Former U.S. pairs skater Themistocles Leftheris had long given up on his ambition to compete at an Olympic Winter Games until an encounter with Min-ji Ji, a young skater from the Republic of Korea, presented him with one last chance to fulfill that dream.
Leftheris last competed at U.S. nationals in 2011, where he and his then partner, Lindsay Davis, finished seventh.
In the years following, he transitioned to the other side of boards and formed a close coaching relationship with Naomi Nari Nam, with whom he had skated for three seasons (2005-2008). The duo claimed the bronze medal in 2007, their best result at the national level.
It was through Nam’s contacts with the Korean Skating Union that an offer to revive his competitive career came, although Leftheris was initially reluctant. “It was brought to my attention actually two years ago, but Naomi and I were coaching full-time and we had students competing at Junior Grand Prixs,” Leftheris said. “I wasn’t in a place to think that I’d be competing again. It came up again last year and so we agreed to have a try-out and see how it would go. Min-ji had no pairs experience.”
Ji was not only new to pairs — she had only taken up the sport at age 12. She was already landing triple toe loops and Salchows when she teamed up with Leftheris in 2015. “We had a try-out knowing that she had only been skating that long,” Leftheris said of his now 17-year-old partner. “The way she picked up pairs so fast, I think we were all kind of like, ‘Alright, let’s do this.’ That’s when we officially started training, and getting prepared for Korean nationals last season.”
As the only pair competing, it was a foregone conclusion that Ji and Leftheris would win the 2016 national title.
This season they made their international debut at Lombardia Trophy in Bergamo, Italy where they finished sixth. They obtained the minimum technical scores for Four Continents and the World Championships in the short and for Four Continents in the free.
Ji has progressed rapidly since taking up pairs, but Leftheris is conscious that they keep themselves grounded. “She went from competing in singles in Korea to senior pairs to senior pairs international in one year, potentially doing Four Continents and World Championships,” said Leftheris, who turns 34 on Dec. 20. “It’s so much. I think we have been very realistic about our goals and we are just trying to enjoy these experiences.”
Ji and Leftheris are based at The Rinks Lakewood Ice in California, a facility owned by the Anaheim Ducks ice hockey team that has four different ice surfaces. Rafael Arutyunyan has recently started coaching at the rink and the South Korean champions share the ice with World silver medalist Ashley Wagner and U.S. champion Adam Rippon, in addition to receiving occasional instruction from Arutyunyan.
However, Nam has been their main coach from the outset. The former partners have adapted to their new roles and Nam has been crucial in assisting Ji with the language and residency difficulties that she has encountered. “Themi and I are really good friends and I think we have a mutual respect for each other,” Nam said. “I think not just in a friendship, but in a coaching relationship it works really well because we are open to communication and helping Min-ji. It’s been a tough process. The first year she came she had to go back and forth to Korea because of visa issues.
“The U.S. has granted her a 10-year visa so that’s been great, but the first year she came for three months and then she had to leave for a month, so their training was a little on and off. We have really been strategically planning so they’re healthy and safe and also because she hasn’t done a lot pairs.”
With the Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang rapidly approaching, Leftheris will need to obtain South Korean citizenship if he is going to compete with Ji in her home country in February 2018. “We’ve kind of been learning as we go. I was told that I needed to start learning Korean, which I had chosen to do on my own, but it hasn’t been the easiest to pick up that language quickly,” Leftheris said. “I know that there are certain questions that are going to be asked, but I know the Korea Skating Union (KSU) is really backing me and the U.S. ice dancer as well who is trying to get citizenship to compete for Korea.
“There are other athletes in the Winter Games from different countries that are applying for Korean citizenship. I know that the governing body is very supportive of their athletes. The KSU has been amazing during this whole process — really supportive, really motivating. I loved skating for and representing the U.S., but I’ve really enjoyed skating for and representing Korea as well.”
Although he had skated professionally and coached following his initial retirement from competitive skating, Leftheris did not realize how tough it would be to return to competing. “I’ll be honest and say that last year I was the most miserable person to be around,” he said with a laugh. “I did show skating and for a year I was constantly touring. Then I started doing less shows and coaching more, and then towards the end of it I was always skating, staying in shape and keeping my elements up, but not consistently.
“Then I was coaching full-time and we were traveling a lot with our students. The idea of trying to train again — it didn’t even seem possible because I didn’t have the time. I decided to come back and I cut back on coaching to do this.
“I could still do my elements — like go out and do one time, and that was it. But it’s another thing to come in five days a week and train three to four hours a day, working out consistently and also teach someone who doesn’t have pairs experience because there is a lot of compensation being made in that process. I never had joint pain. All of a sudden, my joints were killing me. I was sore every day. I was tired and it took a solid year for that to finally go away. Now I’m like ‘OK this is starting to feel more familiar to when I was competing before.’”
Making it to PyeongChang would be a dream come true not only for them, but also for their coach. “When I was skating with Themi, it was a goal of ours — we are now just wanting to go there in a different way,” Nam said.
Ji and Leftheris will compete this week at Golden Spin of Zagreb where they will try to obtain the minimum technical score in the long program so that they can participate at the 2017 World Championships in Helsinki, Finland.