by Melanie Hoyt | Photos by Robin Ritoss
Yura Min & Timothy Koleto joked about forming a dance partnership for a couple of years before they actually teamed up. Koleto wasn’t even an ice dancer when the joke started in early 2011, and Min had another partner. But Min & Koleto got along well and shared an interest in Korean culture, and they continued laughing about the idea whenever their paths crossed.
Two years after they met, Koleto, a two-time national competitor in the junior men’s division, was trying to regain his competitive form after a pair of devastating injuries. Unable to jump yet, he was focusing on skating skills for a while, dabbling in the type of skating needed for ice dance. He had also enjoyed working on the finer points of skating, thanks to his past work with Tom Dickson. Min was training in Michigan, and Koleto was in Colorado Springs, but she suggested a tryout—for real, this time.
They took a week to see how things felt. A month later, Koleto moved to Michigan, and the pair has not looked back.
“Not many people move from senior men to senior ice dance at 21 years old with no prior experience,” Koleto said, “but I am not intimidated by the challenge. I love ice dance more than I ever thought I could, and this experience is so unique. It is a bit cliché to say that I am ‘living the dream,’ but I feel that I really am.”
Now, Min & Koleto are preparing for their second season. They represent South Korea, the country of Min’s heritage and the country whose culture and music brought them together as friends in the first place.
Min’s relationship with the Korean Skating Union (KSU) began in 2011. She went to South Korea for a large dance partner audition in 2011, but as is the problem in most countries, the girls far outnumbered the boys. The KSU wants to develop dance teams in advance of their home Olympics coming up in 2018, but they could not find a suitable partner for Min at the time.
“The KSU informed me that if I were to find a partner, I could skate for their country,” Min explained. I returned to Korea two years later, after teaming up with Tim. So, in a way, it was a special homecoming for me.”
Of course, beginning a partnership for South Korea five years before they host the Olympics, in a discipline where they have not produced long-lasting or successful teams, creates a host of issues.
Koleto was learning the basics of competitive ice dance, but the pressure is already high, especially with the addition of the team competition to the Olympic schedule and the ever-present issue of gaining citizenship. New laws make it possible for athletes to be granted honorary Korean citizenship, something that Korea’s hockey federation has already used to its advantage.
“I am currently in the very early stages of application for dual citizenship,” Koleto said. “I have been learning Korean on my own for more than two years now, and I currently have a personal tutor. Our results in competition have a large influence as well, which is directly proportional to how hard we work every day at the rink. I try to live in a mental bubble, one day at a time, but it can sometimes feel like a cloud looming over my head. Our federation has been so helpful thus far, so we are staying focused on what we can control as athletes.”
Training hard has been the backbone of their success thus far. In their first year together—and Koleto’s first year as a competitive ice dancer—they earned the minimum technical score required to participate in the Four Continents Championships, one of the reasonable goals that they set for themselves.
“Getting the minimum score for Four Continents [at the Ukrainian Open in December 2013] was an amazing moment,” Min said. “We went to the competition with no expectations, and only knew we were going about 10 days in advance. There was a lot of pressure, but we felt instantly at home when we walked in the rink and saw the Korean flag hanging in the rink.”
Beginning their competitive career together during an Olympic season presented its own set of challenges. While the energy at their rink was high, and they were surrounded by motivated teams, they did not get to spend a lot of time with Shpilband during the busy regular season.
“The Bavarian Open was a really fun competition for us,” Koleto said. “Because of the Olympic season, we had actually never been to a competition with Igor [before]. It was special to compete again, this time with Igor at the boards, and alongside other teams we train with throughout the year. We felt that we skated the best short dance of our season there, so it was a great feeling to finish our season on that high.”
The hectic season did not deter their ambition, though, and they took as much as they could from the experience of training among the best. They spent a lot of time working with Greg Zuerlein, one of Shpilband’s new assistant coaches, and felt that they learned a lot from him and benefitted from having the same coach to monitor their progress in the all-important first year.
“The environment here in Novi is absolutely amazing,” Min said. “Being able to train with the best in the world has really kept us motivated on a daily basis. Nathalie [Péchalat] and Fabian [Bourzat] have inspired us to embrace our different qualities and use it to our advantage. Watching their process, how they warm up on the ice, and how they handle themselves off the ice was so enlightening. We have
weekly, monthly, and yearly goals to make sure we are maximizing our potential.”
“We couldn’t ask for more in a coach than Igor Shpilband,” Koleto said. “He has an overwhelming understanding of the sport, and is so articulate in communicating conceptual ideas and technical information. Working with Greg [Zuerlein] is a completely different experience. Being that he is so newly retired, he has a very fresh perspective. He has been invaluable in helping me understand partnering and answering any questions that come up.”
Min & Koleto are excited about preparing for their sophomore season, with hopes of closing the technical gap between them and their peers, and qualifying for the World Championships. They also look forward to skating for the home team at Four Continents, and it will all begin in about six weeks; they plan to début at least one program at the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships.
“Of course we want to be at Worlds in Shanghai,” Min said. “In order to do that, we are focusing heavily on speed, quality of transitions, and more difficult lifts. We are confident our coaching team and enough hard work can get us there.”
Whatever comes, the duo knows that their strong partnership will be an asset to them in the coming year. Their maturity and perspective will continue to help them chase their goals. Taking their partnership and careers into their own hands gives them a drive that many other first-year teams have not yet grasped.
“Skating has helped me realize that difference between doing what I want to do, and doing what I know I should do,” Koleto said. “It was only when I understood this level of responsibility that I began to make strides toward being successful in this sport.”
“Perfect practice is extremely important, especially in a sport like ice dance that requires so much precision,” Min added. “I have learned…that sacrifices must be made in order to continue improving. Skating has molded me into the person that I am today, and I learn something new every day.”