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Can figure skating's first LGBTQ team change ice dance's reliance on romance?

Karina Manta and Joe Johnson worked hard to create a free dance that better captures their personalities. Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

Karina Manta is sitting on her bed facing a camera. She seems confident and relaxed next to her girlfriend, Aleena Gomez, on this September afternoon, but she's terrified. She's about to tell the world her secret.

"I've been with you for a whole year, and I wanted to say thank you, mostly thank you for being here, even though I've made your love my shadow," Manta, 22, begins, reading a poem she wrote while Aleena strums the guitar.

Having grappled with her sexuality since high school, Manta is tired of hiding. She doesn't know anyone else who is bisexual, and as an elite figure skater, she feels compelled to use her platform to set an example.

"I had trouble sleeping for about two weeks because I was so anxious," she remembers of that day. "I wrote the poem in July or August, but it took me a while from that point to build up the courage for us to actually film the video."

"I've made myself sick living this afraid," Manta says in the video, at times glancing at Aleena and readjusting her glasses. "I'm Karina. It's nice to meet you after so long."

With that video, Manta made figure skating history. The American ice dancer is not just the first female skater to come out during her competitive career, but alongside skating partner Joe Johnson, part of the first ice dance team with two LGBTQ competitors. As they take the ice Friday at the 2019 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit, Manta and Johnson will challenge the norms that have long governed the sport. But will their new openness impact their scores?

"This is a judged sport, a sport that people talk not just about your athletic ability but also about who you are on social media," 2018 U.S. ice dance champion Madison Hubbell says. "To open yourself up and shout out that you're different from those that came before you, that's scary."

At the Pyeongchang Olympics in February, the internet became obsessed with the will-they-or-won't-they romantic saga of eventual ice dance champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, whose free dance was set to "Moulin Rouge!" and was a story of betrayal, jealousy and passion. Twitter was filled with GIFs of their glowering looks and pleas for them to get together. It was a minor news event when Virtue and Moir chose to remove a lift from that routine because it was too "suggestive." The Ringer even published a close read of their relationship breaking down every conspiracy -- including a secret love child! -- surrounding the duo.

The obsession with Virtue and Moir highlighted the reliance on romantic themes in ice dance, a discipline that routinely refers to teams as "couples" and requires them to be touching for almost all of the program. Teams that don't adhere to these norms, such as the American sibling team of Maia and Alex Shibutani, have sometimes struggled to find an identity, to convey a compelling narrative in place of romance.

Manta and Johnson, who have been a duo since 2014, have tried to sell romance in past routines. They skated to "Moulin Rouge" in 2017, with Manta's long, gold skirt trailing behind her on turns and her long, dark hair wound tightly in a bun.

This season, having embraced their off-ice identity, Manta and Johnson have worked hard to craft a new one on the ice. Working with British choreographer Christopher Dean, who defined on-ice romance in the 1980s with ice dance partner Jayne Torvill, they created a free dance that better showcases their personalities.

"On the ice, you want to be seen as an athlete," Manta says. "But it's also super important to us that we are visible queer athletes."

Set to the 1980s Eurythmics hit "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)," the free dance highlights Manta's transformed look and allows the two to be freer and looser with the audience.

"I look at our free dance, and people have fun with it, they want to be involved," Johnson says. "Part of the fun of being queer is you start to let go of the things that might disrupt your identity because you know exactly what you are, and you know exactly what you like."

"I want them to look and feel different (from other teams)," Dean says. "There's a very contemporary, angular feel to what they're doing [in the free dance], yet we're trying to maintain movement and speed of the ice. I want it to feel organic, the way that they move on the ice."

2014 Olympic ice dance champion Charlie White hopes that teams such as Manta and Johnson will, like the Shibutanis before them, push the sport to greater artistic heights.

"It's easy to see the same thing over and over again when it's a man and a woman telling a love story," he says. "When you have a team that doesn't portray a romantic relationship for any reason, they're forced to consider new ways to tell their story. That opens up new doors, new pathways."

"We've seen a chipping away at traditions," he adds. "With the Shibutanis, winning an Olympic bronze medal is historic. What they've brought to the sport and the way that they got creative is only going to continue to support and encourage others."

In late October, Manta and Johnson arrive in Seattle for Skate America, their first competition at the Grand Prix, or elite, level. As their names boom over the loudspeaker, the audience roars with applause, and two pride flags are unfurled.

Manta is all sass in a shiny, black Lycra dress, with her hair chopped short and dyed platinum blonde. It's a totally different look from the previous season. Toward the end of the routine, Manta and Johnson pause side by side, arms crossed, locking eyes with the judges before executing a series of jazzy steps. The crowd goes wild.

"If you would have put [our free dance] to 15-year-old me, I would have been like, 'Oh my God, no! People might think I'm gay,'" Johnson said. "Now we're just doing stuff that feels good and right and fun and not giving a crap about what it looks like."

For Johnson, it was an especially poignant moment because both he and Manta were finally out. "Seeing her with all her hair chopped off, her girlfriend cheering for us in the audience, knowing Karina got to do that without anything to hide anymore, I couldn't help but smile. I was bursting with pride. I was so excited for her ... and for us."

They will carry that pride to nationals this week, where they hope to be judged on the merits of their performance alone. But they're not afraid to keep pushing and challenging the conventions of the sport and what judges find worthy of reward.

"If we want the sport to grow, we're the ones to do that," Manta says. "This is a judged sport. You can't keep saying, 'This is what the sport should be like' or 'The sport should be more welcoming' and not live that yourself. Someone has to be the one to break that mold and show a different type of image. There is that stress of, 'Will the judges like me if I'm different?' It comes to the point where someone has to be that and not be scared."

On Saturday, as the first notes of that '80s synth anthem sound, that someone will be Manta and Johnson.