by Anne Calder | Photos by Daphne Backman
Vanessa Pham & Jonathan Rogers are the 2022 U.S. National Junior pewter medalists. They live and train in Houston, Texas, which is not known as a hot-bed for their discipline. So how did these two skaters become partners and move into the exciting world of ice dance?
Rogers spoke about the ‘arrangement’. “I was under the impression that Vanessa wanted to dance and was looking for a partner, and I believe she was under the same impression as me. I don’t think either of us were exactly wanting to do it, but we weren’t against it. Either way, I’m grateful with how it all turned out.”
Pham was already being coached by Roman Zaretsky a two-time Olympic ice dancer for Israel. So prior to the try-out with Rogers, she had actually taken some ice dance tests and was building skills. However, she resisted for months liking skating with a partner until she finally realized it was less lonely, and she actually loved it more.
“I never thought I would have become a dancer because I had never truly been interested in it,” Pham noted.
The Early Years
Vanessa Pham grew up in Pearland, Texas just outside of Houston. The high school senior has three younger siblings who have all participated in an ice sport, be it hockey or singles figure skating.
She remembers being inspired by Sasha Cohen at the 2006 Olympics.
“I loved her iconic spiral so much that I would do one anywhere I went,” Pham said. “Seeing how much I wanted to skate, my mom finally enrolled me in Learn To Skate classes.”
It turns out, skating was not as much fun at first for the youngster who was barely taller than the boards.
“Eventually I learned to love going fast and doing tricks,” Pham said. “Skating in a rink was also a bonus since Texas gets way too hot in the summer. I started out as a singles skater, doing jumps and such. I competed up to novice level before I quit to focus on ice dance. I’ve definitely progressed and achieved far more in dance than I ever could have in single skating.”
Pham’s long-term goal is to pursue graduate studies after attending university. Both her parents are medical doctors, so that is one path, but she’s also open to other professions such as law.
Jonathan Rogers is a first generation Asian-American and has never lived anywhere but Houston. The 19 year old has an older sister who also skated and currently attends Purdue University.
“My mother used to play basketball and volleyball, and my dad was a crazy kid who was in a band,” Rogers said. “I think most of my athletic ability comes from my mother, but my wit and humor are undoubtedly from my dad’s side.”
“Before I switched to ice dance, I was a single skater,” Rogers explained. “Jumps were not my forte and neither were spins, but I stayed with it. It wasn’t for me, but it was all I knew. Ice dancing wasn’t really big in Houston at the time, not saying it is now.”
Rogers is a freshman at the University of Houston, where he is considering a major in accounting.
“I’ve always had a knack for understanding the business side of things, especially financial-related activities: investing, saving, selling. etc.,” Rogers explained.
Training, Music, Goals
Roman Zaretsky is their head coach. They also train with other specialists. Roger’s previous coach, Val Prudsky does spins and lifts, and Evgeny Nemirovskiy works on artistry and ballet. Igor Shpilband and Pasquale Camerlengo choreographed their Moonlight Sonata free dance and assisted Zaretsky with the rhythm dance.
Their training schedule vacillates from longer in the summer to shorter when the skaters are attending classes.
“During the school year, we skate after school for two to three hours, six days a week,” Pham said. “In the summer months, we skate up to four hours a day, five to six days a week. We do off-ice and ballet once a week, but these are difficult to consistently fit into our schedules during the school year. We also take stretch classes once or twice a week during the summer.”
As far as choosing their music, Pham explained the process. “Jonathan and I find music that we like individually before we present it to each other. We look for music in our preferred styles, keeping in mind how well we could skate to it. I personally love classical music as well as stories of love. My mom also helps me look for music and offers some ideas.”
“After Jonathan and I listen to each other’s choices, we eliminate those we don’t collectively like. The ones that we agree on and both like, we present to our coach, who gives his approval.”
Jonathan added, “Vanessa takes a more direct role in picking music because I’m pretty down for anything. However, when the Rhythm Dance theme was hip-hop, I was picking music left and right.”
Pham and Rogers share the same goal for the 2022-2023 season. They want to officially make Team USA and get an international Junior Grand Prix assignment.
“I also want to improve as a skater and team overall,” Pham said. “I want to walk into every competition with the goal of skating as best I know that I can while enjoying the moment.”
Rogers added, “Although this might seem silly to mention, I would like to have a Level 4 spin at every competition this season, as there has always been something that has kept us from achieving it.”
Pham & Rogers have skated together for over four years and have had ups and downs like all couples. Each shared its favorite quality about the other partner.
“My favorite thing about being Jonathan’s partner is our friendship,” Pham said. “It’s like skating with my best friend. We can talk to each other about anything, and we understand each other so well. There are some times we get agitated towards each other, but we always find ourselves stronger and better for it. We remind ourselves that we have one goal as a team: to be the best we can be and to achieve our goals one step at a time.”
One of the qualities I love about Vanessa is her ability to add structure to not only our skating, but also my life off ice. She has a sense of responsibility and collected character that is unmatched, yet she knows how and when to balance it with excitement and creativity. She knows how to keep me in check, keep me determined on the ice during training and overall read me as a person. It’s a special trait. I’m thankful and appreciate her skills.
As Pham & Rogers partnership has grown, so also has their love for ice dance and its community.
“I like the freedom the most. I have always loved the freedom,“ Pham explained. “I love how I can put my own touch and interpretation on a step that is given to me. I get to mix being creative with being a perfectionist within my programs. When I am skating, nothing else exists to me besides Jonathan, me and the ice.”
“Besides the freedom of it, I like having a partner to share my skating experiences with. In single skating, it gets kind of lonely training and going to competitions, but with a partner it makes everything sweeter.”
“I think one of the most fun things about ice dance is all the traveling and amazing people you get close to,” Rogers added. “It’s such a special thing to be able to sit down with people you’ve trained with or even competed against and become good friends off the ice.”
There is one thing the Texas duo did not agree about. If given the hypothetical opportunity to invite dance teams to Texas for a private lesson, their favorites were different.
Pham said, “I would choose [Gabriella] Papadakis & [Guillaume] Cizeron or Maya & Alex Shibutani for a solo lesson. Papadakis & Cizeron would give great insight on skating skills/techniques with the ease and grace they skate with. I would also learn about the dynamic that works for them, and how they deal with obstacles or challenges they are presented.”
“As for the Shibutanis, I would gain a lot from their techniques. I would also learn how they manage having fun off the ice while also being focused during skating.”
“Hands down, Jean-Luc Baker & Kaitlin Hawayek,” Rogers said. “I believe Vanessa and I really mirror the calm sophistication of their skating, mixed with hints of what would be Jean-Luc’s and my spontaneity and comedic wildness. Plus they have a unique style and character commitments that I believe often outshine the more technical teams in the ice dance world, a quality I’d like to learn and develop from their lessons.”
Building for the Future
In closing, Rogers and Pham reflected on their thoughts standing on the podium at the 2022 US Nationals.
“There was a great sigh of relief knowing we’d done our jobs,” Rogers said. “We didn’t go for a medal; we went to skate our best. The medal was just an added bonus. Most of all though, I felt immense gratitude for Vanessa and [Coach] Roman. I knew this wouldn’t have been possible without them. I know I’m not the easiest to deal with, but these two have continuously stayed by my side. I’m so thankful for them.”
“Going into the competition without any other goals than skating clean and not expecting to medal, I was more than happy,” Pham said. “To be one of the four teams on the podium was worth all of the training we had been through that season. It fueled my fire, and it made me want even more for next season.”