For Barrie ice dance partners Mitchell Islam and Alexandra Paul, their commitment to their sport has paid off. On January 11, these two elite skaters and past SCDSB students won a bronze medal in the Senior Ice Dance competition at the 2013 National Skating Championships in Ottawa. On January 12, they were officially named as one of the three ice dance teams Canada will send to the Olympics in February.
“Being named to Canada’s Olympic team is still sinking in—it’s something I’ve dreamed about since I was a kid,” said Mitch, a graduate of Innisdale Secondary School. “I love this country and I feel so fortunate to be able to represent it every day. I keep telling people that I truly believed we could do it, but at the same time, it’s still unbelievable.
“I have imagined this moment for so long, but it is still surreal,” added Alex, who spent her elementary years at Forest Hill Public School. “I am so honoured to represent such an amazing country.”
In skating (and many other sports), the national championships in any country is an important step towards being selected for the Olympic team. Usually—though not always—the top finishers attend. This year, Canada was allotted three spots for ice dance, as well as three for pairs and men’s singles, and two spots for women’s singles. And Canada’s ice dance field is a talented group. While it was almost certain who the two top spots in ice dance would go to, the third spot was up in the air. Mitch and Alex were competing against other teams who were vying for the spot.
They had two performances at nationals: their short dance on Jan. 10 and free dance on Jan. 11.
“The pressure that comes with a national championship during an Olympic year is always heightened,” Mitch explained. “This was our Olympic qualifier, so the buzz around the skating community is high and adds to the pressure all of the athletes feel. That being said, Alex and I established before even getting on the plane that we were going to do our best to shut out the gravity of the event and just focus on doing two clean programs—just do what we do every day in training. I’ll admit the pressure increased after our short program because we were in that third and final Olympic spot. The day of the free dance was a long, tension-filled day!”
Alex added that they wanted to treat the championship as if it were like any other day at the rink to minimize the stress.
“We had been told that we hold back at competitions, but we practice so well and that had to change,” she said. “After the short dance we were both so excited to be in the running for the Olympic spot but we had to stay level-headed and treat the free dance the same way. It wasn’t perfect but we pushed through everything and held back nothing.”
A winning partnership
Before becoming a team, both Mitch and Alex skated with other partners. In 2009, they found themselves without partners. Both of them skated at the Mariposa School of Skating in Barrie, so they decided to see what it felt like to skate with each other. They clicked right away.
The young skaters experienced immediate success in the junior ranks winning the junior national title and coming in second at the World Junior Championships.
“As soon as I started skating with Mitch, I knew we could be something special,” Alex said. “Our skating styles matched so well and everything felt natural. After earning the silver medal at Junior Worlds I could see the 2014 Olympics in sight, we were at the perfect stage of progression and the right age for these Games.”
As a team, they have captured two national bronze medals and have been a part of the national skating team since 2010. (For a list of career highlights, click here.)
Not only was this year an Olympic qualifying year, but Mitch and Alex were yearning to show Canada what they knew they were capable of as a team.
“The national championship as a whole was defining for Alex and I as a team. Injuries have plagued us over the past couple of seasons and we had a hard time putting out two clean programs. We took care of that at Nationals and that’s an important fact as we move forward,” Mitch explained.
Alex added, “The defining moment for me was finally skating at a competition like we knew we could. It has been such a struggle over the past few years that it felt amazing to be so unbelievably prepared for a competition.”
Time in the SCDSB
Mitch and Alex look back at their time in the SCDSB with fondness. Mitch said that Innisdale was perfect for him as an elite athlete because of the partnership the school has with the Mariposa School of Skating. It allowed him to earn credits for his intensive training and the school’s teachers and his peers were very supportive of him in the program. And Alex said her time at Forest Hill helped shape her into the person she is today, with lasting friendships and education including extended French, which helped her as she travels to other countries. Both skaters agreed that balancing elite sports and academics was difficult, but the right attitude and commitment made it possible to succeed at both.
Advice for high school students
“Time management is very important in high school,” Mitch said. “At times school can get quite overwhelming, but things only get more difficult if you procrastinate. Being proactive and productive is much more rewarding and much less stressful than leaving things until the last minute (I know because I was guilty of this at times!). Although the workload may sometimes feel intense, if you’re smart with how you manage your time, you’ll have tons of opportunity to do other things.”
“My advice,” Alex added, “would be to talk to your teachers. There is nothing wrong with asking for extra help if you are finding something difficult—the teachers are there to help you. Also, if teachers give you extra practice questions that aren’t necessarily homework, do them! It will probably be on the test.”
Watch them in Sochi
Mitch and Alex perform their short dance on Feb. 16 and their free dance on Feb. 17, both at 10 a.m. Eastern Standard Time. For a complete schedule, click here.