By Claire Cloutier
Christina Carreira and Anthony Ponomarenko are focused on the finer details these days – while still keeping an eye on the big picture. The reigning U.S. bronze medalists are working to improve every aspect of their skating, from off-ice training to choreography to skating skills.
“We’re really focused on the extra 1% that can help us improve,” Ponomarenko said. “Those little details add up.”
Carreira, 23, and Ponomarenko, who turns 23 Friday, want to build on their positive momentum from last season. In 2022-23, the duo came back from Ponomarenko’s ankle surgery with renewed energy. They won bronze at the 2023 Toyota U.S. Figure Skating Championships and were ultimately selected for the ISU World Figure Skating Championships 2023 in Saitama, Japan. Making it to Worlds for the first time – in their fifth season as seniors – was a big step.
“That had been our goal for years – to make the World team. And we finally did it,” Carreira said proudly.
“The U.S. ice dance field is very strong. So every time we qualify for a championship-level event, that is a really big deal,” Ponomarenko declared. “We don't take that lightly. It's something that is very special, and that we always have to work hard to earn.”
Carreira and Ponomarenko scored an impressive top-10 finish at Worlds. Afterwards, Carreira and Ponomarenko decided to switch up their training to continue their growth.
“We had the entire offseason to choreograph and train, which we hadn't had since before the pandemic,” Ponomarenko said. “We did tons of stroking and specific exercises in the skills that we wanted to improve, such as lengthening our free leg [line] and improving our power and partner work.”
The duo hired a new athletic trainer and got a customized nutrition plan. They also upgraded their skating boots and equipment. Ponomarenko added more weightlifting to his off-ice regimen to build muscle and strength. The goal: To improve their speed, power and endurance.
The duo also spent time creating memorable new programs – always job No. 1 for ice dancers in the offseason.
“With this year's programs, we wanted to show a different side of ourselves,” Carreira explained. “The coaches told us that we [typically] come across as sweet and happy. We wanted to show more depth and acting, and a darker side.”
For their 1980s rhythm dance, Carreira and Ponomarenko are skating to “Edge of Seventeen” and “Whole Lotta Trouble” from folk-rock icon Stevie Nicks, whom Carreira portrays in their program.
“There were a couple 1980s songs that we thought were cool,” Ponomarenko said. “But ‘Edge of Seventeen’ was our No. 1 choice, by far.”
The idea came from Sam Chouinard, a dance coach at Ice Academy of Montreal (I.AM), where they train.
“Sam saw a different kind of choreography that would be unique from the other teams,” Ponomarenko said. “Once we started playing with it off-ice. It felt natural.”
Well-known skating designer Mathieu Caron contributed the finishing touch with a distinctive black dress for Carreira, featuring flower cut-outs and fringe.
“We were having trouble finding something that wouldn't look just like a pretty dress,” Carreira said. “We wanted the boho effect of Stevie Nicks. Marie-France [Dubreuil, head coach at I.AM] sent us pictures where Stevie was wearing a chiffon and leather black dress, so that was the inspiration. Getting the cut-outs to lay properly [was hard]. Anthony came to the fitting, and his costume took five minutes max. I was there for an hour and a half!”
The inspiration for the team’s free dance came when Carreira saw a video of Olympic champion Anna Shcherbakova’s 2019-20 short program to Perfume: The Story of a Murderer.
“The video just popped up in my feed, and I was like, ‘This is really cool music. It's so eerie, but beautiful,’” Carreira said.
She pitched the concept to their coaches, but they were doubtful. Perfume tells the story of a man who uses his extraordinary sense of smell to create perfumes, and kills women to preserve their scents for the perfumes. The coaches were concerned the theme might be too dark. And the music – although haunting – lacked dramatic highlights.
But the next piece fell into place when a fan sent a music suggestion to Carreira that included the songs “Strictly Taboo” and “Deceit and Betrayal” by Audiomachine. The two pieces fit well with the Perfume music.
Carreira and Ponomarenko then turned to Sam Chouinard to help develop the program concept. The trio created a preview, essentially, of what their program could look like.
“We did a trailer piece with Sam off the ice,” Ponomarenko explained. “It was this whole mini-movie. I think that convinced the coaches that this would be the right free dance.”
Chouinard’s choreography for the mini-movie became part of their choreographic step sequence in the finished free dance.
The intense, inward-focused dance is a departure from Carreira and Ponomarenko’s past programs, which tended to be more dynamic and outward-focused.
“There were moments during the choreography when I was like, ‘I don't know if I'm able to reach this level of character,’” Ponomarenko admitted.
Once they got familiar with the program, Carreira and Ponomarenko started to enjoy it.
“It's fun. It requires a lot more acting. You’re playing someone else,” Carreira said. “Sometimes thinking about telling a story – while we're training – makes the hard training days easier.”
“Being wrapped up in the story helps when we have to do multiple repetitions,” Ponomarenko agreed.
Their costumes – again created by Mathieu Caron – were inspired by the Perfume movie poster.
“The dress is a blush pink. We wanted to show the lightness, and then the darkness taking over. That's why one side is skin color, with the black that rises, and with rose petals,” Carreira said of the design. Ponomarenko wears a deep olive green shirt as a complement.
With two strong programs and an updated training plan, Carreira and Ponomarenko felt more prepared for the new season than they had in years. They earned the silver medal at Finlandia Trophy and placed fourth at Nebelhorn Trophy and both their Grand Prix events.
“We're really happy with how the programs have been received by judges and fans,” Carreira said.
The duo are blossoming in their third year at I.AM in London, Ontario. They enjoy working with coaches Scott Moir, Adrian Diaz and Olympic bronze medalist Madison Hubbell.
“I try to soak up as much information as she can give,” Carreira said of Hubbell. “She explains and breaks down every movement so well. It’s easy for me to understand. Plus, she demonstrates.”
Ponomarenko, meanwhile, feels stronger after last season’s surgery.
“A surgery never really ends for an athlete. There's continuous physical therapy and exercises that need to be done. It's all about maintenance,” Ponomarenko noted. “But I'm doing my part, and I feel very good.”
As the new year begins, Carreira and Ponomarenko are busy preparing for the 2024 Prevagen U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which start January 22 in Columbus, Ohio. With the stacked field in U.S. ice dance, they know it will be a challenge to make the podium again.
“Mentally, we're ready to go in for a tough week. And we're ready to battle it out and give our best performances,” Ponomarenko vowed.
“Our preparation is something we can control – being as in shape as we can be, as trained as we can be,” Carreira said. “Being mentally ready as well – to execute our cues and be in the moment – is important, I think.”
Another advantage for Carreira and Ponomarenko is their experience. Despite their youth, they’re in their 10th season as a team. It’s a milestone they hadn’t thought about until they received a letter from U.S. Figure Skating, congratulating them on their partnership anniversary.
“It went by really fast,” Carreira said of their decade together.
“We’ve been through a lot,” Ponomarenko said. “I think it helps with high-stress competitions and even everyday training.”
During the tough times, Carreira and Ponomarenko have always relied on their comfortable rapport.
“Our personalities mesh really well. It's always been that way,” Carreira said. “We're open to hearing each other out, so working together is very smooth and easy.”
Carreira and Ponomarenko have a clear objective in Columbus: Make the World team again.
“It’s go time,” Ponomarenko said. “We’re hitting the gas, and getting stronger for the second half of the season.”