With passion and power, Jamie Salé and David Pelletier of Canada are lifting pairs skating to a new level
After a melodrama that went on for a month and garnered more ink in sports sections than any musical topic since Allen Iverson's rap debut, Jamie Salé and David Pelletier decided that skating to Love Story means never having to say you're sorry.
Tonight the world champions from Canada, who stand second after Saturday's short program, will trot out their straight-to-the-tear-duct long program, complete with a preppy snowball fight, which first captivated judges in 1999 and earned them a pair of 6.0s at the Grand Prix final in December. They were born for Love Story: Salé, with gleaming black hair and ready smile, could pass for a young Ali McGraw, and Pelletier has the boyish looks and carefree ways that evoke Ryan O'Neal bounding across Harvard Yard.
There was a second program, however, one that was not intended to charm judges but to challenge and inspire. Salé and Pelletier had been planning to skate their ballyhooed Orchid program, which for the moment is buried in the closet. After battling through Orchid at the Grand Prix final and reprising it at the Canadian championships last month, they decided to shelve the abstract, inordinately difficult skate until at least the world championships next month. They chose narrative over concept, an accessible Love Story over a program that might have begged for subtitles.
The sports press has applauded their choosing the middlebrow golden oldie over the riskier skate to the adagio sostenuto from Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2. This was front-page stuff in Canadian sports sections. When it comes to Olympians in Canada, opinions are like snow shovels -- everyone has one -- and people who wouldn't know a Salchow from a Guernsey chimed in. "I was delighted by it," said Lori Nichol, choreographer of both Orchid and Love Story. "What it did was bring attention to the pairs competition, which should be the best event of the Olympics."
The issue at the core of Love Story versus Orchid is which was a more probable path to a gold medal, but the debate spilled into areas as diffuse as technology and the modern, disposable society. Although Nichol says it's likely that no more than five of the nine judges tonight will have seen Love Story performed live, it is inconceivable in this technological age that a studious judge would not have watched it on tape. By resurrecting the three-year-old routine that first earned them international acclaim, Salé and Pelletier also ran the risk of going over ground that has been trampled. Nichol was uncertain. In her 35 years in skating she had never heard of judges tacitly demanding a new program every year, but last April she began researching the subject in case Salé and Pelletier felt they needed a fallback for the radical Orchid. "Was there a rule about having a new routine every year? Or a perceived rule? Or was talk about it just fluff?" Nichol said. "I had to know." She spoke to several international skating judges, all of whom told her there would be no bias against the skaters if they performed a familiar program. That was good enough for Nichol. "At the [Grand Prix final]," she said, "I kept telling people, 'Should The Nutcracker have had only one Christmas?'"
At first glance Pelletier, 27, is not an orchid guy. While he does have a dose of poetry in him -- asked what makes a perfect skating pair, he replies, "Two souls, one body" -- he's as comfortable watching a National Hockey League game as a short program. He is a hockey player manqué from small-town Quebec, an athlete who gravitated toward his most conspicuous talent. Salé, 24, makes a fine flower, but she, too, is hardly the hothouse type, a sassy, natural-born performer from Alberta who made the ice her stage. Grafted together, Salé and Pelletier have the same body awareness, the same perfect lines and the same balletic sense that has always infused the top Russian pairs, plus one additional attribute: North American exuberance. There is an organic feel to their skating, the elements flowing out of their footwork like small, happy surprises. This is a grand skating couple.
The path to partnership, however, was tortuous. Pairs skating is Peyton Place; there is a lot of swapping. Salé had only one partner before Pelletier, finishing 12th at the 1994 Games with Jason Turner, but she is Pelletier's fourth. They had had their eyes on each other since 1995, however -- or at least one of Salé's coaches was looking. Cynthia Ullmark, wife of their current coach, Jan, returned from a competition in Germany that year and told Salé she had found her the perfect skating mate, someone with the same energy and urge to entertain. "When I asked," Salé recalls, "she said, 'David Pelletier.' I said, 'He has a partner. Forget it.'" Still, Salé was enticed to Montreal the following year to try out with Pelletier. The sessions were fine, the timing lousy. They were both professionally entangled, and she was unwilling to abandon Alberta for big-city Montreal. Two years later, when their careers had reached plateaus (he was working the concession stands at the Molson Centre for $10 an hour and she was pouring coffee at a Second Cup) they decided to give it another try. While the skating world was focused on Nagano, a three-day trial in Edmonton was paving the way for the future of pairs skating.
"When we got together finally, we were mature skaters," Pelletier said. "We had international experience, so we were really ready to skate. We weren't in it to be fifth or sixth. We were in it to win."
They did win, at Skate America in October 2000, the first of six victories in seven international events, a streak that culminated in Vancouver last March when they defeated Berezhnaya and Sikharulidze at the worlds. Their relationship was blossoming on and off the ice -- they had become a couple during the previous year -- and they were establishing themselves as the gold standard. Given the success, their decision last June to drop coach Richard Gauthier in Saint-Léonard, Que., and move to Edmonton to train under Ullmark at the Royal Glenora Club sent seismic waves through Canadian skating. The game of musical coaches is hardly new (Elvis Stojko and Alexei Yagudin are among the high-profile skaters who have switched coaches in mid-career), but coming after a victory at the worlds and heading into an Olympic year, it seemed, in the precious world of figure skating, well, a bizarre sequins of events.
They changed again last month after a long, hard think about their program, confident in themselves, Ullmark, Nichol and Love Story. The decision comes with no guarantees tonight -- and no apologies.