by Jacquelyn Thayer | photo by Danielle Earl

When a career-spanning nine-year partnership with Hannah Whitley concluded last December, Canadian junior ice dancer Elliott Graham embarked upon his first real partner search. And after one unsuccessful tryout, coach David Islam alerted Graham to some key news: with the end of the 2016-17 season, novice couple Olivia McIsaac and Liam MacDonald had split.

McIsaac, previously based at the Burlington Skating Centre, was familiar with the Mariposa School of Skating where Graham trained – Mariposa coach Kelly Johnson had choreographed a free dance for her and MacDonald, and they had worked there periodically. A tryout was proposed, and the decision to pair up came soon after.

In preparation for their debut season, the team traveled to York, Ontario, for a week to work with Shae Zukiwsky on a free dance to Ray LaMontagne’s “Let It Be Me” and Serena Ryder’s “What I Wouldn’t Do.”

“We originally wanted a bit more of a contemporary piece,” McIsaac said, “and we’ve both worked with Shae before a little bit, so when we gave him our ideas, he told us that he already had a vision for us, which was this country-waltz kind of free dance. We were a little bit shocked—it wasn’t really what we were going for, but we really liked it and it was really different.”

While Zukiwsky was set on the Serena Ryder selection, he provided the team with a few options for the slower cut, which they chose with Johnson. And as the program prepares to segue from slower track to up-tempo, it’s illustrated by one particularly packed sequence that moves from straight line lift into an interdependent transition into spin and exit—a challenge the team welcomed.

“At the beginning, because the music was so fast—big with full speed—we had to start off really slow,” Graham said.

“Like walking through it a lot before we could fully skate it,” McIsaac added. “But we knew it was good, because then we could grow into it. We couldn’t do it right away, so we knew that it was good for us.”

Their rhumba/Cha Cha Congelado short dance to Latin staple “Quizás Quizás Quizás” and Lou Bega’s “Angelina” was an in-house team effort, with Johnson responsible for technical construction and former ice dancer Alexandra Paul offering rhumba touches and performance nuance.

Indeed, in working at Mariposa, the two have enjoyed guidance from alumni Paul and partner Mitch Islam. They are among the skaters, along with Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir, that the new team most admires. Paul & Islam were present for McIsaac & Graham’s first tryout, and remained a prominent presence over the off-season. This fall, Islam is continuing to coach while Paul has recently entered law school. 

“It’s really nice having them teach us—those were some of our most productive lessons, I think,” Graham said.

“I really like working with Mitch and Alex because they can do things with us and feel what we’re doing,” McIsaac said. “They also have so much experience that they can relate to us, which is really helpful sometimes. Like if we’re struggling with something, they can kind of tell us how they got through something like that.”

For McIsaac, the new partnership could have proven daunting. While she’s tackling her first season competing at the junior level, Graham is a relative veteran, with three seasons of international competition under his belt.

“I think what came really easily to me was that I was really motivated,” McIsaac said. “All the coaches that we work with, and Elliott, were really helpful helping me step into junior, I feel. But it was a little bit of a challenge with all the pressure that we had on us, because Elliott and Hannah were very successful, so I wanted to be able to skate to that. I never really had pressure before – I skated just because I loved it. I never really had high expectations, and that kind of changed.”

And the team has gelled quickly, showing clean skates and solid results across their first three competitions—all part of Skate Canada’s Summer Series—and earning an assignment to the sixth Junior Grand Prix event.

“I think we work together really well together, even from the start,” Graham said. “Like Minto, we just thought about working together, keeping everything the same, not changing anything, doing what we do every day.”

After top-five finishes at Minto Summer Skate and the Québec Summer Championships, they finished first in the free dance at Skate Ontario SummerSkate, breaking the 70-point barrier, and took silver overall.

“I thought our summer went really well,” Graham said. “We were really consistent. Every skate was getting better and better, and going into our Junior Grand Prix, we just have to keep it the same and just keep focusing on getting better.”

“We were really happy that we got a lot of feedback,” McIsaac said about the summer competitions. “We were able to use that to try out some new things, like a couple of little things between competitions, and see what worked best.”

But while good performances in those club events secured their spot for JGP Gdansk, the process began back in the spring, when the team was “long-listed” for an international assignment after federation monitoring.

“We filled out all the forms and everything, and you basically have to compete and if it goes well, then you have a good chance,” McIsaac said. “It was really motivating.”

“We didn’t know, really, where we were at in the summer. When we were at Minto, it was just like ‘do our best,’ you know?” Graham said.

“Just show everybody that we can prove to them that we’re still getting better,” McIsaac added.

The environment at Mariposa fosters such a spirit. The team trains alongside two other Canadian junior couples, Keelee Gingrich & Parker Brown and Kaitlyn Chubb & Alex Gunther—the former just in their second season together, the latter newcomers to the rink. The set-up encourages friendly competition.

“Like trying to be better than one another, but still supporting each other when we’re getting there,” Graham said.

With McIsaac still a student, studying on a co-op basis through Innisdale Secondary School, the team trains on an early schedule, typically 7:30 to 11 AM. They tackle separate off-ice workouts, and Graham coaches while McIsaac attends class.

And off-ice dance, of course, forms another pillar of training, particularly in the off-season. This summer, Paul, who has a strong background in studio dance, taught ballet and contemporary for the Mariposa skaters.

“That was really helpful, because she can teach us things that we can apply on the ice,” McIsaac said.

Life off the ice presented the team’s major early challenge: McIsaac is boarding with Graham’s family, requiring a little more togetherness than many new teams have to face.

“I felt like I was always invading because most people don’t spend that much time together,” McIsaac said. “So it’s kind of like…”

“Having the space,” Graham interjected.

“Like a personal life outside of skating because we’re driving everywhere together and then getting home and still being together,” McIsaac continued. After some months, they conclude that they are getting used to the arrangement.

And when not training, the two still find active ways to keep busy. Graham enjoys yoga classes, while McIsaac looks forward to snowboarding after the season’s end.

With a JGP assignment secured, the team’s remaining season goals? A podium spot at Nationals and, along the way, regular improvement.

“Keep building and building, and then hopefully we’ll get there,” Graham said.