by Anne Calder
Leah Neset and Artem Markelov began their separate figure skating journeys over 6,000 miles apart, she in Minot, North Dakota and he in Volgograd, Russia. After partnering for less than a year, they placed sixth at the 2021 U.S. National Championships in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Neset was born December 7, 2005, the daughter of a figure skater and hockey player. She and her younger sister, Kylie, began skating at an early age on the frozen lake at her grandparents’ cabin. When she was four, she joined the Magic City Figure Skating Club and eventually tested in both freestyle and pattern dance.
“I always loved learning and practicing the patterns,” Neset said. “One time during the warm up at a test session, I started doing one of the dances I had already passed because the music for that dance came on.”
Markelov was born in Volgograd, Russia July 10, 2003, where his parents and two younger sisters, Milana and Diana, currently reside. He began skating at age nine in a group of 30, before taking private lessons. For four years, he struggled trying to catch up with his teammates.
“Because I started doing figure skating very late, I didn’t have very good results,” Markelov explained. “After I passed my junior level double axel and triple loop, I decided to try another discipline. I moved to Moscow alone and started a new figure skating life.”
Although he initially began in pairs, he also tried ice dance. After four weeks doing both, he opted to concentrate on the dancing.
“I believed it would be easier because there are no jumps or other hard elements,” Markelov stated. “I now know that ice dance is probably the hardest discipline because every move, every step and every free leg in our programs have to be perfect,” noted the seventeen year old.
Markelov and first partner, Kristina Makeeva represented Russia in ID Advanced Novice at the 13th Santa Claus Cup. The partnership ended after the December 2019 event, which is held annually in Bucharest, Hungary.
“I was excited to do my first International experience in ice dance, which was also the first international experience in my figure skating career. It was fun.”
After ending her first partnership, Neset did not compete for a year before Markelov found her profile on a Russian ice dance partner search website. Coach Elena Dostatni was instrumental in convincing him to come to Colorado Springs for the try-out.
“After a few weeks of organizing flights, hotel and other stuff, I came to America,” Markelov explained. “It was really stressful, but also a very exciting week. Lack of language, new training atmosphere, different culture – was very difficult. However, the idea of training with Leah and Elena was incredible. We started talking about a partnership on the second day.”
It was a very hard decision to move to a new country absolutely alone,” Markelov continued. “I knew I was ready to do that after I met Leah, her family and Elena. I was confident I was under their protection when I was with them.”
After the tryout, Markelov returned to Russia to gather his things and say goodbye to his family and friends. Neset relayed details about the close call he had returning to the US.
“When Covid hit and the world started shutting down, Artem took a last-minute flight and just made it to the U.S. the day before the borders closed.”
In the spring and summer of 2020, Neset & Markelov like others in the skating community, faced the challenges of Covid-19, including the World Arena closure, off-ice classes and virtual/zoom instruction. In addition, the young team was adjusting to each other.
Probably the biggest challenge was learning their different cultures and training systems.
“I believe the difference in culture was the biggest adjustment,” Markelov admitted. “In Russia there are different systems not only of training, but also living. I am really glad to have a Russian coach. She was helping me a lot when I was not able to speak with my partner because of the language.”
“She helped us to go through it together,” Markelov continued. “She was explaining to me American rules and ideas, while also explaining to Leah the Russian principles. We really appreciated that.”
Coach Dostatni reflected on how the team has blended the two cultures and diverse training.
“At first Artem had a hard time. He couldn’t understand why things were done a certain way. We had conversations about skating for the US, being in this country all the time, and that he needed to adjust. There were a few bumps in the road at the beginning, but I’m very impressed with them both.”
The new team worked hard training the Christopher Dean choreographed programs during the months leading up to the U.S. Championships in January 2021.
“Nationals was our first major competition together as a team,” Neset said. “I had never skated in such a big arena before, and I never fully got used to its size and brightness. It was nice to at least have cardboard cutouts and chaperones cheering for us.”
“Before we came, we had watched senior nationals online so we were kind of used to the cardboard cutouts instead of a live audience,” Markelov added. “It was definitely unusual, but better than just empty seats. The cardboard cutouts made it a bit easier to perform.”
With a sixth place Nationals placement on their resume, the duo was anxious to get started preparing for the new season. They searched for almost a month for a combination of music selections for the 2021-2022 Junior Rhythm Dance – the Blues Pattern and a choice of two Street Dance Rhythms.
“Once we found the Blues music, we couldn’t mix it with the Street Dance music, which we had, and the other way around,” Markelov said. “We finally have two songs, which we think fit pretty well: “Feeling Good” by Michael Bublé and “DJ Turn It Up” by Yellow Claw.
The Free Dance is a combination of “My Immortal” by Evanescence and “In the End” by Linkin Park (Tommee Profit version).
“Joel Dear created both programs in Colorado Springs in one week, so we spent a lot of hours each day working with him,” Neset said. “In our new programs we try to make each move reflect the music. We also worked a lot on improving our power and flow during the whole program.”
“Working with Joel was easy because he’s very open,” Dostatni added. “If the skaters have their own ideas, he’s able to double up and turn it into something else, something good.”
Dear enjoyed working with Neset & Markelov and had high praise for the team.
“They’re extremely talented and great skaters. They have such great energy; they’re willing to try anything. We got to explore a lot of options and possibilities.”
The team debuted its programs in May at the Margaret Faulkner Springtime Invitational a club competition in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Neset & Markelov have high ambitions for their sophomore season.
“Our goals are to medal at a Junior Grand Prix, place at the top-3 at U.S Nationals and qualify for Junior Worlds Championship,” the Russian teenager said. “We are also working towards reaching a score of 65 points in our Rhythm Dance and 90 in our Free Dance plus receiving level 4 on all of our elements and a total factored component 43 score.”
The team loves being in Colorado Springs, both for the outdoor physical attractions and the athletic atmosphere at the World Arena and flagship U.S. Olympic Training Center.
“I think the best thing about training here is being close to the mountains and all the outdoor things that come with it,” Neset said. “We can go hiking, biking, walking and climbing whenever we want.
“Colorado Springs is magnificent,” Markelov added. “We try to do school outside every day because we have an incredible view of Pikes Peak.”
Neset & Markelov share their coaching staff with another junior level ice dance team. The U.S. National pewter medalists, Isabella Flores & Dimitry Tsarevsky also train at the World Arena.
“We are very competitive with each other, and I think that really pushes us all to give our best every day,” Neset said. “I really admire their skating and try to learn from the things they do so well.”
“We always try to push each other ahead,” added Markelov. “If one of the teams finished a good run- through, the other team is trying to do just better.”
Both agreed that their favorite ice dance team, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir would be the first choice for a private lesson. The partners also shared something special about each other.
“Artem is really smart, especially at math and computers. In fact, he’s created four websites. He doesn’t like peanut butter, but he does love sport cars, especially the Porsche and Lamborghini.”
“Leah is a very kind, friendly and honest person. She always supports me when I need her help. She’s my best friend to whom I can trust my secrets and thoughts. She loves playing the piano and reading.”
On June 15, Markelov went back to Russia for a month to take his high school final exams. He hadn’t seen his family in a year and a half, so he was very excited.
“My grandparents, parents and two sisters missed me a lot,” Markelov said. “The day when I met them after that long time away, was probably the happiest day for all my family and me.”
About the exams, he said, “I wasn’t super stressed out because I was preparing for them the whole time in the United States. As a result, I got my high school diploma with all excellent marks.”
Coach Dostatni added that in addition to training, he would also be attending the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs in the fall.
“In Russia, I was skating every day to keep myself in the right shape for the upcoming season. I also was doing a lot of cardio to not have such a problem with the difference in altitude when I returned to Colorado.”
Of course, his grandmother and mom fed him lots of the traditional Russian food, but his favorites by far were “bliny” (crepe-like pancakes) and Borscht (beet soup).
Markelov celebrated his eighteen birthday in Russia on July 10 with his family at a restaurant.
“There were 36 family members, and I am so happy that I had a chance to meet all of them before I flew back to the USA. I also celebrated with my friends. It was fun.”
Neset & Markelov are training in Colorado Springs for the Lake Placid Ice Dance International, which will be held this year at the Skating Club of Boston August 12-15. The event has been moved to Norwood, Massachusetts due to the construction work at the Lake Placid facilities.