“We Take Care of Our Own”

20 Nov

By Chelsea Schlecht

A skating team formed a circle on the far corner of the ice. A rousing cheer cut through the crisp air of the ice rink at Chelsea Piers Connecticut. The 16 female athletes applauded yet another successful practice and exited the ice, uniformly dressed in black chiffon wrap-skirts and teal racerback tank tops emblazoned with their team logo of three silhouetted skaters.

This is the Skyliners synchronized skating team – a nationally and internationally recognized group of high-caliber athletes who would let nothing, not even the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy, stop them from participating in the art and athleticism of figure skating.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, news outlets shared stories of loss, survival and courage – families watching their homes drown in flood waters, small businesses fighting to rebuild and tales of rescues by neighborhood heroes. Apart from coverage of the canceled New York City Marathon, however, stories involving the fate of local sports teams were put on the media-coverage backburner while the closures and losses of ice rinks throughout the New York area put the competitive fate of more than 1,000 New York City-based figure skaters on thin ice.

Of the 1,000-plus members of the Skating Club of New York (SCNY), one of the country’s oldest and most prominent skating clubs, more than 150 athletes skate for the club’s synchronized skating team, the Skyliners. In the 2011-12 pre-Sandy season, all five of the Skyliners’ teams that competed at the U.S. Synchronized Skating Championships placed in the top five of their respective divisions, three of which ended with a podium-finish. Losing out on practice time, due to natural disaster or otherwise, would have been disastrous.

The morning after Sandy blacked out Manhattan, Moira North, founder of SCNY sister-program the Ice Theatre of New York, ventured from her home in Tribeca to see how Chelsea Piers had been affected.

“I saw for myself,” North recalled. “It was stunning. Refrigerators from restaurants floating.”

The SkyRink at Chelsea Piers New York, the sole venue for SCNY club ice, was shut down for five weeks, preventing the skaters from following their normal training schedules.

“It really slammed them,” Josh Babb, program director and head coach of the Skyliners’ highest-level teams, said. “They had no options.”

Not only was the SkyRink closed for more than a month, but practice facilities further afield were also disrupted. Rye Playland, the main practice rink for the Skyliners’ junior team is still down today.

Relocating more than 20 hours of weekly ice time was no easy task for the Skyliners’ management, as both hockey and figure skating teams sign contracts months in advance for a whole season’s worth of ice.

“As soon as I heard that our main practice rink was down, it was just [going] into management mode to try and find ice wherever we could get it,” Babb said. “Making up for lost practice time is not easy when you’re trying to maintain a World team and stay on top of the podium.”

As Sandy was brewing up trouble across the east coast, Skyliners teams were preparing for their sixth annual pep rally. For all eight Skyliners teams, the 2012 pep rally was to be the first big performance of the competitive season.

“[Sandy] did knock us back for that,” Dr. Deborah Roche, the teams’ sports psychologist, said. “We were definitely not as prepared as we would have been.”

“These kids are very dedicated to what they do,” Babb added. “They knew they had a job to do and they just did it.”

In Sandy’s wake, neither flooded bridges nor subway shutdowns could keep them from practice. Jen Sais, Skyliners senior team manager and designated “team mom,” recalled that although some of the skaters were out of power for two-to-three weeks, they did everything they could to make it to the rink, even staying at hotels near the facility to ensure their attendance at practice.

“They’re a pretty determined group of kids,” Sais said. “Even the ones from far away made practice.”

“It takes a lot to shake them,” Roche added. “It’s a testament to the resilience they have.”

In the first days after the hurricane, SCNY president Terri Levine and other SCNY board members searched through club records to contact club members who lived in areas that had been devastated.

“The skating community in New York is very small,” Levine said. “We help each other out.”

“We’re a family,” Roche added. “People rallied for each other. People were taking other skaters into their homes. You take them in, you don’t ask questions.”

The innate teamwork and selflessness described by Dr. Roche is not specific to Hurricane Sandy, however. While describing the SCNY’s post-Sandy experience, Levine recalled the last time her club dealt with disaster, during her first term as the club’s president, on September 11, 2001.

“The first thing we all did, we went running back upstairs,” Levine said, adding that she had been standing outside Chelsea Piers as the towers fell.  “We thought people were going to be running at us to get away. We went to get the water containers they use for hockey games because we thought they would need the water to drink and flush their eyes from the smoke and debris.”

Levine supported the rink management’s decision to cancel all practices immediately following the tragic events, stating that they “thought they were going to use [the facility] as a morgue.”

As the senior team exited the ice and the Zamboni doors opened, two of the team’s newest members, Alex Sais (daughter of Jen Sais) and Brooke Abbott, glided over to the boards. They jumped up and perched casually, their skate blades swinging about a foot off the floor. At 20 and 18 years old, both skaters made the leap from Skyliners junior to senior this season. As former junior skaters, they felt the loss of the Rye Playland rink firsthand.

“After the storm, the rink was completely destroyed,” Alex Sais said. “We had to change our schedule and move to a different rink. It was really tough.”

“It took a lot of refocusing and getting back into the zone,” Abbott added. “I think it made us grow. [Sandy] kind of brought around a new era. It unified the Skyliners, too, just having everyone together at the same rink.”

Although the girls recall their first post-Sandy practice as relatively normal, Abbott remembers a surreal atmosphere.

“I think we were just kind of like shocked, like ‘Did that really just happen? A hurricane?’” Abbott said. “We got together and it was just nice. I missed everyone. It was like a coming home.”

Fast forward to present day and the Skyliners’ 2013-14 season is well under way. With a club record of nine teams and more than 170 athletes, this looks to be one of the most promising seasons. The reigning U.S. synchronized silver medalist junior team is aiming to once again compete at the World Junior Challenge Cup and the senior team is hoping to climb the ranks. From here, the New York figure skating community is only looking forward.

“2012 was an 11-month year,” Levine said. “I would say we’re 100 percent back.”

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