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Spectacular rise for teenage figure skaters

Duo hits podium 14 months after starting

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Not in their wildest dreams did Winnipeg teens Ava Kemp and Yohnatan (Yoni) Elizarov imagine they would land on the podium at their first international competition in Latvia earlier this month — a mere 14 months after they first gave pairs figure skating a try.

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Not in their wildest dreams did Winnipeg teens Ava Kemp and Yohnatan (Yoni) Elizarov imagine they would land on the podium at their first international competition in Latvia earlier this month — a mere 14 months after they first gave pairs figure skating a try.

In two weeks, the rookies will have the chance to do it again in Poland.

“They had a lot of nerves beforehand and in the warm-up (for the short program), but when the music started they settled quite nicely,” their coach Kevin Dawe said, reflecting on the duo’s ISU Junior Grand Prix debut in Riga.

Ava Kemp and Yohnatan Elizarov work on their routine at Dakota Community Centre. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

“They were way calmer for their long program. They just had to get that first-time-out over and done with.”

With only one major mistake in two performances, Kemp, 14, and Elizarov, 18, earned 124.73 points and claimed the silver medal.

“We weren’t going in expecting much in our first international competition. We didn’t really know what to expect, but after (ranking second in) the short, we felt pretty confident,” said Kemp, who enjoys the high-flying lifts and the power she feels on landing the partner-assisted throw jumps.

Fellow Canadians Ashlyn Schmitz and Tristan Taylor, coached by former Winnipegger and senior men’s competitor David Schultz in Regina, took bronze (113.40), while a U.S. couple captured gold (137.23) at the second of four pairs events in the Grand Prix series.

“It’s very hard to believe. I think we had like 15 points in total over our personal best. It was a great, great competition,” said Elizarov, a junior level singles competitor who had actually contemplated quitting the sport last year as pandemic restrictions waned.

Ultimately, he was persuaded to give pair skating a shot.

“We worked our butts off. We’ve been working really hard, especially this summer. It was the hardest we’ve ever worked in skating,” said the Israeli-born Elizarov whose mom figure skated as a child in her native Russia.

The hard work will continue as they prepare for their second Grand Prix assignment. They plan to up the ante in technical difficulty by upgrading their throw double salchow jump to a triple and increasing the difficulty level of their lifts and death spirals. Finessing the performance side of the scoring equation is also on their to-do list for Poland.

Dawe notes they will face a formidable field in Gdansk with four experienced couples from Europe, Australia and the U.S. considered frontrunners for the podium.

Given three of those teams ranked in the top 10 at the world juniors last season, coach and skaters recognize it will be tough for them to win a second medal and qualify for the prestigious Grand Prix Final in Italy in December.

Still, Kemp and Elizarov intend to push their limits in Poland knowing they’ve already garnered the minimum technical scores required to compete at the 2023 world junior championships thanks to their quality performances in Riga. (A top-three finish at the Canadian championships in early January would likely seal the deal for their world team berth.)

If the final in Italy isn’t in the cards, the duo will instead compete in their own backyard at Seven Oaks arena where Skate Canada Challenge, the qualifying event for the Canadian championships, is being held.

Ava Kemp and Yohnatan Elizarov work on their routine at Dakota Community Centre. (Mike Deal / Winnipeg Free Press)

Kemp and Elizarov have each shown promise on the national stage as singles competitors giving them a solid foundation for their venture into pairs. The match clicked during a two-month trial run last year in Regina where they learned the basics under Schultz’s tutelage.

Within months, they won both the 2022 Skate Canada Challenge and Canadian novice championship title. This summer, they were named to Skate Canada’s national junior team.

To accommodate this season’s demanding competition and travel schedule, which will see both partners continue to compete in singles as well as pairs, Kemp switched to home-schooling after completing Grade 8 at Collège Béliveau. Elizarov, a Vincent Massey graduate, delayed his computer science studies at the University of Manitoba until the winter semester.

The two train 25 hours each week, splitting their on-ice sessions between the Jonathan Toews Sportsplex and Winnipeg Winter Club. Daily strength and conditioning training as well as dance and theatre classes are also on the agenda.

Since launching their partnership, Kemp and Elizarov have travelled to Mississauga, Ont., every few months to work with experienced pairs coach Andrew Evans. They also skated there this past summer, and regularly connect with Evans via Zoom to fine-tune pair elements during training in Winnipeg.

Dawe, who works full-time as a physician’s assistant at CancerCare Manitoba, has not hesitated to tap the expertise of other coaches and technical specialists as he and his longtime students venture into what are for them, uncharted waters.

In his youth, Dawe trained as a singles skater in Barrie, Ont., with Doug Leigh — the legendary coach who guided Brian Orser and Elvis Stojko to the top of the sport.

Now, Dawe is dedicated to helping Kemp and Elizarov reach for the stars.

The pairs event in Poland on Oct. 6 and 7 will be livestreamed on the International Skating Union (ISU) YouTube channel youtube.com/user/ISUJGP2011 Videos are also archived for on-demand viewing.

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