Nathan Chen made headlines last year when he announced that he would become a full-time student at Yale University. Not many Singles, Ice Dance or Pairs skaters of Chen’s calibre have gone on to pursue both academics and athletics. However, for many Junior and Senior Synchronized Skaters, this balancing act is all too familiar.
Team Tatarsan (RUS) at the ISU World Synchronized Skating Championships 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
How do you Balance?
Synchronized skating is not a sport where you can become a professional, nor can you compete in the Olympics. These two realities push many skaters towards obtaining university and or college degrees, and that is where the tension lies: balancing the prime of their skating careers with the beginning of their working careers.
“I had to learn from an early age to balance between skating and school, so my time management skills are really good now,” said Zagreb Snowflakes (Croatia) co-captain, Zitta Sermek.
Time management is critical to the success of any high level athlete but adding school into the mix further complicates scheduling for many synchronized skaters.
“We practice every day except Friday,” said Team Tartarstan (Russia) skater, Madina Asrorova. “There’s no day that I’m doing nothing...I often leave around 7:30 in the morning and arrive home at 10:00pm.”
Taylor Johnston of NEXXICE Senior (Canada) echoes Asrorova sentiments, where any free time is viewed a luxury.
“You have more hours in a day than you think,” said Johnston. “If we have a day off from practice I genuinely sometimes do not know what to do as I have learned how to condense so much into an hour.”
Team Nexxice (CAN) at the ISU World Synchronized Skating Championships 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
In the United States, college sports are a $1 Billion USD industry, driving fierce competition and many high level athletes down this path before going professional or joining major clubs. While many traditional sports like football and hockey lead this charge, Synchronized Skating is also a part of this mix—and a competitive one at that.
Ashley Carlson is the head coach of Adrian College Senior, Collegiate and Open Collegiate teams. She explains the difference between the college levels:
“According to US Figure Skating rules, all Collegiate and Open Collegiate athletes must be full-time students at a college or university. This is not the case for traditional Senior teams. However, at Adrian College, all of our student-athletes must be full-time students at our school at the undergraduate or graduate level.”
At the Senior level, college teams have the opportunity to compete at the ISU World Championships, should they qualify, as they follow ISU requirements in both program structure and judging.
“The reality at Adrian is that skating and school are not separate, but we like it that way!” said Carlson. “We've designed a skating program that fully supports student-athletes in their goal of being the most successful student they can be while pursuing their competitive skating dreams.”
The unique set up in the U.S. allows Synchronized Skaters the opportunity to choose between a club-based team or a college-based team. Many club-based teams have the advantage of drawing from a wide pool of athletes (non-students and or students from any university), whereas college teams are limited to their own student body, but also have access to a wide range of perks.
“Skating for our school also means that we receive funding for training, competitions, medical support from athletic trainers and doctors, access to first-rate training facilities, and a full-time coaching staff,” said Carlson. “Coaches are kept in the loop on each team member's grades every semester so that if they need more support, we can encourage them to utilize academic services or help them with time management.”
While professors are supportive of Adrian Senior team schedules, additional international assignments in the 2017/18 season initially raised some concern about the skaters prolonged absence. To further complicate things, the team experienced a travel delay following their silver medal finish at the 2018 ISU Trophy D’Ecosse.
“We got stuck in Scotland for an extra four days after our second international competition,” said Carlson. “Our Athletic Director was with us, and he called the Dean of Students and made sure all faculty were aware of the situation. We made it work! Since then, many of those team members have gone on to Medical School, Engineering graduate programs and lucrative careers.”
If you had the choice: would you do it?
Team Rockettes (FIN) at the ISU World Synchronized Skating Championships 2019©International Skating Union (ISU)
For many Synchronized Skaters, balancing skating and school is not a choice, but a necessity. But what if they had the option—would they separate these two priorities? Despite the challenges, many skaters expressed that they wouldn’t change their current situation, and instead they view it as a beneficial part of both their career and athletic development.
“I think balancing school and skating is a very good learning experience; I would recommend it to anyone,” said Sermek. “Thanks to skating, I have travelled all over the world, but thanks to my studies I have a bright future ahead of me and have an opportunity to study and do what I’m interested in.”
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Today we skated our last short program and even though this wasn’t our best skate we are ready for tomorrow’s disco! We’ll be 7th team on the ice at 14.51 local time (13.51 Croatian time)! #zagrebsnowflakessenior #worldsynchro #skatingfinland #helsinkiliikkuu #helsinki2019 #wssc2019
Broadening current and future opportunities is one positive aspect of the mix, but Asrorova mentions that school also prepares skaters for the mental component required in their training.
“Your brain has to work in skating too, so school is like a warm up for the brain before practice,” said Asrorova “When you come to practice, you are already 50% ready for it...you just need to warm up your body.”
For other skaters, school and skating can overlap in interesting ways, with direct application from the classroom to training. Johnston explains:
“Sometimes the themes and ideas in our [synchro] program can be related to discussions I have had in lectures and tutorials. For example, last year when we skated "The Handmaid's Tale," the book was a major topic of discussion in many of my lectures and I was able to use some of the ideas discussed in class in my performance on the ice.”
This juggling act is not for everyone and competing priorities add to the performance pressure both on and off the ice. Coach Carlson advises that “asking for help is a sign of maturity and strength, not weakness.”
Is the sacrifice worth it?
“I don’t like thinking about the changes that I make as sacrifices,” said Sermak. “I’d rather just think of those changes as something that makes me a better version of myself.”