SPORTS COVER

PASSION PLAY

How Canadians Jamie Salé and David Pelletier met, merged—and conquered the skating world

James Deacon April 2 2001
SPORTS COVER

PASSION PLAY

How Canadians Jamie Salé and David Pelletier met, merged—and conquered the skating world

James Deacon April 2 2001

PASSION PLAY

SPORTS COVER

How Canadians Jamie Salé and David Pelletier met, merged—and conquered the skating world

James Deacon

It was a week of firsts for Jamie Salé and David Pelletier. The Canadian pairs team, in Vancouver for the World Figure Skating Championships, woke up each day to 25 or more new phone messages on their hotel-room answering machine. One morning, they had two limos waiting for them—one to a daybreak photo shoot, the other to a later brunch with a sponsor. “This never happens,” Pelletier said after settling into a white stretch Lincoln with an interior straight out of Saturday Night Fever. They met former Crazy Canuck Steve Podborski, the champion skier, in a hotel lobby, and, though strangers, they seemed to get on immediately, as if athletes of a certain level have some kind of unseen bond, or maybe a secret handshake.

None of the above would have happened without the most important first of the week—finishing first at the world championships. In one of the greatest pairs competitions in recent memory,

Salé and Pelletier overcame Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao of China and two-time world champions Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze of Russia, to win Canadas first world pairs title in eight years.

Skating to the mournful Tristan and Isolde Fantasy by Richard Wagner,

Salé and Pelletier produced an emotion-charged and technically superb performance

under intense pressure. They were so good, in fact, that they achieved yet another, more dubious first. The day after their victory, they received several phone messages from unidentified callers with thick accents stating in blunt terms that the judges had erred, that Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze had been better, that it was a homer decision and therefore a tainted title. “You wouldn’t

They skate with such evident passion-

for the sport, for the music—for each other

believe what these people say” says an indignant Salé.

Get used to it, girl. The 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City may be 11 months away, but someone has already declared “Let the gamesmanship begin.” When you have captured the last major competition before an Olympics, perhaps establishing some small edge with the judges, supporters of your rivals are bound to get nasty. And others will be jealous because, beyond the jumps and lifts, Salé, 23, and Pelletier, 26, have some intangible quality that is as rare in sports as it is in life. Some call it

magic, others says it’s charisma and many see it as passion, but whatever it is, it excites fans, impresses judges and unnerves competitors, and it has propelled Salé and Pelletier to the top in short order. They only joined forces, after all, in 1998, back when she was waiting tables and he was slinging beer two time zones away. Now? The woman from Red Deer, Alta., and the guy from little Sayabec, Que., east of Rimouski on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, stand on the verge of mainstream celebrity and financial security from sponsorships and appearance fees. As the Olympics loom next fall, their faces will be on cereal boxes and billboards. Yet even in their week of firsts, they seemed able to keep the dizzying whirl of I attention and demands neatly I tucked into its proper perspective. “The skating world is changing so quickly,” Pelletier says during the limo ride from the photo shoot back to the hotel. “You can’t take anything for granted.”

They need only look at the other stars on the Canadian team at the worlds for proof. There was three-time world champion Elvis Stojko of Richmond Hill, Ont., the most reliable technician of his generation, struggling through injury and ending up 10th, his worst-ever finish at this level (page 27). Another Richmond Hill skater, Emanuel Sandhu, showed flashes of stylistic brilliance, but he was undone by a sloppy short program, as was Windsor, Ont.’s Jennifer Robinson in the senior ladies competition. And there were Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz, skating beautifully but unable to crack the podium in yet another week of in-

comprehensible ice-dance judging. “We didn’t move up, but the marks were close,”

Bourne said, adding: “We’ve created a lot of talk, and people were happy with what we did all week. That’s encouraging for next season, which is our focus—the Olympics.”

So after years of turning to others on the team for support and inspiration, Salé and Pelletier found the roles reversed last week.

Successful athlete-development programs need champions for young skaters to emulate, particularly as the Olympics near. Yet even that first seemed to sit easily with them.

“When I was 10 and winning some competitions,” Salé explains, “even-littler girls looked up to me. That’s the way it goes in this sport.” Pelletier nods. “We did a show in my home town last year and raised $6,000 for junior skating,” he says. “You don’t have to wait until you’re a world champion to be a role model.”

It reads like a fairy tale, which sort of suits the sport. Two down-on-their-luck skaters team up in a last-ditch effort to revive their careers. They click, they triumph, they even find love in the process. And, oh yes, it very nearly didn’t happen at all.

In 1996, their coaches decided Pelletier and Salé were a good match and suggested they try out together. Their physiques, skating styles and temperaments seemed compatible. And they were going nowhere at the time, except they didn’t know that. Salé had left pairs and was competing in singles, while Pelletier was between partners. Anyway, the tryout took place in Boucherville, Que., and it was, Salés mother Patti Siegel says, “disastrous.” Some of it was just logistics—Salé didn’t really want to move to Quebec to train. But more than that, they simply didn’t get along. “Jamie called me afterwards,” Siegel recalls, “and said, ‘Something was very wrong.’ She was very upset.”

Pelletier says they had some growing up to do. Both had enjoyed early success, she making the 1994 Olympics as a 16-year-old with then-partner Jason Turner, he finishing second at the 1995 national championships with Allison Gaylor. And they were pretty impressed with themselves. “Maybe I was a little more of a jerk in 1996, and maybe she was too much of a Miss Pretty,” Pelletier says, only half joking. Salé laughs. “I had quit from my previous partner,” she says, “and I thought I could just keep skating on my name. I found out it doesn’t work that way.”

Reality set in, and it was not kind. Salé tried her hand at singles, and when she didn’t even qualify for two straight na-

donáis, “it was a huge slap in the face. I was off the national team, I was a nobody all of a sudden, and I had to go to sectionals to try to get back. People would see me and ask, ‘You’re still skating?’ That was hard to take.” They were harsh lessons, but useful now that they are having such great success. Conceit won’t happen twice, Pelletier says. “To me,” he explains, “it’s completely normal at 20 years old to think you’re at the top of the world when you’re only second in Canada and people liked you at that one nationals. But you learn that’s not the way it is, there’s always somebody new. So if I needed to learn that again, well, I would be very stupid.” After the 1998 nationals, where Pelletier finished a dismal sixth with his third partner, Caroline Roy, his coach, Richard Gauthier, gave him two choices: quit, or give Salé a second try. It wasn’t much of a choice for either of them. Off the ice, he was serving beer at the Molson Centre in Montreal, while Salé was working as a waitress in Edmonton. So she jumped at one last chance to compete. “I love skating,” she says. “It’s not like I couldn’t do anything else. I just knew I was capable of something better in skating than what I had done.” Humbled and hungry, they were lightning in a bottle. She moved to Montreal to train with Pelletier and Gauthier and, within months, they showed promising if not winning

results in international events. In season two, choreographer Lori Nichol blocked out a routine to the sound track from Love Story, and with it they won five competitions, including a pivotal upset of Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze at Skate America in Colorado Springs in 1999. They faltered at last year’s worlds in France, finishing fourth, but went to Vancouver on a roll, having won five of six competitions this season, including the preOlympic event in Salt Lake City.

What’s their secret? It helps that they look great together, they are both veterans and they are keenly motivated. They work well with Gauthier, and are brilliant interpreters of Nichols exquisite choreography—jumps, spins, lifts and throws seem to grow naturally out of their two programs, in contrast to so many routines that appear clunky and contrived. And they are skilled technicians. “Jamie always had talent,” says Jan Ullmark, who coached Salé for 10 years at the Royal Glenora Figure Skating Club in Edmonton. “She was al| ways a performer—at first she was I more of a performer than an athI lete. And she was always very easy to deal with. She had her own mind about music, about how she felt on the ice and what she was capable of doing, that was and still is her strength.” Pelletier, meanwhile, is a fine athlete whose on-ice stoicism provides the ideal backdrop for the more dramatic Salé. “As far as men go, I think David is the best all-around pairs skater in the world right now,” says longtime friend Lloyd Eisler, a former world champion in pairs. “He is very consistent, and a great competitor.” Day to day, their complementary characters drive them. Pelletier is fiery, serious, quick-tempered and prone to high stress. Salé is emotional yet grounded, and less likely than Pelletier to let things get too serious. “She takes things with a grain of salt,” Pelletier says. “That’s part of why we are a good team. I probably wouldn’t be as successful as a singles skater because I wouldn’t have someone to balance me.”

Still, none of that explains the magic. In a pursuit that rewards mirror imaging of every move, they are uncanny mimics of one another, gliding seamlessly around the ice, totally in sync. And they skate with such evident passion—for the sport, for the music, for each other. Some people close to them credit their off-ice relationship for producing the evident heat on the ice, and certainly there is historic precedent in pairs. Russia’s Ekaterina Gordeeva

Now, Salé and Pelletier

face Olympic-size expectations

and Sergei Grinkov, who were teamed as teenagers and eventually married, produced their own rare magic on their way to two Olympic titles and four world championships.

While they don’t deny the recent deepening of their relationship, Salé and Pelletier prefer to keep their private life private. He was married briefly, and although he and his wife separated last year, people still talk.

Besides, Salé and Pelletier say, it’s irrelevant to the discussion. There are many other off-ice couples in the sport who are as cold as ice in competition. Salé says of their chemistry:

“We had it even at the first competition we ever did. We’ve improved a lot, but people were already talking about it then, and we were not together.”

So do they have any explanation of what “it” is? “We have loved skating together since Day 1, and we knew we could be good, that something could happen here,” Salé offers. “We are so lucky we found the right partner at the right time, and it worked out. Maybe that’s why it took eight years to have another world pairs champion in Canada. It doesn’t happen that often that you get that perfect match. So when you talk about magic, all I can tell you is that it didn’t come from being a couple.”

Among the most keenly curious are, of course, their rivals. For one thing, the Canadians still appear to be improving, whereas the Russian pair, Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze, may have levelled off, having last captured a world title in 1999. Given Salé and Pelletier’s meteoric rise, their convincing victory last week was particularly irksome to the Russians, who were in peak form and complained privately about the judging. Yet the Canadians plainly triumphed on style, and that has always been the

Russians’ strength. “In the end, it was their marks for presentation that put Jamie and David over the top,” said Debbie Wilkes, the former pairs skater turned broadcaster. “And they won when Anton and Elena were terrific, too, which is saying something.” It is earthshaking by skating standards to imagine anyone other than Russians (or Soviets) standing atop the Olympic podium—they have dominated pairs for the past 30 years. The most notable exception at worlds for Canadians was in 1984, when the great Barbara Underhill and Paul Martini

broke through in Ottawa, and in 1994, when the exciting duo of Isabelle Brasseur and Eisler took gold in Prague. Brasseur was in Vancouver last week, and said watching Salé and Pelletier brought back memories, good and bad. “I am so excited for them, but I was so glad it was them and not me out there,” she said. “It is so hard getting through big competitions.”

The Russians at least saw this coming. Salé and Pelletier have been rising quickly to the top ever since joining forces. It is in Canada where the stunning pair are largely unknown. “We never get recognized when we go out,” Salé says matter-of-factly. Pelletier jokes that no one ever sees his face because practically every published picture of them is actually of Salé. “I know I am losing my hair,” he says, “because all you see of me is the back of my head.”

That, of course, is about to change, and they are a little nervous about the implications of commercial success and celebrity. They already have some practice: the folks in Sayabec renamed the local arena after Pelletier. And Ross Sheppard High School in Edmonton, where Salé attended grades 11 and 12, now has an elite-athlete program thanks in part to Salé s success as a teen Olympian. But this is different—Pelletier, an avid golfer, got a taste of it in Vancouver when, two days after finishing the competition, he had to cancel a long-held tee time because he and Salé had to meet with a sponsor. And they are about to embark on a lucrative U.S. tour as the new world champions. They both claim that learning from past mistakes, and following the examples of others in the sport, will help them get used to the new demands. “People suddenly treat you differently,” Salé says. “I used to watch Elvis or Michelle Kwan and wonder why they handled people the way they did. Now, I am beginning to understand it. You have to protect yourself.” All of that is peripheral to their main task in the months to come: choosing new music and devising, practising and polishing new routines to perform in Salt Lake City. Vancouver will be a tough act to follow, and skating is full of stories about successful competitors who changed programs and For links saw their fortunes plummet. But Salé and Pelletier

have enormous confidence in Nichols choreographic genius, and they say there’s just as much risk skating a tired old program as one that’s new and untried. And now, only in year three of their partnership, they have history on their side. “A lot of people wondered if we could ever top Love Story,” Salé said. “Well, we did.”

Brenda Branswell

Susan McClelland