The world's best figure skaters are in town this week doing their triple toe loops and their axels at the World Figure Skating Championships. But there's another type of skating going on around town that you probably have never seen.
Picture this: Sixteen skaters, side by side, in a line that takes up the entire width of an ice rink, skating in unison. Halfway down the rink they turn, all at the same time, and skate backward -- full speed -- heading straight for the wall. Then, with a "Whoo!" and the sound of 32 skates grinding the ice, they turn just in time to miss the wall and continue skating.
This is synchronized skating, a sport that takes the skill and discipline of individual skating but also requires timing and, most important, teamwork.
There are no stars in synchronized skating. Every member of the team helps make the routine a success.
"I like it a little better than individual skating because it's a friendly sport; it's not lonely," said Evelyn Shapter, 10, a member of Metroliners, the synchronized skating team based at the Bowie Ice Arena in Prince George's County.
"It's a lot more fun with more people," agreed teammate Gina Blades, 12, of Odenton. "It's neater to watch when you have a whole lot of girls together synchronized."
Synchronized skating started nearly 50 years ago, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as a way to entertain fans during hockey games. Gradually, it grew in popularity because it gave more skaters the chance to participate in figure skating.
Only recently, however, has synchronized skating gained widespread acceptance as a competitive sport. The first world championship was held last year in Minneapolis. Eighteen U.S. colleges now have teams, and supporters are hoping it becomes an official collegiate sport so that skaters will be eligible for scholarships.
The Metroliners have two all-girl teams. Fifteen girls, from 13 to 18 years of age, skate on the juniors team. There's also an intermediate team with 16 girls, ages 10 to 15. (In competition, a team can have 12 to 20 skaters on the ice.)
Both teams work hard, practicing two hours once or twice a week in addition to keeping up their individual skills.
"It takes up a lot of time," said Ally Hawkins, 10. "School just ends and you have to come straight to the rink."
It can also be expensive. Metroliners membership costs about $2,500, plus the cost of skates, costumes and trips to competitions. The team holds fundraisers to help keep the cost down.
But the girls say that the fun they have together is worth the hard work and effort.
"It's a rush of adrenaline when you're out there," said Carleen Batchelor, 13, of Crofton, a member of the younger team.
It's also a lot of fun to watch. There are four basic formations: lines, circles, pinwheels and blocks, which form when the girls break into several lines and skate together. These forms can be put together in an endless number of ways, with jumps and lunges and other fancy steps as well as different hand and shoulder holds.
Though they love their sport, the girls agree on their least favorite part: falling.
Everybody falls at some point. The rules even take that into consideration. Skaters get less of a deduction if they get right back up and into formation after a fall.
Still, it can be painful. And, of course, embarrassing. "Everybody [in the audience] makes that little 'Awww!' " Carleen said. "It makes it worse than it is."
-- P.F. Loeb