- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2001

It's 6 a.m. on a Saturday. Do you know where your teen-ager is? If she is a member of Northern Virginia's Capitol Steps Teen Intro or Junior Classic synchronized ice skating teams, she will be out on the ice at the Fairfax Ice Arena.

And you? You'll be the bleary-eyed one off to the side, your palms glued to a half-filled coffee cup, talking to other parents about the upcoming sectional competition in Buffalo, N.Y.

That's the way it is these Saturdays for these bright-eyed, energetic teen-agers 17 girls and one boy, all 15 to 18 and their weary parents. Yet no one here would have it any other way.

"My daughter has gotten so much from this team," says Katherine Pardue, whose daughter Janice, a freshman at Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School in the District, has been with the group since 1996. "It's really changed her life."

The only male on the team seconds Mrs. Pardue's view.

"It's a great way to be with friends," says Jeff Terkowitz, 17. "And it's a good way to learn. I think you learn better on a team."

Synchronized team ice skating is the fastest growing sport of all the figure skating disciplines, according to the United States Figure Skating Association.

"In the last five to 10 years, there have been more opportunities for synchronized skaters than ever before," says Susan Schilling, director of synchronized skating programs for the association. "There are more teams at the local level, and collegiate skating is growing, too."

The USFSA recognizes 14 divisions of "synchro" in a two-tiered system of qualifying or non-qualifying teams. (Qualifying teams compete on the national level, non-qualifying teams don't, although they are eligible to skate in regional competitions.)

In the Washington area, there are more synchronized skating teams than ever before. Of course, the Capitol Steps is just the latest in a long line of synchronized skating teams out of Northern Virginia dating back to 1978. The Washington Figure Skating Club currently offers three teams, including a new adult masters team. In Bowie, Md., the Metroliners, a qualifying team, compete in the junior division.

And in Frederick, Md., synchronized skating has attracted participants from as far away as western Maryland for the last six years. This year's "Fire On Ice" teams include the Sparks, made up primarily of 5- and 6-year olds, along with the Blaze, a junior division team, and the Flames, a youth introductory team.

If you are picturing synchronized swimming on ice, you may want to rethink your image. Synchronized ice skating is hardly that simple, although the Capitol Steps which fields four teams: adult masters, junior classic, teen introductory and youth introductory can make it seem easy.

Today, synchronized team ice skating is a combination of individual skills and team identity rare in some other sports. Couple that with impeccable athletics, uncanny musicianship and at least for the youngsters an unfailing sense that falling just doesn't matter, and you'll come a bit closer to what synchronized skating is all about.

"We've got some amazing movers on the ice," says Bill Pardue, manager of the Capitol Steps Junior Classic team and Janice's father. Mr. Pardue, an Army lieutenant colonel on active duty with the District of Columbia National Guard as its inspector general, was stationed in Bosnia when Janice decided to join the team.

• • •

Synchronized skaters today skate far more quickly, and far more athletically, than they did when the sport began as precision skating back in 1954. (The name was changed two years ago to underscore the sport's increasing athleticism and appeal.) Today's synchronized skaters are required to exhibit all of the elements that mark top-quality single skaters: a good edge, sure footwork and great "moves in the field."

Typically, "synchro" teams have between 8 and 20 skaters on the ice at a given time. The more skaters, the more dangerous the sport.

"It takes a more than just practicing on ice," says Susan Petruccelli, who has coached the junior classic team for the last five years. "You have to build stamina and conditioning. And of course you need to do the moves."

And you have to do the moves to music. Competition rules requires a distinct number of changes in tempo according to division level. It is rare to see a coach on the ice without a boom box, constantly rewinding or fast forwarding a tape to rework a particular part of the program.

"You have to be artistically effective and technically proficient," says Debby Jones, a longtime coach, along with Carol Hess, of the Frederick, Md., synchronized skating teams. "Four minutes can end up being a very long time to be out there on the ice."

Skills are so important, in fact, that most synchronized skating teams require their members to take individual lessons in addition to practicing with the team.

Yet synchronized skating offers something for nearly everyone. The Capitol Steps teams represent just four of 14 competitive divisions within synchronized skating, ranging from preliminary to senior, and including adults. All teams are tough competitors: The Capitol Steps' junior classic and teen introductory teams won the silver and bronze medals at the Cape Cod Synchronized Skating Classic last December.

• • •

For parents, having a member of a synchronized skating team in the family means far more than just getting up early. For one thing, the sport is expensive, with monthly dues and costume and travel costs.

Some parents are looking forward to a time when colleges will court good synchronized skaters, just as they do good soccer players.

"There is a future for these girls in college," Mrs. Jones says. "I'm just certain of it."

But the payoff comes in many ways.

"Most of the people on this team are doing better-than-average schoolwork," says Mrs. Pardue, who as principal of St. Francis Xavier School in Southeast is in a position to know.

Few of the junior classic team members attend the same high schools, and together they represent public and private schools in Virginia, Maryland and the District. Many are in advanced classes, says Mrs. Pardue, who attributes their academic achievement to the discipline learned by skating as members of a team.

Of course, winning is as much a state of mind as it is a collection of skills. So is teamwork. For a synchronized skating team, which needs to work together to win, team spirit is all important. Capitol Steps teams have their own distinctive cheers. Parents carve out their own section of the arena with pompoms and handmade signs.

It was Mrs. Pardue who devised the idea of "door hangers," bags filled with assorted treats and candy, several competitions back. The night before the competition, she hung a surprise bag on each team member's hotel door. Now, distinctive door hangers have become part of the team's tradition, every time it is on the road.

Even when they are not on the ice, team members are frequently together, either on arranged activities or simply hanging out with one another.

"All of my daughter's very best friends are on this team," Mrs. Pardue says. "It's a lot like an extended family."

And a family has to work together in order to succeed. In addition to team practices on Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings, team members are required to take individual skating lessons. Janice Pardue, who began skating because she wanted to be like her ice-hockey-playing older brother, skates nearly every morning before school.

But it is all worth it, skaters say, because of the chance it gives them to work for a common goal.

For the members of the Capitol Steps, the immediate reasons for getting involved in the sport are many. Jeff Terkowitz began single skating when he was 7 to help overcome a series of operations on his leg. By the time he was 14, he was coaching skating in the Special Olympics. It was there he met two members of the Capitol Steps, who encouraged him to join.

As the only male, Jeff (one of just a handful of young men among the 400-some synchronized skating teams nationwide) has to put up with lack of facilities.

"I can't use the locker room, so that's hard sometimes," he says. "But then, I don't have to do my hair."

Nearly 6 feet tall, Jeff wears pants of the same color and material as the girls' skirts with a simple white shirt and vest.

"Jeff is so awesome," says Lindsey Brandolini, who is bound for Colgate University next fall and convinced Jeff to join the team while they were both working as volunteer coaches with Special Olympics. (She now runs the skating program there.) "He is so laid back and so patient when dealing with girls. It's great being with him."

• • •

Synchronized skating depends on the skillful execution of five basic elements in a two- to four-minute program. If you thought skating alone was challenge enough, try skating in a straight line with 20 other skaters. Try making a perfectly rounded circle on ice, or moving as a solid unit, or blocking over the ice at a fast clip, perfectly spaced.

Remember the old children's game "snap the whip?" Synchronized skaters do that, too, in a variety of configurations. Finally, there's the "intersection," a skilled maneuver that requires skaters to move through one another while skating at controlled speeds.

It may not be ice hockey, but synchronized skating comes with its own share of dangers. Today's skaters move at such high speeds that a fall can be devastating. And with so many skaters, up to 24 in a team, the danger of being slashed by the blade of a team member's skate is ever present.

"It's hard to stay straight when you are not touching each other," Jeff says. "It takes a lot of concentration to stay in line."

"That's what I love about the sport," Mrs. Jones says. "No other sport requires that level of cooperation. Everybody has responsibility no link in the chain is any less important than any other."

Executed with style, skill, and grace, the five basic moves serve as the foundation of any synchronized skating team. What comes next is something that is not nearly as concrete.

"There's a time in the season when a team gels." Mrs. Schilling says. "There's no magic formula, and you're never sure when it's going to happen, but it's a turning point for everybody the point when it all comes together. When it does, you remember it forever."

• • •

So how did the Washington area's teams fare at the Eastern Sectional Synchronized Skating Championships in Buffalo at the end of January?

The Washington Figure Skating Club's adult master's team, called "Ice Force One," won the silver. Its teen introductory team, the "National Blades," took seventh place. Frederick's junior division and youth introductory teams competed, but finished out of the money.

All three of the Capitol Steps teams that went to Buffalo (the youth introductory team did not go) advanced to the championship round. All three stayed to watch, and cheer, for the others. And the junior classic team was especially pumped.

"They skated the best program they had ever skated," Mrs. Petruccelli said. "They had a difficult formation, and they did it cleanly and with spirit. You could tell the adrenalin was flowing."

In the final round, the Steps' adult masters team took fifth place. The teen intro team placed third. Mrs. Petruccelli's junior classic team took second.

"They were a little disappointed, because they had skated so well and they had lost to this team before," she says.

But you would never have known that during the awards ceremony, when the junior classic team skated over to congratulate the winners, Georgia's Peach Fuzz.

"I told them they took first place for sportsmanship," Mrs. Petruccelli says. "I was really proud of them."

And that, according to skaters, parents, and coaches, is why they don't mind getting up before 5 o'clock on a Saturday morning. Because it is not just getting that lesson on the ice that counts. What count are the lessons about life.

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