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  Comments (0) Total Thursday Apr. 17, 2014
Dreams on Ice
Figure skating is gaining popularity in the Flathead, due to the efforts of the Whitefish Figure Skating Club
Muriel Mercer practices with the Glacier Skate Academy at the Stumptown Ice Den on Wednesday, January 9, 2014. - Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon
WHITEFISH – Carol Anderson is calm and deliberate as she skates behind a boy, who, at the moment, looks like he’s focusing all of his energy on not falling at the Stumptown Ice Den.

“Push, push,” Carol says, rhythmically. “Push.”

The boy teeters along, eyes big under his helmet, unknowingly following the path of countless others Carol has taught over the years.

Skating is tough to learn at first, since it sets us in motion on a very slippery surface. It is also a deep and hallowed tradition, one that is gaining momentum in the Flathead.

Carol knows all this. She knows a lot about skating, actually; she’s been on the ice for 78 of her 82 years, starting as a 4-year-old in Duluth, Minn., and eventually founding the Whitefish Figure Skating Club 20 years ago.

“It’s just in my blood,” she says, as she takes off her white skates and leaves them on the table to be sharpened.

As the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics approaches, most American eyes will be trained upon dozens of bedazzled figure skaters, who, once every four years, receive the kind of uninterrupted attention usually reserved for professional basketball, football and baseball players.

Figure skating is televised at other times, but the Winter Olympics provides its biggest stage, when audiences see what can happen if dreams are pursued day in and day out, and all the toil out of the limelight is globally recognized on a podium, with medals, flowers and adulation.

Through this exposure, the Winter Olympics sends kids to their local rinks to learn the rigors of skating. In the Flathead, that usually means heading to the Stumptown Ice Den in Whitefish to practice at the Glacier Skate International Training Academy, which teaches power skating for all levels of hockey players and figure skaters through the Whitefish Figure Skating Club.

And one of the first things these new students will understand about figure skating is that it is quite difficult to master.

“It’s one of the hardest sports in the world,” said Chad Goodwin, the figure and power skating coach and director for the Glacier Skate International Training Academy in Whitefish.

Take the speed and power of hockey, add leg-punishing leaps and dizzying spins, then try to hide how hard it all is through grace, and you’ve got figure skaters. These are athletes whose jobs are making incredible feats on unforgiving ice look easy.
The advanced figure skaters in the club perform this job well.

Last week they flew around the rink, listening to pop music as they worked on their skills, their skates gliding sharply, carving up the Stumptown Ice Den. Occasionally, they fall. It’s part of the sport. But one of the first lessons taught at the Glacier Skate’s learn-to-skate program is how to fall safely, and then how to get back up.

Julia Esakoff, 13, practices with the Glacier Skate Academy at the Stumptown Ice Den on Wednesday, January 9, 2014. - Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

A gaggle of beginners learned this earlier that evening, during the second lesson of the season. Kids, ranging in age from 2 to 8, wore helmets as they adventured across the ice – stomping, whooshing, or merely standing there, depending on their ability level.

One rogue skater – looking to be young enough that walking was probably a recent phenomenon – spent the lesson sitting on a bucket, digging the heel tips of his skates into the ice, and scooting around the rink.

All of these steps are important for the learning process, Goodwin said, and more kids are interested than ever before. Glacier Skate took over skating lessons from the Whitefish parks and recreation department this year.

“We might have maxed out at over 100 kids,” Goodwin said during a break in teaching.

There were 10 kids in the club’s summer program, which ran over three weeks in August. The hockey and figure skaters took to the ice from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., learning from distinguished skaters like Scott Davis, the 1993 and 1994 U.S. national champion and Olympic figure skater.

Goodwin’s program is also gaining ground on the regional stage, with five of his skaters attending the U.S. Northwest Regional Figure Skating Championships last October.

He hopes to keep improving upon the club’s talent, and to do so, Glacier Skate has sent in a proposal to the Whitefish Parks and Recreation department to keep the rink iced up all year. If it happens, Whitefish would be the only city in Montana with year-round ice on the floor, Goodwin said.

“It would be changing the mentality of skating from the seasonal, something you do on the pond in the winter, to something you can do year-round,” Goodwin said.

Muriel Mercer practices with the Glacier Skate Academy at the Stumptown Ice Den on Wednesday, January 9, 2014. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Goodwin’s athletes do skate through the summer, but they have travel to places with ice, usually to Medicine Hat, Alberta. Keeping the Ice Den open could be a boon for the economy, he said, because out-of-town skaters would flock here.

The local skaters would benefit by getting more practice; each month they spend off the ice must be made up with a month of training when the ice comes back, he said. And these kids have the potential to blow up the regional scene, he said; already, one skater, 13-year-old Julia Esakoff, has made it to the qualifying round at Regionals, which is a considerable step on the road to the junior nationals.

“My goal is to make it at least to world’s, maybe even the Olympics,” Esakoff said last week.

She’s so dedicated to the sport that she recently started homeschooling, allowing her more flexibility for training, which she does two, sometimes three hours a day.

One of her teammates, 9-year-old Muriel Mercer, is similarly dedicated. A skater for six years already, Mercer’s goal for 2014 is to land all of her double jumps before the year’s end. She trains six days a week, and the Flying Camel is her preferred move. She also wants to make it to the Olympics.

All of the skaters know Carol, as do many adults now skating into their 20s. Carol and her late-husband Jim moved to Whitefish 40 years ago, and finally retired here in 1985.

She’s skated since she was a child in Minnesota, and got a job with the Ice Follies – the biggest national ice show before the Ice Capades – in 1951.

“We had our own train at the time, and went all over the country,” she said.

She skated when she found time, but raising four kids and moving around with Jim’s job for the railroad kept her busy. Still, Carol had always wanted to choreograph an ice show, and retiring in Whitefish gave her the time. There wasn’t a rink in town then, but she joined in with others who successfully supported opening an outdoor rink.

Carol Anderson is pictured during the Glacier Skate Academy practice at the Stumptown Ice Den on Wednesday, January 9, 2014. - Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Carol’s first ice show came about in 1991, after she put a sign-up sheet in the schools to draw performers. She created the costumes, picked out the music and choreographed, all for a good-natured crowd of spectators who weren’t afforded the luxury of bleachers around the rink for a few years after it opened.

Interest in figure skating grew, she said, and in 1993 Carol founded the Whitefish Figure Skating Club, which is now a member of the U.S. Figure Skating Association, and has put on an annual performance ever since.

“I’ve skated in every show for 20 years,” she said.

Goodwin said Carol’s dedication to the program and to skating is second to none. She free skates three or four times a week, and will gravitate toward anyone looking like they’re having some trouble and give them some pointers.

Carol said one of the most rewarding experiences she’s had was seeing a young man struggling to skate, offering to help him, and then learning he was a military veteran who had just gotten out of service in Iraq and wanted to cross learning to skate off his bucket list.

“What I like is teaching kids, teaching people, how to skate,” she said.

And at 82, that’s no small feat. Carol suffered a concussion in the spring of 2012 after slipping, so she’s taking it easy these days, but refuses to stay off the ice. One doctor said she should give it up, Carol said, but another said it was up to her.

“At the end of it, I decided I’m going for it,” she said.

In town where there wasn’t even an indoor rink, there are now Olympic skating dreams, thanks to Carol.

“She started the figure skating club here when it was an outdoor rink. Some clubs struggle, but she kept it going,” Goodwin said. “Without her, there probably wouldn’t be a club.”

For more information on the Glacier Skate International Training Academy and the Whitefish Figure Skating Club, visit www.glacierskateacademy.org.
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