Synchronized Skating in Chicago

By Lindsey Woods

After hockey players congratulate each other on their games while filing out of the ice rink at 10 p.m. on a Tuesday night, the sound of skates scratching the ice can still be heard.

As the janitor cleans the bleachers, a core group of athletes stay on the ice to practice. They have no pads and no helmets, just trust in each other’s abilities. There is no puck and no net. Just eight Northwestern University women skating to the score of an obscure musical, preparing for competition.

“Purple Line,” the Northwestern Synchronized Ice Skating team, was practicing for the 2012 Midwestern and Pacific Coast Synchronized Skating Sectional Championships in Plymouth, Mich. On Jan. 28, the women performed their program in front of judges in the Midwest Open Collegiate category.

“We’re optimistic,” said team President Katie Amys after the team’s Jan. 24 practice. “There are also unforeseen circumstances [at competitions], you never know. Our first competition this season we had a time violation, so that puts you down points. You literally just don’t know what it’s going to be like.”

Purple Line has been around for eight years. Since then, they’ve had a steady flow of skaters sign up for the team, most of them new to the synchro scene.

This year, six of the eight members were solo skaters with no background in synchronized skating.

“Going from single skating to synchro definitely takes getting used to because you’re used to having your space while you’re skating and nobody being super close to you,” said team Vice President Laurie Liu. “So to do all of those turns and elements right next to people, there’s a giant fear of kicking and hitting when you’re first doing it.”

This season, the girls are competing in the Open Collegiate category opposed to their regular Collegiate because they are short of the minimum 12 required to skate at the that level. The minimum for Open Collegiate is eight. According to Head Coach Kathy Janik, they lost a lot of seniors last year, which contributed to their lower numbers this season.

Undaunted by their team’s size, the young women have been practicing a program for the competition since October, often taking school vans to practices 20–30 minutes away from campus. The practices are generally two hours long and begin by rehearsing the routine on the floor, sans skates, while waiting for local hockey teams to leave the ice.

“Hockey takes up a lot of ice time in Chicago,” said Janik, explaining why the team’s practices sometimes fall late in the evening and after hockey tournaments.

Purple Line was not the only team representing the Chicago area in the tournament Jan. 27-28. IllinoiSkate, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s synchronized skating team, was also there competing at the Collegiate level. Robert Morris University is starting a team too, although its inexperienced status will keep it out of competition this season. Representing non-collegiate levels was the Chicago Jazz, which has teams in the Junior, Novice, Juvenile and Intermediate levels.

In technical terms, the levels are called “lines,” according to Chicago Jazz Secretary Karen Zydron. Lines are divided based on age, starting with the youngest competitive level, Juvenile (girls under 13), to Masters (ages 25 and older).

As well as being categorized by age, synchronized skaters must pass a series of proficiency tests that gauge their skill levels, including moves in the field and freestyle, which Zydron describes as “the Michelle Kwan type of thing,” and ice dancing. In addition, they have to be proficient in synchro skating.

“A regular figure skater goes out there and does their little skating beyond this edge or that edge to get their maneuver not called,” Zydron said. “Try doing that with 16 people. If three of them miss it, it’s done for the whole team. So it’s really tough.”

Tough but rewarding, she said. Because of her daughter’s involvement in the Chicago Jazz Team USA, both were able to travel to competitions in England, France, Croatia, Sweden and Finland.

All that travel indicates the sport’s growth during the last 50 years. Synchro skating started in Michigan and has now achieved international popularity, and followings all over the U.S. Chicago, Zydron said, is one of the biggest hubs for the sport, along with Michigan and Boston.

Janik expressed frustration that synchronized skating has not yet been sanctioned as an Olympic sport.

“They say we’re too big,” Janik said. “But we are trying to push this sport into the Olympics. It’s frustrating because the sport is always changing and becoming more complex and more dangerous. It’s a beautiful sport, and we want to bring it to the masses.”

Olympic sport or not, Zydron said the lifelong friendships synchro skaters form go beyond any kind of competition and last a lifetime.

“This is an awesome sport, and any girl you talk to who has skated on a team like this will tell you the things they walk away with—friends they have for life,” Zydron said. “Most of these girls, when they get married, their skating friends are in their weddings.”