Jill Heiner, a 20-year-old figure skater from North Beach, spent the last weekend of January in California, but in the wrong city.
Instead of competing at the 2023 U.S. Nationals in San Jose, Heiner was south of Los Angeles, working with her choreographer to prepare her program for January 2024. As an optimist who prioritizes skating for sheer joy, Heiner is focused on getting back to her sport’s most elite ranks, and having lots of fun in the process.
Heiner made her debut at senior U.S. Nationals in January 2022, becoming the first skater from Annapolis Skating Club to represent the area at the highest level. She finished 11th, and had a viral moment when NBC filmed her pound the ice with happiness and dance an impromptu jive after she finished her short program, to music from the film “La La Land.” NBC pumped out the video on its social media channels.
“That is something else,” commentator Terry Gannon said.
“It’s a national skate,” Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski said while Heiner took her bows. “You dream of this moment.”
“I love showing how much I love this sport,” Heiner said of her social media star turn. In a sport that often celebrates cool refinement, she’s proud to be rationally exuberant. She’s also dreaming that she could have another big moment at Nationals. On Saturday, the road back to the top included a performance delivered closer to home. Heiner put on an exhibition skate at Annapolis Town Center’s pop-up ice rink, which will remain at the Parole shopping center through Feb. 22.
As comes naturally to her, Jill not only showed off her skills, including one-foot arabesque spirals, her signature Russian split jump and balletic Biellmann spin, she offered encouragement to everyone else on the ice.
“You’re doing great! You didn’t fall,” Heiner said, with all sincerity to one older skater who said she was nervous after 30 years off the ice.
Other fans were much younger. Mark and Chelsea Zahm of Crownsville brought their daughter Ellie to an ice rink every February to celebrate her birthday. “She’s our little winter baby,” Chelsea said, staying close by the heaters on the below-freezing day. “We wanted to go to an indoor rink, but she wouldn’t have it.”
Because Ellie insisted on skating outdoors, her birthday included an impromptu lesson from Heiner. “I’m going to teach that kid,” Heiner told her aunt, Lily Openshaw of Annapolis, who had come to watch. Sure enough, she coaxed Ellie away from the supportive plastic polar bear and got the girl to skate a few yards on her own by weaving across the ice, heal to toe, heal to toe. “Make your toes kiss,” Heiner told her.
Ellie fell, but got back up with help from a pro, undeterred. “That was super-duper fun,” Ellie surmised.
Heiner was a few years older than Ellie when she first laced up skates at Brigade Sports Complex. In 2009, her parents, Bill and Beth Heiner, happened to be channel flipping and caught the U.S. Nationals. Their six-year-old daughter watched the winning skate by that year’s champion, Alissa Czisny.
“She made me want to skate,” Heiner recalled. “She had elegance and grace, and her jumps were so big. Everything about her skating was stunning. It resonated with me, and I said, ‘I want to do that.’”
Bill Heiner works for the U.S. Navy, and Beth is an 1988 graduate of the Naval Academy. Neither expected to become a figure skating parent, but soon they were regularly driving their daughter to multiple rinks. A few years into it, and teacher remarked, “You need to get her some lessons.”
“She is in lessons,” Bill said.
“No. Real lessons,” her teacher said.
Eventually, they connected with Kristan Waggoner, who runs the lesson program at Piney Orchard Ice Arena. Jill fearlessly took a class with girls years older than her, jumps and all. She perfected her double axels at the outdoor rink in Quiet Waters Park. From the age of 13 on, when she placed fourth at juvenile nationals and quit softball, it’s been all skating, all the time.
The Morning Sun
“I couldn’t do what I’m doing without my parents,” Heiner said, acknowledging that her career has benefited from being an only child. “My work ethic comes from them.”
In 2020, the Heiner family made the difficult decision for Jill to switch coaches. She now drives to Reston, Virginia, nearly every day to train with former Olympians Roman Skorniakov and Tatiana Malinina, and also teaches at their rink, Skate Quest. The couple immigrated to the United States after successful careers representing Uzbekistan. Their star students include Heiner and their own son, 2023 U.S. National Champion Ilia Malinin.
Malinin may be the only person on the planet who can land a quadruple axel, but he can’t do a Russian split, a leap with his legs extended parallel to the ice. “Sometimes he’s like an assistant coach for me, which is annoying, because he’s younger than me,” Heiner said. “I’m very lucky to train where I’m at. We’ve got a good thing going.”
The 2022-2023 competition was unexpectedly tough, however, because of equipment issues: The skating boots she’d been wearing for years started breaking down too quickly, and often unexpectedly. Trying new boots sometimes means trying new blades, which are purchased separately. “As skaters, we don’t like to talk about our equipment issues, because it sounds like an excuse,” Heiner said. “And it’s not an excuse.”
But it is the reason Heiner feels like she struggled some this season. She made her debut representing the Team USA in November, finishing seventh at the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic, in Lake Placid, New York, and finished fourth at the Eastern Sectional Championship, two spots lower than last year, and only the top two finishers get an automatic berth to nationals. Then, in December the skates of her dreams arrived, a pair of custom AURAs, made by a Canadian company that took a custom scan of her foot, including a “very tricky ankle and low arch.” Heiner’s new footwear made debuted at the Georgetown waterfront ice rink, where she skating at an exhibition sponsored by Swiss embassy.
“When I got off the ice I was crying,” Heiner said. “‘My parents said, ‘What’s wrong?’ but nothing was wrong. Everything felt so right.”
Eventually, Heiner wants to attend a four-year college, and hopes to own her own rink, with a coffee shop called the Jilly Bean. But for now, the espresso-obsessed skater is focused on the near future, making it back to nationals, and making as many people as possible smile along the way.