The past seven months have been tough for Canadian pairs skater Lubov Ilyushechkina, who found herself adrift following the abrupt end to her pairs partnership with Charlie Bilodeau in April. Though it has taken time for her to come to terms with and recover emotionally from what transpired, Ilyushechkina is now putting the experience behind her and moving on.
When Lubov Ilyushechkina left her native Russia and moved to Canada in June 2014 to partner with Dylan Moscovitch, she came with high hopes and great expectations. Though the pairs duo found moderate success on the world stages, they were never able to reach the top step of a podium at a major international in the four seasons they competed together. The partnership ended after a fourth-place finish at the 2018 Canadian Championships knocked them out of the running for a place on the team that would compete at the Olympic Winter Games.
Born in Moscow, Ilyushechkina first teamed up with Nodari Maisuradze in 2006. Skating under the Russian flag, they won the 2008 Junior Grand Prix Final and 2009 World Junior titles. In their first season in the senior ranks, they mined gold at 2010 Skate Canada International. After the team split in early 2012, Ilyushechkina planned to compete with Yannick Kocon of France, but when Russia refused to release her they went their separate ways.
In the spring of 2018, Ilyushechkina was at loose ends following her split with Moscovitch. With no partnership prospects on the horizon, she signed on as a performer with Cirque du Soleil and went on tour in the U.S. A few months later, out of the blue, she received a Facebook message from Canadian pairs skater Charlie Bilodeau, who had abruptly ended his partnership with Julianne Séguin in July. Ilyushechkina was excited about the possibility of skating with Bilodeau and returned to Toronto during a tour break in September to have a tryout. “I was so delighted by the offer to try out with him. During my Cirque tour I kept training outside of what I needed for the show, doing all the exercises, running, jumps and cardio,” Ilyushechkina said.
“At that first tryout, we saw that our skating skills and basic elements matched so well naturally. Our natural rhythm and our body styles flowed with no thinking required. It was a wonderful feeling and a very big eye opening moment for me that we could skate together without ‘trying’ to match. When I returned to the tour, I had two things that I could compare — working on the show and the tryout — and I could really understand and feel what my soul was leaning toward.”
Over the next two months, Ilyushechkina and Bilodeau communicated regularly. They decided to have a one-week training session during her next tour break in November. The week in Montréal went very well, Ilyushechkina recalled. Those who watched their training sessions were surprised and impressed at how quickly they had gelled. At the end of that week, the duo sat down to discuss their respective expectations and what each hoped to get out of the partnership.
“We spoke about our individual strengths and weaknesses and what we both wanted from figure skating,” said Ilyushechkina. “I asked very specific questions because figure skating is everything to me. It is something I am passionate about, and, of course, I would require the same commitment from a partner. After I asked all my questions, Charlie responded that figure skating was his first priority. I felt we were on the same page. We were both committed for at least one Olympic cycle and the next one would be another discussion. I trusted what I heard so we decided to organize the partnership with Richard Gauthier as our coach. I went back to the tour and told them that I would not be renewing my contract and to not rely on me for upcoming roles or to teach me new roles. When I was leaving an acrobat asked me if I was ready and I said, ‘Yes, I am ready.’ I was so proud of myself at that moment. The managers told me that ‘people come from competitions to us, but nobody goes back to competitions.’ But I did.”
When her contract with Cirque du Soleil ended in February 2019, she returned to Toronto, packed up her apartment and moved to Montréal. Seven months later, the team made its debut at Finlandia Trophy, where they captured the bronze medal. They followed that up with a fifth-place finish at Skate Canada and claimed bronze at Cup of China. At the 2020 Canadian Championships, Ilyushechkina and Bilodeau finished in third place. The top three pairs teams were then sent to Four Continents — which was essentially a skate-off between the second and third place teams at nationals — for the one remaining spot on the World team. Ilyushechkina and Bilodeau finished a disappointing seventh, which effectively ended their season.
“The season started really well and we did a great performance at Finlandia Trophy. I was very happy and our team was also very happy with . Obviously, for a new pairs team it was not going to be easy — there were going to be ups and downs and we had spoken about that in advance. We expected things not to be perfect, but we were ready to face the challenges. We had them of course during the season, but overall I would say it was a very successful first year together.”
However, behind the scenes a different story was playing out, one that Ilyushechkina would not learn about for another two months.
After Four Continents, Bilodeau’s attendance at practice sessions became a guessing game. Ilyushechkina said when people at the rink would ask her every day if he was going to show up, she would laugh it off and turn it into a joke. “But it hurt when I would wake up at 4 in the morning to be prepared, warmed up and on the ice at 6:30 and then get a message from him that he was ‘going to take it easy today.’ At first it was once in a while, then it happened more often and, to be honest, in March I barely saw him because he had other things to take care of. I trusted that he was being responsible and taking care of himself and that he would come back fresh and strong and we would keep going.”
On April 15, Bilodeau scheduled a video call with Ilyushechkina. With all the rinks closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she believed they would discuss their training and preparation plan for the following season. But the call that day turned out quite differently than Ilyushechkina expected. “I thought we were going to discuss what we were going to do, how we were going to train because of the COVID-19 closures and us being in different places,” Ilyushechkina explained. “He postponed the call by 30 minutes saying that he needed to eat. However, he used those 30 minutes to set up a deal to sell our long program music before he even told me that we would not skate together anymore. Then, when our online chat happened, he broke the news to me about his retirement. It was really a punch in the gut. I was in tears; I cannot even explain how I was feeling. He said nothing about the sale of the music.”
It was the second time in less than two years that Bilodeau had abruptly ended a pairs partnership. In July 2018, he advised Julianne Séguin of his decision to split by telling her, “I won’t beat around the bush. You and me, we’re done.”
One day after the video call, Bilodeau posted a long letter online, announcing his retirement and his reasons for doing so. Ilyushechkina took issue with some of the statements contained in that letter, noting “while he had been telling me one thing, he was thinking about and planning a completely different course for himself.”
Bilodeau wrote that he had started thinking about retiring after Cup of China in November, but during the online call on April 15 he claimed to have made the decision only a few days earlier. “His decision was not made in one day. It was a sequence of steps, which led me to make a lot of sacrifices. I left a good, well-paying job to chase the dream I wanted because he said he had the same dream,” Ilyushechkina said.
“I had another online call with him on April 17. I was very emotional and I said some things I wished I had not said. I cried a lot about how much I loved our music, our programs, our costumes and everything that we do. I apologized to him for some of the things I said because I wanted to have a better closure with him. But later the same day he sold our music without telling me. I found this out quite by accident. To be honest, I thought that we were friends and I tried my absolute best to have a better closure. But, when I mentioned that I had never complained about him missing practices, he said, ‘you endured’ and I should be happy that I don’t have to do it anymore. I told him I had pretty much spent all my savings and that many expenses could have been avoided if he had been truthful with me. He then offered to give me the money for the music, but half of it was legitimately mine anyway. He was surprised that I did not appreciate his offer.”
When asked if she had any indication at any time that Bilodeau was not going to continue, Ilyushechkina stated she had “no idea these thoughts were going on in his head throughout the season” and that everything came as a “huge unpleasant surprise” during the first online call. “In the past, he said skating was the greatest challenge he had and if he wanted to achieve his Olympic dream it was his best vehicle to get there. He said he wanted to stay true to himself, to skate while keeping a balance in his life and he wanted some space to cultivate his other areas of interest. But he told me that skating was his priority and he would leave everything for figure skating, no matter what. He had been to the Olympics. He knows the level of commitment that requires. To have a goal of reaching an Olympic podium and have a balanced life at the same time is foolish. He told me one thing and told himself another.
“In his retirement letter he also wrote that during the season there were days when he wished he could hurt himself to have an easy way out, to have a reason to step aside and move on. That was a big surprise to me, but Richard, myself and the other coaches dealt with this statement in a professional way. There was a parallel reality going on, which I had no idea about and that I only learned by reading his retirement letter. These facts were purposefully left out of our conversations.”
Ilyushechkina recalled that when Bilodeau first approached her, he said that in order for him to find what he wanted in life he needed to change his surroundings and see if things would be different with a new partner versus his previous one. “He wanted to restart his career with me. But he used me to explore who he is to satisfy his personal whims and then tossed me aside when his confusion cleared. I don’t call that respect. It is very selfish.”
Following the April 17 call, Ilyushechkina and Bilodeau communicated via text for a long period of time, as she tried to get him to help her pay off some of her debts. “I still owe a lot of money from last season. I wanted him to take responsibility for his actions and do something about it, but after a long term of text conversations he stopped communicating with me. I was hurt very deeply. I could have understood that things happened — that he changed his way of thinking, that he does not feel motivated or excited about skating anymore — if it had been presented to me in an honest and friendly way with an apology,” Ilyushechkina said. “But the way the situation was handled, it was like a knife in my back.”
When it became imminent that the provincial borders would close, her boyfriend, Dean Harrison, drove to Montréal to take her back to Toronto. Ilyushechkina said when she left at the beginning of the lockdown she thought it would be a temporary thing, “but it turned out to be pretty long term.”
Ilyushechkina is now moving on from that heartbreaking experience, but her direction is still a question mark at this time. She recently earned a provincial coaching license and while that is a career Ilyushechkina is excited to embrace, she is not yet ready to close the door on her competitive career. She received an offer to coach in Québec earlier this year, but with ice time limited to the national team and other top athletes and no public skating permitted for many months, everything was on hold throughout the spring and summer.
In late September, Ilyushechkina returned to Montréal and started coaching. Though she said it is complicated with the restrictions, and is currently only able to work a few hours a week, she is happy to have this opportunity. Canada is now her permanent home, (she has not been back to Russia since 2015), but technology affords her the opportunity to stay connected with her parents and family, with whom she has a very strong bond. “I am so thankful for everything they did for me. They are very realistic — not crazy skating parents and I am very grateful for that,” Ilyushechkina said with a laugh. “I still call my mom and talk to her for an hour or two. I can ask advice of my dad and joke with my brother. I am very lucky. My dad turned 70 on August 25, so I want to wish him a public happy birthday.”
Ilyushechkina is also grateful to everyone who was part of her skating journey the past six years. She noted the “tremendous support” she received from so many, including Skate Canada, Patinage Québec, her coaches (Richard Gauthier, Sylvie Fullum, Marlène Picard, Lee Barkell, Tracy Wilson and Bryce Davison) and Moscovitch. She also appreciates all the support she received from fans throughout her career with both her partners.
“I do not want to admit that I am done. I am open for anything, but at the same time I have to be realistic,” the 28-year-old said. “I would love to coach junior and senior skaters at the elite level. I previously coached in Moscow before I moved to Toronto. I have not had much experience working with adults, but I would love to cultivate the love for figure skating with all generations so they do not only see figure skating as a physical and fitness activity. It can educate people in so many ways. I also very much love choreographing programs. I did the programs for the children I coached in Moscow. Actually, I did everything for them on and off the ice. I held group lessons, edited the music myself, ran ballet classes, fitness classes and off-ice specific technical lessons.”
Her life took an unexpected turn when, during a family trip to Montréal over the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, Harrison proposed. His family had set up a sign “Marry Me Luba” made of fallen leaves in the middle of a park, where Harrison popped the question. Ilyushechkina said yes.