Article & photos by Melanie Hoyt

Madeline Edwards & ZhaoKai Pang have spent their partnership on the path toward greatness. At 17 and 18 years old, respectively, they have already carved a place for themselves in Canadian ice dance history. They are the only team to have won national titles at the juvenile, pre-novice, novice, and junior levels, and they came close to accomplishing this feat in consecutive years.

Edwards & Pang have always been in the spotlight and have handled the pressure well, with only a few setbacks in the span of their partnership, now approaching six years. They performed in galas at the 2009 Four Continents Championships and the 2010 Olympic Winter Games, showing exceptional musicality for their ages. They can count the times that they have really messed up in competition on one hand. And in a discipline where longevity matters but is hard to grasp in the early years of a career, they have shown that they are in this together for the long haul.

2013edwardspang-2565Heading into this season as the reigning Canadian junior champions, they have high expectations for themselves. The team will make their international début this season at the Junior Grand Prix (JGP) Mexico Cup in Mexico City. Last year on the JGP Series, they won a pair of bronze medals. The highest-ranked Canadian team in the standings, Edwards & Pang were second alternates to the JGP Final, and this year, they are aiming to earn a spot outright.

At the first event of the 2012 Junior Grand Prix season, they won their first JGP medal at high altitude in Courchevel, France. This year, Edwards & Pang kick off their JGP season at the series’ second event — Mexico Cup — held in Mexico City’s 7,300+ feet altitude.

“It’s higher [than Courchevel], so we’ll work twice as hard,” Edwards said with a laugh. “I think a lot of competing at altitude is preparation and training.”

“We’re really happy with how everything is going,” Pang said after they won both of their events at the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships a month ago. “No major changes.”

The duo is so bright and confident about their chances this year that it is easy to forget their last international competitive outing. At the World Junior Championships last March, Edwards & Pang were sixth heading into the free dance, within striking distance of the podium. They had generated a fair amount of buzz with their strong practices and difficult programs. Disaster struck in the second half of their free dance, though, with falls on two of the lifts; they dropped to 12th place.

“It was a learning experience,” Pang said, after a brief pause. “We didn’t really forget about it. We took it as just another step; obviously, we had to learn something from it. If that happened and we didn’t learn anything from it, then it was a disaster.”

“We had a couple more days in Italy after it, so we had some closure from it,” Edwards said. “That hadn’t really happened to us before, and it happens to everyone. We came back determined for sure, and in the end, it worked out okay.”

The topic of Junior Worlds is not an easy one for them to discuss, but they are not playing the blame game. In talking about the event—and about all of their skating—both Edwards and Pang consistently use the pronoun “we,” instead of dwelling on each person’s individual effort. The partners are just as close as ever and are committed to improving together. They used the off-season to improve their strength and conditioning and they have not shied away from difficult lifts. They have returned with a renewed determination to prove themselves.

“We took some things away from it (Junior Worlds),” Pang said, “like how we prepare for competition and how we feel going into each competition.”

“We’re trying to start this season off with pushing our boundaries and taking a little bit more risk in our programs,” Edwards said.

Edwards & Pang are always quick to credit their training environment for their success. This year, their rink saw many changes as partnerships ended and new teams formed. Coaches Megan Wing & Aaron Lowe now have seven teams training at the junior level, and four of them have received JGP assignments.

“All the new teams are super eager to get started and go to work, so we ride off of their energy,” Pang said. “We’ve never had problems motivating ourselves, but it’s easier to train in an environment like this.”

2013edwardspang-0057“Everyone that’s there wants to be there,” Edwards said, “and everyone is really supportive of each other. We all learn from each other, too.”

This year presents a new set of challenges, as Skate Canada’s regulations require national champions to move up to the next level. In singles and pairs, this means adding 30 seconds to the free skate come Nationals in January, but in dance, this requires a completely different short dance pattern as well as a longer free dance.

“We choreographed our programs for senior, and we started working on the Finnstep and our extra lift for the free dance,” Pang said, “but lately we’ve been focusing more on junior programs.”

The training is tough, but their coaches have experience with managing the run-throughs of the different programs. Two years ago, training mates Nicole Orford & Thomas Williams were in the same boat. Edwards & Pang will intersperse junior and senior programs throughout the year, although the focus will change depending on the upcoming competition.

“One time this summer, Aaron [Lowe] just randomly told us to do a senior short dance, and we were like, ‘What?! We already did two junior ones,'” Edwards explained.

In other countries, junior champions can stay at the same level domestically if they are not ready to move to the senior level internationally. Russian and American teams have employed this strategy in the past few years, en route to medaling at Junior Worlds. But even if they had the option of hanging back, Edwards & Pang feel like they are ready to skate with the big kids in January.

“We wanted to move up anyway,” Pang said. “We’re lucky that the Quickstep and the Finnstep are similar. It’s just a slight tempo change. The patterns are similar in length. It worked out pretty well.”

“The Quickstep is easier, but the Finnstep is just so dance-y,” Edwards said. “To get the Finnstep in unison at the beginning feels like an impossible task, but I think we like both dances now. It [the Finnstep] is fun and crowd-pleasing.”

Their lightness on the ice translates well to the rhythms of this season’s short dance. Set to music from “Anything Goes,” their effervescent energy suits their program well. Edwards used to easily outshine Pang in bubbly programs like this one, but he has worked hard to improve his expression in the past few seasons and fits beautifully next to his partner.

In the free dance, Edwards & Pang will take on the popular soundtrack from “Les Misérables,” which draws a parallel to last season, when they used “The Artist.” They say that it is only a coincidence that they are using music from top movies two seasons in a row, though.

“[‘Les Mis’] has been a piece of music that we’ve both liked for a while,” Pang said. “We have had it in the back of our minds and this year, we are trying to push our maturity, so we want to have a piece that we can really grow into.”

“We played around with a lot of different ideas,” Edwards added, “but we kept coming back to this one this year.”

Just as they delved deep into the story last year to make their version of “The Artist” special, they hope that their “Les Mis” will stand out among the others. In particular, they are using “Master of the House” in the middle of their program, which is a charming song, but not one often used in skating programs.

“I think there are a lot of different takes and different ways you can go with ‘Les Mis’,” Edwards said. “With ours, specifically, we wanted to focus not only on the relationship between Cosette and Marius, but also hope for France and the root of the story.”

The duo will be making their senior-level Canadian Championships début at an Olympic qualifier, which certainly changes the feel of the event. Die-hard skating fans in Canada already know about the promising juniors on the horizon. The more casual Olympic-year fans, however, might get their first glimpse of Edwards & Pang during the broadcast of the senior free dance, which will likely have a prime television spot due to the hype surrounding Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir’s drive for a second Olympic gold.

“I think it’s actually a good thing because we get to see what that’s like without having that pressure,” Edwards said. “It takes a little bit of pressure off of us, and it will be a good year to learn.”

“Not only are we going to be skating with the best in Canada, we’re going to be skating with the best in Canada at their best,” Pang said.

As for the Olympic race, Pang’s quick wit emerged as he contemplated their chances.

“Dark horse,” he said.

His partner chimed in with, “Yep, that third spot,” before both laughed off the idea.

Stranger things have happened in skating, but for now, Edwards & Pang have more pressing goals at the junior level. Their bid for a berth to the JGP Final begins on Thursday with the short dance in Mexico City.