Wheels of fortune
Sacramento athletes reviving artistic figure skating
Sunrise Rollerland is dark. The front doors are locked, but it’s possible to slip in through a side door. Inside, unplugged video-game machines lurk beyond the vacant snack bar. It’s Wednesday afternoon, too early for a skate session. Although the rink is illuminated, there’s no music playing, no red-light/green-light action.
An adult woman balances on one skate, carefully rolling over painted circles on the floor. A couple of teenage girls in shiny skating skirts and T-shirts execute intricate footwork on the rink’s perimeter while a tiny, dark-haired boy in black velour pants practices jumps. The athletes cross paths, but never collide. They spin, jump and occasionally fall—immediately popping up with arms outstretched. It’s a practiced gesture of resiliency to impress the (currently absent) judges.
Coaches stand at the rink’s edge, shouting commands.
“You’re on your heel! Stay centered!”
“And walk! Two! Three! Four!”
This is practice time for the Sunrise Crusaders Artistic Roller Skating Team. It happens almost daily, with various combinations of the club’s 50 members sneaking in workouts between public sessions and private parties when most of us assume the rink is closed.
Artistic roller-skating is virtually unknown in this roller-derby town, though nearly every rink in the Sacramento area has an artistic team with dozens of members ranging in age from toddlers to seniors. The sport consists of three competitive events: figures (skating precisely over circles painted on the rink floor), dance (essentially ballroom dancing on wheels) and freestyle (a wheeled version of Olympic ice figure skating, complete with axels and salchows).
Though artistic figure skating has suffered a national decline in popularity since the 1980s, the sport thrives in Sacramento. The Cal Neva Skating League, which includes the Sacramento area, Chico, and Rohnert Park, boasts 40 coaches and 160 competitors.
“I am proud to say the Cal Neva League continues to be one of the most viable, healthy leagues in the nation,” said league president Jody Harrah. “There are many states who do not have as many skaters in the whole state as we do in our league.” Cal Neva athletes took 11 national first-place titles last year.
Two award-winning skaters are practicing at Sunrise Rollerland this afternoon. The dark-haired boy is 8-year-old Aditya Seth, national primary boys’ champion in loops and figures. The 24-year-old blonde who just rolled onto the floor, the hem of her shiny red skating costume fluttering in the wake of her strides, is Brittany Pricer. A two-time World Team Figure Skating Championships skater and the sole U.S. representative for women’s artistic freestyle skating in the 2011 Pan American Games, Pricer is the best in the region.
Pricer picks up speed. She’s just finished a shift as a server at a local sushi restaurant, and now she’s struggling to shake off the work vibe and get into practice mode. She executes several spins, one leg out, whipping around so fast that her ponytail obscures her face.
“She skates more carefully ever since she hurt her ankle,” says Joyce Allen, the head coach at Sunrise, who watches from the sidelines. Allen has coached artistic skating for more than 40 years. She speaks of Pricer, the team’s star athlete, with obvious pride and a little concern.
Indeed, Pricer’s endured a tumultuous year. After skating in the World Games in 2009 and 2010, in Germany and Portugal, she sprained her ankle in February 2011 during a late-night practice.
“It was on the double axel, too!” Pricer said. “That’s my best jump.”
She was out of commission for months, and then worked quickly to get in shape for nationals, held annually in Nebraska in July. Although she failed to qualify for the 2011 world team, Pricer did earn a place in the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.
“She missed the world team, but she won the glory spot!” Allen said.
Pricer’s trip to the Pan Am Games was funded by the United States Olympic Committee, and any recognition from the Olympic Committee is huge for artistic roller skaters. The campaign to include artistic roller skating in the Olympic Games has continued for decades. Freestyle roller skating requires the same spins, jumps and skills as ice figure skating, and its practitioners would love to benefit from the same popularity and sponsorship money. Artistic roller skating currently is a class-A sport, meaning it is recognized by the Olympic Committee, but until it catches on in more countries outside of Europe, the United States and South America, it will likely stay out of the Olympics.
Skating at the Pan Am Games in Guadalajara was an entirely different experience for Pricer.
“It was the first time I ever skated outside,” she said. “It was very hot, and the floor was soft, so it was like skating on mud. At night, the floor was fine, but the lights brought out these big bugs.” She laughed and then hastened to add, “I had an amazing time.”
Travel is a huge motivation for Pricer, who cites “getting to see the world” as her favorite aspect of the sport. She’s currently practicing a minimum of 18 hours a week in hopes of making the 2012 world team.
“This year, they’re going to New Zealand!” she said excitedly.
Of course, being a world-class athlete in an obscure sport means paying your own way. Pricer funds her trips with savings from her day job. The Crusaders help out with fundraisers such as spaghetti feeds and exhibition shows at the rink.
With little money or fame in the offing, artistic skating is a labor of love, community funded and family supported. “Some people, it’s their church,” said Tammy Kendrick, one of six coaches for the Foothill Artistic Skate Team at Sacramento’s Foothill Skate Inn. “I do it because I love working with kids.”
On a recent Monday afternoon at Foothill, Kendrick set up a pot of homemade chicken and rice in the otherwise empty snack bar for her students, along with a plate of cornbread. “That way, no one has to cook,” she said, “because we’re here until 6:30 p.m.”
The petite 70-year-old, who coaches in bright-white skates and a black tracksuit with “FAST” embroidered on the jacket, knows artistic skating can hook you for life. She’s coached at Foothill for 25 years, long enough to see students grow up, get married and bring their children to learn the sport. “When their kids are 5 or 6, they come back,” she said. “We even have grandchildren now. It comes in waves.”
Kendrick is less interested in pushes for titles or Olympic glory. “They’ve been pushing for that since I was knee-high to a grasshopper,” she laughed.
Her motivation is helping young students gain sportsmanship and self-esteem.
“I tell them, ‘If you fall down, you just get up.’ Everybody falls down. It’s part of skating,” she said.
It’s true whether you are a wobbly toddler or a world-class athlete aiming for an international title. It’s true whether or not your sport is in the Olympics, whether or not your hometown knows how hard you work after hours in a darkened suburban roller rink. You skate, you fall. You get up, and sometimes, you shine.