The 2019 US National Figure Skating Championships, held January 18th -27th is the culmination of the sport of Figure Skating and Ice Dancing in the United States. Featuring singles and pairs figure skating as well as ice dancing which is figure skating with elements of ballroom dancing. This year’s Nationals made headlines for two reasons, well, more like two pairs of two reasons.

The first pair, Karina Manta and Joe Johnson are notable for being the first ever openly queer pairs team to compete in Figure Skating or Ice Dancing. Manta herself identifies as bisexual, while her skating partner Johnson identifies as a gay man. Karina Manta is the first ever openly gay or bi female figure skater and the first to compete at Nationals.  In a video she made with her girlfriend Aleena, Manta found the strength and courage to overcome her own nervousness and fear in coming out. In an interview with ESPN she stated…

“I had trouble sleeping for about two weeks because I was so anxious,” she reflects. “I wrote the poem in July or August, but it took me a while from that point to build up the courage for us to actually film the video.”

While Manta is the first female figure skater to come out during her career. She has been skating with partner, Joe Johnson, who is openly gay, since 2014. With Manta’s coming out, they have become the first openly queer pairs team in figure skating. With their strength in diversity, the two brought a new style and flavor to the US National Figure Skating Championships. Figure Skating and Ice Dancing is a sport that is judged, not just on athletic ability, but artistic interpretation. However, the influence of social, aesthetic and culture can have an impact on scores as well and this has proven to be a struggle for Manta and Johnson in the past.

Since teaming up in 2014, they have tried to adopt more romance themes and other routines that are common for heterosexual figure skating pairs. After embracing their new identity off the ice, Manta and Johnson decided that this season needed a new identity on the ice. With the help of British choreographer Christopher Dean, Manta and Johnson put together a program that breaks the heteronormative molds of traditional figure skating.

“On the ice, you want to be seen as an athlete,” Manta says. “But it’s also super important to us that we are visible queer athletes.”

Their new routine was choreographed to “Sweet Dreams Are Made Of These” by Eurythmics with Manta adopting a new look to blur the lines of gender identity and better connect with the audience.

“I look at our free dance, and people have fun with it, they want to be involved,” Johnson says. “Part of the fun of being queer is you start to let go of the things that might disrupt your identity because you know exactly what you are, and you know exactly what you like.”

Manta’s and Johnson’s fellow competitors have been very supportive for their queer teammates and are looking forward to seeing Manta and Johnson push the artistic limits of the sport. Charlie White, the 2014 Olympic Champion expressed his support…

“It’s easy to see the same thing over and over again when it’s a man and a woman telling a love story,” he says. “When you have a team that doesn’t portray a romantic relationship for any reason, they’re forced to consider new ways to tell their story. That opens up new doors, new pathways.”

At the 2019 US National Figure Skating Championships, Manta and Johnson placed 7th in the final with a score of 55.16. Yet, they have achieved more in figure skating than can ever be defined by a podium, the future is bright for these two.

The second pair was that of Ashley Cain and Timothy Leduc, who took to the ice in the Figure Skating Pairs event (separate from Ice Dancing). Cain and Leduc took home the gold medal at the National Championships with Timothy Leduc becoming the first ever openly queer person to win the U.S. Pairs title. In an interview with Team USA, Leduc stated…

“I’m very grateful. I stand on the shoulders of many great athletes who have come before me and allowed me to be open,” LeDuc said. “I believe I am the first openly queer person to win the U.S. pairs title. Rudy Galindo and Randy Gardner came before but I don’t believe they were out.”

He went on to state…

“Queer people still face a lot of challenges in this country. We’re still fighting for equality. I know for me personally I spent a lot of my earlier life self-deprecating because I didn’t understand who I was, and it’s taken years and years of work to overcome that; I still doubt myself sometimes. To be standing here today as the first openly queer athlete, I don’t say that to honor myself, I say it to show to others that you can do this, you can overcome, and you are worth it; you don’t have to doubt yourself for any reason.”

The win was especially sweet for Ashley Cain who suffered a concussion just 6 weeks prior, which put her and Leduc’s participation in the National Championships into question. The accident happened during a previous competition in Croatia when Cain took a nasty fall during a free skate lift exit. Fortunately, she didn’t have any other physical injuries other than the concussion. However, her recovery included a lot of work with a psychologist to overcome the growing anxiety of executing the same move in the program. Through visualization and mental rehearsal, she was able to overcome those struggles.

“I told myself I need to remember this moment, because a month from now, hopefully, I will be standing on top of the podium,” Cain said, recalling how she willed herself through that extended emergency room visit. “You never know what is going to happen during that time, but I think having that thought gave me a little bit of hope to have courage to keep fighting and to be OK with the circumstances. I think that is what showed today.”

When the time came to execute the move Nationals, she landed the move smoothly and executed a technically clean free skate program. Helping her and LeDuc take home the gold medal.

The 2019 U.S. National Figure Skating Championships will certainly be remembered as an important moment for representation of queer athletes in figure skating as we move forward in making more opportunities for queer inclusion in sports.

By Dirk Smith