Around and around, Kathleen Martinus spins on the ice — skate blades flashing, dark ponytail flying.
The Edina eighth-grader spends three to four hours every day, six days a week, at Pleasant Ice Arena in St. Paul, honing her skills in pursuit of a dream: to become an elite figure skater.
“One of my goals is to go to Nationals next year,” 13-year-old Kathleen said. She’s so committed that she’s given up piano lessons, some sleepovers and birthday parties. Four years ago, her family moved from La Crosse to the Twin Cities to support her efforts. “I knew if I stayed in Wisconsin I wouldn’t advance — I needed to train professionally.”
Her drive may be exceptional, but she shares her dream with countless Minnesota skaters, many of whom invest hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars a year in hopes of gliding into the spotlight while they’re still young enough.
The odds are long.
U.S. Figure Skating, the governing body for the sport, which is holding its national championships this week in the Twin Cities, counts nearly 7,800 members in Minnesota. But only 12 skaters with Minnesota ties qualified to compete this year. Becoming one of them takes years of dedication — and not just by the skater.
“It takes a lot from the family, to put it mildly,” said Kathleen’s father, Ferdy Martinus, who juggles his schedule to accommodate hers.
He’s not complaining. He and his wife have committed to supporting their daughter, who took to the ice at age 4.
“At age 7, we weren’t sure if this kid was serious,” he said. “After awhile, we realized she was. She’s a perfectionist, highly motivated.”
They shuttled to the Twin Cities for two years, finally uprooting the family, so that Kathleen could train with Ann Eidson of the St. Paul Figure Skating Club, who has coached 61 competitors to Nationals.
It takes a village to make a champion. In addition to Eidson, Kathleen works with five other coaches, including a jump coach, a ballet coach and a choreographer. “It’s a team, the right team,” said her father. “That’s how a skater can really be successful.”
Having the national championships in town this week is certain to attract more young skaters. The last time the Twin Cities hosted Nationals, in 2008, local interest spiked. “This is not going to have the impact of the Olympics, but it will impact participation,” said coach Barb Yackel, of Blades-N-Motion in South St. Paul.
Although only a handful of locals compete, other skaters also take part in the event, from cheering in the stands to getting one of several coveted on-ice roles.
About 80 youths will take part in Thursday’s opening ceremony, which tells the story of Minnesota’s skating history, said Yackel, who is coaching the routine. Young skaters also serve as “presenters,” handing medals to champions, and as “sweepers,” scooping up flowers tossed onto the ice.
Tenley Rutledge, age 10, is skating in the opening ceremony. The Chanhassen girl has wanted to be a competitive skater since she was 5. Her five-times-a-week training is “a big time commitment,” said her mother, Nadine Rutledge, who is one of Tenley’s two coaches.
It’s also a big financial commitment. In addition to coaching fees, there are club dues, ice contracts, competition fees and related travel, not to mention the cost of skates, $1,000 and up for high-level skaters. Competition dresses are typically custom-made and hand-embellished with rhinestones, at a cost of about $300.
“I hate to add it up,” said Nadine of the cost. “It snowballs.”
Parents also put in time. Last Sunday, Chrissy Frank of Crystal spent her afternoon at the Bloomington Ice Garden, operating the CD player during rehearsal for the opening ceremony, which includes her daughter Brianna Muchai, 13.
“Your kid enjoys it, you just support ’em,” Frank said. As to what she spends on skating, “I don’t even want to know. It would probably make me cry.”
There’s a sense of urgency because the window to achieve elite status is narrow. Isabelle Jordan of Cottage Grove skates two hours a day, five days a week, but at 14, she knows that Nationals is out of reach.
“I should have started when I was younger. I was 7 or 8,” she said. “In figure skating, you have to start young if you want to go places.” Her goal: to skate with Disney on Ice.
But even without national glory, parents and skaters say they gain much from their participation in the sport.
Tenley says she’s learned to persevere. Struggling to land an axel, “I fell a lot,” she said. “My mom encouraged me. I’m glad I stuck with it. ”
Kathleen says skating has made her more patient and polite. Her father agreed. “She’s shaping up to be a fine person,” he said. “Skating contributed, very much so.
And if her dreams don’t come true, she has a backup plan: her 4-year-old brother.
So far he’s shown only minimal interest, but Kathleen is encouraging him, her father said. “She says if she can’t get to the Olympics, she wants him to, and she will be his manager.”