A Little Skater Who Dreams Big (Meet Elissa Kempisty)

     I sit in the bleachers watching a handful of girls warming up on the ice. They look small but skillful; they jump and spin; they cross the arena in high spirals – in other words, they are getting ready. But then music starts playing, the same music for all competitors. As though on clue, the girls begin to skate to the tune inventing moves as they go. This is an interpretative competition, one of the many events of Annual Skaneateles Invitational. If you participate in an interpretative event, you are supposed to make up your own program to a special tune after only hearing it once. It takes a lot of creativity, plus you need good skating skills to come up with a perfect routine without much practice.

     As I keep following the girls rushed preparation for their impromptu performance, I notice one of the competitors, a delicate-looking girl in a purple dress. Unlike the rest of the skaters, she doesn’t jump or spin; she doesn’t try any footwork. Instead, she merely strokes around the rink appearing deep in thought. A few times, however, she makes a turn, gets on her left forward outside edge and tries an axel. The jumps are fully rotated, yet they are not perfect: you can see the free foot brushing the ice slightly. The girl seems completely unperturbed by her mistakes; she keeps stroking around the arena looking perfectly relaxed.

     After the warm up, the girls are rushed off the ice and then they take turns to skate their new routines. When the girl in purple shows up, I feel a little uneasy. Will she be able to pull off a perfect performance?

     As it turns out, my worries were completely unfounded. The girl skated with flare flying through her footwork, spinning like a top and – surprise – acing her axel!

     On the last day of the competition, we get to talk. The girl’s name is Elissa Kempisty, and she is a preliminary-level skater from Skaneateles Figure Skating Club. Elissa started skating at the age of seven. Back then she took a ballet class, but one day a friend told her about skating, and Elissa decided to check it out. Even though she fell a lot the first time she stepped onto the ice, she fell in love with this beautiful sport instantly.

     Now Elissa is a very dedicated skater, who takes freestyle and dance lessons and practices five times a week for an hour and a half. Sundays she also has synchro practices. Elissa is currently getting ready to move up to the pre-juvenile level. At 2011 Annual Skaneateles Invitational, Elissa competed in nine events: compulsory moves, freestyle, showcase, two dancing events – Tango and Rocker Foxtrot and, of course, interpretation. She also won quite a handful of medals.

     Elissa’s favorite jump is, of course, the axel. Though it took her a whole year to learn it, the tough jump is now consistent. In addition to her interpretative routine, Elissa did two axels in her freestyle program, and they were impeccable.

     “What do you do when you keep falling from the same jump?” I ask.

     “I try it a few times, and if it doesn’t happen, I let it go. Next day it usually comes back.”

    Of course, I can’t help asking Elissa why she didn’t try to perform during her interpretative warm up.

     “I never do it.” She shrugs. “When I did interpretative for the first time, I kept watching one girl during warm up, and it didn’t work well. Perhaps, I don’t want to be influenced by others.” This is how it works. During warm up, Elissa goes over the new routine in her mind. When her turn comes, she skates the whole program from beginning to end. Very interesting! I am not even surprised to hear that Elissa does not particularly like compulsory moves but shines in freestyle – just like Cammie in Skateland series! Elissa has been skating to the same song for three years. Time has come to choreograph a new program, and Elissa says she will definitely have a big say in it. Elissa’s favorite skaters are Alissa Czisny, Sasha Cohen, Evan Lysacek and Meryl Davis and Charlie White.

     Elissa goes to school full time. She is a six-grader at a Montessori school, which means she does not have assigned homework, though she may volunteer to do a certain amount of study at home. Her favorite subjects are math and English. In addition to skating, Elissa takes ballet, plays soccer and skies. She likes hanging out with her friends and doing art projects with her family. She likes pirogi and vanilla ice cream.

     Elissa’s dreams include going to the Olympics one day and maybe landing a quad.

     “I may never land it, of course.” She smiles. “But they say dream big, right?”

      There is another thing Elissa dreams of, which is going to Disney World. She already visited the magical park when she was two, but of course, she does not remember much. So Elissa has set some money aside, which she calls Disney Fund. Now someone gives her money, she makes an addition to the fund, which brings her dream a little closer.

      It is easy to dream of Disney and Olympics in Skaneateles, a truly a magical place that looks especially beautiful on winter nights. Snow muffles people’s steps and swirls in the lights of downtown lights. The lake freezes over and turns into a vast stretch of ice, which makes you think of skating – all the time.

     Dear Elissa, keep dreaming big! All the best to you!

Meet Janet Neil, the Greatest Skating Fan in the World

 

    Good skaters are well known and loved. But how many people realize that there also are great skating fans? The part they play in our sport is often underappreciated. Truly devoted fans don’t merely watch skating on television; they live and breathe skating – just like skaters themselves. They don’t only know everything about their idols; they consider skaters almost part of their immediate family. In fact, skaters and their fans coexist; they kind of feed off one another.

   One of the greatest figure skating fans, if not the best, is the Canadian, Janet Neil. If there was such a thing as an official skating fan club, Janet would be the unopposed president. Every Canadian fan knows her, for whenever there is a competition sanctioned by Skate Canada, Janet is there. If she could, she would follow her beloved skaters all over the world. 

Unfortunately, her salary as a library technician won’t let her do that, however, she did go

 to 1995 Worlds in Birmingham England & to 2007 Worlds Tokyo Japan.

But you know what? Janet doesn’t only support Canadian skaters; her love for the sport knows no ethnic, national of geographical boundaries.

  This year, Janet brought seven national flags to 2011 Skate Canada International competition. Whenever a skater finishes his or her routine, Janet waves their national flag as a sign of respect and recognition. After taking their bows, most skaters don’t proceed directly to the Kiss-and-Cry area. They skate up to Janet to receive their gifts – cute stuffed toys. Janet travels to competitions with an extra suitcase to accommodate those toys that she buys with her own money. She decides which of the toys suits this or that skater best. Sometimes Janet’s gifts turn out to be almost prophetic.

   “I once gave Alban Preaubert a turtle.” Janet smiles. “And guess what? He skated to the piece called Turtle Shoes. It was very appropriate.”

Janet is giving a turtle to Daisuke Takahashi

At 2011 Skate Canada International, Janet gave Daisuke Takahashi a turtle wearing a graduation cap and holding a diploma, and that was the very toy he held in the Kiss-and-Cry area. The next day that particular toy was discussed on several skating forums. A British commentator called Janet a real skating fan.

Daisuke Takahashi is holding Janet's turtle in the Kiss-and-Cry

Canada is a country of frozen ponds and hundreds of indoor rinks. All ice sports are greatly appreciated there; every Canadian child skates. Janet grew up in the small town of Lucan, ON, just 28.1. km north of London, Ont. From ages three to nineteen, she spent her leisure hours skating, just like everybody else. She never competed, but she enjoyed the feeling of gliding and turning. Her sisters skated too, and her older sister gave Janet lessons, which allowed her to participate in local carnivals every year. Even though Janet didn’t become a professional skater, she has carried her love for the sport throughout her entire life. In 1990 she went to her first world’s championship in Halifax.  Since then she has attended every world’s competition that took place in Canada and most Canadian nationals. Skate Canada International is her favorite competition.

    Skaters love Janet. She has received dozens of emails from many of them, including Fumie Suguri and Haruka Imai. If you want to see Janet, you can go on YouTube – she can be seen at the end of every skater’s performance! You will recognize her by the Canadian “fan sweater,” by flags and stuffed toys. For those who don’t know, the Canadian fan sweater is white with red maple leaves, and it is decorated with skating pins. And don’t forget Janet’s wonderful smile, the smile of a person whose love for skating is true and genuine.

Janet with Alena Leonova

So all the best to you, Janet! See you at the next competition!

Alena Leonova, A Tough Cookie

     Figure skating is like a roller coaster ride. One day you are on top of the world, flying through your jumps, soaring through every move of the program. And then comes the next day, when nothing works for you. And if this second phase falls on a competition day, you are in trouble.

     Alena Leonova, 2009 junior world champion, a two-time Russian silver medalist, the girl who finished fourth at last year’s world championships, looked poised to medal at Skate Canada. In fact, she had never skated better. Her programs were beautifully choreographed; she looked fit; and even her hairstyle appeared more sophisticated. Alena hadn’t even taken a much-needed break after the last season – she had done everything to get ready for the upcoming season. Last summer, Alena moved from St. Petersburg to Moscow to work with a new coach, Nikolai Morozov. Nikolai is a talented coach and choreographer, a man who is known for his attention to detail and for his creative choreography. After just a few months together, Alena’s quality of skating has greatly improved. And yet competition is a tough thing: no matter how ready you are, there is no guarantee that you will win.

     On Friday, Alena appeared on ice wearing leggings and a black vest over a white shirt. Set to the music from Pirates of the Caribbeans, the short program looked promising. Unfortunately, Alena’s performance was far from perfect. Alena two-footed the second jump in her triple-toe-triple-toe combination – the jumping pass she can do in her sleep – and singled her double axel. What made the situation even worse was the fact that it was a short program: a set of compulsory elements, where even a small glitch is severely penalized by the judges.  The mistakes didn’t remain unnoticed: the judges only gave the skater 49.75 points, which immediately threw her down to the seventh place.  Naturally, Alena was upset and so was her first coach, Alla Pyatova, who accompanied the skater to the competition. A medal no longer appeared within reach.

     The following day, during the morning practice, the skater looked inconsistent. She kept trying her triple-triple combination, and each time she would two-foot the second jump. The very last attempt resulted in a failure, which isn’t a good sign. It is usually the last element that stays in the skater’s mind. If you have aced it, you feel confident believing that you will do everything beautifully when it counts. This time, it didn’t happen.

     And yet Alena proved that she was not a quitter.  She fought for every move and managed to skate an overall clean program with only a couple small mistakes. Immediately she moved up to the fourth place missing the bronze medal by just one spot.  After her performance, we had an opportunity to talk. I met Alena in the mix zone, the place where reporters bombard skaters with questions the moment they leave the ice. The transition must be hard, for skating a long program takes a lot out of the skater. No wonder, Alena looked tired and somewhat wary, though obviously relieved.

     O.J: Alena, are you happy with today’s performance?

     A:   Well, it’s definitely better than yesterday’s.

     O.J: How did you manage to skate so well after what happened yesterday?

     A:    I made myself forget about the short and focus on the assignment at hand. It worked.

     O.J: I saw you working on your triple-triple combination this morning, and you couldn’t do it right. What would you recommend young skaters who try a jump over and over and keep falling?

     A: If you can’t land a jump for a long time, the best thing is to forget about it for a while. Then it will just happen.

     O.J: How do you like your new program? The fans know you as a ‘naughty girl,’ and this time you skated to a serious piece of music.

     A. It does seem unusual to me. But the more I skate this program the more I like it. I’m beginning to get used to the image of a serious skater. Besides, in my short program I still look mischievous.

      O.J: Do you like your new image more? What will your future programs look like?

     A: It’s hard to tell at this point. Time will show.

     O.J: What kind of skater do your consider yourself? Are you more into technique or artistry?

     A: It’s fifty-fifty for me, I would say. Of course, I like jumping most of all.

     O.J: What’s your favorite jump?

     A: The toe loop.

     OJ: How about triple flip-triple-toe-loop combination? Are you planning to put it into the program?  

     A: Perhaps. It needs to become more consistent.

     O.J: Could you share more about your training with Nikolai Morozov? I know he spends a lot of time polishing his students’ skating skills. One skater even mentioned that Nikolai had changed his back stroking technique.

     A: I don’t know about basic stroking; Nikolai hasn’t worked with me on that. However, I do feel that my skating skills have improved. I feel much more relaxed.

     O.J: Does Nikolai give you private lessons?

     A: No, that’s not the way he works. There are five skaters on ice during practice, and Nikolai works with all of us at the same time.

     O.J: How about ice dancers?

     A: They have their own ice time.

     O.J: It must have been hard for you to move to Moscow and leave your family behind.

      A: You can’t even imagine how hard it is. I don’t know what I would do without the Internet.

     O.J: Are there any traditions in your family?

     A: The only tradition I can think of is celebrating the New Year together. I am looking forward to it.

     Well, Alena, I wish you all the best. I’m sure you will show the world that you are a true champion.

Highlights from 2011 Skate Canada

I’m sure there are a lot of articles about this wonderful competition. I’m going to share my personal impressions that go along with the mere joy of being part of the event. My husband and I attended this Grand Prix event as book vendors. In the meantime, we got to see everything, and I can’t help sharing the whole thing with my readers.

     Watching a competition live is so much better than seeing your favorite skaters on television.  When you sit at the arena, especially in the first or second row, it is almost like being on the ice yourself skating along with your idols. What you feel is absolute amazement, and you start asking yourself, “Is it even humanly possible to do those things?”

     I enjoyed watching practices early in the morning. The lights are dimmed; the huge arena is still half asleep. Except for a handful of devoted fans, the stands are almost empty. Still people’s presence gives life to the arena, for you can hear a smattering of applause here and there. The electricians start testing their lights: a yellow beam crosses the rink; then the light turns blue. Most of the skaters wear their practice outfits, except for the dancers: those always look their best. They are probably right, because the judges are already there. The judges’ scrutinizing eyes, makes the tension almost palpable. The skaters absolutely have to skate great, because the judges opinions are formed right there, even before the competition begins. There are several competitors crossing the rink at the same time, so if one aces the jump his competitor just missed, everybody will notice.

     On the ice, Kevin van der Perren tries to do his quad toe loop. The jump doesn’t happen; he looks worried. Now it is his time to skate his program: his music starts. Kevin soars in the air in a quad attempt and pops it. The skater’s posture telegraphs uncertainty. It is obvious that at this point, all he wants is to go back in time to the start of the program, even though it is a matter of only a few seconds. But the music won’t wait, so he goes through the rest of the moves. His triples look good, though he misses his axel. Once Kevin is done with his run through, he tries the illusive quad again. This time he lands it. Great! Good job!

     Men’s practice turns into a jumping contest. Once the skaters are finished with their run- through, omitting the most difficult jumps, they get really serious. Patrick Chan glides across the rink in perfect crossovers, does a few turns and …there is his quad toe loop. He lands a triple axel next, and it looks almost effortless.

     Kevin van der Perren launches into four triple toe loops in a row. He lands them all and then tries the quad again. He lands it. At that point, it is probably best to let your perfectly trained body send a message to your mind that this jump is not a problem for you. You can land it. The image of a perfect jump, the Gestalt is there, so don’t try to analyze it, don’t think too much!

     In the meantime, Kevin falls from his quad again. He shakes his head in desperation. Skates to the boards, shuffles his feet then circles the arena again. He won’t give up. It is important to finish the practice on a high note. If the last thing you did ended in a disaster, this will be all you think about.

                                                                      Off Ice

     On the concourse, the Chinese pairs skaters Wenjing Sui and Cong Han do their off-ice workout. Their coach is with them. The skaters ignore the surrounding, the people walking back and forth, the curious looks, the distractions. They are perfectly focused. They have brought a few props that help them to tone their muscles, to come to the condition of complete rediness. One of the training devices looks like a rope ladder, and the skaters jump in and out. Then they do a few lifts and finally a throw jump.

     The Chinese skaters are so tiny; looking at the girl, you might think she was ten years old. Yet Wenjing Sui is sixteen, and her partner is nineteen. They are famous for having landed a throw quad axel at a sanctioned competition. By the way, here, in Canada, they also performed beautifully winning silver. It shows that the wonderful tradition of Chinese pairs skating is alive!

     The best in the field though were the Russians, Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov. They were absolutely incredible as they skated to the soundtrack from the movie The Black Swan. The arrangement was quite unusual: I would never have imagined Tchaikovsky’s music sounding so macabre. Yet the skaters managed to share the whole story of a white swan turning into an evil black swan. Tatiana and Maxim skated clean, and their throw jump covered the area of almost twenty feet.  

  As you walk around the perimeter of the arena, you can see a few posters on the wall. Can you guess whom the audience loves the most? That’s right, the support for Japanese skaters is great, and of course, Daisuke Takahashi is one of the best skaters in the world.

     And yet the victory went to Patrick Chan. It was to be expected, of course. No skater can even come close to Patrick when it comes to skating skills. On top of that, the reigning world champion has added a quad to his impressive repertoire of jumps. That made him practically unbeatable. And yet Patrick fell on his quad in the long program and made a few more mistakes. It looked like the two skaters who were ahead of him, Daisuke Takahashi and Javier Fernandez had a chance to keep their lead, although the short program results were very close. Sometimes the stigma that a certain skater can’t be beaten adds to pressure and robs other competitors of much-needed confidence. Besides, in the past, Patrick often won even after falling several times. It didn’t seem fair, so I really wanted other men to win. Javier Fernandez’s quad, the one he did in the short program, really looked the best in the field.  Daisuke, too, looked very strong. And yet their nerves got to them: in the free program, both Javier and Daisuke made a few mistakes, which let Patrick Chan move up to the first place. Besides, Javier’s spins were slow, and he didn’t get a lot of revolutions on his camel spin – probably no more than five as compared to Patrick’s ten or twelve. I think top skaters should really take more time to work on their moves in the field and spins.

     And Kevin van der Perren, the one I rooted for so much, ended up in the eightth place with only 179.21 points as compared to Patrick Chan’s 253.74. The Belgian champion must have tried too hard or perhaps, he had done too many jumps and worn himself out.

     In ladies competition, it was the young Russian prodigy, Elizaveta Tutkamisheva, who won the people’s hearts and the whole competition. The tiny fourteen-year-old not only landed all of her triples, including an incredibly difficult triple lutz- triple toe-loop combination, but skated with grace and maturity. She received a standing ovation, and it was her first international competition on the senior level.

     Akiko Suzuki and Ashley Wagner were the second and the third. Both skated great with true femininity and elegance.

     I felt sorry for Rachel Flat though. She started out so well, and she was in third place after the short program – only .17 behind Ashley Wagner, who was second. I’m sure everybody expected Rachel to at least hold on to a position on the podium. And yet she completely blew it falling from almost every jump. The result was abysmal: last place, with the total of only 128.22 points. Rachel can’t afford missing her jumps: they are her strength. Yet she needs to work more on her grace and presentation.

     There were no surprises in the ice-dancing competition. The reigning Olympic champions, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir were absolutely unbeatable. Their unison is amazing and they skate with such blinding speed that you can hardly notice the steps they do. It is impossible to imagine those two skaters ever making mistakes. They don’t, but the true beauty is in the details: perfect edges; noiseless turns, pointed toes. And of course, a lot of character. On top of everything else, Tessa and Scott look absolutely relaxed, they make their dance look easy.

     Another Canadian couple, Kaitly Weaver and Andrew Poje took the silver, and the Italians Anna Cappellini and Luca Lanotte came in third. A dancing event is always like a beautiful ball with nice music, beautiful costumes, grace and elegance.

     And then came the exhibition gala. Again, almost the most interesting part was watching the skaters get ready for it. Just like on any other day, they went through their routine omitting difficult jumps. They did a few jumps later, but the tension that you could inevitably feel during pre-competition practices was now gone. They skaters obviously enjoyed themselves. The exception was Akiko Suzuki who popped her triple flip-triple toe combination several times. The second jump wasn’t a problem, but the triple flip would turn into a double or a single. Akiko went back to it trying it again and again, and finally, she landed it. Great! Congratulations!

     And then the true fun began as the skaters started working on their final group routine. For that, they were coached by a middle-aged woman, who looked like a good skater. The routine included forward crossovers across the arena, a few toe steps, some jumps and spins and lifts for pairs and dancers. It was interesting to watch the skaters goof around. When their coach asked the men to do a jump, they all performed waltz jumps, which left me surprised. Come on, they can do better than that! But of course, during the actual exhibition, every man did a double axel. It was the same with the girls, who did a couple of elementary spins during practice. Yet when it was time to perform, they were wonderful. Another thing was shoot-the-ducks – an elementary move. The main emphasis, of course, was fun.

     The final touch was Patrick Chan thanking the audience in English and in French. The guy is not only a great athlete, but he is smart too!

                              On the Concourse and in the Mix Zone

     When you are at skate Canada, you don’t even have to be at the arena to enjoy yourself. The air bubbles with energy. Everywhere you go you see Canadian skating fans dressed for the occasion; white-and-red sweaters with Skate-Canada logo, hats, and skating pins. There are Canadian flags everywhere: here, in Canada, people know how to support their skaters.

     This time I managed to interview a wonderful lady, who is truly the best fan in the world. You can read it below.

Donald Jackson, the founder of Jackson skates

On the concourse, famous skaters rub shoulders with the rest of the people. I managed to get my picture taken with the two-times-US champion Alissa Czisny and also with the founder of Jackson skates Donald Jackson.

     And what did I do in the mix zone? I interviewed the Russian skater Alena Leonova. It was for the first time I ever went down to the mix zone, the holy of holies of big competitions, the place where only skaters, coaches and media are allowed to go. I don’t represent any newspaper, but Skate Canada representatives allowed me to talk to a skater. Below is my interview with Alena.

      Thanks to all the skaters and Skate Canada representatives! It was great to be there.

A Golden Skater from Oklahoma/Meet Clarence Robinet

    

     A woman involved in various activities is usually described as someone who wears many hats. Clarence Robinet fits the description perfectly. If she puts a skate on one foot and a ski boot on the other, she would need one more foot to accommodate her dancing boot. I am not kidding. Clarence is an Adult Masters and Senior-level figure skater, an experienced skier, and a competitive Country Western dancer. Now, if you are about to say wow, hold your horses: the story is not over! There is also a .22-caliber pistol in Clarence’s left hand. The petite blonde regularly competes in the USA shooting matches trying hard to get scores that would qualify her for bigger contests. Clarence’s aspirations are high: she hopes to go to the Olympics one day. And you now what? I wouldn’t be surprised if she really reached her goal. 

        I got to know Clarence as a figure skater first. We met at the Philadelphia Areas competition, where Clarence skated in Adult Gold and Masters categories. Soon afterwards, she moved up to Senior.

     Watching adult skaters compete is always fun. I could roughly divide them into two groups. People of the first group put on skates in their twenties, thirties or even later in life for the first time. For adult beginners, every simple move is a challenge. They have to fight their not-quite-so-limber bodies, creeping fear, and the disappointment of not progressing fast enough. The second group consists of individuals who skated in their childhood, hung up their skates as teenagers or young adults and returned to their favorite sport later in life. When on ice, adult skaters with years of childhood experience look much better than most of the skating newbies their age. They have higher speed, better posture and cleaner lines. However as they reminisce about their skating past, they usually sigh ruefully. They can’t forget the glorious days, when they were younger, skated faster, jumped higher and had no fear. The sad truth is that skaters who have returned to the sport usually skate worse than they used to in their childhood or young adulthood.  

     Clarence Robinet breaks the mold. In her thirties, she skates better than she did in her youth.  For this reason, it’s hard to think of her as an adult skater. In fact, it’s impossible to place her within any category. Clarence stands out so much that even before I asked her if she had ever tried pairs skating or ice dancing. I already knew the answer, which was no. An independent woman like Clarence could only be a singles skater. When she is at the arena, she owns the ice; she is the true queen of the rink. Even when she walks around the lobby, her posture is perfect:  back straight, chin up, you can’t help noticing her. Clarence is very friendly; she always smiles; and she will eagerly talk to you. Still you can tell that on the inside, she is hard as steel. Or perhaps, steel isn’t the right word: Clarence prefers a different metal: the gold, of course. It is woven through the fabric of her life showing itself in the color of her blades (gold plated), her hair (golden blond), her dresses ( a lot of them are gold), and of course, the medals– usually gold.

     Clarence was born in France. Her father was very fond of skating and skiing and even landed a few jumps on ice. He put his daughter on figure skates when she was two-and-a-half years old, and since then she has never taken them off. As a child, Clarence pushed herself hard, competed regularly and even medaled at French Regionals. Years passed, and she is still there, still competing, still trying new things, still learning and most of all, still improving. Her recent achievement is the Double Axel – a killer jump with a forward entrance and two-and-a-half revolutions that requires tremendous height and speed and takes a lot out of the skater. Now she is working on her Triple Salchow and Triple Loop.

     Clarence is a perfectionist, who doesn’t want to settle for anything less than gold. If we picture her competitive record as a target practice sheet, we will clearly see that the young woman hits the bullseye almost every time. Some of Clarence’s results posted on her website include the following:

*2009 Oklahoma Governor Proclamation Recipient: 30 July ’09 proclaimed as “Clarence Robinet Day” in OK

*2011 U.S. Olympic Games of America Masters Champion

*2011 South Atlantic Regionals Champion

*2010, 2009, 2008, 2007 Sooner State Games Champion

*2009 U.S. Olympic Games of America .22 Pistol Women’s Champion

*2011, 2010, 2009, 2008 Sooner State Games .22 & 9mm Pistol Women’s Champion

*2011 Country Dance/Line Dance World Vice-Champion

     Clarence’s last achievement is three gold medals at 2012 South Atlantic Non-Qualifying Regional Championships. Her extremely challenging freestyle program included an axel and five double jumps. When she competed in a Senior spinning event, she executed a camel spin, a death drop and a hair-cutter spin. Clarence has great technique: deep edges, beautiful extension, breathtaking speed and good height on jumps. In addition, Clarence has something extra that separates a true performer from someone who merely goes through the motions. Good technique is important, but a really good skater makes the audience hold their breath, stand still and watch. When Clarence glides across the rink in a perfect spiral position, you can’t take your eyes off of her. A spark in her eyes, a smile –perfect joy, true happiness. You can tell that she is excited to be out there.

     Something funny happened during Clarence’s artistic competition. She had just completed her Ave Maria program, when the announcer suddenly told her to approach the judges’ table. It was a shocker: judges normally don’t talk to skaters during competitions. When a slightly ruffled Clarence stepped off the ice, she explained to me that the judges had politely rebuked her for skipping the warm-up.

     “But I don’t need to warm up before an artistic program!” Clarence shrugs. “I really don’t!”

However, a warm-up is a mandatory part of every competition; a skater has to do it whether she wants it or not. But even so, how many people could go out there cold and skate a perfect program?

     Clarence currently lives and works in Oklahoma City teaching French and coaching skaters of all ages and levels. As for her own training, she spends up to an hour-and-a-half on ice every day.

     “But you know what? Sometimes even forty-five minutes are enough,” she says. “It’s all about quality.”

     Clarence feels that people of Oklahoma need to learn more about figure skating. Traditionally, it’s hard for people to think of gliding on ice in a state where the temperature reaches 114 degrees in summer time.

     “So what? There are two rinks in Oklahoma City,” Clarence happily says.

     When Clarence was a teenager growing up in France, one of her dreams was to join the Armed Forces. She sent in an application in the French Air Force and was turned down. Why?

     “I don’t know. They never give you the reason,” Clarence says.

     She didn’t give up her dream that easily. She moved to the United States and joined the US Army for almost a year. It was there that she fell in love with target shooting as a sport. She also owns a few titles in Pistol Shooting that she earned with her .22 and her 9mm Pistols.

     Clarence became a proud U.S. Citizen in March 2006 and she has a Master’s degree in German and an Associate’s in English. Clarence is fluent in French, English, German and Italian. Her Spanish is also good, and she knows some beginning Russian. Unfortunately, she doesn’t get to practice those languages very often, and when you don’t use a language, you tend to forget it. However, Clarence didn’t because she found a solution: she uses different languages to talk to her dog. By the way, her Yorkie has a very big part in Clarence’s life: he travels to all competitions with her.

     Dear Clarence, may your whole life be golden! I wish you all the best!

One Light/ Meet Emma Ross

                                                             We, the world, need to wake up and feel the warmth of           

                                                             the sun on our backs and the light up ahead (Emma Ross)

     Emma Ross is a kindred soul – an author and a skater. I first met her three years ago, at a competition in Pittsburgh. Back then, the sweet nine-year-old sent me her book. It was a little fairy tale describing bad kids who bullied a girl and a magical cloud throwing candy and cookies down from heaven. I enjoyed the book, and I felt drawn to the girl – probably, because we have so much in common.

     Emma first tried to write when she was six, and since then she has never stopped. Back in early childhood, Emma wrote stories and her friend illustrated them. Younger kids like to add illustrations to their books; for them, the combination of words and images is very important. In my childhood, I did the same.  This time, however, Emma gave me a much more mature piece – a story about World War II called One Light. With sincerity and excitement, Emma writes about a little girl, whose childhood unfolds during the perilous times of war.  I was impressed at how a twelve-year old could write about something that had ended decades before she was born. The story is written from the first person, and you can sense the presence of the author, as though she had been there herself. In my opinion, that is a sign of real talent. A successful story is a true event transformed by the power of imagination; it is a fantasy rooted in reality. 

     Well, I almost forgot about a very important part of Emma’s life, which, is, of course, skating. At the age of five, the little girl first stepped onto the ice. She liked it so much that her mother and she decided to try figure skating. What first was a random fun activity turned into a serious passion. Now Emma practices four times a week, and she is particularly fond of jumping. Her axel is already there: in fact, I saw it with my own eyes! Emma’s favorite jump is the loop, but she doesn’t care much about the salchow. Even so, she is working on her double salchow, and I have no doubt she will land it soon. Emma says she prefers jumping to spinning, but she still placed second at a spinning competition in Pittsburgh. Emma is also working on her novice moves. When Emma is on ice, she moves with confidence and determination. Her skating well under pressure can probably be attributed to the little author’s ability to concentrate on the assignment at hand. “I just forget where I am and focus on skating,” Emma says.

     Emma goes to school full time. Her favorite subject is English (can you guess what was my favorite subject when I was her age?), but she doesn’t like science that much. Emma is currently reading Gone with the Wind and Romeo and Juliet (very, very impressive!). With her busy schedule, Emma still finds time for clarinet lessons and ballroom dancing. She also enjoys hanging out with her skating friends. Emma also has a brother, who is four years younger.

    “We get along very well,” Emma says.

     Below is Emma’s poem from her book One Light.

The world turns dark,

I am alone,

They say goodbye,

I say hello,

To the darkest days,

In the shelter,

From the bombs,

And I hope you have a home,

For an hour,

The bombs will strike,

And death will beckon,

But I won’t budge,

The world itself,

Is plunging to its doom,

Yet I know it is to happen,

My mind won’t believe,

My doom could be,

Right behind me,

All of the world,

Will explode,

No one will be safe,

But all I want to do,

Is lie down and close my eyes,

And know that I am safe;

A week later,

I see the sun,

I walk upon the beaten trail,

Where so many others before me,

Have failed to continue on,

Then I see,

The light ahead,

And try to take,

Just one more step,

Yet I fall,

Plunging down,

And no more light,

Is seen from within. 

Well, all the best to you, sweet little author and skater! I hope to hear from you soon.

Turning Butterflies into Lions / Meet Jacey Albaugh

     Jacey Albaugh finished her freestyle program to an excited cheer from the audience. High, effortless jumps, fast, centered spins – everything was perfect. I caught up with her in the lobby after her event was over, and we had a talk. Big brown eyes, a perky ponytail, the cute juvenile-level skater appears small and delicate.  That is when looks can be deceptive. Jacey Albaugh is tough beyond her years, and she is very determined. In addition to being an accomplished skater, Jacey goes to school full time and she also rides horses competitively. On weekends, Jacey spends a lot of time with Trixie, her female pony. Weekdays are all about skating. Jacey skates six times a week for four or five hours daily.

     Jacey just passed her juvenile freestyle test, and she is working on senior moves in the field – an impressive achievement for an eleven-year-old. Tracey can already do all double jumps except the double axel. There probably is a connection between Jacey’s love for horses and her excitement about doing multi-revolution jumps on ice. In the future, the girl would like to become a professional rider. Professional riders do show jumps, some of which are six feet high and five-and-a-half feet wide. Perhaps, when you learn to fly that high, trying to stay on a horse’s back, doing a double on ice appears far less scary.   

     “I do like jumping,” Jacey says with a smile. “My favorite jump is the double flip. I don’t like the double lutz that much though. And I really don’t care about spinning.”

     A skater’s life is extremely demanding, even when you are young. Jacey competes seven times a year. Naturally, skating in front of a panel of judges is quite a nerve-wrecking experience.

     “No problem,” Jacey says. “When I have butterflies in my stomach, my coach always tells me to turn them into lions. It always works.”

     Jacey has an older sister, who skates at the novice level. As busy as she is, Jacey still finds time to hang out with friends. She is now in the sixth grade, and her favorite subject is science.

    It’s probably too early for Jacey to decide what exactly she wants to do with her life. But I have no doubt that she will be successful in everything she tries. So all the best to you, charming skater and rider!

Skating and Gymnastics – Similar or Different? /Meet Alan Emerick

     Adult skating is seldom taken seriously. People who started skating in their twenties, thirties or later are often looked down on. The most common words used to describe adult skaters are slow and tentative. However, Alan Emerick, a member of the Body Zone Figure Skating Club, defies the old mindset. When you look at him executing double jumps and flying camels, you may think that the guy skated competitively as a child. That’s not the case. Alan took up skating only seven years ago, when he was forty three. From a beginner, who struggled with basic moves, he has grown into a gold-level skater – a man who medaled several times at Adult Nationals.

     Alan skates six days a week for a minimum of an hour and a half. He also practices pairs skating with Heather Hilgar, a member of University of Delaware figure Skating Club. Last April, they competed at Adult Nationals.

Heather Hilgar and Alan Emerick

            “Of course,” a skeptic might say. “He is a former high-level gymnast. It’s much easier for him to do jumps and spins than for someone who isn’t athletic. ” In his youth, Alan seriously pursued gymnastics and even competed internationally. While it would be natural to assume that his flexibility and overall athleticism contributed to his success as a skater, things are not that simple.

     “Actually, gymnastics both helped and hindered me,” Alan says. “Of course, any new sport is easier for somebody whose muscles are strong and limber. Yet the technique used in figure skating is completely different from what I was used to as a gymnast. For example, in gymnastics your body moves as a single unit. A figure skater, however, always skates over one side – either the right or the left. The two sports are also different in the way you approach jumps. When you do multi-revolution jumps on ice, crossing your legs is an absolute must. Gymnasts, however, never cross their legs in jumps. Actually, it is easier to initiate a jump on ice because you always approach it from an edge. Gymnasts, on the other hand, never rotate early. If they do, they may easily get injured. Because of these differences, old muscle memory often gets in the way of learning new skills.”

     In addition to skating practices, Alan does weight conditioning, yoga and flexibility training. “While a strong limber body is essential for both sports, you need a different kind of flexibility for skating,” Alan says. “For example, in men’s gymnastics you don’t really need open hips, yet in skating it’s a big plus.”

     Figure skating is also a family sport for the Emericks. Alan’s wife Jill is a serious skater too. Though she took up the sport later than her husband, her progress is also impressive. Jill recently competed at Adult Nationals as a silver-level skater and she came in fourth. In the future, Alan and Jill may take up ice dancing as a couple. 

Jill Emerick

     What advice would Alan give to other adults who are equally passionate about figure skating? “Definitely give it a try,” he says. “There is something very special and appreciable about skating. The whole feeling of gliding freely across the ice gives you tremendous satisfaction. You don’t really need to do difficult jumps or spins to enjoy the sport; skating is a good exercise in itself.

     “Figure skating is sometimes considered a dangerous sport. Yet USFSA has a very structured program for adults, which allows you to move gradually from one skill to another. Adults are often afraid of falling down and getting injured. Let it not keep you away from getting involved in your favorite sport. You can slip and fall anywhere: on the snow – even on a hard floor. Actually, falling on the ice is less painful, for the smooth surface breaks your fall. The most dangerous thing in skating is…” Alan smiles, “…keeping your eyes open for other skaters.”

     Thank you, Alan, for being an inspiration to other adults! I wish you many more victories.

Shakespeare, Hebrew and A Handstand / Meet Jenna Teplitzky

     A skating program is a multi-layered message. First of all, there is music that tells you about the composer’s intention. Second, there is the character of the program itself. And then, finally, there is the skater’s own personality, something that is inevitably manifested through every step. The stronger the individual, the more unique is her skating. As I watched Jenna Teplitzky’s artistic program, I couldn’t shake off the thought that the girl was distinctive in her own charming way. Jenna is serious, yet funny; studious yet mischievous. In addition to the standard set of jumps, spins and steps, her program included a handstand – an unusual and quite dangerous element. Unfortunately, I couldn’t catch it on camera, so Jenna did it off ice at my request.

     After the end of the event, where Jenna placed second, I had a chance to talk her. It wasn’t the first time we met; I remembered her from other competitions. Once you meet Jenna, you will never forget her. Her huge brown eyes stare at the world with the inquisitiveness of a researcher. Her mind appears to be active all the time, probing, learning.

         Jenna often carries a book with her. In Laurel, I asked her what she was currently reading.

     “The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins,” followed the answer. With its story set in a post- apocalyptic world, the trilogy is not an easy choice for an eleven-year-old. Yet I wasn’t surprised knowing that two years ago, Jenna had been avaricious for Shakespeare’s plays.

     “The Twelfth Night was my favorite,” she said nonchalantly.

     I was also impressed that Jenna had read The Dairy of a Wimpy Kid in Hebrew. Hebrew is the language I teach, so the fact that a little girl knew it so well impressed me greatly. Jenna learned the language at a Jewish Day School.  After her Bat Mitzvah, she is going to visit Israel. I am sure she will enjoy the trip. Being able to talk to the people in the language of the land will surely add to the overall excitement. 

     Currently in sixth grade, Jenna goes to school full time; and she is a very good student. She is particularly fond of history, and her dream is to become either an author or a defense lawyer. She is also very serious about her skating, practicing four times a week. Now she is working on getting more consistency on her double lutz.

     This summer, Jenna is going to a Jewish camp. Afterwards, she will “skate like crazy.”  I am sure she will do her best in everything she will ever try. So all the best to you, Jenna! I wish you many wonderful achievements.

Skating Is His Life/ Meet Marcus Mimidis

          His busy schedule includes three hours of skating every day and at least an hour of off-ice training. Marcus also takes ballet twice a week, a stretching class, plyometrics and conditioning. Add to it his coaching responsibilities – Marcus teaches a learn-to-skate class at Lancaster Ice Rink – and you will see that the boy eats, breathes and sleeps skating. “A fanatic,” a skeptic would say shaking his head. A true believer would disagree. “A true champion.”
     I first saw Marcus five years ago. The tiny thirteen-year-old soared across the rink landing double jumps. They looked big and flowing, yet effortless. Even back then, I was sure I was looking at a future champion. Now the sprightly eighteen-year old competes at the junior level. I watched his performance at May Day Competition in Laurel, MD. On ice, Marcus looked cool and composed. He admitted that the excitement of competitions had little effect on him.
     “How do you handle all the pressure?” I asked him.
     Marcus looked pensive. “I try to breathe – that’s very important. When I skate, I try to relax and do one thing at a time. Actually, I like performing in public.”
     Marcus’s jumps looked big and solid. He already has all of the triples under his belt plus the triple flip-triple-toe loop combination and the triple-lutz-triple toe loop combination. He is currently working on his triple axel and quad salchow. It means that he will be in the big league pretty soon.
     “How long does it take you to land a new jump?” I asked.
     “I find new jumps relatively easy to learn,” Marcus admitted. He thought for a moment. “I would say I need a couple of months to get a new jump down.”
     “How about footwork?” I asked. The reason I was interested in that particular aspect of skating was that I had just finished watching the world’s championships on icenetwork. The star of the competition was, of course, Patrick Chan, whose incredible skating skills had made him practically unbeatable.
     “Definitely,” Marcus said answering my question whether a high-level skater could significantly improve his mastery of the blades: stroking, flow, the depth of edges. “It all comes down to softer knees. I’m sure it’s an achievable goal. I take a stroking class every week concentrating on deeper knee bend.”
     This summer, Marcus is facing a few changes in his life. Following his high-school graduation, he is going to move to Wilmington, DE, where he can skate full time. For years, he has been commuting to the rink, where he is coached by Priscilla Hill and Carl Kurtz. He is planning on taking one college course next year, but most of his time will be devoted to skating – his passion. 
     “Being as busy as you are, do you even have time for friends?” It was hard   for me to imagine a teenager spending most of his waking hours at the rink.
     Marcus smiled. “Oh, I have a lot of friends. Of course, most of them are skaters, so we have a lot of things to talk about.”
     Busy as he is, Marcus still finds time for reading. His favorite author is John Grisham. He also likes travelling around the world, and he has already been to Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Greece. No, his trips weren’t skating related; he simply toured those countries. But I have no doubt that Marcus’s skating career will take him to many more interesting places. He will see more sights, meet more people and, most of all, show the skating world how a small skinny boy from Lancaster, Pennsylvania developed into an elite-level skater. I really believe these things will happen very soon.