By now, Laurence has calmed herself down, and it’s Nikolaj who becomes a bundle of nerves. Cause that’s their „thing” while heading to an event: a week before, she’s really stressed, „I know it’s like the last time you can fix something!”, and on the week of competition, „she’s fine, and I’m freaking out all over the place!”. They burst into laughter while admitting they’re so very different when dealing with nervousness – and our conversation holds so many candid, spontaneous reactions such as this.
The starting point of our talk? A question mark. Who are they? Who is this team representing Denmark, that keeps climbing the rankings at both Europeans and Worlds? 29th in Saitama, 13th last year in Boston, with an impressive stop (9th after the short dance) in Shanghai – and jumping from 18th place at 2014 Europeans to 7th, this January, in Ostrava. One thing is sure: Laurence Fournier Beaudry and Nikolaj Sørensen’s progress is undeniable – and here we are, filling the gaps. And if you thought you knew all is to know about them… well, this long, insightful interview will prove you otherwise.
by Florentina Tone/Ostrava
There’s more than one story in their bigger story, and so we talk about their different partners, struggles, hopes and plans – until that moment, in the summer of 2012, when Laurence received a one-sentence message from Nikolaj Sørensen: „Can you come to the ice rink tomorrow?”. They had done a try-out five months before – and this was the final answer. The first one had been: „No, sorry, we’re not gonna skate together”, Laurence recalls while laughing heartily. And so their partnership started with a bit of a delay, and obstacles to break – but from that moment on, they embarked on a journey that is taking them to beautiful places.
Their allies all this time? Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon, aka Marie and Patch, their coaches in Montreal. And, for a couple of years now, also Romain Haguenauer. And this might be one of our (many) favorite parts of this interview: „And even like Marie and Patch are amazing, but Romain in the mix… It’s three different energies, and they all contribute something different, so you don’t have two coaches that are alike – and so every time you work with another coach, you work on different textures, so you improve all the different layers”.
So aside from everything else in our talk – there are revelations every step of the way – this interview is also a thorough chronicle of their life in Montreal, a chronicle of the Montreal school altogether. No wonder: Nikolaj arrived in Canada from the United States when Marie-France and Patrice had just started coaching; his story is also Montreal school’s story – you’ll notice for yourselves.
We’re in the press room of Ostravar Arena, at 2017 Europeans, the short dance has just ended – and for the next hour or so we’ll make a tour de force, meticulously digging into everything there is to know about Laurence&Nikolaj, a team that’s here to stay. And at the end of it, Nikolaj smiles: “You’ll publish this story in May, right?” That long, that detailed our conversation felt. “Well, maybe not in May, but closer to Worlds anyway…”. A burst of laughter ends our talk – and here you have it, in its rich entirety, on the week of Worlds.
Florentina Tone: Let me start with a bit of a confession – I decided to talk to you, guys, after I saw what you, Nikolaj, wrote on facebook in December 2016: “6 years ago I got on a plane to Montreal to train with Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon. Needless to say I regret nothing…”. Reading that, I realized that figure skating world is not at all familiar with you story, with how you got together, with your road so far… But before going into that – it’s a long story, I’m sure – tell me a little bit about today: how was the short dance here, in Ostrava? You seemed to have had a lot of fun on the ice, and the scores were good too…
Nikolaj Sørensen: Yes, and that’s exactly what we wanted. We’ve been trying since the beginning of the season to really put a lot of emphasis on our performance aspect. We’ve always been quite good in technical, and it’s always what’s been keeping us amongst the best, and so we’re just really happy being able going out there to perform today: staying very present, being aware of each other, dancing together, being aware of the surroundings, and just having a lot of fun. And as long as we’re having fun, we’ll keep doing what we love.
Any thoughts for the free dance the day after tomorrow? I’ll put it differently: did you have a goal coming here, at Europeans?
Laurence Fournier Beaudry: We didn’t really speak about goals this season, we were really trying to focus on the performance. Cause often we’re getting stuck into points, and stuck into placement, so we forget why we do it – but for sure we would like to beat the scores that we did last year…
Nikolaj: …our placement from last year. We would like to keep climbing the ranks. Now we’ve been stuck at 9, two years in a row, and…
Laurence: “Stuck” is maybe not the right word… [smiling]
Nikolaj: No, not being stuck, but we would just like to, if we’re talking about specific goals, finish higher than 9. What is that? Is that 7, is that 8, is it 6? We’ll see what’s gonna end up happening. But, like Laurence said, the whole year has been really just about upping the performance from competition to competition, and not focusing so much on the scores, because it easily gets very negative. We’re sort of like working an uphill battle, and it’s just trying to convince people that we’re good, and making people like us, so it takes a little bit longer, and we’re in it for the long haul.
The audience seems to like you already, so that’s done, I’d say…
Nikolaj: You know, that’s one of the main reasons we do it. After all, everybody that watch skating, they’re just all fans, right? That’s what we’re realizing. Even the judges, they’re just fans, and they love skating, and they’re here to enjoy, so we’re trying to give everybody a good time.
I think we’re ready now to dive into your past – your separate stories before you got to skate together. Who wants to start?
Nikolaj: My story is long, I’ve done a lot of stuff [smiling].
Let’s start with you then – taking that plane to Montreal, in 2010…
Nikolaj: I ended up in Montreal, I was skating with a girl… [but then he realizes the story needs a bit of a context] Let’s take it from 2008. Cause that’s really what ties it all together.
I moved to North America in 2008, it was a sort of a breaking point in my skating. I was talking to my dad and I said: Listen, do I pursue skating or do I go to university? And my dad said: You absolutely not moving anywhere until you graduate high school, cause if you want to go to university then you always can return. And I ended up in the States sort of on a fluke: I’d just put my name on Partner Search and, three days after, I had like, I don’t know, many, many girls! [Laurence is laughing – and so is Nikolaj] You know, a guy from Denmark, that is not a terrible skater, is pretty interesting for a lot of people.
And so the first girl who wrote me said on a Sunday: Can you fly on Thursday? We’re gonna fly to New York, do a try-out for three days… And I said: Why not going to the States for three days? If anything, I’m just gonna see New Work, and have fun, and that’s it.
So I went there, I met the partner, and… I really liked the coach straight away. His name is Mathew Gates and, for me, it was one of the big reasons why I moved, I felt like he could really teach me some stuff. And so, three months into that, the girl quit skating, and I was stuck alone in the States, and the coach really took care of me. He pretty much brought me to [where I was] when I came to Canada.
And then I found a Canadian partner, Katelyn Good – and we skated together for three years, 2009, 2010 and 2011. She came to Connecticut from Canada, and, two years into our training, her mom got sick and her family wanted her to move back to Montreal. And so Mathew has told me: I know that Marie and Patch [Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon] just quit their professional career and they’re setting up a school in Montreal. I think you can learn a lot from them. That was in 2010. And he said: If you have to move to Canada, which I understand, it’s a family problem with your partner, please go to them. Cause I trust them, and I think they can make you a really good skater.
So that’s what we did. And we arrived three months after Marie and Patch had started teaching – they were just teaching national level, Canadian skaters, there was nobody else. And this story I will never forget, cause I arrived on the 21th or the 22th of December, Marie was pregnant like this [he shows Marie pregnant], cause she had the baby on the 24th, we had a meeting, and then I showed up on the 26th with all my bags, and I said: I’m here.
And me and Kate started skating [in Montreal] – but her mom died early that year, a week before 2011 Europeans, so we didn’t do Europeans, and then we went to Worlds in Moscow, didn’t skate well, and she decided to quit skating. So I found myself alone again. And Marie and Patch helped me the whole year – I didn’t have any funding from my federation, I could barely pay, but they pretty much said: Nik, we’re gonna take care of you till you find a partner, we’re gonna help you.
So they really helped me out a lot, and I was skating alone for 7 months, from the summer of 2011 till May-June in 2012, and that was also the first summer when Sara and Adrian [Sara Hurtado& Adrián Díaz] came to Montreal. They came for three weeks that summer, in 2011, with Marie and Patch, and then they moved shortly after that. So we were two international… well, they were [a team], I was alone but…
Nikolaj: Yeah – and then what happened was that, in February 2012, I get this call from Vanessa Crone, Paul [Poirier]’s former partner. She says: I’m interested in skating with you, is it something you would be interested in? Can you get a release so that we can skate for Canada? And so we went through the whole process, signed papers, we were ready to skate for Canada, and then, two and a half months after, she decided to quit.
…in the meantime, Laurence has started coming to our school, to Marie and Patch…
Laurence, you might wanna jump in, for your part of the story…
Laurence: I was skating with this guy, Yoan Breton. He was my first, first, first partner when I was 13, and then I had another partner, for four years, and then we split up and, after that, I moved to the States, to skate in Galit Chait’s group, with Paul Bellantuono, for like the summer time – and it ended up not that great because of the citizenship… So I came back home and decided to start skating again with my first partner, Yoan. And we skated together for like three years, from 2008 till 2011, and we also did one Junior Grand Prix outside of Canada.
And he’s a farmer, he had a dairy farm, Yoan, and so he always wanted to do that for his life – he was doing figure skating on the side. And his big goal was to go out of Canada, and once he achieved that [the duo travelled to a Junior Grand Prix event in Romania, in 2011 – n.ed.], he realized, at the end of the year, that he just wanted to quit. And so, after Canadian Nationals, he called me and said: I’m very happy about what we’ve achieved, but now I just wanna move on to my life.
So I started looking for a partner again, and I went to the States to do some try-outs with different boys. And I had also done a try-out with Nikolaj in Montreal – cause he was kinda of skating alone… but with Vanessa…
Tell me a bit about this try-out of yours…
Nikolaj: We had a try-out in February , three weeks after Nationals. But I wasn’t really at all interested, cause I thought Vanessa [Crone] was already a big deal, and that’s gonna be amazing cause she’s already famous… [we’re all laughing with Nikolaj’s burst of sincerity]
No, but you know how you think – you think that’s gonna be really good, cause she’s already second in Canada, and we could be good together. And then suddenly she said she was quitting.
Laurence: And I had no name at all…
Nikolaj: Yeah, Laurence had done just a Junior Grand Prix, and I didn’t really know her at all. So that’s why I sort of… passed over… [there’s laughter again while they recall their beginnings]
Laurence [while continuing to laugh]: And then he told me: No, sorry, we’re not gonna skate together. And then I was just trying to find different partners, but it didn’t happen…
Nikolaj: …and then, finally, one day…
Laurence: Finally, one day… I was going to the rink twice a week, to do stroking with Patrice and Marie, cause I was the strongest girl at my other school, with Julien Lalonde – but I was only skating with small juniors and novices there, and I wanted to skate with the seniors, to upgrade my level of skating…
Nikolaj: And basically Vanessa came to the rink the same day that Laurence was there. And she says: Nik, I gotta talk to you. And she quit. And then I went home, and called you…
Laurence: He texted me… [smiling]
Nikolaj: I didn’t text her, I didn’t text her. [Who to believe? Both of them are laughing right now]
My coaches said: You’d better call Laurence. Marie said: There’s a girl coming here twice a week. She’s really good – actually maybe the best you’re ever gonna find [Laurence is smiling]. You’re gonna call her and you’re gonna skate with her, because it would be crazy not to. I know she doesn’t have any experience, but she’s gonna be good.
Laurence: And then he texted me while I was working with my mom, and he said: “Can you come to the ice rink tomorrow? Message from Nikolaj Sørensen”. [and her face says it all – she was happy receiving that message]
Nikolaj: And you had been waiting for that message… [he laughs heartily]
Laurence: I was, I was.
Nikolaj: She’s been like: I wanna skate with that guy, I wanna skate with that guy!
Laurence: Cause since my partner stopped, I was thinking that: Ok, there is this guy in Montreal, so I can skate and stay with my family, I don’t need to move. And then I received the message five months after our try-out, when I was starting to think: Maybe I should just quit… Skating by myself like this, I don’t know if I’m going to handle it for a complete year.
And then I received that: “Can you come to the rink?” I didn’t really understand, but I said “Yes”. And I came to the rink, I didn’t know what was expected from me, and then Marie is looking at me: Ok, now you’re gonna learn the steps from the free dance that Vanessa and Nikolaj had, cause Vanessa is not coming back, you’re gonna replace her! [there’s laughter again, when Laurence is replicating Marie-France Dubreuil’s tone – and the details of that particular day]. And I said: Ok.
Nikolaj: It was crazy actually – we had done a really nice free dance that year, with Michael Seibert, a former American champion in ice dance, and the creative director of Stars on Ice through the ’90ties. He was 4th at Olympics in the ’80ties, and Marie had collaborated with him, and it was just really nice, cause he didn’t know the rules at all, he just came with crazy ideas, you know, old style skating, mixing them with Marie, and it was really cool.
So you weren’t even a team, but you already had your free dance done…
Laurence: …yeah, and he had found the music for the short dance also. Which I didn’t really like [laughing]. That was 2012.
BEGINNINGS ARE ALWAYS TOUGH
Nikolaj: That was our first season together, 2012/2013, but we didn’t compete that season. So what happened that year? Interesting stuff.
I had signed some papers with Vanessa, for Skate Canada… and, basically, me and Laurence decided to skate for Canada the first year. Cause we could do all their championships – they have Sectionals, Divisionals, and Nationals, and even though you do National Championships for a country, you can still switch and skate for Denmark after, as long as you haven’t done any international.
And we were even open to the idea of skating for Canada in the beginning – let’s see how it’s gonna go, how well we’re gonna do in Canada. But by the time of our first competition, someone from the federation for the Quebec region called my coaches and said: Nik hasn’t passed his compulsory dances.
Laurence: We have this in Canada, for gold dances.
Nikolaj: Yeah, since 2012 there was a new rule, that if you’re an international skater, you have to have passed your gold dances: the Westminster Waltz, Viennese Waltz, Silver Samba, Argentine Tango and the Quickstep – five dances, in order to compete senior for Canada.
And so he told us this the 3rd of October, and the deadline was the first of October, and we went to a test day two days after, passed all the dances, and Skate Canada still said that we’re after the deadline, so we could not compete for…
Laurence: It was the same day. We went to the test on the same day.
Nikolaj: So we never ended up skating for Canada after all.
But when have you specifically decided to skate for Denmark?
Nikolaj: Right when Canada said we could not skate for them the first year. And the reason why we wanted to skate for Canada was also that you couldn’t get the release the first year [looking at Laurence]. If they give you a Junior Grand Prix, they lock you for 2 years.
But when we heard we couldn’t skate for Canada, we said: You know what? We’re gonna train this year, and just come back next year and skate for Denmark. And so we did a little trip – we went to Lyon, because Patch and Marie were very close to Muriel [Zazoui] and Romain [Haguenauer], and they said: Romain, he really knows the Finnstep very well, so go to Lyon for a week, train with them, get out of here, so you don’t stay in Montreal all year, try something new. So we went to Lyon to do Finnstep with Romain for a week…
Laurence: It was in December, cause after that you went to Denmark to celebrate Christmas, and I have family in France so…
And so I have always thought you have some Danish roots, Laurence…
Laurence: No, unfortunately not. I would love to have some Danish roots. If I could just plant some genes… [the regret in her voice is clearly visible – I’ll understand why in just a second]
Nikolaj: It’s only me who’s Danish – and we just need one nationality to do Europeans and Worlds. And it’s very difficult getting Danish citizenship.
ACHILLES’ HEEL: THE OLYMPICS
And what about the Olympics? [not being aware that I’m touching on a sore spot here]
Nikolaj: …she probably can’t get it [Danish citizenship].
But have you tried to…?
Nikolaj: Yes, we have. The Federation has tried a lot of different talks to a lot of different people.
This is surely upsetting…
Laurence: It is upsetting because you see the results, you see that you would have the potential to go…
Nikolaj: Not just the potential to go, but the potential to do very well at the Olympics.
Laurence: It’s the dream of almost all athletes, to go to the Olympics, and everyone around us is asking: Oh, what are you doing, are you going to…? And we’re like: Well, we’re still working on the citizenship. But right now there is no exit door.
So aren’t there even the slimmest chances for you to get it in time for Pyeongchang?
Laurence: No. So we’re skating only for Europeans and Worlds, that’s why these two competitions matter a lot for us, and it’s where we have the most fun, cause that’s our goal for the year. And it’s just very… bad that there is no way [to get the citizenship].
Nikolaj: We’re trying to say that maybe it can happen. Our goal is to be top in the world, and so if we ever make it to the top in the world, and get some media attention in Denmark, hopefully it could spark some things: Listen, we have a team that could… potentially, maybe not medal…, but, you know, if we’re Top 5 in the world… that would be a really good placement for Denmark in the Olympics – and this could be something that maybe spark some people to make different decisions. Because it has been one of the strictest countries in the world to get passport.
To me, you’re already making history for Denmark – the results speak for themselves, but I also counted the ice dance teams Denmark had, 6 in total, and you, Nikolaj, were in 4 of them, I think…
Nikolaj: I was in four of them, yeah. [we’re all laughing right now].
Laurence: When was that competition you told me: We just made history, there was never a couple in ice dance that did that…? And I didn’t understand, cause I didn’t know…
But it didn’t even occur to me that you won’t be able to go to the Olympics next year…
Nikolaj: Yeah. It’s hard for us to sort of swallow that.
Laurence: And it’s hard for us also to see couples who have lower ranking than us, and that are gonna go. Or that they had already been to the Olympics.
So let me get this straight: on a long term, you wanna create some attention for the next Olympics.
Nikolaj: Yes, the one in 2022.
Cause this one is clearly…
Nikolaj: This one is out of the question. It’s not going to happen.
I have always been OK with only doing Europeans and Worlds, and I have always known that I’m most likely not gonna find a Danish partner, and getting Danish passport is next to impossible, but every since Laurence came into my life, and we really started showing great results, it’s more and more upsetting, because…
Laurence [to Nikolaj]: But you didn’t know we were gonna be that high also.
Nikolaj: No, that’s it. And if you think you’re barely trying to qualify for the Olympics, and you’re maybe one of those five teams that are there for the last spots, then is different, because the competition is harsh and maybe you won’t even make it. But now… just from going to Worlds this year, and placing, we’ll already have a spot next year – but we can’t use it. And that’s much more upsetting and tough, and just… for everybody to say: No, but like Olympics is the most important event, it’s a lifetime experience!
[This was a topic difficult to address – and this team’s Achilles’ heel; so after we talked about it, I actually found it pretty hard to move to a different one. What is there to say, where to go from here? Eventually, I chose to go to a completely opposite direction: good memories]
Let’s come back to that particular thing you wrote on facebook, in December, Nikolaj – getting on a plane to train with Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon. You added: “what these two people have done for me is nothing short of extraordinary”. So lead me a bit into that: your relation with your coaches, their influence on you over the years.
Laurence: I think that, as coaches, they’re very good at seeing your qualities – and pushing them so that they’re gonna be used in your programs, and in your life. And something that they really teach us is not only that you’re not skating for skating, but it’s about life, it’s about personality, it’s about being humble, it’s about gratitude…
Nikolaj: I think the biggest difference is that they’re the first coaches in my life that taught us to be very responsible as athletes. They want you to learn that we’re the ones in charge of our career. They’re there, they’re gonna support us, but they’re not making our career.
And I think that’s what happens to most of the teams that come to Marie and Patch… Of course, it depends on who you are, cause you also have the personality where they see that you have that capability to really lead your own life, lead your own career, but you’re forced to realize who you are as an athlete, and what the sport gives to you. And I think that’s what shows in most of the teams, because, like they say: We can only do so much – we are here, supporting you, guys, but when you are on the podium or when you do a personal best, it’s you who did it, it’s not us. It’s all you!
“WHEN YOU PUT FEELINGS INTO THE MOVEMENT, THE FEELINGS BECOME REAL”
What about that: you’re really taking the audience with you into your stories – where does this come from?
Laurence: We work a lot with our ballroom teacher this year…
Nikolaj: …and her approach is more like: You show authenticity through movement. And that’s also one of the things that I find a great strength when I watch Russian skating teams – they do so much with their bodies: so much intention in the arms, intention in the upper body! And there are some other stuff that we maybe like less, but that has really impressed me a lot – and that’s something that, when I watch myself from previous years, I think we needed a little bit. That: Go for it! Tiger! Attack! If you do an arm, do an arm! Don’t just… It’s fine to do an arm [and Nikolaj does a soft, ballerina-like movement], but you cannot dance with your face only.
And so this year, that’s sort of what we decided to focus on. And Marie said: Listen, it’s working much better!
Laurence: We were becoming a bit… soft.
Nikolaj: That’s why we chose something different this year.
Right, there’s a lot of character in the short dance especially.
Nikolaj: Yeah, exactly! When you’re having fun with the music and the movement you’re doing, when you put feelings into the movement, the feelings become real. Because this is really dance! And that’s what we understood this year…
Laurence: But it’s really through this teacher that we understood that, Ginette Cournoyer.
Nikolaj: She choreographed a lot of the short dance, together with Marie.
Laurence: She works a lot on all the short dances in our school, and we can see the difference. Not only from us, but when we’re watching the other teams – we’re in the stands, having a break, we watch the other ones, and we’re like: Wow! Did you see this midline, how it’s danced? It’s crazy! And we’re just clapping and…
Nikolaj: Cause when you feel cool with the movement you’re doing, the feeling comes into it! And this is what you see more in ballroom. The guy is there, he’s dancing, he thinks he’s the coolest person in the world! [laughing]
And what about the music choice for this short dance?
Laurence: I found the music! [smiling] I actually skated on that blues for a show, but on another version. And then I showed it to Nik at the beginning of the year: Look, that could be nice, and he really liked it, cause it was a song from Elvis, but really a song that is not that much known. So it’s not “Fever” or something like that.
Nikolaj: And it’s the guy singing to the girl, the girl singing to the guy… [they’re talking about “You’re the Boss”, performed by Elvis Presley and Ann-Margret]
Laurence: Cause in the previous years we always skated on music where guys were singing. Just the Paso [Doble] year, when we skated on a woman’s voice. And so I said: Let’s try to do a duet and we’re gonna see how it’s gonna end up.
Nikolaj: And Marie brought the last piece [“A Little Less Conversation”] because she said: Listen, Elvis is hard…
Laurence: She said: I don’t want to do an authentic Elvis with the little legs that are shaking, I wanna do something more modern…
Nikolaj: …skate to Elvis without being Elvis. And also just because the last piece of music is played on the radio a lot, people know it, it’s a good quality recording, whereas many of the other songs are old, so you sacrifice a little bit of quality… If you skate, let’s say, on Nina Simone or some of the older jazz music, you hear the LP scratching. And so we took that radio edit and just used it. Marie and Patch were excited about it, I really liked it, Laurence was a little bit under fence…
Laurence: When I first heard the second part of music, I said: I never heard it! And then: How can we dance on that?! It’s kinda of a disco, but it’s swing at the same time… And then finally I said: Ok, we’re gonna commit to this music, and if they think it’s gonna be great, then it’s our coaches, and we trust them.
“I LIKE IT WHEN THERE’S A GOOD BEGINNING!”
What about the free dance? The free dance is kinda of different…
Nikolaj: The free dance is very different.
Laurence: I was looking for music, we didn’t know what we wanted to skate on…
But did you want something French?
Laurence: Not really, actually.
Nikolaj: No, she wanted to skate to a girl’s voice. That was the only thing! [they’re both laughing]
Laurence: That was the only thing. So I started looking, and you know how it is, when you start looking for music, it’s many, many, many hours, and then one day I was going on the computer and I found this particular album. And I said: Oh, my God! That would be very powerful! And then when I made him listen, he really liked it, and we made the coach listen… At the beginning, they were not that sold. Romain liked it, Marie, she didn’t know, and Patrice liked it, and then finally Marie heard it the second time and said: Oh, yeah, that’s very good! Let’s go with that!
Nikolaj: Because this is how Laurence works, very meticulously, every year. She finds a piece of music that she knows: Oh, that’s gonna sound really good in the beginning!
Laurence [smiling]: I like it when there’s a good beginning!
Nikolaj: So what we have this year, the first 15 seconds of the free dance, is a whole other song! It’s taken from the album, but it’s not from the same songs we use in the rest of the dance.
Laurence: And not even 15, I think it’s like 10…
Nikolaj: 10 seconds. Just to set the mood. And then it turns naturally into the other piece of music that you found, which is very known. “La vie en rose”, but a contemporary version, with an orchestra, no singing. And this piece gives an intense energy for the beginning, and then the end is “Hymne a l’amour”, which is also very famous. But it’s a version sang by Patricia Kass, it’s not Edith Piaf who’s singing. That was another thing also: always the quality [of sound].
Laurence: It was a new album, released in the past few years.
Nikolaj: But we liked it instantly, so we went on the ice, did our footwork from last year on this music, and when the coaches saw us skate on that, they were like: This is really good!
And that’s usually how it works every year. And I have to say Laurence gets 85 percent credit for all music [she smiles], and she also cuts the music.
And choreo was done by…?
Nikolaj: It’s Marie-France.
Laurence: And Patrice.
Nikolaj: Yeah, he did the footworks, and then Marie puts her flair into it. And even like Marie and Patch are amazing, but Romain in the mix… It’s three different energies, and they all contribute something different, so you don’t have two coaches that are alike – and so every time you work with another coach, you work on different textures, so you improve all the different layers.
So you won’t leave them anytime soon [I laugh, they laugh]
Nikolaj: No! No, no! [and that’s a categorical No]
Laurence: Actually, just before Europeans, we didn’t see Marie and Patch for like a week and a half almost, because there were US Nationals, Canadian Nationals – so then we saw Marie here [in Ostrava] for the first time and it felt like we didn’t see her for a complete month. They leave for Junior Grand Prix, Senior Grand Prix… and you work for a week on something very specific, and then the other coach comes and you work on something else very specific…
Nikolaj: But so what’s good is that for our daily routine Patrice is making the schedule. Crazy schedules. [Laurence is laughing heartily] And he knows what everybody does, the schedule is colour-coded…
More like a colour-coded time schedule at competitions? Fans are familiar with those…
Nikolaj: Worse than that, actually.
Laurence [laughing]: Worse than that! Every 15 minutes we know what we need to do.
Nikolaj: And this is very good, and this is how they manage to have 15 teams without creating… You know, what happened, I think, in the past, in many big ice dance schools, when you don’t keep it straight, small frustrations come up: Oh, yeah, you’re working more with them than them, and this, and that. So our schedule is on paper – and we don’t get just our schedule, we get everybody’s schedule, cause it’s on one piece, you see everybody.
So it’s a lot of work for Patrice, a lot of work to do on a schedule like that, for 15 teams everyday, but it makes a big difference. Nobody is frustrated, everybody is happy, all the teams get along together. It’s a really good environment.
“TESSA AND SCOTT RAISE THE LEVEL IN THE WHOLE SCHOOL JUST WITH ATTITUDE ONLY”
I need to ask that too: how is it to share the ice with World and Olympic champions? Gabriella and Guillaume, Tessa and Scott… Is it inspiring or, maybe, at times… frustrating? Like they’re so good…
Laurence: I think it’s a mix of… Not frustrating, it’s always motivating, but at times you’re just looking at that, and you’re telling yourself: I’m never gonna be that good [smiling].
Nikolaj: It depends on the day too, cause then you’ll see them and: You know what? They’re good, but I can, maybe, within time, if I train hard, do something similar to that.
We have been training with Gaby and Guillaume for a while – they moved here after the Worlds in Saitama, they finished 13th there, I believe… so they weren’t champions when they came [to Montreal]. They were amazing skaters, we recognized this, we saw it and we were able to say: Wow, they’re amazing! But the big difference [happened after]…
And Gaby and Guillaume haven’t really changed since they started winning. They just stayed the same, and we were always really close to them.
What changed a lot, I think, was when Tessa and Scott came – you can really tell that they have been doing it for a lifetime. They have been seniors for 10 years, they have a lot of experience, they are the most amazing athletes, really committed, you see that they’re…
Laurence: They talk to everybody, they’re taking care of people around them…
Nikolaj: …and even the small ones, not just the seniors. And so it’s just nice to see that they treat everybody so well. They raise the level in the whole school just with attitude only. Cause it’s not really about the skating, it’s about how you handle everyday training, and then for how many days consecutively are you able to train well – that’s what gives the emphasis.
Laurence: It’s always, you know… you’re training in a couple – so, of course, there’s always gonna be frustration in between the two – and they have their way of managing it, I don’t know how it works, but from the outside it really looks amazing. You just wanna look as good as them.
Nikolaj: They’re just great examples. And they wanna be an example, so they do make you a part of their daily [routine] – they see we did a nice program, they’ll come and say: Wow, I really like your programs…
Laurence: You look like you had fun… [you can sense that Laurence and Nikolaj really appreciate the encouragement coming from Tessa and Scott, their daily interaction]
Nikolaj: And Gaby and Guillaume are exactly the same, really: you see how they work, they work amazing together, there is never any friction, they always have fun with their work – but they don’t engage as much as Tessa and Scott, it’s just not their personality. They’re just different people and so – but both amazing teams.
Laurence: Gaby and Guillaume, they have a lot a fun… And when you’re on the ice with them, you get to laugh to some of the things, you get to realize that: Yes, it’s a sport, yes, it’s a lot of pressure, but it’s skating and you still need to have fun whatever you do.
Nikolaj: Yeah, that’s what’s amazing. Whereas Tessa and Scott are a little bit more serious, you see with Guillaume that… I don’t wanna make it sound bad, that they’re not serious, cause they’re serious as well, but the human approach, enjoying life…
Laurence: When sometimes becomes too harsh…
Nikolaj: It’s really nice to see, to realize: Wait a minute, I’m getting angry over a rocker! It’s only skating! Look at Guillaume right now: he’s just having fun, like, you know, it’s not a big deal!
“WANTING TO BE IN TOP 10 AT WORLDS IS DEFINITELY A GOAL INSIDE OF US”
Moving forward, what are your thoughts going to Helsinki? How will you approach this competition?
Laurence: We would actually like to skate as good as we’ve been skating so far this year, for the short dance and for the free dance.
Nikolaj: As good? [raising an eyebrow – and adding with a smile:] I wanna skate better.
Laurence [smiling also]: Yeah. As good and better. You know, we’re doing this step by step, always improving – and for sure that if you want to talk about placement, we would like to go in the Top 10. That’s our main goal, but, at the same time, we don’t wanna get stuck into that.
Nikolaj: Yeah, it’s tough this year, the field is very deep. If we were to do the math, just counting three Canadians, three Americans and three Russians, you have Top 9. And then you have Gaby and Guillaume, that’s 10. If you wanna break that, you have to skate really, really well. That’s not even counting Anna and Luca or… [other couples]. So it’s a very deep field in dancing. But wanting to be in Top 10 is definitely a goal inside of us, we’ve been right outside of it, and it would be great to show the world that you don’t have to be from a big nation to be able to make it into the Top 10.
If you look back at your career so far, is there a moment, a competition, a performance, a result that you cherish more than others, that you remember more for a particular reason?
Laurence: I think that when we arrived 9 after the Paso, at Worlds [the short dance at 2015 Worlds in Shanghai]. For me this was a big moment cause it was a program that we really, really enjoyed.
Nikolaj: For me it’s more last year: last year at Worlds. And it’s sort of like what that result did to us. Cause it impacted the way we really approached skating. We finished 13th last year – and it was not about the placement, it was about the way we skated. The way I skated. It was a time for change, cause we said: We’re not gonna continue doing it if that’s how we feel when we skate. Because it isn’t necessarily a lot of fun and a lot of pleasure when you come out of a program and say: I could have done better, I didn’t train enough.
So you have a different kind of memory to go back to…
Nikolaj: Well, yeah – it’s just because it turned into something amazing. Just the opportunity to recommit to being an athlete, and being a 100 percent in charge of what you do, and making sure you train the hardest that you can to be the best. That was really cool! Cause we got the opportunity to sort of refocus, recenter, say: If we’re gonna do it, this is the way we’re gonna do it. If not, we’re not gonna do it.
Cause nobody is gonna care if you’re between 11 and 15 for five years in a row. You can be 11 for one time, and it’s just as good as doing it five times in a row. So recommitting to excellence and trying to really crack to Top 10, and crack to Top 5, and really go for that. Now that was a big turning point for me. And for you too, I think. [to Laurence]
Laurence: I think he also had a breakthrough in Finland, last year [2016 Finlandia Trophy in Espoo]. I never saw him that happy when we finished a performance…
Nikolaj: Yeah, because it was sort of… all that work, all the recommitment, all the being a responsible athlete, training properly, doing your gym, doing your stretching, eating healthy…
The 15-minute layers in Patrice’s schedule…
Nikolaj: Yeah [smiling]. I felt the result in Finland. The way I felt… I would much rather feel like that and get 55 points, than getting 70 points… – [laughing] well, this is something maybe not true – but get 10 points more but don’t feel like you did your best. So, yeah, it was a revelation, I think, and we did skate quite good.
Laurence: Yeah, we did. We skated good. We didn’t have good points, but we skated very good.
Nikolaj: And, yes, if you’re talking about a good moment, that would be it. Of course, it was cool being 9th in China, and then finishing 11th at those Worlds, after we finished 29th [the year before]. It was like: What’s going on?! I mean, the second last warm-up at Worlds?! With these guys that I have never skated with before…?
HANDLING NERVOUSNESS DIFFERENTLY – AND THEIR PRICELESS INTERACTION
Talking about that, how do you handle nervousness at competitions? Is there a way to handle it? Any particular habits?
Laurence: It’s funny because we’re very different concerning that [Yeah, he approves]. I get stressed often one week before the competition. But really, really stressed! Just the week before leaving, cause I know it’s like the last time when you can fix something!
Nikolaj: So last week… [he smilingly starts, looking at Laurence]
Laurence: And he’s pretty ok…
Nikolaj: …the week before, she’s freaking out, and you see me spending all the time saying: Everything is fine, you’re doing great, it’s really good – and then the week of the competition, it goes like this [he makes a switching-mood noise]: She’s fine, and I’m freaking out all over the place! [hilarious laughter on both sides]
But it hasn’t been actually that bad this year, at Europeans. I would even say we’ve been very good. I think the difference is that we realized, during our competitions in the fall, that feelings are… lying all the time. It’s just stories in your head: Oh, I feel good today! Oh, I feel bad! Oh, that felt really good! Or: Oh, my God! That practice felt horrible! You know?
When it comes to performing and being a skater, I think we have to really sort of learn to not respond to feelings. Because I’ve seen performances of my own where I felt really bad – and they looked much better than the performances where I feel good. Like for example today in the short dance I didn’t feel my legs at all, my thighs were really… you know, they felt shot – but as soon as the music started, that feeling went down the drain. So I think the most important thing is to educate ourselves to not respond to feelings too much – cause that’s really what’s gonna make you nervous. If you’re in the warm-up and you did a bad warm-up, if you bring that up and say: Oh, my God, I felt really bad! Is everything gonna be fine?, then you freak yourself out!
And you can be tired physically, but that’s very different from being tired mentally. Like Laurence has really taught me this year: it’s two very different things. And being tired you can get through so much more than you think you can. Here are some 12 steps to recovery from life skills, nutrition, fitness, and a continuum of care goes a long way in ensuring a permanent recovery. Just by talking to yourself the right way.
[To Laurence] And so you’re good at this life coaching.
Nikolaj: She’s very good. And we have a life coach too, we have a performance coach: Steffany Hanlen. She’s here with us – and she’s been our biggest strength and ally this year.
Laurence: She started travelling this year with us.
Nikolaj: She does a tremendous amount of work for us. She has changed us, our game, the way we think, the way we handle ourselves.
Laurence: And she’s always a mediator in between us two also, cause even if we really want to make it work, we’re two different persons and sometimes we don’t interpret things the same way. So the fact that she’s there and just believing in ourselves, I think it’s something very important for us.
“IT’S HIM!!! DO YOU SEE HIM?”
One more thing and I’ll leave you get some rest… [everyone’s laughing at this point] It’s just that I always ask that, especially the people that I’m talking to for the first time. Is there a couple, an ice dance couple, that you admire in the history of the discipline?
Nikolaj: I have two, but for different reasons. But you go first…
Laurence: No, you go ahead, so I can think about it in the meantime [smiling].
It can also be a performance that you look up to… I’m relativizing the question here…
Nikolaj: I’m gonna start with a performance. It’s Peter Tchernyshev and Naomi Lang. I think it was their free dance in 2000, choreographed by Christopher Dean. It’s one of my all time favorite programs. It’s a classical piece, it’s not the rock one. But it’s just that I was always really impressed with the way Peter Tchernyshev was able to skate. Very free, always committing 100 percent to every movement, wild, sometimes a little bit too wild…
Bonus question: have you ever thought about going to him for choreography?
Nikolaj [he’s smiling – I might have guessed a soft spot here]: Well, we have played with the thought. Marie, last year, said: Oh, this is Peter! Say Hello to Peter! He’s you biggest [fan]… Cause she knows my…
Laurence: When he sees him, he’s like: It’s him!!! Do you see him? He’s there! He’s there! [she’s trying to replicate Nikolaj’s enthusiasm, and she does that very convincingly]
Nikolaj [a bit uneasy with that much sincerity – but he goes with the flow] Yeah, yeah, it’s like my… And so Marie said: Well, maybe me and Peter can do a program for you, guys, next year…
But what is so great is that we have our choreographer, we have Marie, all year long – it doesn’t get better! Because I see other people: Oh, we’ve been to this guy to do a program. Yeah, for two weeks!, and then you come back… [Laurence, adding: It’s hard, cause they don’t see the evolution, the progress…]
And so my second team is Marie and Patch. Of course, they had some amazing programs, but them as a team, looking up to them. They inspire us a lot every day.
Laurence, what about you?
Laurence: Since I was young I had Tessa as an example, cause I was from Canada, and Tessa and Scott were getting very, very good, so, of course, she was one of my big idols. And just to have started skating at the same rink as her, and saying to myself: Ok, now I’m in the same category, and I’m at the same place training, and I would have never thought about it. And, you know, they say that when you compete against your idols it means that you dreams start to come true…
So there is her that really helped me to believe in figure skating, in my career – and, of course, there is Patch and Marie. Because they’re really the image of the man and the woman.
Nikolaj: And that’s something that we want to portray as well.
But Patrice always, whether he was coached in France or not, had his own skating style, he believed in a way of skating that I don’t think anybody really skates the same way as him. And he teaches something that I have never been taught by anybody else before.
And it’s not that he wants us to skate in exactly this way, it’s just to help, to bring maybe a third of what he teaches into your own technique. To make it more powerful, to make it more strong, to make it more balanced. You know, some people skate with a lot of inclination, some people skate with barely any, where he sort of like finds the middle – and I think he naturally understands biomechanics really well, and he sees bodies in movement and, I don’t know what’s going on in his head, but you can tell when he’s thinking a lot, and then he’ll…
Laurence: …create a new lift! And he just closes his eyes and you see him mimicking something…
Nikolaj: …then he goes on the ice…
Laurence: …and you are just smiling at him: Ok, what’s gonna come out of this thought?
Nikolaj: …and then it’s done! And he hasn’t even moved! Cause he just…
Laurence: He sees it! He sees it and he feels it!
Nikolaj: He feels it! Cause he’s the kind of guy that feels all the movements. He doesn’t have to see it, he doesn’t have to do it, he can’t really explain it… – so for some people it’s tough, like sometimes for me it can be frustrating, because he’ll go: Nik, you gotta feel it the way you have to bring it… I can’t explain it to you, Nik, but I can show you again… and then try and feel it. But if you’re not feeling the movement, on how you get her under the shoulder, to move her around the back… He has this natural ability of feeling one body against another, and making it move. It’s crazy! And he’s probably even better now than when he was skating.
“…YOU’RE NOT GOING BACK”
You talked earlier about different ways of handling nervousness. But between the short dance and the free dance, is there something that you do? Like: are you nervous now for the free dance? [this interview took place on the afternoon of January 26, after the short dance]
Laurence: No, no.
Nikolaj: Now it’s easy.
Laurence: Usually, we’re pretty fine till the day of the competition. Then you wake up in the morning, and you start: Ok, now I feel my heart beat!, and after the practice in the morning, you say: Ok, now it’s for real! Next time I’m putting my skates on, I’m skating in front of the crowd!
Nikolaj: Me as well. 30 minutes before leaving the hotel for the actual competition you think: Now there’s… you’re not going back. And then you’re like: Can I just skip forward?
This sounds really dramatic…
Nikolaj [everyone’s laughing right now, while he continues]: Can I just skip forward to the part where the music has already started, and I’ve skated 10 seconds?
Laurence: But you know when you’re in your hotel room and you’re always saying: I just hope it was already over? And then there was this time in France – we were there for the Grand Prix, we just went out, with our luggage and all…
Nikolaj: …to do the free dance, and… they cancelled the free dance [they’re talking about Trophée de France in Bordeaux, in November 2015].
Laurence: I think this feeling is even worse than the feeling of going to competition.
Nikolaj: Cause you say to yourself: Oh, I don’t wanna do the… You don’t say you don’t wanna do the free dance, but it’s like: Oh, can it, please, be over? Can it be over already? But then when it was actually over, it was such a big disappointment – it was worse than skating bad.
Yeah, cause you’re half done, but you’re not going for the other half…
Nikolaj: Cause you’re not complete. Yeah, you never have two chances, but you have two different programs, so it is like having a second chance. You can’t do your program a second time, but you can, at least, if you skate mediocre in the short, to go out and do a bang on long, and finish and feel good! And so just not having the chance was weird, we were all talking about that then. And we felt bad feeling this, because there was such a huge catastrophy for the country, and people died, so we didn’t want to feel that – but, at the same time, as athletes, you can’t help feeling that way.
[All photos published throughout this interview were taken this season – at Finlandia Trophy in Espoo, Rostelecom Cup in Moscow and Europeans in Ostrava]