The Sochi Winter Olympics are now in full swing and like past contests, figure skating is one of the most watched events. Over the years, many Olympic skaters have trained at the University of Delaware’s skating facility in Newark.
The official name of UD’s facility is the Ice Skating Science Development Center. The driving force behind making Delaware an attractive destination for skaters looking to go for the gold is Ronald Ludington. The Olympic bronze medalist and world skating champion is a big part of bringing world-class skaters to the First State.
The Fred Rust Ice Arena on UD’s campus in Newark is a high performance skating center that has served as home for Olympic skaters from other countries, as well as for American Olympians like Tara Lapinski and Johnny Weir, both of whom will be analysts at the 2014 Olympic Games.
It’s also home to another group of champions. The University of Delaware Figure Skating Team won a national championship title in 2013. “That’s our third national championship,” says UD figure skating team coach Joel McKeever. “Every year we’re strong…Everyone tries to be the best they can be.”
The UD figure skating team is a club sport, which means they don’t get full funding from the school. “We do receive a few funds, but most of it is coming out of our own pocket,” says skater Dana Sivak. “It is student run, that’s part of the club sport terms, rather than run by a select number of individuals that are hired by the university.”
But the team does receive an abundance of support from many of their fans, including one fairly well known UD graduate. “When we came back from fall classes this past semester, we were told that we had received a letter from Joe Biden, and it was really exciting,” says Sivak. “The team really enjoyed feeling that support.”
The current team has 34 members, including skaters having various levels of experience. “I began skating when I was 5 years old,” says Sivak. “I’m from Chicago, Ill., so skating definitely brought me to Delaware. I’ve been competing for 16 years and I’m currently a senior level competitor and been at that level for 5 years now.”
Her teammate Clara Sherman started at age ten, a lot later than most competitive figure skaters. “Of course, as a little kid, you have Olympic dreams, but soon you find out that’s probably not going to happen,” Sherman says. “I have been skating ever since I have been competing individually since then, and knew I wanted to continue…in my college years.”
For most people, their sole connection to figure skating comes every four years during the Olympics. “A common question is ‘Oh you skate?’” says Sivak. “And I go, ‘Yeah.’ And then they go ‘Are you going to the Olympics?’ That’s immediately the first question.”
For Sherman, the questions often center around the high profile jumps that typically make up an Olympic performance, so it becomes a matter of managing expectations and explaining the sport. “’Can you do a back flip? Can you jump? Can you spin? Do you do a triple axle?’ And of course, most of the things they ask you if you can do, you can’t do, which is a let down for them, but it’s fun to explain what the sport means to you and what you can do. No back flips for me, sadly.”
The figure skating competition in Sochi has already seen lots of spinning and triple axles, and the Delaware team has high hopes for our America’s chances on the ice.
“In ladies, I think Gracie Gold is amazing,” says McKeever, who admits he watches with more of a critical eye than the average fan. “When you’re in the sport, I appreciate a lot of quality, but it takes a little bit more to make me go ‘Ooh and aah.’ Mind you, even the worst skater [at the top level] is phenomenal. I mean you sit there and the physics of it is amazing, but [Gold’s] jumping is some of the most perfect, exact jumping I’ve ever seen in the sport.”
“I’m definitely looking forward to seeing Ashley Wagner,” says Sherman, “She’s always been one of my favorites, I feel like I’ve seen her transform from like a younger skater just on the scene, to someone who’s so mature, so graceful and really understands the sport now and it’s great to see.”
“I’m hoping they enjoy the experience, and I hope they allow themselves to do what I know they can because we have some phenomenal young skaters,” says McKeever, offering the same advice he gives to the Delaware squad. “You train very hard so you know under pressure you are good enough to do it.”
And if what we witnessed at their practice is any indication, there’s a good chance the University of Delaware team will be bringing home a 4th national title.