At Great Park Ice, it takes a village to build a pairs’ team

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When Jenni Meno and Todd Sand skated their way to three U.S. titles, three world medals and two Olympics, they could answer in two short words who was on their coaching team.

“Oh, it was Mr. Nicks,” Sand said with a slight chuckle. “It wasn’t a team. No, no.”

The venerable John Nicks, now 91, coached many of U.S. figure skating’s top pairs, including Meno and Sand, JoJo Starbuck and Ken Shelley, and Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner, the only U.S pair to ever win a world title, a feat they accomplished in 1979.

“It was a different day,” Sand said. “When we skated, a lot of coaches still did almost the whole thing, and then maybe there was a choreographer. Now, I think, the landscape has changed.”

“You need a village,” Meno said. “The whole judging system has changed (from 6.0), that has a big effect, and you need a team approach. Yes, of course, someone’s in charge, but I think it benefits us to go outside – I mean, Rafael [Arutunian] and his group are here, why wouldn’t we ask them to help with the jumping?”

Meno and Sand, who retired from competition after winning the silver medal at the 1998 World Figure Skating Championships, have built their village at Great Park Ice & FivePoint Arena in Irvine, California. That is also where Arutunian trains his skaters, including Nathan Chen and Mariah Bell.

Great Park is only about 10 miles away from Aliso Viejo, where Nicks coached, but worlds away in coaching practice and philosophy.

“We came to Great Park two years ago, and (management) has provided us with the tools and the opportunity and the ice time to do what we need to do to train our skaters,” Sand said. “And then just being able to collaborate with Raf and his group, and the support we feel for each other, it’s pretty cool. And obviously we have some good skaters to work with, and it’s jelling very, very well.”

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Two of Meno and Sands’ pairs, Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, and Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, sit first and second, respectively, after the pairs’ short program at the 2021 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Las Vegas. A third Great Park pair, Katie McBeath and Nathan Bartholomay, are seventh.

Pair skaters, with risky lifts, triple twists, throw triple jumps and other complicated elements to master, aren’t always as consistent as they need to be with their triple jumps. Knierim works regularly with Arutunian and his assistants – Arutunian has a team, too – and it’s paying off: she and Frazier won Skate America in October with clean programs including two different triples, toe and Salchow. They also won Thursday’s short program in Las Vegas with a clean outing.

After U.S. silver medalists Calalang and Johnson placed second to Knierim and Frazier at Skate America, Calalang reached out for help with her jumps.

“What is great about Great Park is we are on one rink, and Raf’s team is on the rink right next to us,” she said. “I started working with one of his assistants, Hov Mkrtchian, and he is able to jump off rink two and hop on to rink one to give me a singles lesson. That’s what we have going on at Great Park.”

“It’s a great collaboration,” Meno said. “It’s really good for these skaters. Raf has a lot of exercises, and it’s great that they are willing to help us and to help our pairs.”

The teamwork extends within the pair coaching group. Meno and Sand have worked for many years with Christine Binder, who includes stroking classes and choreographer among her specialties. Sand worked as an ISU technical specialist for years. Meno, the group’s organizer and sometime disciplinarian, lends not only technical expertise but a pair woman’s eye and experience. After their pairs won gold and silver at the 2020 U.S. Championships, the trio was awarded the Professional Skaters Association (PSA) Coach of the Year Award.

Chris Knierim, Alexa’s husband and former skating partner, joined the coaching group this spring. He works with younger pairs at Great Park and has also been key to helping his wife and Frazier master several elements, including the triple twist.

And, for the past two years, the Great Park village has stretched all the way to Eastern Europe. Nina Mozer, the Ukrainian coach of Russian Olympic, world and European champions, joins the Meno, Sand and Binder camp for zoom conference calls twice a week.

Mozer, who also consults with other U.S. pairs’ coaches, devises fitness and practice plans for the pairs leading up to big competitions, including the U.S. Championships.

“We want to go in extremely prepared and have plans for the day, for the week, for the month, and we want to have a plan through the Olympics next February,” Meno said. “The skaters will come up and they’ll say, ‘Okay Jenni, what’s the plan?’ And then I’ll tell them, ‘We’re going to do this, this, this, then we’re going to do this, this, this.’”

“We have to tip the hats to our skaters,” Sand said. “Once in a while there are some adjustments, but they’ve been very receptive and bought into what we’re doing.”

Flashback to the 1970s through 1990s, the heyday of Nicks and his pairs, and the decades when the Soviet Union built its pairs dynasty. Back then, it would have been unthinkable for Nicks to collaborate with a Russian coach. But after a 40-plus year world pairs’ title drought, maybe even he would have built a village.

“We’re trying to create the best pair teams in the country, but also we’re trying to get U.S. pairs back to competing for medals at the world championships and at the Olympics,” Meno said. “And in order to do that, we have to look at every single detail of what they’re doing. They have to land two triple jumps in unison close together. They have to get the levels on the death spirals, steps, lifts and the spins. So it takes more than just one coach to do all of that.”

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