The prep, passion, and pride of figure skating
The Enterprise — Michael Koff
Carving a turn during the Empire State Winter Games’ opening ceremony last Thursday is Guilderland High School ninth-grader Alex Dilillo, who later won a Gold medal in figure skating on Saturday night in Lake Placid. Dilillo says she’s been skating since she was 3 years old.
LAKE PLACID — Figure skaters compete for only a few minutes on the ice after hours, weeks, months, and even years of preparation. Some skaters are near perfect, while others make costly mistakes.
With so much on the line over so little time, anxiety and excitement are almost guaranteed.
Whatever emotions a skater is feeling when her name is called, she must be ready. If not, then she’s only one shaky skate away from error.
“It’s hard to explain the moment,” said Guilderland’s Alex Dilillo, who won a Gold medal last Saturday night at the Empire State Winter Games. “I get off the ice, and I don’t even know what I did.”
Skating to “Chasing Cars” and “Rolling Into the Deep,” Dilillo stole the show at Lake Placid’s 1932 rink. She had undeniable confidence and a joyful smile that never left her face. Dilillo’s creative jig in the middle of her program only added to her originality.
Before her Intermediate Ladies’ Test Track performance, Dilillo, a ninth-grader, said that she usually battles her nerves. With no visible mistakes during her skating, she looked relaxed.
Dilillo had practiced her Gold medal routine “hundreds” of times. She’s skated since she was 3 years old, and now skates six days a week.
“It’s all I’ve ever known,” said Dilillo. “I love being on the ice. It’s unique; it’s cool to me.”
Preparation is everything in figure skating, says Tara Ten Eyck, Dilillo’s coach. “It’s all in the practice,” she said, “the muscle memory.”
There were over 400 figure skaters competing in 103 different groups over 11 skill levels at the Games. Levels range from Limited Beginner to Pre-Juvenile to Senior, and there are two separate judging systems — International and 6.0 — International (IJS) is used for Juvenile or higher.
Kathaleen Cutone, a judge at the Games, who skated in the 1996 United States Nationals, said that participation is growing in the sport. “They’re up-and-coming skaters, so this is their Olympics,” she said. “They watch the really good skaters, see where they want to go, and are inspired to get to the next level.”
The United States Figure Skating Association has more than 680 clubs and 1,000 Basic Skills programs across the nation, and that number is increasing, according to its website. U.S. Figure Skating has an estimated yearly budget of $12.8 million, and U.S. figure skaters have won 46 Olympic medals, more than any other country in history.
Dilillo and her best friend, Téa Mottolese, of Slingerlands, who won a Bronze medal on Saturday night, had been watching U.S. figure skater Ashley Wagner on their phones while in Lake Placid. Wagner is competing at the Olympics in Sochi, and is the 2013 U.S. national champion.
Mottolese, who is named after the actress Téa Leoni, her mother said, has a goal of being just like Wagner one day. “I probably can’t be that amazing, but I want her presence,” said the Emma Willard student. “Skating is her life.”
Since Mottolese and Dilillo skate at the same intermediate level, they often compete against each other. Mottolese skated in the group before Dilillo, and, when Dilillo left the ice after her program on Saturday night, Mottolese bolted from the stands to greet her friend.
“We share the podium, then cause chaos afterwards,” said Dilillo, with Mottolese beaming beside her.
“This sport brings people together,” Mottolese added.
Dilillo and Mottolese had not yet won their medals, but their enthusiasm was a precursor for the good news to come. Their energy was not left on the ice.
Cutone told The Enterprise that, when she judges, she looks for smiles and character from a skater. Are they dramatic or playful? Are they feeling the music?
Mottolese has been skating to “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” from Fantasia in competition for the last three years, she said. She used to have a lighter program, but she said that she needed more power. Sometimes, she winks at the judges.
“They know,” said Mottolese. “Your music needs to fit your personality or you won’t have as much fun. I’m in control, like a Sorceress.”
Judging and coaching
The International Judging System, Cutone says, is judged element by element, as it happens; an element is a jump or a spin. At the end of a program, all the points are added, and an overall evaluation is weighed, too — execution, skill, transitions, performance, emotion, intellect, and choreography.
The 6.0 system is based on two marks, technical merit and composition/style, Cutone said. In this instance, the judges aren’t looking for elements specifically; they’re commenting on the performance as a whole, comparing one skater to another, and looking for pluses or minuses with each skater.
“It’s challenging because you have to switch hats,” said Cutone of judging both systems, which she did at the Empire State Winter Games. “We’re not comparing one skater to another in IJS, so it’s more immediate. Plus, there are different analytical approaches for every judge.”
Figure skating wasn’t meant to be easy.
“It’s harder than it looks,” said Ten Eyck, who also coaches Altamont’s Amanda Vititow; she placed sixth in her first-ever competition at the 1980 rink on Saturday morning. “Where you start from, it takes so long. Amanda skated for a minute and a half today, but she practiced for an hour and a half yesterday. It takes so long to prepare for such a short time. You wouldn’t think so, but that’s how it is.”
Ellen Harris, of Slingerlands, came to Lake Placid last weekend as a defending Gold medalist, but she caught a blade edge and fell during her Friday morning program. Otherwise, she skated well, but got fourth in her Pre-Juvenile group.
Harris had never fallen in competition before. “I wanted to pretend like it didn’t happen, but I kind of freaked out,” she said. “I got too nervous because I thought about forgetting my program, which I usually do, but that’s the one thing that didn’t happen. I need to relax more. I psyched myself out.”
Cutone, who is from the Lake Placid area, but now lives near Boston, likes to watch how a fall affects a skater. “They could be in shock, or pop up and still be in the zone,” she said. “I see the kids’ faces when they’re thinking. Their wheels are turning because they’re being judged, but some kids are really secure.”
Dilillo said that she doesn’t think about the judges or notice any people watching. “It’s in the back of your mind, but you just go out and do what you do,” she said. “You can’t think about them. You get used to it.”
The 1980 rink is much bigger than the 1932 rink, so skaters competing in the 1980 rink may feel more pressure. It’s an arena with red seats, but most of those seats were empty last weekend, and there was an intimidating silence whenever music wasn’t playing between skaters.
The rinks are named for the years they were built when Lake Placid hosted the Olympics.
“It’s really scary,” said Harris of the 1980 rink. “I looked at the red line above the boards, occasionally glancing at my parents and my coach, but I’m not trying to make eye contact with anyone. I’m trying to focus.”
Ten Eyck had wondered how Vititow would feel about having her first-ever competition on such a huge rink — past Olympians had skated on this ice — but the coach was relieved to find out that Vititow wasn’t too bothered by it.
Vititow said that she kept looking through the glass when she was skating. “I scanned the area,” she said. “I felt focused, but a little shaky. I’m glad that it’s over, so I can move on and move up.”
The No Test group Vititow was skating in was for skaters who haven’t passed any skills tests. Each month throughout the season, U.S. Figure Skating will process an average of 5,300 figure- skating skills tests. Vititow says she’s taking a Pre-Preliminary test in April.
Ten Eyck had added a jump to Vititow’s routine just two weeks before the Games. “She did a really nice job,” said the coach. “She has come a long way.”
For a figure skater to pass any skills test, two of three judges need to give a passing mark. Cutone said that younger skaters are more focused on execution.
“They just want to land the element,” said Cutone. “There’s a huge ramp-up to achieve greatness, and figure skaters can’t hide behind a team. We’ve all been there.”
Costly but valued
Over the Edge, Ten Eyck’s club, charges $50 per private lesson. Add to that fees for ice time, skates, dresses, and competitions, and figure skating can become quite pricey.
“Once you decide that’s what you want to do, it’s a huge commitment,” Ten Eyck said. “It’s very expensive and time consuming.”
Ten Eyck has been coaching Dilillo since she was 3 years old, and she’s been wearing a lot of Ten Eyck’s old dresses. Many of the dresses that figure skaters wear are hand made. Vititow’s dress was originally $200, she said, but she re-bought it from another skater.
“It doesn’t matter if you have an $80 dress or a $400 dress,” Dilillo said. “Just as long as you look nice, and your hair is not in your face. You just have to be put together.”
From choreography to hair and make-up, figure skaters live for those precious few minutes that really count. The sport comes with a lot of nervous tension, but Dilillo, Mottolese, Harris, and Vititow wouldn’t have been at the Empire State Winter Games unless they truly loved to skate, and it’s easy to see that they do.
Vititow said she practices at home with her “spinner,” which is exactly what it sounds like, a bar that spins on the ground. She says it drives her family crazy.
“It’s pretty fun, but kind of unsteady,” she said. “The first time I used it, I whipped into it, and went flying off in the other direction.”