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Mark Mitchell and Peter Johansson are the definition of skating veterans. Both have been involved with figure skating at the elite level for over 30 years, first as competitors and more recently as coaches.

Mitchell competed internationally for the United States in the early 1990s, attaining two top 5 finishes at the World Championships, as well as three medals at U.S. Nationals. Johansson, who hails from Sweden, competed in the 1988 Olympics, as well as at four World Championships. After retiring from competition, Mitchell and Johansson started coaching together at the Skating Club of Boston. There, the duo built a strong group of talented students, including Ross Miner, Emily Hughes, Christina Gao, and, more recently, Megan Wessenberg and Emmy Ma.

Despite their veteran status, however, Mitchell and Johansson are far from settled in their ways and are still seeking out new, innovative ways to help develop the sport, both from an athletic and business point of view. Three years ago, Mitchell and Johansson took a risk by leaving their longtime home at the Skating Club of Boston and moving their skating group to Cronin Skating Rink in Revere, Massachusetts (an inner suburb just north of Boston).

Peter Johansson (left) and Mark Mitchell (right) in Revere

What started as a shift of training venue has since evolved into the Mitchell Johansson Method (MJM), their own skating school. Mitchell and Johansson have created a coaching model that they call “supervised training,” which provides individual training/feedback between coach and student, but within the context of a small-group setting instead of the traditional private lesson. Mitchell and Johansson offer all aspects of training for their athletes, including off-ice workouts, dance training, and specialized jump work, as a total package (instead of skaters hiring individual specialists). Their school now also has its own associated club, the Academy at Mitchell Johansson Method.

Mitchell and Johansson are finding success with their innovative coaching approach. Their skaters won three medals at this year’s U.S. Nationals, including both the junior men’s and ladies’ crowns (won by Ryan Dunk and Gabriella Izzo). As a club, the Academy at Mitchell Johansson Method qualified eight skaters to 2019 Nationals. “We’ve had our best results in the last three years, both nationally and internationally,” Mitchell noted.

Recently, Mitchell and Johansson took some time to speak with me at their rink in Revere. The duo explained their approach to coaching, why they started their skating school, how it’s grown and developed, and their emphasis on future growth through their new club and Next Generation program. Mitchell and Johansson also talked about some of their best-known students, including Ross Miner, Megan Wessenberg, and Gabriella Izzo. Finally, the coaching duo offered their take on some current trends and developments in the sport.

Opening their own skating school

Q:  You both had eligible skating careers in the late 1980s/1990s. Then you joined forces and started coaching at the Skating Club of Boston. When did your coaching career start at the Skating Club?

Mitchell:  I moved to the Skating Club in 1987, to train. I skated there from 1987 to 1993. And then, I started coaching there in the spring of 1995. So, it was from 1995 until almost three years ago.

Q:  Then you came here, to Cronin Skating Rink in Revere. What led to the move?

Johansson:  It’s a long [story]. The Skating Club has looked to build a new building for literally 20 years. But more actively, I would say, in the last 10 years. It got busier and busier in there, because our program grew really big, and we had a lot of good kids, and that’s where a lot of coaches and skaters wanted to be. And with only one [ice] surface, it became really, really crowded. I was the director of the program, and we were asked to build the program up, so when the new building is built, we’ll just move everyone over. And we did. But for different circumstances, they got delayed and delayed. And it became really hard to train there, in an elite way, because it was a lot of people on the ice. With the delays, year after year, we just had to do something. There was really no way to stay in our situation there, because it was hard to maneuver with all the people. That’s how we started thinking of doing something on our own. And here we are.

Note: Last month, the Skating Club of Boston finally broke ground on a new three-rink facility in Norwood, MA.

Cronin Skating Rink:  Home of MJM

Q:  What drew you to Revere, and how did you select this rink?

Mitchell:  We knew Robin and Scott at FMC Ice Sports. They run this rink, and 23 other rinks in the area. [Note: Rob McBride is president of FMC Ice Sports, and Scott McCoy is senior vice president.] There were times when the Skating Club was closed, whether it was during Regionals or Boston Open, and we had no ice. Since we already knew Rob and Scott, we asked them: “Can we come over and skate for a few hours?” They were always really generous and said: “Yes, sure, come and skate.” So we were already familiar with this building. When we started thinking about going somewhere on our own, we contacted them.  Ideally, we [wanted] to be in [the] Revere rink, because it’s closest to the city and it’s new and it’s nice. They really worked with us to help make it happen.

Note: Cronin Ice Rink is an older building, but has been fully renovated in recent years.

Q:  So you moved here and started your own skating school, the Mitchell Johansson Method. Can you talk about your general approach to coaching? What makes your program distinctive?

Johansson:  Number one, I think this is a whole new approach, what we’re doing here. And I honestly think this is where it’s going to head. More and more rinks are going to have to do this, because I think there’s a lot of benefits.

Skating has changed so fast in the last 10 years, with the new judging system, and so forth. Everyone who is at an elite level, they have a jumping lesson, a spin lesson, a choreography lesson, skating or edges [class], pole harness, and off-ice. You’re talking five, six, lessons a day to cover it all. And you almost need that at the elite level to stay on top of all the details [of] the new system. This much can make a big difference, for two points, and so forth. So we saw this, and thought, “There’s got to be a way to make this better.”

We call our approach supervised training. It is not one-on-one [coaching], it’s like two or three people, or even sometimes five or six people [working with a coach]. You can do a lot of work together. We see the kids all three hours they’re on the ice. By doing that, it doesn’t cost each client [so much]. It’s a lot more affordable for the client, it’s a lot more efficient for us. Instead of standing with one person at a time, you can keep several people going. And you get just as much done. So that’s what’s different with our program here, than pretty much all other rinks.

Japan has done it for years. They haven’t done private lessons. And they’re very successful. Russia–you don’t take private lessons. You do everything in groups, or supervised. And they’re also very successful. There is some stuff that needs to be done one-on-one–choreography, or working on things. But that happens naturally. I think for us, our idea was: Make it more affordable, be more efficient, and run it like a real school. We cover everything that needs to be covered in a week, that you need to have a chance to be successful. And it’s not breaking the bank. That’s how our program here is.

Mitchell:  We charge a flat tuition, a flat monthly rate, for all of our skaters, that covers lesson time, competition fees, off-ice jump class, etc. And even our Team USA kids [i.e., international competitors]–they just pay their monthly tuition. Most Team USA kids, when they go overseas, they have to bring their coach. And you have to pay a pretty substantial fee to travel with that coach. Now, it’s included in your tuition. So it encourages people to work hard. We’ve always believed that you shouldn’t get punished with [travel coaching fees] because you get better and earn assignments to events. We feel like it’s a win/win for everyone. It’s better for us, it’s better for the families.

Q:  Have you gotten good feedback from families about the monthly tuition structure?

Johansson:  In the beginning, it was hard. We turned everything upside down, moving here. And people were very skeptical: Is this really going to work? We truly believed it was going to work. But it was a lot of people worrying: Am I going to get what I got before by having one-on-one [coaching]? We moved here in August 2016. In October at Regionals, the kids did well. We had a good Sectionals.

Mitchell:  I think for us, we’ve had our best results in the last three years. Both nationally and internationally, I’d say.

Johansson:  So now, it’s the norm. The first year, it was like, Ohhh. And there’s a couple of people who didn’t stay here because they wanted one-on-one [coaching]. They felt that they got more out of it. And that’s fine. But for 95 percent of the kids who came over with us, they’re like: “Okay, this is good.” They get so much more value. They get us, all day long. Their training is supervised all day.

Mark Mitchell with students Heidi Munger (left) and Emilia Murdock (center)

Mitchell:  We have two big boards that outline what you need to do today–that explain what we’re working on in [each] session. So everyone knows, and the coaches know. That’s a big help, just having it all organized.

Between the coaches, we all work together. It’s like: “Okay, I know one student is having trouble with his triple toe loop. Why don’t you take him for a bit, and work on triple toes with him, and I’m going to keep other students, and work on this with them.” Everyone gets that same attention when they need it. Or, I know I need to fix a part in somebody’s program. Okay, I’ll take [that student] and fix that long [program], and Peter takes care of the rest. So everybody gets their share.

Johansson:  It’s fluid. It’s not a set thing. It’s need-based. Like if you need to work on a program, you need to work on a jump, we figure it out.

Mitchell:  When we taught private lessons, we would always hear from the parents: “Oh, but she doesn’t know what to do when she’s not on lesson. She doesn’t do anything when she’s not on lesson.” Even some of the older kids. Well, there’s no more of that. Because a) it’s written down, what you need to work on that day, and b) you’re with a coach the whole time. There’s no standing by the walls, drinking water, blowing your nose, waiting for something. Everyone’s moving. They’re all happy, and they just keep moving.

Q:  So you don’t have sessions where skaters just practice on their own?

Mitchell:  No. One of the sessions is called Study Hall, where [we ask]: “What do you need to work on the most right now? Do you need to focus on your step sequence, spin combo, toe [jump] combinations?” So every kid has time to work on what they need, while they’re still being supervised. It teaches the kids responsibility, too, and to take charge of their own skating.

Q:  How do you work program run-throughs into the supervised training model?

Mitchell:  Fantastically! When we worked at the Skating Club, there’s a lot of kids on the ice–22, 24 kids. Everybody wants to get their music on. Not everybody would get their music on. Here, we can hold the Zamboni as long as we need to. There’s no set times to anything. You are on the ice until you get done what you need to get done. We have an iPad, and the programs just go boom-boom-boom, in order. No program goes unwatched. You never do your program without a coach watching you.

Q:  So, on some sessions per day, you do program run-throughs? And on others, you don’t?

Mitchell:  It depends on the time of the year. We can do whatever we think the kids need. There’s been times when [we say]: “Okay, it’s long-and-a-half day.” And the music goes, and then we put on the second half [of the music again]. Everybody has to do a long [program] and a half with the music. We can do that here.

Johansson:  It’s different when there’s one coaching team. At the Skating Club, or other rinks, there are several different coaches. If I was at the Skating Club, and said, “Well, I would like us to do a long and a half” … No one would accept that. They’d be like: “That’s not fair, that Peter gets to hog the CD player.” No one would allow that. But here, we can make it happen. It’s just us.

Mitchell:  Last week, the kids [asked]: “Can we do a mock competition before Colonial?” [Note: Colonial Open is an early-season club competition in the Boston area.] And we said okay. So we turned the afternoon session, the last two hours, [into that]. We do that even in the summer. Every Wednesday is a mock competition. You come in, do a twenty-minute or half-hour practice ice, like you would at competition, and get off for an hour or two. Then you do a draw. We do warm-up groups of six, just like a regular competition. These are the kinds of things that we’re able to do here now, that we couldn’t do in a regular rink.

Monday is always skating skills. The first hour is edge class. We make it work for kids coming at different periods of the day. It’s like, “Peter, you do edge class with those kids, I’m doing jumping with these ones.” So everybody gets covered. When it’s off-season–every Friday, the last session is either Interpretive, or Flashback Friday, where we watch pre-IJS skaters and copy different moves that they do. I couldn’t do Interpretive at another rink– “Okay, I’m taking over the music, and we’re going to work on this piece of music, and interpret to it.” You just can’t do that. Now, we can.

Q:  So as coaches, you’re happy in this environment?

Mitchell:  Yes. It makes it more interesting, and more fun.

Johansson:  It’s a lot easier to maneuver the training. Even if it’s last-minute. That’s the luxury we have, [in] having our own ice all day. We can decide exactly what we want to do.

Q:  Is your group the ideal size now? Or are you looking to grow?

Johansson:  There’s definitely room for more kids, if we wanted to. This is a good size. There could be a few more–that’s totally fine. That’s the business in general; there’s some years that you have more skaters than others. You manage it along the way.

A new club, a new generation

Q:  Within the last year, you’ve also started your own club here, right?

Mitchell:  The club is now [called] Academy at Mitchell Johansson Method. So we can differentiate the two.

Johansson:  All of our beginners–our little kids [who] started skating here–had no affiliation with the Skating Club [of Boston]. They needed a club to represent. And it was hard for them to be part of Mitchell Johansson Method, as a skating school, and then tell them to join the Skating Club of Boston across the river, that they don’t even know about. And it’s expensive, because there’s more to it than just a membership. It’s a private club. So we felt like we had no other option than to have a club functioning here, for at least the beginners, [so] that it could be affordable and easier and more streamlined.

Mitchell:  They were getting to the point where they all had to start taking [U.S. Figure Skating] tests. So we needed to have a test session. And with the way that Boston traffic is now, even our kids who originally did belong to the Skating Club of Boston …. It’s hard to get to the other side of the city, on a Friday night, to do an exhibition or a send-off or Ice Chips rehearsal. So yes, they belonged to the Skating Club, but they weren’t able to partake in many of the activities. They were paying a lot of money to not be able to really take advantage of what the Skating Club offers.

Johansson:   Pretty much all of them became members of our club. We never told them, “You have to.” It just made more sense for almost all of them. They now represent our club here. So that’s how that came about.

MJM student Megan Wessenberg at Skate America 2018

Q:  An advantage of having a club is being able to offer your own test sessions. Are there any disadvantages?

Mitchell:  No. For us, we’re still interim, or probationary [with U.S. Figure Skating]. It’s still new, but we wanted to make something that was really affordable for the kids to join. It’s just a club to belong to, so you can belong to U.S. Figure Skating (USFS), you can take tests, you can go to competitions, and that’s it. It’s not a grandiose club.

Johansson:  Not yet. But who knows where it will go?

Mitchell:  Affordability was a big thing. The whole program here was designed to make it more affordable for competitive kids to skate, and to get the most bang for your buck.  

Q:  You mentioned your..

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Despite cold and windy weather, the mood was festive Monday at the Skating Club of Boston’s groundbreaking ceremony for their new three-rink facility in Norwood, MA. It was a long-anticipated day, as planning for the new rink complex first started some 20 years ago. Now, construction will commence on what is intended to be a state-of-the-art facility, to open in summer 2020.

It’s been quite a journey to this point. Founded in 1912, the Skating Club of Boston is one of the oldest and most storied figure skating clubs in the United States. The Club has been home to many famous skaters during its long history, including Dick Button, Tenley Albright, Paul Wylie, Nancy Kerrigan, and, more recently, Ross Miner, Marissa Castelli/Simon Shnapir, and Christina Gao.

1240 Soldiers Field Road: The rink where it happened

For 80 years, the Skating Club of Boston’s home rink has been 1240 Soldiers Field Road in Boston. It’s a central spot, where the city of Boston converges with nearby cities Cambridge, Watertown, and Brookline. The location at 1240 Soldiers Field has always been important for the Club. Its centrality helped make the Club a viable training choice for skaters all around the greater Boston area. Also, the Skating Club of Boston owned the rink at 1240 Soldiers Field, giving them full control over the ice. Few skating clubs enjoy such a privilege, as they typically do not own their premises.

The rink at 1240 Soldiers Field Road in Boston

The famous rink at 1240 Soldiers Field first opened on New Year’s Day, 1939. Its classic “quonset hut” design bestowed a distinctive and memorable look. Generations of skaters learned how to skate and trained at the facility. Some of those skaters reached the highest pinnacles of the sport.

But as the 21st century began, the limitations of the aging building began to tell. The Club now has well over 600 members–and only one ice surface to accommodate them all. Further, the 80-year-old building lacks many of the amenities that newer ice rinks can offer. In the late 1990s, the Club’s officers determined that future growth would require a new and larger facility. They launched “The Next 100 Years” initiative to secure a new venue to help the Club expand and prepare for its second century. Eventually, this project led to Norwood, MA, and Monday’s groundbreaking event.

New era in Norwood

The groundbreaking ceremony for the new facility featured several prominent speakers, including 1956 Olympic champion Tenley Albright (one of the Club’s most famous and decorated members), 1984 Olympic Champion Scott Hamilton, and officials from the Skating Club of Boston and the city of Norwood. Also in attendance were many former skaters who now coach or choreograph at the Club, including Evgenia Shishkova & Vadim Naumov, Simon Shnapir, Alexandria (Shaughnessy) Ronzio, and Adam Blake.

Joseph Blount, president of the Skating Club of Boston, explained how the Club came to Norwood, a suburb about 20 miles southwest of Boston.

Skating Club of Boston President Joseph Blount

“In the 20 years we’ve been working on it, we looked at about 35 properties, all total,” Blount said. “In Boston, we worked with the Boston planning board. We worked with Boston city officials.” However, despite these efforts, the Club could not find an appropriate and affordable  location in Boston itself.

“The land was just so costly [in Boston],” Blount explained. “It’s $10 million per acre. And we needed a minimum of 10 acres. Financially, we couldn’t afford to stay in Boston, because land was so expensive.”

Instead, the Skating Club of Boston bought a 36-acre parcel of land at 750 University Avenue in Norwood for $7.1 million total. The sale closed in March.

The Skating Club’s new location in Norwood (circled)

Blount acknowledged that the decision to leave Boston was not easy. “There were so many people ingrained in the Boston area. They thought: ‘Because it’s the Skating Club of Boston, doesn’t it need to be there?’ But the Detroit Skating Club is thirty miles outside the town of Detroit,” Blount pointed out. “I think our members are coming around to: This is the best we can do, for the amount of money we can afford. We should be spending money on the skaters, helping them become what they want to be.”

The Club’s existing rink at 1240 Soldiers Field Road has now been sold. However, the Club will stay on at the property for the time being, leasing it back from the new owners, until the Norwood facility opens in summer 2020. At that point, all Club operations and personnel will move to Norwood.

In her speech at the event, Tenley Albright acknowledged the emotional pull and history of 1240 Soldiers Field Road–the rink where she trained for her Olympic title–but looked forward to the club’s future in Norwood. “I just couldn’t picture the Skating Club not being on Soldiers Field Road. But today, I’ve changed my mind,” she said, to cheers from the crowd. “Just think, Ice Chips [the Club’s annual show] will be here! And Ice Chips was what got me interested in skating.”

Scott Hamilton, Tenley Albright, and Benjamin T. Wright

Although the Skating Club will lose its geographical tie to the city of Boston, the new location is large enough to build the modern, truly state-of-the-art facility that it lacked in Boston. The plans for the new Norwood location are impressive indeed.

The new facility will feature three rinks–one Olympic-sized and two NHL-size. The Olympic-sized rink, or Performance Center, will include arena seating for 2,500 people, allowing the Club to host competitions and shows at the site. There is also room to add a fourth rink in the future, if necessary.

In addition to the new rinks, the facility will include, seemingly, just about everything skaters and coaches could possibly need: Locker rooms; a dance practice room; a lobby cafe; a library; lounge areas; conference rooms; and a special coaches’ suite with lounge area, work stations, and private locker rooms.

Additionally, the Skating Club is partnering with the Micheli Center for Sports Injury Prevention to host a special center at the new facility dedicated to developing skaters’ fitness and avoiding injury. The center will include a fully equipped off-ice training room, where skaters can work out under the supervision of certified trainers, as well as private offices for physical therapy, injury treatment, and nutritional counseling.

Two rinks in the new facility will be completely dedicated to figure skating. The third rink will be shared with local hockey teams (in season).

A rendering of the Performance Center at the new facility (with Olympic-size rink)

Once the new facility is open, the Skating Club expects to host many competitions and shows in the Olympic-sized arena, including New England Regionals and Eastern Sectionals. Erique L’Heureux, development and marketing coordinator for the new facility, said that the Club is in early negotiations to potentially host some synchronized skating and/or theatre on ice events at the new location.

And special guest speaker Scott Hamilton announced that the Scott Hamilton CARES Foundation will present a special S8 to Elimin8 Cancer fundraiser show as part of the new facility’s official grand opening festivities in December 2020.

Hamilton spoke of his connections with the Club. “All my family is from the Boston area. We’d come to Boston for all the Christmas holidays. And then, once I started skating, to go to the Skating Club of Boston was hallowed ground,” he said. “It’s hallowed ground. And when I look at what is going to be a magnificent, state-of-the-art facility that’s going to take the legacy of the Skating Club of Boston and bring it into the future …. Today is a day of nostalgia; it’s a day of forward thinking; it’s a day of excitement about the promise of what will be.”

The prospects of the Skating Club of Boston look bright, with the groundbreaking of their brand-new facility for the future.

Note:  To learn more about the Skating Club of Boston’s new facility, visit the project’s web site: https://thenext100years.org/.

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Alexander Johnson is starting a new chapter in his life this spring. After a 9-year career at the senior international level, which featured two top 6 finishes at U.S. Nationals and a Challenger Series medal, Johnson is shifting focus from competitive skating to his first full-time professional job in finance and a budding side career in figure skating choreography and coaching. Johnson hasn’t closed the door on a possible return to competitive skating; but for now, his priority is exploring these new opportunities.

I recently had a chance to chat with Johnson before his appearance in Ice Crystals, the annual club show for the Colonial Figure Skating Club in Acton/Boxborough, MA. Johnson spent several weeks at Colonial this spring, teaching and choreographing for Colonial skaters and working with different coaches, including 1980 Olympian Sheryl Franks and 1992 Olympian Konstantin Kostin. During our chat, Johnson shared some thoughts on his work at Colonial, his approach to choreography, and his programs for Ice Crystals.

Q:  Tell us about your new projects this spring, and your appearance here at Colonial FSC’s Ice Crystals show.

Johnson:  I start a full-time job June 10th. And I’ve been coming here [to Colonial] to choreograph and teach. And now I’m back doing the show, which is awesome. It’s like all of the lessons that I’ve taught [the kids] in their day-to-day training, I’m putting it all together and showing them what it can be. So in a sense, there’s some pressure. I’ve told these kids, “Oh, you need to do this, you need to do that.” And now it’s like, “Okay, Alex, you’ve got to live up to your words!” (Laughs) It’s fun to be here. I’ve been performing a lot. I’ve been doing club shows, teaching. I choreographed Alexei Krasnozhon’s short and long programs this year. It’s so nice to finally be making money and paying my own bills! I start my job June 10th, and that’s going to be the focus for right now.

Q:  Where will you be working?

Johnson:  I’ll be at Lazar Middle Market, in Minneapolis. It’s an investment bank. I talked to Christina Gao a lot about this. While I was interviewing, she was my go-to person. It’s fun, seeing what everyone else is doing with their lives. I just texted Max Aaron yesterday. We were talking about careers, and what everyone’s doing. [Note: Christina Gao, former U.S. ladies competitor, has been working in investment banking at Credit Suisse in New York City. Max Aaron, former U.S. National champion, also works in finance.]

Q:  But you plan to keep one foot in skating, so to speak, with choreography?

Johnson:  Yes. Work will consume me for a lot of the time. But on the weekends, I’m going to need some type of outlet, whether it would be skating myself, or going in and helping a little bit. I have some kids at home that I work with regularly. And it’ll be hard to let them go, because it’s fun to see them progress and be a part of their journey, like [my] coaches were with me. I’m going to try to stay involved. I’m thinking about potentially becoming a technical specialist, on the side. I wanted to judge. But I don’t know if I want to give up my ability to teach, which is the thing you do when you become a judge. So that may be in my future. I definitely want to stay involved in skating as much as possible. Because I know that without it, I feel like part of me [would] be completely deprived.

Q:  It’s been a big part of your life.

Johnson:  It’s been my life. I don’t know anything else. Without it, I’m like, “What? Who am I?” It’s fun to have the time, though, to explore who I am outside of the rink, which I’m really enjoying.

Q:  And who are you choreographing for at Colonial?

Johnson: I did Iris Zhao’s long program. Arianna Concepcion, I did her short and long [programs] this year. I did Philip Baker’s short and long. I did Annabelle Rie’s short program, and some of her long, too. [Note: Concepcion and Baker competed at U.S. Nationals in January in the Novice Ladies and Men divisions. Zhao placed 5th at 2019 Eastern Sectionals in Junior Ladies. Rie competed at 2019 N.E. Regionals in Novice Ladies.]

A picture from Johnson’s Instagram page shows him working with Iris Zhao at Colonial

Q:  Which coaches have you worked with at Colonial?

Johnson:  Sheryl Franks is here, [and] I would collaborate with her. I’d be like: “Sheryl, how does this look?” And she’d say, “No, that was bad,” or “Yes, that was great.” It was fun. She’s the one that will be here, working with the kids every day.

I worked with Konstantin Kostin’s kids. He’s an Olympic caller, so he knows his stuff. When I was doing the footwork, I would be like, “Konstantin, is this right? Is this going to get the levels?” It was a really good learning process, to have an Olympic-level caller there while I was choreographing [and] trying to follow the rules. You have someone to help you interpret them. The rules–they’re supposed to be black-and-white. But they still are not. Especially with footwork. They limit what you can do choreographically so much. I follow the rules, but then bring as much ingenuity [as possible]. Because otherwise, the footworks all look the same, and it’s so boring, and you’re like, “Okay, there’s going to be a cluster here, and a cluster there.” That was a challenge for me, but I like that part of it.

Q:  Constraints can be challenging because they impose limits. But do they also help in other ways?

Johnson:  They can guide you. But in skating, it’s becoming less and less of a guide and more and more [that] you have to do all of these things. It’s constraining. It helps and it doesn’t; there’s pros and cons to everything. We’ll see how the programs progress over the season. Like with [all] choreography, I’m interested to see what will change and what won’t. As the season goes along, things work; things don’t. It’ll be fun to watch–I’ll have some people that I can root for.

Johnson competing at NHK Trophy in fall 2018

Q:  You talked about how programs change over the season. What’s your approach to choreographing? And when you complete the choreography, how do you record it? Do you film a final version?

Johnson:  Yes. Generally, I would have an idea of the layout. The [skaters] would give me their elements. And all of them came to me with the music. So I luckily didn’t have to spend time doing music research, which can be pretty consuming. So we would have a general layout. And then I would figure out transitions, figure out opening [moves]. I’d ask if they wanted to just go right into their jump, or take some time. There’s some strategy involved with trying to get the elements in the second half [i.e., bonus section]–what jumps they can do well when they’re fatigued. You don’t want to put something in the second half if they’re not going to do it [well]. So there’s a lot of talking with the coaches and the skaters about what works for them. Then, I’ll put on the music. I’ll just start moving to it, and do some steps, and whatever feels right. And I’ll have them try it, and see if it looks good. It’s a collaboration, which I think is healthy. Yes, you can mold people, or teach them different styles of movement. But ultimately, it has to be comfortable for them, because they’re going to be doing it day in, and day out. We’ll film it, look at it, see if it looks good. And then [at] the end, we’ll film it. And hopefully they’ll watch those videos, and remember everything that we did.

Q:  They’ve been keeping you busy here at Colonial.

Johnson:  Yes, it’s been fun. I enjoy it. But now I’m having hip surgery on Tuesday. I’ve had a torn labrum for, like, five years, and I’ve needed it fixed. And now I have the downtime to get it fixed. So I figured, why not? I’ll take a month before I start working and recover. [Note: Johnson had surgery on May 7, a few days after this interview.]

Q:  So you’ve been competing with a torn labrum all this time? How much pain was it causing you?

Johnson:  It’s one of those things that you know is there, but your focus is on the task at hand. You just accept it. But now that I’m not training all the time, I notice it a bit more. So I just want [to get] it taken care of, because I don’t want to get a hip replacement when I’m sixty. I talked to Mirai [Nagasu] a lot about it, because she had the same procedure done. She’s one of my best friends. It’s nice to be able to take care of myself now.

Q:  What programs are you going do in the Ice Crystals show?

Johnson:  The first number is “Boom” by X Ambassadors. I went this spring to Shae-Lynn Bourne to work with her on a show program. I loved working with her last season on my short and long [programs]. For me, it’s like an investment in my teaching, if I can learn from people [like Shae-Lynn]. She has so much knowledge and so much experience. So I thought, “I’m going to have her do a show program for me.”  It’s different. And then the other one is my short [program] from last year. It’s fun and showy.

Q:  I went to Stars on Ice recently, and it was great seeing some show programs there.

Johnson:  Yes. You can do so many things that you don’t do in competition–stuff that you don’t normally see. That’s why shows are so great. It brings out the side of skaters that’s so hidden. That’s part of why I wanted to go to Shae [for his new program]. I said, “I want to do a show program where I don’t have to think about anything but just having fun.” She’s like: “Well, what [elements] do you want to do?” And I said: “If we put a jump in, it’s okay. But if we don’t, I’m not upset.” And that’s fun to do.

Note: If you’re enjoying the articles on The Divine Sport, please “like” our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/adivinesport/. You can also follow me on Twitter to get updates of new posts: @ClaireCloutier.

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Skating shows in the Boston area come like a cascade every spring. Sometimes, I miss out on the earlier shows because it all starts happening so quickly. But I usually try to make it to Ice Crystals, the annual show of the Colonial Figure Skating Club in Acton/Boxborough, because it’s a nice way to end the local show season. This year was no exception, as Colonial put on a fun spring show titled “Destination Colonial.”  

Sheryl Franks, 1980 Olympian and director of Colonial FSC, said that this year’s show concept was created by Colonial skater Emma Leonard. “Emma came to me and said, ‘I have a great idea for your [next] show,’ “ Franks recounted. “She gave me a big packet [with] the whole theme.” The idea was to take the audience on a road and air trip to different cities and countries, while returning home to Colonial at the end.

Franks was delighted with the concept and Leonard’s initiative. “This is what my goal is with the show, to bring the creativity of these skaters out, in different directions,” said Franks. “Because not everybody’s making it to the Olympics. A lot of our skaters go off to Disney, to cruise ships, and to Holiday on Ice in Europe. And this is an opportunity to see if they like the whole show side [of skating].”

Franks, co-director Chad Brennan, and choreographers Beth Anne Duxbury and Jessica Dupuis brought Leonard’s concept to life for the finished show, which featured about 80 skaters from the club. Brennan said the club has an eight-week rehearsal schedule for the show and that organization is key to getting everything done: “Being organized is very important. People showing up to group rehearsals is important. The less chaos, the better.”

Alex Johnson with the show’s creative team (left to right):  Beth-Anne Duxbury (choreographer), Johnson, Sheryl Franks (co-director), Chad Brennan (co-director) 

This year’s show came together very well. The opening number set the “destination” theme, with travel-related music (“Route 66”) and props (suitcases). Next, about a dozen boys from the club skated a fun “Boys of Boston” group number that served as a nod to the hometown area before starting the “trip.” The journey then began, with group numbers set in destinations including New York, New Orleans, and California.

Skaters in the “Mexico” group number

The “Mexico” routine was highlighted by some appealing music selections (“El Mariachi”, “Once Upon a Time in Mexico”) and stylish costumes with red/black flounced skirts. The “Hawaii” group number featured some of the club’s younger skaters in cute fringed green costumes, skating to Elvis Presley’s “Rock-a-Hula, Baby” while using a ribbon wand–very cute. A “Europe” number choreographed by Beth-Anne Duxbury offered a fun, modernistic take on continental culture, with Europop songs and club-type dance moves. And the “Africa” routine, presented by novice/junior/senior skaters, featured some quite interesting choreography. (African-themed programs run the risk of looking kitschy, but that wasn’t the case here, as subdued forest-toned costumes added atmosphere without being overly ornate.)

In addition to the group numbers, the show featured performances by two synchronized skating teams. The Colonial Open Masters (adult) team presented a Blues Brothers program, with a wheel move to finish. The Colonial Open Juvenile team put out a nice performance to the Newsies soundtrack. Wearing purple/gray ombre dresses and French braids, the team showed nice speed and kept their patterns moving well over the ice.

Since Colonial is a big club, there are always many soloists at Ice Crystals. Paige Felton was an early-evening standout. Skating to “Bird Set Free” by Sia, she showed nice line, crispness, and definition to her skating, landing a double flip and single Axel.

Alina Hetling also shone with an energetic and well-choreographed routine to “Un Poco Loco” from the movie Coco. This fun Latin-themed program included a great slide move, a double Axel (turnout), and double loop.

Emma Leonard, the show creator, skated a nice solo to “Colder Weather” by the Zac Brown Band. Emma has good edges and flow; she was very nice to watch. She landed a double Lutz (hand down).

Lucy Gund skated a lovely, lyrical number intended as a tribute to her parents, thanking them for their support over the years. Wearing a soft pink dress, Gund did a beautiful spiral and some nice spins. I’m sure the sentiment behind this program was appreciated by all the parents in the audience, as well as her own.

Jamiesen Cyr (E. Sectionals, Novice Ladies) skated a nice routine to “Hometown Glory” by Adele, wearing an exquisite lavender costume. She had some interesting spins, including a layback with a low-leg position and a catch-foot camel, and landed a double Axel. Jamiesen has always been an elegant skater, but has now added more speed and power.

Iris Zhao (E. Sectionals, Junior Ladies) skated to “Tightrope” by Sara Bareilles. She landed a single Axel and double flip (Rippon). This program, which Iris choreographed herself, had a very genuine, emotional feel to it and emphasized her flow and smoothness on the ice. Iris is graduating from high school this year and will attend New York University in the fall.

Ryan VanDoren (E. Sectionals, Junior Men) skated a great program to “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons. Ryan has wonderful speed, line, and extension to his skating. He performed some really nice highlight moves in this program, including a fan spiral into a Russian split. He also did a great camel combination spin and went for a double Axel (2-foot) and triple toe loop (spinout).

Arianna Concepcion’s (Nationals, Novice Ladies-7th) performance to “She Used to Be Mine” by Sara Bareilles was also a highlight. Arianna is a very powerful skater, with deep, strong edges and a lot of speed. She landed a nice triple toe loop and triple Salchow (spinout) in the program, which also featured a great step sequence.

Alexander Johnson was the guest star at this year’s Ice Crystals. Not only that, he’s been acting as a consultant to the club this spring, doing choreography and teaching work.

Sheryl Franks explained how the club started working with Johnson. “At Nationals, I always take notes of [the] best choreography that I like. He was on the top of my list,” she said. “He is so talented. Watching him choreograph with the kids … There’s no attitude, it’s just freedom and creativity. And then I said, ‘Can you please skate in our show?’“

In recent years, Johnson has become a favorite of many American skating fans due to the creativity and originality of his programs, as well as the beauty of his skating itself. These qualities were amply on display in his performances at Ice Crystals. He first skated a new exhibition number to “Boom,” choreographed by Shae-Lynn Bourne, which showed off some cool and different moves. I loved the performance quality and entertainment value of this program. Here’s a fancam video of Alex’s performance (not the highest quality, but it gives a sense of the program).

Alexander Johnson EX Ice Crystals 2019 - YouTube

For his second number, Johnson skated his competitive short program to Jamie Callum’s “Don’t Stop the Music,” also choreographed by Shae-Lynn Bourne. This program has grown so much since I saw its debut last fall. Johnson’s footwork and transitions were crisp and fast; his posture and carriage wonderful; and his spins superb, with great speed and positions. Although his jumps weren’t perfect in this program (triple flip, triple toe with hand down, and double Axel fall), everything else about the program was terrific. (Note: For more on Johnson, check back here tomorrow for an interview with him!)

Watching Johnson, I realized that a show like Ice Crystals offers the chance, in some ways, to see the whole life cycle of a skater. You see talented youngsters who are just mastering their first spins and single jumps. You see junior/senior competitors, whose accomplished skating is the product of 8 or 10 years’ work learning complex skills. And Alex Johnson showed the extra level of professionalism and performance quality of a senior international-level competitor. It’s a moving thing to see–all the different stages of skating.  

This year’s Ice Crystals offered a moment to appreciate the hard work and creativity that skaters of all ages bring to the ice.

Note: If you’re enjoying the articles on The Divine Sport, please “like” our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/adivinesport/. You can also follow me on Twitter to get updates of new posts: @ClaireCloutier.

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The post-Olympic World Championships is often an intriguing mix of the old and the new in pairs skating. This year was no exception. Veteran pair Wenjing Sui/Cong Han won their second World title in stunning fashion, followed by Russians Evgenia Tarasova/Vladimir Morozov, who claimed their third World medal in as many years. However, newer pairs such as Peng/Jin, Boikova/Kozlovskii, and Cain/LeDuc also made their mark, all with placements in the top 10.   

Overall, the pairs event in Saitama didn’t reach the same level as the last two World championships in Helsinki and Milan. Fewer pairs competed at this year’s Worlds (only 19, versus 28 the last 2 years). And not many teams delivered season’s-best performances in Japan. Nonetheless, the quality level at the top was still high. Before we look at the individual pairs’ results, though, I want to take a look at the state of pairs overall in 2018-19. 

This year’s Worlds was the first under the revised judging system that took effect this season. The new scoring system and long program format this year are probably the most substantive changes in pairs skating since 2005, when IJS was fully introduced. This year’s Worlds therefore provided an interesting opportunity to assess the effects of these changes.  

Pairs skating in 2018-19

To me, the biggest difference in pairs this year was the absence of risk. Last season, we saw many pairs attempting throw quads and quad twists. This season, there were none. Between the reduction in the value of quads, and the increased penalties for errors, the ISU has effectively removed quad elements from pairs skating. They simply aren’t worth the risk any more.

How does this change affect pairs? On one hand, it’s a relief. Despite their prevalence the last few years, quad throws and twists had remained highly error-prone. We can breathe a little easier, not worrying if a lady is going to have a big wipeout on a throw quad Salchow or if a pair is going to scarily miss on a quad twist. Without quad elements, pairs skating is probably safer, and certainly less nerve-wracking. But … it’s also less interesting. With the pairs mostly all doing the same, relatively safe, elements, it becomes primarily about execution.

I always feel a certain tension going into a pairs competition. In the past few years, what I felt was almost a positive type of tension. With many of the pairs, I wondered:  How much will they do? Will they go for a quad? Will they land it? How high or far will it go? The tension I felt was about how far a pair could push their maximum technical content or score.

The Knierims perform a quad twist in 2015  (Jay Adeff)

Now, the tension around the programs feels a little bit more negative. We know which elements the pairs are going to do, and in most cases, we know they can successfully complete these elements. They’re not really stretching themselves, as they were before. So the tension becomes not: How much they will do? Instead, it’s more like: Will they fall? Pop? Lose points somewhere?

It’s a subtle change in focus. An important thing has been gained: More safety for the athletes. But something has also been lost: Risk. And, to some extent, the excitement that goes with risk.

The other thing I don’t like about the loss of quad, or ultra-C, elements is that it limits the ways you can win. It cuts off an avenue whereby athletes could get more points–if they dared. Pairs was exciting in the last four years because you had teams who were trying to win in different ways:  Duhamel/Radford and James/Cipres challenged with athleticism, Savchenko/Massot with creativity, Sui/Han with a different kind of performance level and audience appeal. It was exciting to have teams experimenting with different directions in the sport. Now, without quad elements, there are fewer directions you can go. It’s limiting for the athletes. I don’t like that.

However, perhaps something else has been gained. With pairs now doing most of the same elements technically, there’s perhaps a new opportunity to distinguish themselves through superior programs and artistry. Several new teams who did particularly well this season, including Boikova/Kozlovskii and Cain/LeDuc, explicitly chose to make their artistry, programs, and performance level a major area of focus. “This season, we made an emphasis on our skating skills and interpretation,” Kozlovskii said in a recent interview. These pairs put out programs that judges and audiences found enjoyable, exciting, and fun.

Sui/Han:  Looking to create interesting, innovative transitions  (Xinhua/Du Xiaoyi)

Some of the more experienced teams also used creativity and thoughtfully designed programs to help distinguish themselves. Sui/Han experimented with new styles of music and spent time creating innovative shapes and movements with their choreographer, Lori Nichol. James/Cipres, having found a style that works for them, continued to extend and develop it in their acclaimed “Wicked Game” long program.

Sometimes under IJS, the judges tend to reward beautifully executed elements more than beautiful, fascinating programs. We saw that at Worlds, as Zabijako/Enbert claimed bronze in Saitama with a program that, while not exciting, was completed with a very high level of technical quality.

But I do feel that we’ve seen space for a little more creative innovation in pairs this season, and I hope this trend continues. If it does, and if beautiful, innovative programs become more common again in pairs skating, perhaps it will have been worth the trade-off in the loss of technical risk.

However, while recent changes in base value may open the door for more creativity in pairs, the format change to 4-minute free skates simultaneously makes it more challenging to create interesting programs. It’s hard to generate much of an artistic impression when your program is essentially just a series of technical elements. And that’s increasingly what pairs looks like, with this new four-minute format. The loss of thirty seconds in the long programs has definitely hurt, just as I feared. While the shorter programs may in some ways be easier for pairs skaters to perform, something is missing.

When the ISU removed the side-by-side spins from the long program to compensate for the lost 30 seconds, it seemed like a reasonable trade-off. Pairs would still have a similar amount of time for choreography in the program (as my research had indicated that side-by-side spins typically averaged about 21 seconds in length). However, what I didn’t fully realize was that the side-by-side spins, even if they were a technical element, still helped set and build the mood of each program. This is partly because spins are often an aesthetically pleasing element, with interesting positions, and also because spins are often set at climactic points in the music, thereby increasing their aesthetic impact. Basically, with the spins gone, we’re missing a moment that the skaters were using to build impact and emotion into the program. This season more than ever, pairs long programs seemed like mostly a bunch of tricks. The programs just felt packed–to the extent that even general viewers sensed the issue.

Something should change, in my opinion. Either the ISU should add back 30 seconds (or more!) to the free skates. Or they may need to delete another technical element, as coach Richard Gauthier suggested in an interview at Four Continents. Really, though, I’d just like the lost time back. With many pairs now actively aspiring to create more beautiful programs, and to bring more of an ice dance sensibility to pairs, they need more time in the programs to realize that vision. And that time would arguably make the performances more enjoyable for audiences as well.

So that’s my longish take on the state of pairs skating in 2018-19, as seen at Worlds. Now, let’s look at individual performances. I won’t discuss every element in this review, but will instead look more at some of the key elements or scoring areas for each couple.


Just as in 2016-17, Sui/Han missed most of this season due to injury but came back to claim the World title. This year, their victory was even more impressive and came by a wider margin.

Sui/Han opened with a smoldering short program to “No One Like You.” Their throw 3F was amazing as always, high and with a beautiful sailing edge out, earning several +5s. Their SBS 3Ts were good, and their level 4 triple twist was solid (if not super-high). Their hand-to-hand lift was also excellent and smoothly performed. The step sequence was perhaps the highlight of the program, delivered with terrific expression and passion. Sui/Han experimented with a new genre of music here; I don’t recall them ever competing to a big power ballad like this in the past (performed by operatic tenor Joseph Calleja). But they looked totally comfortable and at one with the music, as always. Skating toward the end of the third group in the short program, the difference in the intensity of their expression and musicality, versus the pairs who came before them, was instantly noticeable. I’m always amazed at how Sui/Han never hold back in their performance. They just go for it unreservedly. It’s a rare quality and what makes them so special. Most of their PCS marks were in the mid-9s (although puzzlingly, the German and Swiss judges issued straight 8s). They scored 79.24 for 2nd (and might well have scored higher if they had had a later starting spot).

Sui/Han doing one of their spectacular throws  (VCG Photo)

Sui/Han then sealed their victory with a truly memorable, bravura performance in the long program. Skating to the solemn, but dramatic, “Rain, in Your Black Eyes” by Ezio Bosso, their long program was stunning from start to finish. Their technical elements were almost all outstanding. They opened with an excellent level 4 Rippon triple twist, then completed their SBS 3T/2T/2T cleanly. Their throw 3S was simply amazing, with incredible speed and security on the landing edge, and they hit their SBS 3S as well! The throw 3F was good, and their Axel lasso lift was superb and the highest-scoring element in the entire pairs LP (10.10 points). Wenjing/Cong received many deserved +5s for these stellar elements, gaining +22.86 points in positive GOE. You could sense their own excitement growing as they landed element after element, and their skating seemed to get faster and more powerful every second that the program went on. They flung themselves into the choreography with abandon, taking us with them on an emotional journey. The judges were as impressed as the audience, awarding almost all high-9s and a total of eight 10.00s in PCS. Sui/Han scored 155.60 for 1st LP/overall.

After so many problems with injuries, it was wonderful to see Sui/Han back and skating so very well. They were really on a different level in this competition; no other team came anywhere close to matching them in performance and artistry (however good other teams might be technically). Wonderful.


For the second year in a row, Tarasova/Morozov claimed the silver medal at Worlds. However, I suspect they’re far more pleased with their actual performances this year than they were in Milan. Following a rather difficult season, this competition marked a bit of a return to form for the Russians.

Tarasova/Morozov:  Beauty and power  (Xinhua/Wang Lili)

After unsuccessfully experimenting with two rock music short programs this season (Lenny Kravitz, James Brown), Tarasova/Morozov returned to last season’s tried-and-true Rachmaninov No. 2 program for Europeans and Worlds. The decision paid off big-time in Saitama, as Tarasova/Morozov delivered an excellent short program to take the lead in this segment. Their opening level 4 triple twist was outstanding as usual. Vladimir landed a tiny bit forward on the SBS 3T, but this slight error didn’t cost anything. Their throw 3Lp was huge, and they had wonderful unison and speed on the SBS spins. This short program suits Tarasova/Morozov better than any other program they’ve ever had. What makes it work so well is that it showcases all their best qualities–speed, power, and huge elements–while minimizing their (relative) weaknesses. The SP format also conveniently highlights their strongest elements–twist, throw, SBS 3T–while not requiring them to perform some of their weaker elements–the SBS 3S and 2 additional lifts. Tarasova/Morozov don’t even have to show much emotion in this program; their technical brilliance speaks for itself and creates its own impression. In two years of watching this routine, it still gives me a thrill whenever they skate it the way they did in Saitama. The judges agreed, with marks in the mid-9s. Tarasova/Morozov scored a season’s-best 81.21 for 1st in this segment.

The Russians then delivered a solid performance in the free skate to secure silver. Their long program to “The Winter” by Balmorhea has earned positive reviews this season, and rightfully so. Once again, this is a musical selection that plays to their strengths. The spare and restrained, but evocative, piece doesn’t require them to show too much emotion, but does highlight their strong, classic line and powerful elements. And Evgenia in particular shines, showing great charisma and a lovely presence on the ice. The Russians opened with their astounding triple twist–so much better than anyone else’s–and earned almost straight +5s for it. Vladimir had small errors on both of their SBS jump passes, which held back their GOE, but they still wound up with 11.16 points total on their SBS jumps. Evgenia hit both throw jumps; and although the landings weren’t perfect, they were clean. (Happily, Evgenia seems to have straightened out whatever problem was causing her to two-foot most of her throw jumps last season. This season has been much, much better!) Impressively, Tarasova/Morozov had all level 4 elements in this program, which is something I think very few pairs have achieved this season, with the increased stringency of features and technical calling. This speaks to their skill level and training. It wasn’t a perfect program for Tarasova/Morozov, but it was quite good, and they seemed happy with it. They scored in the low-9s in PCS and earned 147.26 overall for 2nd LP/overall.

Ever since coming 4th in Pyeongchang, Tarasova/Morozov had appeared to be struggling, perhaps simply to deal with that disappointment. They seemed to turn the corner at Worlds and looked much more like their old selves, which was great to see. They declined the chance to compete in the season-ending World Team Trophy event, perhaps desiring a break after two long and stressful seasons.


It’s been a steady rise to the top for Zabijako/Enbert, the #2 Russian pair. After teaming up in 2015, they found success quickly and were 4th at Worlds last year. This year, they moved a step up to the bronze medal.

Zabijako/Enbert:  Always elegant  (Xinhua/Du Xiaoyi)

Zabijako/Enbert opened with a fine performance in the short program. They hit a very nice level 3 triple twist and a high throw 3Lp. Their SBS 3Ts were slightly off sync, but landed. The SBS spin got a bit messy at the end. Technically it was a..

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Why the war on figure skating YouTube is a no-win battle

Another figure skating season is winding toward a close, with the World Championships starting next week in Saitama, Japan. Like most, I’m looking forward to Worlds with anticipation.

It’s been a year of great skating and great memories. Yet all along, there’s been a shadow over this season. I’ve loved all the special performances and moments, including those yet to come in Saitama. But I’m also sad because we lost a lot of memories and moments this season. How so? When thousands of figure skating videos were deleted from YouTube.

There’s been a quiet war of sorts going on in figure skating this year, between TV broadcasters and the fans who create and upload figure skating videos to YouTube. The conflict seemed to really start a year ago, with the 2018 World Championships.

Last spring, videos of 2018 Worlds started to get blocked almost as soon as they went up on YouTube. In previous years, TV broadcasters had blocked certain videos, particularly from events in Japan, and Olympic videos were always strictly controlled. But 2018 Worlds was perhaps the first big competition for which nearly all videos were blocked. Even now, a year later, there are only a few scattered videos online from 2018 Worlds. It’s almost as if the competition never happened, judging from its online presence.

This season, TV broadcasters such as FujiTV (Japan), SBS TV (South Korea), and NBC (USA) continued to block many or most videos from Grand Prix competitions. Their efforts resulted in entire skating YouTube channels going down this winter. With each channel that disappeared, hundreds or thousands of figure skating videos went with it.

Many fans in the skating community were stunned, even anguished. For the past 5 to 10 years, figure skating has arguably thrived in one place above all others: YouTube. Even if ticket sales and TV ratings weren’t always great, people were watching figure skating on YouTube. And until recently, TV broadcasters and the ISU had mostly turned a blind eye to the existence of figure skating videos on YouTube.

Over the past decade, YouTube skating videos have become an integral part of the figure skating experience. Fans around the world rely on YouTube videos as a key and–in many cases, primary–way to watch the sport. Popular videos of big stars like Yuzuru Hanyu or Mao Asada frequently have thousands or even millions of views. Even early-season videos of obscure, low-ranked skaters at club competitions can garner hundreds of views. Fans watch figure skating videos to enjoy and learn about the sport. Skaters and coaches watch videos to analyze their own performances and that of rivals. Skating journalists and writers utilize videos for research purposes.

Yuna Kim’s winning long program at 2013 Worlds:  800,000+ views on YouTube

Why have YouTube skating videos become such a big part of the sport? Accessibility. Figure skating event coverage is like a patchwork full of holes: Everything depends on where you are. If you’re in a big skating country, you may get to see Grand Prix and major ISU competitions in their entirety, via network or cable TV or through a paid streaming service such as NBCSportsGold or Eurosport. However, fans in smaller countries frequently do not enjoy this luxury. Even a country with a skating community of reasonable size, like Australia, may not have any officially sanctioned TV or streaming coverage of major events. For many skating fans around the world, the only way to watch major events is via illegal streams or YouTube videos.

Coverage of smaller events, such as Challenger Series, Winter Universiade, senior B, and big club competitions, is even spottier. Fans must rely on free or paid livestreams provided by event organizers. Livestreams can happen at any hour of the day, while fans are at work, asleep, or taking care of family obligations. The real-time accessibility of livestreams is therefore limited. However, the reach of livestreams extends greatly when videos get created from the streams and uploaded to YouTube.

YouTube makes skating gloriously easy to find and watch. Just type in a search–say, Yuna Kim 2013 Worlds–and a video comes up. You can watch it right then and there. If you have more time, you can search for groups of videos for an entire event. YouTube is like a treasure box for skating fans.

And fans love it. Figure skating videos are shared endlessly on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and forums. Videos are arguably, in many ways, the lifeblood of the sport now.

How do people become skating fans? Each story is different, but probably most start in this way: Something happens to catch a person’s interest in figure skating. They want to see more figure skating. They go to YouTube, and find and watch skating videos. And it grows from there.

Figure skating needs to be seen–must be seen–to maintain and grow its popularity. Accessibility is everything. The ISU itself appears to increasingly recognize the importance of accessibility. Its project to show the Junior Grand Prix series via free online streaming (no geoblocking in most countries)–and through the ISU’s own YouTube channel–has led to clear and significant growth in viewership of the Junior Grand Prix. This is accessibility: If you make the sport available, its popularity and audience base have a legitimate chance to grow.

This chart gives an idea of the video market dominance of YouTube (owned by Google) in the United States

Allowing YouTube skating videos is arguably the ISU’s most high-impact way of making the sport accessible. YouTube not only dwarfs all other video sources in popularity; its user base is also weighted toward younger consumers, a desirable demographic for extending the skating fanbase.

With all this in mind, I think there’s a solid argument that YouTube videos are vital to the sport’s continued long-term growth and to fans’ ability to watch competitions.


Yet, the hard truth is that the legality of most figure skating videos is questionable at best. When TV broadcasters sign agreements with the ISU, they purchase some form of exclusive broadcast/digital rights to a skating event. So skating videos are usually, or always, in breach of rights contracts. The broadcasters and the ISU are within their legal rights to pursue copyright claims against YouTube videos. No one can argue this point.

Former ISU Council member Sonia Bianchetti underlined the importance of broadcast rights sales to the ISU in her 2004 book Cracked Ice. “All the financial resources of the ISU derive solely from the contracts with sponsors and television networks all over the world that buy the rights to broadcast [ISU] championships,” Bianchetti stated unequivocally.

Has this financial reality changed since 2004? Likely not. In an interview last spring, current ISU Vice President of Figure Skating Alexander Lakernik alluded to the importance of broadcast rights in the ISU’s revenue model. Asked about changes to the length of pairs’ and men’s free skates, Lakernik stated: “There are much more prosaic things than time–this is the interest of television and sponsors. This is money, at the expense of which lives figure skating. If we make changes, we have to coordinate them.”

So, if the ISU decides to support TV broadcasters’ copyright claims against skating videos, not only are they within their rights, it’s also understandable from a business point of view.  But the question still remains: Why move aggressively now to enforce those rights? What changed? If you look on YouTube, there are many videos from every World championships over the past decade–except for Worlds 2018. Why did that event mark the start of a clampdown?

One possibility: The European Union recently has considered stringent, controversial new changes to copyright law that put pressure on YouTube to further tighten their content upload filter. It’s possible, although not known, that these changes could be playing some role in the skating copyright claims.

There’s been near-total radio silence from the ISU about the actions against YouTube skating videos. However, the coordinated timing and volume of recent copyright complaints suggests a concerted policy, rather than random coincidence. Did the ISU decide to back broadcasters in taking action against fan videos? Did TV rights holders demand this type of action?

It’s not hard to understand why TV broadcasters and streaming companies might object to skating videos going up 5 minutes after a skating broadcast. Directly after an event, TV networks and streaming channels may still expect to pull in additional viewers over the next week or two via repeats, late broadcasts, and archived streams. But financially, does it make sense for rights holders to continue to delete videos months after a competition (as continued to happen with Worlds 2018 videos this year)? Six months after an event, are there still significant numbers of fans logging into old archived streams of competitions? How big of a threat can videos from 6-month-old events be to broadcasters’ business models?

Fans don’t necessarily object to the ISU or TV broadcasters making money. Most fans realize that the ISU needs income to fulfill its mission of running and judging competitions. But if the ISU shores up revenue by supporting broadcasters’ claims against YouTube videos, then its short-term revenue interests come into conflict with fans’ interest in watching the sport. They may also be risking the long-term growth and expansion of the sport’s popularity.

Is there a way out of this dilemma?


The troubling thing about the ISU’s current business model is that it may not last.

Viewership rates for broadcast TV have declined in recent years in the U.S., as new forms of Internet media and entertainment compete for consumers’ attention. The same trend is occurring in Japan, the current epicenter of the sport’s popularity.

Shoma Uno’s free skate at Lombardia Trophy last fall: Almost 60,000 views

A 2017 white paper about the media market in Japan stated the following:

Although television remains a dominant force in the [Japanese] media market, it has been losing ground to the Internet in recent years. Viewers are increasingly watching videos online, and broadcasters are under growing pressure to utilize the Internet as part of their business strategy. It is widely believed that the rise of the Internet is engendering significant changes in lifestyles and viewing habits. Television stations are responding with efforts to promote their programs on the Internet and through social media, as they look for ways to both maintain traditional viewership and leverage new opportunities.

Currently, the ISU relies on broadcast TV rights sales to fund its operations. But as viewers around the world move away from traditional TV to online media, will this revenue stream be reliable in the future? Or is it time for the ISU to look past this 20th-century business model and explore new ways of generating revenue?

In his 2016 book The Content Trap: A Strategist’s Guide to Digital Change, Harvard Business School professor Bharat Anand explores different business models for today’s digital age. Anand argues that many businesses today risk failure because they are too invested in traditional concepts of selling content, rather than connections and access. What he calls “the content trap” arises when businesses fail to understand the larger aspects of their market and what their consumers really want. He warns against “the effort to preserve content at all costs–rather than seizing the opportunities around it.” Current efforts to stop the spread of skating videos on YouTube can be seen as an attempt to protect content–even at the expense of alienating the sport’s biggest fans.

Anand argues that companies/institutions should instead pursue a customer-focused strategy, the foundation of which is understanding what customers really want and what forces (e.g., price, availability) are driving customer behavior. “Once you’ve formed a worldview about customer behavior, you’re ready to tackle the second part of the strategy process: Figuring out what to offer customers in a way that matches their behavior with your unique capabilities,” Anand argues.

As we near the third decade of this century, does the ISU fully understand current trends in figure skating and media markets? Are they conducting the necessary research? And have they considered building a new revenue model or an updated worldview of their current customers and what they seek? I hope the ISU is taking a close look at these questions. The future of the sport may depend on it.

Some might ask what a new revenue model for the ISU would look like. Well, the future doesn’t necessarily mean giving figure skating fans everything they want for free. But the future should be about accessibility: Making the sport as available as possible for fans–even if it’s at a price.

I’m far from a business development expert. But I do know the ISU’s customers–skating fans–and I have at least some idea what I think many of us want. We want access to the sport, first and foremost: To be able to see the skating. Most of us, I think, also want community. We want to share our experience of the skating, in some way. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, forums, Discord, and all the other media through which skating fans communicate. Many fans would also like some form of access to skaters, coaches, and choreographers–a chance to hear & see stories about their training, their lives, their interests. And most fans want to see live skating and attend competitions when they can.

What future products could satisfy some of those customer desires? Some ideas for consideration:  

— How about an ISU web site that provides videos of all Grand Prix and ISU championship events–perhaps available after a time lag to satisfy TV broadcast rights–and accessible either on a paid subscription or ad-supported free basis?

— Or what about a more comprehensive ISU social media hub, offering not only videos but access to unique news coverage, enhanced figure skating fantasy competitions, opportunities for fans to share opinions through tools such as daily/weekly polls or viewpoint video contests, plus, perhaps, exclusive opportunities to interact with skaters or coaches via webinar-type sessions or exclusive vlogs?

— Or how about a full-scale model of figure skating membership, offering all of the above, plus special discounts or contests for members to travel to competitions, access to special seating at events for members with higher subscription levels, reward programs for fans attending multiple competitions, and more?

I don’t know if any of these product concepts could be revenue-positive for the ISU. Consider them as ideas, or starting points, to suggest how the ISU could look to totally revamp their business model for the 21st century–rather than cling to the model established in the 1950s/60s.

In order for our sport to succeed, the ISU must succeed financially. Bottom line, it needs revenue to fund its operations. Yet at the same time, the ISU cannot succeed at the expense of alienating the fans of this sport and limiting their access to the sport by disallowing skating on YouTube. There must be a way for the ISU to make money and prosper, yet still allow fans the crucial access they want. I’m convinced this is a problem that can be solved–but it may require creative thinking.

With each skating video that disappears from YouTube, fans and skaters lose not just a performance, but a memory and a singular moment in the history of the sport. In many ways, videos are figure skating in the 21st century. Until some other form emerges, they are our collective repository and history. They enable our experience of the sport. We can ill afford to lose them.


Sources/Related Reading

“YouTube Revenue and Usage Statistics (2018)”  http://www.businessofapps.com/data/youtube-statistics/

“Global Digital Video Viewers: eMarketer’s Estimates and Forecast for 2016-2021”  https://www.emarketer.com/Report/Global-Digital-Video-Viewers-eMarketers-Estimates-Forecast-20162021-with-YouTube-Mobile-Video-Numb

“Why Traditional TV Is in Trouble”   https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/13/business/media/television-advertising.html

“Japan Spends Less Time Watching Television”   https://blogs.wsj.com/japanrealtime/2015/07/08/japan-spends-less-time-watchitelevision/

“Information Media Trends in Japan 2016” (white paper)   http://www.dentsu.com/knowledgeanddata/publications/pdf/information_media_trends_in_japan_2016.pdf

“Copyright Laws Are Breaking YouTube. Here’s How to Fix the Problem”   https://theweek.com/articles/608700/copyright-laws-are-breaking-youtube-heres-how-fix-problem

“YouTube CEO Calls EU’s Proposed Copyright Regulation Financially Impossible”  https://www.theverge.com/2018/11/12/18087250/youtube-ceo-copyright-directive-article-13-european-union

“Piracy Is Progressive Taxation”   https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/14-years-later-piracy-progressive-taxation-still-rings-tim-o-reilly/

“Vice President of ISU on How to Change Figure Skating”  (Russian)   https://tass.ru/interviews/5078235

“ISU’s Junior Grand Prix Free Live Streams Boost Figure Skating Views Around the World”     https://olympics.nbcsports.com/2018/12/05/isus-junior-grand-prix-free-live-streams-boost-figure-skating-views-around-the-world/

“The Content Trap: A Conversation with HBS Economist Bharat..

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It was a challenging season for U.S. pair Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier, but it ended well with a silver medal at 2018 U.S. Nationals and a 5th-place result at Four Continents. After Four Continents, Denney/Frazier took a few minutes to speak with me about how their season went and their plans for next year.  Check out my article at Figure Skaters Online:


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Following a successful junior career, Evelyn Walsh/Trennt Michaud of Canada made the jump to the senior ranks this year. After some ups and downs at their fall events, the young Canadian team earned the silver medal at Canadian Nationals and berths to Four Continents and Worlds. The duo is focused on learning and growing as they gain experience in during their first senior season together. Get to know this young team in my interview with them for Figure Skaters Online:


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Recently I traveled to Anaheim, CA, to cover the ISU 2019 Four Continents Championship for Figure Skaters Online. While I was there, I had the great pleasure of chatting with pairs coach Richard Gauthier of Canada. As most pairs fans know, Gauthier has been among the world’s top pairs coaches for 15 years or longer, having coached such famous teams as Jamie Sale/David Pelletier and Meagan Duhamel/Eric Radford to World championships. Currently he works with coaching partner Bruno Marcotte in Montreal, where they have a pairs school including teams such as Moore-Towers/Marinaro, Alexandrovskaya/Windsor, Ruest/Wolfe, and more. During our chat in Anaheim, Gauthier shared some updates on his current teams, broke down the field of top pairs heading into 2019 Worlds, and gave his opinion on how recent rules changes have affected pairs. Take a few minutes to check out our interview!


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