Why Are 1,600 Figure Skaters Descending on Portland This Weekend?

At the US Synchronized Figure Skating Championships, there’s no place for a Left Shark.

By Margaret Seiler February 19, 2018

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As the Winter Olympics wrap up in PyeongChang, Korea, skating fans have plenty of moments to relive and revel in, from the highly quotable Adam Rippon to Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu and his magical ability to make it rain Winnie the Poohs to Leslie Jones’s costume critiques via Twitter. And then there were the Olympic firsts: American Vincent Zhou doing the first Olympic quad lutz; Mirai Nagasu’s first triple Axel landed by an American woman in international competition; the Beyoncé medley that soundtracked a routine by France’s Maé-Bérénice Méité, confirmation that the rule change allowing vocals in skating music is a boon to humanity.

In Portland, though, lutz lovers can keep the spirit going live, and they don’t have to settle for a measly one or two competitors on the ice at a time. Instead, teams of eight to 20 will fill the ice at Memorial Coliseum Feb 22–24 for the US Synchronized Figure Skating Championships. Some 1,600 skaters, ranging in age from 8 to 69, are Portland bound. Add in coaches, family members, and the rest of the entourages, and Travel Portland estimates more than 4,000 hotel room nights and an economic impact of $2.5 million for the city.

It’s the biggest event so far in 2018 lured by the Oregon Sports Authority. OSA acts as an “economic engine around sports for the entire state,” says Jim Etzel, who took over as its executive director in January. He admits the synchro finals might not carry the “shiny object” status of November’s nationally televised PK80 college basketball tournament, he says, or bring in as many people or dollars (more than $10 million) as last September’s Gay Softball World Series, but Etzel is looking forward to a “halo effect” thanks to the energy and excitement around skating during the Winter Olympics.

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The Hockettes Junior team, from Ann Arbor, Michigan, at last year’s US Synchronized Figure Skating Championships. 

So, synchronized skating? We called Ann Arbor to find out a little about the sport from Ellen Tilford, a member of the reigning-champ collegiate synchro team at University of Michigan, who’s been doing synchro since she was in fourth grade in Traverse City. 

What’s synchro all about?

It’s very different from most figure skating. In most figure skating, people are expecting the freestyle side of things, the jumps, the spins. And with synchro you do get some of that, but you also have to focus more on the formations that we’re making and the interactions that everyone on the ice is having. Most teams skate 16, so it’s a lot more to focus on.

What’s a synchro skater’s usual athletic background?

It comes from all over. I did freestyle competitively up until about eighth grade, so there was overlap for me. On the other hand, there are a lot of people who grow up only competing synchro and loving it that way. We’ve also had girls who competed ice dance growing up or freestyle growing up, and then once they get to college decide they want to try synchro. It’s really all over the place.

Do you ever have athletes come over from other sports, or from dance?

I don’t think we ever have, just because there has to be a good level of skating ability to be able to do synchro. But I’m sure it’s happened before.

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Teams Elite Novice from Northbrook, Illinois, just north of Chicago

Do some skaters have solos?

It’s kind of the united formation for most of it. In each synchro element at every level, there’s a required number of elements and those elements are specified. But then there’s also something called the creative element. Kind of a good way to describe it is organized chaos. You can basically do whatever you want, you just want it to really look nice and together. So that’s where a lot of teams will highlight individual skaters’ skills, whether it be spins or jumps. Also during transitions you can highlight more of those types of things, but during every other element it’s usually the entire team as a whole.

There are figure skating movies and there are team sports movies, but are there any figure skating team sports movies?

No, I can’t think of one. To get motivated at competitions, a lot of times our team will watch a compilation of motivational speeches from movies like Miracle. So a lot of that stuff gets us really amped up for competitions, but I don’t think there’s a specific movie that really embraces everything that synchro is.

What’s the best part of being a synchro competitor?

My favorite thing has to be the team aspect of it, and then also the competition aspect. I’ve always said I skate because I love skating, but when I used to compete individually I’d get really anxious and I didn’t perform my best most of the time. Being out on the ice with a team is super-fun because I can still have that competitive spirit, but I’m out there with 15 of my best friends at a time.

Does your team have a Left Shark?

No, we’re all pretty together. Or at least we try to be.

Tilford’s team competes in the Collegiate Championship Saturday, Feb 24, at 3 p.m., but there are other levels of competition happening all day Thursday–Saturday. Day passes on competition days are $25. Find the full schedule here

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