In 1997, the first Disney Channel Original Movie was released. “Brink,” the long-running series' first sports film, came out the following year. Its story followed a made-for-cable-TV archetype: Protagonist and antagonist rise to athletic prominence. Turf war ensues. Goodness and decency prevail.
Michael Parsons, Rachel Parsons, Quinn Carpenter and Lorraine McNamara all came of age during Disney's cable movie era: Michael, the eldest, was born in 1995; Lorraine, the youngest, in 1999. They are at an age, and in a sport, where petty squabbles can seem as natural as selfies. So how is it that two of the world's top junior ice-dancing pairs, separated by just a few miles in Montgomery County and linked inextricably in their Olympic ambitions, can not only avoid rivalry but also find and maintain friendship? As in, let's-go-to-the-mall and talk-about-music friendships?
“In the Disney Channel movies, it seems like that would be typical,” Michael said of the expectations for off-ice drama. “But really, that's not what we have.”
The 2016 World Junior Figure Skating Championships ended March 19 in Debrecen, Hungary. It was perhaps the most important competition of their careers. They treated the experience like a class field trip.
When they could, the four would find time to be together. After most practices, they reunited at their team hotel. They would stretch, chat, watch TV. It was as close to normal as possible.
Last Saturday, the final day of competition, Carpenter and McNamara overtook Michael Parsons and his younger sister Rachel to win the gold medal, their first world title. On the podium afterward, they stood feet from each other, on top of their sport, smiling together. They had come so far. So little had changed.
“It is remarkable,” McNamara said. “We're best friends, and we're able to both be together at every moment, even on the medal stand.”
They ended up there because of where they started.
Michael Parsons, 20, and Rachel, 18, learned to skate because their mother had skated as a child, and she thought it an important skill for her children.
Michael took lessons because he wanted to become a better hockey player. His goals changed. When Wheaton Ice Skating Academy director Alexei Kiliakov began training him, Michael came to realize he had a new, more burning passion. He traded his hockey skates for figure skates.
Rachel can remember watching the Olympics on TV as a child, captivated by ice dancers such as Tanith Belbin, a silver medalist in the 2006 Summer Games. They wore sparkly dresses and glided across the ice. “Oh, that's what I want to do,” Rachel would say.
They paired up six seasons ago, brother and sister, after realizing they knew each other better than any other partner could. They might have shared DNA, but their early work together was not something for the family photo album.
“When we first started skating together, we both tried to be in charge of the position, so every exercise, every dance that we did, was a fight to see who was leading,” Rachel said.
They have reached an understanding of sorts. Michael is the head, Rachel the neck. In an interview at their Derwood home recently, they finished each other's sentences. Michael chuckled at how Rachel has to do makeup twice most mornings — once before ice-dancing practice, and once more before school. Rachel nodded along as Michael, a student at Montgomery College, explained a typical day together — an hour or two of practice at dawn, another two hours after school, then an hour of ballet practice or strength and conditioning work, and maybe some ballroom or hip-hop dancing to end the day.
Yes, siblings fight. So do ice-dancing partners. But having Mom and Dad around is a pretty good deterrent to even considering the nuclear option.
“Other partners can just kind of storm off and go off in different directions,” said Rachel, a senior at Magruder High. “But we're coming home in the same car, so we've got to work stuff out before we get home.”
Carpenter, 20, and McNamara, 17, are not brother and sister, but only because science says so. They have worked together since Carpenter was 9 and McNamara was 6. Both have spent more than half their lives in the rink at the other's side, a span without peer at the junior level. “I've always thought Quinn and my relationship is like a brother-sister relationship,” McNamara said.
As with the Parsons, so many things that have could gone wrong for them have not. They still get along famously. Their passion for the sport has not waned. They live nearby and practice regularly (Carpenter commutes from Silver Spring to Montgomery College, and McNamara is a junior at Connelly School of the Holy Child in Potomac). Puberty did not throw off their “proportions,” as Carpenter called them: They each grew enough in adolescence that their on-ice presentation remained, well, presentable.
“Once a team is together for a long time, of course, that [familiarity] kind of falls into the background versus technique,” Carpenter said, “because the more you skate with someone, the more you learn how each other moves.”
They have known each other — have known the Parsons, too — as long as they have known the Wheaton Ice Skating Academy. It's only by coincidence that the foursome's storybook rise found a program with ties to the Walt Disney Co. Before founding WISA in 2003, Kiliakov and his wife, Elena Novak, spent four years in the cast of Disney on Ice's “The Little Mermaid.”
The former Russian champion skaters did not set out to develop world-class skaters, Kiliakov said. They simply taught what they loved, and in Maryland found younger versions of themselves, eager to follow the path they first had skated down.
“We've grown up with them like we've grown up with Quinn and Lorraine,” Rachel Parsons said of Kiliakov, Novak and Ukrainian coach Dmytri Ilin. “I see them kind of as a second set of parents.”
They have nurtured two pairs as composed on the ice as close off it. The group hangs out during their spare moments. They'll go to the movies. Or Rachel Parsons and McNamara will go shopping. Or Michael Parsons and Carpenter will chat about cars and music.
They have thought about what it would mean to go to the Olympics together, the four of them. It is a chance that might depend on their mutual support. In practice, their coaches have asked them to critique the other pair's footwork. Sometimes they'll swap partners to see who's getting what wrong, and where.
Michael Parsons likened it to “copy-paste.” See something better in another pair's performance? Learn from it and apply it to your own. Even in competition, that's what friends are for.
“The four of us have grown up together,” Rachel said. “I don't remember a time at skating when we didn't have them also at skating. We've kind of become really good friends and really, I think … ”
Michael, sitting next to her, completed the thought: “Family.”