Many elite ice skaters train in North Texas, but few have as much promise as Bronze Medalists Timothy LeDuc and Ashley Cain
COY COVINGTON | Special Correspondent
On a rare, cool autumn afternoon in North Texas, the air was chilly outside the DrPepper StarCenter in Euless, but inside the arena, things were heating up. Team USA pairs figure skaters Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc had just come off the ice and they were sizzling.
That’s not surprising considering the hot streak they’ve been on since winning the 2017 Pairs Bronze Medal at the U.S. National Championships in January — a pretty snappy outcome given that at that time, they had been skating together for less than eight months. Both Cain, 22, and LeDuc, 27, had skated pairs with other partners… and both had less than picture perfect partings. After the 2014 season, Cain skated ladies singles and LeDuc was out of money to pay for training, so he hit the ice on the high seas, skating on cruise ships. Competing in pairs was in the rearview mirror for them.
Or was it? Fast-forward two years. LeDuc’s cruise contract was up and Cain wasn’t content with singles. In a brush of brilliance, Mitch Moyer — U.S. Figure Skating (USFS) senior director of athlete high performance — suggested they try out together. Within a week, LeDuc had moved to Texas and the team had started training.
They were in sync right away. Though never on-ice partners, they already had a history and a connection: They had known each other since 2009 while competing against each other on Team USA. “I think a big part of what brought us together so well and why we had success right off the bat was because we had an immediate synergy, and that’s not something you can force,” says LeDuc.
“We just got lucky that our personalities meshed really well and complimented each other’s strengths.” Cain agrees. “What also helped make it work was that we were very accepting of each other. He was patient with me while I was getting my body back in shape for pairs and being able to do the elements again, and I was patient with him while he adjusted to coming back to competition. We developed an acceptance that allows us to skate with freedom.”
So who’s the boss of the team? Laughing, they simultaneously say: “We’re equal.” They take turns motivating each other while picking up on energies that pushed themselves further.
“Equality— that’s what we want to present with our skating,” says Cain. “Two equally strong, powerful people who don’t need to portray a love story where he’s the prince and I’m the princess.”
“We both want to be princess!” interrupts LeDuc, who is openly gay. Following another howl of laughter, they spontaneously say together: “We both want to be queen.”
So just how did LeDuc — an Iowa native — cotton to North Texas and the ubiquitously oppressive heat? No problem. He loves Texas and he loves hot weather.
“When you dock in a port in Honduras in summer with 100 percent humidity and temperatures raging over 120 degrees, this feels great,” he says. What is also great is the sense of home the team found in their training camp about 10 minutes from DFW Airport.
Oh. You didn’t know there was a high-level training program for figure skaters in North Texas? Well, holy Zamboni there is!
Coaches Darlene and Peter Cain (Ashley’s mother and father) have built their program into a well-known elite facility attracting top skaters from around the world. Cain and LeDuc train daily with other members of team USA (Timothy Dolensky, Amber Glenn, Jimmy Ma, Alex Krasnozhon) as well as Australia’s Brooklee Han and Israel’s Aimee Buchanan. It turns out that this feeling of home is something that is integral to their success.
“The atmosphere here is unique,” says LeDuc. “I really appreciate this training environment where the athletes come here because they know we’ve created a really positive atmosphere that helps bring out the best in all of us. It’s not only the camaraderie among the athletes but also the facility and team of coaches who keep everyone relaxed yet driven. It’s brought success and I think there is more success to come.”
Good thing the ambience is positive because the days are long and arduous. The regimen varies depending on where they are in terms of preparation for the next competition, but typically Cain and Leduc — dubbed The Tall Team because of their surprising heights for pairs skaters (she’s 5-foot-6, he’s 6-foot-1) — start their training in the morning with two hours on the ice. They follow that with mirror work (in a studio on the second floor of the arena) where they do all their moves in front of the mirror to concentrate on synchronization (legendary skater and TV commentator Dick Button’s ageless doctrine comes to mind: “… And two shall skate as one”). Next up is another hour on the ice followed by up to two hours off-ice training: stability, conditioning, bosu work, resistance bands, weights, treadmill, bike and, of course, lifts.
The workout plan yields obvious benefits. Both Cain and LeDuc have killer bodies. To keep in shape, Cain relies on a strictly pescatarian diet, though LeDuc (groan) has no dietary restrictions and after training ceases for the day, eats whatever he wants (pizza is a guilty pleasure). Before and during training he hydrates with a sketchy-looking recovery shake that resembles nothing if not a watery yet chunky porridge. (The recipe? Chia seeds, ground flax seed and oatmeal for complex carbohydrates and honey, soy milk, yogurt or pea milk along with two cups of fresh fruit, usually apples.) Sound yummy? Shocker — it smells pleasantly like cinnamon donuts.
After six days of training, what happens on Sunday? Both have perfect answers. Cain sleeps in, has a cup of coffee and then returns to bed to relax and binge-watch TV. (Her favorite show is Law & Order SVU). LeDuc prefers to veg. “Sleep,” he says simply but with commitment.
Now that they’re well-trained and -nourished, it’s time to hit the road. So far this season they have had special training sessions with the world-renowned Russian coach Nina Mozer in Moscow and competed in Italy, Germany and, most recently, in their first prestigious ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating assignment, the Cup of China, which took place at the start of the month. (They faced a tough field including Sui and Han, the reigning world champions from China and placed sixth — a respectable showing for such a new team to the international circuit.)
Being elite skaters comes with a pricetag somewhere between an ouch! and a straight-up scream. Costs are as dizzying as the elaborate jumps and spins they perform on the ice. Cain and LeDuc’s expenses for just seven months in 2016 topped $35,000. It’s enough to make you pop your lutz. While they receive some financial support from the U.S. Olympic Committee and USFS, Cain and LeDuc’s careers are both self-funded. They both coach to pay the bills and both admit it’s a challenge.
”I’m always happy when I can pay my rent at the beginning of the month,” sighs LeDuc. “It does require some humility in that skating takes all your available resources in terms of time and finances. But it’s a labor of love — we wouldn’t want to be do anything else.” (Fans can help fund their training by going to www.gofundme.com/the-cainleduc-dream-fund.)
With the February 2018 Olympic Games from Pyeongchang, South Korea, looming large, Cain and LeDuc are focused on the next step of the journey: The U.S. National Figure Skating Championships coming up in January in San Jose, Calif. “Our goal is to make the Olympic Team,” says Cain. That means they have to place first and win gold against challenges from top teams, including three who have previously won the title. The U.S. qualified only one pairs spot for the Olympics (Ice Dance, Ladies and Men’s disciplines each have three slots). It’ll be a bloodbath, but expect Cain and LeDuc to come out swinging.
And coming out is something LeDuc knows something about. Many athletes, including skaters, come out after they retire from competition. What impact does being openly gay, while competing, have on LeDuc’s career? Surprisingly, not that much.
“I have had some homophobic interactions with other skaters,” says LeDuc. “But I don’t feel like being gay gives me any kind of advantage or disadvantage, it’s just a part of who I am. I’ve wanted my name to be synonymous with being an open gay athlete from the beginning so that wherever my career goes, I don’t reach a high level of success and then come out. I want it to be something that’s been known all along: That I am a gay athlete.”
“As his partner and friend,” Cain adds, “I’ve noticed that there’s a sense of freedom that he skates with now — the way he holds himself — that creates a fluidity throughout the sport and the community. He doesn’t hold back. He’s himself. And I think that’s so special.”
There is the perception that figure skating is crowded with gay men. But is that really true? If you subscribe to the “one in ten people are gay” theory, then statistically, there would have to be a good many straight men in figure skating. In the past, many gay men felt that coming out would harm their careers. The sport seemed to agree that this perception was a liability to reaching a broader audience.
“I don’t sense it as much anymore,” LeDuc says, “but I’ve spoken with older gay athletes in the sport who talk about times they were told to ‘butch it up.’“
But times are changing, albeit slowly. “I’m allowed to be who I am and express myself on the ice,” says Cain. “Every skater should be allowed to do that. And once you accept yourself, you create a whole other artist and athlete, and you’re able to go out there and skate with complete freedom. I think the sport needs to see more of that.”
As Cain and LeDuc prepare to battle for the sole Olympic berth at Nationals, a few things are apparent. They’re both good-looking — he’s tall, dark and handsome with dreamy hazel eyes, and she’s a fresh-faced blonde with a complexion that could have inspired the phrase “peaches and cream.” They have worked tenaciously to improve their skating skills and technical elements and have turned being statuesque from a liability into an asset, exhibiting exquisite long, lean lines and remarkable extensions.
But they are so much more. Cain and LeDuc don’t exactly finish each other’s sentences, but the snappy banter flows easily between them along with lots of laughter. There’s a connection that radiates between the two that seems based on mutual affection, respect and trust. There’s an open, free quality that makes it clear they enjoy being together. You don’t always see that in pairs skating.
It seems they hit the right note when choosing the bluesy music by Joe Bonamassa for their short program. It’s titled “I’ll Take Care of You.”
Clearly, Cain and LeDuc will do just that.