Team Delaware skaters sizzle on ice
May 03, 2016 01:14PM
By Steven Hoffman
Most Sunday mornings at the Fred Rust Ice Arena, a group of dedicated young athletes are on the ice, mastering complex footwork. The young ladies are not practicing solo routines, but are in formation, keeping their lines tight and their movements precise. They are members of Delaware Synchronized Skating, a small but vibrant community of skaters who are participating in the fastest-growing discipline within the sport of figure skating.
Imagine perfecting the moves of a figure skater, but performing them with split-second precision alongside 15 other skaters. Program director and head coach Megan O’Donnell puts it concisely, “Synchro involves intricate footwork performed at high speed while in formation.”
Synchronized skating is figure skating taken to a whole new level. Sixteen skaters perform as one. It’s never about the individual, always about the team. For one skater to shine brighter than the rest would defeat the purpose of synchro.
Some of the skaters on Team Delaware live locally, while others reside out of state. Quite a few travel several hours from all directions for practice. While synchro is a very popular sport in the North and the Midwest, it is practically unknown in this region, which is why skaters often have to travel to be part of a team.
Michelle Merrick has a four-hour round trip commute to bring daughter Sara to practice. “Synchronized skating is Sara’s life, her passion,” Merrick said. “The girls on the team are like her sisters. They spend so much time together -- travel time, practice, competitions. It creates a special friendship.”
All the girls share the sentiment. “Skating synchro is skating with all your best friends by your side, and knowing you all are doing the best that you can,” said skater Michelle LaFranca of Newark.
Previously known as Precision Skating, the discipline was renamed Synchronized Skating in 1998 to better reflect the nature of the sport. Along the way, synchro evolved from skaters performing military-like drills into today’s tightly choreographed routines. The sport has not lost any of its precision along the way, but has expanded into a crowd-pleasing performance that includes jumps, lunges, spins, spirals, lifts and very complicated footwork.
Holly Jones of Newark said, “I enjoy that there are elements from figure skating in synchro, but you are skating as a group, not as an individual.” She giggled and added, “I also really like the skating dresses and makeup.”
GG Quintero from Aldie, Va., agreed, saying, “I like skating as a group better than skating by myself. When I’m on the ice as part of a group, I’m not nervous.”
Building such a successful program requires a lot of dedication and hard work. Wendy and Megan coach seven of the ten teams. During competition season, it’s normal for the coaches to spend 30 or more hours at the rink, in addition to their full-time jobs.
“We are so lucky to have Suzy working with the team,” Deppe said. “Suzy Semanick-Shurman works with only two synchro teams in the U.S. -- Team Delaware and The Haydenettes in Massachusetts. She coaches the girls on turns and power skating.” Semanick-Shurman, an Olympic gold medal ice dancer, is the director of figure skating at the Pond Ice Arena.
Deppe, the head coach, began skating synchro in college at the University of Delaware. While pursuing her degree and skating on the collegiate team, she found time to coach younger skaters who were part of the synchronized skating program. After graduating with an education degree, Deppe continued to coach, as she does today with Team Delaware. In addition to her busy coaching schedule, she teaches second grade at Wilson Elementary School in Pike Creek.
O’Donnell has been involved with synchronized skating her entire life. As a 2-year-old, she was enrolled in a learn-to-skate class, then moved right into synchro.
“Synchronized skating is a really big sport in Michigan,” O’Donnell said of her home state. “Ann Arbor is the birthplace of synchronized skating.”
When O'Donnell moved to Lancaster, Pa., for a job in the education field, she met women who skated at the Fred Rust arena. Her friends invited her to join the adult synchro team and she happily accepted. “Once the other skaters realized I knew what I was doing, they asked me to coach,” she said, laughing. By the time O'Donnell joined the team, participation had fallen and the program was struggling.
In 2002, O'Donnell and Deppe launched a new synchro program with only four students. Today the size and success of Team Delaware proves their dedication to the sport. Their commitment to the team has created an organization that, as one parent said, “Is well worth the time, hard work, and sacrifice.”
Team manager and parent Angie Jones added, “The team is like a big village made up of the girls and their families, and it is a village I trust.”
Team Delaware consists of 160 skaters making up 10 teams, including a collegiate-level squad. The teams range from Beginners (ages 4 to 11) to Masters (ages 25 and older). In between those two levels are eight additional teams that the skaters move through as skill and age allows. To advance to the competitive teams, you must prove your skill set through a field move test and an audition.
Jones added, “Being on the competitive team is a great opportunity. It teaches the girls about hard work, commitment and earning their place.”
Last year was very exciting for the Junior level team. The Juniors are considered an elite team because the skaters must possess highly technical skating skills. Competition rules decree Junior skaters be between the ages of 12 and 19. Team Delaware has been fielding a Junior team for only four years.
Last year, 15 Junior level teams competed nationally. The competitive season started in November with a trip to the Thanksgiving Classic in California. At the Classic, Team Delaware performed their long and short programs for the first time in front of an audience and judges. The competition gave them an opportunity to test run their programs and receive a high-quality critique.
In December, the team traveled to Ann Arbor for The Porter Classic competition. The skaters may travel to different competitions each season, but they always attend The Porter.
“A lot of U.S. teams come to the Porter,” Deppe said. “The girls really look forward to this competition.”
Again, the team continued to fine-tune their skating programs and received a critique of their performance. “Some of the best judges in the country are watching and commenting on our performance. That type of feedback is invaluable,” O’Donnell said.
At the end of January, the team won the Eastern Sectional Championships in Virginia. Next, they were off to Dearborn, Mich., over Valentine’s Day weekend for the Junior World Qualifiers. A dark cloud seemed to hover over the girls, and despite their efforts, they finished in last place.
Bouncing back from this unexpected loss, and with only one practice under their belts, the skaters once again hit the road. Their destination was Kalamazoo, Mich., for the Nationals. The girls kept their formations tight but fluid. In a field of 14 highly competitive teams, the Delaware Juniors finished in seventh place, outscoring a college varsity team.
The girls and the coaches were elated with their placement, earning all-time high scores for both their short and long programs. Their combined score was also the highest they had ever received.
“Something you have to keep in mind,” O’Donnell said, “is our team practices once a week, compared to our competitors who practice three to four times per week.” The combination of having team members who live a distance away and the availability of ice time effects the amount of practice time for Team Delaware. So every time the team places well, the victory is all the more sweet.
Competitions are a big financial and time commitment for the families and the skaters. “As a family, we’ve had to balance vacations in order to travel to competitions. But we love the family road trips, all the togetherness,” Jones said.
The team does not receive any funding. Each member pays monthly dues to cover ice time and incidentals, and is responsible for their own travel and lodging. Like most of the team members, Mikayla Sagle of Gainesville, Va., looks forward to the trips. “I really like traveling across the country for competitions,” she said.
Deppe and O’Donnell have some new additions to the coaching staff for 2016. Members of the University of Delaware Resident Ensemble Players will work with the competitive teams this year, helping them hone their performance and acting skills. Additionally, a Blue Hen Marching Band instructor will be working with the girls on formation.
Team auditions are over and everyone is taking a well-deserved break until August, when the new programs will be introduced and practice begins again. Six new skaters have qualified to join the Junior team. There will be a lot of hard work on and off the ice. School, sports and family life will need to be balanced come fall, when the competition season starts.
Jen Herman has two daughters, Liz and Caraline, in the synchro program. She summed it up best when she said, “They [Team Delaware] are like sisters because they have this shared passion for skating. This sport is giving the girls great memories.”
More information about Delaware Synchronized Skating can be found at www.delawaresynchronizedskating.com.