Happy Together: The Synchronized Team Skating Championships
It was the end of an era. Assuming of course, that a time span of just over three months qualifies as an “era”.
On this day, the U.S. Synchronized Team Skating Championships would proudly round out the winter sports portion of the “It’s Game Time Somewhere” Tour.
I have to admit that, once actually onsite I’ve enjoyed each and every one of my Ice & Snow events. It was the process of getting to each venue that provided a steady stream of…how do I put this…“opportunities to exhibit problem-solving skills”. Yeah, that’s it – opportunities. Two feet of opportunity one day. Negative 29 wind-chilled degrees of opportunity the next.
So I reveled in the irony that the last Ice & Snow event would take place in the winter wonderland of Ontario. Ontario, California, that is, with its 80 degrees of sunshine bathing at least the outer confines of Citizens Business Bank Arena. Granted, it felt a little odd wearing two layers of clothing (and carrying a third) as I crossed the parking lot, but at least I could be sure that here the ice and chill would be confined to the arena.
Having arrived early for the Collegiate Nationals, The Bird and I took our seats during the latter stages of the Adult Nationals. And in so doing, were welcomed to the confusing lexicon of competition that lives under the umbrella of the U.S. Synchronized Team Skating Championships. In consulting the rudimentary program schedule, we learned that in addition to the divisions listed above, a national title would be awarded in both a Masters and a Senior division.
But here’s the thing – as the day progressed, the skaters in all the divisions looked to be the same age. I’m not exaggerating when I say that if one team each from the Collegiate, Adult, Senior and Masters divisions were lined up, you would be hard-pressed to match team to division.
Intrigued by this, I did some asking around at one of the breaks. Normally the process of acquiring onsite expertise is a bit of a crapshoot. On this day however, information gathering was like shooting fish in a barrel, for wandering all over the concourses, both inside and out, were women bearing medals won earlier in the Championships. And who would know the rules better than one of the competitors?
What I learned from a conversation with a particularly accommodating group of athletes was that in order to be in the Collegiate Nationals you must be an enrolled student. For a team to compete in the Adult Nationals, it must be made up entirely of skaters that are at least 21 years old – with the majority of the team over the age of 25. For teams in the Masters Nationals, the minimum age is 25, with a majority of skaters over 35 years of age.
OK, so far so good. But then this – a skater in the Senior Nationals can be as young as 14, as long as they have passed “novice” status in a field test. And here’s the kicker: The top two teams in the Senior Nationals represent the U.S. in the ISU World Championships – the pinnacle of competition in the sport. Huh?
This struck me as AARP lobbying taken to an extreme. But who was I to argue with the gold medal hanging from around the necks of my semi-captive panel of experts?
The one thing that was clearly shared by all divisions in the Championships was a palpable love of competing as a team. Synchronized skating is not an NCAA-sanctioned sport, even though it carries varsity status at a number of universities. And while the sport does fall under the umbrella of U.S. Figure Skating, the national governing body that is part of the U.S. Olympic Committee consortium, it is not yet included in the Winter Olympics – and therefore not heavily funded.
Net/net – these athletes pay to play, for the most part. And ice time is not cheap. On top of that is the commitment of time required for the pursuit of excellence in skating, both individually and as part of a large choreographed team. It is impossible to oversell the importance of the latter, and not just from a purely competitive standpoint.
These women skate in tight formations, in both directions. Often, one athlete is skating backward, directly on course for a teammate who is also skating backward at her. It must take a lot of trust to know that your teammate isn’t going to take that one extra step or spin. And that kind of trust only comes from a lot of practice, during which more than a few unintentional body checks are no doubt delivered. Particularly chilling to consider as I watched, was the potential consequences of one skater’s face being in the wrong place at the wrong time when a teammate lifted her skate into the air.
Yet in spite of the cost, the sacrifice of time, the risk of injury and the assumption of step-sister status within both the NCAA and the U.S. Figure Skating Association, these women were all simply thrilled to be here. The looks on their faces at the completion of their performance was priceless, as was their reaction on the podium when their scores came in – no matter where in the standings that score placed them.
It was authentic. And it was heart-warming to watch.
For the most part, the schools that had proceeded through regional qualification to earn a spot in the Collegiate Nationals were those that you would expect to see. The lineup was dominated by large universities from Frost Belt locations. But one qualifier drew more than its share of “Huh? Where’s that?” from the crowd – the Ice Effects from Oswego State.
Known more precisely as the State University of New York at Oswego, this small Upstate institution sits directly on the shore of Lake Ontario. I have been to Oswego State. I have been to Oswego State in the winter. I still have nightmares about eight-foot walls of snow and winds so strong that sidewalks at the school are outfitted with rope handrails to help people remain upright while negotiating their way across campus.
Needless to say, I was pulling hard for the Ice Effects. They were dressed in pink and black (actually fuchsia and black, according to The Bird), and much to my delight, they performed to an upbeat mix of U2 songs. And bless their hearts – in this strange foreign land of sunshine, warmth, and dry pavement, they…well, they didn’t finish last.
The University of Wisconsin sent a talented group of athletes. Unfortunately, they also sent a choreographer who was a refugee from Off Off Broadway. Thus the team’s routine was inexplicably done to a medley of songs and soliloquies, obviously taken from a dramatic play. It must have been hard to impress an audience and a panel of judges while trying to skate to someone angrily reciting poetry. Sure enough, two girls fell, and as they scrambled to get back into the team’s rhythm, they had to have felt a little bit like they were being yelled at by Vincent Price.
When Miami University took the ice, we didn’t have to be told that they were the defending champion – or that they had won 12 previous national titles. It was clear in the way that they carried themselves. And it didn’t matter that in a twelve-team competition they had drawn the tenth performance slot – one not normally known for its high recall value. They brought down the house.
They were crisp. They were athletic. They exuded fun.
And they clearly did everything that judges like to see done (whatever that is), because when it was over, their score of 96.16 was nearly 11 points higher than that of second-place Michigan State.
As I peeled off clothing in preparation for heading outside, I felt a wonderful pang of regret that has grown familiar over the past year. This was the last event on the IGTS Tour that would serve as my introduction to a new sport. The last time I would be delighted by yet another unique and fascinating way that people seek to test their skills and compete for the sheer love of competing.
I’m going to miss being clueless about little things like…well, like the rules of the game I’m watching. But mostly I’m going to miss asking an informed observer to explain them to me, and sensing the passion that they feel for their sport when they do so.
Next Up: The Pre-Madness of College Basketball’s Conference Championship Week