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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 3, 2002

Skating's top tier an ocean away

By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer

Clad in a black flared mini and a teal top, Alyssa Takatsuki glided across the ice, weaving between other ice skaters, each intently focused on camel spins or landing double axels.

Alyssa Takatsuki prepares for an early-morning workout at The Ice Palace with prepping from her mother, Dawn.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

Together, they formed a parade of sweaters and wraps, velvet overleggings, gloves, ponytails and Lycra.

Lithe and quick, they skated in patterns, flying across the only ice rink in Hawai'i — The Ice Palace — tucked away in a strip mall in Halawa.

Temperatures outside hovered around 80 degrees.

Parents waited patiently on the bleachers, watching their children leap in the air and crash on the ice. Coaches looked on nearby.

"Swan Lake" drifted over the rink's sound system. Takatsuki moved with the grace of a ballerina, the strength of an athlete. Her age, 14, was hidden behind 10 years of experience on the ice.

Takatsuki spends about 10 to 12 hours over five days a week practicing her jumps and spins. That doesn't count the hours she spends training off the ice, in ballet classes or at Pilates, to improve her skating.

Yet she doesn't have her heart set on the Winter Olympics, which start Friday in Salt Lake City.

She says she knows better than that.

"When I was younger, I always thought I wanted to go to nationals or the Olympics," she said. "But now I just want to do it because it's fun. I like skating, and it takes a lot of work to get to nationals. It takes so much dedication and time, and I want to try new things."

Sun and ice not an easy mix

Like many local skaters, Takatsuki set realistic goals, often after the realization the road to the Olympics isn't as easy as landing a single lutz.

Hawai'i is not the obvious locale for figure skating. Surrounded by ocean and with year-round sunshine, the Islands are ideal for outdoors sports, such as paddling, soccer and golf. And with no winter season — meaning, no freezing temperatures — ice skating in Hawai'i is a lot like bobsledding in Jamaica.

It can happen, but it's unlikely.

"When they start out, they dream of the Olympics," said Beverly Thompson, mother of two ice skaters and president of the Hawai'i Figure Skating Club. "But when they get into it and see how hard it is, they set their goals a little lower."

Still, local kids continue to be mesmerized by Olympic figure skaters such as Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski, who dazzle audiences with their sleek movements, emotional expressions and tremendous athleticism.

The media has turned these athletes into celebrities, and figure skating continues to dominate the ratings during the Winter Games.

That, in turn, has stimulated interest in the sport since its official induction into the Olympics in 1924.

The United States Figure Skating Association is one of the fastest growing governing bodies within the Olympic movement with more than 155,000 members. And in Hawai'i, insiders have noticed an increase in interest over the years, as enrollment for classes has risen. According to Thompson, about 50 skaters in Hawai'i are either competing or working toward completing different skill levels by passing tests sanctioned by the U.S. Figure Skating Association.

But Kwan and Kristi Yamaguchi are more than just Olympic gold medalists; they have given other Asian American girls a familiar face to relate to, making them instant role models and ethnic representatives.

Takatsuki said she looked up to Yamaguchi when she was younger, more for her skating ability than her Japanese background.

She remembers getting the Olympian's autograph several years ago, when Yamaguchi was in town for Stars on Ice. Takatsuki still has the photo she signed. It reads: "Always dream."

On the ice, Alyssa Takatsuki savors the feeling of smooth fluidity. She skates for the joy of it. She thinks about the Olympics — a little.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

But some believe Hawai'i skaters can do more than dream.

"I think Hawai'i has probably more talent in this sport than any state in the country," said Tom Bartlett, who has coached for more than 30 years, 15 in the Islands.

Hawai'i skaters have perseverance, he said, having to overcome obstacles that could hinder their progress and interest in the sport. (For starters, having just one rink, a commercial facility that isn't up to par with Mainland rinks for competitive skating.)

But the biggest challenge local skaters face, Bartlett said, is not being able to participate in competitions on a regular basis.

"When we go to competitions (on the Mainland), during practice sessions our kids are tearing up the ice," he said. "Judges come up to me and say we have the best practice-session skaters. Hawai'i skaters would win hands-down. But put them in front of an audience, in front of judges, and nine times out of 10, they don't do well."

Takatsuki is one of two Hawai'i skaters who have advanced as far as the U.S. Nationals in the novice division. She and her dance partner, Jonathan Ige, finished last.

Few chances to compete

The lack of competitive experience hurts local skaters because it makes it difficult for them to deal with such high-pressure situations. The Hawai'i Figure Skating Club is host to one sanctioned competition a year; this year, it will be next month at The Ice Palace.

"I don't believe a skater has to move away from Hawai'i (to be successful)," Bartlett said. "The only drawback we have — and we only have one — is the financial opportunity to be able to practice in competitions. When our kids skate well, they are just as good, even better, than the Mainland kids. They're right in there."

Being able to participate in competitions year-round gives skaters a better understanding of what it takes to compete on a national level and gives them more confidence to perform when it matters: in qualifying competitions.

"They need a lot of competition experience," said Thompson, whose two children have participated in summer camps and competitive events on the Mainland. "Kids who live on the Mainland can drive to competitions every month. When you compete frequently, you get to know yourself under pressure."

Competing in front of judges has another added benefit: They get to know you.

"Judges who see you year after year can see the improvement and progress," Thompson said. "Our kids don't get that enough. And they have a hard time at that. It's just harder for them to do better because there's no opportunity for them to compete on a monthly basis and get over those jitters and be used to being in front of judges. Our kids are more nervous and that definitely affects their performance."

Blending passion, reality

Some coaches and parents strongly believe it's possible for Hawai'i to produce a successful figure skater, maybe even an Olympian.

It would take clubs coming to the Islands for competition, improved facilities and financial backing from state or private institutions.

Just being around competitive skaters can help the local hopefuls.

"When you see what the competition is like, it makes you strive even harder to achieve that," Thompson said. "When you don't see that on a regular basis, it's hard to see yourself doing it."

"It's a very visual sport," added Bartlett, who used to compete in freestyle. "When you see it in your mind, you can transfer those images ... It makes a difference in you as a competitor."

Many others don't think talented hopefuls can stay and train in Hawai'i.

"Honestly, it would be very hard for someone to do it from here," said Dawn Takatsuki, Alyssa's mom, whose two older daughters also skate. "Not that there aren't talented skaters here because there are. But as far as training goes, it would be hard to do it here. We just don't have the facilities and the variety of coaches that everybody needs, coaches with that kind of experience."

She has instilled in her daughters this reality without smothering their passion for and commitment to the sport.

"All these kids want to go to the Olympics, but the reality is not even 1 percent will get there," she said. "Chances are really, really slim. What they need to do is make realistic goals to better their skating and get up the levels as far as testing ... But competitions are also very good experience."

Figure skating, whether in pairs, in dance or in freestyle, is like any other sport: It takes commitment, determination, skill improvement and patience to get better.

And practice. A lot of practice.

"But they do it because they enjoy it," Thompson said. "Their goal is to be the best they can be, not to go to the Olympics."

Thompson's son, Ian Diaz, practices at 6 a.m., three times a week. They commute from Mililani to The Ice Palace so he can get in some practice time before school because he plays in a basketball league in the afternoon.

At 13, he has already learned about sacrifice, commitment and time management.

"I let them know that it costs a lot of money, so if they're going to do it, they need to put a lot of effort into it," said Thompson, who spends about $500 a month on the sport, including class fees, equipment and costumes. "They know that school comes first. You don't skate if you're not doing well in school. And I'm not going to spend that much on sport they don't take seriously."

More often than not, local skaters settle for self-improvement.

"I was never that serious that I would move away just to pursue my skating," said Takatsuki, who has taken up theater and is thinking about cheerleading at Iolani School. "I know that school is more important."

But what lured them to the ice never leaves. That feeling of flying. That feeling of freedom. The speed, the movements, the moments in the air. Skating will always be a part of them.

"It's so smooth," Takatsuki said, dreamily. "You can go faster than anything. Anything. I just like everything about it."

Reach Catherine E. Toth at ctoth@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-8533.