing Hole to the world of pairs. Luckily for Johnson, his new partner harbored a strong desire to try something new and was pretty fearless about it all.

“I’m not scared of heights or falls or anything,” said Hole when asked about being tossed into the air for the first time. “It was cool. I didn’t really know what I was doing. But now I have to know for sure what’s going on so we can be more consistent.”

While the novelty of it all hasn’t exactly worn off, Johnson said his partner is a lot more comfortable now. “She kind of knows what’s happening out there, but she’s not so new anymore,” he said.

“We want to start by making a name for ourselves in Canada and just keep progressing. We want to keep getting better so we can be at the top in four years.”

Given that they’ve only just begun, the sky would indeed appear to be the limit.

“We know we can do the tricks. We’ve got them,” said Hole. “Our second mark has a long way to go, building better chemistry between us and improving our skating skills. It comes with time. We are new compared with some of the other teams.”

It’s a feeling, however, that they keep outgrowing a little more with each passing day. “We’re progressing bit by bit,” said Johnson. “And we keep gaining more confidence.”

While there’s still plenty to learn, the early taste of success has given Hole and Johnson plenty of reason to think big.

Johnson said he and Hole won’t be content with just showing up at nationals.

They’re aiming for a top-five finish — and national team status — at the upcoming championships.

And thoughts of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games are already dancing in their heads. “I guess it’s always been a dream of mine,” said Johnson, who hails from Chatham, Ont. “In any sport, you want to get to the highest level. It’s just been within the past few years that I’ve really started thinking, ‘Wow, I could actually be there.’”


Originally published in December 2010

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