The Island’s Golden Girls

Jimjams and I were in Nottingham on Friday for the British Ice Figure & Synchronized Skating Championships. Nottingham is not my favourite UK city as every visit has been distinctly unimpressive either because of the weather or because the person trying to win me over with its charms believes that all southerners are pooves who drink piss for beer. And so I’ve largely stayed south, hand firmly clasped around a pint of Gales HSB.

But I’ll say this: the ice rink is fantastic as a sporting facility and the south should rightly envy it.

Jimjams was taking part in the synchronized skating events as a member of the Island’s Wight Diamonds and Wight Jewels teams. Members of the Jewels were last year’s championship winning Diamonds, but age and experience has forced a new name on the team and lifted the level at which they compete from novice to junior. The Diamonds still competed at novice level this year, but with a squad largely created from members of Wight Gems (which currently exist only in name). It’s sort of confusing, but the choices for synchro teams seem stark: keep at the same level of ability and lose members who are too experienced or old for the level, or keep the the whole team and give it a new identity to compete at a higher level. The IW adopts this second approach and has constantly raised the levels at which its teams compete.

The Diamonds did well in the closely contested novice competition but made two mistakes that cost them the title. So it was silver this time for the Island, and a well deserved gold for the Nottingham Shadows. But this year the novice competition was almost a sideshow.

The goal this year was the junior title, the highest level at which synchronized skating would be contested at the championships. There were only two contenders, the Wight Jewels and the Nottingham Icicles, and the shortage of teams at this level is a reflection of the difficulty in putting and keeping together a squad of 16 or more teenage girls who have the pressures of academic success to contend with as well as a demanding training schedule at absurd times of the day and night. 

The British Championships are important because they are marked using the International Judging System, the scoring system that has ousted the old and potentially corrupt 6.0 Relative Judging System. The IJS in theory allows skaters to be rated and directly compared between competitions, making possible personal and season’s bests. The IJS is, however, only just reaching the lower levels of competitive skating in the UK.

And let’s face it, a national championship is important because it shows without doubt who is the UK’s top dog in each discipline.

Junior level requires skaters to perform both short and a long program, the scores for which are added to determine the winner. The short program won’t necessarily win you the title, because it provides roughly a quarter to one third of your total marks, but it can cost you the title. And from my point of view among the Island’s tiny camp of supporters, the onlookers were pretty apprehensive about how the untried short program would go.

Icicles skated first and turned in a good performance with high program component score (the IJS marks technical elements and program components). But we’d watched the Jewels grow in strength over the year, and they’d turned in a blistering performance during the Christmas shows. They were true to form and went 4.4 points ahead of the Icicles thanks to a high technical elements score.

And then we waited till the end of the competitive day for the final showdown. The girl had all been up at 7am, practising off-ice at 11am, with a mere 10 minutes on-ice practice at lunchtime. It’s a very short time to scale up the programs from the Island’s minuscule 44 by 22 metre rink to an Olympic-sized 60 x 30 metre pad, and it’s a difficulty that Island skaters will no doubt always face.

With the competitions running an hour or so late, the Jewels would perform their long program over 12 hours after getting up. And what with presentations and travel home to follow, the last Jewel probably stumbled into their beds at home on the Island at 5am (Jimjams and I made it by 4.45am), making a 22-hour day. It’s a lot to ask. Skaters at the forthcoming synchronized skating opens in Sheffield in February have an even longer day ahead of them.

But when you’ve won the title, it’s all probably worth it. The Jewels stretched their lead to 8.12 points after the long, but their coach held them in check until it was officially announced they were in first place. We in the crowd had done the maths and erupted slightly beforehand.

So Jimjams and her teammates are British junior synchronized skating champions. It’s the top level contested at the championships, because the highest possible class, seniors, had no entries following the break-up of Basingstoke’s Storm team. IW skaters have worked hard for years to get there, and the sad thing is that academic requirements mean that, without some determined attitudes, they’ve probably got two more years together before departures to university. In that time they’re aiming at gaining experience to be ready to put in a respectable performance at the world junior championships – the Jewels aren’t going this year, and the Icicles will probably have that honour; they were very sportsmanlike throughout the event, and great competitors.

So instead, the Jewels are off to Switzerland in March to compete and gain that experience. They need it: continental European teams are classy, and synchronized skating seems far more developed as a sport. And who knows, next year perhaps…

You can catch the Wight Jewels’ long program for the 2009 championships on Youtube in glorious fuzz-o-vision: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=lpXqh2pM7i8

The IW club website is at www.iowfigureskaters.co.uk

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