When the Wheaton Ice Skating Academy opened in 2002, the goal for Alexei Kiliakov and Elena Novak, the married directors of the school, was to create an opportunity for kids in the Washington area to experience competitive ice skating. There was no checklist that included “train toddlers to become Olympians”; the couple just hoped to share its passion with those in the community.
Yet nearly 15 years later, pupils Lorraine McNamara of Germantown and Quinn Carpenter of Wheaton — among Kiliakov’s and Novak’s first students, starting with the couple when McNamara was just three and Carpenter six — are well on their way to worldwide ice-dancing recognition. The duo won silver at the World Junior Figure Skating Championships in 2015 and gold the following year, at an event in which success can often serve as a precursor to Olympic glory.
Given those early accolades on the international stage, McNamara, 17, and Carpenter, 20, may be in the mix when the U.S. team for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing is selected.
“We knew that we were capable of teaching high-level competitive teams, but we never worked with children,” said Novak, who skated professionally in Russia with Kiliakov. “We had no idea how that was going to work out.”
It’s worked out well.
On one side of the rink on a recent day at Rockville Ice Arena, Novak directs a class of young skaters gliding up and down the ice. Kiliakov bends down to hold the hands of some still learning to find their balance.
“We’re not afraid to bend down and help little kids,” he said with a laugh.
As their ballet work for the day concludes a floor above the rink, McNamara and Carpenter, who have been a pair for 11 years now, later head down to the ice, where they are greeted by Kiliakov and Novak as the younger kids file off the ice. It’s an exchange that’s happened thousands of times over the years since the older pair started teaching the ice dancers, back when Kiliakov had to hold their hands, too.
“Other than my parents, I don’t think there’s anybody that knows me as well as they do,” McNamara said. “Sometimes I feel like I don’t even know myself as well as they do.”
For years, Detroit has been the hotbed for aspiring high-level ice dancers — and not just in the United States. At the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, 14 of the 20 teams that competed in the event’s final trained in or around the city, including American gold medalists Meryl Davis and Charlie White.
But the structure of the Wheaton Ice Academy quickly differentiates it from the high-performance schools in Detroit. Rather than focus the bulk of their energies on older students such as McNamara and Carpenter looking to compete nationally or internationally, Kiliakov and Novak instead largely direct their attention toward teaching younger children and developing their fundamentals.
“A lot of coaches, once they reach a higher level, they stop concentrating on the younger ones,” Novak said. “Then at some point it fizzles out.”
Kiliakov and Novak said they noticed early, about two or three years into their program, that McNamara and Carpenter had potential as a duo. Before they could even really skate well, the partners showed something different from the rest of the groups.
“You saw the commitment and desire and love of skating and that is what’s important,” Kiliakov said. “If you do keep at this, you will be good skaters.”
It’s an approach that separates Kiliakov and Novak from some other coaches. Whereas the focus of many training facilities is fine-tuning already-developed skaters, Kiliakov and Novak prefer putting their attention into helping their youngest students achieve their goals over years of work.
“We prefer for the kids to start with us at a young age because we like to teach technique a certain way,” Novak said. “It’s really hard to change once you start working with an older skater that comes from a different coach.”
There’s still a long way to go for McNamara and Carpenter, but as the pair continues to grow in stature on the international level, Kiliakov and Novak have received more requests from other skaters to train at the academy. The couple is selective when it comes to accepting outsiders, rejecting people more often than not. While the recognition from judges, skaters and others is nice, it’s not necessarily what Kiliakov wants.
“It means more work,” he said with a laugh. “It’s definitely a responsibility.”
McNamara and Carpenter represent the start for Kiliakov and Novak. Along with siblings Michael and Rachel Parsons, McNamara and Carpenter are the first dancers they have had who have achieved success at an international level.
And as they continue to rise up the rankings, it will only expand the dreams of younger dancers in the area.
“The younger kids, they have Lorraine and Quinn. They see them and look up,” Kiliakov said. “Lorraine and Quinn believed in our work, and they did not have anyone in front of them. It was much harder for them.”
In many ways, the coaches and skaters have become a family. Kiliakov and Novak know how to motivate McNamara and Carpenter. And like in any family, there are great times, there are not-so-great times.
But what has kept this group working together for nearly 11 years is that they have grown and evolved together. As McNamara and Carpenter have become better skaters, Kiliakov and Novak have themselves evolved as coaches.
“They’re like our own children, all of them,” Novak said. “You never know for sure how it’s going to come and then it comes out into something beautiful like that.”
Both Kiliakov and Novak maintain that they will continue to use their development structure, aiming to develop young skaters first and foremost. And while they have taken on some outsiders, they emphasize that their original style will be the key to future success at the Wheaton academy.
What started as small group of kids nearly 15 years ago has turned into a school of about 50, skating primarily in two rink buildings. And while Kiliakov and Novak would like to see the academy grow, they want it to grow locally, not internationally.
“This is a Washington-area creation,” Kiliakov said. “It should stay like that.”