Editor’s note: Tablet is boycotting coverage of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi to protest the Russian government’s civil rights abuses, particularly with regard to the LGBT community. We are, however, bringing our readers stories about winter sports and athletes who may feature in future, happier Games.
The man behind the front desk at the Rockville Ice Arena in suburban Washington, D.C., called out to Niki Ugel as she walked past on a recent afternoon. “Congratulations on the babies!” he told her. He meant Ugel’s son, 13-year-old Luca Becker, and daughter, 11-year-old Gigi Becker—not babies anymore, but certainly among the youngest ice dancers to make it to the podium last month at the 2014 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston, where they won the novice level ice dancing competition.
Luca was probably the only skater in the competition to have celebrated his bar mitzvah in the previous year—though standing next to the Beckers on the winners’ podium were silver medalists Ian Somerville, one of Luca’s closest friends, and Eliana Gropman, who attends the same school as Luca and whose own bat mitzvah is scheduled for April.
The similarities don’t end there. All four skaters train with same coaches at the same ice rinks in suburban Maryland. Both pairs have won two ice dancing championships: Along with this year’s novice championship, Luca and Gigi won at the intermediate level in 2012, while Ian and Eliana won at the intermediate level in 2013 and the juvenile level in 2012. And the two teams of young ice dancers share the same Olympic goal—to compete in the 2022 Winter Games.
Gigi Becker was responsible for bringing her brother into the world of competitive ice dancing. She met their coach, Elena Novak, when her mother signed her up for county-sponsored learn-to-skate classes, mainly so she could have more fun at ice-skating birthday parties. A natural athlete, Gigi had already attracted the attention of the Maryland Youth Ballet but accepted Novak’s invitation to start training at the Wheaton Ice Skating Academy, which she opened in 2003 with her husband, Alexei Kiliakov—both former Russian skating champions.
The next step was to find her a partner, which can be difficult in the United States, where the sport doesn’t have the “cool” factor it does in other countries. When Novak and Kiliakov saw that Gigi had an older brother who could skate, “they were all over it,” their mother said. Luca was initially more interested in ice hockey than ice dancing, but the pair began competing as a team in 2010. (Their 10-year-old sister, Coco, also an ice dancer, skates solo for now, since Novak and Kiliakov haven’t been able to find her a partner; their youngest sibling, 6-year-old Dino Becker, prefers soccer to skating.)
Eliana Gropman is an only child, so Novak and Kiliakov tried pairing her with a few different boys in the academy after she began training with them. (Like Gigi Becker, Eliana started out in a different athletic endeavor altogether—in her case, gymnastics. When she met Novak, she was training at the same suburban Maryland gym that produced Dominique Dawes, one of the “Magnificent Seven” who won the team gold at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.) “When they put Eliana and Ian together, they just clicked,” Eliana’s father, Barry, said. “Sometimes we have different opinions about how an element should go, but most of the time we agree,” Eliana wrote in an email. Eliana and Ian have skated as a team since 2009, although they did not compete in the 2010-2011 season because Ian’s family moved to France for 10 months.
The three younger Becker siblings attend the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital in Washington, D.C., Luca’s and Eliana’s alma mater. Luca is now an eighth-grader and Eliana a seventh-grader at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md. Luca and Eliana weren’t even the only students from their school who competed in ice dancing last month at the U.S. figure skating championships in Boston: 11th-grader Gabriela Morrell-Zucker, a former U.S. champion solo ice dancer, skated at the senior level in Boston, though she did not medal.
At the Eastern Sectional Championships, held last December in northern Virginia, it was 13-year-old Ian and Eliana, who turned 13 this week, who won gold, while the Beckers took silver. “In all reality, they are neck and neck,” says Mia Corsini, coordinator of competitions for U.S. Figure Skating, the national governing body for figure skating in the United States. “That is clear from this season’s scores.”
In Boston, the Beckers were able to edge ahead, scoring 71.14 skating a disco-themed free dance to the music of the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love” and “You Should Be Dancing.” Ian and Eliana scored 64.97 skating a country-themed free dance to “Come Along,” by Titiyo and “Fake ID,” by Big & Rich.
Both teams have strong skating skills, said Daphne Backman, the editor in chief of Ice-Dance.com. “As far as their abilities, they’re definitely comparable,” Backman said. “Their technical abilities are very solid.” Which is hardly surprising, given that Novak and Kiliakov have turned their academy, known as WISA, into a breeding ground for champions: Besides Luca and Gigi and Ian and Eliana, four other teams of ice dancers from the Wheaton Ice Skating Academy earned gold, silver, or bronze medals at the U.S. championships.
Detroit has long been a mecca for ice dancing, producing two sets of medalists at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver: Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White, who won silver, and Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who won gold, all train with the same coach at the same Detroit ice rink. Each team has also won two of the last four world championships in ice dancing. Now Washington appears to be producing the next wave of top ice dancers, Corsini said. “For a lot of these kids, the stiffest competition in the country is on the ice right with them,” said Barry Gropman.
The next step for the Beckers and Ian and Eliana is to compete at the junior level, which is one level below senior, the top level. Junior skaters have the opportunity to compete internationally, experience that is key for Olympic hopefuls. U.S. Figure Skating’s selections committee picks junior ice dancers who are 13 to 19 years old to compete internationally at Junior Grand Prix events, Corsini said. “While there are many skaters who are selected to skate on the JGP circuit, that does not mean they are Olympic bound,” she says. Only skaters who test into the senior level and have turned 15 by July 1 the year before the Games are eligible to skate in the Olympics — which would put the Beckers, Ian, and Eliana at the very youngest end of the cohort looking to qualify for the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Yet all four are on the right path toward competing at the Olympic level someday, according to Backman. “There is a chance for Olympic gold for everyone,” said Kiliakov, their coach.
For now, it’s practice, practice, practice. “They do get tired of it because it’s a lot of hard work,” Ugel, the Beckers’ mother, acknowledged. “But they love competing, and they love improving, and they love being challenged. It is a lot for little kids, but they do see the big picture.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the minimum age for ice dancers competing at the 2018 Games is 16; in fact, 15-year-olds may qualify. The article has also been updated to reflect that Gigi and Luca Becker have already tested into the junior skating level.
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