The Olympics in Sochi, Russia are over, but pairs skaters Rudi Swiegers and Paige Lawrence are still basking in the memories they know will never leave them after their first Olympic experience.
All of Southeast Saskatchewan and Southwest Manitoba can claim the pair as their own. Paige grew up in Kennedy. Rudi is from Kipling. They are part of the Wawota figure skating club. They train in Virden. And they have performed in every small town rink in the area.
Sitting over dinner in Virden on March 5, the pair talk about the experience of simply being there, and of how awe inspiring the experience really was for a pair of skaters from small town Saskatchewan who grew up finding their legs on local rinks.
Still decked out in some of their Olympic swag, the pair talk about how they got started together, and the journey that led them to finally realizing their dreams and becoming Olympians.
“When I immigrated to Canada from South Africa I lived in Kipling and the school kept going to the rink for gym, but I always had to sit on the side because I didn’t know how to skate,” says Rudi. “But after a week of that, I told my mom she has to enroll me in skating, I’ve got to know how to skate, otherwise I won’t be cool. She put me in skating and I did skating and hockey at the same time, and I kind of just enjoyed skating more. I just stuck with it.
“I was very competitive and I didn’t like the team setting (of hockey), because if you pass the puck and that guy loses the puck . . . I worked better by myself, I could progress faster than working with a team.”
“I went to a summer (skating) school when I was nine,” says Paige, “and I just loved it, and loved working super, super hard. And I remember my mom and dad sitting me down afterward and being like ‘If you really, really liked this would you like to go to a different town in the fall and skate a little bit more?’ I said ‘yeah sure,’ and that’s when I started going to Wawota and that’s when it took off to the next level.”
Like most skaters, Paige and Rudi started skating as singles. Both wielding a strong independent streak, neither of them considered pairs skating as an option.
“We were definitely late bloomers,” says Rudi.
“Rudi was always the very talented skater but so wild and unruly and would scare every person on the ice because he didn’t watch out for everyone,” says Paige. “He was very, very talented but he had no order.”
“Like I said, I wasn’t a team player,” says Rudi. “I was more focussed on myself.
“I don’t know if I was talented. I managed to stay on my feet. If I ever had a talent it was to stay standing on my feet,” he says with a laugh. “Skating did come naturally to me.”
“Myself, I fell nine out of 10 times on everything, but I was just so determined on everything,” says Paige.
“You were really talented at getting up,” teases Rudi. “I would lay there crying for an hour,” he laughs.
“I was just really, really determined and hard working and I loved to skate. I think that’s what’s gotten me to where I am,” says Paige.
At the time Paige and Rudi began skating in Wawota, they also began training with coach Patty Hole from Virden. Skating as singles, both skaters managed to have some successes at the Junior National level, but it was Rudi who decided that it was time to give up skating for good as his graduation year neared.
“I had a tough season and I was kind of hitting that age where high school was coming to an end,” says Rudi. “I had a season where I had a few injuries and I was kind of finished with skating. I knew a lot of the guys I was skating against were doing things I couldn’t do, and so I was kind of having a discussion with Patty where I was ready to be done.
“And then she said ‘why don’t you try pairs?’ ”
Rudi accepted the challenge and began skating with Moosomin skater Kristi Bonkowski.
“I only skated with Kristen for a year,” he says, “but I really fell in love with the aspect of now skating with someone, being able to do that and work together. It really kind of painted a new picture in skating for me and rejuvenated a love in the sport.
“After a year, Kristie didn’t want to skate anymore, so I considered myself a pairs skater without a partner and Paige came my way, and she can tell the story from here on how she got stuck with me.”
“Patty came to me in the spring,” says Paige, “and said ‘Rudi and Kristi are done, would you like to skate with Rudi and do pairs?’ And I was like ‘nope, no thanks.’ I could remember it clear as day, I was just flat out no.
“I’m a very independent person and I didn’t want to.”
“She knew me,” jokes Rudi.
“That’s true,” says Paige in a no nonsense tone. “Rudi was very, very hyper. Remember I had been travelling with him since I was nine and I was 15 then, so six years. He was very hyper and basically I just didn’t want to rely on anyone else, I had no interest in it. I like doing my own thing. And so a month later Patty asked me again, and I was still like ‘no thanks, I really have no desire.’ ”Despite Paige’s firm conviction about not skating with Rudi, when an experienced pairs team came to the rink in the summer to help Rudi continue working on his skills, Patty asked Paige if she would simply fill in and help Rudi with a few off-ice lifts, so he could keep training.
“She asked me if I would do off-ice lifts with Rudi so that he could further his education with them while he looked for a partner and I said ‘well sure I could to that.’ That was the plan,” says Paige. “I was just going to do off-ice lifts with him.
“So after a week of that they said ‘well let’s go on the ice, because you can learn so much more on the ice.’ So we went on the ice and we were doing lifts and started doing some throws. And probably the third week, they said ‘let’s just learn Rudi and Kristi’s program.’
“And I was like, ‘you got me doing lifts, you got me on the ice, I have no desire to learn their program.’ ”
But with some convincing from the pairs team that was helping them train and from Patty, Paige finally gave in.
“Patty said ‘why not just try it for a year, if you don’t like it, you’re still doing singles, you haven’t lost anything you’ve just gained experiences.’
“I decided to do it for a year and see how things went and after a year I liked it.”
So how did it work for a pair of skaters who had originally prided themselves on their independent personalities?
“As I got older I got very mellow and I kind of found my place in society,” says Rudi. “Also, I have been friends with Paige for many years and the trust was there before we started skating and I knew just how mature and how intelligent she was, so I was able to kind of sit back and let her take the reins. Nine times out of ten I didn’t have to say it because I came up with the same idea. And she would say it and it was like ‘sure let’s do it.’
“Within a great partnership someone has to take the reins and I was able to let her sit back and take the reins. We work very well together.
“I think Rudi was in it from the beginning, he wanted a pairs partner, I was the only one available,” Paige laughs. “For myself, I just saw more opportunity with the pairs and that was appealing to me. And I really liked the thrills that came with doing pairs. I liked the lifts, I loved the throws, loved the speed.
“That’s kind of why I decided to stick it out.
“Once I decided I was going to do pairs I wanted to see how far I could take this. When I was 11 I had already said in my head the goal was the Olympics, so when I decided to do pairs this was the avenue I decided to pursue it with.”
The pair began skating together in earnest, but on a competitive level, things were rocky.
“Our first year we got 14th at nationals—last,” says Rudi. “Our second year we got last again. And it was kind of one of those things where everyone was telling us ‘you know, you guys are really good, you should stop getting last.’
“I kind of started working harder and we went to Germany that year. We were given a junior grand prix assignment, and that was the lightbulb—we knew we could possibly be good.
“The third year we got second at nationals in junior and that was kind of like our breakthrough moment. And that’s kind of when I started realizing I could do more with this and I really started applying myself and started working harder.”
As the pair began to move up in the world of skating, they attended competitions around Canada and the world, and began to medal. Once they began to medal at the senior level, they knew the Olympics were within their reach.
Paige says there was never any doubt for her that they would work hard enough to get there.
“I love to train, I love to work hard, I love it,” she says. “I love the satisfaction it gives me and I love the fact I know I’m progressing. And I was going to make the 2014 Olympics. I was going to do everything in my absolute power to make them. I was going to make it happen.”
“Paige loves to train and I love to compete,” says Rudi. “I strictly love to compete. I worked hard at most of my training sessions so I can get to a competition to compete at a competition because that’s what I like to do, and I want to do good there.”
Pushed by their coach Patty, despite an injury to Paige that was still healing, the pair made Sochi, Russia their goal in 2014.
“We wouldn’t be there without Patty,” says Paige. “I wouldn’t still be skating with Rudi if there was no Patty.
“We’re a tripod,” says Rudi, “and if you cut one of those legs over, the other two are going to fall.
“She’s done everything to get us here—she really has,” says Paige.
The pair’s dedication and their coach’s faith paid off. Skating at the 2014 nationals—the qualifying event for the Canadian Olympic team—the pair managed a bronze medal. They had realized their dream of making it to the Olympics.
Looking back at their humble beginnings, the pair say young athletes with big dreams should realize those dreams really are within reach.
“It’s possible, so just make a goal and believe in yourself and work hard,” says Paige. “Every Olympian says that, that it’s hard work to get here. But it is. It’s hard work. It’s so much hard work, but it’s so worth it. Just believe in yourself and make it happen.”
“I’m just thinking ‘heck if I could do it they could do it,’ ” says Rudi. “There’s nothing grotesquely special about me. I got my butt kicked every day by Paige and Patty, so that I could be there, and it’s something I wanted and something I just went for. So if I could do it, there’s no reason some other kid can’t make that same decision and say ‘I’m going to do it’ and then go for it and get there.”
In Sochi, the pair say they never forgot that they had finally realized a dream come true.
“It was like wow,” says Paige. “I didn’t have any other word. I could have taken a thesaurus but it was just so amazing and I was just trying to see everything and take it all in. The feeling—there are no words for it. You could just feel the awesomeness of the situation throughout your whole body.”
“It was incredibly emotional,” says Rudi. “We did about four practices in the practice rink before the torch was lit. Each day you are warming up and practicing and you are getting excited. And the next day it happens and the torch is lit. That was just another one of those cool moments. We had four days of just practicing there, but now it’s just kind of game on. The torch is lit and once again you get fired up.
“The whole games experience is constantly these roller coasters. You get pumped by the littlest thing. The smallest thing will make you realize you are at the Olympics.”
The pair say the opening ceremonies were a moment of joy for them.
“Going into the Olympics, that was one of the things I was really keen on doing and really hoping to go to,” says Rudi. “Everyone was asking me ‘what do you want to do at the Olympics’ and I was like ‘opening ceremonies.’ I’ve heard everything about walking out there.
“What’s great about it is that we walked out in the centre of the arena. And just walking in the middle of the arena and everything was going on around you—it was just phenomenal.”
“There are a lot of pictures of me with my mouth hanging open,” says Paige, laughing. “And it’s the funniest thing because I remember walking out, walking quite a ways and then realizing my mouth was open. Because it was literally a jaw-dropping experience. I walked out and was just in awe. I had goosebumps all over my body. I had butterflies, I was so excited, jumping up and down and trying to look at everything. The roar and the lights, everything, it stunned me, and obviously my jaw dropped. It was wow. It was the definition of wow.”
Despite the pressure of performing on the world stage, both of them say skating on Olympic ice was a moment of peace for them.
“It was phenomenal,” says Rudi. “I was really, really nervous for the free program. And I remember that moment. After I hopped off the warmup I had to go in the back and sit down and be nervous. And then I hopped onto the ice and I looked at Paige, and Paige looked at me, and we held hands and they announced our name. All that nervousness just melted away and all was right with the world.
“And then we skated not a perfect skate, but a really great skate, and that was my moment. That’s something that I’ll always keep—knowing that was where I needed to be, and what I needed to be, and who I needed to be there with.”
“For me, I will always remember the feelings of skating both those programs,” says Paige. “I was just enjoying them so much, and to me that’s the essence of my skating career. I love to skate and that’s why I’ve done it all this time. Every day when I go on the ice I love to skate.
“But when the pressure’s there and the nerves are there, you’re standing in your moment you’ve worked hard for your entire life, it would have been easy to pull away from it, let it break you. Instead I felt like I was embracing the moment. The whole time I was skating both programs I was so aware of where I was and all the things I had done to get there.
“For me I was at peace with it. It was an awareness of it, yet I was focussed on my skating and what I had to do, but the awareness was still there. It was just one of the best, most rewarding feelings of my life.
“I was just loving it. I wanted it to last forever.”
“That program was too short,” laughs Rudi. “It’s been too long all year long, and then the one time we skated it at the big game it was too short.”
Rudi says they knew they needed to go to the Olympics with an open mind and absorb the experience.
“We had done our research going in,” he says. “We knew that to pinpoint what experience we are going to have and then try to have that would be the wrong thing to do. So we really went in there with a very open mind to just absorb as much as possible and really enjoy the moment as much as possible.
“The moment we try to have a certain experience then you’d be focussing on all the things that were different. And so when it came to the skating we were just in awe.”
The pair finished 14th in the world, and were pleased with both of their skates.
“We were happy with them,” says Paige. “They were probably our best skates this season I would say. The scores might not reflect that. We can’t control the scores and the judging. For ourselves, they were probably our best competition this season. So we were happy with it.
“There is always room for improvement. Every time I watch the program, I think ‘I could have done that better, could have done that better,’ but I’m very happy with it, I’m proud of them.”
During the Olympics, stories of a figure skating judging controversy in pairs skating flared up, and were circulated widely in the world media. The pair say some of the skaters were upset by the story, but they distanced themselves from it emotionally.
“We all know judging is judging and you can’t control it so why get worked up over it,” says Paige. “Some of them were bothered by it, but there’s nothing you can do about it. My focus was myself and what I can control.”
“You have to kind of put the judging aside and just go out there and do what you can do and be proud of what you can do and did,” says Rudi.
“Paige and myself went out there and we laid down a really solid short program that we had a blast doing, and then we just soaked up the free program. We were just very ecstatic that we went to the Olympic games and had two skates of our lives.”
The pair were finished skating on Feb. 12, but didn’t fly home until Feb. 25, giving them plenty of time to simply take in the entire Olympic experience. Paige and Rudi say they made the most of it.
“We had a solid couple of weeks to really enjoy as much as possible,” says Rudi. “You would have two or three nights of doing as much as you possibly could, and then you’d have to have a day of staying at the village to chill and recover. And then you’d be like ‘heck it’s the Olympics’ and then you’d go out again the next day and just have as much fun as possible.”
Paige says the athletes village had much the same feel as a small town.
“It felt almost small townish,” she says. “You had your street of houses and apartments where the athletes were, and then on the other side of this park there was a cafeteria and you would go outside and walk down the street and see people you knew and wave. And you’d go to the cafeteria and see people you knew. It was very small townish.”
She says she and Rudi only knew the skating team going in, so it was nice to meet other athletes.
“I made it my personal goal to meet as many as I could,” she says. “So I would say that I knew the majority of the Canadian team.”
“Paige was a social butterfly. And through association everyone knew who I was,” laugh Rudi.
“In our residence homes we had an athletes lounge,” says Paige. “One of the cool things was going upstairs and, say, watching short track with other short track competitors that weren’t in that exact race. Talking to people about their sports and learning it as we were watching was kind of cool.”
“It was really cool hearing the commentary of people who are professionals of the sport that you were watching on television,” says Rudi. “If you didn’t want to go out that night to an event because it would be really late coming back, you could just stay at the housing and watch it on TV, and then some of the other athletes would be there. And so it’s completely different. We would learn so much more about a sport like speed skating watching with a speed skater.”
The pair attended as many events as possible, including both gold medal hockey games, the women’s curling gold medal game and the men’s curling semifinal among them.
Both of them say it differed vastly from other competitions they have been to because of the scope of the event, and being able to share it with so many other athletes.
“When we were at the rink it feels like we’re at any other competition,” says Paige. “And then you’d finish your practice, you’d walk outside the arena, and it was almost a little bit less stressful because there were all these other athletes in their different sports doing their own thing. So it wasn’t just about figure skating, it was about so much more.
“You could leave it and be involved in something else. And I think there’s that balance that isn’t always there at figure skating competitions.”
“At a figure skating competition, when you are done your practice, you go back to your hotel room,” says Rudi. “Here you would go back and you’d meet other athletes and ask ‘how did the practice go at the speed skating rink?’ And then the girls would be coming in from the hockey game, and you’d be like ‘you guys won the hockey game last night, woohoo.’
“There are so many different things to focus on. The moment you are in the rink you are doing your skating, the moment you are outside of the rink, you were doing the Olympics. That was the difference.”
Riding out the Olympic experience to its fullest, the pair finally arrived back home to Virden in the last week of February where they immediately jumped into training for Worlds in Japan March 22 to 31.
The pair say they don’t know yet how their Olympic experience has affected them personally, but they do understand that the local communities have drawn inspiration from them.
“I think whether we wanted to or not it’s turned us into role models for more people,” says Paige. “Right now at this very moment, we are inspiration to a few more people. That’s pretty cool for me.”
Do they see that as a responsibility?
“It’s not a responsibility,” says Paige.
“It’s more of a privilege,” says Rudi.
“Exactly,” adds Paige.
“We had a chance to go to the school for pancake breakfast this morning,” says Rudi. “It was just fantastic to sit with the kids and see how much they appreciated us and know that they followed us and watched us in their classroom. That was kind of cool.”
Paige says she remembers what it was like being a young skater and watching three-time gold medalist Colleen Sostorics from Kennedy as she played hockey at the Olympics.
“I really like hearing people’s stories about watching us,” she says. “I can remember being really young. We had Coleen Sostorics, our three-time Olympic gold medalist. I went over to our neighbors’ farm, my parents and I. We had a watching party, and watched Colleen.
“I remember being so into it and being so excited and happy and just thinking it was the coolest thing ever to watch her because I felt like I knew her even though I didn’t. That’s such a strong memory for me.
“To hear other people’s stories about them having watching parties, that just means a lot to me. They took the time to do that for me. It’s cool. Because that was such a memorable thing for me. To have given someone else that, that’s cool. So I really, really appreciate when someone stops me and tells me their story—their Olympic story.
“Several people have told me stories of driving to work and pulling over to watch on their phone, or pulling over to a restaurant in a different town and making them change the channel, or things like that—just the little efforts they have gone to to watch. That was cool. A few people I know had a party. Our trainer in Virden had a brunch with people we knew, and the schools here, they watched us. In Regina they rented the Imax and my grandma was there.
“It’s just something I’m really grateful for and just trying to make the most of and just being thankful for, because it’s not everyone who gets that opportunity. Hopefully it can result in good things for other people because that would be just the coolest thing.”
So what’s next for Paige and Rudi? Jumping straight into training for their first appearance at Worlds, the pair say they have not discussed their future.
“It’s a really strange place to be at right now, because for the past six years, all I really could see was 2014,” says Paige.
“I kind of use the analogy that you’re driving towards a massive mountain, so you can see the top and that’s it. Then when you get there it’s this amazing view, it’s so beautiful. And then you start going down the other side and it’s this whole new uncharted territory you can’t really see.
“That’s where we are at right now. I don’t really know what’s going to come after Worlds and what we will do. We’ll meet and talk after that and kind of see where we’ll go from there.
“We got back and jumped right into training. It’s just not something that we’ve even really thought of. We’re just taking in this moment and enjoying it to the max.”
“I was at the grocery store and bought two chocolate bars because I haven’t had chocolate in forever,” says Rudi. “The grocer recognized me and asked me about the Olympics, and this guy behind me said ‘so you’ve been to the Olympics. Are you going to go to the next one?’ ”
“And my response was, ‘let me finish this junk food first and I’ll get back to you on that,’ ” says Rudi, laughing. “And that’s what my feeling is on that. We’re going to do Worlds and take a couple of weeks off and then we’ll think about it.
“We’re trying to really enjoy it as much as possible right now.”
“It’s just such a large commitment,” says Paige. “There is more to life than just that, and it’s just whether we are wanting to look into that or whether we are still wanting to skate.”
How big of a commitment has it been for the pair?
“It’s been my life,” says Paige. “I have a great family, I have great friends, I have other interests, but this has been my purpose. So the rest is there as balance, but this has been my purpose.”
“Paige said that well,” adds Rudi.
When asked if they have given anything up for their dream, the pair say it’s not about what you miss out on, but what you get to experience.
“There’s lots that you give up or choose not to pursue,” says Paige.
“But there’s so much that you gain from it,” continues Rudi.
“It’s not so much that we ever give anything up, it’s that we got the opportunity to do something different and to do what we wanted to do.”