Breaking the ice

How a young Indigenous man and a Russian girl broke all the rules, to conquer international figure skating.

By Kerrie Armstrong
Pictures by John Veage
15 May 2017
Reading time: 22 minutes

Certain countries are ‘supposed’ to win in the figure skating world.

They don’t include Australia.

When two young skaters with an Australian flag next to their names stepped out on the ice at the junior world championships and blew their competition away, it was a big deal.

They had deviated from the script. They had beaten pairs from Russia, China, Canada, the US and elsewhere. Their competition wasn’t happy.

The Australians had also achieved something never before seen in figure skating. They had topped an international podium, claiming a world title for Australia, just weeks after winning the junior grand prix. And they’d only been skating together for a year.

“I want to show them that it doesn’t have to be Russia, Canada, America, China that are winning all the time.”

The pair: Harley Windsor, a 20-year-old Indigenous man from Sydney's west, the youngest of nine siblings, who started skating by accident; and Ekaterina Alexandrovskaya – known as Katia – a 17-year-old girl, an only child, all the way from Moscow, Russia.

“The Russian teams weren’t too happy when we won,” Windsor says. “They were a bit sour about it.”

“A few of the other teams knew about us from previous comps, so they knew what we were capable of, but I guess the Russians, Chinese, they weren’t too happy about Australia taking the place from them.

“I want to show them that it doesn’t have to be Russia, Canada, America, China that are winning all the time.”

The cold air of the Canterbury ice rink in Sydney’s south-west nips your face as soon as you enter. Everywhere there are skaters, mainly girls, getting their boots on, warming up, zipping around the ice. Weaving between them is an unassuming pair of skaters dressed in grey and black.

For all the acknowledgment they are getting from their fellow skaters, they could be just another pair taking up valuable ice space. But despite the complete lack of ego or entitlement, they are junior world champions – pioneering ones at that.

And they’re busy, working out two new programs in two days for a skating exhibition. One of their two coaches, Galina Pachin, is watching their every move and stopping them frequently to correct a stance, to change a hold, to add new choreography.

“I wouldn’t be able to stay over there if I didn’t speak to my parents every day, especially my dad, I talk to him every single day.”

Despite their world champion status, in the cramped world of Australian ice skating, they still have to wait their turn to play their music.

Standing quietly by the side of the rink is Windsor’s mother. Her son is part of a tight-knit Indigenous family from Sydney’s Rooty Hill. The long separations since he started skating with Alexandrovskaya have been hard on them all.

Since the pair started skating together in December 2015, Windsor has spent months at a time training in Moscow and travelling the world competing.

“I get really, really homesick,” he says. “I wouldn’t be able to stay over there if I didn’t speak to my parents every day, especially my dad – I talk to him every single day.

“There’s been plenty of times when I’ve just felt broken down and the training’s been tough, away from home, living by myself, so he definitely helps me talk through things and tells me everything’s all right and it’s all for the better.”

Josie (left) and Harley Windsor.

Josie (left) and Harley Windsor.

His mother, Josie Windsor, feels her son’s pain and says it’s not just their family, but the wider, largely Indigenous community they live in that feels his absence.

“Three months is really – he’s getting used to it, but in a non-English-speaking country he finds it a bit hard, but it’s really hard on the family when he is away for that long a time,” Josie says.

For Windsor and Alexandrovskaya, the path to finding each other from opposite sides of the world was unlikely and troubled. Their seemingly easy success might suggest it has been an easy road, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Windsor began skating accidentally. When he was nine, his mother took a wrong turn that took them past the now closed Blacktown ice rink in Sydney’s west.

“I don’t think my parents thought it would stick as long as it did, they thought it would just pass by, but here I am.”

“He kind of took to ice skating fairly quickly and he went to Blacktown ice rink and he’s just zipping from one side of the ice skating rink to the other," Josie says. "And I was just stood there in awe of what he was doing.”

“Eventually he wanted to join skate school, but he didn’t finish skate school, he sort of excelled right through it quite quickly. And then he wanted to go into competitions, so I just let him go.”

The way Windsor tells it, it was the novelty of ice skating that sparked his interest.

“I ended up liking it, it was something really different to normal rugby and stuff like that," he says. "And I asked to go back the next week and the next week and I really enjoyed it and it just took off from there.”

“I don’t think my parents thought it would stick as long as it did. They thought it would just pass by, but here I am.”

As he became more serious about skating, Windsor took matters into his own hands.

“When he got to the stage where he was serious about skating he actually went and lay-byed a pair of Jackson boots himself,” Josie says.

“I straight away thought ‘this boy is really good, I wish I could teach him’.”

“I didn’t know anything about it and he went and paid them off from his pocket money. And then he come out one day with these black boots.”

Windsor's obvious aptitude for skating quickly caught the attention of Russian-born coach Galina Pachin.

“When I first time saw him skating, he was with another coach and I straight away picked him on the ice as a really good potential little boy," Pachin says. "And I straight away tried to watch him because there’s something about him.”

“He’s not scared and you can see he’s really enjoying to be on the ice and doing what he’s doing. And I straight away thought ‘this boy is really good, I wish I could teach him’.

“And one day his mum called me and approached me and asked if I would like to take Harley over. And I was like ‘yesss, of course I would!’”

Windsor improved quickly as a singles skater. He was soon at his first international competition, completing some of skating’s most difficult elements.

“His first international competition in singles, I think it was winter games in New Zealand, [it was the] first time he landed a triple jump – he was 12 – he was really good competitor,” Pachin says.

“He also did better [in competition] than he did in training. We say people skate competition plus or competition minus. He’s always competition plus, so he’s doing better.”

But then his body started to betray him.

“Both my parents are quite short," Windsor says, "So I was kind of hoping that I would stay short, because for singles you need to be a bit shorter – it’s quite hard when you’re tall – but I kept growing and growing.”

“There was one point where I pretty much quit skating. And then one of my coaches suggested, ‘try pairs, you’re tall enough for pairs’. And I’d never really done it before, so I said I’d give it another try – why not?”

“There were no girls in Australia that were either small enough or brave enough.”

For Pachin and her husband Andrei, Harley was the key to a long-held and very dear dream.

“We’ve been trying to create pairs skaters – a good quality team in Australia – because since [former Olympic pairs skaters] Danielle and Stephen Carr, we didn’t have anybody close to that result,” Pachin says.

“Finding a partner, that was the main problem. We tried so many ways to look for the girl that would suit his quality.”

The search began in Australia.

“There were no girls in Australia that were either small enough or brave enough,” Windsor says.

“Pairs skating is not a sport to be scared of, it’s a very, very dangerous sport and the girls get lifted and thrown and have to have a lot of trust in the partner. And there were no girls in Australia that were able to do that.”

But then the breakthrough came – from the other side of the world.

“One of my other coaches, Andrei, was already in Moscow at the time… and he went and saw Nina Mozer – she’s one of the head pair coaches in Russia – and said ‘do you have any girls? I have a boy’.”

“She’s a very fiery person. I think both of us match really, really well together.”

Within a week, Windsor had flown to Moscow to trial with three girls Mozer had suggested. The first was Alexandrovskaya and the connection was instant.

For anyone pairing the 185cm Windsor, it meant finding a girl who was happy with being held nearly 2.5 metres up in the air, upside down, balancing on one of his hands while travelling at speed across the ice.

A tall order for most people, but not Alexandrovskaya.

“She’s not afraid of anything,” Windsor says. “She’s a very fiery person. I think both of us match really, really well together.

“Obviously we’ve got a lot stronger as time’s gone on. At the beginning she didn’t speak any English, I didn’t speak any Russian, so there were lots of communications with the coaches.

“We’ve had our ups and downs, just like every other pair, but I definitely think our bond’s growing much stronger and we’re trusting each other a lot more, so I think we’re progressing really well.”

For former Australian figure skating champion (now Olympic Winter Institute of Australia figure skating co-ordinator) Belinda Noonan, their pairing is remarkable.

“I knew they’d had a go at going to Russia to get a partner and nobody thought it would be immediately successful, or that there was a girl to come back,” says Noonan. “And I went in and it was January 2016 and I watched them skate around the rink a few times, and then watched them do one lift and one twist and went ‘they’re awesome’.

“Immediately, I could see they were going to be awesome. They were just so well matched.

“It was instant unison and I’ve never see that in a pair before. How two skaters from the opposite ends of the earth, from opposite cultures could be so exactly matched.”

Australia’s last great pairs team, siblings Stephen and Danielle Carr, retired in 1999 after competing in three Olympics – 1992, 1994 and 1998 – and 19 years straight as Australia’s reigning pairs champions.

In competition: Harley Windsor and Ekaterina Alexandrovskaya (Photo: Getty Images).

In competition: Harley Windsor and Ekaterina Alexandrovskaya (Photo: Getty Images).

Noonan, who coached the Carrs, says since then the hunt has been on – predominantly led by Pachin and her husband – to find the next champions. But the dangerous nature of the sport and the sky-high requirements mean the search has been fruitless for nearly 20 years.

“Pairs skating is literally physically more dangerous than the other three disciplines and it has to be a particular sort of girl that is happy to be thrown halfway across the ice rink, to be able to change multiple positions in a lift – you know, upside down, sideways and all the rest of it – and be able to have the single skating skills,” Noonan says.

“But it’s not just that, it’s having very strong across-the-ice stroking skills and usually that whole package doesn’t come along that often. You might find a boy who’s really good and then there’s a girl somewhere that’s quite good but never the twain get to meet.”

Noonan credited the Pachins’ single-minded passion for the emergence of such a pair as Windsor and Alexandrovskaya.

“I don’t know how long they’ve been here, but probably 20 years at least, and it’s a dream that they never let go of,” says Noonan.

“You go to work and you do your job. And some students do well and some don’t, and skaters come and skaters go. And they never let go of this dream and they have continued to chase it. And actually, without them personally financially backing it themselves, it would never have happened.”

For Windsor, the transition from singles to pairs skater was tough.

From the moment he decided to follow his coaches’ suggestion and give the discipline a try, work began on building up his physical strength and teaching him the complicated new moves, lifts, twists and throws he would need to master.

“The first few months were definitely a lot of pain and muscles," Windsor says. "But I picked it up pretty easily and we learnt a lot of stuff really, really quickly. So it wasn’t majorly difficult, but the physical side of things was definitely difficult.”

For his coach Pachin, Windsor’s struggles were plain to see, both during the transition to pairs and during the season that led to their world championship win.

“It was very up and down,” says Pachin. “And he’s also been sometimes depressed that he can’t do much, and was very close to give up skating a few times.”

“I was coaching Brendan Kerry at that time, who’s qualified for Australia [for the 2018 Winter Olympics] now in singles. And they were good friends since they were young, and Brendan actually helped me to encourage Harley as a friend.

“I always ask, ‘Brendan, can you talk to your friend? Can you tell him it’s a temporary thing and we will be getting over that?’, and I was talking to Harley [too]," adds Pachin.

Windsor’s struggles speak to the daily grind of turning up for training day after day, of constant overseas travel and months away from home, family and friends.

“We tried to keep him in the sport as much as we could, and my husband, and his parents, because he was all over the place – you know, when you lose motivation and you don’t want to do anything – and then you start to encourage him and say ‘it’s temporary, please come back, please still work, you will get over that, that’s the hardest part'.

“And I told him ‘you know, Harley, you’re very hard work for me, and one day if you will get any medal, remember that’s my medal, because I tried so hard to keep you in this sport’.”

It’s a side of elite sport that the public very rarely sees or hears about, far removed from the glamour and the glory of the podium, and the international acclaim world titles bring.

Windsor’s struggles speak to the daily grind of turning up for training day after day, of constant overseas travel and months away from home, family and friends. What is it about skating that keeps him going when the present feels so bleak?

“It’s like a passion," he says. "It’s kind of like a drug and you can’t really get away from it, and once you feel the feeling you get from skating a program and winning a competition, that feeling’s very addictive and you sort of want more and more and more."

“That’s the thing that keeps driving me, I guess, and the sport’s become a love of mine and I really, really enjoy skating and performing, so that’s what keeps me going.”

It’s a lot to overcome to still compete at an international standard. It begs the question: how does a young man carry all that on his shoulders while spending most of the year away from his family and friends?

His mother has the answer.

“I think it’s his upbringing,” Josie says. “I’ve always told all of my kids: if there’s a brick wall in front of you and you can’t climb it, go around it.”

“They think it was back in the 1920s or ‘30s and I’m saying it’s not ancient history, this is relatively new history.”

“If it was me, trying to get there when I was a kid, it would never happen. Nothing like that, let alone sporting events, would never have even happened, so just for Harley to excel where he is – and it’s the talks by the elders as well.

“He comes home and he has talks with them and they help him through a lot of that mental stuff.”

Josie knows something about overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles. A Gamilaraay woman, Josie grew up on a mission in Gulargambone, between Dubbo and Walgett, without electricity or running water.

“A lot of people can’t comprehend that,” she says. “They think it was back in the 1920s or ’30s and I’m saying it’s not ancient history, this is relatively new history.

“I grew up coming through the referendum, that type of stuff. Racism, really bad. Segregated, handouts of food, blankets, tea, and that’s where I learnt to read the newspaper.

“We got the flour, made paste and put it on the walls to put the newspaper up to stop the wind blowing through the cracks in the wall. I swore that I would never let that happen to my kids. And I didn’t.”

“It’s taken a real time to trust anybody, and having to tell Harley to trust people and not put the fear of God in him so that it wouldn’t hinder him.”

Josie says her upbringing means she’s found it difficult to trust authorities, and to allow her children to head out into the world without her.

“It’s been a struggle, it hasn’t been an easy road, it’s been a struggle,” she says. “I’m one of those mums I won’t even let my children go to the hospital unless I’m there.

“It’s because of that fear that’s always there, not trusting anybody, and it’s taken a real time to trust anybody, and having to tell Harley to trust people and move on and not put the fear of God in him, so that it wouldn’t hinder him.

“To move from years ago when I was growing up, to Harley [now], it’s been a real blessing in disguise I would say.”

L-R from top: Harley Windsor with ice skates; Windsor learns Indigenous dance as a child; a painting of a figure skater in the Milky Way given to Galina Pachin by Windsor; learning another dance as a child; Windsor and Alexandrovskaya on the ice; and the pair as junior world champions (Photo: Getty Images).

L-R from top: Harley Windsor with ice skates; Windsor learns Indigenous dance as a child; a painting of a figure skater in the Milky Way given to Galina Pachin by Windsor; learning another dance as a child; Windsor and Alexandrovskaya on the ice; and the pair as junior world champions (Photo: Getty Images).

Windsor is well aware and proud of his Indigenous heritage. He’s been doing Indigenous dance since he could walk and Josie says he has become a role model for his community.

“I’ve always been around that Aboriginal heritage and it makes me who I am, I guess, and it’s a strong part of my background,” Windsor says.

His pale skin, Windsor says, has made him a target for bullying over the years.

“Obviously you get questions, ‘why are you so pale?’ and that sort of thing, and I just try and ignore that and try and embrace it for what it is,” he says.

“You don’t have to be dark-skinned to inherit that culture. It’s had its ups and downs but I’m definitely supported and it’s worked out for the better. Everyone accepts me now for who I am and my skin colour. It’s all about embracing that culture rather than actually looking the part.”

Josie says Windsor has managed to find a way to live his life successfully navigating between two worlds.

“One of the most difficult challenges he’s had in his life though is being at school – an all-boys' school, Marist [High School] in Parramatta – having to straddle two worlds, a white world and a black world,” she says.

“But he mastered that pretty well. He was able to come to terms with a lot stuff like a lot of us have to.”

For Pachin, it is clear Windsor's up-bringing and his Indigenous heritage have set him up well for life – and for figure skating.

“He also did lots of Aboriginal dancing in the family and I think that’s why he’s got really good feeling of sequence," she says. "Like, you know when you have dancing background, choreography or anything, you learn sequence very quickly, like memory, movement memory.”

“I think that’s really developed him and he’s naturally learning things quite quickly. Harley’s family’s very supportive and Harley’s a very loyal person and very respectful and very friendly.

“And I also got a painting from Harley, an Aboriginal painting, of a figure skater in the Milky Way. He gave [it to] me as my birthday present the first year I was coaching him.”

Windsor and Alexandrovskaya in the exhibition event at the junior world championships. (Photo: Getty Images)

Ask Windsor about the thrill of winning his – and Australia’s first – figure skating world title, and a grin instantly lights up his face. The glint in his eyes shows the magnitude of his and Alexandrovskaya’s achievement is only just sinking in, but the challenge of just getting there is never far from his mind.

“Leading up to that comp was very difficult,” Windsor says. “We had a comp just a few weeks before that and it was coming towards the end of our season, so we were quite tired and that was the main focus of our season.

“I guess our goal was to try and medal at that comp. And leading into it, our training went really well and we had faith in our coaches. They knew what we were doing and sort of had to trust our training.

“So we went out there and skated, and skated relatively well, and at the end, when we finally realised that we won it, [it] was a bit surreal at first. It didn’t really sink in for a few days after.

“It’s an unbelievable dream.”

“It’s happy tears and shock and it sort of seemed like a dream at first and it’s slowly sunk in.”

For Alexandrovskaya the joy of the win still shines through her face, even as she struggles to answer in English.

“I’m so happy [to win the junior worlds],” she says. “I was on seventh heaven. It’s a big season for us. I’m happy.”

Through an interpreter, she adds: “It’s an unbelievable dream”.

From one unbelievable dream to the next, the pair’s new goal is to make the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Their last chance to qualify is in September. Success would make Windsor the first Indigenous Australian to represent the country at the Winter Olympics.

“It’s not going to be easy, but it’s nothing out of our reach.”

“Just to get to the Olympics is a huge achievement and it would be really, really good to put Australia on the scene,” Windsor says. “It’s been such a long time since pairs from Australia have been there, it’d just be overwhelming if I got there and skated two good programs.

“It’s not going to be easy, but it’s nothing out of our reach, so if we just focus on this year and do what we have to do, and just mainly focus on trusting our coaches – they know what we’re doing and what we need to do... It’s all about if we can focus on the day.”

Watch Harley Windsor and Ekaterina Alexandrovskaya compete at the Pairs World Championships in Finland.

Noonan agrees the 2018 Olympics are a realistic goal, despite the pair having skated together for such a relatively short time.

“I am very, very confident,” she says. “There’s probably three or four teams that should qualify and those are the teams that should qualify.

“I think that they can get to a podium at Olympic level. Not this one. They’re part of the future. I would think that they should be able to make the top 16 and make the final.”

But Noonan says even without making the Olympics yet, the pair have achieved something amazing for Australian figure skating.

“It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what nationality you are. If you’re willing to train and put in the hard work, you’ll show results.”

“No longer do we have to try and say to the younger skaters, ‘you could do this, you could do that,’ yes, [now] we can see it with our own eyes that we know exactly what’s possible,” she says.

“For me, it exemplifies what is the best of Australia, in that it is the opportunity for an Indigenous kid who probably, I think, now is a very strong role model for all Australians – not just Indigenous Australians – and then for immigrants, which is Galina and Andrei... An opportunity for a young girl from another country, and being able to provide and achieve all of that, I think, is something that demonstrates the best of Australia.”

Windsor, too, hopes his success can help to boost the sport in Australia.

“Anything’s possible,” he says. “Nina Mozer, the head coach, told me that it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, if you train professionally, you’re going to show results.

“I agree with that. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or what nationality you are. If you’re willing to train and put in the hard work, you’ll show results.”