It was just another after-school practice session for Washington Figure Skating Club members, but it looked like the Ice Capades: little Dorothy Hamill lookalikes gliding by, pert Seventeen haircuts blowing back and falling into perfect place again as the skaters whirled and leaped, a beautiful blurry display of youthful grace and talent.
One mother stood behind the glass partition and watched her daughter trying a tricky turn, then rapped on the glass to get the girl's attention. In a combination of pantomime and exaggerated stage whispers, she mouthed her reaction. "Do it faster. FASTER . . . Just do the same thing you're doing, but do it FASTer . . ." The girl tried the move again and looked up for her mother's reaction. "Oh for . . . just DO IT FASTER!" Her voice got louder. She pleaded. She cajoled. She threw up her hands. She took her place with the rest of the mothers waiting in the wings.
It's not easy becoming the next Dorothy Hamill.
"I had no idea what I was getting into," said another of the mothers, Joan Valliere, whose 13-year-old daughter, Pamela, is the youngest skater in the Washington area to pass the gold compulsory figure test of the United States Figure Skating Association. "I didn't know there were such things as tests or competitions, I only wanted her to skate a little better and enjoy it a little bit more than her mom did. So she started taking lessons and one thing led to another, and it just grew and grew."
For anyone whose mother ever compared them, in all their adolescent awkwardness, to Peggy Fleming (or Janet Lynn or Dorothy Hamill or whoever happened to be America's Sweetheart at the time,) watching these graceful young girls twirl around on the ice can churn up all kinds of resentful feelings. But stick around awhile and your resentment quickly fades when you learn what it takes to become a champion. These kids' practice schedules - 30 hours a week is standard, and that's in addition to school and homework - are awe-inspiring.
Pam, an honor student at Herndon High School, is a master at organizing her time. "We do homework in the car" on the way to the ice rink, her mother says. "Or she'll use the time to catch a little nap, or eat breakfast. She's very good at concentrating - that's what makes her do so well in her figures. And she really doesn't have much homework, so it doesn't interfere too much."
Pam practices before school on weekday mornings, reporting to the rink a little before 6. Except Tuesdays, "Tuesday is baton lesson day," says Mrs. Valliere. "Between majorettes, and the lesson, and practicing for the lesson, we don't skate on Tuesdays." (In addition to her skating, Pam is an accomplished baton twirler and competes with the United States Twirling Association. Does she do as well in baton as she does on ice skates? "Oh God, she's got a roomful of trophies and medals," her mother laughs.)
Pam's ice training schedule this year is 12 1/2 hours a week, only half of last year's. "This year, because she's passed and the gold and is a senior [level competitor], there's not much sense in pushing her," Mrs. Valliere says. "So I've cut the ice time down a little bit for her."
There's no getting around that sort of schedule, because the road to Hamilldom is a series of tests that get progressively more complicated as the skater advances. "It's awesome how quiet and intense it gets," another parent. Jim Shackelford, says, "The judges are sitting there, the kid's nervous as can be, the parents are nervous . . ." If you hang around the skating rinks for any length of time, the dominant impression that emerges isn't so much the young skaters' perseverance and dedication, but rather the perseverance and dedication of their parents. They've totally immersed in their children's drams. They have to be. When the kids get up at 5:30 a.m. to practice, guess who gets to drive them to the rink? And then there's the constant fiinancial burden of paying for all that training and ice time.
"It is a sacrifice, financially," Mrs. Valliere said. "I think Janet Lynn's or Dorothy Hamill's mother was quoted as saying it cost them $100,000 to become a national champion. You really need help, and we have not been fortunate enough to get help yet. We're limited as to how much time we can give her on the ice, and how much instruction. The costs go up every year. Last year 55 minutes on the ice cost $2; now it's $2.25 for 45 minutes. And these costs rise as the level . . . rises - they begin to need more ice time. And then they have to travel . . ."
Jim Shackelford drives 40 miles a day to and from the rink where his daughter Leslie practices, for a total of two hours' commuting time daily. "We figured last year we put 18,000 miles on the car, going to and from ice-skating rinks," he said. "Of course that includes the drive to and from Denver," where Leslie trained last summer.
"It'll be a help when Pam gets her driver's license, there's no doubt about that," says Mrs. Valliere. "It's a real sacrifice for me to get up at that hour. But Pam's very good about it and realizes that if she wants to skate, she has to get up early. And she wants to skate."
"These kids are putting it all on themselves," Jim Shackelford agrees. "They have a fantastic amount of motivation. When you see so many kids loafing on a street corner or smoking pot, it's wonderful to see kids putting pressure on themselves like this."
Sitting in the speclators' gallery, the parents make small talk as they wait for their children to finish up. "Gee, you always look so neat and well-dressed when you drop Susie off." "We, I work in the morning." "So do I, but I usually just come down here in jeans and a sweatshirt." "Look at Mary, she's just clowning around there - I hope!" "On the mornings she doesn't skate I get to sleep 'til quarter to seven." "I'll tell you one thing, it's a lot more civilized coming down here at this time of day [6 p.m.] than it is coming down before school. You should see the traffic coming from Reston at 7 a.m., it's bumper-to-bumper."
Then the kids trudge off the ice, and their parents pack them up and say good-bye to one another the way you do at the office: "Night, see you in the morning." And you realize that this scene is repeated every morning and every night, and that they'll all be back there, comparing traffic jams, their kids' peformances,and each other's attire, at 5:30 a.m. tomorrow.