Don't let the frilly, sequined costumes fool you. Figure skaters are some of the most resilient athletes in sports as they match the grueling practice regimes of gymnastics, all while braving the relentless cold of ice rinks. Despite the challenges, a growing number of children are hitting the ice in Oklahoma with Olympic aspirations.
Jackie Brenner is the director of an elite skating program at Arctic Edge Ice Arena in Edmond. She has been molding skaters in the metro for 20 years and won Developmental Coach of the Year by the Professional Skaters Association in 2000. She currently trains four senior-level skaters eligible to qualify for national championships to compete for a spot on the Olympic team.
HERDS OF CHILDREN
Yet, she joked that every morning when she steps into the chilly arena, she wonders why she ever started. That doubt melts away when she hits the ice, however, as it does for the herds of children spinning, leaping and falling.
"We are well-known for bringing kids through grassroots beginners all the way to elite rankings," Brenner said. "We have the 2007 National Collegiate Champion, Linsey Ann Stucks, and I trained her for about 18 years, all the way from baby to senior division, and she has had wonderful success."
Another successful metro skater is Chris Castleberry, who first started honing his skills at a Bethany rink. He went on to a career in figure skating, touring with companies like Disney on Ice and entertaining tourists on cruise line rinks. In 2002, Castleberry was assistant choreographer for the opening and closing ceremonies at the Salt Lake City Olympics. After 10 years of near-constant traveling, he resettled in Oklahoma and has witnessed how far the sport has come.
"It used to be when you told people you ice skated, they'd say, 'There's an ice rink?'" Castleberry said. "Now, you tell people you teach ice skating, they ask, 'Which rink?'"
He still performs with touring companies from time to time, but is making the transition more into choreography for both stage and ice. He is currently working on the Oklahoma City Figure Skating Club's "Dreamskate," a production that highlights figure-skating students across the metro, from the beginner to senior level. "Dreamskate" will run Feb. 20-22 at Arctic Edge.
Both Arctic Edge and the nearby Blazers Ice Centre have ongoing learn-to-skate programs, which give students the basic skills to survive on skates. The time it takes to sharpen those skills depends on how daring the student is.
"A young adult who maybe skied before or Rollerbladed, it would take six months to a year to learn to crossover, to stop, go forward and backwards," said Michelle Horn, figure skating director of the Blazers Ice Centre. "The key is not being afraid to fall, practicing, having good equipment, good instruction, repetition and understanding the basis of what you are doing."
Most skaters will settle for just knowing enough to hit the ice with the family during an open-skate session, but some will opt to pursue figure skating. Because of Arctic Edge's elite skater program, it has become a regional landmark for ambitious skaters.
In-house skaters train at the facility five to six days a week, some putting in four hours a day. Brenner said there are many younger skaters who train in figure skating as well as other sports like gymnastics, but as they reach the elite level, they have to commit fully to the ice.
"They need to be physically fit. We are athletes first, skaters second, so they are doing conditioning with Transformations (Fitness Center) next door, doing ballet," she said. "To reach that level, they need dedication, perseverance. They need to be a self-starter, an intrinsic worker, instead of waiting around for something to inspire them; they have to create that fire from within."
Brenner said instructors start watching kids early to find the ones that might have the talent and commitment to reach senior level. With the proven track record of the staff and a growing pool of kids wanting to tie on the blades, Oklahoma's figure skating program is raising its visibility both inside the state and across the county.
"Oklahoma City is one of the groups you look out for. We're on the map regionally," Castleberry said. "Our numbers might go down as the economy weakens, but it always bounces back because the kids love it so much. It gives them the chance to be an athlete, an artist, learn music and stay in shape. It has a lot of things that are good for kids, so as soon as they do it, they get the itch." "Charles Martin