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Cain-Gribble And LeDuc: Creating The Space To Be Different

by Lynn Rutherford

Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc skate during the pairs short program at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 6, 2022 in Nashville, Tenn.

 

Each time Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc compete, their coaches send them onto the ice with three words: Just be you.
“That’s the one thing we tell both of them, right before they skate,” Darlene Cain, Ashley’s mom and one of their coaches, said. “You don’t have to be in a certain mold to be a champion. So be yourselves, and be good enough to be that champion.”
For too long, just being themselves was tough for Cain-Gribble and LeDuc, who won their second U.S. pairs figure skating title at the 2022 U.S. championships earlier this month in Nashville, Tennessee, in the process also securing a spot on Team USA for the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.
In a discipline long defined by strict gender roles — “The woman is allowed to be lifted from the ice during the spin, but the man must stay on one foot” reads a typical entry in the ISU’s Technical Panel Handbook — the two skaters challenge the norm. LeDuc, who hails from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, is nonbinary, using they/them pronouns, while the Texas-born Cain-Gribble is, at 5-foot-6, significantly taller than the average elite female pairs skater.
Both have fought for years to tune out negativity and get comfortable in their own skins.
“(Ashley) has had to deal with a lot of body shaming, I’ve had to deal with queer phobia,” LeDuc, 31, said. “We’ve taken different paths. Seeing the whole journey and kind of where it led us, I would say to skaters: ‘Don’t be afraid to forge your own path and do things a little differently. Keep chasing your vision of what you can be.’”
“I had a lot of people tell me I shouldn’t be in this sport because of the way I’m shaped, but this is my body, this is the way I am,” Cain-Gribble, 26, said. “It was one of the things that almost forced me into retirement. … There is a body stereotype still, and we are trying to definitely fight that.”
LeDuc, who will become the first openly nonbinary person to compete at an Olympic Winter Games, is a serious, lowkey athlete who doesn’t crave the spotlight. They don’t even have any social media accounts.
“They are absolutely focused on doing their job on the ice,” Peter Cain, the skaters’ coach and Ashley’s father, said. “At the same time, it matters to them personally to be open about their identity.”

Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc perform in the skating spectacular following the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 17, 2021 in Las Vegas.

 

“Timothy is now free to skate,” Darlene Cain said. “They were kind of put in a box and kept in there, and now they can come out and be themselves.”
When Cain-Gribble and LeDuc teamed up in May 2016, both had long previous histories in the sport. Cain-Gribble won U.S. novice and junior titles with Joshua Reagan before dropping pairs to concentrate on single’s skating for several seasons. LeDuc competed at the U.S. championships with three previous partners but left the competitive sphere in 2014 to perform on cruise ships. 
U.S. Figure Skating arranged a tryout for the two skaters at the Cain’s rink in Euless, Texas, and they clicked from almost the first day.
“They have a phenomenal relationship, unlike anything I’ve seen before with a pair team,” Peter Cain said. “They tend to work though things really well. They don’t ever point fingers or blame each other. One person can make a mistake and it’s the team, not the individual. That’s something very, very special.”
The Australia-born Peter, who competed in pairs with his sister Elizabeth at the 1980 Winter Games, supports LeDuc’s openness about their gender.
“I grew up in an age when you couldn’t come out,” Peter said. “Back in the 1970s, many athletes could not openly be themselves until their skating was all done, and it was many years down the road before they actually came out. It hurt them. And so all along I told Timothy, ‘Just be you.’”
For LeDuc, that is sometimes a challenge. For much of their career, they felt constrained to project a masculine image on the ice, competing in a discipline that often rewards programs with romantic themes.
“I’ve always felt that I didn’t quite align perfectly with the expectations that were put on me,” they said. “Masculinity always felt forced, it always felt like something I had to do to feel safe, something I had to do to be successful or to be taken seriously. It was never authentic to me. … I feel so much more whole now, identifying outside of manhood.”
Since coming out as nonbinary, LeDuc contends with comments ranging from benign, if uneducated — “If you’re nonbinary, why do you wear a beard?” — to downright vicious.
“Gender and sex are different things, and gender expression is different from gender,” they said. “Gender is more of an internal sense of self — man, woman, both or neither. Gender expression can be an extension of that, but it doesn’t always have to be. Yes, I have a beard, but in competition I wear make-up. I can portray parts of masculinity and manhood, but I also feel a connection to femininity. It’s a process of letting that out and letting people see that.”
Cain-Gribble’s body issues are common in a sport that emphasizes appearance. It has taken her years to achieve what she calls “body neutrality” and be at peace with her body.

(L-R) Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson, Ashley Cain-Gribble and Timothy LeDuc, Emily Chan and Spencer Howe, Audrey Lu and Misha Mitrofanov pose on the podium after the dance competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Jan. 8, 2022 in Nashville, Tenn.

 

“At first when Ashley and Timothy matched up, it was pretty bad,” Darlene Cain said. “‘You’re too tall, you’re too this, you’re too that.’ She really had to battle through all that and not listen to everybody because she loved to skate, she loved to do pairs.”
“It’s taken a long time to get to where I am, loving my body, and it’s not every day,” Cain-Gribble said. “I think I feel very strong now, but that doesn’t necessarily come off of results or being the national champion, it comes off saying I am proud of who I am and the way I’ve treated myself.”
Cain-Gribble and LeDuc’s competitive routines build on their strengths: long, well-matched lines, strong individual skating skills and the ability to gracefully execute difficult footwork. They call their free skate, choreographed by Pasquale Camerlengo to the “W.E.” soundtrack, their “Two Pillars of Equality” program, and perform it clad in matching grey unitards.
“We really want to focus on having that equality of skating skills on the ice,” Cain-Gribble said.
“There is nothing inherently wrong with doing a romantic program. … We just want to make space for other stories to be told,” LeDuc said. “Sometimes not relying so much on the standard portrayal of gender roles, in the way women are often portrayed as more fragile, or the men always portrayed to be masculine and strong.”
The skaters had two of the best performances of their career in Nashville, where their short program set a new U.S. scoring record (79.39 points). They ended with an impressive 225.23 total, some 15 points over silver medalists Jessica Calalang and Brian Johnson. (2021 U.S. champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier withdrew from the U.S. championships after Frazier tested positive for COVID-19. They will join Cain and LeDuc in Beijing.)
“Ashley and Timothy have really been putting themselves on a plan for the Olympics,” Peter Cain said. “We have been deconstructing and reconstructing (elements). We knew there would be some ups and downs and errors made, but this year we really wanted everything to gel and so far, it has.”
“Each competition this season we are building, building, building, getting better,” LeDuc said.  “We had really good skates in Nashville, but we still feel like we have room to grow, and we know that we are so prepared and so strong right now going into the Olympics. It’s time for that ultimate peak performance.”


Lynn Rutherford is a sportswriter based out of New York. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.
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