Grand Prix bronze solid start for new pairs team Ilyushechkina, Bilodeau

Their partnership began with a Facebook message.

Canada's Lubov Ilyushechkina and Charlie Bilodeau were both without figure skating partners last season. Ilyushechkina was performing with Cirque de Soleil on an eight-month contract after pairs partner Dylan Moscovitch retired following the 2017-18 season. Bilodeau split with partner Julianne Seguin soon after the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics.

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Their figure skating futures were in doubt, but both knew they still have more to give.

Bilodeau messaged Ilyushechkina on Facebook and suggested a tryout, and the two instantly clicked. Last weekend, the two won bronze at the Cup of China in only their second Grand Prix.

Like a well-molded skate, pairs partners have to be a good fit. Skaters will often switch countries in a quest for the perfect partner.

Bilodeau said his first tryout with Ilyushechkina last winter in Toronto was "really awesome."

"The first time on the ice, we started to do little stuff like death spiral . . . one (revolution), two revs, three revs, and four revs on the third death spiral, so we were like 'OK, what's happening?'" Bilodeau said. "We really felt a natural sense of moving on the ice and skating, so a lot of things that usually are work at the beginning were already done just by the fact that we are naturally on the same rhythm."

They met a few weeks later for a week of training in Montreal, and by Day 7, it was obvious: "Alright, of course, let's move forward," Bilodeau said.

Ilyushechkina and Bilodeau, who live and train in Montreal, hope to skate for Canada at the 2022 Beijing Olympics. It would be a big box checked for the 28-year-old Ilyushechkina, who won pairs gold at the 2009 world junior championships for Russia. She joined forces with Moscovitch in 2014 and finally received her Canadian citizenship in September of 2017 in time for Pyeongchang. But the two didn't make Canada's Olympic team after finishing fourth at the trials.

"There were so many people involved and so many people have helped me throughout the entire (citizenship) process, and it would have been very, very sad to just end up not going to the Olympics," Ilyushechkina said.

Bilodeau, a 26-year-old from Trois-Pistoles, Que., won silver at the world junior championships with Seguin in 2015. The two were ninth in Pyeongchang before splitting a few months later.

"Then I was like 'OK, first of all I need to figure out if I still have some energy to put into skating,' . . . and then 'Who would be the best partner that I can skate with?'" Bilodeau said.

Pairs partners spend as much time together as many married couples. Lack of chemistry off the ice can be a deal-breaker as well. Ilyushechkina and Bilodeau have had no issues so far.

"When you have both the same goals, you understand that you make things happen to make sure that everything goes as well as possible," Bilodeau said.

"I really like that we keep our business serious, but off skating we're pretty chill and we laugh and hang out. It's fun," Ilyushechkina added.

Skating their free program to Michel Rivard's "Je voudrais voir la mer" — which translates to "I would like to see the sea" — Canada's new pairs team captured bronze despite several errors on jumps.

"Every competition that we do for us is a learning process and we go into everything we don't expect anything, we only try to skate up to our standards on practice, so it was pleasantly surprising," Ilyushechkina said on their podium performance.

They'll compete again at the Canadian championships in January in Mississauga, Ont. Montreal will host the world championships in March.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 13, 2019.

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