Up until the third Grand Prix event of the season, Canada’s Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje have been a complete mystery. Little to nothing was known about their coaching team, their training base, their programs for the pre-Olympic season – some rumors, hearsay and a couple of videos from High Performance Camp in Mississauga only made their presence at Rostelecom Cup one of the most awaited moments of the competition. So here they are, Kaitlyn and Andrew, during a genuinely open conversation in Moscow, at the end of the free dance and ensuing press conference, throwing some light on last season – and mostly on the decisions that followed their 5th place at 2016 Worlds in Boston.
But there’s more to this interview than a sum of radical changes made entering the season; there’s them happy, eyes glowing, looking ahead with confidence, thrill, anticipation; and their bronze medal at Rostelecom Cup seems to be just the beginning of an exciting journey upwards. As Andrew pointed it out beautifully, “we knew that our goal was not winning every Grand Prix again, our goal is to be the best we can possibly be”. And looking at them while performing their Michael Jackson short dance, but mostly their emotional free skate to Spanish music, you feel they’re on the right track these two. Frank Sinatra can’t be wrong: the best is yet to come.
by Nadia Vasilyeva/Moscow
Nadia Vasilyeva: First of all, congratulations on your medals! How do you feel about your overall performance here?
Andrew Poje: Thank you. We feel really good. You know, we made such drastic changes after last season, and ending last season we knew that we weren’t happy where we were finishing off, and we wanted to make sure that we made the right changes to ensure we step into the last two years of the Olympic cycle happy, and are heading towards the positive direction. And we feel that we started that journey. Obviously there’s still a lot of work that we need to do, but we feel like we’re in a good direction.
And speaking of last season, you had a bit of a roller coaster there. You had a very good beginning, but it didn’t continue like that all the way through. Did you analyze what happened during that season, and what are your thoughts about it now?
Kaitlyn Weaver: It actually happened two years in a row: we won every Grand Prix event, and we won the Final twice, two years in a row, and then something changed halfway through the season. And we analyzed it so much, and I think there are many reasons why that happened. But what we found now is our joy again. We enjoy our skating every day. And I think that’s so important when you do something, anything really, for your job – you wanna enjoy it. And I think success comes from being happy, and not the opposite way. And so this being our first competition, we have so much more to go. But we don’t feel at all like any other seasons that we’ve had in the last couple of years
What is different this time?
Kaitlyn: Well, everything’s just more fresh, we’re more emotionally invested in our programs. I think we’re better trained, less tired, at this point of the season.
Andrew: Yeah, it’s a different philosophy, because we may not be as precise at some of our levels as we want to be, at this point, but it’s a long journey and we wanna go out there and be proud of the programs that we put out, and we really feel that way. We’re so proud that we put out all new elements, that’s something that’s big for us. Because we’ve always pushed ourselves too soon in previous seasons, and we relied on old things to get us through – and we really want to step into the season with whole new transitions, and elements, and all that stuff, just so we could see what we are capable of. And feel challenged every day, but we also feel excited to go and meet those challenges.
So you felt like you needed a change, is that why you made these changes as regards your coaching team?
Andrew: Yeah, we felt like we needed a change with our life. And it was actually Pasquale’s and Angelika’s idea to bring on a different person. Because they could see it in us, that we needed some other life. And we welcomed that opportunity and we’ve been so thankful for them to show us that.
Kaitlyn: They’re truly our family, we wouldn’t have made any drastic decisions without their approval and their vision. So when they mentioned Nikolai [Morozov], it was something that we’ve also been thinking about as well, and it was kind of a fateful moment when we all had thought about the same person. And that took us to moving and going to New Jersey, and we’re still very connected with Pasquale, so we’re happy to have him still in our corner. But Nikolai’s being a driving force in our career right now, and he’s giving us so much hope, and belief in ourselves, and knowledge that we have so much more still to grow. And we thought, for a second, that maybe our best days were behind us, and that’s not a very good feeling. And within the first week of working with Nikolai, we were like: Oh, my gosh, we have so many things we can do better! And we are able to do them, and that’s a very empowering feeling, to feel inspired. And I think that’s been the most valuable feeling that he’s given us: inspiration.
Can you tell me a little bit more about working with him?
Andrew: The one thing that we really liked, when we showed up to have a bit of a try-out with him, it was a different approach. He looked at us doing our programs and he was like: Well, you need work on this thing, this thing and this.
Kaitlyn: On the first day we had to do a run-through of our free dance. Old free dance.
Andrew: Yeah. And we were taken aback at first, but then we realized how refreshing that was to hear, because these things were in our control, and these were the things we could work on. And we really invited that, and we got down to work right away. We spent the first couple of weeks just skating individually, to work on our own skills and to make sure that when we came and we’re working together it made those connections much easier and much stronger.
Kaitlyn: We worked so much individually, and that was relatively new for us. We spent hours, sometimes even days, without touching each other. And I think the best teams are the ones that have two great skaters. We were learning where our weaknesses are individually, and that makes us a stronger team. So we really went down to basics, and that took a bit more time.
Andrew: Yeah, and that’s why it feels like even though it’s late in the season for some people – it’s early for us. Because we had to take that time to develop these skills, and it was a really short summer for us because of shows. And we welcome that, because we knew that our goal was not winning every Grand Prix again, our goal is to…
Kaitlyn: I mean, winning is nice. [they both laugh]
Andrew: Yeah, obviously we really love doing that. But our goal is to be the best we can possibly be, and to take that journey however long it takes.
Kaitlyn: Our sights are really set on the long-term goal. And as tough as it is not to win, you have to understand that there is a plan, and we don’t wanna peak too soon. That’s why we’re trusting Nikolai with his vision. And we’re very happy that this is our starting point, we feel really good here, and happy that it’s only gonna go up from this.
So what goals are you setting for yourselves this season?
Andrew: Well, obviously we wanna win everything [they both laugh]. We wanna end this season in a different mindset than we did previous season. We wanna be happy with not just placements, we wanna be happy with our performances, and end the year knowing that we loved every moment that we were out there, and really skated as a team, as a couple, and were not just hoping to achieve levels, and scores, and things like that.
Kaitlyn: Yeah, I think we’ve turned inward. We’ve spent the time this summer to understand what we want and we feel we can achieve. So those goals are internal, it’s about personal satisfaction. And when we do that – we tend to get the results. It’s hard to put pressure so much on numbers, because at the end of the day we wanna have great memories at these times of our lives. As Andrew said, it’s about how we feel and doing the best we can do.
Andrew: Yeah. We wanna push the things that are in our control and let cards fall where they will. Or chips? [he looks at Kaitlyn] Whatever, chips, cards [smiling]. We really just want to push ourselves as artists, as athletes, and see what we are capable of.
Since this season is a pre-Olympic one, does it have any influence on the way you train now, the way you think?
Kaitlyn: Yeah, Nikolai is working very hard to get to know us very well, to find the right people that we work best with, to use this season as a great prep-season for the Olympics. Because in that year everything goes so fast, you know, you have to be ready at a moment’s notice, early. So this is really a steep learning curve this year, and we’re going about it, just really following his directions – but he is definitely keeping in mind that the next season is the goal, and he’s arranging things accordingly.
Andrew: That’s why we’re really open to so many new things this year, because we know that the goal is coming up, but we want to just take the time that we have now, instead of waiting until it’s too late.
Let’s talk about your programs this season. Until this Grand Prix event in Moscow, you’ve been a complete mystery, and the level of excitement and anticipation is always very high with you, and especially at the Russian Grand Prix…
Kaitlyn: We love it here!
And this Grand Prix loves you! So, starting with the short dance. Amazing one, I loved it. Tell me about it, how did the idea came to life, and everything?
Andrew: It was actually our second short dance.
Kaitlyn: We were doing a swing dance before. And we performed it at our High Performance Camp in September. And immediately after that, we both thought: No, let’s make another short dance. Just for fun! Literally, just for fun.
Andrew: People liked our swing dance, and we liked doing it, it was fun, it was a little bit different from a typical swing, but after leaving High Performance Camp, Nikolai felt like we can go a different direction.
Kaitlyn: We are capable of better. Which we were open to, again – trusting his vision. And right away when he said “Michael Jackson”, we started listening to music and we became sooo excited! And we were watching all the videos, every video, every song, every album. We were immersed in this concept of MJ. And we were really excited, even though it was so late to start building this program. And we had a blast. We worked with incredible dancers here, in Moscow, to help building this program. And right away, when Nikolai saw us moving to this music, he said: For sure, this is it, this is the right thing. So, it might have taken a bit longer, but in the end we definitely found a program for us.
So he said “Michael Jackson”, and you were the ones who chose those particular pieces of the music?
Andrew: It was a group effort. I think Kaitlyn was actually the one who found the versions that we really liked. As with the free dance, we just found the right tempos and the right style of music that we’re really attached to, and we just played, and played, and played, and it just kind of…
Kaitlyn: In different order and everything. Nikolai is so aware of every detail, even if it’s just changing the beats per minute, from 89 to 88, you know, such minute-things to make it perfect. And we love it, it was so tailor-made for us, this program. And it’s one of my hobbies, to just listen to music and imagine great programs, so that was something I really dove into with all of these options, and, as a team, we decided which one, and which order.
Andrew: But it was hard, because there’s so much good Michael Jackson music.
And Nikolai also choreographed it, right?
Kaitlyn: Yes. With the several dancers, to get the vibe, to get the groove, but in the end he made all the executive choreographic decisions.
And what about the costumes, who designed them?
Andrew: We had those made here, in Russia, as well, and it was kind of a collaborative effort between us, Nikolai and the costume designer.
Kaitlyn: Yulia Piskunova, and her team of people. Again, she made designs, I sent inspiration pictures, it was a group effort. We like how they left and hopefully they can stay.
Andrew: We never know! [smiling]. This might be version one.
Kaitlyn: But it’s so great to be able to wear shorts. Mine is kind of a dress, kind of shorts, I don’t know if it would be categorized as…
Andrew: Skort? [laughing]
Kaitlyn: It’s nice that we’re given freedom to wear pants now. And Yulia did an amazing job creating costumes that are fitting to the program, have the edge to them and are comfortable to wear.
And what about the free dance? What’s the story behind this dance, did you try to portray any characters?
Andrew: The free dance right away connected to us.
Kaitlyn: The story of the song is very powerful, and it’s about a couple that were in Aranjuez, that is a region in Spain, and that connected with us. We had some connection, like voodoo connection with Spain, we love it there.
Andrew: Yeah, we love Spain.
Kaitlyn: We love Spanish music, we love Spanish cities, just love Spain. And it’s about a couple that was there, and everything was beautiful, blooming, and wonderful, until it wasn’t. And sometimes relationships do that, you know. It’s light and shadow. And portraying a real couple and real life is something that we love to do the most. And it’s easy to attach to people because everyone has those feelings. And the music gave us kind of the storyline, the basis for that. We worked with dancers, we worked with actors to help us really portray them.
Andrew: And really come up with our story. We’re all have our own interpretation when it comes to details, we even have different interpretations when it comes to our own. But the overall theme is very strong within us. To have that love, that loss, those real-life emotions that are up and down, and having that connection to the music has really made it a strong program for us in training so far. We know that it will only get better, because we feel like no matter what, when we step out there, we can really connect with each other and with that story.
So is your training base in Novogorsk now?
Kaitlyn: We’re split between Novogorsk and Hackensack, New Jersey.
You seemed to have been in Russia for some time prior to Rostelecom Cup. For how long have you actually been here?
Andrew: Just a week and a half.
And what else have you been doing in Moscow besides admiring Moscow winter, as we’ve seen on the Instagram?
Kaitlyn: Well, I wanted to go to The Bolshoi, but we haven’t been able to go yet, our evenings have been taken by Yulia Piskunova, our costume designer [she smiles].
Andrew: We were basically training or doing designs or things like that. But we really enjoy just exploring Moscow, you know, just finding new areas of Moscow that we’ve never got to explore.
Kaitlyn: We’ve never got to explore Moscow really, ever. And even just driving… I was in a cab, coming home late one night, and it’s lit so beautifully, and it’s such an architectural city, and there are so many beautiful buildings in the city center. And we have some friends here, we’ve gone out for dinner. Understanding Moscow as a resident, rather than a visitor, and that’s a great thing. We love it here!
Andrew: We’ve always enjoyed being in Russia for Rostelecom Cup, and for Worlds when we were here. But being able to spend those extra days during training allowed us to really explore different areas, and fall even more and more in love with Russia and Russian people.
Are you planning to come back during the season?
Kaitlyn: Depending on which event it makes sense to be here for, which is closer than America. Which is a lot of places [laughing]. So we’re definitely gonna be back. And we’re actually gonna be back before Cup of China. It’s more strategic to be closer to competition.
Maybe you get a chance to go to The Bolshoi then!
Kaitlyn: I will! Oh, you better believe it! It’s funny because Carolina Kostner’s been spending some time in Saint Petersburg, and so we’ve been jokingly saying: Oh, you can take the train and we’ll go to the ballet on the weekend! And there’s a new Italian dancer in The Bolshoi. And it’s fun to believe that it’s really our life. You know, we’ve lived so long in North America, and it’s fun to have the culture and the ability to go see these beautiful things in Moscow.
Does competing on home ground motivate you more now, with Tessa and Scott coming back? How do you feel about this changed dynamic within the Canadian team?
Andrew: We’re definitely motivated with them back. We’ve always tried to push ourselves and push the boundaries of what we can do, but with that extra fire lit – because we wanna retain our national title, we wanna make sure that we push ourselves. And they’ve always been a strong team, and so we wanna be stronger than ever.
Kaitlyn: Yeah, it’s given us so much motivation. But at the end of the day, we still have to maintain our circle, our bubble, and not be too comparative. But it’s gonna be a fight, and we’ll definitely work so hard to compete with them.
[Interview by Nadia Vasilyeva, Moscow/intro and editing by Florentina Tone]
FURTHER READING – 2016 Rostelecom Cup