Sure, figure skating is pretty. It’s also merciless. A year of top-flight coaching and competition costs more than a year at most colleges, and a bad evening can send the value of that investment plunging. “Three and a half minutes and it’s over,” says coach Carol Heiss Jenkins in Christine Brennan’s 1996 book Inside Edge. She’s talking about what it’s like to prepare teenage skaters for a regional competition, their first hurdle on the way to national and international contests — and then to watch them fall. “A whole year. You don’t know why. They don’t know why. But there’s no second chance. There’s no coming back next week.”
So when I went to the New England Regional Figure Skating Championships at Paquette Arena in Burlington’s Leddy Park last weekend, I expected some drama. A lot has changed in skating since 1996. Thanks to a meticulously even-handed and devilishly complex new judging system, skaters now do know exactly why they placed where they did. But that doesn’t change the high stakes.
I was fascinated with figure skating before I tried or even saw it — Noel Streatfeild’s novel Skating Shoes introduced me to the sport’s addictive mix of perfectionist drudgery, risk taking and glitz. As an adult, I’ve played around on the ice for so many years, trying to master a simple scratch spin, that one of the little towheaded grade schoolers I used to see showing off at Paquette Arena — Burlington native Ross Miner — is currently the U.S. Junior Champion.
But this Regionals, the first held in Vermont in more than 20 years, is the first competition I’ve actually attended. Stretched over four days, it’s one of nine contests used to qualify young skaters for the three Sectional competitions, which in turn qualify them for the Nationals in January and, potentially, for the Olympics and other international competitions.
If you watch skating on TV, chances are you’ve only seen Senior competitors. So I was surprised when Victoria Hildebrand, chair of the competition’s local organizing committee and a judge, told me that, at this Regionals, Juniors are the ones to watch. (A skater’s division is determined by a series of official tests that start at Pre-Preliminary and end at Senior.) “A lot of the Seniors are going through their last couple competitions before they retire,” Hildebrand explained. “The Juniors are still advancing their careers.”
Many top Senior skaters don’t have to show up at Regionals or Sectionals because they get “byes” from the U.S. Figure Skating Association based on their previous achievements. Some Juniors do, too — such as Miner. But the 18-year-old, who recently medaled at Junior Grand Prix events in Lake Placid and Croatia, came to Regionals anyway to cheer on his friends.
Miner has shot up to 5-foot-9 since his days at Leddy Park, and he’s articulate for his age — his online bio lists his favorite magazine as The Economist. He was one of two 12-year-olds I interviewed six years ago for an article about figure skating in Vermont; Emily Young of Williston was the other. Since then, both have left the state to live and train in the Boston area, though Young still officially skates for the Vermont Skating Club.
Why leave? “I need a lot of energy around me,” explained Miner on Saturday afternoon. When he started training in Boston, he recalled, “I was crappy, and everyone else was really good.”
Taking the leap into a bigger pond — or rink — was motivating, agreed Kendall Wyckoff, 17, another Junior skater. She’s from Panton, but her move to train in Lake Placid seems to have paid off — she placed fifth in Junior Ladies at Nationals last year. She was back to compete at Regionals again, and was in third place after Friday night’s short program.
In an interview a few days earlier, Hildebrand noted that skaters get an edge by watching worthy rivals. In fact, that’s why the Champlain Valley Skating Club outbid other clubs to host the Regionals this year — a “very expensive undertaking.” “We decided it was time to grow the individual competition [aspect],” Hildebrand said, “and the best way to do that was to expose people to very good skaters.”
Before the “prime-time” Saturday event — Junior Ladies — I watched the Senior Ladies skate their short programs. (Thanks to the bye system and the sport’s gender imbalance, this Regionals had no Senior Men.)
The heated bleachers were well populated but not full. Most of the spectators were clearly skaters and their family entourages, and some had formed informal cheering sections — such as the members of Massachusetts’ Colonial Figure Skating Club, once home to Nancy Kerrigan, dressed in matching blue jackets. Skaters in the stands greeted each new competitor with raucous yells of “Maggie, yeah!” — or, when she messed something up, an encouraging “C’mon, Layla!”
The 22 skaters came out in flights of five, with each sharing the ice for several minutes of practice. I quickly learned this can be more fun to watch than the competition. The heavily made-up young women circled one another like cats, faces grim with concentration, trying their jumps and spins — often with more bold abandon than they showed when they were being judged. Each seemed to be in her own world, but sometimes someone would narrowly avoid a collison and crack a goofy smile.
Two Senior Ladies got a loud hometown welcome: Emily Young and Allison Krein, of the Champlain Valley Skating Club. They ended up placing third and fourth, respectively, at this stage of the competition, but neither did firecracker triple jumps. Looking regal in her all-white outfit, Young turned her double axel (a required element) into a single, while Krein fell on a triple attempt. That’s a long way from Yu-Na Kim of South Korea, who won the World Championships last year with five successful triples.
Of course, jumps aren’t the only element in figure skating, just the showiest — and the most painful. When I asked Miner and Wyckoff about theirs, both mentioned suffering from shin splints and trying to avoid unnecessary stress — “keeping ourselves healthy,” as Miner put it. (He’s doing triple axels this season — that’s three-and-a-half airborne revolutions followed by a landing on a quarter-inch blade.) Wyckoff said many skaters get stress fractures from the “constant pounding.” She’s working on a triple flip, but in competition she sticks to the easier triple salchow.
Nowadays, fear of injury isn’t the only reason skaters play it safe. While waiting for the Juniors to start their final free skate, I asked local coach Martha Harding about the scoring system, which I found impenetrable. Instead of the old-fashioned litany of “5.8, 5.7, 6.0…” skaters now get a single score — “45.86,” say. The highest number wins, logically enough, but I couldn’t help wondering what a perfect mark would be.
Turns out that all depends. Regionals use the new International Skating Union judging system, which was adopted in 2004 in the wake of the Salt Lake City Olympics scandal. It has increased the transparency of the judging process while eliminating much of the subjective bias — and it’s insanely intricate. Along with the six judges who watched each program, I’d noticed another table of people frowning at laptops — the “technical panel.” Their job is to watch instant video replays of the skaters’ “elements” and decide if they make the cut. Based on this intel, the judges give each jump or combination spin its very own score, deducting points for sloppy execution.
So, no longer can a judge give a skater full credit for a triple lutz jump because she didn’t notice he landed on two feet. And no longer can skaters dazzle the judges by attempting stuff they can’t really do. “We’re forcing skaters to not take risks,” said Harding. Now, she continued, skaters add up the value of their footwork sequences — “it’s like a grocery list” — and try to pack their spins with “features,” such as contorted positions. They know they’ll be fined points for falling, for running over their allotted time, even for letting a barrette fall out of their hair.
“We make the kids do the math,” said Harding with a chuckle. And everyone can see the math — complete score breakdowns are posted online.
No wonder skaters seem more free and brash when they’re practicing than when they’re competing. But, as I watched the Junior Ladies — actually teen and preteen girls — I realized that a top-flight competitor can make you forget all about math problems.
It started with Kaci Brandt, a skinny, pants-wearing redhead who positively soared in the air. She landed in first place, then plopped down in the bleachers beside an older girl who was intently consulting the competition’s “live unofficial” scores on her laptop.
Strong competitors came thick and fast — like Keilani-Lyn Rudderham, who did huge double axels, and Sydney Cusack, who strung three double jumps together in a combination. Then there were the Siraj sisters from Boston, one in red and one in blue, who moved to the music rather than scurrying around the rink to keep up with it. Layla, the elder, made mistakes but pulled herself into fifth place. Yasmin, barely into her teens, landed an amazing four triples without breaking her flow.
The last to skate was Kendall Wyckoff, still competing for Vermont. With a sparkly black dress, designed to look like a double-breasted jacket, and her long, ash-blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, she skated a sharply choreographed program to a jazz medley. Wyckoff aced the triple-salchow-double-toe-double-loop, though she fell on her triple toe. It left her about 15 points behind Yasmin Siraj, who won the competition. But it was enough for second place. And it meant that Wyckoff will compete at the Sectionals in Delaware, along with the other top four Juniors.
From Sectionals it’s still a long road to Nationals, let alone international contests (the U.S. can only send two women to the 2010 Olympics). The reality is that, for every Michelle Kwan, there are dozens of talented, hardworking skaters who will end up shelving their Olympic dreams in favor of coaching or college.
When you watch skating on TV, guided by the stentorian tones of Dick Button, it’s easy to see the outcomes as foreordained. But sitting rinkside, where you feel the spring in the jumps and hear the scratch of the toepicks, nothing seems certain.
“It’s annoying to put in a year’s worth of work and have it come down to four minutes,” said Miner, echoing the words of Carol Heiss Jenkins. But in the end, he said, all skaters can do is trust themselves: “I just try get off the ice happy. That’s the only thing I have control over.”
And it sure looked like Emily Young did that on Sunday, when she flew through three double axels on her way to a second-place finish. Afterward, the hometown crowd tossed her so many stuffed animals she couldn’t carry them all. The arena was clammy and the odds against her going to Vancouver were steep, but the jubilation was real.