Falmouth skating club to set a national stage
FALMOUTH — The vivid red flags fluttered behind their handlers while the young girls at Family Ice Center skated through their routine, accompanied by the lively strains of "Mama Mia."
As they finished and the flags hung still on their poles, an older group of girls quickly took center ice, their speed mounting as they began the synchronized movements to "Latika's Theme" from the Academy Award-winning film "Slumdog Millionaire."
The two groups, ages 7-12 and 12-16, are part of the North Atlantic Figure Skating Club, hosts of this year's U.S. Synchronized Skating Championships at the Cumberland County Civic Center in Portland. Both NAFSC groups will be performing during the opening ceremonies of the event, scheduled for four days next week.
Family Ice Center on Hat Trick Road is home to NAFSC, one of three U.S. Figure Skating Clubs in the state. While it has been an active participant in figure skating events, the club has yet to move into the synchronized skating arena. In fact, even though synchronized skating is the fastest-growing figure skating discipline, there is no club team in Maine.
But NAFSC President Alan Wolf and others would like to see that change. Wolf, the local organizing committee chairman for next week's national championships, said the club hopes to raise enough money from the event to fund a synchronized skating team.
"The reason we want to do it is it keeps skaters in the sport longer and gives everyone a chance to participate at the national level if they want to," Wolf said.
But the major event does not come without major effort by the club's 10-member organizing committee and 35 to 40 volunteers.
They began planning for the championships in May 2008, as soon as the 2009 venue was announced. Under the agreement with U.S. Figure Skating, the national organization pays the club a fee for running the event. The club also gets vendor and practice ice fees. In return, the club must pay for everything from officials' flights and accommodations to putting the event's logo on the ice.
"We get all the fees and we pay all the bills," Wolf said. He estimated the cost at $200,000.
The challenges are different on a synchronized skating team, coach Lori Johnson said. Though skaters do not have to skate at as high an individual level to reach nationals, she said, they must learn to work together and skate in the same style.
"It's not just skating anymore; they're doing dance steps," she said. "It's fun, a good way to compete without having to go out and make a triple Salchow."
Johnson, of Portland, skated professionally in solo and comedy roles with the Ice Capades for 10 years and spent another five years as its assistant show director.
She began coaching the synchronized group of eight teenage girls last November. If the group chooses to stay together through the summer and fall, Johnson said she thinks they could be ready to compete. And next week's national championships could inspire them to try to reach competition level.
Eighteen hundred skaters from throughout the country are registered to compete in Portland March 4-7. Teams of eight to20 women, or a combination of men and women, compete in 15 different levels grouped by age, skill level and the number of skaters. Only 25 of this year's 1,800 skaters are men or boys, Wolf said.
Gemma Carter, 14, of Falmouth, skates with the older group. Though she's looking forward to participating in the opening ceremony, Carter said synchronized skating is challenging because each skater is dependent on all the others. But she said she's thankful that the girls in her routine don't have to hold hands as often as some groups "because you can pull the whole team down like dominoes."
Carter was encouraged after Sunday's practice, when the group finally performed the number from start to finish.
"Everything just pulls together and you feel it's so much better –it's worth it," she said.
Debra Coppinger has been coaching the younger NAFSC group that will also perform at the opening. She said being on a team adds to the girls' excitement. Team members will cheer each other on – not the hushed atmosphere that marks the standard of some skating events.
After practice, Coppinger's students bubbled with enthusiasm while they sipped hot chocolate and talked about their practice. Most of them have known how to skate almost since they could walk.
Their chatter flowed from one to the next as they eagerly shared what their years in skates and their new endeavor as members of a team have meant to them.
"The best part is making new friends," one girl said as she put her arm around the skater standing next to her.
"And we have to learn how to work together," said another.
"It takes a lot of time and effort," said a third.
But the smiles on their faces showed it was all worthwhile.
• Inside: Skaters and fans are expected to add $2 million to the local economy. Page 2.