by Anne Calder | Photos by Robin Ritoss
Karina Manta & Joe Johnson formed a new partnership in April 2014.
They recently reflected on their skating journeys and current competitive experiences.
Manta was five years old when she slipped on her first pair of skates and immediately begged for lessons. She soon realized she had discovered a hiding place from the hot Chandler, Arizona sun.
“There are actually more ice rinks than you would expect in warm Arizona,” Manta said. “They are definitely a great place to keep cool during the unbearable summer months.”
Johnson, on the other hand, was raised in the colder temperatures of Colorado, where he was attracted to the sport while watching the 2002 Olympics. However, it was not the jumps, spins and footwork that caught his eye. Instead, he was fascinated with all the stuffed animals thrown on the ice.
“I decided right then I’d like to do a sport where you got toys thrown at you when you were finished exercising,” Johnson said.
They each skated non-competitive singles into their mid teens until circumstances changed the direction of their skating.
The Phoenix area had no ice dance coaches until Naomi Lang (five-time US National Ice Dance champion with Peter Tchernyshev) and Mark Fitzgerald moved to Gilbert, Arizona and began coaching at Manta’s rink.
“They held small intro-to-ice-dancing classes on Saturdays, and I immediately knew it was what I wanted to be doing,” Manta explained. “Ice dancing took my love of off-ice dance (ballet) and combined it with everything I enjoyed about skating. They are both such detail-oriented tasks.”
Johnson never had much success or desire to compete in singles, but did skate recreationally until he was 15. He was on the verge of being done with skating when he was asked to try ice dance.
“I fell instantly in love with it, primarily because it didn’t involve jumping, but also the focus on technique, the hours spent on perfecting details, the joy of consistency. I love those things,” revealed Johnson.
Manta, coached by Lang, won the 2012 Novice Solo Ice Dance Championship. Since she needed a partner to pursue the discipline further, she moved to Colorado Springs and teamed up with Jonathan Thompson. The duo competed at the novice level under the direction of Tiffany Hyden-Dombeck.
Manta enrolled in a Colorado Springs public school, but later switched to the Chandler (AZ) Online Academy where she graduated from Hamilton H.S. in 2014 with a grade point of 4.48.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s ice dance journey had begun in Denver and continued to Colorado Springs. His partnership with Tory Patsis resulted in the 2013 US Novice silver medal and an assignment to Team USA.
In 2014, Manta & Thompson dissolved their partnership and she moved back home to Arizona. A few weeks later, Johnson found himself in a similar situation.
“It was really serendipitous,” Johnson explained. “Both of us were just out of partnerships, and we both had been training in Colorado Springs, so we decided to get together for a tryout.”
“We only skated together for a few days, but it felt like an ideal match,” Manta added.
The new partners trained on the junior level with Patti Gottwein in Colorado Springs. The team qualified for the 2015 US Nationals in Greensboro, NC with a third place finish at the Midwestern Sectionals. After the Championships, they moved up to the senior division.
Christopher Dean and Tom Dickson choreographed Manta & Johnson’s 2015-2016 programs. The duo commented on the challenges they faced perfecting the elements.
“Christopher worked with us on the free,” Manta said. “It’s a (Scott Joplin) ragtime number, and while it’s a blast, it took a long time to master the many little tricks Chris peppers in. We worked on the straight-line lunge lift alone for three months before we got it. The program is full of complex transitions, but Chris is an excellent motivator. Working with him is often a physical challenge, but fun.”
“Tom Dickson did our short dance – a creepy interpretation of Prokofiev’s Cinderella,” Johnson added. “His process is different, but no less fun. He has an amazing eye for detail and line.”
The team calls Dean and Dickson geniuses.
Their first competition came quickly – the 2015 Lake Placid Championships in mid July. They placed first in the short dance and second in the free.
“(It was) so unreal,” Johnson said. “We knew the jump to senior was going to be tough, so we worked unbelievably hard in the months between Nationals and our summer competitions. We never imagined how far we’d come in that short time. Medaling at our first assignment felt beyond exhilarating.”
In mid October, the team traveled to Barrie, Ontario Canada to compete in the Autumn Classic International and placed third.
“It all just came together so wonderfully, and I was so proud of what we’d done,” Johnson said. ”Receiving that medal in Canada has been my favorite moment.”
In addition to skating, the team blogged for ice-dance.com during the Classic.
In November, Manta and Johnson placed first in the Pacific Coast Sectionals and qualified for the 2016 US National Championships in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Since then, they’ve been working on line quality and flow throughout their programs and upped their time with the rink-side ballet instructor.
“At this point in the season, most of the focus is on polishing,” Manta noted. “Very few changes were made – more like minor tweaks. We’re excited for everyone to see what we’ve been working on; we just want to show growth and quality.”
The team trains four hours on-ice in the morning, followed by afternoon dance classes, workouts in the gym with their trainer, yoga and Gyrotonics. The high elevation in Colorado Springs has helped build their stamina.
“Whenever I go to sea level, I feel like I could run a marathon,” Manta said.
“It’s always a welcome shock competing at sea level and feeling how much oxygen we have getting near the end of a program,” Johnson added.
Manta & Johnson are the only ice dancers currently training with their coaches and choreographers. The advantage is they get more instruction, focus, and support. On the other hand, they don’t have the day-to-day opportunity to learn by watching other teams on the ice. The partners have adjusted to the situation.
“We try to absorb as much as we can when we do get the opportunity, and we are always on YouTube looking up performances with characteristics for emulating,” Manta said.
It’s not all work and no play for this duo.
“I really enjoy music,” Johnson said. “I play the piano. Joshua Farris lives in the house and is an incredible guitarist and singer. We bounce melodies off each other or learn songs together.”
Manta shared one of Johnson’s other talents.
“What you might not know about Joe, is that he’s basically a professional Pokémon trainer. His knowledge of Pokémon is unbelievable. There are hundreds of them, and he could probably name them all.”
Johnson countered with a tidbit about Manta.
“Karina enjoys rapping, and she’s really very good at it. The girl looks like a porcelain doll, but she has mad flow. She can never know I admitted this.”
Manta also attends UCCS part time, where she hasn’t declared a major, but is exploring the field of journalism.
“I love writing, and I actually got almost as excited when ice-dance.com asked us to blog from Autumn Classic, as I did when we got assigned to the competition,” Manta confided. “The opportunity to write as well as skate was unbelievably exciting for me.”
Manta and Johnson are very supportive of one another.
“We just get along and communicate very well, and that’s a happy thing to feel about someone you spend 25+ hours a week with,” Johnson said.
Like all athletes, Manta and Johnson have set immediate and long-term goals.
The team wants to show an improvement in the components side of their skating at their senior Nationals’ debut in mid January.
“We’d love to improve enough to be assigned a Grand Prix, and continue to prove ourselves as contenders on the senior international circuit,” Manta said.
“We’d like to have a positive lasting impact on the sport,” Johnson added. “Ice dancing has changed our lives, and we’d love to contribute significantly to it someway.”