by Francesca | Photos by Robin Ritoss

Francesca caught up with Japan’s Misato Komatsubara & Tim Koleto a few weeks ago, just before they started their Grand Prix season. The interview is split into two parts, with the second piece focused on fan-submitted questions.  Special thanks to Misato & Tim for taking the time to chat with us and also for helping with the question translations.  

Let’s start from the beginning. How did each of you start to skate, and got into ice dancing?

MK: I was doing baseball when I was young, but I was crying everyday because I didn’t want to do it, so my mom asked my elementary school teacher what I could be good at. The teacher was also teaching Emi Hirai, so she suggested figure skating to my mom. I was 9, and I fell in love with skating immediately. As a singles skater, I had all the triple jumps, but then I had an injury when I was 15, so the federation coach who was teaching me since I was young suggested ice dancing if I wanted to go to Junior Worlds.

TK: I have some skating in my family because my grandmother used to skate in a show called the Hollywood Ice Revue with Sonja Henie. My parents didn’t skate, but I’m the youngest of four kids and all four of us skated. I honestly started because I was really bored at the ice rink. I was playing all the arcade games, so eventually out of necessity they put me on the ice too. I was lucky to grow up in Colorado, one of the big singles skating centers in the US, but I had some injuries working on the triple axel and it came to a point that it was either quit or surgery or something else. I was contacted to try ice dance, so after three weeks in Michigan I decided to switch. It was everything that I liked about skating: performance, skating skills and none of the jumps that were hard on my body. I understood that even without my injury I had only reached triple axel, but the other guys were already doing multiple quads. I had a long way to go, so I’m really glad I took the opportunity to start ice dance.

Both of you had other partners and coaches before your current partnership. What did you learn from each of them?

MK: I had two Japanese partners and one Italian partner. They were necessary to have in my life to be a better skater and person, I don’t throw away my experience, it took me where I am today and I’m thankful. I was a closed and shy person, which in my opinion is not good as an ice dancer to perform and bring other people into the program. Barbara [Fusar-Poli] and Stefano [Caruso] changed that and made me stronger also in the mindset.

TK: I was lucky to have many opportunities very quickly skating with Yura Min. We had a nice partnership for the time we spent together. I didn’t grow up in ice dance, so I had to learn a lot of really difficult lessons very quickly. I spent three years in Igor’s [Shpilband] school, and I was able to work with very high-level coaches from the beginning, so that helped me to get a lot of information quickly. Then, spending some time in Italy together with Misato was really great because I learned from Barbara and Stefano to be committed and decide clearly my intention in performance, to attack things, as encapsulated by the Italian word “convinto”. I’m a thinker by nature and I don’t always take initiative quickly, so that time was invaluable.

You moved to Gadbois last spring. Why did you choose this skating school, and what did you hope to find here? What have been the biggest changes in your training?

MK: Since Gabby [Papadakis] and Guillaume [Cizeron] at the 2014 European Championships, there is a new wave in ice dance, a new way to skate and to build the programs, and we were wondering what was the secret. Last year at NHK Trophy, for the first time we were competing against Tessa [Virtue] and Scott [Moir] and other teams from Gadbois and I was really surprised by how they acted and behaved on and off the ice. They were nice to me and to each other.  It’s not like a long time ago when people were being mean to their competitors, instead this makes the competition better for everybody, so I wanted to be part of it.

TK: That moment was really eye-opening, to see how, whether I had met them just now or I had known them as long as I knew Zach [Donohue], they were so respectful. Tessa and Scott skated after us at practice and I remember Tessa passed me by and winked at me and wished me a good day. It made me think that they must be doing something special at this school to create athletes that not only get the job done, but find the time to inspire others in such a direct way. As we will be going back and forth between Montreal and Japan for me to obtain my nationality in the coming months, we were also very fortunate that our coach in Japan, Rie Arikawa, was a student of Romain [Hagenauer] in Lyon when she was a skater, so we have this connection between the coaches.

MK: The biggest change in our training is that here we have a lot of coaches and they support each other and respect each other. They’re not telling us what to do, but showing us how to behave, this makes me feel everyday that I want to be better.

TK: I feel very trusted. They give us the corrections and the work to do and they just trust that we’re going to do it. It feels like adults teaching adults, allowing us to have some space, there is a lot of faith between everyone that we will all do our part.

This will be your third season together. How has your partnership evolved up to this point? Where do you feel like you have grown, and what are you still working on?

MK: Coming here was a big change from where we teamed up.  It was a big decision also for our Japanese coach and parents, and thinking about our goals made us stronger.

TK: I think we are able to bring more on the ice our communication and intimacy.  Before we were trying to be one way at home and one way on the ice, and now we try to blend them more, allowing our personal authenticity into our sports life. I hope this connection will be more visible.

Tell us about your program choices for this year [“El Sol Sueno” and “Sueno de Barrilete” for the RD, “Une histoire d’amour” for the FD]. How did you pick the music, and what’s the story behind the programs?

TK: From the beginning, we wanted to do a classic tango, but think bigger to get something that no one had used. We thought about the piece “Loco” that Shoma [Uno] has used [2016-2017 FS] from an album that is an homage to Astor Piazzolla, but it has no obvious rhythm, so Marie [Dubreuil] and Romain suggested that we check the rest of the album and that’s how we found the piece we are skating to. For the free dance, we have a Spotify playlist where we have music ideas for what we’re hoping to skate to eventually, probably many more than what we can ever do. Since we started together, we had the English version of our current free dance music, but Marie wanted more time to listen to different things and we wanted to let the coach see us, see a style for us. After a few weeks she brought us the French version so we said yes. For the middle piece, we had a local composer named Karl Hugo, who works with Hugo Chouinard, put it together: it’s the same rhythm and music as the movie but with a slightly more modern orchestration.

Single skating is extremely popular in Japan, but the last few years have seen the rise of ice dance in Asia. How does it feel to be part of this change?

MK: It’s the 10th year that I’m doing ice dance, at the beginning no one cared about it in Japan, it was hard to find ice time, but coaches and the Federation and the single skaters took care of us. We have to thank my coaches, Cathy [Reed] and Chris [Reed], Emi [Hirai] and Marien [De la Asuncion], then Kana [Muramoto] and Chris [Reed], who really built it up. Even now they’re still coaching and trying to build an ice dance program. We also want to push this wave more and more. It’s really good that we had the Challenger Series in Asia which never happened before, so I hope that will continue for next year too.

TK: That competition was a really special moment just to see the different team jackets from places you didn’t even know they were skaters, like Cambodia or Macedonia. We need to create opportunities, but of course that takes money and time. We do feel like it’s the beginning of a new wave.

IDC: Do you think the team event at the Olympics had an influence?

TK: Absolutely. I don’t know if it’s showing yet, but I think it’s becoming more of a focus now that we are approaching the third Olympic Games with the Team Event included. It already seems like the federations are paying more attention. And in Japan, the federation has an ice dance camp with tryouts now. We are excited that now we’ll be spending more time in Japan this next year and we have more time to help and show what ice dance is to the youngest skaters.

What are your best competition memories together, of the fans, cities, atmosphere, teammates, etc.? Any stories or adventures to share?

MK: For me, the very first competition together at sectionals. Because I was competing for Italy before, my parents had never come to see a competition, especially for my dad it had been more than 10 years since he’d seen a competition live. We had a great skate in the free dance and received a standing ovation, so my dad cried. It’s a great memory.

TK: I really enjoyed Mentor Torun Cup in Poland.  I remember the atmosphere walking around the Old Town with fond memories together. One time I forgot my passport and missed the flight, so I sent Misato alone and I went home to try to find it. I remembered I had put the passport on the couch next to my other things to make sure that I didn’t forget it, and then when I picked up the cushion to search, it fell in the metal hinge but I couldn’t see it. Now, I check repeatedly every time I fly to be sure I have it on me. It’s become a running joke of sorts.

MK: I had to do practice alone, but I received claps from everybody.

To which current or past couples do you look at for inspiration?

TK: If I want to be inspired, I watch [Susanna] Rahkamo and [Petri] Kokko. I really love their skating. I like the weirder stuff from the 80s and 90s, particularly watching it through the lens of the 2010’s. I also really respect and admire Piper [Gilles] and Paul [Poirier].  Every year, they try to do something new.  They find some ways to use the rules to create something interesting; they also have interesting costumes and concepts. As far as inspirational moments, there are so many competitions of Tessa and Scott where you can see their incredible performances.

MK: Rakhamo and Kokko, Tessa and Scott, the Duchesnays for their interesting new things, of course Torvill and Dean, Marie France and Patch, and pair skaters Gordeeva and Grinkov, who were doing simple movements, but really together.  That’s not possible without lots of practice. I also watch a Russian reality-competition TV show called Ice Age where every time they have new stories, costumes, music.

What are your favorite programs from other skaters in the last few seasons?

TK: I have two that immediately come to mind. The first is “To Build a Home” by Gabriella and Guillaume. I was lucky to be given tickets to go see the Boston Worlds.  It was the first time I saw them skating live and I have trouble describing what it felt like to watch that. It was so impactful, I don’t remember even breathing.  They had such command over the audience.  It was like nothing I’ve ever felt before. I also really loved “Send in the Clowns” by Yuna Kim. I was competing for Korea, so I saw it at Nationals.  It’s created perfectly for her and it highlights all her best qualities.  That lovely spiral, she was able to put meaning in every little movement, and that green dress.

MK: For me, the Mozart program from Gabby and Guillaume. When I saw it at Europeans I thought it was a completely different type of ice dancing. Mao’s Sochi program was everything. I love it, especially the step sequence. Sometimes when ice dancers watch the skating skills of single skaters, during the step sequence we can find something to criticize, but she gets every turn right on the music.

What’s your favorite thing about your partner?

Both: uuuuuuh!

MK: He’s honest.  He’s not afraid to show what he feels.  He’s really funny sometimes.

TK: I change my mind a lot, so I love that she’s consistent.  She’s my rock and my foundation, she is sweet and compassionate, she teaches me that there’s so much value in a kind word, she has a warm spirit. I think we learned a lot from each other in the last 3 years.

MK: We are like a puzzle of each other.

What’s something people don’t know about your partner?

MK: He usually cries before competition because he feels grateful.  It’s funny to watch.

TK: I feel really grateful to be able to do what we do, I think it would be a shame to pass through life without noticing those things. Maybe I should tell about Misato’s eyebrows.  She recently got the microblading done, so she has much more time to enjoy her coffee in the morning.

MK: It’s always hard to do the eyebrows myself.  When I have good ones, I’m happy the whole day, but when they don’t look good I’m annoyed, but now it’s consistent.

TK: She also immediately falls asleep in front of a movie if she doesn’t like it, she has no control over it, so every time we watch a movie I’m checking her to see if she liked it or if she’s napping.

Both of you are very active on social media. How’s the relationship with your fans? Anything you’d like to tell them?

MK: I hope they can contact us without any worry, whenever they want.

TK: I just want to say thank you for all the notes, messages, and art they send us.  They make a difference on a rough day, and again thank you to everybody who gave to our crowdfunding, it helps way more than they know.

What do you like to do when you are not skating?

MK: Sleep. I also like window shopping on the internet.  I add things on my shopping cart and then I don’t have money so I delete it. I also like to search for art that inspires me. I have a friend here who is a street artist named Mirov. On weekends, I like to go around Montréal to search for street art. Also, every first Sunday of the month it’s free museum day here.

TK: I’m in the middle of writing my second novel. The first one is in my computer and it’s a disaster but I have some hope for this one. I’m about 85000 words in. I’ve always loved writing, I read the Lord of the Rings when I was 9.  I didn’t study in school for it, but I write from my soul. I hope this can be part of my life later.