Competing in a discipline with synergy at its heart, figure skating pair Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc have found a winning formula on the way to qualifying for the Winter Olympics.
“Dad jokes and puns, mostly,” is what LeDec quips as being key to the duo’s success. “And a lot of hard work … we can work super hard and push ourselves beyond what we knew was possible.”
The American pair say their bond off the ice influences how they perform on it, propelling them to new heights in their skating careers.
After winning their second national title last month, Cain-Gribble and LeDuc are now preparing to compete in their first Winter Olympics in Beijing.
It will be a landmark moment regardless of how they perform in the pairs events with LeDuc, who identifies as gay, set to become the first out, nonbinary athlete to compete at the Winter Olympics, according to Team USA.
For the duo, who have been competing together since 2016 and have both taken breaks from competitive pairs skating, the build-up to the Games has been a chance to reflect on their own journeys.
Frequently, they say, they have found themselves at odds with skating’s norms and expectations during the course of their careers.
“For a long time, Timothy and I didn’t see ourselves represented, and so we didn’t quite feel like we belonged,” Cain-Gribble tells CNN Sport.
“And for a long time, people had things to say about us. Even when we teamed up, they had a lot of things to say about my body, or about Timothy’s sexuality. People still will make those comments.”
Cain-Gribble, who at five-foot-six is taller than most women who compete in pairs skating, has previously spoken about how body shaming almost forced her to retire from the sport.
She adds: “I think for us, it’s about leading with authenticity, being our true selves out there and creating a very inclusive environment.”
Cultivating that environment has meant doing things their own way, including when it comes to their costumes. The pair wear similar colors and patterns, while Cain-Gribble often competes in a long-sleeved unitard, rather than a dress.
Their free skate program – which they call “Two Pillars of Strength” and perform to music from the “W.E.” soundtrack by Abel Korzeniowski – is about “showcasing two equally strong skaters,” according to Erica Rand, the author of “Red Nails, Black Skates.”
“They are doing a lot of the same moves, similar things: throw jumps, lifts, side-by-side jumps together,” Rand tells CNN Sport.
“I also see a lot of emphasis on just the strong skating work. You also see that in other skaters, it’s not a unique thing, but just the emphasis on some matching work in their spirals – which is the term for skating arabesques – and just a feeling of huge power.”
Cain-Gribble and LeDuc have chosen not to portray romantic stories with their programs, as is often the case in pairs figure skating.
“The girl is very fragile, or she is kind of the flower, the man comes in to save the woman, or it’s a romantic Romeo and Juliet story that’s often told,” LeDuc tells CNN Sport.
“There’s nothing inherently wrong with those stories, but often they’re centralized and seen as the only narratives that you can portray, the only story that’s worthy of being a champion or being successful.
“Ashley and I are just different in that way; we’ve never done a romantic story and we’ve never been a romantic pair. We’ve always been about equality and showing two amazing athletes coming together to create something beautiful.”
‘Artistry and athleticism’
On the way to winning their national title in Nashville, Tennessee, last month, Cain-Gribble and LeDuc topped the previous US scoring record in the short program with 79.39 points before wrapping up the title with 145.84 points in the free skate.
That helped them to qualify for Beijing 2022 alongside Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, the 2021 US champions who missed this year’s competition after Frazier contracted Covid-19.
But long before their masterful performance at the national championships, Cain-Gribble and LeDuc – who are coached by the former’s parents, Peter and Darlene Cain, and Nina Mozer – each had doubts about the future of their careers.
LeDuc left professional skating for two years in 2014 and spent time working on a cruise ship, while Cain-Gribble – whose father was a professional figure skater and represented Australia at the 1980 Winter Olympics – says she was ready to retire from skating before switching from singles to pairs with LeDuc in 2016.
The chance to skate at an Olympics is a happy twist in their up-and-down skating journeys, as well as the culmination of their long-standing ambitions.
“I started dreaming about the Olympics the second I saw it … I just fell in love with this amazing mix of artistry and athleticism, and I knew I had to be a part of it,” says LeDuc.
“Being an Olympian, whether we made this team or not, is about pursuing excellence and about pursuing a dream,” they add, “and that’s something that Ashley and I have worked a lot of years to do.”
When it comes to being the first American nonbinary Winter Olympian, LeDuc hopes to use the platform to empower other athletes: “Hopefully … people watching us can feel like they can lead with authenticity, that they don’t feel like they have to change things about themselves in order to reach their success in sport and to chase their dreams.
“Ashley and I have both had to forge our own paths in order to find our success. And we did that being authentically ourselves and leading with what makes us different and unique.
“I’m hopeful that’s what the narrative centers around and not necessarily around me.”
‘Strong skating work’
Authenticity is central to the duo’s skating philosophy, but it’s something that can be hard to come by in a sport so entrenched in tradition – as Rand, professor of art and visual culture and of gender and sexuality studies at Bates College, explains.
“It wasn’t until July 2021 that the International Skating Union changed the category of women skaters from officially being called ‘ladies’ to now being called ‘women,’” says Rand.
“To me, that really shows you a lot about how traditional this sport has been because the idea that women are supposed to be ladies is reflected in things like costume expectation, makeup, etc.”
Cain-Gribble and LeDuc, however, have bucked some of those trends.
“Ashley Cain-Gribble is not a typical women’s pair skater … One reason that they both appeal to each other is that she’s not the typical skater characterized or nicknamed a ‘little pair girl’ and instead is not short and not extremely small,” says Rand.
“You aren’t ever seeing somebody looking like they’re being a fragile person who’s cradled or anything like that.”
Now, with a chance to exhibit their authentic style on the Olympic stage, Cain-Gribble and LeDuc are looking to savor every moment in Beijing.
“That’s kind of been what we’ve been looking at for every competition this season – just to get the most out of the experience,” says LeDuc.
“We want to feel that when we leave that ice, we’ve given everything we could.”