Polar Bears: Figure skating marches to Mile High City for first nationals
Twenty minutes from Washington University, they glide across the smooth ice, their skates cutting lines in the flat slab but the blades barely making a sound. They weave in and out, between and around, as if sewing a quilt to warm the cold surface beneath them. I, for one, wonder how they do not collide like a crowd of one too many passing through a turnstile.
They do this every Friday, with one design: Make it to the final Friday.
This Friday, the stakes will be much higher. This Friday, they will skate for a national championship.
They are the Wash. U. figure skating team, one of the University’s 40 sport clubs. And the next time they lace up, it won’t be from the usual 3:50 to 4:50 p.m. at Creve Coeur Ice Arena. No, this time, they’ll spend the weekend at the University of Denver competing in the United States Figure Skating Association Intercollegiate Championships in Colorado.
“I’m feeling hopeful,” cofounder and junior Regan Banvard said. “Our team is on the smaller side of teams, but the fact that we were able to qualify for nationals is very exciting, and I think that we have a good shot. We have a lot of great skaters on the team who have very fun programs and have done well in other competitions.”
The Bears earned their invitation to nationals by advancing from the Midwestern section, one of three conferences in the country. The season consists of three competitions—November’s Bronco Challenge Cup held at Western Michigan University, February’s Golden Gopher Challenge held at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities and March’s Skate on Wisconsin held at the University of Wisconsin.
At each competition, skaters compete individually in events within three possible categories (freeskate, short program and solo dance) at various levels ranging from pre-preliminary to gold or with others in the team maneuvers event at a low, intermediate or high level. Each event requires specific jumps, spins and patterns, as well as strong step, edge and footwork techniques. Colleges can enter up to 30 events, earning points by finishing in the top five in an event, with additional points available for junior and senior championship freeskate and international solo dance.
After all the points are tallied, the top school receives five points in the sectional standings, the second-place school receives four points and so on. The final finisher to gain points is the fifth-place team with one.
This season, the Red and Green finished fifth at the Bronco Challenge and third at the Golden Gopher to register four points—just enough to finish fourth in the conference. With only the top four teams per conference invited to nationals, Wash. U. booked its ticket for the first time in school history.
“We’re super excited because this is the start of something, hopefully, great,” freshman Alyssa Despotis said.
It truly is the very start for the team. Banvard and fellow junior Caitlyn Smith, who is currently abroad and will not be able to compete in nationals this year, founded the club their freshman year. In just two years, they’ve led the organization in growing from just four members to over 20, while also getting funding for specialized coaching.
Smith is currently abroad and will not be able to compete in nationals this year. Her absence has been notable given that she has been a staple of the club since its inception.
“Obviously it was weird not having her,” sophomore treasurer Kayla Steinberg said. “She founded the team. She’s been an integral part of it.”
Banvard said her greatest takeaway from this year is that the group finally feels like one large, supporting family.
“Our first competition a couple years ago was a lot of fun because we went there, there were only four of us, and we just didn’t know anything or how competitions worked at all,” Banvard said. “But now, fast-forward to the last competition I went to, which was in February in Minnesota, it was just really fun seeing like 20 girls there, chanting, screaming for you and supporting you when you take the ice and just having the feelings of having a team. Because skating is such an individual sport and having a team aspect is really important and it’s really nice when you step onto the ice and they’re like, ‘Representing Washington University, here is (insert skater’s name here).’”
Having limited competition experience isn’t actually all that unique among the Bears. Despotis is one of Wash. U.’s most experienced skaters but hadn’t skated competitively before arriving at the University. Hailing from St. Louis, however, she often interacted with the team while in high school
“I had been skating my whole life,” Despotis said. “I had seen a lot of the girls at the rink prior to coming in, and they were very welcoming, and they said, ‘Oh, when you come to Wash. U. next year, you should join the figure skating team!’ The rest is history.
“I have figure skated since I was about three or four years old. I hadn’t competed, though, so getting to nationals was super exciting for our team and I know I loved being able to compete with them this year.”
Still, the Bears bring a diversity of backgrounds to the ice.
“All of us have experience from high school or before skating,” Steinberg said. “Some people thought they were going to quit skating when college came, but they didn’t, which is good. There are some people who are a lot more experienced than others. There are a couple people who were on Team USA at one time or another.”
Despotis is one of a bevy of freshmen composing nearly half of the young squad. That’s natural, of course, given the club is fairly new, but also represents a concerted effort by its veterans to recruit early and consistently, including through social media—one prospective student even found the team through Instagram.
“For next year I’m super excited for the incoming freshmen, because I know there’s already girls looking at the team, and I’m excited because a lot of the team now is made up of current freshmen, so I think it’s going to be cool to grow and develop as a team over the next four years,” Despotis said.
Despotis added that the nationals appearance is about more than just this year. Having that achievement on the resume will help Wash. U.’s pedigree as a figure skating school, in turn leading to even more impressive future rookie classes.
“People started recognizing that the skating team exists, but I think the fact that we now will have a nationals under our belt will draw people to the school, and draw people to our skate team,” Despotis said. “I know coming in, I was looking at Miami [University] of Ohio because I knew that their team consistently went to nationals. It was super cool, and I knew they were a skating school, but I think that Wash. U. will definitely start to have that reputation.”
Of course, maintaining that growth momentum is contingent upon the underclassmen exhibiting the same energy their predecessors did in building the club from the ground up. According to freshman Naomi Ghebremichael, who is already at the senior freeskate level, that should follow from a natural passion for figure skating.
“They are so hard-working, and they put in a ton of work for the team, and I hope that as I grow older, I can be as involved as they are, because we all truly love skating and so, it really shows,” Ghebremichael said.
For the next four days at least, however, the future will remain the future. For now, the present is at hand for the team, and a championship is in reach.