Take 5: Training in Breck’s thin air with Dearborn Crystallettes synchro skating team
BRECKENRIDGE — On an otherwise quiet Saturday morning, all eyes at Stephen C. West Ice Arena were glued to the main rink for something us local hockey lovers rarely see: 16 figure skaters moving, spinning and dancing in elegant time with each other, no pads or pucks required.
Late the night before, the Dearborn Crystallettes Synchronized Skating Team — a storied team from the frosty lowlands of suburban Detroit — came direct from Denver International Airport to Breck at a dizzying 9,600 feet. Coaches and all 20 girls on the competition team were in town for two days of practice before the biggest show of the season: the 2017 World Synchronized Skating Championships in Colorado Springs, an annual marquee showcase for teams from across the globe that’s overseen by the sport’s governing body, International Skating Union.
Coming to Breck is something of a tradition for head coach Shannon Peterson and her sister, coach Holly Malewski, before any competitions at the posh Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs. Why? The same reason all athletes give for training here: acclimation.
And if you don’t think figure skaters need to get acclimated, think again. The sport is just as demanding as anything else on ice, and with elements of dance, synchronization and marching band-style formations, the Crystallettes can’t get enough practice before Worlds. The current team ranges in age from 16 to 36 years old — the minimum age for Worlds is 15 years old, with no maximum — and everyone who tried out last year made the crew. This year, it’s a different story.
“This is a hard-working group of skaters that wanted it hard enough to make it here, and when you have success, everyone wants to join the party,” said Peterson, who skated on the team with her sister in the ‘70s and ‘80s when it was more recreational. “Now, we’re looking at 47 kids at tryouts.”
Since taking over in 1988, Peterson and Malewski have built a high-level competition team from nearly the ground up. The Crystallettes has traveled to Croatia, Sweden and Italy to complete in four Worlds, and they’re one of just two U.S. teams invited to the 2017 championships, where they’re expected to do well against traditional powerhouse programs like Sweden, Finland, Russia and Canada.
Between two-a-day practices, the Summit Daily sports desk caught up with Peterson to talk about acclimation for figure skaters, the world of synchronized skating and what it’s like to coach side-by-side with her sister.
Summit Daily News: You and the team just wrapped up a weekend of practicing in Breckenridge. Why come to the mountains before Worlds?
Shannon Peterson: Normally when we compete in Colorado Springs we go to Breckenridge first to let the girls get used to the altitude. It makes coming to the Springs easier, and they are doing really well.
SDN: Everyone, including you coaches, went straight from the DIA to Breck. How did the team handle the altitude?
SP: It was interesting. People wanted to see them do more in Breckenridge, but we were really there to get their lungs adjusted. The first day was rough, the second day was better, so when we got down to the Springs they were feeling great. We just got done with an hour-and-a-half practice and they finished it off with lifts. They are handling the altitude well and that’s what we were hoping for.
SDN: What was the team working on over the weekend?
SP: We didn’t do any lifts, but we were doing skills and smaller elements in our program — elements that aren’t as dangerous. We have wheels, circles, that sort of thing. Holly and I could not be more proud of them. You can see that the training we’ve done all year is really paying off. This is a hard-working, dedicated group of girls. They’ve rose to the challenge. To me they look good, and they’re getting great (laughs).
SDN: What’s it like to coach a team with your sister?
SP: We each have different strengths. Sometimes we debate things emotionally, but we’re sisters, so in the end we want what’s better for the girls, and we’re not going to undermine the other person. It’s actually a good combination. We can be brutally honest and still hug and love each other at the end (laughs).
I’m kind of the big-picture person — the one who sees the whole program and transitions from one element to the next. Holly is still technical — she still coaches individuals, and I’m an associate superintendent with the public school system so I’m not coaching all the time — but she’s very technical with turns and corrections. Together we’re very good with the elements, with me looking at the big picture and she looking at the parts.
SDN: Worlds begins on Friday this week. How is practice right now, in the last few days, different from the work you do the rest of the season?
SP: We’re fine-tuning things right now, the little things like technique. In the beginning of the year, you’re teaching elements (and) teaching how to do things, where now we’re making head changes and presentation changes. We’re nitpicking — that’s what it is at this time of the year. The more synchronized they get, the more you nitpick. The more they work with a program, the more you notice.
SDN: Talk me through the Crystallettes’ shows for Worlds. What elements do you think set your team apart from the other teams you’ll go up against?
SP: Our short program is a very emotional short program. They skate to a haunting version of “Lean On Me” (by Sizzy Rocket) and it has a meaning: I was battling breast cancer last year and wasn’t around when they wanted to do it first, but they picked it this year and the emotion was perfect. It started as a struggle of my own health, and now each one of them has a personal struggle they bring to the show. That’s our moneymaker, I say — it’s what sets us apart.
The free skate is to “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” It’s playful at times and serious at times, and they get the chance to have fun with it. They’ll be a little mischievous, is how I like to think about it. That program has the lifts — the bigger crowd-pleasing elements.
SDN: You’ve been to Worlds four times in the past. What does it take for a team to do well there?
SP: We’re going to have to put out two solid performances that have great presentation and great synchronization. Russia, Finland, Canada and the U.S. are all very, very good. There are two U.S. teams with us, and the other is outstanding as well. It’s been like that since the start, along with Sweden. Those are the big dogs. Germany also knocks on the door every once in a while.
SDN: What does it take to win the Worlds title?
SP: You know, it’s kind of like magic. You work all year, you keep mastering elements, and it just has to synergize at the same time. It looks like magic in the moment, but there is a lot of hard work that goes into it. All of these girls are gold tested (certified on all elements) in at least one area of figure skating, and many of them can ice dance. This is just one step of their journey. They work about 10 months together, but they bring years of individual skating prior to making a team at this level.
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