Avonley Nguyen and Vadym Kolesnik are causing quite a stir in the U.S. junior ice dance ranks.

In just their second season as a team, Nguyen, 16, a native of Cleveland, Ohio, and Kolesnik, a 17-year-old from Ukraine, already have a solid résumé and hardware to back it up.

Nguyen and Kolesnik will make their World Junior Championships debut in Zagreb, Croatia, next week and have their sights set on a golden finish. “We would like to be in first place. There is no point in going if you are not expecting to win. If you go, your goal has to be to win,” Kolesnik said.

To have any chance of winning in Zagreb, Nguyen and Kolesnik targeted a couple of areas they believe will help improve their odds following a disappointing finish at the 2019 U.S. Junior Championships. Both admit the rhythm dance is their weakness. Nguyen said they changed the footwork sequence “about seven times, and then we changed it again about a week before nationals.” 

“The rhythm is really fast and our music is also very fast, so the turns need some time to really get them precise,” Kolesnik explained. “And of course, we also need to work on the pattern dance because our competitors are much stronger on that than we are.”

In some ways this team is as diverse as their countries of birth, but they share a common competitive spirit that has become the foundation of their partnership. As individuals, the two have also traveled a similar path to success — both Nguyen and Kolesnik left home in pursuit of reaching their fullest potential and, oddly enough, both started skating as a means to improve their health.

“I was an extremely fat kid, and my great grandma always gave me food,” Kolesnik explained. “When I was the right age to start sports, my parents wanted me to go into hockey or figure skating, but nobody would take me because I was like a small elephant. There was only one coach who would take me — Vitaly Egorov (the 1979 World junior champion) — and he taught me everything. I started to have problems with my knees and I could not jump, so I switched to ice dance.”

For Nguyen, it was the exact opposite. “I wouldn’t eat anything, so I was too skinny,” she recalled. “My mom took me to a pediatrician who recommended that I do an activity, so she put me in skating. I quickly fell in love with the sport, and I started eating because my appetite increased from training.”

The team first joined forces in 2016, but the partnership was put on hold almost immediately after Kolesnik was called home to take care of some logistical issues. Soon after his return to the U.S. in early 2017, the duo began training full time. A few months later Nguyen and Kolesnik made their debut on the Junior Grand Prix circuit, where they earned modest results — fifth and sixth place finishes in Belarus and Italy, respectively. They followed that up with a fifth place result at the 2018 U.S. Junior Championships.

With a season of competitions under their belts, Nguyen and Kolesnik charged into their second Junior Grand Prix campaign the following year with lofty goals. “We worked very hard over the summer to improve all aspects of our skating,” Nguyen said. “We wanted to make the podium at our events and earn a spot at the Final.”

In late August, the duo skated away with the silver medal at their first Junior Grand Prix event in Bratislava, Slovakia, and two weeks later, mined gold in Kaunas, Lithuania, earning a coveted spot at the Junior Grand Prix Final.

However, qualifying for the event, as Nguyen and Kolesnik would soon learn, was the easy part. Even getting to Vancouver proved to be quite a challenge for the teenagers. “I couldn’t get a visa at first, so we missed the practice on Wednesday,” Kolesnik explained. “We were supposed to fly in on Tuesday, but my visa didn’t come in time so we had to fly on Wednesday and missed our official practice. The competition began on Thursday and, since we missed practice, the first time we got on the ice was for the rhythm dance.”

Perhaps due to those circumstances, Nguyen and Kolesnik walked away from the event disappointed with how they performed. They finished in fifth place. “That wasn’t our best skating and it really wasn’t our week,” Nguyen said in reflection. “But we learned a lot from that experience. Looking ahead, I think that the experience pushed us to be better.”

“Just competing with the best was a great experience,” Kolesnik added. “We learned so much about how to compete by watching how the top teams approach competition. It was interesting to see that everybody has their traditions — like drinking tea before competitions, for example. Everybody does different things that help them to focus, and it helped me to figure out what it is that I need to do in order to focus better.”

That experience also made Nguyen and Kolesnik examine what helps them to be strong competitors. “Before we compete, we stay close together and keep our rhythm,” Nguyen said. “We look into each other’s eyes to focus only on each other. We have found that this helps us to stay focused.”

Next up for Nguyen and Kolesnik was the 2019 U.S. Championships, where they ultimately finished in second place. Though they were nearly five points behind after the rhythm dance, the duo narrowed the gap after winning the free dance, missing the top spot on the podium by a mere 1.48 points. “We tried our best, but it didn’t happen today,” Kolesnik said after the free dance. “Now we know where we have to focus and the things we have to focus on.”

Nguyen and Kolesnik train about three hours a day, five days a week with Shpilband and Lenda in Novi, Michigan. This season, Pasquale Camerlengo and Natalia Deller also became part of their coaching team. “We have had the opportunity to train alongside a lot of amazing skaters,” Nguyen said. “The atmosphere has changed a lot as it usually does at the end of an Olympic cycle. We have some new coaches — Pasquale and Natalia — and of course Igor is amazing. We have a really great team.”

Kolesnik agreed. “Any success we have is because of them. In addition to what we do on ice, we have off ice training to work on fitness. We have ballet, do some acting, and a little bit of ballroom.”

Given their training schedule, Nguyen and Kolesnik that they have little time to pursue outside interests. “Skating and school are all I have time to focus on right now,” Nguyen said. “I am in 10th grade, and have two advanced placement classes, so they keep me pretty busy. I go (to school) full time online, but I still have due dates like a brick and mortar school.”

Kolesnik, conversely, is taking a gap year from university studies to focus on skating. “I usually don’t think of anything else other skating,” he said. “I’ve been doing all my life, so I don’t know how it is without skating. But I like to play chess and cards. I have a brother who always beat me (at everything), so I hate to lose.”