Overcoming some tremendous hurdles en route to a gold medal in pairs figure skating at the U.S. Nationals last month seemed like a seven-week miracle for Ashley Cain and Timothy LeDuc, but it was really a championship that was almost three years in the making.
By bouncing back from a fall that led to a concussion for Cain on Dec. 7, the duo had to dig deep into their inner strength and rely on things they had been practicing for years. And in doing so, they learned quite a bit about themselves.
"I think we've come so far in such a short span of time because we had already established that trust between us," said Cain, who has born in Carrollton. "We knew that we were going to be there for each other."
The accomplishment was impressive for the team that works out of Children's Health StarCenter in Euless, and they admit the timing of the injury could have even been helpful. While performing at the Golden Spin of Zagreb, the pair was performing a routine lift. As LeDuc tried to lower Cain, she fell on her head and suffered a concussion. That easily could have eliminated them from even competing at the Nationals in Detroit in late January, but Cain pushed hard to get herself ready.
"For me, I was OK, because it almost allowed me to rest a little bit," she said. "I'm the kind of person where I need to do everything, and so it slowed me down and got me in touch with how my body was feeling."
She said the change in preparation actually was the right move for them.
"We did a lot of visualization, which I think really helped," Cain said. "We were able to do conditioning in a different way, because any time I did biking or running, I would start to get really sick. So we just changed things up."
That said, it was far from easy. LeDuc said he has dealt with self-doubt in his career, and it brought back bad memories.
"It's every pair skater's worst nightmare," he said. "It pushed me to a point where I had not been in my career and it brought back a lot of bad habits. Just knowing my partner was hurt and I bore some responsibility for that, it was really hard."
But the bond of the pair proved to be soothing for each skater, who work out with Ashley's parents -- Peter and Darlene Cain -- almost every day.
"What got me through it was Ashley's strength. Watching her face her fears every day, and just do everything she could … that was so good for me," LeDuc said. "And all of us out there together, our coaches, everyone, just doing a little more each day, telling ourselves to be strong, we can do this … we all came together as a group."
The ability to embrace that confidence was forged much earlier.
Cain skated pairs in her youth and then started a singles career in 2011. She decided to retire from singles in 2014 and it was suggested in 2016 that maybe LeDuc might be a good partner. LeDuc, 28, is from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. He also was a pairs skater, but decided to do shows in 2014 and had a two-year contract with Royal Caribbean cruise ships.
When his contract was up, he and Cain decided to form a team.
"I think we're both really goofy and sarcastic, and I think that's good, because this can be a really hard sport mentally," LeDuc said of the instant chemistry. "I don't think you can force it. Synergy is really important in pairs and it's something that happened really naturally and organically for us. And we're so lucky for that."
The pair finished third at Nationals in 2017 and fourth in 2018, so they were clearly in the mix. But by having to face the injury, they came closer together.
"We did imagery every day, so that we could feel those elements with our bodies. And when we showed up at Nationals, we showed up without stress," Cain said. "We both have had our demons in this sport, but we've voiced them to each other. So when we see the other one starting to face those demons creep in, we try to help the other one."
LeDuc had one of those moments during a particularly depressing practice.
"There was a moment maybe a week before we left and I was tripping all over myself, and I was sitting over in the corner, and she was like, `Hey, you (snap, snap) get over here. Don't beat yourself up, engage, we have stuff to do. Don't go back there,'" LeDuc said.
That attitude was important, because LeDuc said he wanted to excel not just for himself, but for the team. He said it helped him push through the negative thoughts and understand that he had a duty to perform his best.
The two say they sometimes will use the hand signal of swatting away all the thoughts from their head that get in the way. That's a huge part of becoming a successful skater, and it's a skill they have improved in the past few months.
Now, they have even more confidence in what they have built since 2016. They won't have much time to breathe, however, as the Four Continents competition is in Anaheim this week and the World Championships will be in Japan in March.
In a perfect world, this will all lead to a place in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
"I think the foundation is really good now. We've done these elements now and they've gotten better and bigger and faster, and we feel good about them," Cain said. "Skating under the pressure that we had at the National Championships, and we were able to skate two clean programs, that gives us confidence."
In between, they will continue to work out in Euless and make their mark on the world. The duo teaches young skaters and is trying to set a good example of just what is possible.
"It's awesome to see how much skating in the DFW area has grown. I think it comes from the resources we have here," Cain said. "We have a really good group of young skaters and we want to groom them and be a great example. I brought my medal, and I told them, `Guys, you can do this, too.' "
It just takes a lot of work and mental strength.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club.
Mike Heika is a Senior Staff Writer for DallasStars.com and has covered the Stars since 1994. Follow him on Twitter @MikeHeika.