The extraordinary story of Harley Windsor and Ekaterina Alexandrovskaya
February 3, 2018
Article from The Sydney Morning Herald. Reported by Neil Kearney.
The hardest part of telling Harley Windsor's story is convincing people it's true.
Recently I ate lunch with Harley, ploughing through an emu egg omelette, followed by kangaroo patties and a plate of medium-rare crocodile. This wasn't at some flash bush-tucker-themed eatery – we were actually in the cramped kitchen of Harley's family home, being fussed over by his mum, Josie.
When he's back in Australia, Harley comes home from training every lunchtime, famished after several hours of effort, and he loves to hoe into a feed of mum's Indigenous cooking.
Harley, 21, lives at Rooty Hill in Sydney's outer western suburbs. In one of sport's most unlikely scenarios, he is about to become the first Indigenous person to represent Australia at the Winter Olympic Games, partnering Ekaterina Alexandrovskaya in figure skating.
How have a young man of Indigenous heritage and a teenage girl from Russia been chosen to represent Australia in a discipline that is so difficult and demanding that it usually takes many years to perfect? Well, as we ate, Josie brought out a video of how Harley's story began, as a young boy performing Aboriginal dances. He was raised in the Aboriginal community around Rooty Hill and danced as soon as he could walk. As we ate, Josie regularly stepped into the backyard to check on a mulligatawny that was simmering in a camp oven beneath the clothes line.
Harley is the youngest of nine siblings, though he's actually the only child of both Josie and her husband, Peter Dahlstrom. Josie and Peter each have four children from former marriages.
Josie's heritage is from the Weilwyn and Gamilaraay people of western NSW. She grew up in a camp without power or running water near Gulargambone, a town between Dubbo and Walgett. Peter is from Moree, of the Gamilaraay and Ngarrable people, and also has Swedish ancestry.
Harley's introduction to skating was accidental. When he was nine, his mum took a wrong turn, got lost and was forced to stop at Maccas in Blacktown. Harley noticed the old ice rink across the road and asked his mum if he could give skating a try. When he hadn't returned after 45 minutes, she went looking for him, fearful that he had fallen over and broken something.
When she saw him on the ice, she realised immediately he was a natural. "I didn't know you could skate, son," Josie said. "Neither did I," he replied.
Within a year of first putting on the skates, he won the NSW championship for his age. He competed in his first international competition at 12. It was in New Zealand, and he landed a triple jump. Around that age, Harley told his mum that he would one day skate for Australia in the Olympics. She believed him then, but she still can't believe it now that he's going to the Games.
Figure skating is an expensive sport – skates, rink fees, travel to and from training and competition all add up. Despite being battlers, Josie and Peter have for more than a decade scraped together the money to pay for Harley's passion – even putting the petrol in his car and the skates on his feet.
Coached by Russian-born Galina and Andrei Pachin, who have lived in Australia for 16 years, Harley reached national level as an individual skater. But he was regarded as too tall for individual skating, so pairs had to be his real target.
Finding a suitable female in Australia was impossible. The Pachins flew to Russia at their own expense to find a female skater who would be happy with being thrown nearly 2½ metres into the air, upside down, and balancing on one of Harley's hands while they travelled at speed across the ice. The Pachins found 16-year-old Ekaterina, or Katia for short, an only child whose father had recently died.
Katia didn't speak English and Harley still doesn't utter more than a few sentences of Russian, but they are celebrating their second anniversary as a pair.
They train together for half the year in Sydney, under the Pachins' supervision, and the other half in Moscow. They have had to contend with great difficulties, financially, socially and emotionally, and they have had many twists and turns in their story.
In Taiwan last March they stunned the figure skating world by capturing the junior title at the world championships, outperforming more fancied pairs from Russia and China to become Australia's first figure skating world champions.
Hearing the news at home in Rooty Hill, Josie became hysterical. "I cried. I stopped breathing. It was awesome," she says.
The Australian team's figure skating co-ordinator, Belinda Noonan, says this is the best of what Australia can offer. "An Indigenous boy with ability and a dream, a couple of immigrant coaches and an opportunity for a girl from another country – how wonderful is that?"
Katia, who turned 18 on January 1, became an Australian citizen just a few months ago. It has been a whirlwind journey for everyone involved. And given their extraordinary potential as a pair, the story may have only just begun.