Returning home, Alexandra Paul & Mitchell Islam to debut new programs in Barrie

Finally. No pressure. No injuries. Clear road ahead.

Canadian bronze medalists Alexandra Paul and Mitchell Islam see their world opening up this season, having finally snared two Grand Prix events after their efforts at the world championships last March in Japan.

It’s hard to believe, but that world championship in Japan was only their first. They had shown such promise after they had been paired up back in 2009. Within less than a year, they had won the Canadian junior title and earned a silver medal at the world junior championships. Their rise seemed meteoric.

Their debut at the senior level – at a Skate Canada International – gave people goosebumps. Then, while they had other plans, life happened.  Everything that could go wrong, went wrong. They suffered crazy injuries that scuttled their Grand Prix assignments over the next two seasons. Third at their first crack at the senior national level in 2011, they sunk to fifth the next year and then to fourth after a fall in the free dance. Last year, they upped their game, finished third again at nationals and earned their way to the Olympics. Sochi was an experience they will never forget. As many did, they photographed themselves standing within the giant Olympic rings at the venue.

The big triumph this season already is that they have earned two Grand Prix assignments. During the 2012-13 season, they got no Grand Prix at all, and last season, they got only the home Grand Prix, Skate Canada International. It’s been a long struggle uphill for a team that had so much early promise.

Their career has been stop and start. They were on a high to finish third at the Canadian championships, but their 18th place finish in Sochi wasn’t all they had hoped for. Later, Islam said they were distracted by all things Olympic – and they skated with too much caution. In the next few weeks, they redoubled their efforts to finish 10th at the world championships in Japan.

That 10th place finish at the world championships gave them a high-enough placing internationally that they earned two Grand Prix this season: Cup of China and Trophée Eric Bompard in Bordeaux, France.

They had lost confidence for a time. Now they have it. “Last season was so long,” Paul said. “It was good to have downtime after worlds.” They took time off in April and May, skipped summer competitions, spent time with their families and are returning refreshed.

“We’re in a different spot now,” Islam said. “We feel good now. It’s been nice. We enjoyed the summer. How we are training with confidence. If you are confident, you carry it into your training. Every day we prove to ourselves that we belong on top. “Attitude is everything.

Sure, they had a tough couple of years, he said, but they are “a lot more settled,” Islam said. “The confidence is way higher.”

With that in mind, Paul says they would like to win medals at both of their Grand Prix events. “It will be tough,” she said. “But it’s tough at all Grand Prix.”

How tough? At Cup of China, they are in against world champions Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte of Italy, the new team of Elena Ilinykh and Ruslan Zhiganshin of Russia (She was fourth with her previous partner and he was seventh with his previous partner at worlds last year); and Americans Maia and Alex Shibutani (sixth last year).

In France, Paul and Islam will take on Cappellini and Lanotte again, Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev of Russia (world bronze medalists a couple of years ago) and countrymen Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, eighth at worlds.

“We don’t see ourselves being out of place with bronze at both events,” Islam said.

They come equipped with two great programs. Their coaches Pasquale Camerlengo and Anjelika Krylova did the choreography for their short dance in June: it’s a Paso flamenco, and the music – “Nocturno” by Luciani and “Farruca y Rhumba” by Pepe Romero is exactly what they used when they won the silver medal at the world junior championships in 2009-2010. “Now we’re in a different part of our career and we are different skaters,” Islam said. They had found the music on iTunes.

Then they headed off to Montreal later that month to have Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon create their free dance, using a Frank Sinatra-Gloria Estefan duet. It was a heady experience: Paul and Islam say Dubreuil and Lauzon are their idols – and they had gone to them once before, with great results. Dubreuil and Lauzon designed their free dance that created such a furore at their senior international debut at Skate Canada International in Kingston, Ontario in 2011.

They had skated to lyrical music, “As Time Goes By,” which allowed them to show off their ease of movement, and effortless freedom. They earned a standing ovation for it, and actually finished second, (fourth overall) ahead of Sinead and John Kerr, who had been ranked fifth in the world at the time. It was only Paul and Islam’s second season together.

Now they have gone back to the same well, and they will skate to something new: “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “The Way You Look Tonight.”

“We knew what we wanted to do,” Paul said. “We wanted something romantic. We wanted to add another layer and the jazzy blues is a difference in style for us.”

It took them four days to choreograph it. “We had so much fun,” Islam said.

They’ve also been stepping up their lifts. They worked with an acrobat in Montreal.

They’re proud of themselves for the big jump they made in the standings between Olympics and worlds, when they were able to turn things around. They also would like to be within the top eight at worlds in Shanghai this year. They will take that first step by returning home to their former training ground in Barrie, Ontario to compete at the Skate Canada Autumn Classic International this week.

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