Seven-year-old identical twins Ira and Sonia Pilling, from Bayside, Queens, link arms as they each slide one blade across the slippery ice, and then the other, in perfect synchronicity. Their little arms cling to each other, then quickly break apart as the song tempo changes and they start skating to The Itsy Bitsy Spider — moving their hands to the popular hand gestures of the song, all the while focusing on their footwork. They are both members of The Skyliners synchronized skating team. This is their first-ever ice skating competition, and they just won third place.
The Skyliners' beginners' team
As synchronized ice skaters, Ira and Sonia must not only master the complicated footwork, the flexible movements, and the perilous terrain of a freestyle ice skater, they must do it at the same time, in the same way, with the same toothy smile as the teammate next to them (although, for identical twins, that part is easy). Skyliners’ head coach, Sarah LeBlanc, says the popular description for synchronized skating is a “combination of The Rockettes and synchronized swimming on ice.” The Skyliners, based in Westchester, have five teams this season, with varying divisions and age groups ranging from 5 to 18. The high-pitched giggling in the dressing room can be deceiving — all are expertly trained ice skaters. Almost every team member has been trained in freestyle skating, most since before Kindergarten.
I sit down with Ira and Sonia after they perform at a competition in Stamford, CT, and they tell me they’re not always as “in sync” as they appear. “We fight a lot,” Sonia says, glaring at her sister. They have both been skating since they were 4, and they are on the ice, practising, at least once a week. Coach Jenny Gibson explains that having never-ending patience is the biggest difficulty for training skaters this young. She usually has the beginning girls walk through their program off the ice, step by step, before tackling the icy surface. “They definitely fall more,” she says, “and keeping their attention can be very difficult.” However, she notes that, despite the challenges, starting to train the girls at a younger age can be extremely beneficial to their ice skating careers and can foster a much more consistent skater.
Two older skaters, 11-year-olds Nikki Vitale and Ariana Weintraub, both from Westchester, explain how synchronized skating is different from the popular freestyle version of the sport. And how they were both drawn to synchronized after training in freestyle because of the camaraderie the sport offers them. Their teammates are their best friends. And freestyle skating, although offering glory, fame, and a sparkling dream of the Olympics, was, simply, too lonely. “Too much pressure,” says Vitale, shaking her head. “In freestyle, there’s only a fifty-fifty chance you are going to land a jump. In synchronized skating, you practice and practice until you get the footwork and maneuvers down.”
They all agree that one of the hardest maneuvers they must master is skating any formation involving an intersection — where two lines of skaters approach each other at significant speeds, each one slipping through a narrow space between two other mobile girls. In speeding by one another, blades can easily catch or tangle. “I get scared to go through sometimes,” Vitale admits.
Coach LeBlanc believes that synchronized skating is actually more difficult than freestyle because, although she admits freestyle has its extremes, synchronized skating requires constant mindfulness about what is happening around you. “Each skater must know where they are at all times and know where their teammates are as well. You have to constantly keep yourself in check because everyone is working together to create something bigger.”
Synchronized skating was introduced in the mid-1950s with a team from Ann Arbor, Michigan, where, like cheerleaders, the girls performed merely to entertain the spectators at University of Michigan hockey games. Both figure and synchronized skating have gained significant popularity and notability since then. Expert Jennifer Caron, founder and coach of the acclaimed Revolution Synchronized Skating Teams, credits the rapid growth of the sport to the desirable team atmosphere. “You can compete with your friends and travel with your friends,” she explains. For some, aspiring to be on a national team is a much more viable option than reaching the Olympics as a figure skater. “If you have the skills to make a top level team, then you’re competing at nationals every year and going to international competitions. You’re more likely to join something like Team USA or Team Canada than be the next Michelle Kwan. There’s only one Michelle Kwan.”
Although it has not yet been made an Olympic Sport, many remain hopeful, and in the meantime, young synchro skaters can aspire to join national or international teams, as well as to tour with performance groups like Disney on Ice. However, the most common choice is to start coaching. Coaching opportunities increase as more collegiate teams have started to pop up on the East Coast, as well as teams like the Skyliners. Vitale wants to be a head coach, but admits that the Olympics is really where her dream lies. “I really want to go and see what happens. It would be amazing.”
Until then, the girls remain dedicated to the tasks at hand — like getting to nationals. The teams went last year and the novice division (ages 12-15) won 4th place, while the rest placed within the top 10. Coach LeBlanc is confident they are even stronger this year. Both Vitale and Weintraub practice five to six days a week, one to two hours a day, but admit that they must make concessions in other areas to maintain their rigorous skating schedules. This includes missing school, bringing homework to competitions, and putting off fun kid stuff, like sleepovers. “Sometimes you can’t have a sleepover with your friends when you want because you have to catch up on homework,” Weintraub says. Vitale nods her head in agreement. “Yeah, I didn’t go to the mall the other day because I wanted to finish practice.”
As the girls grow older, the practice time only increases, while the competition only gets fiercer. Jackie Bayer, 15, and Audrey McQuade, 13, also from Westchester, say they now practice an average of 14 hours a week, six with the team and eight by themselves. Injuries can also occur, albeit not quite as severe as in freestyle, but getting hurt still remains a risk. Although a sprained ankle or torn Achilles tendon can put a skater on the bench for a season, the girls don’t seemed to be phased by the hazards. “Once we had an incident where a girl fell and another girl skated over her, cutting her arm,” Vitale says calmly. Bayer and McQuade also describe the synchronized skating “domino effect” — where one girl falls and brings the rest of her team down with her. They must learn special release techniques specifically for this situation.
Bayer explains that none of this really matters because, in the end, it comes down to spending time with your teammates, who become more like best friends, or sisters, understanding everything the others are going through and becoming more in tune, or shall we say, in sync with each other’s lives. “I consider my teammates my closest friends,” she says. “Winning, losing — you experience everything with them.”
A life in synchronization? Identical twins and twin skaters, Ira and Sonia Pilling, from Bayside, Queens
Photos: Will Christiansen