While much of the focus in figure skating is on those contending for titles and medals, for many other athletes the opportunity to represent their respective countries on the World stage is a reward unto itself.
One such skater is Ireland’s Clara Peters. Since making her World debut in 2009 (the first time for an Irish skater) where she finished 52nd, the Dublin native skated into 29th place at the global event last season.
What makes a young girl from a country with very little history in the sport and a lack of high quality facilities decide to become a figure skater? Peters has no logical answer.
“There was no defining moment. I wasn’t at a skating show, I didn’t see it on TV, no one in my family skates,” she said. “I just have always wanted to skate.”
Born in Essen, Germany, Peters and her family returned to Ireland when she was still an infant.
“I got my first pair of skates when I was around 7,” Peters said, adding that it was pester power that eventually made her mother agree to buy her skating boots.
“I skated sometimes when I was visiting family in Europe or on holiday. There were a few rinks in Dublin I would go to every now and then.”
“When I got my first pair of skates, my mom then had no excuse not to take me to the rink. She couldn’t say that: ‘Oh, they don’t have a small enough pair’ because I had my own skates. It just went from there and I got really into it when I was about 9 or 10.
“I did my first competition in 1999. I was so excited. It was a little beginners competition, like a one-minute program. I still remember the entire routine, my music, my dress, everything,” Peters recalled, laughing at the recollection.
Shortly after she began skating, the rink closest to her home burnt down and she had to train at another location on the other side of Dublin city. Conditions weren’t exactly ideal.
“The rink was in a converted cinema and was very small. When the weather got warmer in the summer, you could actually feel the pipes under the ice,” Peters explained. “But it was ice. It was what we had and we were all very grateful for it. “
Disaster struck in 2000 when that rink, the only one in Dublin, closed down suddenly, leaving Peters and everyone else with nowhere to skate.
“When the rink closed, a lot of us ended up travelling to Belfast, Northern Ireland,” Peters said. “Unfortunately, a few good skaters weren’t able to make the trip as often as they liked, but I have a great family and they supported me through everything. I was at the rink every weekend.”
The almost three hour journey from Dublin to Belfast became a routine for Peters and her family for a number of years, Peters recalled. “I would leave school early Friday afternoon and either my mom would drive me up or I’d take the train with my gran. Sometimes we’d come home that night or we’d stay through Sunday evening or sometimes even Monday morning. I’d skate Monday morning and go back to school Monday afternoon.”
Now seriously committed to the sport Peters came to a crossroads in 2004 and had to make a move to the next level. “It was the summer I turned 13. I had decided that I wanted to represent Ireland, I wanted to progress, and I wanted to do something with my sport. I realized to achieve what I wanted I would have to go abroad. I was looking at Europe, the U.S., or Canada.”
Relocating proved a daunting challenge for Peters and her family who had no connection with the skating world until serendipity intervened.
“At the time I’d been doing off-ice workouts at one of the Irish universities and the lady who was helping me was Canadian. She had worked with a Canadian hockey team and put me in touch with Kerry Leitch. It was just through knowing the right people at the right time that everything worked out. The stars were aligned at that point.”
In the summer of 2005, Peters and her mother travelled to Florida to try out with Leitch. Things clicked and the decision was made that she would move there on a permanent basis. It was a big step for the then 14-year-old.
“The following January I moved to Florida on my own. I stayed with a family. It was hard, but I knew what I wanted and I knew I wasn’t going to get the training that I needed in Dublin.”
Early on, both she and her coach knew her skating technique needed a complete overhaul.
“I learned how to skate from scratch basically. I had been doing double jumps with poor technique and mediocre spins. It was just a matter of breaking everything down, setting very good foundations and working from there. You could say that I’ve only really been skating for seven years,” she said.
When Leitch retired in 2008 Peters was forced to find a new training environment. “Kerry had actually moved to Florida 10 years earlier to retire. That didn’t quite happen,” Peters explained.
“He and Ron Ludington are very good friends and they arranged that I would move to Delaware to train.”
In the fall of 2008 Peters made her international debut at two Junior Grand Prix events in Spain and the Czech Republic.
When she stepped onto the ice at the 2009 Europeans, she made history by becoming the first Irish skater to participate in an International Skating Union championship. It was the fulfilment of her childhood dreams.
“It was an incredible feeling. I don’t think it has even sunk in yet. It was something that I’d always dreamed of when I was a little girl. At school when we were asked to write where we saw ourselves in 10 years. My classmates wrote that they wanted to be a ballerina, doctor, garda (Irish police officer) or an astronaut. I wrote: ‘I want to represent Ireland at Europeans and Worlds.’
“To look back and be able to say ‘I’ve done that’ is indescribable. To be on the ice representing my country is an amazing thing and it is something few people get to experience.”
While she has already achieved so much as a skater, the ultimate goal remains — to be the first figure skater from Ireland to compete at the Winter Olympic Games — and Peters knows next season will be very important in her pursuit of that objective.
“I don’t remember not wanting to skate. I don’t remember not wanting to be at the Olympics representing Ireland. The two have gone hand in hand and I’m getting the chance to do that. The qualifiers this season are the World Championships in Canada and one next season and I’m putting everything into it to accomplish my dreams,” she said.
Peters is so focused on her competitive career she hasn’t given much thought to life after skating. “I’ve a few little ideas I’m throwing around. I’m not sure. I’ve had the last 10 years of my life planned out to the day. I think I might try this whole winging it thing that everyone talks about. I probably won’t though. In six months I’ll probably have everything figured out to the day till I’m 50.
For now, I’m going to enjoy performing for people and be grateful for every moment I’m on the ice.”
Adapting to a new country and lifestyle have presented their own challenges. “I have been in the States six and a half years and I still would say I haven’t quite adapted. I go to the rink Monday to Friday. I’m training so I don’t really experience the true lifestyle.
"The food is very different. In the early years I convinced my gran to send me teabags and chocolate.”
SKATING IN THE REPUBLIC OF IRELAND
Figure skating and winter sports in general have a relatively short history in Ireland. This is due to several factors, the foremost being the mild climate, which means a lack of snow and ice during the coldest months of the year. In addition, until the early 1970s the country was one of the poorest in Europe and most ordinary people did not have the disposable income to partake in any activity that required expensive equipment.
While ice shows had come to Ireland intermittently, there had never been a permanent ice rink built. This all changed in 1980 when the Dublin Ice Rink opened in a converted cinema in Dolphin’s Barn Rialto, an area on the southside of Dublin. The rink surface was small, a mere third the size of an Olympic rink, but locals flocked to the new facility and Irish figure skating was born.
Two years later, a second rink opened in the capital. The Silver Skate Ice Rink was located in Phibsborough on the northside of the city. It was no coincidence that interest in skating increased at this time as most people living on the east coast or near the Northern Ireland border had access to British television broadcasts of figure skating events. Stars such as Robin Cousins and Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean and even Katarina Witt remain household names to this day.
Figure skating in Ireland finally began to organise in 1989 with the formation of the Figure and Free Ice Skating Club at the Dolphin’s Barn rink. Two sisters from Belfast, Margaret and Ann Marie O’Neill, were employed as coaches. Initially there were 10 members which expanded to 25 by 1991 when the first annual club competition took place that October.
Soon a handful of these skaters were taking part in competitions in the United Kingdom held under the auspices of the British national governing body, the National Ice Skating Association (NISA).
Margaret O’Neill returned to Northern Ireland in 1993 and moved her skating school to Coleraine. The Dublin Ice Skating Club was formed at the Silver Skate Ice Rink in 1994 and Joanne Ulyett, who was hired as a coach, travelled from Belfast to Dublin twice a week to give lessons. The club continued to add new members and expand.
In 1995, the Republic of Ireland Ice Skating Association (RIISA) was established. A decision was taken to affiliate with NISA as it would allow members immediate access to competitions in the U.K. and to advance under the NISA testing structure.
By 1997 the membership of the Dublin Ice Skating Club had grown such that it was necessary to employ a second coach, Sue Walsh, who also journeyed down from Northern Ireland to teach.
The Celtic Tiger was beginning to roar when Dolphin’s Barn closed its doors in 1998 after a fire burned the venue down. Nevertheless, the Dublin Ice Skating Club was going from strength to strength and by 2000 it had 120 members. Then, unexpectedly, in September that year the Silver Skate rink also met its demise (it was rumoured that insurance costs had soared out of control) and Irish skaters were left without an ice rink for the first time in 20 years.
Some chose to commute on weekends to the Dundonald Ice Bowl in the Belfast suburbs, the only Olympic size rink on the island, but most were forced to abandon the sport. RIISA also terminated its affiliation with NISA.
A lengthy media campaign was undertaken to raise awareness about the lack of facilities for ice sports in Ireland. At the same time, a period of unprecedented prosperity and an influx of immigrants from countries with much longer and richer traditions in figure skating presented an opportunity.
A seasonal ice rink was opened by the Dublin City Council in Smithfield Square in the city centre for Christmas/New Year and, in subsequent years, similar ventures sprung up in other parts of the city as well as in Cork, Limerick, Galway and Kilkenny.
Finally in December 2006, the Dundalk Icedome opened making it the first Olympic size ice rink in Ireland. Located an hour’s drive north of Dublin and minutes away from the border with Northern Ireland, skaters were soon descending en masse to the rink.
RIISA changed its name to the Ice Skating Association Ireland (ISAI) at an Extraordinary General Meeting in February 2007 and set up a learn to skate program called Emerald Skate as well as training and workshops for coaches. In 2008, the ISAI was accepted as a member of the International Skating Union (ISU).
The exploits of Clara Peters at the European and World levels have brought unprecedented attention to the sport of figure skating in Ireland in the last few years. Peters left her homeland in 2006 to train with Kerry Leitch in Florida and subsequently moved to Delaware where she is now coached by Ron and Karen Ludington.
In 2010, Viv Murphy became the first male Irish skater to compete in an ISU event when he competed at the World Junior Figure Skating Championships.
One week after Irish nationals in May 2010, technical issues with the ice-making equipment resulted in the Dundalk Icedome temporarily closing down. Despite assurances that it would reopen within a matter of weeks it never did, another victim of Ireland’s economic downturn. Once again, Irish skaters were left without ice and faced with the choice of making the journey up to Dundonald or waiting until the seasonal ice rinks opened for Christmas.
The ISAI believed it was imperative that a solution be found to correct the lack of permanent ice and, in cooperation with the Irish ice hockey and curling associations, sought to address the issue. In late 2011, entrepreneur Mark Bowes stepped forward with a proposal for a suitable site for a home for ice sports in Ireland.
The National Ice Sports Arena opened in April 2012 and it is hoped that this new base will provide a solid foundation for the further development of figure skating in the years to come.
Irish skating took another leap forward a couple of months ago when national junior champions Deirdre Faegre and Conor Stakelum both received Junior Grand Prix assignments.
Faegre and Stakelum will both compete in Lake Placid, N.Y., (Aug. 29 – Sep. 2).
This will mark the first time Ireland will be represented by two skaters in the same season at the Junior Grand Prix. While Faegre competed at the Junior Grand Prix event in Milan, Italy last season, this will be Stakelum’s debut at the international level.