Twenty years ago, Pat Muth uncorked some of her trademark energy to launch a production of a classic holiday ice show as a way to give back to the community — and to raise enough money to pay off a mounting ice rink bill.
She had no way of knowing back then that her version of "The Nutcracker on Ice" would become a cornerstone of the Columbia Figure Skating Club, which she founded in 1975 at the Columbia Ice Rink in Oakland Mills.
Nor could the British native and 40-year Columbia resident have predicted that the club's four performances of the two-act ballet featuring the music of Tchaikovsky would be selling 1,600 tickets each December.
But that's not all. The club is hitting another milestone this season, with five skaters moving on to national competitions in coming weeks.
One of those trailblazers is Allison Timlen, a 15-year-old sophomore at Mount Hebron High School who has been skating for 11 years and has what it takes to go all the way, said Muth.
It seems the 180-member organization has more than come into its own.
A family experience
When Muth launched the club's first performance of "The Nutcracker" back in 1990, the show was a mere 30 minutes long because that's all the ice time the group could afford. Tickets were $3, the backdrop was concocted from black plastic and the chandelier in the party scene was crooked.
"But the line was out the door," said a still-incredulous Muth, who lives down the street from the ice rink in the same house she moved into in 1970 with her husband, Phil, and four children.
Today, Muth, who serves as the club's artistic director, reigns over a "Nutcracker" cast of 100 members and modifies components of the 50-minute show's music or scenery each year to keep the production fresh for skaters and audience members alike.
"It's a real family experience," said Timlen, who this year passed down the leading role of Clara to Tess Terpos, a 13-year-old eighth-grade student at Dunloggin Middle School who's been skating for seven years.
And Timlen should know. Her mother, Donna, is club president and serves as the on-ice show director, her 11-year-old sister Kelly also skates with the club, and the girls' father, Eddie, works backstage.
"The Timlens are so dedicated to the club," said Mia Choi, who is Donna Timlen's counterpart as off-ice show director. "The number of hours they devote to this organization as a family is incredible."
Choi puts in her share of hours, too. When it's showtime, she can be found orchestrating the chaos in the warming room, "most likely with a kid in one arm and another hanging on to my leg," she said jokingly about the younger performers who need help with costume changes and entering the ice on cue.
"Parents are usually laughing at me with so many kids on me," she said. "It's hectic, but it's a lot of fun."
Since Choi and her daughter Julia, 11, joined in 2004, the club's membership has doubled, she said, speculating that mothers of girls have especially been drawn in increasing numbers to the ballet-based movements of ice skating. Also, more Asian families have been inspired to join by the recent success of Olympic champion Kim Yu-Na, she said.
Also contributing to the family atmosphere are Muth's daughter, Martha Muth, and her granddaughter, Melissa Ivester, who both work as coaches. Denise Cahill and Bobbe Shire fill out the club's instructional roster.
"I couldn't have accomplished what I have without all of these wonderful people, students and parents," Muth said. "We are one big family, and we're all in this together."
Dedication pays off
Tess Terpos said she enjoys inviting her schoolteachers to a performance of the Nutcracker "as a way to help them understand why I'm always a little late" to school because of skating practice.
Since Timlen started high school last year, she has traded the grueling 4:30 a.m. practice schedule she adhered to for eight years in favor of skating at 1:30 p.m., leaving Mount Hebron in a work program just before last period every day to get in three hours on the ice.
"We ice skaters basically have no social life," said Timlen, who takes advanced-level courses and handles a heavy load of homework after skating practice. She puts in 14 hours a week on the ice, takes kickboxing and other fitness classes, and still manages to earn good grades and be in bed by 9:30 each night.
"But we wouldn't give it up for anything," chimed in Terpos, whose mother, Colleen, serves as the club's vice president.
The skaters' fierce dedication has paid off in a big way this fall, as the Columbia Figure Skating Club laid claim to a first: Five of their members will compete in the U.S. Figure Skating Association Championships in December and January.
Timlen earned first place in the junior division of the Eastern sectionals, a competition held two weeks ago. She will advance to the nationals in January. Joining her will be Scott Dyer, who took first place in the senior men's division of the sectionals. Courtney Bibbs earned 10th place in the senior ladies division but will not advance to nationals.
Terpos took sixth in the intermediate division of the South Atlantic Regional Competition in October and will compete in the junior nationals in December. Joining her will be Travis Mager, an ice dancer, and Yan Kazansky, who took fourth place in intermediate dance.
These achievements are especially noteworthy because "the level of competition gets harder every year" as the sport continues to evolve, Timlen said. Today's competitors have such advanced skills that they would have been able to qualify for the Olympics 10 years ago, she added.
A motivating force
The challenges served up by the sport only work as a motivating force to deepen her resolve, said Timlen, who aims to qualify for the 2014 Winter Olympics slated for Sochi, Russia.
"I'm not good if I'm not challenged," she said. "I also work hard on my mental game to be confident, but not cocky."
Muth enlarged the "Arabian Dance" in this year's "Nutcracker" to take advantage of Timlen's "extra-special talent," not only adding two minutes to it, but making it a solo number, which it hasn't been for years.
"Allison has the most marvelous way of expressing emotion in her facial and body movements," said Muth. "She has both artistic and athletic ability, but it's her expressiveness that makes her different from most kids."
Timlen is looking forward to performing the role and is grateful for the opportunity.
"Miss Pat is so amazing and so inspiring, and she taught me everything I know," Timlen said, adding that she regards Muth as a grandmother.
"You can throw 100 kids at her, and she has this ability to narrow in on one single kid and say they're going to be a star, and she's always right," she said. "That tells you something."
If you go
What: "The Nutcracker on Ice," celebrating its 20th anniversary in Columbia.
Where: Columbia Ice Rink, 5876 Thunder Hill Road in the Oakland Mills Village Center
When: 5:15 p.m. and 7 p.m. Dec. 11; 4:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. Dec. 12
Cost: Tickets are $10; children younger than 3 are free. Advance tickets and warm clothes are recommended.
Information: 410-813-4026 or columbiafsc.com