Minto duo a perfect match

ROB BRODIE -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 1:30 PM ET

In the beginning, they reacted the way any nine-year-old would, a thought that now seems so cute in its immaturity. "We didn't even want to hold hands," Siobhan Karam says with a grin in recalling the day two visionary coaches at the Minto Skating Club decided she was destined to be an ice dancer.

Today, as she looks back upon the nine years that have followed, Karam admits she can't fathom it being any other way. That there's not a chance she'd want to skate with anyone else than Joshua McGrath, the ice dance partner who has become as cherished as a sibling.

"I don't even know what that would be like," said Karam, 18, of Ottawa. "We've been partners for so long. I can't imagine being with anyone else."

McGrath dismisses the thought even more curtly.

"Definitely not," he said. "It's not even an option."

And so it is as they continue to chase their biggest dreams in skating together. The next step along what they hope is the road to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics comes this week, when Karam and McGrath head to Kitchener for the world junior figure skating championships. They'll skate the compulsories on Tuesday, with the original (Thursday) and free dances (Friday) to follow.

NATIONAL CHAMPIONS

It is the finishing step in the whirlwind season that has finally seen them ascend to the title of Canadian junior champions, an honour that has been at least three years in the making. That all of this comes one season after their most crushing moment -- a final-minute fall in the free dance final at the 2004 Canadian championships in Edmonton that cost them the national crown -- makes this much more special.

It is also vindication for many decisions taken along the way, the most important made by coaches Marina Zoueva and Eric Loucks, who decided two little free skaters might just be something special as an ice dance team.

NEEDED A PUSH

That thought, Karam and McGrath will tell you now, was something both resisted at first.

"I was a free skater," said McGrath, 19, of Ottawa. "At the lower levels, you don't get to do much fun stuff in dance, just compulsories."

Said Karam: "We didn't even like dance at first."

But once both accepted it was best for them -- and got past those skittish early feelings and the teasing by schoolmates that went along with it -- they were on the path to where they stand today.

Not that they had any idea where it would lead back then.

"We were too young to think anything," said Karam. "We were just listening to whatever Marina would say. If she said we were good one day, we thought we were good ... we had no clue about anything."

Four years ago, though, the feeling was much different. Zoueva accepted a new coaching position at the Detroit Skating Club, and Karam and McGrath knew what they had to do. Barely into their high school years, the two skaters made the decision to leave home.

"It was definitely hard," said Karam, the second-youngest of seven children. "Just this year, I finally accepted being on my own."

Added McGrath: "It wasn't easy, leaving your family and friends at such a young age. But it was definitely worth it. I wouldn't change anything about it."

Their close relationship, which both describe as brother and sister, has helped greatly along the way.

"She's very understanding of everything," said McGrath of his partner. "If I have my own problems about anything, I know I can go to Siobhan and talk to her.

"That's they key thing, other than the fact Siobhan is a good skater."

The move, it turns out, has given them so many things. They're now mature teenagers, each living on their own and attending university in Windsor (Karam is studying human kinetics, McGrath takes biology). They lead often hectic lives, but that's just the way they like it.

At their training base in Canton, Mich., they share the ice with the best ice dance team in the U.S. (Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto) and two of Canada's finest teams (Megan Wing and Aaron Lowe, and Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir).

"It makes such a difference," said Karam. "It motivates you and makes you want to get back to the rink every day."

Virtue and Moir will be among the medal favourites in Kitchener, which is just fine with Karam and McGrath.

After two years of being under the microscope at Canadians, they're happy to hand someone else the spotlight.

"It's a whole new experience," said McGrath. "I don't know what to expect, but I much prefer that (position)."

Said Karam: "We've had pressure on us for so long. Now this is just for us. We want to show everyone how good we can skate."


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