Not long before he steps on the ice in Sochi, Canadian figure skater Andrew Poje will gaze deeply into Kaitlyn Weaver’s eyes. They might even hold hands.
It will look like a staring contest. Or maybe a scene from a romantic movie – but there is a reason behind it.
Like dozens of other ice-dance and pairs skaters from around the world, Poje and Weaver will be searching for something they call their “connection point.” It will happen away from the cameras, somewhere off in the bowels of the Iceberg Skating Palace, but it is an important part of their bid for an Olympic medal.
“We always make sure that we have our special connection point,” Poje said. “We just go and sit and just make sure that we look into each other’s eyes. We make sure that we both know that we’re there for each other, and we’re ready for it.”
For Weaver, the exercise helps calm her nerves.
“As soon as we have that connection moment, I know everything is going to be okay because there is someone else there with you, holding your hand, and you don’t take it for granted,” she said. “It makes us stronger.”
It’s an oddity for sure. But figure skaters admit their sport has some of the more quirky rituals. Many of these can be found in pairs and ice dance, where the skaters seek out an intangible emotional link with their partner right before they hit the ice.
They are not the kind of strategies you can expect to find the hockey players or snowboarders using. But figure skating is a different game. The connection moment can take different forms depending on the pairs team or ice-dance duo, but they’ve all got one.
“It’s important for me to connect with Tessa,” said Scott Moir, who is one half of Canada’s defending gold-medal ice-dance team with Tessa Virtue.
On competition day in Sochi, Moir said he and Virtue will make a point of having a quiet precompetition meal together “or at least take a couple of minutes when we get to the rink and just chat.”
But the quirks don’t stop once the music starts. A lot of the oddities in figure skating also happen in plain view on the ice, which makes the sport a fascinating game within a game to observe.
Look closely at some of the world’s best over the next two weeks and you’ll see some unusual things – details so small they go unnoticed even by the judges. In the middle of a spin, some pairs skaters will talk to each other. And before the man lifts his partner over his head, she may whisper in his ear.
“I have always been a little chatty,” Canadian pairs skater Kirsten Moore-Towers said of her on-ice habits. Performing in her first Olympics with partner Dylan Moscovitch, Moore-Towers expects she’ll be saying a lot on the ice. Look carefully, and you may see her lips moving.
“If we’re going into a throw, we have key words that we find make the throw really great, so I’ll say it to him,” Moore-Towers said.
Heading into a lift, they might tell each other to “curve,” a word that reminds them to focus on form. “I feel like I’m just reassuring myself that it’s all going to work out,” Moore-Towers said.
She also tries to not make it too obvious: “I might say it like kind of a whisper.”
The on-ice dialogue happens at the unlikeliest of times. Watch the Canadians in a spin, and you may see them chatting.
“There’s always something in our pairs spin because we are in a position where no one can see our faces,” Moore-Towers said. “We’re both kind of in a huddle. So we can have a whole conversation you can’t see.”
“Basically it’s like a football huddle,” Moscovitch added. “But it’s spinning really fast.”
For Weaver, it’s all part of the emotional component of the sport.
“These programs are emotional experiences if you will,” she said. “It’s not just an exercise.”
Less perceptible to the untrained eye is another complex conversation happening between a male pairs skater and his partner on the ice. It is an unspoken understanding the man never overshadows the woman. His job is mostly to stay out of the way.
“The girl is the painting and the guy is the frame,” Moscovitch said. “It is my job to showcase her and make her sparkle. And not distract from it, but at the same time I have to be aesthetically pleasing and I have to be doing my character properly. But I don’t want to over-shine her.”
Sounds easy. It’s not.
“We had one program a few years ago, which was to Henry V, and that was a little bit more the story about Henry, so I was a little bit more in the spotlight. But at the same time, the raw skating had to showcase her. It’s always trying to find the balance.”
Moore-Towers has sympathy for her partner on that one.
“He has to do a good job showcasing his lady,” Moore-Towers said. “But if he was looking bad, your eye would be drawn to him. Tough role.”
Difficult indeed. It’s one of the many things, they admit, only a figure skater has to think about.