Before Harley Windsor and Katya Alexandrovskaya, most Australians’ go-to memory of an Aussie on ice-skates was Steven Bradbury’s incredible last-to-first gold medal in speed skating at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.

There was plenty of hard work in that story — and plenty of good luck too.

In many ways, however, the combination of Harley and Katya in pairs figure skating for Australia was an even more unlikely tale.

Two people from vastly different cultures and backgrounds, with little shared — not even a language — except the love of their sport and a determination to win, going on to stun the establishment, making history and an unlikely place at the Winter Olympics.

It sounds like the proverbial Hollywood movie script, but their Olympic story was real. There was nothing fake or exaggerated about their drive or their willpower to withstand the endless physical exertion and repetition on the ice or the injuries or the loneliness or the moments of doubt.

A figure skating pair stand on the ice smiling, holding bouquets and wearing gold medals around their necks after a competition.
Figure skaters Harley Windsor (right) and Ekaterina Alexandrovskaya provided one of Australia’s most unlikely sporting stories.(Getty Images: International Skating Union / Joosep Martinson)

And the pain was real too. All too real.

Their story did not end in a gold medal, but it did end — and the loss of that final chapter remains fresh today.

Harley Windsor sits in a chair, facing the camera.

“Honestly, I couldn’t tell you at what point it went wrong. And yes, maybe some people could have helped more or done this more, or you know … I don’t know, I don’t want to blame anyone,” he says.

“I guess a lot of people were like, ‘Oh, how could you not see any of this you know? Like you should have like done this and you should have done that and blah, blah, blah, blah’.

“At the end of the day they can all go f*** themselves because — no-one was there, so no-one really knows the full story besides me … and Katya.”

This is the opening scene in the new ABC documentary, Harley & Katya.

The film looks at two young lives, delves into a sport that few Australians know, and lays bare the elements that go into a life spent chasing a dream — and the price that can be exacted.

Lacing up the skates

The life of an aspiring Olympic skater – or an aspiring Olympic anything — is a series of challenges of varying intensity.

The Russian Federation, like the USSR before it, takes Olympic sport extremely seriously. Kids are identified or talent-spotted by seven years of age or even younger, and funnelled into clubs.

Coach Andrey Khekalo puts it bluntly.

“When kids are accepted into these clubs, it’s no longer a hobby,” he says.

“Ice rinks and gyms are very expensive, the government pays for it all.”

Russian children
Young girls watch on during a performance at the Russian Grand Prix of Figure Skating in Moscow. A lot of time and money is spent on kids once they have their talent identified.(Getty Images: Sefa Karacan)

Ekaterina ‘Katya’ Alexandrovskaya was born on January 1, 2000. A little over four years later, she started skating, and her first coach, Inna Goncharenko, was impressed with the tiny Russian girl from the start.

“She was so swift, with her little feet … An absolutely fearless little person,” she says.

As for the guts and lack of self-preservation required to ride the sporting bumps and spills in search of victory? The young Katya had it.

“This girl was courageous,” Goncharenko says. 

“She loved to win.”

In interviews, an older Katya recalls the early days.

“I remember my first competition — I took second place because I fell doing my triple jump,” she says, laughing.

“If I hadn’t fallen from that triple, I would have been first.”

The Russian system offers life-changing chances — but not for long.

“At about age 10 is when most children get dropped,” Goncharenko says.

“And those who conquer those milestones can then try to compete and strive for the top.”

It’s no real surprise snow and ice sports have the same cachet in Russia as cricket in an Australian summer.

Khekalo spells it out: “For those that make it, skating is a ticket to fame and fortune”.

It’s the best part of 15,000km from Moscow to Rooty Hill in Sydney’s western suburbs, where Harley Windsor grew up.

A tall young man stands with arms folded leaning against a car in front of his suburban home in western Sydney.
When he was younger, Harley Windsor would leave his home in Rooty Hill in the pre-dawn hours to make the bike and train journey to Canterbury Ice Rink.(Getty Images: Cameron Spencer)

Windsor comes from an Indigenous family — he is Ngemba Weilwan on his mother Josie’s side, while his dad Peter is Kamilaroi from Moree in NSW’s north-west.

A give-it-a-go kind of kid, Harley was quick to play games at home or traditional dance on stage or riding bikes or in-line skating. Movement was a constant.

At age eight, he was with his mum in the car when they spotted an ice rink in the south-western Sydney suburb of Canterbury.

They checked it out and he was soon on the ice … and something extraordinary happened.

“I could see Harley zipping across the ice, back and forwards, back and forwards,” Josie says.

“And I called him over and I said to him, ‘Harley, I didn’t know you could ice skate.’ He said, ‘I didn’t know I could either, mum’.”

It was joy, and excitement, and a new opportunity all in one.

Unlike the Russian system, however, there was no centralised funding stream for talented eight-year-old skaters in Australia.

If you wanted to get better you needed help from your family, determination, plenty of time and a boatload of energy.

The search for a pair

In Katya’s early teens, her mum took her to Andrey Khekalo’s pairs training centre, chasing a professional career.

The pressure was on. As Russian Olympic coach Nina Mozer puts it, “she [Katya] did not have a Russian partner who could take her to the podium”.

Katya would later talk of how close she felt to Khekalo, despite the struggles.

Katya (far right) as a 13-year-old in 2013, training with other rising Russian ice skating stars.(Instagram: @_alexandra_panina_)

“Andrey Khekalo supported me during challenging times,” she said.

“When you are a teenager, you are happy one minute, the next minute you want to jump off the balcony.”

In Australia, Harley was making a change as well, joining Galina and Andrei Pachin, who had been Russian pairs skaters, then coaches, before moving to Australia.

“Galina, she was like my second mum. I saw her more than I did my own mother for ages … She was the one that sort of got me from doing two double jumps to triples,” Harley says.

The big problem was finding a partner for Harley.

“There was one young girl, when Harley’d throw her up in the air, she was so scared coming down because he’d throw her up too high. So she pulled out,” Josie says.

Like Katya, Harley was struggling. Then the Pachins decided to take the search to Moscow.

“Andrei called me up at like three o’clock in the morning and was like, ‘If you still want to skate in pairs, then you need to come to Russia’,” Harley says.

“I was like, ‘f*** it.’ A week and a half later I was on a plane to Moscow.”

Andrei Pachin took him to Khekalo’s rink. Out on the ice Harley, who spoke no Russian, met Katya, who spoke no English. Just like that, they were partners.

Mozer went to the Figure Skating Association of Russia and told them she had a good pair. But they laughed off the notion of a Russian girl pairing with an Aussie boy.

“And I said, ‘We need to let the girl go so that they could compete together’. ‘No problem at all’,” Mozer says.

Now it was Katya’s turn to shift continents.

“I must admit, I was scared to go to Australia. At first, I didn’t even understand whether it was Australia or Austria,” she says in recording.

The Pachins invited the then-16-year-old to Australia to train with Harley for three months.

Skating world, meet Harley and Katya

Belinda Noonan, then at the Olympic Winter Institute of Australia (OWIA), got the call to come out and watch them.

What she saw blew her mind.

“They are amazing. They’re like, world level now,” Noonan recalls.

“Watching them skate together was like they’d been together for two or three years.”

The pair needed help and funding — and to get funding, they had to compete.

A figure skating pair hold hands as they build up speed moving across the ice.
How it started … Ekaterina Aleksandrovskaya and Harley Windsor in their first-ever junior event in the Czech Republic in 2016.(Getty Images: International Skating Union / Joosep Martinson)

Their first event was in the Czech Republic in August 2016, after a total of eight months together.

They came eighth, scoring 137.05. They had potential, but they had a way to go.

“It wasn’t that great, we went back to Moscow and we were training, like, day-in, day-out,” Harley says. 

“Drilling ourselves every single day”.

It worked. Three weeks later they were competing in Estonia. They improved their score by 22 points — and they won.

For Harley and Katya, the sporting carousel quickly sped up.

It was South Korea, then Marseilles in France, then Salt Lake City in the US, then Espoo in Finland, then Taipei in Taiwan. Changing countries, working tirelessly, sharpening their act, honing their technique.

Pain turns to pride

By March 2017, the pair were in Taiwan for the Junior World Championships.

The Russians were expected to win.

But Harley and Katya were third going into the final free skate — they performed well, and came off the ice happy.

“There’s still teams to skate, but they were like strong Russian teams. Lifts, jumps, throws, death spirals. There were a few mistakes here and there. And I’m like, ‘Oh my God, you know we got second place at Junior Worlds’,” Harley says.

Then the next scores came up.

An Australian figure skating pair stand with their coach smiling with arms raised acknowleding the crowd after a win.
Harley and Katya were not expected to win, but they kept their composure and nailed their routine at the World Junior Figure Skating titles. (Getty Images: International Skating Union / Atsushi Tomura)

“We were still in first. And I was like, ‘Oh, when’s the last team skating. Then we realised the event’s finished. And I looked at like, Katya and I looked at Andrei and we were like, ‘did we just win?’,” he says.

The Russians were not happy.

Nina Mozer was told that the Russian Federation would no longer let her athletes represent another country.

“I was like, ‘guys, I told you they are going to be a good pair, but you didn’t listen’, she says.

The unlikely pairing had taken on the best juniors in the world, and beaten them. Two months later the Olympic Winter Institute of Australia — an organisation that helps support and develop elite winter sports athletes — gave Harley and Katya season funding of $59,000. The financial struggle was over, and they could focus on their skating.

Other battles were just beginning, however.

Trusting each other

It’s one thing when you’re a solo skater, and it’s all down to you — every move, every muscle, every bit of speed to achieve escape velocity and launch into the air, every twist, every twizzle and every landing are your responsibility.

But in a pair, it’s like a high-wire act on ice.

You rely on each other — to be in total synchronicity, for your bodies to remember each move so you don’t have to, to have the same level in performance so that the routine is believable.

A male figure skater braces himself as he holds his female partner by one hand as she leans backward close to the ice.
Pairs skating involves a great level of trust between partners, particularly for the female skater when doing the death spiral. (Getty Images: International Skating Union / Joosep Martinson)

He has to be the anchor, he has to get the force right, to throw her across the ice safely, to lift her high in the air and give the illusion to the judges and fans he can hold her there forever.

She has to be like an acrobat on skates, defying gravity and fear, nailing the right number of spins, and timing it right to stick the landing on the blades.

She has to deal with incredible force on a small body, taking the risk — such as in the ‘death spiral’ move — while being the lead actor in the drama and providing the emotional focal point. It’s a lot to fit into three-and-a-half to four minutes.

At its best, skating is transcendent — a work of art and pure feeling that brings crowds to their feet and leaves fans (and even commentators) in tears. When it goes wrong, it can end medal chances, or even careers.

A figure skating pair react - the male skater smiles and holds his hands out in surprise, while the female skater grins.
For Harley and Katya, it all came together at the right time in the Nebelhorn Trophy, as they sealed a spot at the Winter Olympics.(Getty Images: International Skating Union / Joosep Martinson)

When they got to Germany for the Olympic qualifiers and the biggest skate in their lives, the pressure was on. Before the moment Harley and Katya stood there, holding hands, shaking. Harley remembers what came next.

“They were like, OK, last group, please step to the ice, and, it was really strange, the second I stepped foot on the ice, (he clicks his fingers) — all those hours of training just like, turned on,” he says.

“She knew exactly what she had to do. I knew what I had to do and we were just, bam, bam, bam, bam, bam.”

They sat in the ‘kiss and cry’ area afterwards, their marks came up and the truth tumbled out — a great program had produced a season’s best.

Eyes wide, hands over mouths, they came to terms with the fact they had a spot in the Olympics, the realisation of a dream.

An Olympic storyline – no matter what

They’d qualified for the Olympics, but Katya still hadn’t received her citizenship.

Australian Olympic Committee president Matt Carroll wrote to the Immigration Minister with a letter of support. The minister used their discretion to approve the application.

A male ice skater wearing a green Australian Olympic top lifts a female skater in a gold top above his head.
It was all about the optics as the AOC announced Harley and Katya as Australia’s combination for pairs skating in Pyeongchang.(AAP: Brendan Esposito)

Soon there was a photo-op down at Circular Quay in Sydney to present the new Aussie pair, with Harley hoisting Katya in the air for the cameras.

“It was almost like Katya was a prop rather than a person,” News Corp reporter Julian Linden recalled from the day.

The media interest was high, for the unlikely figure skating pair — the young Indigenous man and the Russian-turned-Aussie — but there was no interpreter to help Katya understand the questions being fired at her.

The media latched on the same angles — in Harley’s case, his place in history as Australia’s first-ever Indigenous athlete at a Winter Games.

“I was running out of ways to say the same answer in a different way,” Harley says.

A young man lies on the floor breathing heavily after an exercise, with tattoos visible on his bare chest and arms.
During his career, Harley Windsor faced questions and comments about his Indigenous heritage.(Getty Images: Cameron Spencer)

“So, I didn’t know what people wanted me to say.”

When Channel Seven made a public presentation of a ticket to Korea for Harley’s mum, Josie, it proved a double-edged sword with online accusations of special treatment.

“[There were] negative comments on social media. There was lots of racist comments and people saying, ‘Oh there must be, he, you know, he’s so white, that there must be something in it for him to say that he’s Aboriginal. It must be money’,” Sharon says.

“He knows who he is. His family knows who he is. His community knows who he is, so he doesn’t have to answer to anybody else.”

The Games and their aftermath

Their official Winter Olympics experience began with a magical night at Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremony.

“When we came into the stadium it was unforgettable. So cool,” Katya said at the time. 

“Besides, I was almost in the first row. In all the photographs there were close-ups of me.”

A group of Australian athletes wearing parkas and beanies smile and wave as they walk at the Winter Olympics opening ceremony.
The opening ceremony at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics was an exciting moment for Katya (bottom row).(Getty Images: Sean M. Haffey)

The goal for competition was to have two clean performances, and make the top 12.

However their short program scored 61.55 — not enough to advance, they finished 18th.

The media quickly moved on.

Katya was asked about who came to support her at the Olympics.

“No-one from the family, no-one came. It’s too far away. The flights are very expensive. Maybe they will come to the next Olympics,” she said.

Back in Russia, Andrey Khekalo was watching.

“This was not a failure as I saw them say in the newspapers,” he says.

Two Australian figure skaters smile and look at the scoreboards after their performance at the Winter Olympics.
Harley and Katya came 18th in Pyeongchang, but they had come a long way in a short time.(Getty Images: Dean Mouhtaropoulos)

“Failure? Don’t you understand, these guys are just newly fledged? They have just graduated from juniors. And you are already saying it’s a failure?”

Ice is not a forgiving surface to work on, especially when you are jumping or being thrown. There’s missed timing, or a stumble, or just the simple pressure on knees and legs of landing again and again.

If it goes wrong, it’s a fall – more often than not, the one falling would be Katya.

“No way I could be a pair girl. That is terrifying to me. Like, the idea of that is insane,” Harley says.

“You know I’m very happy staying on the ground.”

Struggles in strange lands

The pair would split with the Pachins as their coaches, and a new chapter started, heading to Montreal in Canada. The OWIA increased funding to $150,000 — so they had financial support, but now Harley and Katya were on their own, both away from home in a foreign location.

“There might have been enough money to pay coaches and for accommodation and to pay the ice and the travel, but there wasn’t enough money to eat properly because if you can’t earn money, where do you get it from?” Noonan says.

“You know if your parents don’t have money and you’re in another country.”

The pair couldn’t cope – their performances missed the mark, they were adrift, and nothing went right.

They returned to Australia, with Katya working at Canterbury Ice Rink to make some money, staying at two different houses, but finally learning some English.

Olympian Greg Merriman took over as a temporary coach as they set their sights on the next Olympics.

Greg Merriman with his skating partner Danielle O’Brien at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympic. Merriman became Harley and Katya’s coach when they moved back to Australia.(Getty Images: Paul Gilham)

“Harley had made a few comments to me about some weird going ons, but the days where she [Katya] would be at the ice rink and working, she’d be in quite good, good form. But then there were other days where she was just struggling to do anything,” Merriman says.

“There was definitely a history of drinking. I’d been told by people who were at competition with her that, like when it was party time, she’d go, go hard.”

At one point, Noonan made the decision to look in Katya’s skate bag.

“I was shaking when I did it, and I opened the drink bottle and I could smell wine,” she says.

“This is eight o’clock, 8.30 in the morning.”

Help was needed. Noonan sought it from OWIA outreach programs and Sports Australia. She says it took weeks to get one appointment.

Both the AOC’s Matt Carroll and Peter Lynch from Ice Skating Australia say they were not aware of how bad things were.

“This wasn’t just like a thing that happened in like the last few weeks, it accumulated over the last, you know, year-and-a-half,” Harley says.

The deadline to reach some goals to guarantee funding was May 30, 2019, but on May 22 there was a phone call to Noonan. OWIA was pulling the plug, cutting funding back to $40,000.

The final farewell

What proved to be their last performance together was in Las Vegas in 2019 at Skate America. Looking in their eyes before the music started there was not the excitement of early competitions. Katya clattered to the ice off one throw, and failed to keep her footing on another.

Harley’s hands guided her gently down off a lift, then there was one last death spiral, with Katya’s head near the ice — but not too near — and then one last spin together and the finishing pose.

A female figure skater closes her eyes in mid-routine on the ice as her male partner holds her by the leg and waist.
When Harley and Katya performed the free skate at Skate America in 2019, it would be the last time they competed together on the ice.(Getty Images: International Skating Union / Christian Petersen)

There was exhaustion in both their eyes, and tears in Katya’s as they held on together. They spoke quietly to each other, took their bows and left the ice.

In December 2019 they returned to Moscow for one last go at it. They started training with Khekalo in the New Year, but the same month, Katya collapsed and was taken to hospital.

After tests she was told she had epilepsy and that she should not skate again.

Khekalo sent a text to Noonan, saying he had gone to hospital and spoken with the attending physician.

“The doctor told me that for a 20-year-old girl, Katya has a sick liver, sick kidneys, a pulse of always 165, a pressure of 130, positive result for epilepsy, a blood test showed the presence of alcohol in the blood, in addition she constantly takes diuretics drugs that are doping, as well as energy drinks that destroy the liver, and kidneys,” he says.

“Doctor said that epileptic seizures arise from taking pills and drinking alcohol. Her health condition is incompatible with sports.” 

The partnership of four-and-a-half years was over.

Harley’s visa ran out and he had to return to Australia. The Windsors sent messages and flowers, but Katya began to respond less and less.

The stress from the breakdown of Katya’s body and her loss of skating resulted in immense strain — and the COVID pandemic would make things worse.

“This person who has been highly active since the age of four is now isolated,” Khekalo says.

“She was always in the midst of things, there was always something happening. Practice, competitions, training camps all this time. And now suddenly … silence.”

It was July 2020 when the news came. Harley was at his father’s place.

A female figure skater looks up holding a pose in a routine as she holds hands with her male partner in the background.
When Katya died in Moscow at the age of 20, all that was left were the memories.(Getty Images: International Skating Union / Joosep Martinson)

“I got a message from some friend of her mum’s. And I remember trying to call Katya. No answer. Try to call her mum, no answer,” he says.

Katya Alexandrovskaya was dead at the age of 20 – she had fallen from a sixth floor window of a Moscow building. Russian police said there were no suspicious circumstances.

The news devastated Harley, his family and those that had known and worked with her. Asked what she would say to Katya now if she had the chance, Noonan replies:

Loading Instagram content

“I love you. Here is a ticket. Come home. Come back. Here’s the money, here’s the ticket. Come back .… I think about that a lot.”

When a sporting partnership comes to a natural end, there can be pride in goals achieved, and a measure of acceptance of things that didn’t go so well.

When other factors are involved, there can also be regrets and recriminations along with the loss. And sometimes, when the ending is so final, there can be no more conversations to clear the air and the moment is frozen along with the memories.

Harley faces the camera again.

“It wasn’t real at first, like it didn’t seem real. So it was, it was hard,” he says, before breaking down.

His sister Sharon speaks of her brother’s struggles returning to the ice after Katya.

“He went to the ice rink, to Canterbury a couple of times, and, he said they cleared the ice rink for him. He went to get on the ice, and he ended up just sitting on the ice and crying,” she says.

“He would do a turn or something, and think that she was going to be there, and she just wasn’t there.”

Harley & Katya is available to watch now ABC iview.