The 2022-23 season was a breakthrough for American pair skaters Emily Chan and Spencer Howe in what they feel is just the beginning. In their fourth season together, the team won medals at both their Grand Prix events, securing their first trip to the Grand Prix Final. They earned the silver medal at the U.S. Championships and again at Four Continents, before finishing their season in fifth place at the World Championships.
However, what wasn’t obvious to observers was that Howe was battling an injury throughout the year.
“At the beginning of last season, I’m pretty sure that’s when I tore my labrum,” Howe said. “I was able to get through last season thanks to my team and my PT. Then, after the season finished, I got some imaging, and it was clear that I needed medical intervention. It’s an injury that has plagued me, and I always did everything to try to avoid surgery, but then I think that this last season was a little bit more difficult.”
“We’ve been blessed to have such a good season and be able to still progress while handling that,” Chan added.
Howe had surgery in May and was then housed at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs to undergo rehab. In the meantime, Chan visited her family in Texas and then trained on her own at the team’s base at the Skating Club of Boston.
After Howe arrived back in Boston in July, the team began training in earnest for the season.
“The good thing is that where I’m at right now with my recovery, we’re starting to amp things up with pair elements,” Howe said. “Lifts will definitely be the last thing that we introduce back in, just anything overhead. But right now, I’m trying to regain the mobility back in my shoulder because that surgery kind of tightened everything up. It’s the nature of the surgery. We’re able to start working on throws, and doing some death spirals, which is dominant with that right side. It’s starting to feel strong again.”
Building new programs while managing rehab
While Howe was in Colorado Springs, the team choreographed their short program with Ben Agosto and Katherine Hill.
“It’s actually a funny story,” said Howe, “because I worked with Ben, and we did a program together when I was competing in ice dance for one season. I always kind of stayed in touch and he always was a familiar face. When I was rehabbing in Colorado, I found out that he had relocated and was coaching there now. So, I came up with the idea that while I was rehabbing and phasing back onto the ice in Colorado, maybe we could orchestrate something where we bring Emily out there and we can work with Ben. Because I liked him a lot when I was younger, and I thought that it fit perfectly into the puzzle that we were facing, of surgery and being a little bit behind. It allowed us to return to Boston ready with the program.”
The short program is to an Elvis Presley medley.
“We had the idea when the Elvis movie first came out,” explained Howe. “We were always playing that playlist at the rink while we were warming up and we really liked the new flavor with the old Elvis music. I’m also a big Elvis fan, and I grew up listening to Elvis because my dad played it in the car. So, we put something together, I cut a piece of music, and we tried it for a show and our coaches really liked it. They thought it brought out the best in both me and Emily and so we decided, ‘alright, let’s try’ and I think it could be a really great choice for us this season.”
Working with ice dancers also made sense, given that one of the goals that Chan and Howe have set for the season is to bring more of an ice dance quality to their skating.
“We want to be able to entertain at a different level than we have before,” said Howe. “I thought that, especially with the ‘Elvis’ number, Ben would be perfect to help us get on our feet with such a high energy program. And as we’ve been running through it, we’re falling in love with it more and more every run through.”
Chan agreed. “It’s really fun for us to do ourselves.” Since Howe wasn’t able to do much partnered skating at the time, he filmed while Agosto and Chan skated together. Now that they are back in Boston, they are finding their way into the nuances of the program. “Since everything is fairly new, we want to spend a lot of time on details while we can. So, when he is able to do lifts and get back to really doing it, then we just slip [those elements] in,” she said.
The team is also working with their coaches to choreograph their free skate, a collaborative process that has been their norm for the past several seasons. The program will be to “Exogenesis Symphony” by Muse.
“It’s a really breathtaking piece, just listening to the music,” said Chan. “It’s so beautiful and we both enjoy listening to it and connecting with music and telling the story. Since we’ve been back, that’s what we’ve been working on the most, piecing together the choreography and laying out how we want to do everything, as much as he can do with the shoulder. For now, we’ve been working on it with our coaches and just experimenting with new things on our own time. We’ve been putting in place markers where we can’t do dance lifts. So, in a couple of weeks, when he is able to try some things, we’ll fill those in. Then at Champs Camp we’ll also be working with Randy Strong to fill in the little pieces, and to amplify it a little bit more.”
As seeded skaters, Chan and Howe were able to choose their Grand Prix assignments this year, and opted to go with Cup of China and NHK Trophy — the last two events in the series, in order to give Howe the most time to recover.
“The surgery is supposed to take four to six months to get to full recovery,” Howe revealed. “Since I got the surgery at the beginning of May, we knew we were going to miss a portion of the season, but we set the goal to still be at the Grand Prixes. We’re also planning to do Finlandia Trophy, which I think is about a month before, in October, or maybe the Tayside Trophy. I don’t want to go out there for the first time at a Grand Prix. I think that especially with these new programs and having a late start on the new programs, it’s important that we get out there, even in the sense of doing shows. We’ll be at An Evening with Champions [a charity exhibition held in Boston] in September. I won’t be able to do lifts, but it’s at least somewhere where we can get out and skate in front of an audience.”
Coaching and relaxation in the off season
After the end of the season, Chan and Howe accompanied their coaches, Aleksey Letov and Olga Ganicheva, to the ISU Singles and Pairs Seminar in Thailand.
“That was our first time ever doing an ISU seminar and being on the coaching side of things,” Howe reported. “That in itself was a really cool experience, and the way that they operated in Thailand was awesome! They were all very accommodating and welcoming.”
They were especially excited to have the opportunity to introduce more skaters to pairs.
“It was pretty funny, because there were a lot more girl skaters than guys,” Howe observed. “So, at times it almost felt more like Synchro. We would have them all connect with each other and just get a sense of what it feels like to hold another person’s hands. We did have a handful of boys and we would line them up and have a girl come up and we showed them how to do a death spiral exercise. We were able to go out and show what pairs is, and from what we heard, the feedback was really good. Everyone was inspired and really enjoyed just having a taste of pairs because, you know, there’s not a lot of exposure to pairs in [most parts of] Asia.”
The experience also helped Howe to understand how important it is to build pairs coaching expertise around the world.
“Even from a safety perspective, you really need somebody who knows what they’re doing so that as a team progresses, they can keep them safe and healthy. Because we know that in whatever discipline, if you’re not healthy, or if one of you is unhealthy, it becomes a huge hindrance to any type of progress.”
Howe enjoys hiking, and while he was in Colorado, he did get to spend a little bit of time away from his physical therapy and enjoy the outdoors.
“There were a couple of times where my parents visited me, just to check up on how I was doing, and we were able to find some hiking spots,” he shared. “We went to the Garden of the Gods, and that’s definitely the spot to go in Colorado! We got to experience that lifestyle a little bit and just get outdoors. I’m a huge outdoors person, wherever I am. They have some high incline hikes too, but I didn’t dare try those!”
Chan also loves the outdoors, especially visiting farms around Boston.
“Since it’s moving into summer and fall, the ‘you pick’ farms have just started opening up, so I’m going to those quite frequently,” she said. “I really enjoy picking fruits and vegetables and just being out in nature. I love cooking, so I like to cook and bake with what I’ve picked. It’s really a whole experience.”
Setting a goal to entertain
With the retirement of reigning U.S. champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier, Chan and Howe assume the mantle of the top American team, and expectations are high. The duo has learned to manage pressure by setting specific goals for their own development.
“Every year, especially as me and Emily have gotten more seasoned with each other as partners, we’ve really done well to set goals and work towards something each season,” said Howe. “Our first season together, we wanted to do it all at once and it didn’t really work out well for us. And so, as we got more used to each other, we started setting goals for ourselves, regardless of ranking or placement. We’re able to focus on the task at hand, and then what comes with that, let it come.”
Currently, the team is working and trying out new side-by side-jump content for the season.
“We’re doing the triple toe-double Axel-double Axel, and then plain Salchow,” Chan revealed. In the previous season, they did double Salchow-double Axel-double Axel and a solo triple toe. “We’re going to experiment with that for a little bit. Then everything else, because of his shoulder, is going to stay the same for now. As his shoulder progresses, we might amp it up a bit and change some things to make it more difficult, depending on how he feels.”
Howe emphasized that their biggest focus this season is to improve as skaters and entertainers.
“We know that our skating is one of our strengths” he acknowledged. “We want to take it to the next level, because we feel like we’re capable of that. Last season, we had a really big focus on trying to refine our elements and we still want to continue to do that. But this year, we want to try to put things together in terms of how we feel we can entertain and how we feel we can showcase our skating and also be able to perform those elements. I feel like when you get to this level, that’s what makes it really fun!”
“We want to push ourselves past our max and how much we think we can do,” Chan added. “We hear our skating is good and we reach and touch a lot of people, but as we push ourselves to refine our technical elements, we don’t want to lose that artistic side either. Actually, we want to make it even better.”
For Howe, it is important that people know that the team still has room to grow.
“People who have the outside perspective see us showing up to competitions, and looking back on last season, we did have a really successful season,” he said. “But when you’re talking about setting goals, I’ve always felt we haven’t even dipped our toes in the water of the potential of what we could be. I feel like this is just the beginning.”