SKATING HIS WAY TO SUCCESS
We have all seen the sad news regarding Ayr Ice Rink and its closure at the end of September. It feels ironic that this local sporting venue, which has brought joy to so many, has closed when one of its young stars is achieving wonderful things in the sport of ice dancing.
I first met Lewis Gibson about 14 years ago when he was involved in pairs figure skating and since then he has transitioned to ice dancing, a discipline within ice skating that is more performance-based with lifts and holds instead of jumps. 14 years on, Lewis and his partner, Lilah Fear, are one of the best ice dance pairs in the world and at the time of speaking to Lewis, they had just won their highest level of competition to date. Lewis very kindly gave me some of his time between events and we chatted about his route to the sport, journey so far and future dreams.
Like many young men in Ayrshire and the west coast of Scotland, Lewis’ younger years were spent playing football, it ran in his family. His brother played pro youth and his dad coached it as well. Football was never his passion, though, and he wasn’t sure what was until Dancing on Ice began in 2006. That television show changed his life and would lead him to World Championship and Olympic performances.
“I knew I wanted to learn, and I went to Ayr to skate. From there we just tried to find ice time everywhere. The Magnum, Auchenharvie, The Galleon, along with Ayr, were all crucial in my development and from there I fell in love with the sport.”
Lewis and then partner, Heather Murdoch, had been successful at national level and Lewis was also competing in singles as well. Singles skating is so competitive, and Lewis always had some trepidation with the lasting effects of the impacts of the jumps. His big dream was always the Olympics.
“When you compete in an Olympic sport… I think the dream for every athlete is to compete at the Olympics, it certainly was for me.”
Lewis’ federation suggested in 2015 that he switch to ice dancing. He jumped at the chance and has never looked back. This is when he teamed up with current partner, Lilah Fear, and Lewis had to make the move to London because, at the time, Lilah was still at secondary school. They split their time between Montreal and London and then in 2018, when Lilah had finished her studies, they moved permanently to Montreal.
The pair had a tough start as Lilah, although at junior age, had to skate at senior level.
“We were lucky in a sense that we hit it off as friends straightaway, but it was certainly difficult as I had no experience at all in ice dance. Also, Lilah was a junior but due to my age we had to compete in senior competitions. We were lucky that in our first year, there was no outstanding British couple, so we won the British title which is pretty unheard of.”
Lewis and Lilah then, in Lewis’ own words, ‘got after it’, and felt that to compete at the levels they wanted, it was just going to be hard work that was going to get them there. The move to Montreal certainly helped as they now train and skate at the best skate school in the world, competing against their peers. They also skate at the same school as the past two Olympic champions in ice dance. That first British Championships helped build the pair’s confidence and they now hold an impressive national record of six British titles and one second place.
Using this confidence and incredible work ethic, the pair have had a meteoric rise in the sport and in their short career together have racked up tournament wins, a Grand Prix win in Japan in November 2023, and a Silver medal at the European Championships.
“The Grand Prix win in Japan was amazing. Skating is so revered in Japan and we beat the couple that beat us in the Europeans so that gives us a lot of confidence that we are progressing and that what we are doing works. This Grand Prix win, and a second place we had earlier in the year, means we qualify for the Grand Prix Final in China in December which is for the top six couples over the year, so that is a great achievement for us.”
Not content with on ice achievements, Lewis and Lilah are now building a reputation for innovation and driving the sport on, challenging stereotypes and really entertaining an audience.
“The biggest difference between figure skating and ice dancing is that it is performance based. Technique is a real skill but is teachable. If you can show your personality on the ice and really engage with the audience, then that will help you stand out. Lilah and I are known for this and being creative with our elements and music choices. This is something that we have in common with legends of the sport such as Torville and Dean, they were real innovators and Lilah and I are pushing the sport on in certain areas now.”
When Lewis explains these artistic interpretations to me it seems so simple, but it is amazing to see his confidence and willingness to adapt and change and really leave his mark on the sport.
“We have sparked new ideas for new elements but the biggest one is our music choices. We like to choose slightly ‘out there’ music choices. Our free dance this year is Rocky themed, so we have the Rocky theme tune, Eye of the Tiger, whereas most other couples still skate to contemporary lyrical music.”
Makes perfect sense to me! If I’m at an ice dance show, I’m pretty sure I would be out of my seat for that free dance and I think that ability to tap in to the audience and really bring their performance to life will help the pair get to the top in their sport.
Lewis has some big dreams in the sport, World Championship victory and Olympic podiums are dreams not expectations as, in his own words, ‘this has all been a dream’. But they are realistic dreams from an incredibly driven individual.
His first Olympic experience was surreal. Not only was it his first Olympics but it was in China during Covid, so the usual busy Olympic Village and energetic crowds were non-existent, and the pair were confined to the village and the arena. When I first met Lewis he was very shy, and the more subdued Olympics may have been a blessing in disguise first time around, but with no comparison he has only amazing memories from his first Olympics.
“I would still say I am naturally shy but as I have gotten older and risen through the sport, I have gotten more confident. My only memory of the Olympics is positive, even though it was during Covid. Maybe that helped but I had nothing to compare it to so for me it was so special.”
Lewis has always been a very measured individual, shy but confident and sure of his abilities. Did the Olympics change that at all?
“I usually handle nerves really well but the first time we got on the ice to practice I was a mess. I couldn’t skate, my head was a mess, and it was really a wasted practice. Seeing those Olympic Rings hanging above the ice definitely made it feel different and it took me some time to get used to. It was amazing, though, even though there were no crowds I loved the experience, it was nothing but positive and I can’t wait to go back.”
Lewis feels he now has that out of his system and knowing that the next Olympics won’t be his only opportunity to appear again he feels there will be less pressure. Well, until he stands under those Rings again! As Lewis had mentioned earlier that the Olympics is the pinnacle for any athlete competing, I thought that must have been his career highlight to date. However, his most recent win also came with something incredibly special, which he will remember forever.
“Our recent win at the Grand Prix in Japan was my best moment, not just because of the calibre of competition we beat, but we also received a standing ovation from the crowd. Ice skating is highly revered in Japan, so to receive a standing ovation from an international crowd, which loves the sport so much was so special and something I will remember forever. We were interviewed as winners and the whole experience was just incredible.”
Lewis doesn’t get back to Ayrshire very often. Living in Montreal, a gruelling training regime and busy event schedule keeps him very busy and jetting all over the world. The sport has changed a lot in the last ten years in relation to sports science and nutrition. Training is always something I am interested in, and Lewis explained to me the most fundamental difference in ice dancing training.
“The biggest difference is friction. When you train in a gym you have friction to push into or away from. On the ice you have to create that. A lot of our training was compared to ballet training in the past but again, they are twirling on the spot, we are moving across the ice – at speed – while I am holding Lilah and myself up. There has been a substantial change in this over the last ten years and the sport is improving because of it.”
The strength and balance required for this sport is unfathomable to me and I have a much greater admiration for these athletes and how they train.
I asked Lewis if he had any final words on Ayr Ice Rink and how it had helped shape his development.
“Ayr Ice Rink was so vital in fostering that love I have for skating. From my very first coach, Jennifer Holmes, who could really see my passion for skating and always pushed me to strive for the next level, and just the warmth created by all the skaters and parents who were around, was such a great environment to learn the sport I love.”
It’s such a shame that the place where Lewis started his journey is now closed and this historic venue is unable to help shape and create the next generation of local talent. For Lewis, 2023 ended on a high with another British Championship victory and an invite to the Grand Prix Final. 2024 starts fast with the European Championships in January and the World Championships in March. From our conversation I am sure there will be podiums in these events and I look forward to watching Lewis and Lilah continue to rise within the sport and leave their stamp on it. Milan 2026 is already on my calendar, and something tells me there will be a young man from Prestwick collecting a medal!