by Jacquelyn Thayer | Skating Photos by Melanie Hoyt
When free skaters Hannah Whitley and Elliott Graham were first paired in 2007 by coaches Azure-Dee Perkins and then-junior ice dancer Mitchell Islam, their teachers saw potential for a good match. Whitley and Graham were rather more hesitant.
“I was 7 years old and Elliott was 9,” said Whitley. “I didn’t like boys and I wouldn’t hold his hand. We skated together by holding opposite ends of a skate guard.”
But for the young Central Ontario duo who began at a small club in Stayner, promise exceeded the early roadblocks.
“At Christmas time that year, Mitchell took us to let his dad, coach David Islam, take a look at us,” said Whitley. “We started skating at Mariposa School of skating the next week as a pre-juvenile team.”
The team progressed to capture the pre-novice national title at the 2012-13 Skate Canada Challenge, followed by novice silver at last season’s Canadian National Championships. This season, the team has elected to make the next move up to enter the junior ranks in a deep national field.
Two initial outings, at July’s Minto Summer Skate and at August’s COS Summer Skate (Thornhill), brought a pair of solid third-place finishes in the free dance, along with fourth- and fifth-place results in the Silver Samba short dance. The couple are slated next for Octoberfest in their Barrie homebase, set to overlap with the new Autumn Classic International for seniors.
“Hannah and I were very confident going to Minto—we knew we were going to be skating with many great skaters and we had lots to learn from them,” said Graham. “When we took to the short dance warm-up ice with last season’s junior champions, it kind of hit us that we were really skating junior. Mackenzie [Bent] and Garrett [Mackeen] are awesome—we admire so many junior teams and we feel lucky to skate alongside them. We’re fortunate to have four great junior teams to look up to right in our home training center.”
“We love our free dance this year and we are happy with our results so far,” added Whitley. “We have had great feedback from monitoring sessions after both Minto and Thornhill skates so we know what we need to do to improve both our short dance and free dance moving forward to Octoberfest.”
Graham agreed with a particular focus on improvement in the short. “At both summer competitions we skated careful short dances and knew we could do so much better,” he said.
The move to a new level came along with the new experience of working for the first time with outside choreographers. In April, the two traveled to Michigan to create this year’s free dance—set to music including selections from the film Micmacs—with Ann Arbor’s Yasa Nechaeva and Yuri Chesnichenko, best known for their efforts with teams including Lynn Kriengkrairut & Logan Giulietti-Schmitt and Emily Samuelson & Evan Bates.
“Working with Yasa and Yuri was a really great experience,” said Graham. “They have choreography that is very unique and detailed. The storyline for our program is I am an inventor that has made a doll and put her in a box, and Hannah is the doll. I take Hannah out of the box and she comes to life.”
Graham defined their premiere junior season as a “learning year,” with the team’s major competitive hope a finish among the top half of teams at this year’s Nationals.
“Just doing consistent and clean programs is important,” he said. “Learning to skate and tell our story—using our arms and facial expressions more is something we are working hard on. It’s not always easy when you are concentrating so hard on the elements, but it is our goal.”
The team credits their regular Mariposa coaching crew of David Islam, Kelly Johnson and James Callan for that ongoing development.
“They all have different coaching styles which fit together well to make us better skaters—they work very hard with us and expect us to always do our best,” said Whitley. “We consider the other dance teams our friends. We all work to encourage each other and push each other every day. It’s like a big family and we feel lucky to be part of this kind of training environment.”
And the partners themselves have come to develop their own family bond. Whitley suggested that the sibling-like friendship developed over their seven-year partnership may be the team’s greatest strength.
“We just seem to know what the other person is thinking or what their next step is going to be,” she said. “We love to watch some of our favorite TV shows together. We both have a silly sense of humor and love to laugh and tease each other. Our parents all get along really well and make decisions that support us together. I consider Sharon, Elliott’s mom, as a second mom to me–I can tell or ask her anything.”
The bond, too, has served the team when challenge has arisen. Faced with uncertainty surrounding future funding, the duo and their families established a Go Fund Me site in search of corporate sponsorship. But the campaign quickly became an endeavor among friends and family, who offered support and spread the word more widely. The funds raised ultimately went towards both the team’s week in Ann Arbor and their at-home summer training.
“Every little bit helps,” agreed both partners. “We both have siblings in university, so our skating bills can put a lot of stress on our families. Skate Ontario and Skate Canada Central Ontario Section have been fabulous supporters of our skating too. We are working hard to make them proud of their investments in us.”
And as Whitley and Graham hope to make their own impact within Canada, they look to other Canadian couples who have helped lead the way in recent seasons. The two especially admire Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir, remembering one 2011 road trip to Canton, Michigan, to watch the team train. “They were so kind to us,” said Whitley.
They also draw inspiration from one-time coach Mitch Islam’s journey towards the 2014 Olympic team with partner Alexandra Paul. “We were lucky to have trained with Alex and Mitch for all the years they were at Mariposa,” said Graham. “We really look up to them.”
Though motivated by the examples offered by established teams, the two for now are focusing on their own style, tending towards lighter and upbeat programs which they consider fitting for their ages. “Our coaches have always worked with us to pick the music and theme for our free dance, and we always seem to end up with fun, playful routines,” they said.
While the two agree that a tango may be an enjoyable future prospect for competition, so far more exploration has come through exhibitions, with the team’s participation in the annual Margaret Garrison Gala, as well as club shows, providing an outlet. Recent show programs have allowed the team to experiment with more serious styles and concepts, as in a previous program to “World Stand Still” from the Canadian Tenors—”about slowing down and taking time to enjoy life,” in the pair’s words—and this year’s exhibition to T.V. Carpio’s “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
Away from the ice, both partners have found their own ways to enjoy life outside the skating realm, from shopping and cottage weekends with family for Whitley to sushi, family time and Facetime with faraway friends for Graham. For Whitley, dance has also become an off-ice diversion. “I have recently joined a dance studio and I am really enjoying learning modern dance,” she said.
And in addition to a mutual fondness for spending time with friends, the partners share another key interest—the television show Pretty Little Liars. “If we’re away training or competing, we always have the show recorded to watch later,” said Whitley.
With a well-rooted friendship, Whitley and Graham have come to credit their partnership as a source of motivation in itself.
“I like that I get to share the spotlight and have a partner like Elliott to work with every day,” said Whitley. “I also enjoy the way our programs can tell stories with two people. It’s better than trying to do it all on your own. We support each other always—when one of us messes up at a competition we never, ever blame each other. This is what makes our partnership work so well. Our parents always tell us how proud they are that we are able to work as a team. When a mistake happens, it’s a mistake as a team.”
And as they also continue their journey up the ranks as a team, the skate guards today can serve their ordinary purpose.