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Skate Today

Skating’s a Family Affair for Lenko and Islam

Joanna Lenko & Mitchell Islam

The 2005 Canadian novice dance silver medallists, Joanna Lenko and Mitchell Islam, decided to forego a second year in novice and jump straight into junior dance competition in Canada this season. “The move was a bit of a surprise,” said David Islam, the team’s head coach and Mitchell’s father. “They did exceedingly well in novice last season so there was no point in holding them back. Their goal at the beginning of last season was to be in the top five and they finished second so why stay back another year. It’s another big step in their development but they’ll have six years of eligibility in juniors internationally and that’s huge. With the time they have together as a team, they’re ready.”

This season, the dancers hoped to place in the top seven at Canadians, which they accomplished by finishing fourth. They finished second in the original dance and third in the free dance at their first junior competition of the season, the Minto Summer Skate in Ottawa, Ontario in July then finished second at the North American Challenge Skate in Montreal in July. The couple then placed first in both the compulsory and free dances at Oktoberfest in Barrie, Ontario. They finished ninth overall at their first Junior Grand Prix in Estonia, but fifth in the free dance.

Even though they are only 13 and 15 respectively, Lenko and Islam have been skating together for six years, almost forever in this era of frequent partner swapping. Neither has ever danced with any one else. Both of the dancers have quite a family pedigree in the skating world. Lenko’s three older sisters all skated, with two, Kristina and Sarah, competing at Canadians. Kristina finished as high as eighth in senior dance with Danny Moir in 2003, while Sarah finished eighth in juniors in 2004 with Michael Whitehead. Islam’s parents were both skaters. His mother, Debbie, is an international judge, while his father, David, is one of Canada’s premier ice dance coaches. His sister, who is two years younger, also skates and competed against him and Lenko in pre-preliminary competitions. “We were always first-second,” he remembered.

So it’s no surprise that both of the dancers started young. “I grew up with skating,” Islam said. “My Dad carried me out on the ice right after I was born. We were in the ice rink a lot and I started skating when I was about three. I skated freestyle until Joanna came when I was nine and we’ve been dancing together since then.” Lenko began when she was only two, almost before she could walk. “We lived in a small town in Saskatchewan so there wasn’t anything else to do,” she said. “My sisters were all skaters so I grew up with it.” When Joanna’s sister came to Barrie to train, the rest of her family followed,” Islam added. “I was looking for a partner and she was just right.”

“We like a lot of the same things,” Lenko said. “We like and respect each other as people, not just as skaters.” We have a great chemistry on the ice,” Islam added. “We know each other’s moves by instinct. I like Joanna’s work ethic. She makes me work hard and keeps me on track.” Coach David Islam concurred, noting, “They have a great working relationship and know each others moves and quirks very well. They’re like brother and sister. They’re in a real comfort zone with each other so they can be honest with one another in ways that a new couple can’t.”

David Islam heads their coaching team at the Mariposa School of Skating in Barrie, Ontario. The other coaches are Kelly Johnson and Pavol Porac. “It’s a team approach,” said David Islam. “They have about equal time with all of the coaches. I have a little more patience with the other kids than I do with Mitch because I know all of his little quirks and body language. So sometimes I have to stand back and let the other coaches take over.” “I’m used to my Dad being my coach now,” Mitchell said. “It’s easier to talk to him about things. But we don’t talk about skating once we go home.” Since mom Debbie doesn’t judge dance, that’s not an issue, but Mitchell said. “It’s weird sometimes because she knows all the other judges.”

Lenko hasn’t had any problems being compared to her elder sisters. “My family is very supportive,” she said. “They always tell me not to put too much pressure on myself. My sister Kristina married Steven Cousins and it’s nice to have a big brother now. I only had sisters. My sisters give input into the design of my dresses. They’re so expensive that my Mom sews them and beads them all. We have lots of their dresses but I’m not big enough to wear most of them yet.”

During the summer, the dancers train for four hours on ice and two to three hours off ice, five days a week. During the winter, their training schedule drops to three hours on ice and two hours off. They have ballet classes twice a week, other off ice dance classes, and a lot of cardio training. They also run once a week. As for other sports, Islam played AAA hockey until last year and still competes on a rep level lacrosse team. Lenko limits her other sports to cycling and the occasional game of tennis.

Kelly Johnson choreographed the couple’s free dance to “Harem” by Sarah Brightman. Pavol Porac choreographed their original dance. They are dancing a mambo to “Mambo Swing” by Scotty Morris, performed by the Big Bad Voodoo Daddy Orchestra and a rhumba to “Europa” by Alturas. “We’ve always been more serious and dramatic,” Lenko said. “Kelly usually finds the music and gives us options.” “We choose the music we like best,” Islam added. “We chose Harem because it’s very dramatic and we could picture ourselves skating to it.” Off ice, Lenko said she doesn’t listen to anything in particular, while Islam likes “rock, hip hop and everything in between.” Both dancers can play the piano. “I’ working on my Grade 8 piano, and my goal is to get my performance degree with the Royal Conservatory of Music,” Lenko noted.

Lenko is in grade 8 this season, while Islam is in grade 10. Her favorite subjects are history and mathematics, while he likes English best. “I like writing stories and essays,” he said. As for future careers, neither skater has a firm idea in mind, although Islam noted that he’s interested in forensics and watches all the CSI shows on television. He said he plans to keep skating “as long as I can keep up with it and the fun’s still there.” “It would be fun to go on Stars on Ice or one of the big tours when we’re older,” Lenko added.

Both of the skaters hang out with their friends and families when they’re not skating. Lenko said, “I really enjoy things outside. I like almost anything as long as it’s outside, especially in the summer.”

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Skate Today was created in November 2004 to showcase the people of the skating world, skaters and coaches and others, who make figure skating and ice dancing a pleasure to watch for fans from around the world. The goal was to create a site that would give viewers an insight into the personalities of the people involved in this sport and to give you a more personal connection when watching them live at an event or on the television. Our staff knows how much time and dedication is put into this sport and that's why Skate Today was created.

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