It was by accident that Australia’s first Aboriginal Winter Olympian Harley Windsor discovered figure skating, and he has never looked back.
When his mother took a wrong turn in suburban Sydney the then curious 8-year-old stumbled across an unlikely sports theatre in a country known for its sweltering temperatures – an ice rink.
“I thought it was really cool and liked it,” Windsor, now 21, said after a recent performance at the Four Continents championships in Taiwan.
Skating once a week turned into twice a week and he was soon getting serious.
“For the first few years I didn’t think it was going to be a sport that would really stick. I thought I was just doing it for fun,” he said, reflecting on his early years.
“Maybe [at the age of] 15 was when I started to be like: ‘I really like this sport. I’m sort of getting half decent at it.’”
A growth spurt in his early teens meant Winsor’s height made him better suited to pairs skating, but one problem persisted – a dearth of female skating partners Down Under.
Keen to keep him in the sport, his Russian-born coaches began a search for someone suitable. They tracked down Moscow-based Ekaterina Alexandrovskaya, who had been overlooked by the Russian system and, after a trial, she agreed to switch countries and received her Australian citizenship last year.
Speaking different languages was no barrier and the pair were crowned world junior champions last season, claiming Australia’s first global figure skating title and getting the nod for the Olympics in Pyeongchang.
“On ice we’re very business-oriented. We both know what we have to do and what we don’t have to do,” Windsor said of his partnership with 18-year-old Alexandrovskaya.
Off the ice “we’ve had our ups and downs just like every other pair”, he admitted, but they’ve learned that time apart can be healthy for their relationship.
“Because you’re with them so often you don’t want something not working on the ice to carry it off the ice and affect everything else,” he said.
‘Big honour to be first‘
One of seven siblings in a close-knit family, Windsor said he was “the odd one out”, with his brothers and sisters preferring more traditional Australian pursuits, like horse riding or football.
Spending most of his time last year training in Moscow with some of the world’s top skaters has been a blessing for his development but a significant lifestyle adjustment.
“We have quite a few international skaters at that rink in Moscow. It’s really good training with them, to be around the best in the world,” he said.
“[But] I spent probably about three-quarters of the year in Moscow and travelling. It’s definitely hard because I’m used to being around my family all the time. I think that’s probably the hardest thing about being away.”
Windsor has a proud connection to his heritage, having grown up within a tightknit indigenous community in his home state New South Wales.
And the significance of being Australia’s first Aboriginal athlete to take part in the Winter Olympics is not lost on him.
“It’s a big honour to be the first,” he said. “It’s definitely been a huge part of my life.”
The last successful Australian pair skaters were brother and sister team Stephen Carr and Danielle McGrath, who made their Olympic debut together in 1992 at Albertville. In three Olympics their best finish was 11th.
For the moment, Australia’s first indigenous Winter Olympian is not placing too much pressure on himself, and will be content with a top 12 finish at his first Games.
“Realistically we’re not there to win a medal just yet. We’re still a super-young team and we’ve got a lot to develop,” he said.