In the midst of hard training, figure skaters form strong bonds By maddie knight

Loud laughter can be heard from the table in the left-back corner at Oakland Ice Center. Several parents sigh in annoyance at the teenagers, but they can’t complain about the rink’s top skater. It’s 14-year-old Alysa Liu, joining several of her friends as they lace up their skates for their first of four daily training sessions.

Two weeks after 13-year-old Liu made history by winning the National Championships in Detroit, she returned to her home rink in California. Her Instagram following had tripled, she had a guest appearance on two major TV shows, and she was followed by several reporters as she went over to her usual table to put on her skates.

To Liu’s friends at the rink, her fame only makes a minor difference. “Just sometimes people recognize her. It’s really strange - like once we were just at Ross and this lady came up to us, said she was a skating fan and congratulated her,'' Juliana Newton said. Newton has been Liu’s best friend since age 7 when she moved to the Oakland rink.

Competitive figure skaters practice around 30 hours a week. Spending a substantial amount of time together in a demanding environment allows skaters form tight bonds.

“They are all my best friends; we do like everything together,” Liu said, speaking of her relationship with Newton and her other four close friends. All six girls have trained under the same coach (Laura Lipetsky) for the last several years.

“As well as training together, we do homework together every day at the rink and study there, since we are there pretty much the whole day,” 15-year-old Kate Qian said.

Alysa Liu laces up her skates, laughing with her best friend Juliana Newton. PHOTO CREDIT: Deanne Fitzmaurice

When asked about the relationship between her skaters, Coach Laura Lipetsky said, “It's like a team at the rink, which is really nice”.

The coach adds, “It helps because the girls go and they can have fun in a positive environment.” In a high-pressure sport like figure skating, a supportive environment is extremely helpful to young skaters.

“Sometimes, I get annoyed when I see my girls goofing off on the ice. You paid for this session, you need to practice, you have a competition in a month, then I realize that’s how they cope with the pressure, it’s letting them be kids for a bit and that’s important too,” Coach Rudy Galindo said. He coaches several promising skaters from all over the Bay Area.

Two skaters talk by the boards during a morning practice session. PHOTO CREDIT: Maddie Knight

One of Coach Galindo’s students, Ava Stephens, supports this. A 15-year-old high school sophomore, Stephens said, “Skating is hard and can be stressful, and it really helps having supportive people around me, that can relate, that are sort of 'going through' the same thing.”

Speaking of goofing off on the ice, 14-year-old Kate Wang made Team USA over the summer and has competed in two major international competitions, Junior Grand Prix events in Russia and Italy.

Despite her recent success, Wang admits, “There’s a lot of joking, me and my friends talk a lot on the ice when we’re on the same session."

On TV, people view figure skating as a glamorous activity with ladies gliding around in heavily crystallized dresses in drama-filled competitions. In the practices skaters instead wear expensive brand workout clothes and knock off jumps with brutal efficiency.

This is all true, but that's not the full story. TV viewers don’t see the girls hugging each other after they get off the ice at competition, they don’t see all the falls in practice or the skaters helping each other up after them, and they don’t see the occasional pauses in the nonstop training to tell a funny joke.

They don’t see through the training to the relationships formed in the close community known as figure skaters.

Some of the top skaters and coaches from the Skating Club of San Francisco after the annual holiday gala. PHOTO CREDIT: Maddie Knight
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Maddie Knight