Just before he had to leave the ice after warmup, Paul Ayer ran his fingers over the words “CALGARY” at centre ice at the Winsport arena. He had come home to Calgary. And now it was his time.
Born in Calgary, Ayer moved to Montreal six years ago to skate with Alicia Fabbri. He had searched for almost an entire season to find the perfect ice dancing partner after a previous partnership dissolved. He wanted to get it right. Who would want to train as hard as he? Who would have the same vision, the same ability, the same want?
If there were moments at the Canadian National Skating Championships last week that tugged at the heart, that triggered chills that lasted long after the event was over, they were the two ice dancing programs of Fabbri and Ayer.
He had found the right partner.
When they skate, there is a ZZZZZZT that goes between them. They look at each other throughout the routines. There is an unseen magnet that is pulls the spectator in, too. They skate as a unit. Observing, you put down your pen and forget you are watching twizzles and pattern dance steps and dance spins. Every line matches. The hand movements through the never-ending twizzles move constantly in complete unison, flashing against the backdrop.
Ayer is probably the only skater on the planet for whom you can use the words “barrel racing” and “ice dancing” in the same sentence. He is from Calgary, after all. He apparently is a line dancer, too. A truly Western dude, skating with a Quebecker who loves boating and interior design. Yet they fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.
Fabbri and Ayer have competed in the shadows as they grew and learned and did some Junior Grand Prix, and handled COVID, and event cancelations and injuries. Oh, the injuries.
They missed most of last season because Ayer separated his shoulder early in the year. He had had surgery for it before. He knows all about torn labrums.
Their first senior Grand Prix, Skate Canada International, was cancelled because of the pandemic.
During the 2022-23 season, they had landed another one, the John Wilson Trophy in Sheffield, England. But the week before the event, Ayer dislocated the pesky right shoulder at home in practice. And of course, it was the same shoulder that had caused him problems before. He had just taken a regular fall, but having had previous shoulder surgery, there is a 20 per cent chance that it could separate again. And it did that day.
He dislocated it completely. Out on the ice, they managed to put it back in place. But he endured endless hours of physiotherapy, trying to get the shoulder in condition good enough to compete in Sheffield. That, they managed. “It was painful and tough,” he said.
They kept the injury to themselves, just to avoid external distractions.
In the midst of all the physio, the team scrambled to adjust their choreography to avoid stressing his shoulder. They modified some arm movements that went above the shoulder – as much as they could.
They did not actually get to train these changes. They did not do a full free program until they had to compete it in Sheffield.
On the practice the day before the rhythm dance in England, the duo was training their combination lift, in which Ayer has his arm above his shoulder, and Fabbri on his shoulder, too.
“My shoulder fully came out of the socket, having nothing holding it in place,” he said. He quickly called the lift, telling Fabbri that he had to set her down.
On her way down, as he bent over, her legs ran over his shoulder and put it back in place.
They looked at each other. “We’re good to go,” Ayer said. He didn’t tell her what actually happened until the program was over.
Fortunately, the shoulder stayed in place throughout the event. Fabbri was nervous. She had no control over what could happen.
They finished eighth in Sheffield. That was a victory in itself.
But soon after they returned home, they realized that it was best to stop the season right then, get surgery, miss out on Skate Canada Challenge and nationals, and be ready for this season.
“The shoulder was just too sensitive,” Fabbri said. “It was coming out and back in.”
Doctors did surgery on Dec. 28 a year ago. He didn’t get back onto the ice until May.
Meanwhile, Fabbri trained by herself for months, and reasoned that “it was long, but there were so many things I wanted to work on and I was able to then.”
They did some off-ice work in April when he returned to Montreal.
“We made the most of it,” Fabbri said.
Ayer said there is a more extensive operation that would reduce the risk of the shoulder dislocating again to only 3 per cent. But it would limit a lot of the range of the shoulder. “In this sport, we want the range,” he said. So he didn’t take that option.
Their season has been shorter than usual, but they have put in the work, and it showed at nationals in Calgary. “We felt more ready than usual after off-season,” Fabbri said.
The season, they finished ninth at the Nebelhorn Trophy in Obertsdorf, Germany and seventh at Skate Canada. They were still off the radar.
But suddenly, for the national championships last week, two top teams who had been ranked above them withdrew: Laurence Fournier-Beaudry and Nikolaj Sorensen, and also Marjorie Lajoie and Zachary Lagha.
Fabbri and Ayer had finished second to Lajoie and Lagha at a national junior championship in 2019 and second to them again at the Bavarian Cup just before junior worlds. At the 2019 world junior championships, Fabbri and Ayer finished 13th in the rhythm dance, but eighth in the free, for ninth place overall. Lajoie and Lagha won.
But in Calgary last week, they were no longer in the shadows. Even had their competitors been there, they would have skated the same. They would have tingled spines, anyway.
For their rhythm dance, with its required ‘80s theme, they skated to three tunes from AC/DC: “Back in Black,” “Hells Bells” and “You Shook Me All Night Long.” It was Ayer’s idea.
“I went on vacation and I came back and he was like: “I think I like this,” Fabbri said.
At first, she thought rock was not in her wheelhouse. “Rock?” she thought. “I don’t see myself doing a Rush thing. But we’re trying to bring a different approach. And I love it so much.”
Fabbri and Ayer came out like thunder in the rhythm dance and finished third with a score they had never seen before: 77.75. They had the second highest technical content in the rhythm dance, the only team to get a level three on the pattern step. They had higher GOE for their twizzles than champs Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier and for the eventual silver medalists (Marie-Jade Lauriault and Roman Le Gac), too.
World silver dance medalist Kaitlyn Weaver, commentating at the event, said their rhythm dance was the program of the night for her.
“We wanted a song that everybody could just join in and sing,” Fabbri said.
They realized that with a late start, they really didn’t have time to create a new free dance, so they kept the one from the previous year, which they had used only three times: “Someone You Loved” by Scottish singer-songwriter Lewis Capaldi.
The song already has high-octane emotional content in the lyrics and the melody. Capaldi wrote it after the death of his grandmother.
“Now the day bleeds
And you’re not here
To get me through it all.
I let my guard down
And then you pulled the rug.
I was getting kinda used to being someone you loved.”
Fabbri and Ayer did a routine that lives up to it.
In the warmup, everytime Ayer looped the ice, cheers followed him. He had never competed in Calgary before. His friends and family were there. If ever Ayer should show what he could do, it was that day.
Technically, their free dance was a technical tour de force. They received level fours for the fast-rotating dance spin, all of their three lifts, and their twizzles, which were spot on. Fabbri did a lift where she went completely off-axis, difficult. Only world bronze medalists Gilles and Poirier got level fours for their one-foot step sequence, but Fabbri and Ayer out-pointed Lauriault and Le Gac for that element, getting level threes.
Fabbri and Ayer toted up huge bonus points at every element, getting 3.14 for midline steps. Techncially, it was a brilliant performance. But it was more than that. They got a standing ovation from across the arena. The routine put lumps in throats.
Somebody gave them both Stetsons to wear, conjuring up memories of Elizabeth Manley getting a white one while taking the silver medal at the 1988 Calgary Olympics, albeit in a different rink.
They finished with the bronze medal and a final score of 195.61, so close to breaking the 200 barrier.
Now we know who Fabbri and Ayer are.