Synchronized skating is still a very young sport but one that is gaining popularity at an unprecedented pace.
It is pretty remarkable to see the rapid expansion of the sport when you consider that only seven countries competed at the first international event in Sweden in 1989 and 23 teams representing 18 nations contested the 2010 World Synchronized Skating Championships.
Bearing witness to the evolution of the sport is Canada’s Joanne Shaw, who recently retired from an eight-year stint as the first member on the International Skating Union’s Synchronized Skating Technical Committee.
Shaw first became involved 30-plus years ago, when synchronized skating was known as precision skating. “When I first started, it was like marching. There was no footwork to speak of, no transitions,” she recalled. “The skaters would stop and go between elements, eliminating any actual flow. It really was like they were marching because they had to move their arms at the same time. It was more like a drum corps with no fluidity.”
Shelley Barnett, the coach of Canada’s Nexxice, the 2009 World champions, said that when she began coaching synchro during the 1990s, the choreography dynamic determined the success of a team.
She is delighted that the focus is now on a team’s ability to skate. “That is key, and I think it will continue to become even more so as we move along,” Barnett said. “At some point we’re going to see synchro skaters acknowledged as elite athletes.”
Nexxice choreographer Anne Schelter is also enthusiastic about the growing interest in the sport. “There is beauty in so many skaters moving together. Of course there is the program and all of the stuff about the theme, but more than that we have to focus on the skating,” she said.
Schelter said that during a three-hour training session, Nexxice team members will often devote half the time to practicing and improving their skating skills while the other half is devoted to working on a program.
Canada’s Cathy Dalton has been in the sport for 31 years and is the coach of Black Ice. She recalled that when she first started coaching, synchro was like being part of a carnival show practice, something that skaters did just for fun.
The choreographic aspect has also evolved in ways that could not have been predicted three decades ago. The elaborate footwork and high-risk elements like intersections and lifts that are done at break neck speed leave no doubt that synchro is catching up to the other skating disciplines.
How times have changed.
ALL ABOUT THE ELEMENTS
A synchronized skating team at the senior level is made up of 16 skaters who perform both a short and long program.
What these teams do on the ice and what makes it good or bad is still a mystery to many skating fans.
The moves each team performs are basically the same – how they do it is what separates them. The rules are very specific, and every element or move must cover a prescribed amount of ice.
To help you understand a little more about this great sport, here is the lowdown on the basic elements of synchronized skating.
The circle: Aside from the basic circle, the addition of a circle within a circle, a change of direction while in a circle, skaters not holding on to each other while in a circle or the circle traveling across the ice is a good point scorer. Judges are looking for circles to be consistent.
The wheel: Skaters fan out in a line from a pivot point. What makes this fun to watch is how the skaters can change the wheel from a single line to two parallel lines or move into a three- or four-spoke formation. The difficulty of this element is increased when teams travel across the ice, change direction, or go forward or backward. Judges assess the element on speed, ease of transition and complexity of footwork.
The line: Teams used to only skate in a straight line, traveling from one end of the rink to the other, but now there are also intersecting and pivoting lines. The two lines can switch, and the last skaters on each line can suddenly become the leaders. The judges want to see speed, accuracy and total synchronization.
The block: In this element the skaters are evenly spaced in three to five parallel lines moving in the same direction. The difficulty of a block is increased by the seamless change of the number of lines as well as the addition of footwork, turns and retrogression.
No-hold block: As the name of the element suggests, skaters do not hold on to each other. Teams must be in a four or five-line formation and travel the length of the ice either in a straight or diagonal line. Skaters must start with their last line from behind the goalie crease and skate the length of the ice to the same spot at the other end.
The intersection: This is where one half of the team passes through the other in one of the following configurations: straight line, diagonal, collapsing geometric or whip. The configurations refer to the shape that is taking place at the time of the intersection, and the difficulty is increased by speed and the addition of turns.
If a team is “blind” going into an intersection and relying solely on the accuracy of the set-up more than “eyeballing” their place to pass through, it makes for a much riskier and more spectacular element.
Moves in the field: These are the elements that have been around since the dawn of figure skating: spirals, Ina Bauers, spread-eagles and other free flowing skating moves. A team has to perform three different elements in succession demonstrating speed and strong edge quality, usually in one or two parallel lines.
There are restrictions limiting the amount of ice used between the changes of positions, and an excessive use of ice will result in a deduction. Errors in ice coverage can leave as much as a full point on the table.
Moves in isolation: These moves inject a little punch of drama into a program wherein a minimum of three skaters and no more than eight perform free skating elements. Look for lifts, jumps, spins or spirals. How these elements enhance the program by demonstrating speed and difficulty is what will earn maximum points.
Teams also have the option of including spins in their programs. These are done in a block or circle formation, and skaters must spin in the same direction and perform a minimum of three rotations.
As with all the other skating disciplines, synchronized skating teams perform two programs.
The short program is comprised of six required elements: a circle, a block, an intersection, one moves in the field sequence, one no-hold step sequence in a block formation, and one block step sequence where skaters hold on as often and as long as possible. This year two separate step sequences have been added.
The free program includes 11 elements: the same six elements as in the short plus a second intersection, line, wheel and a third step sequence in a circle. Teams also have the choice of adding another spin, a move in isolation or a pair element such as a death spiral or lift.
Don’t forget that the transitions and the way the skaters move from one element to the next can make or break a team’s program. Choreography is the key.
YOU BE THE JUDGE
Because there is so much to pay attention to on the ice simultaneously, the judges could benefit from an additional pair of eyes.
Judges are always on the lookout for the number three. If three or more skaters fail to execute an aspect of an element, it can result in that element being penalized, downgraded or not even being counted.
Let’s use the moves in the field elements as an example. If three or more skaters fail to execute the move correctly by staying on an outside edge on a spread-eagle or Ina Bauer for the required three seconds, then the level of that element will be downgraded.
If the execution of a spin is compromised by three or more skaters not attempting it, the element will not count.
In general, if three or more skaters make an error that is easily seen in terms of length of time on edge, position or rotations during an element, that element will incur a deduction.
What about falls? Given the high risk, the speed and the fact that 16 pairs of blades are working in such close proximity, it is to be expected that there will be tumbles from time to time.
They are costly mistakes. There is a one-point deduction per skater (to a maximum of two points) for a single incident. If there is a second fall at another point in the program, or if the team’s recovery takes longer than 10 seconds, this also results in additional deductions.
Then there is the issue of a fall impacting the quality of an element that is being performed.
As an example, the score of 7.2 points for a well-done no-hold block with a plus two Grade of Execution (GOE) could easily plummet in a heartbeat to 2.2 points if three skaters fall. If the element gets a minus-three GOE, the team will also suffer a further two-point deduction for the falls.
ALL ABOUT THE TEAM
Regardless of who you talk to, the gift of synchro is in the teamwork. “I really like how we work as a team, and because you are with your friends you get more out of the experience,” said Toronto synchro skater Sarah Murray.
Her teammate Hannah Coyle-Asbil agreed. “At the beginning of the year you meet somebody, a stranger, and by the end of the season that stranger has become your best friend,” she explained.
“These friends are special and with you for life. They see you when you’re sad, happy, frustrated or in tears. They see you with makeup or without, half awake or half asleep, at 4:53 a.m. or 11:30 p.m. The bonds that we create are very special.”
With so much happening on the ice, the excitement of synchronized skating easily travels beyond the boards.
It has to be said that some of the most fun to be had at any synchro competition comes from the enthusiastic crowds.
The fans are pumped, the skaters are pumped, and while what is happening on the ice can be thrilling, the excitement in the stands can be electric. That is probably why so many casual observers have embraced the sport and become passionate fans in no time at all.
Synchro. Skating worth watching!
Pj Kwong is a writer, figure skating coach and television commentator. She can be reached at www.pjkwong.com
Originally published in December 2010