by Ashli Meynert | On-Ice Photo by Robin Ritoss/Off-Ice Photo Courtesy of O’Brien & Merriman
Danielle O’Brien & Gregory Merriman have been through quite a few ups and downs during their skating career, including a hospitalization mere days before the qualifying competition for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, Canada. This year, they will not let anything get past their strong bond and their chance to represent Australia during the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.
In 2009, O’Brien & Merriman found themselves in perfect contention to qualify for the 2010 Olympic Games when they travelled to Obertsdorf, Germany for the Nebelhorn Trophy. The night before the official practices started, Merriman started to feel tightness in his chest, which escalated to severe pain. At three in the morning, he was admitted into the hospital with pericarditis, an infection in the sac surrounding the heart. They were forced to withdraw when the doctors refused to release him from the hospital until the infection was fully gone.
“It really was the definition of bad timing,” Merriman said. “Three days later I was back on my feet and within a few weeks, I was back to full health.”
This incident may have hindered the relationship between partners in many teams, but O”Brien & Merriman do not let anything interfere with their long-lasting partnership.
When O’Brien was eight years old, Merriman’s mom talked to O’Brien’s mom about taking ice dance lessons with their first coach, Monica MacDonald. Merriman helped a shy O’Brien come out of her shell.
“I don’t think I spoke to Greg for the first year,” O’Brien said. “He probably wishes I’d go back to not talking now.”
Since that first year, the two of them have developed a friendship that has lasted for 15 years. Their secret? They draw a line between what happens on the ice and what happens off the ice.
“We have the days on the ice where we disagree or get frustrated with one another,” O’Brien said. “However, what happens on the ice stays in the rink and I think drawing that line and separating on-ice and off-ice has been key in maintaining a friendship as well as a strong partnership.”
As in any 15-year partnership, both skaters have become very good at dealing with each other’s irritating qualities in a positive manner.
“Danielle tends to question herself too much, which is the one thing that really irritates me,” Merriman admits. “The best thing about her is that she’s had the patience to put up with me for this many years!”
“Greg is very technically-minded and is very opinionated when it comes to training our elements. As irritating as this can be in the moment, it is definitely one of the positive qualities he brings to our partnership,” adds O’Brien.
Throughout the years, despite all their hard work, O’Brien & Merriman have found it difficult to represent a country with little history in ice dancing. Their coach in Australia, MacDonald, and her old partner, Rodney Clark, are the only Australian ice dance team that has competed in the Olympic Games. National ice dance events in Australia often have very small rosters, so when O’Brien & Merriman competed internationally in Lake Placid in 2002 as novices, they finally got to see what ice dance was really all about.
“You could say we had to learn the ropes ourselves,” Merriman said. “Although we learnt so much from our international competitive experiences, we now understand the importance of being surrounded by a group of dancers on the ice who drive our improvement.”
Since 2010, O’Brien & Merriman have been training among some of the best ice dancers in the world at the Detroit Skating Club in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Their coaches are Pasquale Camerlengo, Angelika Krylova, Massimo Scali, Elizabeth Swallow, and Natalia Deller. Their training mates include Canada’s Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje, as well as many other successful international competitors.
“At the Detroit Skating Club, we are surrounded by not only top ice dancers, but men, ladies, and pairs also,” O’Brien said. “This makes it a very motivating and inspirational environment both on and off the ice. When we trained back home in Australia it was normal to skate with everyone, from learn-to-skate kids right up to senior free skaters. Being on the ice on a daily basis in a camp of top ice dancers enables us to learn not only from our coaches, but also from watching and working with our teammates. There is a very strong unity amongst the group and it is this environment which drives our improvement in our pursuit to be the best team we can possibly be.”
“Detroit has brought a greater focus to our training,” Merriman added. “Having designated dance sessions with our coaching team is vastly different from Australia, where we trained on freestyle sessions with beginners right up to Olympic competitors.”
The upcoming season offers O’Brien & Merriman another chance to reach their goal of skating at the Olympic Games. Last year’s minimum technical score requirement just barely kept them out of the World Championships, where most of the Olympic berths were awarded, but the five remaining spots will be assigned at Nebelhorn Trophy in September. The Aussies’ programs this year will showcase their personalities, making for a fun season.
“Our music selections for short dance this season comes from John Barry’s The Cotton Club soundtrack,” Merriman said. “We really hope to translate the ballroom style of quickstep in the required Finnstep pattern and have chosen to combine this with a foxtrot and a fun, vibrant Charleston.”
“We have opted to keep our 2012/13 Circus free dance for the coming season, but have made significant changes in order to build and take the program to the next level,” O’Brien added. “This program really highlights our personalities and was so much fun to compete last season that we look forward to performing it again.”
O’Brien & Merriman are primed and ready to take on the Olympics this season, and hope to celebrate a very special birthday in the athletes’ village.
“To qualify for the 2014 Olympics and have the opportunity to celebrate my 24th birthday in Sochi on the day of the Opening Ceremony would definitely be the icing on the cake,” said O’Brien. “I’m sure there will be ample time for party celebrations after we compete, and maybe some McDonalds in the athletes’ village!”
Follow O’Brien & Merriman’s quest for the Olympics by following them on twitter: @OBrienMerriman