Local ice-dance skaters will compete at Winter Olympics in Sochi
Mitchell Islam and Alexandra Paul have qualified for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia after finishing third in the ice-dance competition at nationals in Ottawa last weekend. SKATE CANADA PHOTO
Alexandra Paul and Mitchell Islam will be living a dream when they take part in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia next month.
The Barrie skaters are one of three ice dancing pairs chosen over the weekend by Skate Canada to represent their country on the world stage.
They qualified for the trip of a lifetime after placing third at the 2014 Canadian Tire National Skating Championships in Ottawa on the weekend behind Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje and first-place finishers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.
"We are just so excited to be representing one of the best country's in the world," Paul said Tuesday from the Detroit Skating Club in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., where the two have been training since the summer of 2012.
Prior to that they were mainstays of Barrie's Mariposa School of Skating.
"It will be an amazing feeling to walk into the opening ceremonies with our Canada jackets on with the Canadian team," Paul said. "I can't wait for that.
"It's going to be special for everybody."
Islam, who has been skating with Paul since the beginning of the 2009 season, said he's also thrilled to be making Olympic memories.
"It's really just sinking in. We love our country and love the fact we're going to have a maple leaf on our shoulders and in our hearts," he said. "We're looking forward to representing the whole country over in Sochi.
"We know that skating is something that is really cherished in Canada and that's something that we definitely don't take for granted."
The dance team won't have much time to reflect on their Olympic-qualifying finish in Ottawa, however.
"We will be training here for the next three weeks, pushing ourselves even further and working hard," Paul said. "We don't compete until a week-and-a-half into the event so we'll be training there and using the facilities."
Islam doesn't think they will be making any major changes after coming off the national competition, besides perhaps getting some tips and taking a look at a couple of things.
"We're just going to be keeping things the same. We've been working so hard all year and committing ourselves to being excellent everyday," he said.
After almost five years together, the duo has already had their share of successes, and challenges.
"It was a whirlwind from the beginning. We had some pretty immediate junior success," Islam said. "We got a world junior medal after a year of skating together and we moved to seniors and had a bronze medal at the nationals."
One of the most difficult things to overcome was deciding to put Mariposa behind them after so many years. In the summer of 2012, they decided they needed to make a training change.
"For sure it was difficult. We'd both been training there since we started ice dancing," he said. "We loved out coaches in Barrie, but we needed to be surrounded by teams that were better than us, we needed that push.
"But at the same time our families recognized what we needed. They were so supportive through the whole thing and that's something we're really thankful for," Islam added. "It was tough to leave but we're so happy now and glad things have worked out."
Their coaches from the Detroit skating club are Pasquale Camerlengo and Angelika Krylova.
"We were weighing our options when we realized we were making a change. This is the one we thought was the best fit," Islam said of the coaching decision.
"We have another really strong Canadian team — Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje — who trains here who we're great friends with. We look up to them in terms of their preparedness and the hard work they always put in," he added.
"There are lots of other great international teams that we wanted to be surrounded by. It's definitely proven to be a good move."
Then there were the injuries Paul sustained over during 2011 and 2012, including a sprained ligament, a rib injury and a collision with a member from another team during a practice at a competition in Japan, forcing them to withdraw from the event.
"We really had to overcome those things. It's something we're proud of now," Islam said.
Mariposa School of Skating singles coach Robert Tebby, who was last at the Olympics in 2010 and has attended five in all, said Paul and Islam's success reflects well on Mariposa and the Barrie Skating Club.
"It's an excellent opportunity for them," he said, while watching his son take to the ice at the Allandale Recreation Centre. "And it's pretty cool: two, local homegrown kids going to the Olympics.
"They've been given this opportunity because of the likes of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and there's no doubt it's the strongest team Canada has ever sent to the Olympics."
Alexandra's grandmother, Joan Paul, said the family was "absolutely thrilled" with their showing in Ottawa and with them going to Sochi.
"The kids have worked really, really hard, and the put in their best performance," Joan Paul said from her home in Collingwood. "They've had a lot of injuries in the past couple of years, and they've been working their way back to regain their confidence, which they've done beautifully."
Joan and her husband, Don, joined the rest of the family in Ottawa this past weekend to watch Alexandra and Islam skate.
"I think she's a fabulous kid, as is Mitch," Don Paul said. "I think they're great skaters, but I am a little biased. They've worked hard to get this far."
"But they really did put on a performance this weekend."
— With files from Morgan Ian Adams