Gender norms have historically played a large role in figure skating routines, but one U.S. pair is making their performances on the ice uniquely their own.
With the U.S. Figure Skating Championships taking place this week, Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc will be one of the top pairs to watch. The newest episode of the "My New Favorite Olympian" podcast (listen below) tells LeDuc's story and explains what makes their partnership with Cain-Gribble so special.
"Sometimes a sport like figure skating can feel very specific, like you have to fit into this box," Tara Lipinski, 1998 Olympic champion and current figure skating analyst for NBC, said on the podcast.
It's a feeling that her broadcast partner, two-time Olympian Johnny Weir, knows well from his competition days.
"I was raked over the coals for wearing rhinestones, and [told] it wasn't butch enough," Weir said. "It wasn't masculine enough. It wasn't the all-American boy that America really wanted to sell so early in my career."
Gender norms are particularly prevalent in the disciplines of pairs skating and ice dance, where two skaters — one male, one female — tell a story through their performances. Often those stories are about a strong man swooping in to rescue a woman, or a man and a woman falling in love with each other.
But for Cain-Gribble and LeDuc, that's just not who they are. So they wanted to do something more befitting of their personalities.
LeDuc came out as gay at 18 years old. Ten years later, LeDuc revealed that they identified as non-binary. The first announcement created strife at home — LeDuc grew up in an Evangelical environment that viewed the LGBT lifestyle as immoral — and in LeDuc's figure skating career.
A potential partner decided she didn't want to skate with LeDuc because she thought LeDuc being gay would be a liability. A coach once told LeDuc before a competition that the way to win was to "go out and show them how masculine you are."
In Cain-Gribble, LeDuc finally found a partner who was on the same page. At 5-foot-6, Cain-Gribble is considered tall by figure skating standards, and she had no interest in playing the role of a fragile girl.
"When Timothy and I teamed up, we never wanted to be what was looked at as the traditional team," Cain-Gribble said.
This is evident in their free skate from the 2019 U.S. Championships. The routine was dubbed "Two Pillars of Strength" — "The message is two amazing athletes coming together to create something beautiful," LeDuc explained — and stands out for the way it eschews all those traditional gender norms with the outfits (Cain-Gribble wore pants, a rarity for female skaters) and the storyline (it doesn't revolve around romance).
The "Two Pillars of Strength" routine helped the pair win the 2019 U.S. national title, their first ever, and they will be looking to return to the top of the podium when the 2022 U.S Championships take place this week. (The event streams live on NBCOlympics.com from January 6-9.)
Aside from the prestige of a national title, Olympic spots are on the line. The United States has qualified two pairs teams for the upcoming Winter Games, and at the conclusion of the U.S. Championships, a committee will select which pairs fill those spots. With a strong performance in Nashville, Cain-Gribble and LeDuc could bring their unique style to the Olympics for the first time. And if they make the team, LeDuc could become the first publicly out non-binary athlete to compete at a Winter Games.
As people watch them on the ice this week in Nashville, and potentially at the Winter Olympics next month, the pair hopes to send a message to young skaters who may be struggling with similar issues.
"I never want anyone to feel shame for parts of themselves because they've come in to figure skating," LeDuc said. "I think of skaters like me who maybe want to put on makeup and go out and skate in a costume that maybe is unusual or different, but maybe they wouldn't do those things because they feel like the judges aren't going to give them as good of scores."
"We want people to look at our skating and know that they don't have to change who they are in order to be a part of this sport, in order to do something that they're passionate about," Cain-Gribble said. "You work hard, you love it and you're passionate about it. You should be able to do this. You shouldn't have to fit a mold."
For the full story, listen to the podcast above. "My New Favorite Olympian" is the fourth season of the Sports Uncovered podcast from NBC Sports. New episodes drop every Wednesday and will introduce you to the most inspiring members of Team USA and the issues they champion. The series is hosted by eight-time Winter Olympic medalist Apolo Ohno and NBCLX storyteller Ngozi Ekeledo