The Leading Edge
There are many reasons UD has produced 25 Olympic skaters in 23 years: world-class coaching, state-of-the-art research and, of course, peerless athletes.
Emmanuel Savary represents the future of University of Delaware ice skating. Last year, the wiry 11-year-old with an ever-present smile, skated his way to the title of U.S. intermediate men’s champion. Legendary coach Ron Ludington, who calls his young student “E-man,” marvels at Savary’s ability to perform flawless triple jumps at such a young age.
“He’s always been high-test,” Ludington says with an amused shake of the head. “He began begging me when he was 6 or 7 to let him on the ice with the advanced skaters, but I told him he was too young and too slow and might get hurt. The very next session with the younger students, he went flying by me on the ice to prove he was capable. I got the biggest kick out of it because he’s so bloody competitive. Pretty soon I was allowing him on the ice with advanced competitors in their teens and older.”
Savary is still a boy, but he has big dreams: following in the footsteps of his hero, 2006 Olympic gold medalist Evgeny Plushenko.
Dreams like that actually do come true at UD, home to one of the most highly respected ice skating programs in the world. “We consider UD to be among our top skating facilities,” says Mitch Moyer, senior director of athlete high performance with U.S. Figure Skating. “They have a great coaching staff, great facilities and a proven track record.”
Building on the Past
It’s been just 23 years since Ludington and Jack O’Neill (now deceased) founded the Ice Skating Science Development Center at UD, but already the program has produced 32 world champions and 25 Olympians. Some 100 competitive skaters train regularly at UD. Another 200 come in throughout the year for special training sessions, among them Canadian champion Patrick Chan, the 2009 World silver medalist, a favorite to medal in Vancouver. He spent a month at UD this past summer.
The program’s dry spell this year—with no one set to take to the Olympic ice—is an anomaly for an elite program that has sent at least one skater—usually more—to every Olympics since the program began in 1987. Sure, we still have bragging rights to likely Olympian Johnny Weir, who trained at UD for many years before moving to The Pond, just across Newark, then to New York. But we’ll have to wait at least four years for another UD Olympic send-off the likes of which we saw in 2006, when the program sent five skaters to the Olympics in Turin, Italy: singles star Kimmie Meissner, with ice dance couples Maxim Stavisky and Albena Denkova of Bulgaria and Nozomi Watanabe and Akiyuki Kido of Japan.
Right now the UD program is in a building stage, with many of its best skaters still too young to skate on the senior level. “Our juniors and our novices will do very well in the future, and our junior dancers are doing well already,” Ludington says. “It’s always been the case that there are building years and high-level years.”
“We’re a little thin this year, but that happens everywhere,” says coach Barbara Roles, who, like Ludington, won a bronze medal in the 1960 Olympics. “I think we’ve got a good future after the Olympic year.”
In addition to Savary, Ludington points to skaters like JoAnn Tinker, 11, who placed seventh in the juvenile category last year. Ludington’s wife, Karen, coaches Melissa Bulanhagui, 19, who in November took home the senior ladies silver medal in Eastern Sectionals. She also coaches several ice dancers who have been performing well in international competitions, including Anastasia Cannuscio, 17, and Colin McManus, 18, and Anastasia’s sister, Isabella, 18, who dances with Ian Lorello, 19.
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UD coach Pam Gregory, who formerly coached Olympian Kimmie Meissner, adds to the list of skaters to watch Andrew Nagode, 13, who made it to nationals twice but is now out with an injury, as well as pairs skaters Erika Choi Smith, 19, and Nate Bartholomay, 20, and 16-year-old Felicia Zhang, who was already doing well in her own right but is also succeeding at pairs skating with Taylor Toth, 21.
There are other singles and pairs competitors who are getting noticed, too, but which are stars-in-the-making is anybody’s guess.
“It’s a long road,” Gregory says. “The future depends on staying healthy and who has the work ethic and if they develop good technique. Time will tell.”
Making it to the elite ranks demands incredible dedication from skaters, many of whom begin skating when they are still preschoolers. Savary grew up watching his older brother, Joel, on the competitive skating circuit. The family moved to Delaware from Florida six years ago so Joel could develop his skating prowess. Now retired from competition, Joel is a full-time student at UD. He also helps to coach his younger brother.
As a toddler, Emmanuel Savary used to “skate” at home on the linoleum floor. His mother finally agreed to let him skate on ice on his third birthday. There’s been no stopping him since.
Savary is fairly unusual among competitive skaters. Rather than being home-schooled, he continues to attend Gauger-Cobb Middle School in Newark. He does, however, finish his school work early each day so he can get in his time on the ice. After school, Savary spends five to six hours at the rink. He practices his moves on the floor, does cardio and conditioning, then skates on his own and with the Ludingtons’ guidance. Then it’s home for dinner, homework and sleep, then up the next morning to start all over again.
Savary’s mother, Jennifer, an immigrant from Jamaica, admits that she does not fully understand her sons’ fascination with ice skating, but she supports him nonetheless, spending every weekday afternoon at the rink with him.
Page 3: Coaching as a Team
The coaching staff at UD includes eight former Olympians: Ludington, Philip Dulebohn, Scott Gregory, Joel McKeever, Roles, Irina Romanova, Tiffany Scott and Suzy Semanick-Schurman. They are joined by a roster of coaches, all of whom draw from their own experience as competitive skaters.
The staff has racked up a host of coaching awards from the Professional Skaters Association and U.S. Figure Skating. Gregory and Ludington are both former Coach of the Year honorees. Pam and Jeff DiGregorio have been developmental coach of the year honorees multiple times, and Kat Arbour has received science awards from both U.S. Figure Skating and the U.S. Olympic Committee. Ludington is in the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame.
In addition, a number of people working at the rink are “callers,” technical specialists who identify and call elements performed in a competition. It is highly unusual for a skater to be able to have his or her program assessed technically that way at the skater’s home rink.
Of the 60 coaches at UD, nearly a third of them work with the elite skaters, either on the ice or with choreography or conditioning. But most of the elite coaches also choose to work with lower-level students as well.
Jeff DiGregorio at one time coached 1998 Olympic champion Tara Lipinski and 2002 Olympic champion Sarah Hughes, yet he also works with youngsters who are just beginning private lessons. “I enjoy working with the young kids—the babies, I call them,” DiGregorio says. “There’s nothing more rewarding than to see a kid get a new jump for the first time.”
DiGregorio credits Ludington and the collaborative style of coaching he fosters for the UD program’s success. When Ludington first began coaching in the early 1960s, he coached on his own, then with several assistants. In the late 1960s he and another Olympic coach founded the North American Training Camp, which met in Lake Placid, New York, each year for more than two decades. The camp united elite skaters with a who’s who of American and Canadian coaches so that skaters could work with the best of the best in choreography, jumping and spins.
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When Ludington established the UD program, he brought the team approach with him. Each skater has a main coach, and he or she also works with several other coaches based on the athlete’s need and the coach’s expertise. Savary, for example, has Ludington for a head coach, but he also works with DiGregorio, an expert in jumping, Bobbe Shire, a spins specialist, and Alexandr Kirsanov, whose specialty is choreography and movement.
UD is the only university in the United States—and one of only a few in the world—where students can study figure skating coaching. Lower level coaches frequently observe the old pros so that they can improve their own coaching.
“It’s kind of like a teaching hospital here. Everybody recognizes and draws off everyone else’s individual strengths,” DiGregorio says. “Ron was one of the first coaches who shared what he knew and passed it on.”
This team, or “family style” of coaching, as DiGregorio describes it, is unusual in a sport where most coaches jealously guard their skaters for fear they will be stolen away.
“At most rinks the coaches don’t work together. Each has his own business and they try to stay separate or actually alienate each other,” Roles says. “The way we [at UD] work together, you’re really building a better athlete through all this individual attention. There are very few rinks in the country that use that type of direction to teach, but I do think it will eventually be institutionalized all over the country.”
Jimmie Santee, executive director of the Professional Skaters Association, says that the collaborative style of coaching is becoming more and more prevalent, “but UD was the trendsetter.”
Page 5: Covering All the Bases
Covering All the Bases
Though the coaching is a major draw for bringing new skaters to the university, it is by no means the only one. The UD program also is unusual in its comprehensiveness. The ice arena houses a dance studio where skaters can take classes and practice their choreography and an exercise area with cardio and weight equipment. Trainers design individualized exercise programs for each skater, and there are athletic trainers to help prevent and treat injuries.
“It’s much more conducive to better training that the kids do not have to go elsewhere for conditioning and training,” Roles says.
Many of the skaters also work on conditioning with Arbour, one of only five ice-skating coaches in the country who focuses full time on off-ice conditioning. She has her own space in the Fred Rust Arena. “I do sports-specific exercises but also core balance and agility training that are important for any sport,” Arbour says. “It’s about learning to control your own body weight in space while the forces of motion are pushing against you.”
Having two rinks makes it possible for skaters to get more time on the ice, though everyone, even the most elite, by necessity has to share ice time. Ludington says that sharing the ice is good for skaters because they are spurred on by seeing the competition. The newer of the two rinks, the Fred Rust Arena, has arena-style seating, which gives skaters the advantage of practicing in an environment similar to what they will encounter in competition, Roles says.
Skaters also benefit from the ice skating research that takes place at UD. In the past, UD skaters have tried out flexible, hinged skating boots designed by UD professor Jim Richards, and they are participating in two research projects being conducted by Richards and Arbour. (See story on page 44.)
Skaters also benefit from the program being part of a university. A number of the older skaters are simultaneously pursuing their college degrees at UD, including ice dancer Meredith Zuber, a sophomore pre-med student.
“We don’t want to end up with any skating bums,” Ludington says. “It’s not just about skating here. We also expect our skaters to get an education.”
Page 6: Future Ice
When UD hosted Eastern Sectionals in mid-November, its skaters made a strong showing. Twenty-one skaters qualified to compete in Nationals in mid-January. Zhang qualified for both ladies and pairs skating.
Savary, despite the fact that he was competing against teen boys “who already have hair under their arms and have to shave,” was just 0.03 of a point away from first place in the novice men category, Ludington boasts.
It looks like the future for the UD program will be smooth skating.
Page 7: Hoping for a Ticket to Vancouver
Hoping for a Ticket to Vancouver
Less than a year ago, ESPN.com named figure skater Ashley Wagner, who trains at the Skating Club of Wilmington, one of the athletes to watch heading into the 2010 Winter Olympic games.
Wagner, 18, had a strong showing last season, placing fourth in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships and winning the bronze medal at the World Junior Championships. She has had an equally impressive start to this season, placing second and third in her two Grand Prix competitions and qualifying for December’s Grand Prix Final in Tokyo. She was the only U.S. woman to do so.
The American ladies field is especially strong this year. With six serious contenders for only two slots on the U.S. Olympic team, the result of the U.S. Nationals held January 14-24 were the determining factor. The other skaters in the running were Caroline Zhang, Mirai Nagasu, Sasha Cohen, Alissa Czisny and Rachael Flatt. (Results were not available at press time.)
“Ashley hasn’t always been in the limelight, but she has always been right in the mix, and she’s steadily getting better,” says Mitch Moyer, senior director of athlete high performance with U.S. Figure Skating. “She’s been developing her own style and addressing all those things that have held her back.”
If Wagner does make the U.S. team, Delaware could have two skaters to watch in Vancouver: Wagner and Johnny Weir, a Coatesville, Pennsylvania, native who got his start at UD and trained in Delaware for many years before moving to New Jersey two years ago.
The daughter of a retired Army lieutenant colonel, Wagner was born in Germany and lived all over the United States before her family settled in Alexandria, Virginia, in 2002. It was while they were living in Alaska that Ashley took up skating.
Wagner moved to Delaware a year and a half ago, when she switched coaches to work with Priscilla Hill, Weir’s former coach. Wagner credits Hill with taking her skating to a new level, technically and artistically.
She says the Skating Club of Wilmington has been a great skating environment, too. “The other skaters are incredibly focused and hard working. It pushes me to keep going,” Wagner says. “Everyone at the Skating Club has been incredibly friendly and supportive.” —Theresa Gawlas Medoff
Page 8: Research for a Better Skater
Research for a Better Skater
A few decades ago people used to argue about whether figure skating was a sport or not. All that choreography and beauty and artistry—and costumes! What did any of that have to do with athleticism?
No one is asking those questions today, when even novice girls are performing triple jumps and, at the senior level, it takes a program full of triples to be competitive.
With the ante upped, ice skating research is coming into its own, and UD is fast becoming an important center for that research, with some studies already concluded and two currently in progress.
“UD has done more than any other program to push the sport forward technically and help make the sport safer,” says Jimmie Santee, executive director of the Professional Skaters Association.
“There’s no other place in the world doing skating research like this,” says Kat Arbour, an off-ice development coach and doctoral student in biomechanics and movement science at UD. Arbour is researching the impacts of jumps on skaters during takeoff and landing.
An accelerometer taped to the skater’s shin measures the impact when a skater lands a jump. It does this by measuring how quickly the shin stops moving once the blade hits the ice. The impact can be as high as 90 to 100 Gs in some skaters, Arbour says. (In running, landing impact measured at the shin is between 8 and 15 Gs.)
Preliminary results show that triple jumps exert much less impact than singles or doubles. Less unexpected is Arbour’s finding that more accomplished skaters land with less impact, probably because they have learned to use their muscles differently to absorb the shock.
Arbour’s research will add to the body of knowledge about which types of jumps are more dangerous and how fatigue affects performance, and it could eventually lead to recommendations for limiting the number of jumps done in practice.
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While Arbour’s research has long-term applicability, another UD research project is designed to help athletes training for the 2014 Olympics. The computer-aided research program is designed to improve a skater’s ability to perform triple jumps. Research with skaters began in mid-summer. So far fewer than a dozen skaters have participated, but the goal is to bring in skaters almost daily.
The research is being performed by Jim Richards, deputy dean of the College of Health Sciences, and Tom Kepple, instructor in the Human Performance Laboratory. Their research is supported by U.S. Figure Skating and the U.S. Olympic Committee.
For now, Richards’ motion analysis is available to Flight A and Flight B skaters, those 15 years old and over who have Olympic potential. With reflective tape positioned at key sites on the body, the skater is video recorded on the ice performing jumps.
That footage is run through a software program that creates a 3-D image of the skater, which can be manipulated and viewed from all angles to see how changes in body position affect rotation.
A skater might find, for example, that by moving her left arm closer to her body, she is able to achieve another half rotation, which might be enough to complete a triple jump.
“In the absence of good data, people make up reasons for things, like why a skater is having trouble with his jumps. There was a belief—there still is, really—that skaters just need to jump higher, but that is false,” Richards says. “For most skaters, adjusting position in the air while spinning is enough to make a significant difference.”
Several of the skaters working with UD Coach Barbara Roles have benefited from seeing their skating selves as a 3-D computer image. “They can see on the computer screen frame by frame where their error starts, and once they are able to see it broken down, they are able to make corrections,” Roles says.
The value of this research extends beyond helping the skater perform better. Using 3-D imaging eliminates the need for the skater to perform an excessive number of jumps to arrive at a solution by trial and error. Fewer jumps mean less wear and tear on the body.
U.S. Figure Skating considers the motion analysis to be important not only for the development of individual skaters but also for the development of coaching techniques, says Mitch Moyer, the organization’s senior director of athlete high performance. “All of the information received will trickle down to the developmental level. As we go forward, we will do motion analysis on younger athletes as well, so we have data on different body types and different ages,” he adds. —Theresa Gawlas Medoff