When Kailani Craine laced up a pair of ice skates for the first time at the age of eight, representing Australia at the Winter Olympics was the furthest thing from her mind.
But just 11 years later the Newcastle figure skater is about to do just that, pulling on the green and gold as part of the 50-strong team heading to PyeongChang, South Korea for the XXIII Winter Olympics.
Kailani qualified for this month’s Games with a spectacular performance at the International Skating Union Challenger Series’ Nebelhorn Trophy in Oberstdorf, Germany in October last year.
It was the 19-year-old’s last chance to secure qualification for the Olympics, and it’s clear when you see footage of her tear-filled reaction following the completion of her free-skate program just how much these debut Games now mean to her.
“Honestly I had, in training, listened to my music a lot, especially the free program music and because the free program music has such a dramatic finish you start to think of what could happen if you have that kind of clean skate and it’s your moment,” she said.
“I was thinking about that a lot, especially competing in Germany. But I kind of had to stop myself from thinking about it; I wanted it to happen so bad that I didn’t want to think about it too much because I didn’t want to get my hopes up or be a little disappointed if I didn’t skate like that.
“It was weird because I felt so relaxed for the free skate in Germany, which I did not feel in the short program - in the short program I was shaking so much it was crazy, I couldn’t feel my legs I was shaking that much.
“There are more things to do in the free skate so you think I would be more nervous but I actually wasn’t, I was completely relaxed and ready to go.
“I wasn’t surprised with how I skated because that’s the way I train every day, but I was pleased that I was able to do what I train every day in competition and at the most important competition.
“It all really came together perfectly, and I was just so happy, and I just wanted to cry and be emotional.”
Kailani’s four-minute free skate performance, complete with five triple jumps, three level-four spins and level-four footwork, wasn’t just good enough to get her to the Games, it also secured her a breakthrough win at the German competition. Combined with her short program score, Kailani notched up a gold-winning total of 167.45, making her the first Australian ever to win the Nebelhorn Trophy.
The figure skater followed up this all-important victory with another win much closer to home, clinching her fourth consecutive national title in December last year after surpassing her personal best score by nearly five points at the Australian Figure Skating Championships.
This success was achieved with a more difficult variation of both her routines, which Kailani said are closer to what audiences might see when she hits the ice in PyeongChang – although she might still have one or two more surprises in store as well.
“At Nationals I went into doing some more difficult variations of the program, it’s harder to jump with your arms in the air, and at Nationals I was really happy because I got to practice that before the Olympics and Four Continents Championships,” she said.
“I was really happy that I could try that out at Nationals and I successfully did all the elements I planned to do, and I met my goals, so I was really happy.
“I’d say the most difficult elements to do are the jumps. In my programs, I think the hardest element is in my short program, which is the triple loop-triple loop. That’s a very hard combination, and I do it in the second half of my short program, which is even more difficult. I didn’t do that at Nebelhorn, I wanted to have safe, clean skates to qualify me through, but at Skate Canada and Nationals I did that element, so I was really ecstatic.
“I think the program that I’m going to do at the Olympics is going to be similar to what I did at Nationals, with the arm up in some of the jumps in the free skate and the harder combination in the short program.
“I definitely want to work on another combination for next year’s free skate, and you never know, it could be ready for the Olympics free skate, although I will definitely be working on harder variations of everything and just a little bit more intensity (in the lead-up to the Olympics).”
After just three years in the senior ranks, Kailani has already won six international medals, including her recent gold – not a bad effort considering that for half of that time she was also studying for her HSC.
“That was the hardest experience of my life because it was so hard to juggle everything, especially because I had to be overseas and train,” she said.
“You can get work and stuff overseas but you kind of need to be in the classroom to get what everyone else is getting (the explanations), so that was really hard. But I was happy that I went to school like a normal person. I had those different experiences in the classroom, and I had friends from school. It all worked out well, and I got through it.
“I’m just lucky that it wasn’t this year (2017) and I finished last year, so for this Olympic season it’s not stress on top of stress.”
After graduating from St Francis Xavier's College, Hamilton, in 2016, Kailani has been splitting her time between training with her coach and choreographer in Los Angeles and competing at events in Australia and around the world. When she is at home, you’ll find her watching ice skating competitions on TV or practising her moves on the same ice where she first learned to skate, at the Hunter Ice Skating Stadium in Warners Bay.
Admitting that she “lives and breathes” figure skating, Kailani said the key to her success has always been the enjoyment she gets out of just being on the ice.
“I never went into the sport thinking that I had to be good in the sport, I just wanted to try it, and I think that’s actually a really good thing.”
“I enjoyed it a lot because it was my own thing, no one was forcing me to get better or anything like that, it was just me having fun, and I didn’t really think about competitions or anything like that.
“Once I started competitions I think I was just the type of personality that I wanted to win all the time. I was pretty greedy, and I still am, nothing could stop me.
“But I just enjoyed it at the same time and I think the reason I have got this far is because I find it fun and I still do.
“It’s really, really awesome and I encourage kids to go out and try ice skating because it’s such fun, I wouldn’t do anything else, I wouldn’t pick any other sport – ice skating is the best to me.”
While the “glittery purple skating dress” she got to wear at an ice skating birthday party she attended when she was eight may have captured her initial interest in the sport, Kailani’s love of figure skating goes far deeper than just the costuming.
“It’s definitely a different feeling (to be on the ice). But mostly it’s just that there are so many different emotions that you can experience with it. And there are so many different stories that you can tell when you’re on the ice, especially when you’re doing a routine. You can tell any kind of story that you want just in a routine,” she said.
“You can make people happy; you can make people laugh, you can make people cry. There are so many things you can do with it, and it’s so fun, especially when you’re having a really good training day, you’re always going to be laughing and having a good time when everything’s going well. It’s a good time to try harder stuff.
“Right now I’ve started to try more difficult moves in training just because I can. I want to get better, but it’s fun to me, it’s not really like a job. It is a job – but it’s a fun job. It takes you to so many different countries that I would never usually go to – I’ve got the best life ever.”
With the Olympics looming large this month, that life is wholly and solely focused on ensuring she can put together the best possible performance on what will be the biggest stage of her career so far.
However, when Intouch Magazine spoke to Kailani late last year as she prepared to fly out for another stint of training in Los Angeles, she still hadn’t quite come to grips with the fact she had actually achieved her childhood dream.
“I don’t think it’s sunk in just yet (going to the Olympics). I have little things, I got some of my uniform, some gloves and one of the jackets that we get, I got that, and that’s exciting because the Olympic rings are on it,” she said.
“But I don’t think it is really going to hit until I’m on my way there. I’ve been talking to one of the Olympic coaches that was at Nationals and she was explaining all these things, that was exciting talking to her about that because there were some things that I had no idea we get to do.
“I’m looking forward to the opening ceremony, that’s what I watch every Olympics, so definitely that’s what I’m looking forward to, especially walking out as Team Australia because I’m extremely patriotic and I love everything to do with Australia.
“I love skating for my country. I’m so proud to just to walk out with the flag and everything and our uniforms and all my Aussie teammates and especially because I know them a lot better now because I’ve been on the Olympic Winter Institute team for quite some time.
“I’m looking forward to cheering on my teammates as well; that will be awesome. I’m just really looking forward to that and just supporting Australia.
“Of course now I’m going to the Olympics I will have to figure out a new goal because my goal was just to get to there! I’ll tick that one off in February; my whole life was aiming towards that, so it’s really weird not having something to aim for.
“Now all I can do is the best at the Olympics that I can. That’s the next thing, but after the Olympics, I don’t know, who knows… just get better.
“I said that I’m a greedy person, so I think it’s going to be the first of many (Olympics).
“I’m just happy; I’m having a good time, everything’s great at the moment.”
Kailani with Coach Tiffany Chin
Sure to be sitting on the sidelines in South Korea cheering Kailani on will be her biggest fans and most valuable support network - parents Stephen and Katrina.
The teenager, who credits them as being the most influential people in her life, knows how much she has to thank them for in her journey to getting where she is today.
“I am (the only one in my family that skates), which is kind of odd because usually, people that skate have parents that skate or something like that, but not with me,” she said.
“I think it’s definitely an emotional rollercoaster for them as well because they’re the ones that kind of did sacrifice everything to get me through this sport so I’m definitely so grateful for my parents because without them I wouldn’t even be here.
“I’m so grateful because they’ve sacrificed everything, my mum comes overseas with me, and she doesn’t really have any time to herself as well.
“We’re having trouble getting free program tickets because it’s such a big event, everyone wants to see it. We’ve got short programs tickets, but we’re still working on getting free program tickets, I’m sure we’ll get some, I’ll make sure they’re there.
“I’m so grateful; they’ve given up everything so I hope they can enjoy it. It’s a team effort; it’s not me, it’s the team.”
The Winter Olympics will be held in PyeongChang, South Korea from February 9-25, with the women’s singles figure skating program hitting the ice from February 11.
Visit www.pyeongchang2018.olympics.com.au for more information about Kailani and Australia’s entire Winter Olympics team, or check out her hugely popular Instagram feed @kailanicraine, which currently has 127,000 followers.