The preskate rituals of Jamie Salé and David Pelletier were anything but routine that night, one decade ago. They waded slowly through the heightened post-9/11 security checks – ever the terrorist threat figure skaters are – as paparazzi swarmed them.
Inside, the stands of the Salt Lake Ice Centre were packed with fans anxious for a gold-medal showdown: Canadians vs. Russians. Bad omens abounded. Salé, recovering from an illness that had her bedridden two weeks earlier, was nauseous. Pelletier couldn't eat. A TV light exploded above their heads. She collided with a Russian skater during warm-up.
Salé glided to the boards, dispirited, head hanging. “Ridiculous, for me,” she remembers. “I'm going: ‘How am I going to skate?'<TH>“
Once back on the ice, however, it was all behind them. They remember each second of their aptly titled Love Story routine. When they finished, the crowd erupted in a standing ovation. Pelletier kissed the ice while Salé covered her mouth in shock. “Simply perfect,” television commentator Sandra Bezic said.
The routine, which (eventually) broke a 42-year gold-medal drought for Canada in pairs skating, sparked an international judging scandal and shot the Salé-Pelletier brand to the top. A Rocky Mountain wedding, lucrative tours and a baby boy followed.
Now, at the 10-year anniversary of their big moment, Canada's ice darlings find themselves at a crossroads. Skating has since become their job, rather than their passion, and this year is the first since Salt Lake City that Salé and Pelletier haven't signed on to a tour. The offer they received was, in their eyes, a lowball.
They'll instead hold out for more cash or do occasional one-off shows, but the more you talk to them, the more it's clear: They're ready to hang 'em up.
“I've been cold my whole life. I'm tired of being cold. I don't like the rink any more,” Salé, 34, says while sitting in oversize armchairs in the lobby of their Edmonton skating club. Veteran staff welcomed them there warmly, while a young receptionist stared blankly and asked who they were. “We got an offer, and I was like ‘Wow. Okay. I guess we're moving on.'<TH>“
It all makes for a slow unravelling of the life they'd come to know together, one that made them household names – their divorce two years ago, the slipping market and, now, contemplation of a future off the ice.
“We were maybe a little bit scared at first, but we're realizing quite fast that it's quite comfortable,” says Pelletier, 37. “And I think we're both at peace. If this is going to be the end, then I'm comfortable with that.”
Credit to Harding
Figure skating's popularity peaked when American Tonya Harding had her husband hire a goon to club rival Nancy Kerrigan on the knee. The soap opera put ratings through the roof; in late 1994, a skater could earn $250,000 in one night, skating before sold-out live crowds and massive TV audiences.
“Worldwide, skating was at a high,” veteran skating promoter Tom Collins remembers. “The fees that were paid to the skaters or the various companies to put on competitions were astronomical. … It was only a four-year run, to tell you the truth, and then it dropped slowly.”
As the market began to fade, Salé and Pelletier found themselves far away from the spotlight of international skating, having hit a rut in their careers.
The Alberta-born Salé had gone back to singles skating after splitting from her previous pairs partner, Jason Turner, with whom she had competed at the Lillehammer Olympics. Pelletier, a Quebecker, had skated with three previous partners. None proved a good fit.
Salé and Pelletier first considered skating together in 1996, but neither wanted to move to the other's city. By 1998, the lifelong skaters were missing out on the boom altogether – he was working at Montreal's Molson Centre arena, she was serving coffee at an Edmonton Second Cup. Only then did they give it another go, with the more introverted, analytical Pelletier flying to Edmonton during the Nagano Olympics to try out with the spritely Salé. This time, the partnership clicked.
After switching coaches and moving full-time to Edmonton, they began to rack up first-place finishes, culminating in the 2001 world championship.
It was a long road to the top, and the two decided they'd retire there – cashing in if they won gold. Off the podium, onto the marquee.
“It was time to get back what we'd put in,” Pelletier says. “What our parents, mostly, put in.”
The touring sector was still strong, and they hoped for four lucrative years. In their first year as pros, Salé and Pelletier skated in 65 U.S. cities and 12 in Canada while squeezing in overseas shows. Skaters could still earn $10,000 a night in those years.
“They got in it, but it was still dropping. They missed the crest,” says Collins, who sold his Champions on Ice tour in 2006.
But Salé and Pelletier continued to draw crowds, touring each year. They've since done three collective stints on CBC's Battle of the Blades (“A great paycheque, not gonna lie,” Salé says) and provided Olympic commentary in Turin and Vancouver. Altogether, they toured for 10 years.
“Honestly, we've been very spoiled to be able to do what we do – do it well, get paid very well and loving it,” she says.
However, with few sponsorships, no TV deals and the winter Olympics two years away, the market has finally faded. Another tour, Stars on Ice, will do more Canadian shows (12) than American ones (10) for the first time this year.
“The Kerrigan-Harding affair spiked the ratings like nothing else in the history of the sport. Do you think it could sustain that?” says Jay Ogden, a New York-based senior vice-president of sports mega-agency IMG, which runs Stars on Ice.
“When figure skating was really hot in the U.S., it was considered one of the true reality shows,” Ogden says. “It was live, in your face, there were big stars, big stories. And now for whatever reason, it's all dropped off.”
Salé and Pelletier were offered a spot on this year's Stars on Ice tour, but at a price that Salé says “undervalues” them as the industry slips. “Look,” Pelletier says, “the numbers tell a story.”
While Ogden points to reality TV, Salé and Pelletier cite a deeper change keeping fans away – new rules imposed since the judging scandal. They're meant to eliminate the discretion that shortchanged the Canadians in Salt Lake City, but Salé and Pelletier say the rules kill the art.
“I look at it now and say, ‘I'm so glad I'm not competing any more,'“ Salé says. “It's too much for me. We skated Love Story very freely. We were telling a story. I felt like an actress. I find when I watch today, I don't see that at all. It's just technical.”
As the industry fades from what they knew and thrived in, so too does their personal life together, but you'd hardly know it. They remain friends, don't look as if they've aged a day, and share custody of their four-year-old son, Jesse.
At one point, Salé chides her partner for his tuque, green with ear flaps. “It's girly,” she says. “It's warm,” Pelletier replies, betraying no hint of amusement. But that's as testy as things get.
“There's still a little bit of fire left in me, but mostly I enjoy skating with Jamie,” Pelletier says. “Skating with Jamie is easy. So it made me a little sad that we're not going to skate. But there's still life, still hope.”
They have struggled since to maintain privacy throughout their divorce, but decline to comment
. “We have a son that we love very much, and he is our priority,” she adds. “It's life. And we're human. It's not what happens to you, it's what you do about it. I think we're doing a good job.”
They had all but forgotten the anniversary of their skate on Feb. 11, 2002. Instead, they're looking at the next steps. Pelletier plans to go to university, while Salé hopes to pursue more promotional work.
The one-off shows require preparation. They hit the ice for 45-minute morning practices this week for a coming Salt Lake City reunion show – an Olympic tribute for which thousands of seats remain unsold. This time in Utah, the paparazzi and crowds are gone.
“We'll never forget about skating,” Salé says, flashing the smile that helped make the pair stars. “But it's gone, and we knew that was coming.”