Southwest Florida FSC Making Pairs Skating Cool

by Joanne Vassallo Jamrosz, special to U.S. Figure Skating Online

From left to right, Jim Peterson, Alison Smith and Lyndon Johnston
Photo courtesy of Karen Chinault

(7/2/09) - "Figure skating" does not usually come to mind when people think of Florida. The images the Sunshine State conjures up are more of warm, sunny days, the ocean, going to the beach and Walt Disney World.

The skaters at the Southwest Florida Figure Skating Club (SWFFSC) are trying to change that perception.

At the 2009 AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Cleveland, Ohio, the Southwest Florida FSC saw four of its pairs teams bring home top-four finishes.

Caydee Denney & Jeremy Barrett won the silver medal in senior pairs and earned a trip to the 2009 World Figure Skating Championships in Los Angeles. Tracy Tanovich & Michael Chau won junior gold, and novice pair Haven Denney & Daniel Raad won the silver. The club also could boast of the fourth-place finish of seniors Amanda Evora & Mark Ladwig

The successful run did not end at the U.S. Championships. Denney and Barrett went on to an impressive ninth-place finish at World Championships, and they were part of the U.S. team at the inaugural ISU World Team Trophy in Tokyo, Japan, that brought home the gold.

In fact, SWFFSC skaters competed at every level in the 2009 U.S. qualifying season. Fourteen of the club's skaters competed at regionals, while 11 took the ice at the Eastern Sectional Figure Skating Championships. The SWFFSC also sent two pairs teams to the 2009 U.S. Junior Figure Skating Championships.

"This past season was very special," said Jim Peterson, the head coach of many of the club's pairs teams. "I was mostly touched by the audience response, the standing ovations at nationals. There is nothing more gratifying than having the audiences behind you."

Peterson works alongside skating director Lyndon Johnston and coach Alison Smith, and together they have built a program that rivals that of any other club in the United States.

"I feel the strongest part of our program is that we work together for the benefit of the skaters," Johnston said.

The three coaches also bring a wealth of experience to the program.

Smith brings more than 45 years of coaching experience and is the former coach of World and Olympic champion John Curry. She also received the British Master Coach Award, and is the coach of several international and World champions.

Johnston, originally from Canada, is the 1989 World pairs silver medalist with partner Cindy Landry. They also won the 1990 Canadian title. Johnston also competed at the 1984 and 1988 Olympics, with Melinda Kunhegyi and Denise Benning, respectively.

"I can't say for sure if it is experience that I bring to the table because so many things have changed since I competed," Johnston said. "But there still are some similarities."

Tracy Tanovich and Michael Chau celebrate their victory in junior pairs at the 2009 AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
Peterson skated pairs at the novice, junior and senior levels for 10 years with partners Laura Handy and Natalie Vlandis. He began coaching in 2001 in Florida with coach Kerry Leitch, but it was not until this past season that he began to be recognized for his work. Peterson also choreographs many of his skaters' programs, and was named Developmental Coach of the Year at the 2009 Professional Skaters Association's conference in Orlando, Fla.

"That was an honor, to be recognized by my peers," Peterson said.

Club members and Ellenton residents are exceedingly proud of their skaters. The club threw a celebration for the medalists upon their return from Cleveland.

The beauty and poise these skaters possess on the ice never ceases to amaze.

"We've watched our high-level and other skaters over the years, and they are almost like family now, and we really enjoy watching them and cheering them on," club president Karen Chinault said. "The senior pairs teams still take my breath away every time we see them perform."

Ladwig believes club support is part of the pairs program's success. The rink puts on an annual Christmas show, for which the stands are always packed, and exhibitions prior to important events.

"Those exhibitions help prepare us for the nerves and feelings of big competitions," Ladwig said.

Johnston, a SWFFSC coach for the past 10 years, is still overwhelmed by the response his little-known club has received.

"Being from a small area geographically as well as a small club, of course everyone is very proud of the skaters," Johnston said. "What still comes as a surprise to me is that people from all walks of the community have gone out of their way to congratulate both the skaters as well as the coaches."

Johnston believes the secret to the club's success can be found in one word: respect.

"If either the coach or the skater fails to respect the other, the quality of the skating and then, of course, the training will suffer," Johnston said. "There is no easy way around it. The training is the real key to success. You have to have a goal and not be afraid to go after it no matter how much you feel that it is out of reach. Not trying is the first step to failure."

Peterson's philosophy is to focus on one competition at a time and set small, reachable goals.

"What has worked for us is that we treat every competition the same," Peterson said. "The skaters can only be in control of what they do on the ice, and I can do my best to coach them, but then we kind of have to let the chips fall where they may."

The skaters also do practice simulated competitions at home so they feel prepared when they hit the ice.

Chinault said it has not been easy convincing people to take the accomplishments of the SWFFSC's skaters seriously.

"Sometimes people are surprised, because they don't think of ice in Florida," Chinault said. "But many are beginning to acknowledge we are here and who we are based on the success and recognition our skaters are receiving."

Jim Peterson (R) plays the role of cheerleader while Lyndon Johnston is more the stoic.
One of the most common questions Chinault gets is, "How do skaters participate in this 'winter sport' while living in a tropical climate?"

"It's definitely different, but I think in a good way," Chinault said. "It's not so bad going into the rink to cool off when it's hot outside, but it's really good to be able to go outside to warm up when you are too cold inside the rink. It is difficult for those of us who travel up north for competitions and there is no warmth to go into when it is cold inside and outside the rink.

"We really have the best of both worlds here in sunny Florida."

Evora has skated at the Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex for the past eight years and feels the program works because of the people.

"We have a group of coaches who are passionate about their work and pass on their enthusiasm and knowledge to the skaters," she said.

She also enjoys the opportunity to skate with several other high-level pairs teams.

"Training alongside other pairs teams not only keeps me motivated but also gives me an athletic edge," Evora said.

Ladwig likes the fact that the rink embraces a team-coaching environment, which allows every coach to offer his or her insights.

"Our skating is like a good soup, and all the input from the coaches are the spices that make us not just ordinary but extraordinary," Ladwig said.

Johnston, too, sees the SWFFSC as the perfect training site.

"We have a very small, close-knit group of coaches, and we just click," Johnston said. "We all have our strengths and build from that.

"With the IJS, a single coach cannot do it all. There are so many things to cover."

In addition to pushing themselves technically and artistically, the goal for the season, Peterson said, is "making our skaters competitive internationally."

As Johnston explains, SWFFSC is an attractive option for skaters from all over the country.

"We've got great beaches, great weather and beautiful gulf waters," Johnston said. "Oh, yeah, and the rink is nice, too. If we were coaching downhill skiing, Florida would not be the place, but we have a great facility and great coaching, and, of course, we are very fortunate to have some great skaters, too."

At the Southwest Florida Figure Skating Club, sunshine and skating make a "perfect pair."

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