by Anne Calder | Photo by Robin Ritoss

Reigning US Junior Ice Dance bronze medalists Elliana Pogrebinsky & Alex Benoit share a common passion for skating and are both driven to succeed. In just their second season together, they exceeded expectations and finished a strong fourth at the 2016 World Junior Championships. The experience led them to a big decision.
 
“Prior to JWC we had planned to stay junior for our final year of eligibility,” they explained in a joint statement. “However, when we had our team meeting with our coaches after JWC to plan for this season, the question was asked, ‘What more do we want to accomplish in junior?’”

Pogrebinsky, especially, felt compelled to move up. She has been competing at the junior level long enough to have already competed next season’s junior short dance rhythms—blues pattern dance with hip-hop or swing—and would challenge herself with the Midnight Blues at the senior level.

“We have always considered our partnership as one that is long-term with the ultimate goal to excel at the senior level,” they said. “While it would be comfortable to stay junior, we did not see a huge upside to staying in terms of junior goals, if our ultimate desire is to make us grow as a team, with our eye on long-term success at the senior level.”

Early Years

Pogrebinsky & Benoit are strikingly attractive—tall with long lines and perfect posture that complements each other. They are naturals in skills that enhance their programs; Pogrebinsky has a background in ballet, ballroom dance, and rhythmic gymnastics, while Benoit has trained in musical theater. The combination produces a soft strength in their programs.

Pogrebinsky began skating at age three in her hometown of San Jose.

“Training with (Olympic and World Champions) Marina Klimova & Sergei Ponomarenko allowed me to get a head start on my dance technique,” she said. “When I started searching for a partner, I passed a good number of tests and was on my gold dances already.”

At age ten, she moved to the Washington DC area to partner with Ross Gudis at the Wheaton Ice Skating Academy. They trained together for five years and were on the national podium in the intermediate and novice levels. As juniors, they competed at the 2012 and 2013 Grand Prix events and finished as high as fifth nationally in 2014.

“I felt we had achieved good results earning a spot on Team USA and traveling internationally,” Pogrebinsky explained. “When Ross decided to pursue his education (after the 2014 Nationals), I could only dream of moving to Igor Shpilband.”

As a youngster growing up in the Chicago suburbs, Benoit participated in numerous activities, including swimming, tennis, baseball, singing, art classes, and ice skating, and his path to ice dance seemed predestined. His mother was a judge and ice dance controller for USFS, and he often accompanied her to events. He remembers tagging along when his mother critiqued Melissa Gregory (a Chicago native) & Denis Petukhov at a local rink, and he attended the Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships as a spectator when he was small.

In second grade, he asked to add figure skating to hockey and did both sports for four years. Candice (Candy) Brown, who had previously worked with Scott Hamilton and Evan Lysacek, coached Benoit in singles and later in ice dance.

After winning two bronze medals at Junior Nationals and advancing to Novice, he was diagnosed with a congenital knee problem, which hindered his triple flip and Lutz takeoffs.

“I decided to switch to competitive dance. I had already been dancing for a number of years, so the transition was relatively natural. My mom taught me to dance, even partnering me through my Gold Dances,” Benoit said.

In late 2012, he partnered with Olivia Di lorio, a local singles skater. They trained in Chicago, but periodically traveled to Novi, Mich., to tap into Igor Shpilband’s expertise. After the 2014 US Championships in Boston, the partnership ended.

“I came to Novi [in spring 2014], and Igor told me he had the perfect guy for me to try out with,” Pogrebinsky said.

“Fortunately, she (Olivia) made the decision early enough that Igor was able to pair me up with Ellie only two weeks later,” Benoit added.

“From the first backward crossovers we did together, I knew Alex was the one. It felt right skating with him,” noted the Californian.

Skating Towards Success Together

And so in March 2014 in the village of Novi, Michigan, a new skating team came forth. In their first season together, they competed on the Junior Grand Prix Series, won the bronze medal at the U.S. Championships, and went to the 2015 World Junior Championships, where they finished 13th. While Pogrebinsky had previous international experience with Gudis, Benoit was stepping into unchartered territory.

“Our first year, we made a tremendous amount of growth together as a team,” Benoit said. “Our goal this year was to continue that curve. Last year, we were skating individually. This year we wanted to show we had chemistry, maturity. We were together – we were one unit.”

Their hard work paid off, and this past season, they picked up a bronze medal on the JGP Series, as well as another bronze at the U.S. Championships, before their fourth-place effort at the World Junior Championships.

“Our entire season had been laid out with the JWC [World Junior Championships] as our end goal,” Benoit said. “We set some lofty goals early in the season with our coaches, and every strategic move throughout the season was designed to make us stretch towards those goals.

“Our coaches worked to fine-tune many aspects of our skating—unison, emotional commitment, control, line, and even equipment and packaging—to help us prepare for our goal of two strong JWC performances and laying the groundwork for our ultimate transition into the senior ranks,” he concluded.

Their success as juniors will provide a good foundation for their transition to the senior level, but the team realizes that they need more work to take their skating to the next level. Their ability to frankly assess their strengths and weaknesses is a mark of their maturity.

“I am working on feeling more comfortable with my body,” Pogrebinsky said. “I want to free it from tension while skating to make my movements look natural and allow me to feel the music while still being sturdy on my feet.”

Benoit realizes that his training as an actor can be an asset to their performance level, but it can also diminish the impact of their skating if he overpowers his partner.

“We love to portray characters with strong personalities—meaning every movement on the ice has to support my masculinity and her femininity,” he explained. “I have had to change my performance focus from a more outward-expressing direction to one that concentrates my attention toward Ellie. The overall effect emphasizes one of our partnership’s strengths—the male/female passionate dynamic.”

In addition to their usual lessons with Shpilband, the support team at Novi Ice Arena encourages them to strengthen all facets of their performance. They benefit from one-on-one attention with various coaches during lessons, and they also work with ballroom coaches, a mime, and an off ice trainer. And if they need motivation, they only need to look to the teams surrounding them at the rink.

“Novi is truly a global community—we skate with teams representing different continents and multiple countries,” they said. “We share the ice with Olympic and World medalists, Junior World and National Champions. We socialize off the ice, but skating is always our top priority.

“Skating on a daily basis with the top senior teams in the world, we understand the challenges that they have to overcome in order to succeed at the national and international level, and since neither of us shies away from an obstacle, we are excited to begin those challenges. As we look towards the senior ranks, we feel that our maturity, emotional connection, and power on the ice will transition smoothly, and minimizing any seams in our unison will help immensely in the overall product.”