I've recently had the honor and pleasure of conducting some really lovely interviews, and last week I sat down for a one-on-two chat with 2006 Olympic silver medalists Tanith Belbin & Ben Agosto before they led a skating clinic at the Simoni Arena in Cambridge. Read on for my interview, in which I talk with this personable duo about everything from competitions, to shows, to tips for skating safely with kids, to important advice for parents who are enrolling their kids in any types of lessons, to why Boston ranks among Tanith’s favorite cities. (Visit Pop Discourse for additional personal photos.)
Christine: Ben, I haven’t seen any recent public updates so I have to start by asking, where are you at with your back injury recovery?
Ben: My back is doing really well - it’s coming along incredibly! We’re pretty much back to full training – all the lifts, all the spins. We’re doing full run-throughs of our programs. The doctors are all really happy and we’re really happy that it’s been a constant progression forward…we’ve never been like go, go, go, and fall back…it’s been little baby steps forward. I think we’ve really been progressing the right way.
Christine: Since the injury prevented you from defending your title at Nationals, what are you doing to rev yourselves up and build momentum for World’s in a few weeks?
Tanith: Well it’s funny - we actually feel that this injury and setback has given us a drive that we maybe wouldn’t have had otherwise. We’ve been really driven this entire season with the move and taking new coaches for the first time in 10 years. And Ben’s recovery has been really phenomenal. The fact that we’ve come back as quickly as we have and are able to train now kind of even surprised us, as far as what we’re capable of and how much we want this. Now we believe more than even before that we can do really great performances at the World Championships. And I’ve used this analogy; that you hear people under extreme circumstances can do great things when faced with adversity. I think the depth of our struggle will reflect the height of our achievement.
Christine: And after your historic silver medal at the 2006 Olympics, what is your strategy for 2010? Is it even possible to think that far ahead yet?
Ben: It’s always in the back of our minds and it’s definitely part of our plan. It’s a two year plan; this is the year before and the next year is the Olympics. We’re definitely excited that we’re able to bring our training together and go into the World Championships and then continue to train for the Olympics.
At the 2006 Olympics (Photo credit: Belbin & Agosto website)
Christine: After talking to Kimmie Meissner about the challenges of adjusting to the current judging system I have a technical question. The former 6.0 system was very favorable for you - you own almost half of the 6.0s ever given out in ice dance at Nationals. I can see how the new judging system impacts elements such as jumps, but since jumps aren’t permitted in ice dancing, what have you found to be most challenging to adjust to with the current judging system?
Tanith: I don’t want to step out of line because I don’t have the same experience the singles skaters do, but I would venture to say it’s had an even greater impact on ice dancing. Only because ice dancing was always that form where it was really subjective but we were left to be really creative with our programs. Unlike single skaters where they have axel, salchow, toe, loop every year, we have to make up new elements every single year…new lifts, new spins. So there’s no standard elements, there’s nothing that’s a direct comparison. But the new judging system tries to create a system where the requirements and criteria that you need to obtain, let’s say, the highest level – Level 4 – you need to be in position A, B, or C. Which means that all teams are going to do lifts that look very similar. So it kind of made us all look the same and the judges would complain the first year: “I’ve seen too many of these horrible donut positions…be more creative.” So we tried [to adjust] but now the callers who decide and determine what level to give you can say, “I don’t think that’s a Level 4, I don’t think that’s a Level 3…”
Christine: So basically, if you try to experiment and be creative and the element is not in the protocol, you may get penalized for it.
Tanith: Exactly. And these days it seems like it’s all coming down to the technical score, and the callers can truly change the entire layout of the competition and placements, perhaps even more so than the judges can. A lot of the competitions this year - if you look at the protocol, the judges had an entirely different podium than the callers did. So as much as we want to reward technical ability and achievement, in dance particularly we want to reward creativity. It’s a struggle, and it’s frustrating. It’s really, truly frustrating, but at the same time, we want to win and we’ll do absolutely anything to win.
Ben: Yes, we’ll do A, B, or C. [laughs]
Christine: And you’ll do it beautifully!
Christine: You broke out on the ice dance scene together as young teenagers. From a parenting perspective I’m curious how your families helped you negotiate the success and pressure during those early years.
Ben: I know that – and I think I can speak for both of us – we would not be where we are without our families. Starting out together, I moved from Chicago, she moved from Montreal on our own to Detroit and our families couldn’t move with us because they had jobs and they had their lives. So initially it was a long distance support but then shortly after, her family moved to Detroit and my mom moved. Our families sacrificed more than we could ever imagine for us to be able to go and skate. They uprooted their homes and lived apart – my dad stayed in Chicago and my mom came to Detroit and my dad commuted on the weekends. So it was difficult for our families but they gave us the support we needed to be able to put everything into skating.
Christine: Actually, related to that…so much sacrifice is required to take a passion to a high level. Do you have any advice to share with parents of kids who are thinking about pursuing an interest competitively, whether it’s sports or music or whatever? What can parents do to help normalize the experience?
Tanith: From what I experienced the most important thing is to make sure that home is separate from everything else. Home is your kid’s safe place to go to where you don’t have to deal with the pressures of the sport or whatever else you are involved in. That was so important in my development and to be able to balance everything with the pressures we withstand in skating. Even at a very young age my mom was a skating coach and she had me on the ice when I was 2 and she was my coach until I was about 9 years old. And we ended up bickering as coach and student on the ice and then getting in the car and bickering all the way home, and bickering over dinner. And it would never stop and one day she realized she couldn’t be both. She had to be my mom so she wasn’t going to be coach, so she sent me off to a different coach and that worked better. But there has to be a separation, it’s just too much. I mean, anyone can relate – you have a work day and you want to come home and relax and feel calm and safe. And if you walk through the door and it’s, “How’s skating?” Just asking that question makes us feel like that’s more important than just “How are you?”
Ben: Or God forbid you didn’t do that jump so well.
Tanith: But I’m not even talking about coming down hard on skating. Even just saying, “How was skating? Did you have a good day skating?” When you skate every single day and you come home, it’s nice to feel like your parents are involved, but at the same time, that can’t define you. Especially in their eyes. Most importantly in their eyes. As professional skaters we identify so much of ourselves with skating but we want to make sure we don’t lose who Tanith and Ben are.
Christine: Today you’re doing a skating clinic here at Simoni Skating Arena in Cambridge. What is your favorite part about events like this, and working with kids?
Ben: Working with kids is so much fun because they’re so enthusiastic about everything. We pros are jaded and we don’t always enjoy being on the ice anymore [laughs]. But seriously, the kids just love it. They’re out there, they don’t care if they’re falling down, it’s great. They just want to have a good time and that harkens us back to when we were little and more things were just for fun. And it’s really refreshing. And to see how they are inspired by different things. Different kids respond to little things so differently.
Belbin & Agosto work with kids at the Simoni Skating Arena in Cambridge
Christine: Actually, until this year – when my daughter asked me to take her to a rink – I hadn’t been on skates for probably 20 years, so I’m basically working really hard just to stay upright! Do you have any advice for novice parents who are trying to help their kids learn to skate?
Tanith: The basic skills classes that US Figure Skating has created - where you graduate through levels of skating - are great, but before that, if you just want to get them interested in skating, definitely going in groups helps. But before I get to anything, can I just say that in all the public sessions I’ve witnessed, only 10% wear helmets. And I mean the parents! I know you’re an adult and it feels goofy but you see parents out there who can barely stand holding on to their children – if the parent falls and brings their child down there’s so much that can go wrong. So please be careful out there!
Christine: So, helmets for everyone.
Tanith: Yes, helmets for everyone! And then you can get those little walkers that you can put on the ice for kids to lean on…there are a lot of different types of supports. But kids go at things with blind eyes. They just want to have fun and they have so much courage and are so brave and they just go for it. But I’ve seen a few too many head into those boards without any intention of stopping.
Ben: That’s how I used to stop when I was little! I’d just skate and think, “Well I gotta stop some time. Here we go!” Oh, the other thing I wanted to say about kids… they’re just not afraid of anything. Even though I’ve been a skater for 21 years, if something feels a little weird, sometimes I’m hesitant to try it, thinking, “I’m going to hurt myself!” But kids just try anything. So it’s something parents can remember - their kids are not going to have as hard a time as they are necessarily. Kids are kids and you put them on the ice and they’ll probably get going pretty well, whereas adults may take longer.
Tanith: Also, I took Tiny Tots – a precursor to basic skills – in Canada and I think you have to be 3. And I thought it was great because basically all they did was dump out this giant bin of Nerf-type foam balls and toys. And that was the best way to get us skating. So you have a giant puppet, chase the puppet! Going around in circles 100 times may not be that interesting but take a magic marker and draw a bunny on the ice and then say, “Trace the bunny with your skates” or “Jump over the ball” or “Go down on all fours and get the ball then learn how to get back up.” All of these things are good exercises for kids. It’s very easy to, well, trick them into developing their skills on the ice.
Christine: In April you’re slated to make 5 appearances as guest performers with Smucker’s Stars on Ice, including the Boston show on April 5. Tell me about your favorite elements of being on tour and what you’re bringing to the tour this year.
Tanith: As far as the skating goes, after we talked about the issues we have with the judging system, then we can just forget about them and go on tour and do what we want. We can do all the lifts we created and we can skate to different music – maybe modern music that wouldn’t be appreciated in competition. I think this year we’ll be doing a program to Bleeding Love by Leona Lewis with modern choreography - we worked with an offsite choreographer. It’s more suited to a show format, it’s a lot more fun for us, and the audience is there to have fun. They’re not pulling for someone to win or lose.
Christine: Actually, since you mentioned music, Ben, I understand that you are a guitar player, a blues fan. Does that musical inclination ever influences choices for show programs?
Ben: Well, it’s such a big decision between the coach and Tanith and myself. So there’s definitely music I wish we could skate to but it’s not necessarily appropriate to what we’re going to do. I will definitely bring my guitar on tour, but that’s more my hobby.
Christine: I talked to Kimmie Meissner about the star struck factor at shows and skating mentorships. You both are now veterans in the business but is there anyone who comes to mind that has served as mentors?
Tanith: More so than being star struck, I really wanted to absorb what others have experienced. If there’s one think that we’ve learned it’s that you can’t get to the top unless you’re had a range of experiences. You have to have a great skate and a terrible skate and an injury and a loss. You have to experience a lot of things and put it all together to develop the mind of a champion. Particularly those skaters who have won multiple world championships, that’s a true testament. Learning from them and even just seeing how they warm up and prepare. For me personally, growing up in Canada I was a big fan of Shae-Lynn Bourne and being able to tour with her was a real treat. Each generation will go through a different world of skating and you want to be able to gather all the information through the years.
Ben: I had the great pleasure of rooming on tour with Gwendal Peizerat. He was such a funny guy and we became great friends and I had my guitar and he was amazed and wanted me to teach him. So he got a guitar and picked it up so quickly. Like Tanith was saying, he has so much experience. It’s more about mental experience not about physical experience – it’s more about how to become strong enough mentally to handle the different pressures and falls and things. That’s really been great.
Tanith: And you can’t learn that from watching. You have to have a conversation – this entire game is so mental, it’s so in your head. I mean, Shae-Lynn is one of the most beautiful, confident ice dancers I’ve ever seen - she just makes everyone want to watch her. And I was talking to her one day, saying, “It’s so difficult. My whole career I’ve always heard that technically I’m the weak link in our team and that I’m hold [Ben] back. That I might be nice to look at in my costumes but I’m not strong enough.” And Shae-Lynn said, “I’ve heard that my entire career.” And I was flabbergasted. To me, she was the star – I mean her partner Victor was amazing, but she was the star. She stood out and to hear her say that she was insecure and had the same feedback meant that I could get over that too just like she did.
Christine: Tanith, I was thrilled to see on your and Ben’s website that Boston is among your favorite cities. What puts it in the category for you, along with L.A., New York, Atlanta, Montreal, Paris, and Las Vegas?
Tanith: I kind of fell in love with Boston back when we were touring on another show years ago. We used to come here all the time. And I never really knew that much about Boston and then going up and down Newbury Street I kind of got exposed to it a little bit. And then I had the pleasure of making a few friends here who have taken me around to different areas. I was actually just here Valentine’s Day weekend to visit friends and we were walking her dog through Boston Common and it was just really fun. They live in Newton so I was a little removed [from the city] but it was really cute. And I just like the people. We’ve lived in a lot of places now and have gotten the feel for different cities and you can really, really tell when there’s a sense of community, and pride, and a friendly vibe. And Boston is one of those places!
Christine: Well that is fantastic to hear! Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me today. Is there anything else you want me to know or report on, be it about the Olympics, Stars on Ice, or anything else?
Tanith: I just think it would be great for everyone to come out and see Stars. We’re on and Evan’s on and Kimmie’s on and to see the mixture of the amateurs and the pros…it’s so wonderful.
I shot images 1 and 4 at Simoni Skating Arena. You can check out additional personal photos at Pop Discourse.