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February 4, 2014

Local ice skaters, OU students, head to Winter Olympics

By Mary Beth Almond
C & G Staff Writer

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Mitchell Islam and Alexandra Paul qualified for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, after finishing third in the ice-dance competition at the Canadian national championships in Ottawa.

ROCHESTER — The shared childhood dream of competing in the Olympics will soon become a reality for local ice skaters and Oakland University students Mitchell Islam and Alexandra Paul.

The duo have qualified for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, after finishing third in the ice-dance competition at nationals in Ottawa.

“I’m pretty sure I started crying. I was just so excited. It’s been my dream since I was a little girl to be able to go to the Olympics,” Paul said. “It’s just one of those lifelong goals that you’re finally going to be able to achieve, and I was just so excited that I’d gotten to that point of my career in skating.”

“It was pretty special,” Islam added. “We’ve been working pretty hard all year, so it definitely felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders when we got those scores. It’s something I’ll never forget, for sure.”

The teammates each discovered their love for the ice at an early age. Islam, the son of two competitive skaters, put on his first ice skates at just three-years-old, while Paul first hit the ice at five.

“I’ve loved skating since I was little,” Paul said. “My mom used to have to try to take me away from the rink because I tried to get on and do as many sessions as I could when I was younger. I’ve always loved figure skating.”

The duo trained at Mariposa School of Skating in Barrie, Ontario, for most of their careers but didn’t become partners until 2009.

“Alex and I have known each other for quite some time,” Islam explained. “My dad coached Alex from quite a young age, and he has been my coach, too. In 2008, my former partner had to quit, so I was without a partner for about a year, and then Alex split with her first partner in early 2009. We were already friends, and we probably skated together for about 15 minutes and the decision was kind of made then. It just worked out perfectly.”

Throughout their skating career as partners, Islam and Paul have had their share of ups and downs.

“We had early success our first season and a half. We jumped into a silver medal at the World Junior Championships barely after we started skating together and then about a year after that, we got a bronze medal in the senior level at the national championships, which was pretty unheard of. It was a pretty quick success — it was quite a whirlwind — and unfortunately, after that, midway through the 2011 season, the injury bug hit us, so we had a couple of years of some pretty dark times. It was tough; there were days where you questioned if you wanted to keep going,” Islam said.

Paul said she sustained several injuries during 2011 and 2012, including a sprained knee ligament, along with pulling another muscle and being badly cut on her leg by a skate blade during a practice at a competition in Japan, forcing them to withdraw from the event.

“I had to get stitches to close up a pretty big gash in my leg, so that took almost a month to heal. It was bad timing. It was right before nationals, and it kind of seemed like one injury after another for a while,” she said. “But everything is back in order now.”

In the summer of 2012, the teammates moved to Michigan to train with coaches Pasquale Camerlengo and Angelika Krylova at the Detroit Skating Club in Bloomfield Hills.

“We needed an extra push and the Detroit Skating Club seemed like the perfect fit. There are so many amazing international skaters here, and the coaching staff is amazing, as well, so we really just needed to be around teams that pushed us and made us want to be better than them,” Paul said.

Their rigorous training schedule keeps the duo on the ice for three or more hours per day, five to six days a week, and they can also be found in the gym and in off-ice dance classes. Off the ice, the teammates share an apartment near the skate club and are both pursing bachelor’s degrees in Political Science from Oakland University.

“I’ll certainly be watching the Olympics with renewed interest this year,” said David Archbold, director of OU’s International Students and Scholars Office. “I’m really excited to cheer them on while they chase their dream. How many of us can say that we were able to do that?”

Paul and Islam both attest that all the time spent together has yet to affect their partnership on the ice — or their friendship, for that matter.

“It hasn’t been weird for us at all to spend so much time together,” Paul said. “We’ve been friends since we were young, so there is nothing weird about it to us, because even when we weren’t skating together, we were part of the same group of friends and everything, so we were always hanging out with each other in some way or another.”

“We’re both really easy-going people, so when we get home from the rink, we’re pretty good at leaving what happened at the rink behind — that’s business — and when we get home, we like to relax and hang out. Its not really a problem for us,” Islam said.

The ice dancers left for Soochi, Russia, Feb. 4. Islam said they planned to use the week and a half in Russia before their Olympic competition to put the final touches on their performance.

“They have ice for all the competitors, and we have about a half an hour to 45 minutes a day — not too long, not too much ice time, but at this point we’re pretty prepared,” he said. “There’s always a couple little tweaks here and there that you are going to make after seeing what feedback you get from the judges and whatnot, but we’ve taken care of those and now we’re just back on autopilot and training really hard every day.”

The Winter Olympic Games take place from Friday, Feb. 7, through Sunday, Feb. 23, in Sochi, Russia.

You can reach C & G Staff Writer Mary Beth Almond at malmond@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1060.