Come on in, the ice is fine

Come on in, the ice is fine

Debbie Leung is here to tell you there is a place on the ice for everyone, no matter how old you are.

Leung is among older adults—some of the most seasoned in their 80s–in Washington and across the country who find fitness, camaraderie and friendly competition as ice skaters.

“It’s so much fun. I highly recommend that people of any age try it,” said Leung, who lives in Olympia and considers Sprinker Recreation Center in Spanaway her home rink.

Children and adults alike get their start in skating and, if they wish, wind up competing at the amateur level through Ice Sports Industry (ISI). Since its start in 1959 as a non-profit organization for owners, operators and developers of ice rinks, Plano, Texas-based ISI has added a learn-to-skate program that has introduced more than 10 million people to skating.

Sprinker, which is operated by Pierce County, has a membership in ISI. Sprinker’s director of skating, Janice Teodoro-Forbes, is a vice president of ISI’s Board of Directors. In Washington, other member rinks include Kingsgate Arena in Kirkland and Highland Ice Arena in Shoreline. The next closest rink is outside Washington, at Lloyd Center in Portland. By comparison, California has 14 rinks.

Sprinker was the site in 2019 of ISI’s West Coast Championships. Leung and other Washingtonians were among the 300-plus dance and freestyle competitors in the three-day event. They ranged in age from 3 to 73 and came from Alaska, California, Texas, Hawaii and Oregon.

For all of its regional and national competitions, ISI follows what it calls a simple philosophy: “Participation, not elimination.” Regardless of their ability, every skater can experience competing in front of an audience and judges, mainly for the fun of it in what is essentially a social club. The skaters meet people with “common interests and look forward to cultivating friendships year after year at competitions,” said Eileen Viglione, the communications manager for ISI.

She said ISI has a soft spot in its heart for “senior skaters. They really are an inspiration.”

Leung, who counts inspiration from fellow skaters as part of her motivation whenever she straps on her blades, described the experience of being a senior on Ice in the following conversation with Senior Scene.

SS: How long have you been a competitive ice skater, and what got you involved in the sport?

“I loved watching ice skating competitions on TV. As a martial artist, some of the positions looked familiar, and I wondered what it would be like to try it, but I had never skated before. Then I got the best birthday present ever–my first ice skating lessons at Sprinker Recreation Center. I never thought I’d compete. I just wanted to learn cross-overs and maybe to skate backwards. But the way the group lessons are taught, when you learn one thing, you find out it is a stepping stone to the next thing, and before I knew it, I was doing baby jumps, then bigger jumps and beginning spins, then private lessons, then my coach asked for music for a program, and before I knew it she had me in a local competition. That was April 1997, I think.”

SS: Where, and how much, do you practice?

“I practice at Sprinker. I used to skate three days a week, 90 minutes to two hours each time. Since about 2012, I’ve been skating two days a week, about two hours each day, but adding a day a week during the month before competing. With the pandemic, I’ve only skated a handful of times since last March. (Editor’s note: Sprinker has been closed periodically due to COVID-19 restrictions). I’m trying to stay in shape roller blading on the Chehalis-Western Trail once a week, depending on the weather, and riding my bicycle.”

SS: Talk about the West Coast Championships at Sprinker Recreation Center and your other competitions.

“It was fun to have such a big adult competition at the rink (Sprinker) where I skate. I met a few skaters from across the country.

“The competitions I usually attend are Pacific Coast Adult Sectionals organized by USFS (U.S. Figure Skating, the national governing body of the sport), which travels to different regions of the west coast. I participate most years. The U.S. Adult Figure Skating Championships, also organized by USFS, is a big competition that is held at different rinks around the country, which I participated in annually for about 10 years, and now every couple years. Both of these are like annual reunions. The community built around these events is amazingly supportive. We watch each other perform and get to know each other in the stands. We throw little gifts to the skaters (tossies) when they take their bows at the end of their performances.

“The whole thing about adult competition and testing (USFS also created an adult testing program) is quite new. The first adult national championship was in 1995, and the organizers had no idea how many people would attend. They were inundated by hundreds of skaters. Since then, adult skating has skyrocketed, and our long-term dedication to skating provides a consistent clientele for rinks and coaches.

“There are some really good skaters doing double jumps and a very few doing triples, but most of the participants skate at a very basic level. Quite a few are in their 60s and up to 80. There is no upper age limit. Although there are qualifying events, most aren’t, in that anyone who has passed a pretty basic level through testing can participate. You don’t have to be good to participate. I try to encourage other adult skaters to try it because although competing is nerve-wracking, it’s also really fun, and the camaraderie is amazing.”

SS: What motivates you? Is it the competition, the active-life and physical benefits, camaraderie of other skaters? Something else?

“It’s all those things! I very seldom skip my scheduled skating sessions. When I’m at the rink, the stress and worries of life go away. Many adults who skate talk about it being their therapy. Learning new moves and steps is difficult at our age, and progress is slow, but just doing it, trying to improve our skills and learn new things with the incremental improvements is so rewarding and fun. It can take a lot of concentration, making time fly by. It’s so much fun, and I’m so focused on what I’m doing that I don’t even think of it as exercise, even though it works flexibility, balance, and strength, is also aerobic and includes music. It also keeps our minds active to remember choreography and remember all that the coach tells you. Few people outside of skating understand our addiction to it and its joys and frustrations, which makes the skating community special and tight, especially among the adults, since skating isn’t usually thought of as an adult sport.

“Many adults skate just for fun. The ones that come regularly usually take classes or private lessons with a coach. Some also test, which motivates them to keep practicing. In addition to just loving to skate, I find that I need tangible goals to keep me practicing well. And being ready to do the moves in the tests I’m working on is too far into the future, which is why I compete. Plus I like working on programs, putting the moves I can do to music. Once I started traveling to competitions since there are few adult competitions here locally, I met many adult skaters, usually the ones my age and ability because they are the ones I compete with. Everyone is very supportive and we’ve become good friends. Part of competing is to see and be with each other.”

SS: What would you say to anyone, seniors included, who would like to try skating?

“I recommend taking lessons. Group lessons are relatively inexpensive, and learning the basics makes it so fun and satisfying. Soon you make friends and glide on the ice, which feels so freeing and amazing. It’s so much fun you don’t realize you’re exercising. I do advise adults skating for the first time, or the first time in a while, to wear wrist guards and a helmet.”

Debbie Leung of Olympia competing at an international adult ice skating event in Vancouver, B.C.