Greenwich skaters score hardware at U.S. synchronized finals

The Skyliners novice line, which included two Greenwich residents, Whitney Elminger and Stephanie Achoa, perform their bronze-medal winning performance to the Addams Family theme. — photo courtesy of Jay Adeff/U.S. Figure Skating

The Skyliners novice line, which included two Greenwich residents, Whitney Elminger and Stephanie Achoa, perform their bronze-medal winning performance to Willy Wonka. — photo courtesy of Jay Adeff/U.S. Figure Skating

Two weeks ago, a handful of skaters who live in Greenwich did their hometown proud and scored gold and bronze in the juvenile and novice divisions for the New York-metropolitan based Skyliners organization at the 2014 U.S. Synchronized Championships.

The juvenile team, which included residents Madison DiBlasi, 12, Katherine Elmlinger, 13, Lizzie Essaid, 13, and Michelle Woo, 13, along with more than a dozen other skaters from Westchester, Northern New Jersey and the Fairfield County areas, racked up the highest scores in their division, the first level of the five-rung national synchro ladder, at this celebrated annual U.S. team competitive event, held at the Broadmoor WorldArena February 27th through March 2nd in Colorado Springs.

Pitted against 12 of the top-seeded teams from all around the U.S., including Massachusetts, Michigan, Illinois and Massachusetts, the team earned accolades for their program to the Aladdin soundtrack that they skated with great power, expertise and finesse.

Reputed to be a close-knit unit, this hard-working team, coached by Natalie Martello and Celeste Cote, knelt down to kiss the ice after the medal ceremony, defining one of the most heartfelt moments of the entire event.

“We are like a family, we’re very connected on the ice,” said Gracie Ossorio, 11, a member of the Juvenile team who is in the sixth grade at Greenwich Catholic School and lives in Rye Brook, New York. “It’s been the best year ever.”

Upon arriving home, hometown members of this team, most of who train at the Dorothy Hamill Rink, Greenwich Skating Club and Boys and Girls Club of Greenwich along with other local arenas located throughout the Fairfield and Westchester County areas, were thrilled over the results.

“Going to Nationals was like a dream,” said Ossorio. “I really didn’t think about [winning] when we were there, we just skated our best.”

Meanwhile, the Novice line, competing just two rungs down from the World Championship senior level, clinched bronze.

The team, which featured residents Stephanie Achoa, 14, a Greenwich High School freshman and Whitney Elmlinger, 14, generated high marks for their dynamic rendition of the Willy Wonka film score. Throughout their performance, this group, coached by Jenny Gibson, twizzled, glided and flew around the ice with the aptitude and expertise of seasoned high-level contenders.

“It was our best skate of the year,” said Elmlinger, a ninth grader at Greenwich Academy. “It was a really good way to end the season and it was so exciting to be on the podium.”
At this event, nearly half a dozen additional Greenwich skaters on the other national-qualifying Skyliners lines also fared well.

The Skyliners perform their Aladdin program during the U.S. Synchro Championships in Colorado Springs. — photo courtesy of Jay Adeff/U.S. Figure Skating

The Skyliners perform their Aladdin program during the U.S. Synchro Championships in Colorado Springs. — photo courtesy of Jay Adeff/U.S. Figure Skating

The senior (championship level) team, of which Cos Cob resident Brooke Abbott, a 2013 Greenwich High School graduate and four-time U.S. Synchro medalist is a member, placed fifth.

The junior troupe, featuring Marissa Goff, 17, a Greenwich High School senior and Jordyn Young, 16, a Greenwich Academy junior, scored sixth.

The intermediate line, a step above the juvenile division that includes residents Natalie Felton, a 13-year-old eighth-grader at the Rye Country Day School, 13 year-old Kristen Lewis, an eighth-grader at Western Middle School and Raven Vaz, a 14 year-old Greenwich High sophomore, also finished sixth.

“I think all the skaters did a great job,” said Andrea Vaz, Raven’s mother and board member of the Windy Hill Skating Club at the Hamill Rink. “These girls work so hard to do their best for the team and skating means so much to them.”

Brooke Abbott, 19, a freshman at Barnard College and one of the team’s most experienced and decorated contenders, agreed.

“It’s an incredible experience to be at nationals,” said Abbott, who is in her ninth season as a Skyliner and has won four medals at seven U.S. Synchro Championships over the years. “It’s definitely nerve wracking, but exciting because you’re going against the best of the best in your sport.”

 A hot sport

This competition was particularly significant due to the fact that synchronized skating has become one of the most popular disciplines in figure skating today here in town as well as throughout most of the United States.

Although it is still in the throes of being made an Olympic sport by officials, scores of skaters throughout the town of Greenwich, as well as throughout Fairfield, Westchester and Putnam counties, have pursued it since it represents a viable and expeditious way to reach the national and world competitive levels in the sport.

“What I love about synchro is that it give these skaters the opportunity to be involved in a team sport,” said Slavka Kohout-Button, a U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame member who taught Janet Lynn, the 1972 Olympic bronze medalist. “I also think it gives them an opportunity to get to Nationals.”

Compared to singles skating, which requires athletes to devote a great deal of their time to training so they learn double, triple and even quadruple jumps, synchro skating is somewhat less intensive.

Currently, synchro skaters are not required to do any double, much less triple or quadruple jumps and are much like ice dancers in that they perform many difficult turns, steps, edges and lifts, elements that takes a bit less time to master compared to high-rotation jumps.

“It doesn’t quite require the same intensity of commitment that individual skating requires,” said Kohout-Button, who is based in Greenwich and coaches Jordyn Young and Whitney and Katherine Elmlinger on the Skyliners junior, novice and juvenile lines, respectively. “Still, it gives them an opportunity to go to a high level.”

Additionally, synchro teams only have to place in the top four at one of three U.S. sectional events to qualify for nationals as opposed to singles, pairs and ice dancing, where skaters have to score a podium placement at one of nine regional competitions to be eligible to compete at sectionals (once a skaters earns a top-four placement at sectionals, they qualify for nationals).

Still, it is no secret that synchro is the hottest thing to have hit skating in years when looking at the numbers.

Last year, nearly 10,000 skaters skated for approximately 600 total teams that were registered with the U.S. Figure Skating organization.

At the same time, the 2013 World Synchro Championships, held in Boston last spring were a sold-out event that drew several dozen teams from all around the globe.

“This is a wonderful sport and has been growing at a tremendous rate,” said Kohout-Button, who taught the former Greenwich residents Maia and Alex Shibutani, the U.S. ice dance bronze medalists who competed for Team USA in Sochi last month.  “I also think Greenwich produces wonderful skaters.”

Although it has not been named as an official Olympic sport, there is a growing faction in the sport fighting to make this happen. In February, more than 2,000 individuals signed a petition that was forwarded to the International Olympic Committee.

 Greenwich home of dedicated synchro skaters

Whether or not synchro is named as an Olympic sport, there is no doubt that it plays a huge role in the sport. It has helped build figure skating’s popularity in Greenwich, the New York metropolitan area and throughout the U.S., a fact that speaks volumes about its possibilities in regard to the future.

“Skating has really grown in its popularity here in Greenwich, especially in regard to synchro over the past number of years,” said Abbott. “I think it is because people here are very committed to sports in general and know what it takes to achieve goals.”

The parents agreed and said they are grateful for the role it has played in their children’s lives.

“Whats great about synchro is that you’re doing a team sport but you also have to keep up with your individual skills,” said Andrea Vaz, a five-year Skyliner parent who works at the New Lebanon School. “It’s really required to do this but by the same token, there’s a team for everyone no matter what your age, skill or level.”

The Skyliner organization, which also consists of lower-level teams, condones the concept of developing skaters from the ground up.

Last January, their Pre Juvenile line placed first among a 28-team field at the 2014 Eastern Sectional Championships while the Preliminary Team scored silver among a 17-team contingent at the same event.

Greenwich residents Nicole Huber and Melissa Woo are members of the former team, while Sherlynn Arcuri and Amanda and Caroline Park skated for the ladder.

In the end, skaters, parents and coaches alike seems to relish the idea of being involved in a sport that involves a team dynamic along with a myriad of athletic skills and recognize its effect on many different important levels.

“I’m incredibly proud and seeing the girls skate [at the U.S. Synchro Championships] was a great moment, they were all just a joy to watch,” said Haley Elmlinger, mother of Whitney and Katherine. “This has been a fantastic experience because it has taught the girls a great deal about dedication, hard work and commitment and that means so much.”

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