Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron were kids when they each began skating at the same rink in central France, where her mother, Catherine, was an ice dance coach and his father, Marc, the president of the local ice dance club.
They still were kids when Catherine Papadakis thought that they could make a good dance team.
They were both then nine years old. They would be skating partners for the next 18 years, through adolescence, a move to Canada eight years ago, injuries and the challenges of COVID.
The length of that partnership had a significant impact on allowing them to perform as they did Monday in Beijing, winning the 2022 Olympic gold medal with an artistry that has made them one of the most compelling teams in the history of ice dance.
Over the years, they had not only mastered their craft more completely but also became ready for anything that got thrown at them because they had been through it all, including an unnerving wardrobe malfunction at the 2018 Olympics.
“It has been quite a while,” Cizeron said. “It’s all we’ve known and shared. A day like today would have been so much harder if we didn’t have those 18 years of experience together.”
Longevity of partnership is a thread common to ice dance champions, notably recent ones like two-time Olympic gold medalists Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada (21 years), winners in 2010 and 2018, and Olympic gold medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White of the United States (17 years), winners in 2014. Those teams also began skating together before each skater was 10 years old.
“Charlie and I grew up together, learned a great deal about life and who we were as people during our time together,” Davis said via email. “For many, many years, we spent most of our hours of most of our days in each other’s space.
“After so much time, particularly in a creative, competitive and demanding environment, we learned to read one another quite naturally — mood, body language, little nuances in the tone of voice and emotional state. That deep understanding built over time bred a trust and comfort I found incredibly reassuring as we approached our Olympic moments, particularly in 2014.”
Davis and White won gold in 2014 after silver in 2010. Papadakis and Cizeron won gold in 2022 after silver in 2018.
The French couple’s free skate in Beijing was a marvel of interpretation, both physical and emotional, to Gabriel Faure’s hauntingly beautiful “Elegy” for cello and piano. It includes phrases of lingering melancholy and nostalgic happiness, but the underlying theme is one of anguish.
Conveying that on skates requires command of making the blades flow effortlessly, the skill to handle inventive variations on the basic movements of ice dance and the emotive quality to highlight them.
There were broad strokes, like Cizeron, 27, carrying his partner across his knees, as if to bear the weight of her emotional pain. There were subtle gestures, like Papadakis, 26, brushing a hand past her face, as if covering a troubling memory, while doing an ice dance pirouette known as a twizzle.
Making all those movements meaningful is critical to success in ice dance, which has no jumps with which to easily differentiate teams. Its impression demands a togetherness only time can create.
“Ice dance is one of the most complex sports I know,” Cizeron said. “You have to be a great skater, a great team, a great dancer in pretty much every style of dance that exists and very athletic as well.”
On the ice, communication is almost always non-verbal, in a glance or a hand squeeze. What cue each partner gives that way is learned over years.
“Longevity is incredibly important because of how complex both the training relationship and competitive relationship is, especially in ice dance, since the elements are so nuanced, and there’s so much relying on the performance and emotional chemistry,” said Ben Agosto, 2006 Olympic silver medalist with Tanith Belbin White, now an NBC commentator married to Charlie White.
“It takes an incredibly long time to develop both the chemistry and the ability to execute all the elements cohesively and seamlessly while still maintaining that performance level.”
Belbin and Agosto were relative newbies in 2006 — only eight years together, beginning when both were teens. It was not until 2010, when they finished fourth at the Olympics, that he felt they had reached peak performance.
“When we finished our free dance at the 2010 Olympics, it was the first time where we felt finally able to execute everything in the program the way we trained it back home,” Agosto said. “That was our last competitive performance and where we were the most together.”
Davis and White gave their last competitive performance at the 2014 Winter Games. The most striking feature of the way they performed it was a feeling for tempo, as their skating changes of pace matched the shifts in the music’s speed. That is an understanding White said that they had not developed until three years before then.
“I have always envisioned ice dance as a marathon sport,” Agosto said. “It takes a lot of time just to learn how to skate as close as possible and not take each other out.”
Davis, who now skates in shows with White, still feels they have more to learn and perfect even after 18 years.
“I’m not sure if the pursuit of synchronicity and harmony really has an endpoint, to be honest,” she wrote.
Skating for judges rather than audiences at ice shows adds another dimension, that of competitive readiness. While every entertainer tries to be at his or her best every night, one off night won’t hurt the way it would athletes seeking a prize at a singular moment.
Until Papadakis and Cizeron skated the rhythm dance Saturday, they faced doubts created by their having been absent from a major international championship since the 2020 European Championships. They had surprisingly lost there to Russian skaters Viktoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov, silver medalists Monday.
Papadakis and Cizeron had first hoped to reverse that outcome — it would be their only defeat since the 2018 Olympics — at the 2020 World Championships in Montreal, where they train, but that event was cancelled by the start of the COVID outbreak in Canada.
But longevity helped erase the doubts. Papadakis, 26, and Cizeron, 27, easily won the rhythm dance Saturday with a record-setting performance.
“When it comes to competition, we have 17 years of experience together,” Cizeron said Saturday before doing the math again Monday. “We weren’t really worried about not having done (the 2021) Europeans. We know what a competition is. We know how to manage the stress.
“By trusting our training and trusting each other, we were able to gather our strength and to get through it.”
They had managed to get through when the collar snap on her dress broke in the rhythm dance at the 2018 Winter Games. Somehow, they balanced trying to assure the top of the dress stayed in place and finishing the program, but they lost enough points to cost them the gold medal.
“A less experienced team would never be able to make it through that without falling apart,” Agosto said.
As it turned out, the cancellation of the 2020 World Championships had given Papadakis a needed break. She later told the French sports newspaper L’Equipe that they had considered withdrawal from those worlds because she felt burned out mentally and emotionally.
Things got even more complicated after that. Both caught COVID. They chose to skip the 2021 World Championships because they had lost too much training time.
Potential travel issues getting back to Canada because of its COVID-related entry restrictions meant they did not want to risk leaving for a competition until autumn 2021. They skipped January’s European Championships rather than take any gamble on COVID causing them logistical or health issues less than a month before the Olympics.
“These Olympics are so different from four years ago,” Cizeron said. “We know better what we are doing.”
They were not flawless technically in this free skate, losing points on step sequences and a lift. They made up for that with maximum grades of execution on two of the 10 elements.
The totality of their skating was consummate and rewarded with 26 perfect component scores of the 45 given. They won by the largest margin in the five Olympics scored under the International Judging System.
For Papadakis and Cizeron, it was a long time coming. And every minute of their years together helped. So many years that Cizeron indeed needed a recount; he said Monday that it had been 18 rather than 17.
Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at every Winter Olympics since 1980, is a special contributor to NBCOlympics.com.