Article by Anne Calder | Photos by Robin Ritoss

Anne met up with USA’s Karina Manta and Joseph Johnson at the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Salt Lake City just a few days after they were invited to Skate America for their first ever Grand Prix. They talked about their free dance, choreographers, school and reaching a huge goal. The team trains in Colorado Springs, CO with Patti Gottwein.

IDC: Why is this season’s free dance so special for you both?

JJ: At the beginning of the season, we decided we wanted our free dance to be a lot of fun and something we were both enthused about – something we were connected to personally.

KM: So in the decision-making process, we didn’t think about what the judges would like to see us do, what our coaches would like, or concepts we have done in the past. We both just wanted to enjoy skating to it all year.

JJ: Regardless of a placement goal, and I know it sounds cliché, the way to get the best and most out of this year is to just be ourselves. This is the first year we have gone at it with the view of doing that versus the judges’ input. We just wanted to do something we were happy to do – just the two of us. It turned out the whole team (coach Patti Gottwein and choreographers Christopher Dean, Trina Pratt, Ben Agosto) liked it, too.

KM: Chris (Dean) even suggested the pieces. It’s “Sweet Dreams” with two different covers. He did the choreography, but this year we’ve had more input.

JJ: You’ll see some stuff that started out like a joke. We would just be dancing around on the ice, then ask him if we could keep that section, and he was like, “Ya, sure!” It’s getting back to skating being fun for us. Our program is a dance party. We love skating it!

KM: The Grand Prix assignment was a huge goal of ours for years, so that happening has been like a dream come true.

IDC: Since Nationals, Karina has cut her hair and recently became a platinum blonde that has the Annie Lennox look, the original “Sweet Dreams” lead singer. What has been the reaction?

KM: I’ve had long hair basically all my life. I started cutting it in February. It’s so easy to take care of. I spend half the time getting ready in the morning. I think my mother was more shocked about the cut than the color.

JJ: It (the color) had been suggested to us. I was just getting used to her making these crazy changes to her hair. Then she came in one day and announced, “I’m going to do it on Friday.” I love it. I think it’s super cool! I’ve seen several double takes since we arrived here in Salt Lake. 

IDC: Trina Pratt* and Ben Agosto choreographed your rhythm dance. What was it like working with them?

JJ: Trina and Ben are so much the same person. They both have 60 ideas for a 10 second piece of choreography. It’s fun watching them try to consolidate all the stuff they want to do. I think Ben is one of the most talented male skaters of all time. Also, he has the disposition of a golden retriever. He’s so good at getting you to do what he wants you to do.

IDC: You have different choreographers for the Rhythm and Free Dances. Was there any adjustment going from one to the other?

JJ: Chris and Ben get along great together. Their friendship is awesome. You would be surprised. (They worked together on the 2015-16 European Holiday on Ice tour called Believe.)

KM: We don’t have to go between two different styles at all. Trina worked with Chris when she was training in Colorado Springs. Their work is very complimentary.

IDC: Several teams visitedyour training facility at the Air Force Academy to work with Christopher Dean. What is that like?

KM: We love it when other teams stop by. Gabby (Papadakis) and Guillaume (Cizeron), (reigning World Champions), came to work with Chris, but also skated with us. That was motivating.

IDC: What did you learn from them?

JJ: How to be long and beautiful. (Giggle)

KM: We did have one funny story. I had just dislocated my collarbone the day before they arrived.

JJ: It just happened. It was like a wear and tear thing – there was no defining injury. One morning at breakfast, she picked up a coffee cup, and her shoulder just popped out of her socket. The shoulder dislocated because of the clavicle.

KM: Since we train at the Air Force Academy, they needed Joe to escort them on to the base. I had a doctor’s appointment that morning, and they were asking about where his partner was.

JJ: I was just telling them that at breakfast her shoulder had popped out when Karina arrived.

KM: So when I got to meet them for the first time, Gabby said, “Hi! It’s so nice to meet you. I heard you had a breakfast injury.” Here I was talking to the World Champions about injuring myself at breakfast. I was so embarrassed.

JJ: They are such sweet people and so down to earth. We only met them for a day because they came to work with Chris on their rhythm dance. It’s just cool watching them work with him. They just take his movement and absorb it in their cool Montreal way. We loved working with them.

JJ: Tiffany Zahorski and Jonathan Guerreiro came with his parents from Russia to work on their free dance with Chris. His mother Svetlana Liapina was an ice dancer in the former Soviet Union. Now, she is a coach in Moscow. She put on rental skates and worked with us on our edges. How cool was that!?!

KM: Jonathan was saying that they had a family photo taken with Chris when Jonathan was a baby. (Svetlana and her partner, Gorsha Sur, had been in an ice show with Torvill & Dean in 1989.)

IDC: Karina, tell us about attending college and your future goals?

KM: I am a full-time senior studying English and pre-law at UCCS. I want to become a Civil Rights attorney or public defender. I’m really passionate about that. I care about prison reform and our criminal justice system. Hopefully, I’ll be graduating in May if I can keep all my course load as it is now.

IDC: I understand this spring you marched in Phoenix for educational reform.

KM: Yes, my mother is a teacher in Arizona. We marched together. Our generation is very passionate in a good way.

JJ: I think we are a lot more tuned in to the political environment. We hear (criticism) that social media is the death of attention span, but it makes our generation a lot more tuned into the political climate.

Karina Manta & Joseph Johnson will compete this week at the ISU Grand Prix Skate America in Everett, Washington from October 19-21.

* Trina Pratt and partner Todd Gilles won four JGP medals and were the 2003 U.S. novice and 2005 U.S. junior national champions.