Thinking Outside The Box Formation: A Step Into The World Of Synchronized Skating
Believe it or not, I've never written a single blog about synchronized skating. Why? It's really quite simple. I don't know a lot about it despite the fact that synchronized skating competitions have been held in Canada since the first one in Ilderton, Ontario in 1977. Back when I skated (you know, when you had to walk to the rink uphill both ways in the snow and rain), we'd have fifteen minutes or so usually at the end of one session a week dedicated to "precision". As our club's annual ice show would grow closer, we might use it to work on a group number or something but more often than not, those fifteen minutes were spent just doing more freestyle until (as I remember) precision was taken off of the schedule completely at our club. I've watched the odd synchronized skating event and though I'm incredibly impressed by the talent of the skaters to do what they do in such large numbers, without being able to relate to it as a skater personally, I just kind of smile and say "hey! that's great!" rather than take the time to learn more about it... and I'm glad I was approached to write a piece on the upcoming ISU World Synchronized Skating Championships and was consequently able to learn a lot in the process that I can share with all of you who may be in the same boat as I am!
Let's start with the basics. The 2015 World Championships in synchronized skating will be held from April 10-11 in Hamilton, Ontario - a city I've had more than a few cocktails in in my day. Embassy patio? It's the best! Senior teams from around the world consisting of sixteen skaters each will perform both short programs and free skates and like in singles skating, pairs and ice dance are judged in IJS fashion. Last year at Worlds in Courmayeur, twenty three teams participated and the Canadian NEXXICE team won the silver medal for the third consecutive year, sandwiched between two teams from Finland: Marigold IceUnity and the Rockettes. NEXXICE (who train in Hamilton) actually won the World title in 2009, making them the only non-Scandinavian synchro team to ever take the title since the competition's inception in 2000. The Twitter campaign #WhyNotSynchro2018 generated thousands of tweets of support as part of a campaign to make synchro skating an Olympic sport, but it hasn't happened... yet. Two Canadian teams will participate at the event, their selection determined by the 2014 Canadian Synchro Skating Championships which will be held from February 27-March 1 in Charlesbourg, Quebec (a suburb of Quebec City).
I spoke with Sean McKinnon, a synchro photographer and the father of a NEXXICE team member who is also a passionate advocate of the discipline, about what makes synchro skating unique. He explained "the team aspect of synchro is the obvious thing that sets it apart from the other disciplines in skating. Unlike the team event in Sochi, which simply combined performances in the other four disciplines to create an overall score, synchro is truly a team sport, with athletes that train together and compete together in the same program. To get credit for each element in a program (and obtain positive GOE), the elements must be performed correctly (and well) by the entire team, so there is less focus on individual 'stars' and more on developing the skill of all team members. Like ice dance, synchro places more emphasis on turns and edges, unison and precision, and less on jumps, spins, and lifts (though all of these can be incorporated into a synchro program). A challenge that the other disciplines don't have is that a synchro team must perform difficult and complex components well, while still maintaining unison and proper spacing between team members to achieve the best visual presentation of the elements."
Lee Chandler, the only male member of NEXXICE's senior team and coincidentally its co-captain, shared his own thoughts on what makes synchro a unique discipline. Chandler explained "the discipline is unique because it is like a combination of singles, pairs and dance, but with a twist. Synchro is much harder then many people may think. You won't see a lot of jumps or spins like people are accustomed to seeing in singles, but with the changing of the rules, synchro skaters are being encouraged to add spins and jumps as highlights to the already challenging elements. To be a good synchronized skater, you need to be physical strong like a pairs skater, have knee bend and edges like an ice dancer and the agility and quickness of a free skater, all while doing everything in complete unison with fifteen others skating an arms length away. I began synchro ten years ago in my home province of Manitoba. I joined synchro because at the time I was a competitive singles skater and I wanted the experience of a team sport but also, it gave me a few extra hours each week on the ice to practice. Four years ago I decided to retire from my singles career and begin the journey to continue pursuing my goal of competing for Canada. This time the discipline was synchro, and with Nexxice. Looking back, synchro has really enriched my life and given me many opportunities which I would have not gotten any other way."
With so much focus on the prohibitive and ever increasing costs of countries hosting the Olympics, many have argued that adding synchro skating to the Olympics would not only be an expensive addition but would be hard to market without promotable individual stars people can get behind. McKinnon explained, "The dream of the synchro community is, of course, to get the sport into the Olympics. A petition on Change.org has garnered over fifteen thousand signatures and the Twitter campaign #WhyNotSynchro2018 has been generating thousands of tweets in support of this campaign, but it hasn't happened... yet, although there is hope. The ISU has recently modified their rules to accommodate Synchronized Skating as an Olympic sport, and has formally recommended the sport's inclusion to the IOC. My understanding is that the IOC will make this decision by April next year (right around or after the World Championships in Hamilton)." I don't know about you, but I don't know the first thing about hockey or football or cricket but I know they do little vignettes on those team sports' athletes and people seem to be interested just fine... so I personally find that argument a little flimsy. The cost factor? That's a whole other issue that I'd love to leave up to readers to discuss. I'd be happy watching a Winter Olympics consisting of eighty different skating events and nothing else, but that's just me.
Having the World Championships in Canada for the first time since 2007 when they were held is an obvious huge plus for Canadian skating fans wanting to take in the action, as well as Americans who aren't geographically too far removed to make the trip. McKinnon explained the many PROS of this year's World Championships: "All-event ticket packages for Figure Skating Worlds last year in London were going for over a thousand dollars. At one hundred dollars for lower bowl and only seventy-five for upper bowl all-event tickets, the Synchronized Skating World Championships are a bargain for an ISU World Championship event. Your ticket gets you access to all practice sessions and the short and free program days at the FirstOntario Centre in Hamilton (formerly known as Copps Coliseum). This is a great venue, with seating for almost eighteen thousand and we expect a sell out. The location is great because there is tremendous support for Synchronized Skating in Ontario, as well as in Quebec, and Michigan and the mid-west USA, all of which are within a reasonable driving distance. We will probably also draw a lot from the Boston area and the eastern U.S.A, and of course we expect the European teams to bring a large contingent of fans as well. It also wouldn't surprise me if we also see a lot of fans come up from Mexico. They are a developing team, but their fans have been numerous and boisterous at the past two World Championships in Boston and Courmayeur. Attending a World synchro event is unlike any figure skating event you've ever been to (except maybe in Japan). The fans are passionate, loud, and enthusiastic. They often accessorize themselves to support their teams (fans of the Rockettes last year were sporting Freddie Mercury moustaches to compliment their Queen inspired 'We Will Rock You' program). I expect the FirstOntario Centre will be rocking all weekend, and the cheering will be deafening. If you've never been to a World Synchro event before, you owe it to yourself to check it out!" Chandler agreed with McKinnon: "Worlds in Hamilton is going to be a very exciting time. Not just for any synchro skater, but all skating fans who attend. The past two times that Worlds has been in Canada it has been a sold out event with an amazing supportive crowd. I believe that this Worlds will be just as big, if not even bigger! I am most excited to have the opportunity to skate with a hometown crowd, and skate in front of many family and friends who normally don't make it to the World Championships."
As for the 2015 World Synchronized Skating Championships, I think it sounds like a really exciting event that you can really get behind. If this putting together this piece on synchro skating has piqued MY interest in a discipline I quite frankly never really paid much mind to and made me excited about giving synchro "a second chance", I think the same might just be said for you too if you've been in the same boat as I have. Watching some of the performances of these talented teams just blew my mind. Want tickets? Get 'em while they're hot! All you have to do is head over to http://www.skatecanada.ca/event/isu-world-synchronized-skating-championships-2015. You'll thank yourself!