by Jacquelyn Thayer | On Ice photos by Susan Fraser & Off ice photos courtesy Rabe & Koleto
It was a fortuitous encounter through one prominent skater-matching site in the fall of 2014 that brought Norway its first-ever ice dance couple in Thea Rabe & Tim Koleto.
“It was the first day Thea put herself online,” said Koleto. “She was the first person I contacted and the first person I tried out with as well. So we actually both went on Ice Partner Search the same day for the first time,” he concluded with a laugh.
The team had their first tryout in November in Lyon, where Rabe was training, followed in December by a successful second test drive at their current base of Novi, under Igor Shpilband’s coaching team.
For the American Koleto, the opportunity to represent Norway offers a callback of sorts to a piece of family heritage. “My grandmother used to skate with Sonja Henie in ice shows,” he said, in a tour called the Hollywood Ice Revue. “That’s actually not even the reason I started skating—it just ended up being kind of a serendipitous thing, but I know that she’d be excited and proud if she could see us now. So that’s a really cool special family connection that we have.”
But from 2013-14, Koleto skated for South Korea with former partner Yura Min, entailing a release from that federation along with an ISU-mandated one-year waiting period before being eligible to enter international competition for a new country.
“I was lucky enough that the South Korean federation was really gracious in releasing me right away,” said Koleto. “I had to wait until Thea and I started skating together, because you can’t be released into being a free agent—you have to go from one federation to the next federation. So I did have to wait a little bit and I was a bit nervous, not sure whether it was going to go smoothly, but I feel really blessed that it went through right away.”
And with Min and Koleto’s final event October 2014’s Cup of Nice, he and Rabe—who were monitored and made their competitive debut at a Norwegian club event in September—were cleared to compete at an international event as of October 20. To compensate for lost time, the two are tackling a busy fall schedule, beginning with this week’s Volvo Cup in Latvia and, later this month, Open Andorra and Warsaw Cup. During the Europe tour, the two will also spend time training with Barbara Fusar-Poli to maintain a regular practice schedule.
Fusar-Poli, with input from Shpilband, also choreographed the team’s short dance to selections from Prokofiev’s Cinderella. But it’s a free dance set to pieces from Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite that makes a special nod to the nation they’re representing on ice.
“The whole concept of it was absolutely Igor’s idea,” said Koleto. “He had a lot of insight into a piece of music that is very special to the Norwegian people and something that we didn’t even think of, and he and Fabian Bourzat choreographed the majority of our free dance.”
Rabe, though a two-time junior national champion in singles, felt the call to transition to dance was clear. “That was what I loved the most about skating,” she said. “I liked doing choreography, having flow on the ice rather than spending time on the jumps, so that’s the main reason I changed.”
The pairing has naturally demanded some adjustments for both skaters.
“For me, the most difficult has been to be able to relax and push like I did before, because I have to adjust to another person,” said Rabe. “Now in order to push and gain speed, you need to do it together and in the rhythm with another person. But when we manage to do that, you feel even better, so that’s also motivation to just keep on working, even though it feels hard sometimes.”
For Koleto, who himself made the leap from singles to dance just two years ago, the challenge was more intangible. “I’ve been surrounded by similar terminology for skating for a long time—sort of the American terms that we use to explain things,” he said. “So for me, for the first couple months, it was just adjusting, understanding that sometimes we were saying the same thing, but in a different way.”
But for the couple, the minor roadblocks have ultimately fostered breakthrough.
“Just learning a new way to communicate and new ways of understanding each other has really, I think, brought us closer, and I think that it’s been really quick, the way that we’ve been able to gel together,” said Koleto. “So we’re both very happy with that.”
“Yeah, we’re learning how to work together and make the best out of every situation, so I think that’s something that helps us improve every day,” agreed Rabe.
And the process has come with its share of upsides, such as a good physical match. “We have very similar body structure and muscular structure and a good height difference, so we feel that that is something really lucky, that we are able to match our lines more easily than maybe some other couples in the beginning,” said Koleto.
“Even though I’ve never done dance before, I thought the elements came pretty quickly to us,” added Rabe. “Once we figured out what lifts we wanted to do, step sequences, I feel like they came together pretty quickly.”
Drawing inspiration from more established teams while developing their image is a work in progress. While Koleto most admires the style and movement of 2015 world champions Gabriella Papadakis & Guillaume Cizeron, highlighting Cizeron as a particular model, and Canadian silver medalists Piper Gilles & Paul Poirier, Rabe is still seeking her icons.
“As I came over to dance just last year, I’ve just been watching as much ice dance as possible and I still haven’t found my one couple that I admire more than everyone else,” she said. “I’m just watching dance and trying to find out what I like about each and every couple.”
Koleto for his part has found an additional education through his work as a coach, teaching young skaters four days a week.
“That’s really been hugely helpful for me in the last year, to learn not only how to be a better coach, but a better student, and it’s really helped me be more active in the way that I respond to my coaches,” he said. “So I feel so enriched being able to give back to younger kids, but I’ve also learned so much more than I expected teaching a younger generation, and it’s been really fun for me.” In his time away from the ice, Koleto exercises another creative outlet, writing fiction.
Rabe, away from home, is pursuing studies through a university in Norway. “I’m going fifty percent speed, and it’s law school, so I am trying to keep up with that in my spare time,” she said.
Schedules and distance aside, skating for a small federation has presented its own larger challenges, with funding opportunities limited. While both partners highlight the positive reception and support they’ve received for their development and competitive plans, the costs of training at an elite U.S. facility and competing internationally inspired the team, like many others, to turn to crowdfunding as a supplemental option.
“We have been so blessed by the response, and so many people have given not only financial aid, but such nice messages and tweets and things like that, that really motivate us to do even more in our practice,” said Koleto.
And given Koleto’s lack of Norwegian citizenship, they’re setting Olympic goals as secondary for the time being.
“Our plan as a couple is to try to get the best results possible,” he said, “and if we’re lucky enough to get some kind of help from the Norwegian federation and government for 2018 if we qualify, then we’d feel very lucky, but it’s not necessarily something that we’re counting on at this point.”
But, as Koleto noted, the couple have the opportunity to “trailblaze” for Norway, with competitive opportunities widely available on condition of achieving required technical minimums.
“Norway has never been a huge figure skating country, but they are very happy about us teaming up together and starting ice dance,” said Rabe. “They think we have potential to make figure skating a bigger sport in Norway, and that’s one of the reasons that they really support us as much as they can—they don’t have a lot of money, but they helped us with our plans and want to make everything better for us. So we’re happy to have them by our side.”