After missing the 2021 U.S. Championships, Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko decided it was time for a change. The duo opted to move north of the border to train with two-time Olympic ice dance champion Scott Moir.
Like so many other skaters around the world, 2020 was an up-and-down year for American ice dancers Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko. In mid-January they found themselves at a crossroads. After training in Michigan the past seven years, a series of events led the duo to reflect on where they were at and where they really wanted to be. That reflection brought them to the conclusion that they needed to make some changes if they hoped to achieve the goals they have set for themselves.
In March 2020 they were forced to take an unplanned 10-week vacation when their training rink in Novi, Michigan, shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. A few days into the lockdown, Carreira tripped on an uneven road surface while out running and broke her right foot. She first thought it was a sprained ankle, but a visit to the doctor confirmed she suffered a fracture of the fifth metatarsal (which connects the smallest toe to the ankle) and a sprained tendon. Carreira was put in a boot for eight weeks and then spent two more working with a physiotherapist.
In what turned out to be perfect timing, she was cleared to resume training when their rink reopened on June 1. But, while other teams that had jumped right back into heavy training were experiencing various levels of injuries, Carreira and Ponomarenko eased themselves into a training regimen so as not to aggravate her injury. That proved to be the right course of action. In late October, the duo captured the bronze medal at Skate America, their second on the Grand Prix circuit.
Though they had spent four seasons on the Junior Grand Prix circuit and contested two World Junior Championships, competing without a live audience was a new experience for both skaters. It is one that Carreira hopes will not be repeated next season.
“Every competition we have ever been to has always had an audience,” said Ponomarenko. “Even at the Junior Grand Prixs there would be some sort of turnout, and in Russia and Japan the events would be sold out. Skate America felt more like Champs Camp, where we presented our programs for the judges and got feedback. It felt very relaxed and not like a competition. The cardboard cut-outs were a fun idea and it was a great way for U.S. Figure Skating to raise money for the Memorial Fund.”
Carreira, however, missed having people in the stands. “Grand Prixs are pretty stressful, so having the audience to cheer you on is so much better than having cardboard cut-outs,” she explained.
In January 2021, the team was scheduled to compete at the U.S. Championships in Las Vegas. However, two days before Carreira and Ponomarenko planned to travel to the competition, they received a phone call advising them that a person they had attended a dance class with had tested positive for the coronavirus and they would have to withdraw from nationals. Both were devastated by the news.
“We got the call on Saturday morning and we were planning to leave on Monday. It was heartbreaking, but we understood the reason and why the decision had to be made,” said Ponomarenko, 20.
That circumstance set in motion a series of changes few would have anticipated. Carreira announced via social media on Jan. 27 that she and Ponomarenko had left their coach, Igor Shpilband, with whom they had trained since teaming up in 2014. On Feb. 8, U.S. Figure Skating sent out a press release advising that the duo would be moving to Canada to train with two-time Olympic ice dance champion Scott Moir. Though many were surprised by the move, making a coaching change had been in the back of their minds for some time, Carreira said.
The 2019-2020 season had been an up-and- down affair for the team. In the fall of 2019 the duo finished second at their first competition, the U.S. Figure Skating Classic and third at Nebelhorn Trophy. They won the Asian Open Figure Skating Trophy but struggled at their Grand Prix stops, finishing sixth at both Skate America and NHK Trophy. After having just one competition in the fall of 2020, Carreira and Ponomarenko were understandably excited about competing at the national championships. Learning they would not be able to do so was the tipping point and ultimately the catalyst that forced them sit back and assess what their goals were, and what would be the best course of action to achieve them.
“As we were not able to go to nationals, Anthony and I had a lot of discussions that week and the week after. A lot of things had been building up and that was when we knew it was time to make a change, and when we made the final decision,” Carreira explained.
“Not being able to compete at nationals was the final deciding factor,” Ponomarenko added. “There were a lot of reasons why we wanted to make a change, and though it was not easy for us we looked at each other and said, ‘it is time.’”
While they knew where they wanted to go and with whom they wished to train, no firm plan had been put in place at the time they made their decision. When the dust settled, Carreira and Ponomarenko reached out to the coaching team at the I.AM Academy in Montréal to enquire about moving there to train. With 14 elite level dance teams already in their stable, Marie-France Dubreuil, Patrice Lauzon and Romain Haguenauer had to decide whether they could take on another one.
“We spoke to the people in Montréal but obviously they have so many teams and because it is a pre-Olympic season, there were many factors to be considered,” said Carreira, 21. “Patrice (Lauzon) called us back and said he had a little bit of bad news for us. I was like, ‘Oh no! What’s next?’ We were not allowed to go to nationals so what more bad news could you give us?”
The “bad news” actually turned out to be the opposite for Carreira and Ponomarenko. The academy had recently opened a branch in London, Ontario, where Scott Moir is the skating director, and the idea Lauzon proposed would offer them the best of both worlds. They would work with all the coaches in Montréal, but their training base would be in London and Moir would be their main coach.
“We were like, ‘that’s awesome!’ He could tell that we were really happy but he told us to sit on it and think about it overnight. We went back to him the next day with a solid yes,” Carreira explained. “We have worked with Scott before, and we really enjoyed working with him. He has so much enthusiasm and energy and will help us explore our full potential.”
“It was the best news we had heard all week,” Ponomarenko added. “We were really happy about it. We still get the Montréal coaching along with Scott.”
As first alternates for the 2021 World Championships, the duo had to continue training in the U.S. in case one of the teams that were scheduled to compete in Stockholm became injured or sick. They spent the remainder of their time in Michigan training at a rink in Canton. During those weeks, they had dance classes over Zoom with Sam Chouinard in Montréal and lessons with Lauzon and Moir.
“Greg Zuerlein was in Canton and he was a coach we had worked with in the past so we were happy to be able to call him and train with him. So it was a mix of people,” said Ponomarenko. The duo made the official move to train with Moir on March 30.
Carreira, who was born in Montréal, is currently on track to receive her U.S. citizenship, but getting to that point was a long journey. In May 2018, she filed a petition to be deemed an “alien with extraordinary ability” that would open the door to an application for permanent residence. The petition was denied in August and that October she filed a lawsuit, describing the reasons for denial as irrational. In early 2019, Carreira dropped the lawsuit and in August 2020, she finally received a green card. “It was a very long, complicated story,” said Carreira. “I actually petitioned three times and the third time I was approved. There were still problems getting the card and getting it expedited, but now I have it.”
Ponomarenko found an apartment close to the rink in London and will be living in Canada full-time. Once he is settled he plans to continue his studies and start working toward an MBA.
With this season in the books, Carreira and Ponomarenko are looking ahead to the next. In mid-March they and their coaching team began discussing music for new programs and who would choreograph them. Both know there are many aspects of their skating they can work on and improve and said they are excited about the challenges. “We need to work on partnering to look more mature, and we need constant work on skating skills, connection, transitions and making sure everything looks polished, so we are at the same level as the other teams,” said Carreira.
“It is very difficult right now in the U.S. with how good all the teams are, so our focus is getting into the top three, getting on the World team and climbing that ladder. We will try our best, set our goals and aim for the 2026 Olympics,” Ponomarenko added. “As first alternates for Worlds, we will not be penalized next season for not competing at the 2021 Championships. That was all discussed and nothing will be affected with respect to getting assignments next season.”
Both said their parents are thrilled with the coaching change they have made. “After we moved to seniors a few years ago, my dad (the 1992 Olympic ice dance champion, Sergei Ponomarenko) called me one day and said, ‘I really want you to work with Scott Moir to make this happen,’” Ponomarenko recalled. “Now every time we talk about it he says, ‘I told you so.’ They are very excited for this new adventure and think it is going to be great. They are very happy.”
Carreira said her parents, who live in Montréal, are also extremely happy about the change. “Everyone around us is very excited for us.”
(This article was originally published in the IFS June 2021 issue)