It was spring 2022, and the Winter Olympics season had finally come to a close. Under the glare of fluorescent lights in a nearly empty arena in London, Ontario, two of figure skating’s most decorated athletes circled each other with ease. Four years—knocked askew by the pandemic, injuries, and illnesses—had just culminated in both receiving medals they’d worked toward for their entire careers. Now, with no upcoming competition, no pressure, and no expectations, they took each other by the hand and glided across the ice.
As piano echoed over the sound system, they began to dance, their bodies matching effortlessly, limbs stretching in identical lines, torsos coiling. With their arms wrapped around each other tightly, they unfurled to spin around in endless motion. Improvisation became choreography, and they alternated between carving across the ice and laughing at a botched move. Over and over, they practiced a Fred Astaire–style dip until it was easy. Cheek to cheek, then far apart with just a single push, the pair forged a new routine.
From the way they moved in perfect harmony, you’d never guess that they had never competed together. They looked every bit the pros they were. But there was one unusual thing about them: Both were women. For close friends like Gabriella Papadakis and Madison Hubbell—and any two figure skaters who want to compete with a same-gender partner—skating as a team had long been forbidden.
The International Skating Union, or ISU, expressly prohibits same-gender teams in competition. Pair skating and ice dance teams have both been defined as “one Woman and one Man” since the 1950s, and while athletes of the same gender can skate together in synchronized skating—which showcases teams of eight to 16—competitive rules for teams of two have remained strictly man and woman.
But several months after Papadakis and Hubbell had that private skate session, there was a startling change. In September 2022, in a unanimous ruling, Skate Canada, the country’s figure skating governing body, made history when it removed all gendered language from its competition rulebook, redefining teams as “Partner A and Partner B.” For the first time, same-gender teams and out nonbinary athletes using correct pronouns would be able to compete at Canada’s national events.