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Synchronized team skating: the coolest new sport on ice

Take eight to 24 ice skaters in matching dresses and hairdos.

Put them on a rink and have them skate fast, really fast, in technical synchronicity. Fancy footwork. Quick changes of directions. Formations like a marching band -- spinning wheels, V's, intersecting lines.

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They skate with arms locked together, a buddy system on ice, blades blazing within a breath of one another. One bad move and someone's going to hit the ice, or the wall, or fall and get run over.

You've seen synchronized swimming. This is synchronized team skating, said to be the fastest-growing form of figure skating in the United States.

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The United States Figure Skating Association counts about 8,000 to 10,000 synchronized skaters, mostly female, in this country. The best in the world are from Finland and other European countries.

Formerly known as precision skating, the sport began as pure entertainment between hockey seasons. Now skaters are on college teams and crisscross the globe to compete; the first world championships were in Minneapolis four years ago.

For spectators, the action is fast-paced pageantry.

For the skaters, "It's first-off terrifying," said Tekla Henri , a former synchro skater and editor of the new Synchronized Skating Magazine based in Royal Oak, Mich.

"You look at it, you've got 20 girls out there. That's 40 blades, and you're skating so close to one another ... there are elements where you're just crashing through each other. And now, in the senior division, they have lifts, so you have girls lifting each other into the air.

"When it's done well, it's really beautiful," Henri said. "It's ice dancing with 19 partners."

Less nervous together

Coach Amy Fankhauser has been getting four teams at Line Creek Community Center and Ice Arena, in Kansas City, Mo., back on the ice. Fankhauser, Line Creek's skating guru, began putting teams together at the ice rink six years ago.

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Line Creek's teams have been consistently active and competitive. Fankhauser guides about 50 synchro skaters, from beginners to adults.

As do most teams, she drew from the ranks of individual figure skaters at the rink. Leaping from single to teammate takes time, she said. "It doesn't happen over a season. It takes a few years to get them thinking, 'There's someone next to me.' "

But that's what her skaters like about the sport. The camaraderie and sense of family created by team skating provide comfort and sow fearlessness.

"You don't get as nervous because you're with a lot of other people," said Becca Vanderweel, 14, of Liberty, Mo., one of Fankhauser's teen skaters. Her 10-year-old sister, Rachel, skates with younger girls.

Adds Fankhauser: "The nice thing about synchro, unlike singles, is you don't have to be a star on your own."

"The object is to move as a unit, with a great deal of speed, while doing all the normal things that you would see in skating," said Bonnie William-son of Kansas City, an ice-skating judge since the early 1980s.

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"There's an emphasis on the footwork, but as the years have gone by, synchro has added some of the other elements. You used to not be able to do the jumps ... quite honestly I think a little bit of it is to get the public to understand what it is."

Fastest skater rules

Having to hang on to each other, with all the pulling and pushing, makes team skating all the more difficult, said Kay Parquette of Liberty, a member of Fankhauser's adult team.

"Core body strength is extremely important, from your abdomen all the way up," said magazine editor and former skater Henri.

"Try to stand there for four minutes and keep your arms up without putting them down. That's hard to do. And if you don't have a strong midsection, you're not going to be able to hold yourself up, same as in ballet or dancing."

On a synchro team, everyone must skate as well as the best skater on the team, a challenge considering that Fankhauser's 10-member adult team boasts three skating coaches and some skating just for fun. All of them must bring their best game.

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"We accommodate the fastest skater and make the slower ones catch up," said Fankhauser, who said the method works mostly through peer pressure, partly through fear.

Julie Marasco, a 13-year-old from St. Joseph, Mo., is the shortest and one of the youngest on Fankhauser's teen team. "It was really hard in the beginning because I had to learn how to keep up with all the other girls because I was so much smaller," she said. "When I was on the end I would get whipped around, so I would have to work to stay in line."

'There are injuries'

The key is trusting that teammates will always be where they're supposed to be, especially as the sport allows more complicated maneuvers.

At more advanced levels of competitions, the skaters are lifting each other off the ice forming gliding pyramids, just like cheerleader routines. But most cheerleaders don't wear sharp skates.

"Skating as a team can become dangerous," said Williamson, the judge.

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"When you have people flying around out there at high speeds in large groups, people are banging into each other.

"There are injuries; it's like every other sport. And just because it's done in pretty chiffon dresses doesn't mean that it's not a sport. I've seen cuts, I've seen broken bones. The possibilities are there. But it's the job of the coach to assess the readiness of the individuals on a particular team to attempt a particular type of move."

Watching her petite daughter get tossed about was something Julie's mother, Tammy Marasco, learned to cope with, barely.

"The most that's happened ... she had a hard time reaching the shoulder level, and she took a spill back on her head a couple of times," Marasco said.

"And she's been slammed into the boards a couple of times when she couldn't hold on tight enough.

"I used to be concerned when she was very little, but you see them get up and move so often you don't panic over it."

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Nor does she panic over the cost of this sport, easily a cool $1,000 and more per season per skater, not unusual for any figure-skating discipline. Fankhauser's teams can stay sharp and improve only by competing against better teams, and they travel often to find them.

Team car washes and Tupperware sales don't cover the entire tab of costumes and travel and ice time and so on. "The rest of it, we just kind of have to grit our teeth and pay it, but we knew it going into it," Marasco said.

How the teams began

The evolution of synchronized skating:

In 1954 Richard Porter started modern synchronized skating in Ann Arbor, Mich.

A collegiate division made its debut in 1997. U.S. Figure Skating is working to get the sport sanctioned by the NCAA.

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During the 2003 season, 449 synchronized teams registered with U.S. Figure Skating.

To learn more about the sport, see the new Synchronized Skating Magazine at www.synchronizedskating mag.com. Or, visit the United States Figure Skating Association Web site at www.usfsa.org.

Source: United States Figure Skating Association


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