By: Beverley Smith
Finally, their time has come.
Alexandra Paul and Mitchell Islam first twizzled their way into the Canadian consciousness when they showed up at the 2010 Skate Canada International Grand Prix event in Kingston, Ont., as first year seniors – and in only their second season together.
They entranced the crowd with their lyrical routine to “As Time Goes By,” earned their first standing ovation and placed second in the free dance ahead of seasoned British skaters Sinead Kerr, 31, and brother John, 30, ranked fifth in the world. At the time, Paul was 19, Islam, 20.
Vanessa Crone and Paul Poirier had won the event, but Islam and Paul won the technical mark in that free dance, ahead of an athletic Canadian team always known for difficult technique. Even then, Paul and Islam skated with an ease of movement, with effortless freedom and close-together positions.
At the time, Paul and Islam evoked memories of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who missed that Skate Canada international because Virtue had undergone surgery on her legs. “We love Tessa and Scott,” Islam had said. “We’ve both looked up to them a lot as young athletes, but we definitely want to distinguish ourselves as a new team in Canada in senior.”
Paul and Islam had a year left of junior eligibility, but wanted to forge ahead to senior. Everything seemed “surreal” at this event. They finished fourth overall, after being sixth in the short dance, but they had created a buzz.
But their road to the Sochi Olympics since then has been anything but smooth. Paul pulled muscles in her ribs in training before their next event, Cup of Russia. They couldn’t train leading into the event. They had a fall in the short dance, and then realizing that she could not do the lifts in the free, because of the injury, they withdrew. “It felt like the wind was knocked out of me every time,” she said. But they did mount a comeback to finish third at their first senior nationals.
The next season, everything went awry. “As soon as I got better, something else would happen,” Paul said. They finished only eighth at Skate America, and then when they got to the NHK Trophy, Paul was cut at the back of her thigh in a practice collision with an Italian team and they had to withdraw from the free dance. They got no Grand Prix assignments during the 2012 season and dropped to fourth at nationals.
Their biggest heartbreak came at the 2013 Canadian championships, when they had gathered their forces, moved their training site to Detroit to snap out of their dry spell, and finished in third place after the short dance. A berth for the world championships in London was on the line. But Islam slipped in the free dance, and the dream was gone in an instant. They finished fourth. Only three could go. “It was a wakeup call for us,” Islam said.
“It’s one of those things that feels like rock bottom,” Islam said. It had all been too much: two years of hardship, and then this. For two weeks, their chins were at their boots. “But it’s how you handle things that happen to you like that,” Islam said later. “We had a lot of support from people that gave us confidence, something that we definitely needed after something like that happened.”
They decided they needed to change the way they trained, if they were going to make it to Sochi. “You have to train every day like you mean it,” Paul explained. “You have to go through things, no matter what. You have to recover from mistakes faster. It’s just a no-excuse attitude.”
It wasn’t easy, Islam said. They had to focus on their goals every day, every minute. But it made training a lot easier, he said, because they could take the confidence of being ready, mentally and physically, to competition. “The dividends are quite nice,” Islam said.
Both dancers have histories that suggest success. Islam has skating in his blood. His father, David, was a former ice dancer, now director of ice dancing at the Mariposa School of Skating in Barrie, Ont. His mother, Debbie Islam, was a former national medalist and Olympic judge, who worked the men’s event at the Vancouver Olympics. Shortly after Islam was born, his father carried him onto the ice in his arms. By the time he was two, Islam had skates on his feet.
Paul began skating at age five, but already has a long history of ballet training, quite evident in her beautiful posture and back, and body movement. She and two other sisters enrolled in CanSkate in Barrie, but Alex was the only one who persevered.
She had skated singles up to the novice level, but started dancing with Jason Cheperdak when she was 16, because she was not a fan of attempting triple jumps. Meanwhile, at the same arena, Islam was already making a name for himself with Joanna Lenko, who eventually had to retire because of heart issues.
Both Paul and Islam, of course, had learned the same stroking style from the head coach, who matched them together. “It felt so easy,” she said. Their career took off like a rocket. They outfinished the previous year’s junior champions at a summer competition, got a Junior Grand Prix assignment, and missed a bronze medal by only a point. When they won the Canadian junior championships, Paul thought: “It hit me this could be real.” She had been nervous; she didn’t want to let down Islam, who was a more experienced skater.
They continued on to finish second at the world junior championships. They were so new, they hadn’t established themselves on the junior circuit. And they had been together only five months.
Skate Canada International in Kingston was their “coming out party,” Islam said. It left stars in their eyes. But they have grown in many ways since. And now finally, the Olympics.
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