Olympian Alexandra Paul seemed to float on figure skating ice as she danced with partner and eventual husband Mitchell Islam. Together, they skated with speed, with balletic body lines, with blades so quiet you could not hear them.
They qualified for the 2014 Olympics in Sochi in a tightly fought battle with Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier at the national championships. Skating with the appearance of effortless freedom, Ms. Paul and Mr. Islam achieved the performance of their lives.
Ms. Paul died at age 31 on Aug. 22 from injuries sustained in a car accident north of Shelburne, Ont., when a transport truck collided with a line of seven cars stopped at a construction site. Ms. Paul was in one of those cars with her 10-month-old infant, Charlie, who survived with a buckle fracture of the lower tibia of his right leg. The child’s grandfather David Islam refers to him as “the miracle that is Charlie.”
Ms. Paul had been on her way home to Barrie, Ont., from a family cottage at Grand Bend, Ont., to have dinner with the Islam family, her in-laws. Charlie was in the back seat.
The romance between the two skaters was such that you could not imagine one without the other. “Ali was the belle of the ball and the light of my life,” Mitchell Islam said. “I loved her with every part of me. I will miss her as long as I am breathing.”
Ms. Paul and Mr. Islam won three national bronze medals. They finished only 18th at the 2014 Olympics, distracted by all things Olympic. They admitted they skated too cautiously. They redoubled their efforts in the next few weeks to finish 10th at the world championships. But Ms. Paul was more than a master of the blade. She was the light in a room. She was smart, funny, a fixer. She drew people in, welcomed them.
Ms. Paul’s mother, Anne, recalled that at a skating event early in their careers, when they were up against a superstar couple, envied by all, evoking jealousies, she was approached by a young woman she had never met.
“I saw you with Alex,” the young competitor said. “Are you Alex Paul’s mom?”
“Yes I am,” she replied.
Suddenly the skater threw her arms around Anne in a hug and exclaimed: “Thank you for Alex, because she’s the only person that I can be with, that I know wants the best for me, and that I can have fun with. And I don’t have to be on guard with, and I can be in the locker room with, and she’s just a person I can sit beside.”
The skater added that there was no one else she could trust, because “I know they all want to get me somehow, to do something to hurt my mind when I go out there.”
Said Anne of her daughter: “She touched something in people. She had a special kind of light, a warmth, a genuineness that people felt at ease with and they could just open up to her and trust her. She was funny and supportive. People just wanted to be with her.”
Ms. Paul wouldn’t allow a bad word to be said about anybody, said her father, Gordon, a radiologist at the Royal Victoria Regional Health Centre in Barrie, Ont.
Ms. Paul and Mr. Islam teamed up to become ice dancers after one tryout in February of 2009 and their success in the following months was meteoric. They defeated the Canadian junior champions at a summer competition, and thereby earned berths at a couple of junior international Grand Prix events. The following January, they won the national junior title, and then earned the silver medal at the world junior championships, leapfrogging past teams that had defeated them earlier in the season.
They spent only one season at the junior level and the next season, won the senior national bronze medal, a rare feat. They won two more national bronze medals, competing at the same time as two-time Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir.
But their careers were hobbled by a succession of injuries and incidents. One season, they did not get any Grand Prix international assignments at all. Over the years, Ms. Paul suffered a rib injury, sprained a knee ligament, suffered a cut to the back of her thigh in a collision with an Italian team during practice at an international event, endured a hamstring injury in 2016 and twisted her knee during a morning practice at Cup of China in 2016. They withdrew without competing at that event in November of 2016, and every time she and Mr. Islam worked harder to get back, the injury was exacerbated. The next month they announced their retirement from competitive skating.
They both were eager to continue their lives beyond skating. Ms. Paul wanted to become a lawyer. “We knew from a very early age that being a lawyer might be a good profession for her,” her father, Gord, said. “She could plead her case very well.”
She was stubborn. “She had a dogged determination,” Anne said. “Despite all her kindness, if she wanted something, she would go after it. We called her the closet competitor because she … had a quiet burning determination.”
“It doesn’t take just a gentle soul to qualify for the Olympics,” said world ice dance silver medalist Kaitlyn Weaver, who was a bridesmaid at Ms. Paul’s wedding and considers her part of her family. “She was fiercely strong-willed, but with an element of grace and kindness that I’ve never come across.
“She was one of the smartest women I have known.”
Ms. Paul also knew how to do everything, and if she didn’t, she would figure it out. Give her an electric drill and she would buzz holes in a wall without a flinch. “(With her elegant little fingers,” said Anne.) Or refinish an old table. She was acquainted with drywall compound. She would program the television. She cooked dinner.
Ms. Weaver recalls arriving at the 2014 Sochi Olympics with Ms. Paul and Mr. Islam and receiving a Samsung cellphone, given by officials to all Canadian competitors. “At the time, no one really had a Samsung,” she said. “I took it out of the box, took one look at it and was like: ‘I don’t know how to use this,’ and I put it back in.”
The next day, Ms. Paul taught all of the team members how to use it. She had read the manual overnight.
“She was just that kind of person that didn’t let the paint dry,” Ms. Weaver said.
Ms. Paul was born Sept. 16, 1991 in Toronto, the second of three sisters in a very close-knit family. Her oldest sister, Katie, married to Kyle Paige in Whistler, B.C. has two children, the youngest born a month after Charlie. Because both sisters were pregnant at the same time, they talked daily with delight, comparing notes despite the distance between them.
Youngest sister Elizabeth married Robert McConkey in England three weeks before the accident and had returned to Barrie for a visit.
Debbie Islam, mother of Mitchell and an international figure skating judge, said her fondest memories of Ms. Paul are of watching her as a mother. “She embraced it,” Ms. Islam said. “She was up on every development in child care and all the gadgets. The joy and delight on her face, watching her young son was something I will never forget.”
Anne Paul noted that her daughter would make use of every single hour of her life. “She embraced every day,” she said. “She found joy in it, made people happy. She always found something when she was exhausted after being up with Charlie all night as a newborn.
“She would look at him and say: ‘I just love him. All I need to do is look at him and everything is fine.’”
Mitch Islam said in a text that he was in awe every day with how his wife cared for Charlie. “She was such a vibrant, loving mother,” he said. “She made me want to be a better father. While my heart is broken into a thousand pieces, I will do everything every day to raise Charlie the way she would have.”
While the Islam family has brown eyes, Charlie has his mother’s blue eyes. “Looking into Charlie’s eyes, Alex will never really be gone,” Gord said. “It’s beautiful and tragic and awful and amazing.”
When Ms. Paul and Mr. Islam moved to train at the Detroit Skating Club in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., they both studied political science at nearby Oakland University, then moved to Montreal to train in 2015. After they retired from skating, they returned to Michigan to finish off their courses, living with skating friends.
When Ms. Paul decided to study law at the University of Windsor, Mr. Islam drove the 430-kilometre trip (each way) between Barrie and Windsor every weekend to see her. She graduated, articled at Barriston Law in Barrie and then practised there for a year before taking pregnancy leave.
Ms. Paul’s death has touched such a nerve in the skating community – and beyond – that a celebration of life on Aug. 31 at the Barrie Country Club brought a flood of well-wishers that filled the parking lots and jammed the streets leading in. The crowds were unprecedented. Pasquale Camerlengo, one of their dance coaches in Michigan drove seven hours and arrived as everyone was leaving. Then he drove back.
“The kids were always well regarded,” Ms. Islam said. “Everyone loved who they were as people and what they meant to them. I think that’s what spurred [Mr. Camerlengo] to come all that way.”
A GoFundMe page set up by a friend offered a goal of $40,000 to support Charlie in the future. As of Sunday, the fund had reached $294,857.
“The skating family has really stepped up for this one,” Ms. Islam said. “It has been a great comfort.”
Mr. Islam is now a single father. “Nothing will ever be the same,” he said. “But she will forever be my dance partner.”