Articles/InterviewsFeaturedJunior Worlds

The force is with Flores and Wang in Taipei

By Lynn Rutherford
Photos by Robin Ritoss

Luke Wang has a confession.

“I’m a Star Wars nerd,” he says. “My dad introduced me to it, and I watched the original movies as a child. I grew up with the TV series – Clone Wars, and Star Wars Rebels, all of those — and then the Disney Plus projects. I follow up on everything.”

Packed with memorable characters and rousing action, the Star Wars universe still inspires skaters and their choreographers, more than 50 years after the debut of the original blockbuster film. When he pondered a free skate for Wang and his pair partner Olivia Flores’ sophomore season, Samuel Kim’s “The Force” theme crossed Drew Meekins’ mind – but it wasn’t Wang’s fandom that tipped the scales. It was Flores’ strength.

“Olivia is super strong and dynamic and very powerful,” Meekins, who trains the skaters in Colorado Springs, says. “And Lucas is very expressive and able to really captivate the audience and judges. Oftentimes, that is the dynamic of a pair team, but the roles of the man and woman are typically reversed. Star Wars is such a cool story, because there are such powerful female characters, and there is also a lot of emotion. It played right into Olivia and Luke’s dynamic.”

The choice suited Flores and Wang fine. Both embrace the opportunity to portray characters, and the Star Wars universe offers plenty.

“I’m trying to embody all of the strong female characters of the cast, so of course, there’s Princess Leia, and also Rey from the (sequel trilogy),” Flores, 16, says. “When I was growing up and watching them, I wanted to be these characters. They fought and they’re just so strong. I thought, ‘That’s who I want to represent.’”

As for Wang, there was only one choice: Leia’s twin.

“For me, I’m playing just mostly Luke Skywalker,” says Wang, who will turn 20 on March 9th. “We wanted to showcase our strength through the characters and the sweeping music. I thought, ‘You know what, I really want to pursue this.’ I liked the overall concept of being united and fighting together.”

So Meekins’ choreography has the two as equals, battling the Empire side-by-side, even brandishing (virtual) lightsabers in the final choreo sequence.

“We have that moment where we are literally fighting together, and that’s so cool,” Wang says. “We’re both, I think, really strong individuals, and so we wanted to showcase that together.”

The athletes, paired up by Meekins in June 2023, are already “Liv and Luke,” a well-matched duo with strong basic skating and jumping skills. Both qualified for the U.S. Championships in junior singles in their careers; Wang was slated to compete in the junior men’s event at the 2024 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Columbus, Ohio, before withdrawing after the short program to focus on pairs. A wise choice, considering he and Flores won the junior pair title by more than 10 points.

“I think because we knew how to do our own singles’ jumps, that (made it) easier to go into throws,” Flores  says. “And then you can focus more on other pair elements. And for a while, that’s where we struggled, because we were both new and learning those elements.”

“The side-by-side jumps and really even the throws came pretty naturally to them, because of their ability in singles,” Meekins says. “Last year, they were doing two triple throws (loop and salchow), after just half a year together. But, you know, you put two good skaters together and it doesn’t mean you have a pair, right?’”

Flores and Wang placed fourth in junior pairs at the 2023 U.S. Championships, gaining the chance to compete on the 2023/2024 Junior Grand Prix. There, they won two silver medals and earned a trip to the Junior Grand Prix Final, where they placed fifth.

“For true pair elements, it’s timing, it’s unison – that’s why we hear about the need for teams to stay together,” Meekins says. “It takes time, mileage and repetition. That’s a big part of it, along with the technique.”

Meekins wants Flores and Wang to skate like a team, instead of two individuals. He thinks that happened in their Star Wars free at the U.S. Championships in Columbus, Ohio, where they not only landed their throws and side-by-side jumps – including double axel-single axel-double axel sequences, and triple salchows – but also nailed a triple twist and two challenging lifts. It was a huge step up from the Junior Grand Prix Final six weeks earlier, where they fell three times in their free skate.

“They’re really learning to skate with each other, not sort of around each other,” Meekins says. “I think that’s what we saw in their free skate in Columbus: a performance from a team.”

Technique and talent are essential, but the skaters’ compatibility has also helped fuel their rise.

“The connection between us has grown since when we started,” Wang says. “We’ve got that deeper understanding of each other, and what we each need, and how we can actually grow together as a team. I think that’s also a big factor.”

Training with WASA Pairs (World Arena Skating Academy Pairs) in Colorado Springs’ mile-high altitude, under Meekins, Natalia Mishkutenok and Danny O’Shea, is yet another advantage for the young team, who share the ice with several other elite pairs, including U.S. champions Ellie Kam and O’Shea, and U.S. junior silver medalists Naomi Williams and Lachlan Lewer, among others.

“It’s everything, having role models; Natalia is an (1992 Olympic) champion,” Wang says. “Just having those people that you can be inspired by, and look up to, and be able to watch their past performances, is incredible.”

“The team of athletes we have there all kind of build each other up, and I think that helps push all of us,” Flores says. “And that’s something that is really special that you don’t see a lot in singles. It’s something that really makes me enjoy pairs.”

Meekins, himself the 2006 world junior pair champion (with Julia Vlassov), strives for a supportive atmosphere where skaters help each other to succeed, while pursuing their own success.

“I want everyone to value the fact that they can grow more when they work together,” he says. “You see that in the way Olivia and Luke, and Naomi and Lachlan, push each other. Prior to nationals, we had a kind of family meeting – we all got coffee, and we kind of talked through how we were feeling. Stuff like that impacts the culture of the school, and that is really what I want to build.”

O’Shea, who also won the 2016 U.S. title with Tarah Kayne, pulls double duty at WASA Pairs, as a skater and coach.

“I do try to act as a mentor to the younger pairs – I definitely talk to them about my experiences competing, which includes a little over a decade at this point,” he says. “It’s been great to see them grow as humans and really go through the joys and difficulties as a group. It’s amazing to have people in the rink going through the same thing that you’re going through, it makes the process a little bit easier.”

On Wednesday, Flores and Wang take the ice in Taipei for their biggest test yet, the 2024 World Junior Figure Skating Championships. European silver medalists Anastasiia Metelkina and Luka Berulara of Georgia, winners of the Junior Grand Prix Final, are heavily favored for gold.  If the U.S. junior champions skate the way they did in Columbus, a medal is possible.

“Confidence is a big thing for us,” Wang says. “Coming into nationals, we established what we can do when we are confident in ourselves and each other, and that we can grow and continue to get better. So definitely, furthering that mindset, is going to be something we’re going to practice and really reinforce every day.”

“I’d say, establish what we know we can do,” Flores says. “Find our normal. Don’t do too much. Don’t do too little. Keep that calm, but also determined, mindset.”