If they’re being honest with you, most elite athletes will say that, from the start, they’ve been pushed by a dream.
Maybe it’s not a typical nightly dream, but at least a vision of themselves as champions or Olympians. And it’s remarkable how far the strength of that vision can take people if they commit to making it happen.
For most athletes, that distance is a metaphor, as in rising all the way to the top.
For Taylor Tran, it’s more literally geographical. Like the distance from Tacoma to Lithuania.
The Bellarmine Prep grad, now 24 and training in Michigan with noted ice dancing coach Marina Zoueva, is headed to the World Figure Skating Championships in Helsinki this week to compete with her partner, Saulius Ambrulevicius.
Ambrulevicius is Lithuanian, and partnered with Tran, won the Lithuanian national championship in 2015. Together they placed 18th in the recent European Championships.
Tran grew up training as an individual skater, practicing at Sprinker Recreation Center. She lists a pretty convincing argument for deciding to transition into ice dancing at the age of 17: “I got sick of falling.”
“I wasn’t a great freestyle skater. … I wasn’t hitting the jumps,” she explained. Falls are part of everyday training. Of course, you’re going to fall in ice dance, too, “… but it takes a different toll on the body.”
At about that time, her mother, Debbie, drove her to the Vancouver Olympics, where they watched Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White take the silver medal in ice dancing.
“That was a huge inspiration,” Taylor said. She moved to Michigan to study under Zoueva, who also coached Davis and White.
Tran was drawn to the aesthetic of the sport. “With the dance aspect of it, you are relating to your partner, and I think that’s what makes it so interesting, (along) with the beauty of the skating and the quality and smoothness,” she said.
The physical toll tends to be less, too, which allows Tran, at 24, to still be rising in competitive potential.
As Tran was looking for a new partner in 2014, Zoueva was contacted by the Lithuanian skating federation saying they had a male ice dancer looking for a partner, too. Tran and Ambrulevicius gave it a try, and they’ve been climbing the ranks ever since.
Is it strange for a skater from Tacoma to be competing in the World Championships for Lithuania?
“The field of ice dance right now in the U.S. is very tough and deep,” she said. “There’s a lot of great teams, and when I was looking for a partner, I was open to the possibility of skating for another country because that would give me more international exposure and bigger opportunities.”
She said she’s been to Lithuania a few times and is learning the language and culture. The incentive is more than just to better connect with her partner.
While pairs can represent nations at the World Championships with only one partner of that nationality, the Olympics requires both skaters in a partnership have citizenship of that nation.
If Tran/Ambrulevicius can qualify for the Olympics, she’ll need to petition for dual citizenship with Lithuania.
All that is down the road and secondary at the moment to Tran, who is consumed by the focus on training.
Her typical day, she said, involves up to an hour of warming up, ground practice with dance and lifts, skating for up to five hours, and then classes in ballet, modern and ballroom dance. Then there’s conditioning and gym work and cardio to increase her endurance.
What is it that fuels that inner drive and dedication?
“I think we’ve just kept pushing ourselves and investing our time into each other and the sport,” she said. “We just love what we do, and that’s what keeps us going every day. You can’t practice without passion. And when you love what you do so much, you don’t question anything, you just keep fighting.”