Through the doors of Wheaton Ice Arena, laughter fills the cold air as Rachel Parsons and Lorraine McNamara skate side by side. Immersed in conversation, they move effortlessly around the rink, with McNamara’s brown hair whipping across her face and Parsons’s blonde ponytail swaying back and forth.
As they round the corner of the rink in their new free dance costumes, the two are joined by their respective ice dance partners, Michael Parsons and Quinn Carpenter. Michael, 21, makes up half of the Parsons brother-sister duo with 19-year-old Rachel. Carpenter, 21, has been partners with McNamara, 18, for 12 years.
The pairs are the oldest and most decorated ice dancers at Wheaton Ice Skating Academy, the Montgomery County rink that opened in 2002 and is run by Russian ice dancing champions Alexei Kiliakov and Elena Novak. Each team has had success the past few years.
In 2016, two-time U.S. junior champions McNamara and Carpenter won gold at the World Junior Figure Skating Championships. The Parsonses earned silver. This March, the Parsonses capped an undefeated season by winning gold at the same junior world competition.
“The feeling you get when you are on the ice and they announce your name and say you are representing the United States and the ice is yours, no one else is there and everyone is looking at you, it’s a really cool feeling,” Michael Parsons said.
Though the two teams are ultimately competing for the same titles and goals — with one team more often than not finishing just behind the other — the competition is friendly. Training six days a week on the ice, with dance lessons in between, the pairs see each other almost every day and call each other “family.”
“Oh, they look at each other,” Novak said. “When we are very close to competition then it doesn’t distance them apart, but it creates a certain atmosphere that they want to have their own space in a way.”
But on this night in July, both teams were lighthearted, sharing each other’s hair spray and recounting stories on the bench right outside the rink. There was no visible animosity or jealousy, as both teams prepare for an upcoming competition, the 2017 Lake Placid Ice Dance Championships, which begin in New York on Wednesday.
“Oh, I hate them,” Carpenter joked as he burst out in laughter. “Just kidding. They’re cool. We grew up in all these levels together.
“We have sort of a friendly rivalry going on where we learn from each other.”
This week will be the first senior level competition for both teams. McNamara and Carpenter were in juniors the past seven years, the Parsonses the past six.
“Finishing our junior career was a big release, and we had really big expectations for it,” Michael Parsons said. “Especially last year, and to meet those expectations was really good for our confidence and mentality on the ice. This year is no expectations.”
The jump to the senior level is especially significant with the Olympics on the horizon. U.S. ice dancing got a huge boost at the 2014 Sochi Games when Meryl Davis and Charlie White became the first Americans to win gold in the event.
Team USA will select three teams in January to compete in the PyeongChang Games. Novak said three teams — Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani, Madison Chock and Evan Bates, and Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue — have all but clinched spots based on their work the past four seasons. An alternate spot is open, though, and one of the Wheaton teams could grab it. Otherwise, both teams are in line to compete for a spot in the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing.
“Since it’s an Olympic year, chances are that we aren’t going to get the most attention as, like, the top senior teams right now who will go to the Olympics, so we want to use the opportunity at senior to go out there and give it our best shot,” Carpenter said.
The Parsonses aren’t completely closing the door on the 2018 Games.
“It’s a possibility, but it’s a long shot,” Rachel Parsons said. “Our time will come.”
For both teams, the move to the senior level is seen as a clean slate. Both were selected to make their Senior Grand Prix of Figure Skating debuts. The Parsonses will compete in the Rostelecom Cup in Moscow from Oct. 20-22. Carpenter and McNamara are skating in the Cup of China in Beijing from Nov. 3-5. Both competitions will be résumé-builders, part of a plan “to show that we belong in senior,” McNamara said. “To show that we are ready to make the complete jump. We don’t need any adaption to be ready to compete with the top teams on the big stage.”
After moving up in level, both teams needed new programs for the short and free dances. Latin music is mandatory for all routines in the short competition. And the free dance is 4 minutes, 30 seconds longer than it was in juniors.
“It requires much more endurance physically and emotionally, so those are our challenges,” Novak said. “But both teams are ready to work, and they are aggressive about it. Throughout the year we are pretty confident we will fully bloom.”
The Parsonses had great success with their program last year, but they are switching it up this year, skating their free dance to South American music, based on the contemporary ballet “Ghost Dances.” McNamara and Carpenter are going with an Argentine tango, with Carpenter in a dapper suit jacket and McNamara in a sparkling black ensemble.
The teams practiced their free dance routine for the first time in costume on that night in July, a chance to see whether their outfits would hinder their movements on the ice. For the Parsonses, the temporary answer was yes.
As they practiced one of their lifts, one of Michael’s skates caught the fabric of Rachel’s skirt as her head was just inches from hitting the ice. Michael held his composure, completing the element and avoiding a catastrophe. But the incident underscored the intricacies of the discipline. One wrong move can result in a point deduction, which could cost a team a gold medal or a shot at the Olympics.
So they train almost every day, perfecting their craft. And they will have to work even harder this year as they compete against teams with more experience on the biggest stages in the sport. How will they handle the move?
“You never know,” Novak said as she cracked a smile. “It can go however they want it to go.”