Australian Aboriginal skater on brink of making Winter Olympic history
March 26, 2017
Article from Inside The Games. Reported by Mike Rowbottom.
As you read this, two young figure skaters are training hard on an ice rink. They are in Moscow; they are on the brink of making history.
The International Skating Union's (ISU) World Figure Skating Championships, which start in Helsinki on Wednesday (March 29), will present a number of compelling stories to the watching world.
Will Nathan Chen, the 17-year-old rising star from the United States, follow through on an extraordinary season in which he has won the prestigious Four Continents Championships with a programme that included an unprecedented five quadruple jumps?
Or will Spain's less technically extravagant but more expressive and experienced Javier Fernandez rise once again to the world challenge, to earn a third consecutive title?
Or, indeed, will Japan's Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, who has taken silver behind his training partner in the last two years, project himself to the top of a second global podium?
Will Russia's outstanding 17-year-old defending women's singles champion Yevgenya Medvedeva maintain her consistency this season to retain her title?
At what level will Alexa Sciemeca Knierim, who competes in the pairs for the US with husband Christopher Knierim, be able to skate after undergoing three abdominal surgeries - two last August, the last on November 1 - to correct a potentially fatal condition?
Fascinating questions all - but for many observers the focus of interest at the Finnish capital's Hartwell Arena this week will be the new Australian pairing of Harley Windsor and Ekaterina Alexandrovskaya that earned an unexpected world junior gold in Taipei, Taiwan, earlier this month. They now have a chance of qualifying for next year's Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
Were that to happen, it would mean Windsor becoming the first competitor of Aboriginal heritage to appear in a Winter Olympics.
Before that summit of achievement can be gained, however, there are two looming tasks for the young athletes. They have to qualify for the Games and the 17-year-old Alexandrovskaya, who was born and still mainly lives in Moscow, must gain Australian citizenship.
The latter target is complicated by the fact that, because Alexandrovskaya is a minor as far as Australia is concerned, she must be accompanied in her new homeland by her widowed mother - who must also pass the Australian language test.
As far as qualifying goes, the 20-year-old Windsor and his partner need to do well enough at the forthcoming Worlds, where 16 of the 20 Olympic pairs quota places are on offer.
Or, failing that, they need to claim one of the four remaining pairs places for Pyeongchang 2018 at the second Olympic qualifying event, the Nebelhorn Trophy. Action will take place in Oberstdorf in Germany between September 27 and 30.
It is a tall order for a couple who have been competing together for less than a year - but not, according to some of the sport's most knowledgeable observers, an impossible one.
Tatyana Flade is a freelance German journalist who specialises in skating. She works regularly for the ISU, and has covered every annual World Figure Skating Championship since 1992, as well as the last four Winter Games.
"I do think they have a chance because they are good," says Flade, a fluent Russian and English speaker who can claim to be the first journalist to have interviewed the couple having travelled to see their preparations in Moscow during May of last year.
"They have the full technical content they need to compete at senior level, so I think they have a good chance of getting to the Games.
"Even if they don't make it via the World Championships, they could make one of the other four quota places on offer at the Olympic qualifier in Germany."
ISU rules are notably more relaxed about citizenship than those of the International Olympic Committee. In order to represent a country in either pairs or ice dance at ISU meetings, only one of the two skaters needs to have citizenship from that nation.
For instance, there will be 28 pairs at the forthcoming World Figure Skating Championships - and 14 of them, including the young "Australians", will be bi-national. The ice dance event is very similar, with 17 out of 32 pairs having different nationalities.
But in order to compete at the Olympics in the pairs or ice dance, both skaters must have citizenship of the country they represent.
Upgrading in time to take up an allotted Olympic quota place is something that can be either straightforward or not, according to which country one wishes to represent.
Before the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, for instance, red tape frustrated the attempts of Canadian ice dancer Tanith Belbin to earn US citizenship in time to compete with Benjamin Agosto.
The pair had to wait another four years for Olympic participation, although they made the most of it as they took the silver medal in the Turin 2006 ice dance.
However, the signs for Windsor and Alexandrovskaya appear good.
"I spoke to them after they won in Taipei and they said they were pretty optimistic about getting citizenship for Ekaterina in time because there was very strong support from the Australian Olympic Committee," Flade added.
"Ekaterina needs to establish her residency in Australia, and because she is a minor, her mother has to pass the language test in Australia.
"Her mother is currently studying English back home in Moscow. She will now be applying for residency in Australia because she will have to be looking after Ekaterina, although she doesn't need to become a citizen herself."
Windsor and Alexandrovskaya pursued separate skating careers until the start of last year. Alexandrovskaya had been pairs skating with Russian partners, but her coach in Moscow, Nina Mozer, suggested she try out with Windsor after he had been recommended as a potential pairs partner by his Russian coaches back in Australia, Andrei and Galina Pachin.
Windsor, whose family in Rooty Hill in west Sydney had no history of ice skating, introduced himself to the sport by chance when he was eight years old after his mother Josie got lost driving around the city and ended up at Blacktown ice skating rink.
"I was with my mum and we sort of just took a wrong turn and found an ice rink. I decided I wanted to give it a go," Windsor told Sydney Broadcasting Services.
"I kind of just loved the feeling across the ice, you get a nice cold breeze in your face and I felt like it was my thing."
His mother said she was having a coffee at the time. "No-one had come out and said my son had broken his arm so I went in and there he is zipping back and forward on the ice rink and I said 'Harley I didn’t know you could get skate, son' and he said 'neither did I Mum.'"
Within a year Windsor won the New South Wales Championships for his age, coached by the Pachins. But by last year his career as a singles skater had stalled. One of the factors working against him was his height - at 1.86 metres, just over six foot, one inch, he was getting a little too tall for the event, where many of the top skaters are shorter, making for easier jumps.
It was at this point that the Pachins suggested a new route for him and organised a trip over to Moscow.
"I went over to Moscow to speak to Ekaterina and Harley soon after they had started training as a pair," Flade said. "Katia’s coach, Nina Mozer, had invited me to come over and have a look at them. Right from the start she thought they were a very good match and could be very successful. And she has turned out to be right.
"But Harley and Katia have definitely been surprised at how far they have come so soon. They really didn't expect it would go that well.
"Galina and Andrei have been coaching skaters in Australia for more than a decade. Andrei coached Harley as a singles skater. Harley is not that tall, but generally speaking the shorter skaters in the men's singles do seem to find it easier to perform all the jumps, and Andrei thought that maybe Harley could try pairs skating.
"At that point Harley was competing at national level and thinking he might quit skating. Then came this idea. And after visiting Moscow everything clicked with Ekaterina and he said he liked pairs skating because of the different elements, so he decided to go for it.
"It doesn’t always happen that skaters match up so quickly and easily in pairs. But in Australia there are not so many skaters, so Harley had a better chance of finding a pairs partner in Russia.
"Good coaches can very often see which skaters would make good partners."
Less than a month after making their international debut on September 12 at the ISU Junior Grand Prix in the Czech Republic, where they finished eighth, they won in Tallinn in Estonia.
In Taipei they defeated more fancied pairs from Russia and China to earn a gold that has sent them into senior competition with exciting possibilities.
Before the event began, Windsor told The Australian: "It was a little bit scary when we realised we were getting on the ice with all three Chinese pairs.
"You don't want to get in their way but then you kind of realise we are doing everything they are doing, so we have to have the mindset that we’re just as good as them and we have every right to be there."
After their victory, he commented: "I'm shocked that we got first place, it's crazy to put Australia in the scene for skating and we're over the moon about the gold medal, I can't put it into words."
His mum was even more stunned. "I screamed and screamed and then the dog almost bit me," she told ABC Sydney.
Windsor's parents are both indigenous and from regional New South Wales - his mother is from the Weilwyn and Gamilaraay people, and his father, Peter, is from the Gamilaraay and Ngarrable people.
One of seven children, Windsor is the only ice skater in the family.
"Harley is the first and only Aboriginal person that's ever been to ice skating," his mother said. "[He’s] brought home a medal for Australia and it took an Aboriginal person. When he goes to the Olympics he’ll be the first ever Aboriginal person to represent Australia in ice skating."
Can Windsor help to make a similar impact for Australia in the Winter Olympics to that made in the Summer Games by athlete Cathy Freeman? Time will tell.
The first indigenous Australians to compete in the Olympics were basketball player Michael Ah Matt and boxers Adrian Blair and Frank Roberts, who all took part in the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo.
Freeman became the first indigenous Australian woman to be selected for the Summer Olympics, reaching the semi-finals in the 400m at the Barcelona Games.
At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics she took 400m silver behind France’s Marie-Jose Perec, and four years later at her home Sydney Games she lit the cauldron in the Opening Ceremony before earning the 400m gold - the first individual gold for an Australian of aboriginal heritage.
It was not the first Olympic gold for an indigenous athlete, however, as Nova Peris had been part of the victorious Australian women's hockey team in Atlanta.
Ten indigenous Australian athletes were selected for last year's Rio Olympics across beach volleyball, hockey, football, rugby sevens, athletics and basketball.
The presence of one more at the next scheduled Olympics would be momentous - but this is not Windsor's only shot at what would be a distinguishing achievement, Flade believes.
"Harley is only 20, Ekaterina is just 17," she says. "Most pairs skaters go on into their 30s at the top level. At the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, the Chinese who won the pairs title were both well over 30.
"He and Ekaterina are both so young that they could also compete at the Beijing 2022 Games and even beyond that."