Olympic figure skater Jamie Salé’s happily ever after

How she survived divorced and why she continues to work with her ex-husband, fellow Olympian David Pelletier

Photograph by Evan Dion

All of us are in awe of figure skating even though most of us can’t do it ourselves. That also happens to be a pretty good description of our fascination with celebrity couples like Brangelina, with their stolen kisses and shiny happy relationships — or so we project. When regular people fall in love, it’s sometimes awkward, and really hard, like when regular people attempt a double Axel. In Canada, our Brangelina of the ice is Jamie Salé and David Pelletier: she of the blinding white smile, he of the cocky Québécois charm.

In 2002, Jamie and David endured an Olympic scandal that saw them robbed of the pairs gold medal by corrupt judges rooting for the Russians. They finally received the proper medal, shoving the entire sport toward reform. Three years later, they were married in a winter wedding in the Banff Springs Hotel, signing the papers as a jazz band played Norah Jones’s “Come Away with Me.” Next came a flourishing career on the pro circuit, and the whole romantic saga was punctuated, in 2007, with the birth of a perfect baby boy, Jesse.

And then came the fall. The fall is on the audience’s mind during Rock on Ice, a show that’s basically Ice Capades for classic-rock freaks. (If restraint and understatement are your thing, try Scandinavian cinema.) Here, hidden from the hot summer day in Toronto’s Ricoh Coliseum, figure skaters dressed like headbangers fly off ice-covered ramps, and acrobats descend from the ceiling as a live band delivers fist-pumpin’ covers of Van Halen and Alanis Morissette. Unbelievably, this isn’t enough for the crowd. They seem underwhelmed. They are fist-pumpin’ refuseniks.

Then one of the multiple guitars squeals the first notes of an oh-yeah-that-song duet: “It’s Only Love,” made famous by Tina Turner and Bryan Adams. This is the signal for Canada’s sweethearts to burst forth from the wings, arms raised in the air. Jamie’s rock-muscle legs jut out of a black sequined minidress, and the front rows partake of David’s clinging black shirt.

The mood in the rink changes entirely. People stand and cheer. Out come the cellphone cameras. It’s a hero’s welcome. Or maybe the crowd is wishing them the best, offering some support, because all the fans in this rink know that a few weeks before, the great Canadian figure-skating story took a sad swerve: Jamie and David’s divorce is pending. And yet, here they are, skating for us again. Now the celebrity-couple story becomes something more earthbound. Jamie and David have formed a most modern kind of arrangement: divorced parents who work together. It’s no longer the romance of the century, but it’s not a tragedy either. This is a familiar story of an ordinary woman trying to pick herself up from heartbreak and shape the pieces into a new life.

An hour later, in a green room, Jamie is crying. No one wants to see Canada’s sweetheart cry. Jamie is known for being “up.” She bounces when she walks, ending her sentences with a rural Albertan “hey?” At 33, she seems like a teenager with her tight ponytail and barking laugh. She loves the crowd and doesn’t feel she skates well if she can’t blow kisses and make eye contact. This is the woman who tells her friends, “I don’t sit in negativity,” though sometimes she uses a more scatological word than negativity.

But the divorce has come up, and she’s crying. She apologizes, trying to explain the tears.
“I’m thinking of those days, and I remember sitting on my couch and looking at my poor son, and thinking, What am I going to do? How am I going to make this work? You just don’t see the light,” she says, then laughs a little, wiping her eyes. “That’s what triggered this crying. That was instant, hey?”

Jamie says the couple have been apart since March 2009. Over a year passed before they made it public. “We kept it quiet because we were trying to protect our image and our brand name, for lack of a better word. We thought, If we’re going to keep skating, we’re not going to talk about it.” But now she has agreed to an interview (David declined to comment). What Jamie wants to talk about is skating and her return to the smash-hit CBC series Battle of the Blades, but she can’t talk about skating without talking about her life.

When Jamie was seven, her mom asked her if she wanted to pursue gymnastics or skating after she’d excelled at both. “My mom remembers that my answer was so sure. It was ‘I’ll skate,’ ” recalls Jamie.       Her parents split when she was 10. Jamie’s brother went with her father, and she stayed with her mother. They weren’t rich: Her mom worked as a decorator, and Jamie used to borrow her best friend’s designer clothes — Guess, Club Monaco — because all she had was generic mall-wear. She guesses that her mother spent about a quarter of a million dollars on her skating lessons in total. At 16, Jamie traveled to Lillehammer as the youngest member of the Canadian Olympic team. She remembers sitting in the hall of her Olympic dorm trying to do her homework when skater Isabelle Brasseur came by and told her to put it away: “It’s the Olympics.”

By the late ’90s, after nominal success both as half of a pair and solo, Jamie was looking for a new partner. So was David Pelletier, then a 23-year-old skater who had yet to win a major competition. After auditions, they had their first full-length skate in 1998. “I couldn’t believe it because everything just felt so easy. He was very strong. It’s almost like we were created to skate together. We had an instant chemistry — not a love chemistry.” She adds this clarification quickly, perhaps because David was already engaged to another woman when they met, and married by the end of the year.

“We would go like this”— Jamie holds out her hand —“and without saying anything, we would just grab hands.” She clasps her hands together. “It was whoosh. It was meant to be. It was almost — it was electric.”

That electricity soon moved off the ice. By 1999, David and his wife had separated, and soon after, he and Jamie became a couple. The partnership quickly paid off with a 2001 World Championship. At the Salt Lake City Olympics, the romance became entirely public when they skated a flawless long program to the theme from Love Story, ending in a full-body clinch and a standing ovation. Their loss to the Russian pair flushed into the light a judging system rife with corruption, and in the days that followed, Jamie and David were transformed into international media sensations: They appeared on Jay Leno, and Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler played them on Saturday Night Live. Jamie recalls the security team that trailed them for protection; later, she found out that even the CIA had been enlisted to ensure their safety.

When the madness of Salt Lake City died down at last, they turned professional, joining Stars on Ice. “We really weren’t bitter. I felt bad actually for the other skaters. We toured with the Russians for four years after and we never really talked about it.”

In 2007, Jamie became pregnant. She continued coaching until a few weeks before her due date, doing pilates into her ninth month. But she didn’t know what the baby’s arrival would mean to her psychologically, and she warned her husband that she might never want to skate again. “I was so in love with being a mom. It was intoxicating having him. It’s changed me because my priorities changed. My son comes first. Skating is skating. There’s always going to be another skater coming up. I don’t want him to be 10 and think, I missed it.”

But her love for her son didn’t erase her love for skating. Within two months of having Jesse, Jamie was back on the ice, figuring out how to juggle parenting and a globe-trotting career. Jesse — who is a blond, curly-haired hockey fan — travels with both Jamie and David. At three years old, he’s been on over 30 flights, and his grandparents are his main babysitters.

By the time Jesse was 18 months old, the couple had split. They never had to tell their son about the divorce because he never knew them to be together. “It was weird in the beginning when he started talking because he’d say, ‘Daddy’s house, Mommy’s house.’ It was just normal to him,” says Jamie. But the transition wasn’t as seamless for her. The weeks and month following the breakup were agony.

“I’m human. I grieved. For me, it was very, very difficult. I lost five pounds, which I know I didn’t need to lose, and I thought my life was over. I had to go through that. You cannot ignore the stages of grieving,” she says. Jamie has an athlete’s mental discipline, and she tried to train herself out of sorrow: Every night, she wrote down five things to be grateful for.

“You have to start focusing on the good things in your life, and that was exactly what I did. I’d look at Jesse every day with tears in my eyes. I was sitting on my couch for months like this” – she rocks back and forth – “going, ‘I can’t breathe.’ I felt like I lost -” She stifles the tears. “You think, I’m such a failure. But then you think, No. Positive thoughts, Positive thoughts.”

The ending of most marriages begins with a physical disentangling; the two parties see each other less and less, and the distance quells the pain. Yet Jamie’s and David’s professional and personal lives are uniquely connected — even their limbs are literally intertwined. In the months after David moved out, Jamie struggled with whether she could continue performing at Stars on Ice, until she realized that she couldn’t bear to lose skating along with her marriage.

“I wasn’t going to be sad on ice. For me, this is my job. I’m being paid to do this. People want to see us. I don’t know what happens to me when I get on the ice. I just feel that’s my place.With Dave, I’m safe. He wasn’t going to change the way he skated with me. I wasn’t going to change the way I skated with him.” But surely it’s strange to have your ex’s hands on your body, day after day? “Even if I have to be romantic with him, I can do it. [The year we split up] we skated to a love song and we were fine.” In other words, their relationship is a business they own together, only they can’t exactly sell it and split the profits.

Still, there are some signs of professional separation, too. The two commentated together during the pairs skating at the Olympics, but David also did several appearances alone. After Stars on Ice, Jamie landed Battle of the Blades, a swan-meets-duck reality show where figure skaters are paired with hockey players. Canadians adored the show’s unlikely spin on So You Think You Can Dance: The program logged an average of 1.7 million viewers per episode. Jamie skated with former NHL left-winger Craig Simpson, whom she had known for years from the Edmonton skating scene. He was huge and she was tiny, but oddly, the guy could skate. For the finale, Jamie and Craig skated in black denim to the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling.” They won, donating $100,000 in prize money to Craig’s spinalcord charity.

Perhaps they looked a little too good together. The internet is aflame with rumours of infidelity targeting both Jamie and David. I ask Jamie if she wants to set the record straight, and she hardens a little. “I’m used to the rumours. Craig and I developed a great relationship over the years, especially through Battle. There’s nothing I can do about people talking. I don’t need to set anything straight. It’s nobody’s business what’s going on in my life or in Dave’s life.” On the question of why they split, she is succinct: “It’s between him and me.”

Whatever happened, they are in a new place now, reinventing the relationship, like so many divorced parents. In a way, their unusual working circumstances may make this transition easier for Jesse. “It’s pretty special that he can see us together as his parents and working together in a partnership,” she says. “Showing Jesse this example of how we can make the best of our situation . . . it’s a great gift for him. It’s not a positive for a family to split, but we’re making it a positive. He sees us happy.”

Back at the Ricoh Coliseum after the show, David walks by, eating a sandwich. He shakes my hand, and he and Jamie move aside to coordinate the pickup of Jesse, who’s in Calgary with her mom. In fact, the couple see even more of each other these days: David will actually be choreographing her routines for the second season of Battle of the Blades, where she’s paired with former Calgary Flame Theo Fleury.

The only hovering question is how the public will respond to this twist in the love story. The other week, Jamie entered a store in Edmonton, where she lives. A woman stopped her and said, “Oh, I used to watch you guys before and now it’s not going to be the same.”

“I do it too with musicians or people you admire,” says Jamie with a resigned sigh. “You almost live through them. So when people would be watching us on the ice, it almost gave them hope that they could have that one day, that they could feel what we felt toward each other. There was this dream. It was like a fairy tale to people. And let me tell you something: There are no fairy tales.”

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