MIT freshman Jessica Huot and Juha Valkama are world-class ice dancers who've skated in 10 countries and whose performances have been broadcast from Tijuana to Tokyo. Last year they won the national ice dancing competition in Finland, then went on to the world championships in Nagano, Japan.
The couple is talented enough to have skated in the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, but the rules require that an ice dancing pair be from the same country--and they are not. He's from Finland and she's from the United States. "We knew from the beginning that there was no way we could participate in the Olympics, so we already had that mindset," Valkama says. "But still, it was disappointing."
The hope, though, they say, is that they will qualify to compete in the 2006 Olympics, when by then Finland might offer dual citizenship and Huot may take advantage of the new rule.
"If it turns out that our schoolwork limits skating, we'll have to forget about skating, because we're not going to forget about school," says Valkama, who ranked in the top 5 percent in Finland in math, physics and English. "I would rather have a diploma from MIT than just to know that I can skate. It's a more solid investment in the future."
Huot says, "There's really no choice between MIT and skating, but if we can keep skating, why not?"
He loves physics and math and is thinking of studying computer science. She plans to study biology and one day hopes to conduct research in genetics.
The pair met four years ago at a training camp at the University of Delaware, where they were coached by the 1980 Olympic winners in ice dancing, Natalia Linitchuk and Gennadi Karponossov.
Valkama left Finland for Delaware after he graduated high school in 1999 to train with a world-class coach, and Huot moved to Delaware from a training camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., in search of a top partner. For four years, the pair skated six days a week to prepare for the national competition in Finland and later for the European and world championships.
"We try to skate as much as we can now that we're at MIT," Valkama says, adding that they arrange their studies so they can skate three hours a day, every day.
He is most interested in skating's technical aspects--the neatness and precision of the footwork, good posture, good form, good balance. She's more interested in skating's artistic aspects, the ease of movement and developing amazing grace.
"I'm more interested in trying to make it look like a ballet, and Juha is more interested in what his feet are doing," says Huot, adding that the marriage of their skills makes them a great pair.
Skating for more than a decade has been a great teacher, they say. "Skating has taught me never to give up on your dreams," Valkama says.
"Mostly, skating has taught me the importance of family," Huot says. "I haven't lived with my dad for five years." She and her mother left her father and their home in Longmeadow, Mass., for Lake Placid when she was 14. The next year, they moved to Delaware, where they lived for four years. "It was hard on both my parents to be apart. Sometimes, I thought, they're making this big sacrifice just for me. I didn't skate for them, but I always felt like I should try my hardest because they were giving up so much for me.
"Now," she says, "it seems it would have been important to have been with both my parents growing up, because now I'm never going to get the chance to be with my dad. I can never have back that time with him I missed." Her older brother now lives six miles west of Cambridge, and every weekend, she and Valkama visit for Sunday dinner. Occasionally her parents visit, too. "I look forward to it," she says. "Family is really important."
On this day, Valkama has arrived for this interview in a fourth-floor office wearing rollerblades. In one fluid movement, he glides into the office and into a chair. Both Huot and Valkama often rollerblade across campus, they say. "We rollerblade for transportation, whenever we want to get somewhere in a hurry," he says. "It's convenient. And besides, we have pretty good balance."
(This story was originally published in the winter 2003 issue of Spectrum, online at http://web.mit.edu/giving/spectrum).
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 9, 2003.