A synchronized skating team from Minnesota is headed to Switzerland with high hopes.
Twenty figure skaters from 14 schools across the Twin Cities took the ice together on a recent evening, the embodiment of precision -- down to the power of their strides, hair meticulously pulled back tightly, rhinestone earrings and wide smiles.
"Ready? Five, six, seven eight -- step!" Coach Pam May shouted, her voice cutting through the sound of 20 sets of blades scraping across the ice. "Arms down! Let's try it again!"
Team Braemar Junior is one of the best synchronized skating teams in the world. The skaters, age 14 to 19, hope their extra work pays off during Thursday's performance at the U.S. Synchronized Skating Championships in Maine, where last year the team placed fifth, and next week at the Junior World Challenge Cup in Neuchatel, Switzerland.
The team from the Braemar - City of Lakes Figure Skating Club has reached a new level this year. The team's off-ice captain, Sara Swenson, has been a synchronized skater for 10 years and said Braemar was often in the shadow of teams like the Chicago Jazz and Michigan's Hockettes, the nation's first synchronized team founded in 1956.
"We're finally a team that other teams fear competing against," Swenson said. "A lot of people are speculating that we're going to be fighting for first place at nationals."
When the skaters return from Maine, they'll have a day to make up tests at school and practice on home ice, and then it's off to Switzerland to chart new territory. The team will be the first Minnesota synchronized skating team to compete at the world championships, known in the skating world as the "Olympics of synchronized skating." The team will be representing the United States, along with a team from Chicago. Team Braemar Junior was also the first Minnesota team to skate at the Spring Cup in Milan, Italy, last month.
"Going to worlds has always been a dream of mine," said Swenson, a senior at the Blake School. "It's hard to believe we actually made it this far."
Synchronized skating is a team sport of eight to 20 skaters who move together to music at high speeds, creating intricate formations of blocks, circles, wheels and lines. Teams are judged much the same way individuals and pairs skaters are. But competing at the national and world levels involves more than figure eights and sit-spins.
In addition to more than 10 hours of on-ice practice a week, the skaters work off ice on choreography, stretches and facial expressions. For the first time, this year the team took ballroom dance classes to work on body position, presentation and emotion. Many of the team's skaters also work on their individual skills outside of team practice.
Team captain Laurie Peltola even conducts her own "outside investigation." She watches other teams' performances on YouTube, studies her teammates' body positions in performance photos and videos, and reads SynchroBoards.com, a synchronized skating discussion board.
Besides hard work, another factor that makes Team Braemar Junior so good is its level of experience. Half of the team is made up of seniors. "We have a lot of kids that have skated together for many years," said Coach Pam May. "Every year we all learn a little bit more, and competition gets a little tougher, and I think the girls just get more eager to win."
A sacrifice, but it's worth it
Competing on a world-class team comes with its share of sacrifices, however, including a lot of school absences and make-up tests. "I'll only be in school four days during the month of March," Swenson said on a recent Wednesday after making up math and biology tests.
The skaters seem to be high-achievers on and off the ice, however, and make sure to study while they travel. Hannah Erickson, a senior at Breck, earned a spot on the 2009 U.S. Figure Skating Scholastic Honors Team and was named by U.S. Figure Skating as one of 10 exceptional scholar athletes.
The girls also miss out on some social activities with their classmates during competition season. Swenson missed a recent school dance because she was catching up on homework she missed while in Italy. She's also devoted to her school's theater program, but had to skip the winter musical because of the upcoming competitions.
"I was a little disappointed," Swenson said. "But going to worlds is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Missing the school dance to see the world isn't such a bad tradeoff, many of the skaters said. "None of us would trade what we get to do," Peltola said, adding that the team also has competed all over the country and in Prague and Croatia.
Next week, they'll add Switzerland to their passports.
When they're away from home, the skaters said it helps to have one another. Even though the team is made up of girls from different schools, they have become like "sisters" to one another.
"You don't usually get to be friends with people from outside of school," Peltola said. "That's the best part about it. It's fun to have friends from all over the metro."
Synchronized skating is a mystery to many people, largely because it's not an Olympic sport.
"We're at the peak of synchronized skating and it's a bummer we don't get more recognition," Peltola said.
There are, however, about 525 synchronized teams registered with U.S. Figure Skating. And more colleges are adding synchronized skating to their sports rosters, including the University of Minnesota, which has the Synergy synchronized skating team.
Becoming one of the best teams in the world comes down to a passion to skate.
Swenson quickly rattled off her favorite skating memory: "There were so many emotions running through me in 2004, when I was on the novice synchro team and we qualified for nationals. I felt so proud, thinking this is the best thing that would happen. Here I am five years later and the same thing is happening. ... But this time I'm going to worlds."
Aimée Blanchette • 612-673-1715