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Lovers? Spouses? Just Good Friends? On the Olympic Ice, It’s Getting Hard to Tell

Some couples say their relationship is a boon to teamwork. Others have broken up to preserve their professional coupling. Then there’s the guessing over Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.


By

Louise Radnofsky and

Brian Costa

American ice dancers Madison Chock and Evan Bates.Photo: Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Madison Chock and Evan Bates had known each other very well for six years before they finally started dating in 2017. It wasn’t the best timing.

They skate together in ice dance and the biggest competition of their lives, the Olympics, was months away.

“Skating and dating doesn’t work for some people,” Mr. Bates said, “but we decided that we would make it work.”

They know all too well the pitfalls. Their rivals and U.S. teammates Madison Hubbell and Zachary Donohue had dated a few years earlier when they decided there was only one way they could stay together: break up. Each now dates one member of a Spanish ice-dancing couple.

It’s always tricky dating a co-worker. But what if you’re an Olympic athlete and your co-worker is your partner on ice?

Who’s In Love? Take the quiz. Getty Images

This is the dilemma facing competitors in mixed-gender sporting disciplines from figure skating, where athletes train for years to perform the story of their relationship, to mixed doubles curling, which made its Olympic debut this year.

It’s especially prevalent this year in American ice dance and pairs skating, the two male-female skating events best distinguished by the fact that, in the former, a man whirls around a woman, and in the latter, he lifts or throws her over his head.

It also fuels an ongoing sport for skating fans: Are they a couple off-ice, or aren’t they? After all, there are so many mixed signals to decipher—awkward hand placements in programs and prolonged gazes, scowls or lingering hugs while scores come through.

Canada is currently gripped by the possibility that two-time gold-medalist ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, Canadians who do a passionate “Moulin Rouge!” free dance, have kept their love a secret for the two decades they have skated together. The theory revives every four years when they compete at the Games; they have said a brief period of dating is as far as it’s gone. She was eight and he was 10.

Ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir of Canada. Photo: Steve Russell/Toronto Star/Getty Images

There are benefits to dating-while-training: the convenience of a shared commute, hours close together in chilly arenas—and maybe even a performance boost.

In pairs skating, U.S. officials are enjoying the benefits of harmony after watching teams that openly loathed each other split up, scuttling years of training. American pairs skaters Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim married each other in June 2016. Their coach was their officiant. They are the lone U.S. pairs entry for Pyeongchang.

But there is an equal set of downsides: never-ending proximity, the pressure of high-intensity training and competition, and the risk to relationship or career if things sour.

American pairs skaters Alexa Scimeca-Knierim and Chris Knierim.Photo: Mark Reis/ZUMA PRESS

“You’re upset with your boyfriend and now you’re going to go out there and do a triple twist, have him lift you above his head? You’re not going to want to go ice skating and hold hands,” said Tarah Kayne, a U.S. alternate in pairs skating who lives with her skating partner Danny O’Shea but declines to say whether they’re romantically involved.

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“It’s a double-edged sword,” she said of the hypothetical considerations involved. “Do I really want to date my skating partner? On the other hand: It’s hard to go out and date someone else.”

The U.S. ice dancers Ms. Hubbell and Mr. Donohue insist they are better for their break-up, winning their first national title in January with a characteristically sultry performance.

“It’s just kind of how life happens,” Mr. Donohue said. “If you can handle training with your ex every day, that’s great.”

American freestyle skier Torin Yater-Wallace has long dated American ski jumper Sarah Hendrickson. Both are in Pyeongchang—and he is grateful they are cheering for each other instead of competing alongside each other. “It seems like too much time together,” Mr. Yater-Wallace said, “and a good scenario to get sick of each other.”

American ski jumper Sarah Hendrickson and American freestyle skier Torin Yater-Wallace. Photo: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The ice dance champions of 2014, Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White, see other people—she is engaged to the son of their coach, and he is married to 2006 Olympic silver medalist Tanith Belbin White. One half of the top-ranked Italian ice dancers here, Anna Cappellini, is married to one half of the top Italian pairs team, Ondrej Hotarek.

But Russian curlers Anastasia Bryzgalova and Aleksandr Krushelnitckii are married and won the bronze medal on Tuesday. The team they beat, Norway, features the boyfriend-girlfriend duo of Magnus Nedregotten and Kristin Skaslien.

The Norwegians first met at a curling club in Oslo years ago. In a notoriously social sport, they became fast friends. “One thing led to another,” Ms. Skaslien said. They soon became a mixed-doubles team.

Their partnership off the ice, they say, has advantages on the ice. Neither curler wants to let the other down. Communication is key, assessing strategy or airing frustrations productively. “Usually you have a high level of tension—good tension,” Mr. Nedregotten said. “A good couple is a good team.”

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Well, not always. The Canadian Olympic curling trials featured several teammates who were couples. For one pair, the competition was more heated than steamy.

“They were really bickering on the ice,” said Canadian curler John Morris. “It was quite comical. You’re watching this game and you’re like, ‘Holy smokes! That’s how my wife and I talk when we’re not doing very well.’”

Mr. Morris won the Olympic gold medal with his platonic teammate Kaitlyn Lawes.

The Norwegian curling lovebirds say maintaining separation between their relationships is essential. In curling, Mr. Nedregotten plays the role of sweeper, using a broom to reduce friction on the ice in front of the stone pushed by Ms. Skalsien. In their Oslo apartment, Ms. Skalsien makes sure to reciprocate.

“He does all the sweeping on the ice,” she said, “so I have to do that at home.”

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Write to Louise Radnofsky at louise.radnofsky@wsj.com and Brian Costa at brian.costa@wsj.com

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