The United States Figure Skating Championships are being held this week in Nashville, Tennessee. The top male and female skaters will move on to the Winter Olympics in Beijing, China, next month.

World-class figure skaters such as defending U.S. champions Nathan Chen and Bradie Tennell do not just happen. They work for years to get to the medal platform.

Recently, I went to the Ion International Training Center in Leesburg, Virginia, to watch the 2022 U.S. Figure Skating Championship Series, where more than 300 skaters from across the country came to try to qualify for the Nationals. With two ice sheets and 2,500 seats, the Ion has become a magnet for figure skating, ice dancing and hockey.

Riley Vinson, 10, is a fourth-grader at Seldens Landing Elementary School in Leesburg. Two years ago, Riley missed a church skating and hot chocolate party at the Ion because she was sick. Her mother took her to the rink later to make up for the missed party, and Riley discovered that she loved skating.

“I feel like I’m flying when I do my jumps and spins,” she says.

But it is not all flying and fun. Skating is hard work. Riley practices six days a week for an hour or two a day. Some practices are off-ice to get her in the physical condition needed for skating.

Riley’s work seems to be paying off. When I spoke to her, she had just finished fifth against athletes who had been skating much longer. Riley will definitely keep at it. “I want to skate for another 20 years,” she says.

Alexandra Wylie, 14, is a ninth-grader at the Academies of Loudoun. She started skating when she was 7. Her mom took her to Taiwan for two months. “It was so hot,” Alexandra explained. “We went skating to get out of the heat.”

Alexandra continued skating when the family returned home. She loves being on the ice, because, she says, “I feel free and can express myself.”

Alexandra is working on her double axle (a skating jump) and wants to be able to land triples by the time she is 18 years old. Those skills will help her compete at a national level.

Practicing these difficult jumps means Alexandra falls “a lot.” But, she says, “skating teaches me to be resilient and to not stop trying.”

Alexandra practices skating or works on her conditioning for two to three hours a day, six days a week. While I think kids should not specialize in one sport, Alexandra seems to love it. Luiz Taifas, the president of Ion and a former international skater, said Alexandra did not smile when she first came to Ion, but “now she is all smiles.”

Who knows, someday Riley and Alexandra may compete in the Nationals or even the Olympics. Until then, they will be happy feeling like they are flying and being free.