Meet Tim Koleto
I first met American-turned-Japanese ice dancer Tim Koleto at the US Classic this past September, and I was instantly in awe of his and partner Misato Komatsubara's beautiful skating. Then I met them after the rhythm dance and was in awe of their kindness and how real they were. And then I interviewed Tim and gained a whole new level of appreciation and respect for him and his indomitable determination, mature perspective, and gracious nature - among the many other admirable qualities that this hardworking man possesses. #TeamKoKo has been rising through the ranks this season, winning bronze at both their Challenger events and earning top ten finishes at the NHK Trophy, Rostelecom Cup, and Four Continents Championships - oh and they also won Japanese Nationals. No biggie. I chatted with Tim - also known as Tom, according to the 4CC announcer - about his tiring-yet-inspiring journey, struggles with finding his place in the skating community, and what legacy he hopes to leave behind.
Age: June 17th, 1991 (27 years old)
Born: Kalispell, Montana, USA
Hometown: Colorado Springs, Colorado, USA
Currently: Montreal, Quebec, Canada / Okayama, Japan
Country Represented: Japan
Skating Club: Kurashiki FSC
Discipline: Ice Dance
Partner: Misato Komatsubara
Training Location: Montreal, Quebec, Canada @ Centre Gadbois / Okayama, Japan
Blades: MK Dance
Tim and Misato serving up an emotional performance at the 2017 NHK Trophy
Q: What was life like growing up in Montana, and what got you interested in figure skating in the first place?
A: My family actually moved to Colorado shortly after I was born, and I've never been back, so Montana has always been this distant place sort of looming over my life. I was able to meet a young skater at the US Classic this season who is from Montana. She trains in Salt Lake City because there isn't an optimal training situation in Montana - I'd love to see that happen in the future.
I'm the youngest of four siblings, all of whom skated before me. At the time I started skating, my brother and sister were doing ice dance together in Denver, and I actually really enjoyed just running around the rink while they were on the ice. Eventually, my mom decided to put me on as well, no doubt to disperse some of that energy and to get me to stop asking for quarters for the arcade games. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Q: You started out skating in men's singles - even placing sixth at the 2012 Junior US Nationals - before having a series of injuries (including a dislocated knee, torn hamstring and LCL, twisted ankle, and torn tibiofigular ligament) over the next year. What was your mindset like during this difficult time, and did you ever want to stop skating altogether?
A: During that season transitioning from junior to senior, it became really clear that the technical content I had in my repertoire was not going to be enough to continue to be competitive. That season I shook things up; I went to work with David Wilson for the first time on a new free program, and I started to push my jumping abilities. I was a natural spinner, and I've always loved performing, but jumping never came easy for me. I didn't land my first double axel until I was sixteen years old. I also have a really heavy obsession with details and understanding how things work, which caused me to overthink a lot of the learning process. In the end, that mindset (which I still struggle with) coupled with how late I really came into the game relative to my competitors, was really the end of the road for my singles career. I was aware enough to see the blood in the water, and when the injuries and subsequent re-injuries came, I knew it was something I was unlikely to outrun. With so many of the men beginning to jump multiple quads before their 20s, it's been my opinion and experience that you have to be a natural jumper in order to avoid serious injury. Still, to have accomplished all of my triple jumps in competition, particularly when I'd felt completely written off as a teenager, is something i'm very proud of.
There was definitely a time that I'd felt maybe it was time to hang up my skates. It becomes increasingly difficult as an adult to excuse the situation when you compare the level of performance with the level of financial investment. And when you've been skating for 20 years, that's quite an investment. In the end, I've been blessed to have found stability in what has been a very long, difficult journey to have a sense of belonging in the sport of figure skating.
Tim in his early days as a singles skater!
Q: In 2013, you joined the ice dance world and teamed up with Yura Min to represent her native South Korea. How easy was the transition from singles to dance for you, and what was it like representing a country other than your own - especially with the language barrier?
A: The transition from singles to dance is probably the most difficult undertaking I've attempted in athletics. To go from so many years of concentrated self-management to suddenly having to factor in another person to all kinds of decisions is challenging. And then there's the skating itself. I was lucky to start immediately with the very highest level of coaching under Igor Shpilband. Furthermore, working with high-level choreographers and coaches Tom Zakrajsek, Tom Dickson, Catarina Lindgren, and David Wilson in the years prior gave me a strong basis of how to work, which I think helped me improve at a really accelerated rate.
At the time Yura and I began skating together, I was really interested in Korean culture, music, and television shows, so the cultural shift I felt was minimal. I had been playing with studying the language for around 18 months prior to our partnership and had even won an all-expenses-paid trip to Korea online that had been deeply influential. When she offered me a chance to skate together representing South Korea, it was a dream come true. It felt like destiny. And though there are things about the end of our partnership that break my heart - things I think we both wish we could go back and unravel or undo - I still believe it was destiny to have led me to become who I am today.
Q: You then paired up with Norwegian Thea Rabe for the 2015-16 season, and you two were actually Norway's first-ever ice dance team. What are the pros and cons of skating for a federation where you're literally the only dance team?
A: The Norwegian skating federation always treated us with support and respect; we were given the opportunity to compete often and choose our competitions freely. I felt immediately accepted, and Thea's family always did their best to make me feel at home. The difficulties were few, but as there were no officials or judges for ice dance at Nationals, we performed exhibitions rather than received scores. My grandmother had skated with Sonja Henie in a variety of shows, so to be participating in a part of my family history for a short time was really special.
Japanese national champions!
Q: Three times is the charm, because in 2016 you found your perfect match (both on AND off the ice) with Misato Komatsubara, skating under Japan. What made your partnership with her different from the others?
A: After Thea and I split, I seriously considered quitting again. I discussed with my mom that if I didn't find a partner before June 1st, I would retire and move home. I haven't really ever spoken of that time publicly before, but it was the most difficult period of my life until now. I'd been on Isotretinoin medication for my skin and found myself irritable, depressed, and deeply confused. My coach at the time had told me he didn't think he could help me anymore heading into the Olympics. And to be frank, I felt abandoned by a majority of my skating community. Emotionally, that experience deeply shaped the man who I became, and it's hard to remember what it was like to be me before that time.
When Misato and I met, it was a crossroads of life for both of us. We share not only a love for skating, but a dedication and sense of responsibility and respect for the sacrifices our families have made. And that includes the weight of what would be the last chance for both of us. That sense of duty and the finality of our opportunities, based on age and our experiences, made us instantly compatible. And I think that living on another continent away from family, having been through representing countries that are not our own, created an unspoken bond between us that few people understand.
Q: Sometimes with skating under foreign federations, there can be a bit of imposter syndrome. Have you ever felt any of that? And what advice do you have to skaters representing other countries?
A: There have been times when I've felt out of place representing other countries, but the majority of those uncomfortable situations have come from my own inability to communicate or express myself rather than any intentional alienation. I think it's hard for anyone that's been surrounded by familiarity or the same federation for their career to change, but it's my experience that with time, respect, and humility comes acceptance.
These two lovebirds were made for each other!
Q: You and Misato became a couple and got married not long after you started skating together, can you tell us your love story? You guys are so cute together! How did you know that she was the one, and did you have any initial hesitation about mixing your personal and professional lives?
A: When I first moved to Milano, I lived alone, and then we moved in together in the summer. As I mentioned before, we were in similar places in our lives that made our communication easy and made the transition of being an on-ice couple to being an off-ice couple both natural and gradual. We also have our fair share of odd interests and hobbies that sprinkle our relationship with all kinds of fun experiences. True to form, I proposed at Universal Studios Japan during Halloween. And that's how it's always been for us: unexpected, impulsive, and without hesitation. There was concern between us with how to separate our home and work lives. In the beginning, we tried desperately to keep them separate, but over time we realized for us it was more conducive to our development - both as skaters and people - to blur the lines a bit. Now, sometimes a step will come up while we are cooking dinner or during a TV show we're watching, and we'll chat about it or walk through the steps and then go back to whatever we were doing.
Q: Last year, you and Misato moved to Montreal to train at Centre Gadbois under some of the world's best coaches, including Patrice Lauzon and Marie-France Dubreuil. What was the reason for the switch, and what aspects of your skating do you think have improved the most since moving there?
A: When we came up on the end of our second season together in Milano, it was gradually clear that we should begin to look at other options. The Italian Olympic Committee rejected our request for sports visas, so we were living there on student visas that were becoming increasingly difficult and expensive to renew. We were so grateful to learn under Barbara Fusar-Poli and her team in Milano, but we also felt both logistically and creatively ready to move in a different direction.
Our time in Montreal has been everything we had hoped for and beyond expectations (and expectations were understandably high). They've transformed the way we work, the way we think about skating as a couple, our concept of music and performance. There's been a big improvement personally with my knee and ankle action on the ice, and there have been improvements in the quality of our elements and transitions as well. We can't wait to see the growth we can make in the future as we explore different styles of music.
The Gadbois fam!
Q: I also hear that you're an aspiring author! Can you tell us more about that? Are you working on any projects currently?
A: I've been writing for as long as I've been reading, which is around eleven years old when my mom told me I couldn't watch Lord of the Rings until I read the book. I started with poetry (the most famous of which was dramatically penned while I was in time-out, titled, "Emptiness"), and then I moved on to short stories. Between fourteen and eighteen years old I completed a fantasy novel, which at the time of completion was over 108,000 words. I submitted it to a number of publishers, all of whom said no except for one, who liked my writing but requested if I had anything else, as the fantasy market was heavily saturated in a post-Eragon influx of dragons and wizardry. I submitted three chapters of what had been a side project and got much better feedback. I'm nearly finished with that novel now, though my publishing contract fell through when Penguin and Random House merged. I will be pursuing publishing as soon as I can manage. It's a cyberpunk, first-person, sci-fi novel that sits right at a disturbing intersection between reality TV and human trafficking - with a sprinkle of Gattica - and that's all I'll say about it for now.
Q: Going into Worlds this year (which I bet will special extra special for you since it'll be held in Japan), what are your and Misato's goals?
A: This is our first World Championships together, so we are trying to keep that in mind as we approach the end of this season. It goes without saying that only the top 20 couples will get to perform the free dance, so qualifying for that is our main goal. We've often felt like our seasons were cut short or we didn't have the full time to really let the programs germinate into their final form. We finally feel like we've got a set of completed work, so I hope we can show that and continue to share our love of the sport with all of you.
Tim and Misato soaring to new heights at the 2018 Rostelecom Cup! (Photo by Maria Kateshova Photography)
Favorite thing about Japan?
It's clean and quiet and safe
If you were a dessert, which one would you be?
Lemon meringue pie: an unassuming confection on the outside, a vivid citrus bite on the inside
Favorite place you guys have competed?
The Nina Bonina Brown "Well, it's over.." picture. Anything with Kermit the Frog.
What do you love the most about Misato?
The middle picture is from Four Continents when there were music issues during the gala, so Tim and Misato entertained the crowd a bit, playing toepick footsie and getting the entire arena to do the wave
Do you believe in ghosts?
No. Spirits yes.
Last movie you saw?
I cut my own hair, six years and counting - yes, even the back
Bonus: impressions, from Donald Duck to Cher
What do you want your legacy to be?
Growing up in a broken home as the child of an alcoholic, I'd like to be remembered as somebody who sewed a lot of sorrow into gold, someone who turned their pain into something beautiful and valuable and precious. I'd love people to say that I took what life dealt me and dove in headfirst, that I didn't miss a single experience no matter how scared I was. And no matter what, I'd love people to remember me as kind and compassionate and persevering, a guy who found humor in life's bullshit and never stopped trying to be a better man.
Quote to live by?
"All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity; but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible." - T.E. Lawrence
Tim squints when he looks into his future because it's so bright
KEEP UP WITH TIM
Team Facebook: Misato Komatsubara & Tim Koleto
All other photos courtesy of Tim Koleto