Ellenton Skaters Prepare for the Big Time
ELLENTON - The U.S. Figure Skating Championships sound imposing enough. The best of the best competing against each other in a country with no shortage of skating talent. It could be enough to inspire greatness or fear in any normal year. But this isn't a normal year. This is an Olympic year. Another level? That probably doesn't do it justice. It's like if the Super Bowl was only held once every four years, and this was a conference championship game.
That's the atmosphere facing the skating pairs of Mark Ladwig and Amanda Evora and Jeremy Barrett and Shantel Jordan in the senior nationals, which will be held Jan. 7-15 in St. Louis. Those two Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex teams will be joined in St. Louis by Tracy Tanovich and Michael Chau, who are competing in the Novice national championships - two levels below Ladwig and Evora and Barrett and Jordan.
Though Barrett and Jordan aren't eligible for the Olympics because Jordan, 13, is too young, they still want to win, and they still must face pairs who are eligible. Only the top two pairs qualify for the Olympics.
"It's an Olympic year, so politics will probably take over," Jordan said. "We just want to skate the best we can."
Adding to the intrigue of the national competition will be the specter of a new judging system, which was implemented this year in the U.S. Barrett likes the new system, which is based on cumulative points as opposed to the old 6.0 judging scale that was employed before.
Theoretically, the new system takes the objectivity out of the judging process. Every element is given a value, and the more elements used with the higher values, the higher the score.
"Our numbers have gotten a lot tougher this year compared to last year," said Barrett. "We have a lot harder lifts and harder throws. The new judging system has (forced) us to step it up."
Barrett and Jordan finished 10th last year. They are looking for a top-six finish this time, but they said because it's an Olympic year, more teams will be in the competition.
While Barrett and Jordan can't advance, Evora and Ladwig are very much in the mix for an Olympic berth. They finished fifth last year at nationals.
And they have also had the opportunity to skate under the new scoring system since they competed in international grand prix events last year.
"This system allows you to see (the specific results)," Ladwig said. "If you had good marks on your lifts, then you're a good lifting team. If you have good marks on the jumps, you're a good jumping team. People can take strengths and improve upon them. They can also look at their weaknesses because it shows those."
Evora said the new system allows for new stars to emerge from a sport that at times in the past rewarded seniority more than results.
"The better elements you have show up in the marks," Evora said. "You take a basic element, and within that basic element, you put a lot of hard stuff into it. Almost every element we do is new compared to last year. One thing the new judging system is trying to push is creativity."
Kerry Leitch, who coaches all three of the pairs teams headed to nationals, thinks Ladwig and Evora have a reasonable chance to make the Olympics. He said one of the teams that finished ahead of them a year ago has retired.
"In terms of seeding, they would be fourth, but they are certainly capable of beating any of those teams on a given day," said Leitch, who hopes the new judging system will work better than the older one. "The programs are much more difficult to do this year as opposed to last year, based on the fact now you have to do difficult stuff. Before you could fake it and get by."
Chau and Tanovich competed in the junior nationals last year. They skipped the intermediate level and made it as novices this year after finishing fourth at the sectional competition in November.
Chau said he was surprised they made it. He didn't feel they skated well at the sectionals, but Chau and Tanovich will gladly take the opportunity to learn from their experience with some of the best skaters at their level.
"We didn't skate our best in the short, but we're really happy we made it," said Chau, who has skated with Tanovich for about a year. "We weren't even hoping to make nationals. We just hoped to skate good."
"I think it's very exciting," said Tanovich, who has been skating for five years but will be one of the youngest competitors in St. Louis.