There will be no hometown World Championships for Lubov Ilyushechkina and Charlie Bilodeau, but their first season as a pairs team gave the Canadian duo a solid foundation to build upon.
The Montréal-based team announced the new partnership in March 2019 and were encouraged by a fall season that included a pair of bronze medals, at Finlandia Trophy and Cup of China — the latter event being their second Grand Prix competition, which followed a fifth-place finish in their Series debut at Skate Canada.
Those results, and the medal in China in particular, showed Ilyushechkina and Bilodeau that they had indeed made the right move in forming this partnership. The duo shared the podium in Chongqing with two Chinese teams — reigning World champions Wenjing Sui and Cong Han, and Cheng Peng and Yang Jin — who would go on to claim the gold and silver medals at the Grand Prix Final later in the year. “The bronze medal showed that we are in the game at the international level,” said Bilodeau, 26, who finished ninth at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games with Julianne Séguin, his previous partner.
Ilyushechkina, 28, and Bilodeau, 26, were the third alternates for the Final, and though they knew it was unlikely to happen “it was really encouraging and exciting (to reach that level) in our first season together,” said Ilyushechkina.
Both skaters were facing an uncertain future in the sport after the end of the 2017-2018 season. In the wake of a rather shocking — and not in a good way — 22nd-place finish at the 2018 World Championships in Milan, Italy, Bilodeau called an end to his partnership with Séguin and wound up taking a year off from the sport.
The Russian-born Ilyushechkina, meanwhile, was left in limbo when Dylan Moscovitch, with whom she had skated for four seasons, announced his retirement. They had come up short in their bid to represent Canada at the 2018 Olympic Winter Games after placing in the top 10 at two previous World Championships. Their final event was the 2018 Four Continents Championships, where they placed fourth.
She chose to go in a different direction, signing a one-year contract with Cirque du Soleil — the famed Montréal-based acrobatic troupe — in an on-ice role in its “Crystal” production. All the while, though, she kept the idea in her head that her competitive skating days were not finished. “I couldn’t accept the thought that I was done with skating. I tried to look for a partner and have somebody to skate with for the start of last season, but it didn’t happen,” she explained. “So I signed a contract with Cirque. I had to rethink my thoughts and look at skating from the Cirque and artistic perspective, which was a great experience. But I didn’t think that I was done with skating. I tried to train extra for everything that I needed for performance as a competitive skater.”
Bilodeau, meanwhile, realized he also had more to give to the sport, and by the summer of 2018 was ready to explore the idea of forming a new partnership. Though it took several months for it to officially come together, he knew precisely whom he wanted to call to make it happen. “By the end of the summer, I was thinking I still had energy to put into my skating and I was still able to do more in the sport,” he said. “I asked myself the question, ‘who can be my partner at this point?’ The first name that popped into my head was Lubov, so I reached out to her and we did a tryout (in September). From the first step on the ice, we felt there was something, just with our bodies and the way we were communicating. The first element we did was a death spiral. We did four revolutions and it was ‘OK, just like this already?’”
Ilyushechkina agreed. “It was a natural feeling with each other and a natural way of body movement, which we were pleasantly surprised with it … this was just in our first hour of skating together.”
During a November 2018 break from her tour with Cirque du Soleil, she was intrigued enough by that first tryout to spend a week in Montréal working with Bilodeau. “By the end of the week, we sat down and discussed ‘what do we think about it?’” she recalled. “We opened up to each other and decided this is going to be a good journey, and a good opportunity to come back together and be strong.”
A few months later, the partnership became official, and the work began for their first season together. Both brought a wealth of experience to the table, and it served them well as they put their programs together and prepared for competitions. “It’s never smooth, we know how it works,” said Bilodeau. “We knew by coming back, there was a lot of stuff to do. At least we both had experience, and putting our experience together made things happen really quick and very fast. But with any project, there is a moment that is challenging — it’s how you fight through it that brings something good at the end, I guess.”
The team had hoped that “something good” would include a trip to Worlds in their Montréal backyard, and when Ilyushechkina and Bilodeau stood second after the short program at the Canadian Championships in January, it looked like their dream was about to become reality. But their long program did not go nearly as well, and they were passed by Evelyn Walsh and Trennt Michaud for the second-place spot behind Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro, who won their second straight Canadian title.
Even capturing a bronze medal in their first nationals together was not enough to soothe the two skaters, with Bilodeau saying the couple felt “a bit of disappointment” with the final result. “It was not what we were aiming for,” Ilyushechkina said after the long program. “We need to calm down and think backwards and analyze it. It will be one more experience and another step forward.”
Skate Canada deferred filling its second available pairs spot for Worlds until after the Four Continents Championships, held in Seoul, South Korea in early February. It gave Ilyushechkina and Bilodeau one last chance to secure a Worlds ticket, but they finished seventh — one spot behind Walsh and Michaud, who were officially named to the Worlds team last week.
Ilyushechkina and Bilodeau’s hopes were mainly sunk in the short program at Four Continents, with a score of 57.87 — 5.10 points behind their homeland rivals. “We were disappointed with the performance we left there. We are very sad about that,” Bilodeau said. “We have to learn from the experiences, the good and the bad ones.”
For her part, Ilyushechkina called it “the least desirable skate so far. Regardless, it is another experience. It’s another lesson. We are still learning; it’s our first season together, we are under a year. We were not as calm as we would have liked to be.”
Though the long program went better, the damage was already done, with Walsh and Michaud (177.58) outscoring Ilyushechkina and Bilodeau (171.32) by 6.26 points in the final standings. “Some things worked well, some things didn’t,” said Ilyushechkina. “These two performances were probably the bottom ones of the season. The good thing is the next time it can only get better.”
While the result in Seoul meant an earlier end to the season than they had hoped for, Ilyushechkina and Bilodeau believe they have built a solid base in their quest to represent Canada at the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in Beijing — their ultimate goal as a team. “It was always surprising how, in a short period of time, we were able to manage everything,” said Bilodeau. “It’s really encouraging us for the future.”