Can Synchronized Skating Finally Make the Leap to Olympic Sport?
It started as hokey entertainment during hockey games, but now this unlikely team sport is all grown up-and the impressive athletes of "synchro" want respect on the world stage.
In accouterments reminiscent of traditional matadors - black capri pants and red jackets -the Marigold IceUnity synchronized skating team from Finland prepares to perform their short program, lasting an intense three minutes. It is December 3, 2016 and these ladies, ranging from high-school to post-college age, are competing in Helsinki at their second major competition this year. They're up against other teams from their home country and a few from Russia as well. In combination with scores from a series of events, their finish here could advance them to the synchronized skating world championships in Colorado Springs in April.
Disconnected in four lines of four in the middle of the rink, the horns of Spanish music flow from the speakers. They glide across the ice in an almost dreamlike fashion, rarely straightening their knees. The skaters are powerful and strong, every arm and head movement synchronized. There is no anxiety in their steps. In unison they cross their feet with intricate, smooth undercuts. In the stands, nearly filled to capacity, their fans cheer them on as they move through their routine. Parents and friends wave flags with "MIU" printed on them.
But the Marigold IceUnity squad falls short of perfection today - a rare occasion for a team under the direction of Anu Oksanen, a tough but strong and creative coach/choreographer. As the program progresses, the skaters slip out of alignment in some of the more difficult elements. They finish in second place in the short program.
"Despite some obstacles on our way before the competition (broken hand, torn muscles, bruises and cuts...) they really left their heart out there on the ice," Oksanen later wrote on her Facebook page. The next day, though, MIU came from behind, winning the long program. The most impressive flurry came when the skaters completed fast, moving dead lifts - connected in pairs with one sliding backward in a circular motion.
"You have to fight to get a spot at the worlds," Oksanen, a petite woman with short brown hair and glasses, says about the stiff competition in Finland. "It is one of the reasons we are on the top."
Oksanen's coaching style is unlike any other coach in the synchronized skating universe. Most of her team members have been trained by Oksanen since they were about four or five years old, and will stay under her tutelage throughout their careers. Oksanen's teams consistently field dramatic programs, routines that look as though the skaters are telling a story, which is unique to the world of "synchro" - as it is frequently called. (In the matador routine, it appeared as though the skaters are in a ring with a bull, dodging the animal.)
"We try to do our own thing instead of following the current trends in synchro," Oksanen says, adding that they always look to bring new program concepts to the sport.
Originally called "precision," the sport started at the University of Michigan in 1956. Dr. Richard Porter, known as "the father of synchronized skating," founded the Hockettes that year, and trained them in Ann Arbor for performances at hockey games. Throughout the 1960s the sport grew in popularity, spreading into Canada and overseas to Europe. The first international competition was held in 1974, between Canadian and American teams.
Between eight and sixteen skaters will skate on the ice at once in a typical synchro routine, all executing the same moves at the same time. There are more than six hundred teams in the U.S. alone today, and Hungary, China, Russia, Australia, Italy and other countries field synchro squads as well. It is estimated that there are more than a thousand teams worldwide.
Leslie Graham, the director of the synchronized skating program at U.S. Figure Skating (USFS), says synchro used to be "a sport people picked up if they weren't successful in ice dancing or singles. But now the sport is for the athlete that is well rounded, that can count to music and has good edge work."
Still, synchronized skating has yet to be welcomed onto the biggest sporting stage in the world - the Olympics. In 2015 the International Skating Union (ISU), the organization in charge of overseeing synchronized skating worldwide, applied to the International Olympic Committee to admit the sport into the games. The application was shot down, though, and the IOC indicated that before the sport is accepted into the games, the synchronized skating community must improve the skill level of the teams that consistently place at the bottom of the pack at the world championships, including Japan, Italy and Great Britain - all of which began competing in synchro long after the top teams, such as the U.S., Canada and Finland.
Now, the synchronized skating community is in the process of applying again. Cathy Dalton, an elite synchronized skating coach from Canada and a member of the committee that put together the application for the IOC in 2015, says, "We are implementing programs to help these coaches [of the lower-scoring teams] train and to get them up to speed. We are all confident that the next application that we put into the IOC will be successful."
In 2005 the ISU looked to make all skating disciplines more competitive. Instead of judges scoring teams on a 0.0 to 6.0 scale, the new rules stipulate a specific formula. Every team is required to perform several specific elements, such as circles, blocks and lines, and footwork sequences, like twizzles, counters and rockers, generating a cumulative score that takes into account technicality and presentation. In the old system, the teams would be given one flat score based on their overall performance. In the new system, teams are rated on each individual element they complete. That score takes into account technicality and presentation.
Following the change, the U.S. synchro community began bringing together coaches from across the country for seminars, educating them on how to punch up their team's programs. Nicole Davies is one of the many coaches working to improve the squads she presides over by attending these seminars and coaching clinics. Davies (who, along with this reporter, co-founded the synchro-focused website Get It Called in 2010), coaches two teams in the DC Edge club in the Washington, D.C. area. Although her club does not have an elite level team, she trains skaters from a young age, focusing on improving their technical ability. She's been involved in the sport since she was a child and has skated on two of the world's most competitive teams.
"I like the idea that someone I coach could be in the Olympics someday," Davies says. "The young skaters are still really driven and excited that the sport might be in the Olympics."
While synchro won't be in the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, there is still a chance it will appear in the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing. The IOC will make the decision after the 2018 Games; thus, the synchronized skating community has just one full season left to prove that it deserves to be in the Olympics.
U.S. Figure Skating officials and the ISU are closely tracking elite teams from across the world. One or two teams from each participating country will advance to the world championships. If they're going to help their sport make the Olympics, each will need to train harder, coach smarter and perform better this time around.
* * *
While the Broadmoor World Arena - a seven-thousand-seat ice rink in Colorado Springs, prepares for the April 7-8 event that will draw spectators from across the globe, in Lexington, Massachusetts, the Haydenettes are practicing more than twenty hours a week to ensure their competitiveness.
"This season, we are skating to two completely different themed programs and we really want to highlight this in the emotions we depict in our performances," says 24-year-old team member Devin Wang.
The Haydenettes compete in Budapest
The Haydenettes compete in Budapest
The team practices almost every day and spend hours not only perfecting their steps, but improving their endurance. They complete several run-throughs of their programs back-to-back to build up their strength and cardio ability.
"We want to become the team that pushes the envelope of synchronized skating," says skater Tessa Hedges, 23. "Our goal is to set ourselves apart from the competition by conquering the challenging tricks, transitions, and emotions that [our coach] has choreographed into our programs."
Most of the girls on the team are also balancing a full course load at college or have full-time jobs. The Haydenettes have won the U.S. National Championship 24 times, and have earned five bronze medals at the World Championships. If they earn one of the two spots at the nationals in February, they will face off against teams from Finland, a land that has in the past fielded gold medalists at worlds.
"We are trying to better prepare our athletes in the pipeline," Leslie Graham of USFS says, referring to the path skaters take in synchronized skating, starting first in the younger divisions, then working their way up to the elite levels.
"We definitely want our skaters to grow up in a pipeline so we teach them consistent skills and they are matching," says Davies, the DC Edge coach. "There are countries where that is how they train - they start them really young and they skate together for decades."
Over in Helsinki, Anu Oksanen isn't taking anything for granted. In order to ensure MarigoldIce Unity makes it to worlds, she's adding new features to her programs to make them vary from those of other elite squads. At the end of their long program, the girls of MIU lift each other up into the air by their blades in a formation that resembles a cheerleader routine. At another point in the program the girls split off into pairs and go into death drops, when one skater in the pair, holding hands with the other, drops into a low spin, almost hitting the ground.
In Canada, coach Cathy Dalton is shaping her own distinct style. The skaters on the senior team, Meraki, are of similar skill level to those of MarigoldIce Unity, but look different on the ice. They are ballerina-like, evenly prancing in and out of some of the most technically difficult steps in synchro, including rockets, counters and triple twizzles.
* * *
The doors to the rink at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex in Arlington, Virginia, open and eighteen girls file onto the ice, all of them in matching black dresses with long skirts. They begin their warm up. The intermediate team in the DC Edge club connects into lines, members holding each other's shoulders, and begins a series of turns and power skating - strong strokes to fast tempo music.
As the 2016-2017 competition season progresses, the looming prospect of an Olympic Games appearance is on everyone's minds.
"I think for the younger skaters there is still hope because they are still at an age where they could see the Olympic dream come true when they are still actively skating," Davies said. "But it's more about the recognition from society that we as a community want."
"If and when synchro becomes an Olympic sport, the USFS is going to look to be on the podium," Graham adds. "We are ready to push the envelope."