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January 2009 Issue

Aces on Ice

The artistry and athleticism of championship skating comes to Cleveland this month.
Aces on Ice
The blade is a mirror for tears of joy and disappointment, creating a final spray of sheared ice when a competitive skater comes to a dramatic stop.

More than 250 skaters will vie for fame and personal satisfaction at the 2009 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Cleveland Jan. 18–25. The event is conducted each year by U.S. Figure Skating, the sport’s sanctioning body. Skaters compete for national titles in a variety of divisions.

What’s on the line? Sometimes a chance to solidify a place on the U.S. Olympic Team or income from endorsements and ice shows. Sometimes the opportunity to move up in national rankings. But most importantly, the championships allow a very few to say they are the very best.

Ohio has had a wealth of skaters and coaches who shine in the always exciting, always unpredictable world of top-level figure skating. Meet three talented athletes who are expected to shine at this year’s championships.

Alissa Czisny

“She’s so beautiful... When she lands her jumps, she’s delicious.”

That’s how legendary figure skater and NBC sports commentator Dick Button described skater Alissa Czisny, who was born in Sylvania, Ohio, and considers Bowling Green her hometown.

The 21-year-old Czisny is known for her beautiful spins and breath-taking grace, and for skating just on the edge of the sport’s most elite circle. In September, she placed first in ladies’ singles in the prestigious 2008 Nebelhorn Trophy international competition in Oberstdorf, Germany.

When she competes in Cleveland, Czisny is determined to skate to victory in front of cheering family members. Also watching the results closely will be Olympic gold medalist Brian Boitano, who is an important mentor in Czisny’s career, as is Boitano’s coach, Linda Leaver.

“I had to redirect and re-evaluate my goals. This whole season has been more successful for me and I’m training smarter,” says Czisny, whose twin sister, Amber, also competed on a senior ladies’ international level.

Czisny was only about 1 1/2 years old when she first tested the ice, beginning a lifetime of honors, including being named a 2007 U.S. National Bronze Medalist.

“Ohio is actually one of the reasons I started skating. My parents are both from Wisconsin, where they used to cross-country ski. They moved to Ohio because of my dad’s job, and my mom decided to take skating lessons for something to do in the winter. After my sister and I were born, my mom would go once a week to practice. But soon she had to take us with her because we didn’t want to stay with a babysitter,” says Czisny.

Many people don’t realize Ohio’s contribution to the world of elite skaters, adds Czisny, who was one of the featured skaters on the 2006 TLC series, “Ice Diaries.” But she thinks maybe the “Midwest’s work ethic” is a factor in creating men and women with the determination and perseverance to become skating stars.

For years, Czisny made the daily 220-mile commute from Bowling Green to the Detroit Skating Club. But in 2006 she moved to Bloomfield Township, Michigan, to be closer to her coaches and training facility.

Czisny will graduate in May from Bowling Green State University with a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies, completed mostly by online courses. Acting and modeling may be in her future, but for now she is concentrating on her short program, when she skates to “The Swan” by Camille Saint-Saens and the free-skate selections from the “Dr. Zhivago” soundtrack.

Here’s what to watch at the championships: Unlike most skaters, Czisny spins and jumps counterclockwise and lands on her left foot, making her a rarity. Also look for a skater with compassion. Three years ago, when Czisny won a regional competition, she sent her medal to a 13-year-old figure skater who had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Parker Pennington

Parker Pennington claims to be “the whole package this year.” Never before in his career did the men’s singles senior-level figure skater have as much influence on his competitive skating performance. From his choice of music (“Flamenco A Go-Go” in the short program and Tchaikovsky’s “Violin Concerto” in the free skate), to his hairstyle and costume, which he designed with a little help from Mom, this is the revitalized Pennington.

The skater’s confidence will be at an all-time high when he hits the ice in Cleveland. This past November, Pennington, 24, melted his competitors at the Midwestern Sectionals in Sugar Land, Texas, placing first and winning both the short and freestyle programs. He also won the 2009 Eastern Great Lakes Regionals title with unique spins and spectacular spread eagles.

Pennington was born in Hartford, Connecticut. From 1992 to 2003, he trained with the Winterhurst Figure Skating Club in Lakewood under the direction of Olympic medalist Carol Heiss Jenkins. He moved to Colorado Springs and then Fairfax, Virginia, to train, but returned to Ohio.

“I’ll have a certain level of comfort at the Nationals because it will be great having all my family and friends supporting me. Cleveland does an amazing job of hosting the event,” says Pennington, who won the national men’s figure skating title at the Junior level in 2001, Novice level in 1998, Intermediate level in 1996 and Juvenile level in 1995.

Pennington is a renaissance man who enjoys cooking, painting and producing ice shows. His Skate for Life! figure skating shows in Ohio and Connecticut have raised more than $20,000 to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Pennington’s father, a veterinarian, has the condition.

“My dad is a trooper and I know how hard it is for him. But he is a real inspiration,” says Pennington, a part-time student at Baldwin-Wallace College in Berea.

Pennington himself is an inspiration to other skaters. Last year he was diagnosed with vertigo, a type of dizziness associated with inner ear balance.

“I saw it as a good thing. I had it a long time but didn’t know, so I have made adjustments in my skating,” he says.

No one can skate forever, says Pennington, and an acting career is just one path he may follow. He already has one credit. A few years ago, Pennington skated on the Rockefeller Center rink in New York City, wearing a wig, glasses and layers of clothing. In postproduction, Woody Allen’s head was superimposed on Pennington’s body for a tourism ad.

“It was really fun to be the stunt double for such a great actor,” says Pennington.

Christina Gao

At 14, Christina Gao of Cincinnati is a typical teenager. She shops at the mall, visits friends and plays with Pop Tart, her cat. She loves to read (Twilight by Stephenie Meyer is her favorite book), she’s a whiz in algebra and science, and she finds it hard to resist a sandwich from Subway. But Gao also adds three to four hours of figure-skating pratice during the week, plus two more hours on Saturday and an hour on Sunday.

“I have a set schedule. I go to school, skate, come home, eat, do my homework and go to bed,” says Gao, a 9th grader who dreams of going to Harvard University and becoming a sports medicine physician.

That’s after her goal of representing the United States in the Winter Olympic Games is achieved, of course. Gao is on her way. At the 2009 Midwestern Sectionals Championships this fall, she was first overall in Junior Ladies.

Gao, who learned to skate when she was 7 years old, is excited about qualifying for the national competition. She’ll skate to music from the ballet “Paquita” and “Liza’s Dance” from the original soundtrack of the film “Stepping Out.”
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