May-June 2018 | Features

In Sync

Derwood siblings Michael and Rachel Parsons have dedicated their lives to ice dancing. Their goal: an Olympic medal in 2022.

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Michael and Rachel Parsons train at the Wheaton Ice Arena. Photo by Skip Brown.
Sandwiched between spectacular lifts, twists and turns, the maneuver looks simple. About halfway into their free dance routine, Michael Parsons extends his left arm and places his hand on his kneeling sister Rachel’s right knee. It’s a subtle, artistic two-second move in a four-minute program, but if this were a competition, tonight, those two seconds would have proved catastrophic.
Fortunately, one of America’s brightest up-and-coming ice dancing teams is just practicing at the Wheaton Ice Arena, rather than performing at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose, California, in two weeks. They’re on their second run-through, and the physical demands of the sport, which can be camouflaged by its enchanting beauty, are taking a toll. Winded, Michael puts too much of his weight on Rachel, who’s in the proper position on one knee. Startled, she crumples onto her back and lets out a “wooh!” before popping up and quickly resuming the routine.
“If it were our first run, I’d be upset, because in a competition you only get one shot,” Michael, 22, says afterward. “The second one is just for stamina, so it’s about pushing muscles past the point that you can do stuff, because the next time you do it, they’ll be able to go that much further. Our seasons are always a  work in progress. We train so we peak at the very end. Every competition we’ve done this year we’ve gotten better. We’re trying to keep that going.”
It’s five days before Christmas, less than two weeks since the pair returned from an international event in Croatia, where they finished eighth among 20 teams, and Michael’s quads and glutes are throbbing. “We could get upset, but there really wouldn’t be a point,” says Rachel, 20. “We fall all the time—ice is slippery. I think no matter how many hours you put in, you always have days when you can’t stand up straight. It’s just part of the sport.”
Winning an Olympic medal in ice dancing, a discipline of figure skating in which participants are judged on the precision of their footwork and the gracefulness, synchronicity, and fluidity of their movements, consumes them. They’ve dedicated their lives to the quest. Countless hours sweating in gyms, dance studios and on the 20-degree sheet of ice that continually beckons them back is worth it, they say, because their talent, passion and work ethic give them a chance to achieve their goal. While they’ve tasted success with other partners, Rachel and Michael didn’t truly break out until they started skating together in 2011. Brother-and-sister teams are rare in the sport, but not unprecedented; 2018 Olympic bronze medalists Alex and Maia Shibutani are siblings, as well. From the start of their partnership, Rachel and Michael showed why the whole of their union is greater than the sum of their parts. In March 2017, they won the ice dancing competition at the International Skating Union’s World Junior Championships.
As newcomers to the senior circuit—the sport’s top tier—Rachel and Michael didn’t expect to qualify for this year’s Winter Olympics in South Korea. But their fifth-place finish in January at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, where they nailed the move they flubbed in practice, proved to them that qualifying for the 2022 games in Beijing is a very real possibility.
“They have the physical and emotional potential to be at the top of the sport,” says Alexei Kiliakov, one of their coaches. “If they look at each other as brother and sister, it will probably limit them on an emotional level. But if they look at each other as professional athletes, I don’t think it matters. If everything keeps moving as it is moving now, I think they have a big chance to get there.”
From left: Michael and Rachel at a competition in 2007; the duo performing a waltz in 2010; a 2012 performance at the Rockville Ice Show; Lake Placid Ice Dance International in 2016. Photos Courtesy of the Parsons Family.
Hockey fans have long heard tales of child prodigies who supposedly could skate before they walked. Richard and Christine Parsons both were raised in the often-frozen Northeast. If their kids walked before skating, it was only a few steps.
“I’m from southern Maine, in an area with a lot of lakes that would freeze over thick enough to drive your pickup truck out on the ice,” Richard says. “We would set up our ice fishing traps around the perimeter and set up a couple of goals and play hockey until the traps popped, when we would call timeout and reel in the fish.”
Christine grew up in Buffalo, New York, where her father taught her and her three siblings how to skate. “My [skating] career took a dive when we moved to Miami when I was 15,” she jokes. The lure of bitterly cold winters proved too strong to ignore, so she returned to upstate New York for college at St. Lawrence University, where she began coaching figure skating. After she married Richard and they started a family in Montgomery County, it wasn’t long before she began lacing skates onto her own children, Michael, Rachel, and Katie, now 18. “Michael took to it just like walking,” says Christine, who still skates. “Rachel was sitting in a stroller kicking her legs the first time I took Michael out. She was all excited.”
Using a big tarp and two-by-fours, Richard built a makeshift rink in the backyard of their home in Wheaton. The family bought several pairs of skates in different sizes and invited the neighborhood kids over on cold winter days to skate with their children. Rachel was always tantalized by figure skating—the sparkly dresses, the roar of the crowd—while Michael showed more of an interest in hockey. But Christine insisted that if her son wanted to play that sport, he had to learn figure skating first to solidify his skills on the ice. “So I started taking lessons and never stopped,” he says with a laugh. “I really like the feeling you get when you’re gliding on your blades. It’s almost like you’re flying. There’s really nothing else like it.”
When Michael was 7 and Rachel was 5, their parents enrolled them in classes at the Wheaton Ice Skating Academy, which is led by Kiliakov and his wife, Elena Novak. They started taking lessons twice a week, but for the past several years they’ve been skating twice a day, six days a week. Sunday is their only day off. Both had abbreviated academic schedules at Rockville’s Magruder High School—they had no first or last period class—so they could spend more time on the ice. “Our social lives were definitely different than most high school [kids],” Rachel says. “When you’re in peak training mode, you’re not going to be going out to parties every weekend and staying up super late. When you’re on the ice until 8:45 at night and then you’re back on the ice at 6:45 the next morning, it can get a little bit tedious, but it’s necessary. I think the sacrifices that we made definitely paid off.”
At the age of 12, Rachel won the ice dancing competition at the 2009 U.S. Junior Figure Skating Championships with her partner, Kyle MacMillan, and the duo won again in 2010. Michael excelled with his partner, Kristina Rexford, but then she hit a growth spurt and shot up over the 5-foot-7-inch Michael—a deal-breaker in ice dancing.
Michael and Rachel, who now live in Derwood, say their parents never pressured them to continue skating. There was just one rule: If they started a season, they had to finish it, out of respect for their sibling, coaches and themselves. When Michael learned that he could no longer skate with Rexford, his mom asked him—as she often did—if he wanted to keep competing. After a week of soul-searching, he decided he was ready to commit. “I still was considering doing other sports, but to compete at the level we are at, that has to be your main responsibility,” Michael says. “I knew I was already pretty good at it, and I decided I wanted to go at it 100 percent.”
He needed a new partner, and his coaches thought they had the perfect candidate in Rachel, who’s 5 feet 4 inches tall. “They have similar skating styles,” Novak says. “Both of them have exceptional flow on the ice. They both are very technical skaters. I don’t care that they’re brother and sister because performance is more like acting.”
Michael and Rachel have always gotten along well. When the iPod Touch debuted in 2007, they both pined for one. So they approached their parents with a plan—they would pool their money and share the device. They didn’t fight over it once. Their personalities mesh nicely. Rachel is more calm and cool-headed, and people often are surprised to learn that she’s the younger sister. Michael, while analytical and emotional on the ice, is the more playful of the two. Rachel tells a story of her brother bouncing on a pogo stick in their driveway after an ice storm. Predictably, he wound up on his backside, with a smile on his face. She laughs every time she recounts it.
Still, spending hours each day training with a sibling is different than compromising over who gets to listen to Green Day (the first band they loaded onto the iPod). At first they balked at the idea of skating together, but both have unwavering faith in their coaches, so they decided to give it a try. In their debut event together in 2011, Rachel and Michael finished ninth out of 21 teams at the Baltic Cup in Gdansk, Poland, their first Junior Grand Prix competition. A little over a year later, they won the bronze medal in Zagreb, Croatia. They’ve gone on to skate in more than a dozen countries, including Japan, their favorite. There, rabid fans throw gifts onto the ice after a routine—the two have received chocolates, handwritten letters and Easter eggs with their names on them. (Flowers, once a mainstay, are now a no-no. Petals are too difficult to clean off the ice.)
Rachel and Michael, pictured during practice, placed fifth in the ice dancing competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January. Photos by Skip Brown.
Progress slowed in 2013, when Michael slipped and crashed into the boards during a basic power skating exercise. His right ankle was fractured, an injury that forced the team to withdraw from the junior national championships. “It was a drag,” he says. “What helped me the most was I turned it into an opportunity to balance myself. Everyone has a dominant side, and right is mine. Coming back, I would always favor my left side, which made that side get much stronger. As a result, I’m a much more balanced skater now.”
It took Michael three months to recover, and when he returned, he and Rachel scored several silver and bronze finishes. Still, after a solid 2017 season, a monumental victory eluded them until they arrived at the world junior championships in Taipei City, Taiwan. Their routines were nearly flawless.
“I think it was a result of our whole body of work that season,” Michael says. “We have improved a huge amount every year. That season was the most consistent we’ve ever had.”
Sitting hand in hand as the judges’ scores were revealed, their eyes welled as they realized they had won. “What? What?” Rachel, wearing a sparkly blue outfit, said in disbelief as the crowd cheered. “Are you serious?”
Michael and Rachel, with coach Elena Novak, train for five hours a day, six days a week. Photo by Skip Brown.
In early December, Rachel and Michael are sitting at a table near the closed snack bar at the Wheaton Ice Arena, contemplating their position in the sport. They have just returned from a disappointing performance in Lake Placid, New York, and the transition from juniors to seniors is proving difficult. If ice dancers achieve a certain level of success as juniors, they can elect to move up, but most, like the Parsonses, wait until they’ve met the minimum age requirement—21 for males, 19 for females—before they become seniors.
When asked what they love about the sport they’ve dedicated their lives to, their faces light up. “Ice dancing is not so focused on the raw elements of the jumps and the spins, it’s more about the musicality and the acting,” Michael says. “We focus more on the flow, the beauty of our body positioning, and the storytelling.”
“It’s the artistry,” Rachel adds. “It’s more focused on edges and footwork.”
If they weren’t so passionate about the sport, there’s no way they would survive the obstacles it throws at them. While Rachel and Michael have pocketed some prize money—roughly $14,000 for winning the world junior championship—it pales in comparison to their expenses. Ice time is not cheap. At $14 an hour, per person, three hours in the morning plus two in the evening costs them $140 a day. Coaches, trainers, costumes—custom-made by a woman in Rockville—equipment and travel make ice dancing an expensive endeavor (though most of their travel costs are now covered by U.S. Figure Skating). Their Italian Risport boots cost about $600 a pair, and their specialized dance blades, which are professionally sharpened every three weeks or so, are another $500 each.
As a family, they’ve had to make sacrifices. Michael and Rachel still live at home with their parents. Richard, a political and public affairs consultant, and Christine, a Montessori teacher, bankroll as much of the operation as they can, and a GoFundMe page has raised more than $32,000 to help cover ice dancing costs. They don’t take vacations or buy new cars. Christine and Richard attend all of their kids’ domestic competitions, but only a handful of their international events. Sometimes travel costs are simply too much, so TV coverage or YouTube videos have to suffice.
Between skating, cardio and strength training, ballroom dancing and ballet, Michael and Rachel don’t have much time for anything else. Michael, who’s eyeing a career in orthopedics, is a student at Montgomery College; Rachel is taking a year off from college and isn’t sure what she wants to do after hanging up her skates. When they do get to unwind, she enjoys painting, typically acrylic and oil on canvas, and he plays the guitar.
“There is a point for everyone where you really need to think if this is something that you really want to do,” Novak says. “It could be at different times for each skater, because it requires a lot of hard work, dedication, and especially when you get to seniors, it’s a way of life. It affects everything. That’s what’s called being a professional athlete.”
Their commitment has to be all-encompassing. They might not eat dinner until 9, and they have to stick to a strict dietary regimen. Rachel has yogurt for breakfast, chicken for lunch, and salad for dinner almost every day. She has to maintain her strength and agility while staying light enough for Michael to lift her. “The girls have to be pretty careful because of the really specific look that most skaters have,” she says. “It’s a balancing act.”
Michael loads up on lean proteins, carbs and foods high in iron in order to take in as many calories as he burns. Beer is only for the offseason—late spring and summer—and his beloved Skittles are only for rare moments of weakness. “There’s a very fine line between adequate fuel and not having anything extra,” he says.
Michael, Rachel and their sister, Katie (right), at home in Derwood with the family’s golden retriever mix, Luke. Photo by Skip Brown.
On a cold Wednesday evening in early December, Rachel and Michael are intently focused on their movements during a one-hour ballet class with 10 other skaters. They meticulously arch their backs, curve their arms and flex their feet to the classical music soundtrack. When the class members are instructed to do the splits, Michael is the lowest to the ground of any of the seven males.
Next, it’s onto the ice, where Rachel and Michael practice their routines for the umpteenth time since they choreographed it with their coaches over the summer. “It’s almost like painting a picture,” Michael says. “You have to see in your head what you want to show on the ice, and then you keep trying out different steps, different positions, until you find something that fits.”
Because they’re related, Michael and Rachel have to avoid the romantic or even sensual sentiments that can emerge in ice dancing routines. “Obviously we wouldn’t pick a Romeo and Juliet program, but you can be flexible with the story you choose to tell,” Rachel says.
This year’s free dance, a routine in which teams are allowed to choose their own theme and rhythm, is set to a contemporary ballet called “Ghost Dances.” The short dance, which includes  required elements, is a combination of mambo, rumba and samba. “Latin is a very romantic style, but we’re bringing out the playfulness of the music and emoting more outwards than toward each other,” Michael says. “That gets us around the fact that we’re brother and sister.”
On the ice, Michael holds Rachel parallel to the ground with only his right arm as he glides on his left skate. Later, Rachel wraps her legs under Michael’s arms, her blond ponytail skimming the ice as they spin with each of their arms held wide in an exalted pose, their eyes looking skyward. It’s an extraordinary maneuver that requires immense upper-body strength from him and equal lower-body strength from her. They execute it perfectly.
Mike Unger is a writer and editor who grew up in Montgomery County and  lives in Baltimore.