Photo credit: Dallas Voice
Ahead of her Olympic debut with skating partner Timothy LeDuc, we spoke with Parity athlete Ashley Cain-Gribble on her recent national titles and emotional journey to the top of her sport.
At the U.S. Figure Skating Championships this year, you broke the national record for pairs short program with 79.39 points. Then, you added another national title to your name in the pairs free skating program. What is your confidence like heading into Beijing?
It's very interesting because Beijing will almost feel like the first time that we don't have to fight for a spot or prove ourselves. It’s a lifelong dream that has finally been accomplished.
Timothy and I want to soak up every moment and also show ourselves as the athletes that we always dreamed and believed that we could be. I think everybody has this picture in their mind of the athlete they want to show up as, and I think when Timothy and I take the ice in Beijing that's exactly what our goal will be.
There’s such grace to your movements. What kind of strength training do you do to hold such positions and make it look effortless?
There's a lot of sport-specific training that we do but with pairs skating specifically, and being the pair girl that has to be flexible and also thrown around and rotate really quickly on elements, I do a mixture of 2-3 days of strength training with my off-ice trainer. I also do conditioning almost every day, and a lot of that will be interval conditioning or at a sustained heart rate.
I have to do a lot more conditioning now than I ever have before since I developed asthma [brought on by having COVID-19 last August]. COVID hit me really hard and I was double vaccinated, so I feel like it could have been a lot worse had I not been. My whole world kind of shut down and I couldn't do anything.
One of my favorite forms of training is Pilates, and that's something that has been really beneficial to my training. It's really helped with my flexibility and my core stability, and I feel like it's helped in preventing injuries.
What does your training with Timothy look like?
A lot comes on the ice with running programs and doing sections of our programs, but then we also do conditioning off-ice with sprints and interval training.
Do you have a pre-competition ritual that never fails to motivate you?
One thing I always do before going out to compete is I look at myself in the mirror and say, “You will do this. You have the power to do this.” It feels weird at first -- sometimes when we look in the mirror, we see our flaws instead of looking at ourselves as this strong being -- but the more you get used to it, the more power you feel from it.
I think a lot of times we tend to look through ourselves. We don't really see ourselves. So when you're forcing yourself to look into your own eyes, you get this confident feeling.
I also try to get into this almost meditative space so that all of the different energies that are going on around me float away. I'm almost in my own little cocoon.
The past two years have been difficult for everyone. What have you learned about yourself since 2020?
The biggest thing is that I've learned to believe in myself. This is the first season where I've gone into every competition believing in myself and, yes, there would be things that could pop up into my mind like, “What could go wrong?” but I would still go out there and do what I've trained every day to do. That was a big shift for me.
Due to the pandemic, these past two seasons have been unlike anything else. Things are constantly changing. Timothy and I really had to learn how to adapt and change our mindset to fit what was going on around us.
You and Timothy have been skating partners since 2016. How has your relationship evolved over the years, and how do you support one another?
We're not a traditional pairs team, some people would say. When we started, we wanted to establish an open line of communication to grow throughout our partnership and not hold each other back in any way or make the other person feel less than. We really try to hold each other accountable to leading with authenticity. I think that's what a lot of people see on the ice - they're getting our true selves out there.
It's been a beautiful process to see [Timothy] being their authentic self. That's who they are every day in practice and so to see that celebrated on a bigger stage, and to also see that other people are coming forward and feeling comfortable, like they belong, is beautiful. [Timothy coming out as non-binary] is bringing a lot of people together.
How have you stepped into your own power when perhaps people didn’t expect that from you?
It's been a journey. I'm the tallest pair girl in the world, by far. I'm 5' 7'', which I feel like is very average for someone outside of skating, but so many people have felt like they could comment on my body in any way over the years.
This body has kept me healthy through almost 24 years of being in this sport. It's the body that I was born with and it's also the one that's led me to national titles and now to the Olympic Games.
Because I've had a support system around me that has only built me up and allowed me to change those negative responses into positive ones, I now see my body as a strength. I'm proud of the body that I’ve built, and I've also treated it very well. I'm proud of where I am with my relationship with myself.
What advice would you have for someone who is struggling with their identity around being an athlete?
I always tell my students, 'You're not an athlete first, you're a student first.' Figure skating is something that you do and that you love, but it is not who you are.
Remember that first you have to take care of yourself so that you can go out there and do what you love.
I come from a skating family; both of my parents are my coaches. My dad skated for Australia, and my mom for Canada. At times it felt like a lot of pressure because I wanted to live up to their legacies. They never put that pressure on me but it was something that I wanted to do as well.
If you're passionate about something and you work really hard, you have to do it regardless of what anybody says.
What are some things that people watching you in Beijing should be looking out for?
Timothy and I really love the components and the performance side of our programs. Two of the things we base our programs around to have a huge impact are: In the short program, it'll be the footwork sequence where you can finally come alive in the performance and show a bit more of your character.
In the long program, it's what's called the choreo sequence. It actually doesn't receive any levels so you really have the freedom to do what you want in that element. You have the ability to bring the audience to their feet with a really impactful choreo sequence.
What is something you wish people knew about your sport?
I wish people knew how difficult it is to make something look easy, beautiful, and breathtaking.
I think a lot of people say figure skating is effortless but there's so much behind-the-scenes in order to make it happen. To the outside world it can look so beautiful but inside there's like a war waging in your head.
I hope that people appreciate how much these athletes give in order to put out performances.
Anything else you’d like to share with the Parity audience?
I always talk about the fact you can rewrite your story at any moment. Back in 2016 I thought that my career was done, and I was happy with all the things that I had accomplished. But here I am two national titles later and going to the Olympics with Timothy, and it just shows that at any moment you can rewrite your story and there really is no expiration date. There is no one track to getting there.
Fans can watch Ashley compete at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games starting on February 18 on Peacock TV. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.