Skating with pairs partner Jamie Knoblauch from the Preston FSC, Tillsonburg Skating Club's Nathan O'Brien has done more than just keep his skating dream alive.
The Woodstock-area skater is living that dream with a chance to win novice pairs gold at the Skate Canada Challenge in Pierrefonds, Quebec, Dec. 3-7.
It wasn't that long ago that O'Brien thought he was done.
He finished his singles skating career at the age of 19 with a silver medal in the Gold Men's division at the Fort Erie Skate Ontario StarSkate Cup in March 2013. But he wasn't quite finished skating. On his free time while attending Conestoga College, he did some skating at the Preston Skating Club in Cambridge, known for its pairs skating, only a few minutes drive from Conestoga’s Cambridge campus.
"Just doing some skating, wrapping things up basically."
A Preston coach suggested he would be good at pairs, something he had only briefly considered in the weeks leading up to StarSkate Cup, partly because of its 21-year-old age limit.
"It might be the end for singles," he said in March 2013, "but hopefully not 'the end' of skating."
O'Brien still hesitated, unsure.
He remembered watching pairs skater Peter Lipinski at the Tillsonburg Skating Club and thinking, 'Nah, I'm not doing that...'
The coach was looking for a partner for Preston's Jamie Knoblauch, a young, accomplished singles skater who would later finish second at the 2013 Western Ontario Sectionals in Juvenile Women's U14 (narrowly edging Tillsonburg bronze medallist Madeline Jelsma).
Knoblauch, 11 at the time, was described as 'quick, fast, good.'
"I tried out in Preston, and it all went great," said O'Brien. "I was starting to enjoy it and I was thinking 'this is pretty cool.'"
Cool, but different.
"It was a big change. The whole way I skated. It's not just going to the rink and skating for yourself anymore. It's skating with your partner. I had to learn a lot about being a team. That was a big change for me."
In October 2013, O'Brien and Knoblauch skated in their first novice pairs competition.
"We did 'ok' – we didn't have high expectations. We were just getting our feet wet. Then at Sectionals (November 2013) we came in third with a total of 63.34. I thought that was pretty good. Then we went to Challenge that year, finished 10th with 78.94 points and qualified for Nationals. So we were getting better as the year was going on."
At Nationals, they moved up to eighth with a new high score.
"That was our first season and we really only had six months skating with the programs. Later, in February (2014), we started skating a lot better and we came second at (Ontario) Winter Games. We were starting to connect, starting to work as a team."
It was an encouraging result, he said, because they almost beat the team that finished second at Nationals.
Not quite ready to make the jump to junior, they stayed in novice for the 2014-15 season with new and revised programs hoping to build on their skating skills.
"Now that we've had a full season, we know what to expect. We started off in Detroit with, I think, 94 points in our first competition. That was our first gold medal."
They added another gold at Summer Skate in Thornhill and Octoberfest in Barrie.
"Octoberfest wasn't really our best program, but we still came out on top. We could do better. At Sectionals, they wanted to see me focus more on my partner and cooperate. My main words were 'focus, calm, relax.' Don't let your mind race. Just stay ready for the moment."
At Sectionals in Sarnia, Nov. 7-9, O'Brien, who would turn 21 on Nov. 11, and Knoblauch, now 12, finished first with personal bests of 32.85/66.44 (99.29 total).
"Now we're going to Challenge again," said O'Brien, looking forward to the Quebec competition. "And we're going with a really good chance to win Challenge this year. There's only a couple other teams that will give us a run for our money – but we've got to work hard, not look at the people we're going against. We have to focus on the partnership, focus and work as a team. Connecting. That's the biggest thing, just work as a team. And stay calm, relax."
Looking to the future, O'Brien hopes to make the move to junior pairs.
"After this year we should be ready. We should be able to prove to the judges that we belong together at the junior level. Right now, the goal is to skate very well and to work as a team. If we do that and stay calm... block everyone else out and focus on what we have to get done on the ice... if we just do one element at a time, the points will show."
O'Brien, in his third year at Conestoga, realizes what kind of opportunity he has at Challenge and Nationals.
"I went from singles and thinking I was done, to this wide open door knowing there's a great path ahead of me."
O'Brien and Knoblauch are coached by Lorraine Knoblauch, Jamie's mother, and Kevin Wheeler, at the Preston club.