Celebrating the Women Behind the Scenes of U.S. Figure Skating

In honor of International Women's Day, we recognize five women within U.S. Figure Skating in athlete support roles who often go unrecognized but have made a massive impact on not only the athletes, but the sport of figure skating

Above: Tiffany Hyden (right) at 2023 Humana Skate America

By Abby Farrell

Today, March 8, is International Women’s Day, a day recognized worldwide to celebrate women’s achievements and to encourage a world free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination.

In honor of the day, we recognize five women within U.S. Figure Skating in athlete support roles who often go unrecognized but have made a massive impact on not only the athletes, but the sport of figure skating. These women – a club leader, team leader, official, coach and board president – ensure athletes have the opportunity to reach their full potential and see their dreams come true:

  • Sheldonna Harris (club president)
  • Tiffany Hyden (team leader)
  • Kelley Ristau (official)
  • Cindy Sullivan (coach)
  • Claire Waters Ferguson (past U.S. Figure Skating president)

Read more about each inspiring leader below.

Sheldonna Harris (Club President)

Sheldonna Harris poses with her two sons while wearing a District Synchro tshirt
Sheldonna Harris (center) and her two sons

When Sheldonna Harris’ kids became interested in learning how to skate,

Harris quickly noticed the lack of an official skating club in her local area of Washington D.C. So in 2019, Harris and Tomeka Gueorya, another dedicated parent, took it upon themselves to establish an official club and co-founded the District Impact Skating Club.

Despite having no previous experience with running a skating club, Harris took on the role of president, building it from the ground up. One of Harris’ main goals for the District Impact Skating Club is to make skating accessible and affordable for participants, which they have achieved by providing scholarships for lessons, coaching and tests.

“I have three skaters, so I know that there are some families that may have more than one skater or they may have other financial setbacks that would ordinarily discourage the skating growth, but our club is definitely set on making sure that that is a possibility for any skater who does want to continue to grow with skating, and that is in Washington D.C., Maryland or even in Virginia,” Harris said.

Now almost five years later, the District Impact Skating Club is going strong, running Learn to Skate USA® classes, an Aspire program and a new competitive synchronized skating program.

Tiffany Hyden (Team Leader)

Tiffany Hyden (center) poses with two women dressed in traditional Japanese kimonos at the 2023 ISU World Championships
Tiffany Hyden (center) at the ISU World Figure Skating Championships 2023

Like many other athletes, when Tiffany Hyden retired from competitive figure skating, she wasn’t sure what her next step in life and in her career would look like. After going to college to become a software engineer, Hyden realized that she missed being around the sport. Hyden would try almost every job available around an ice rink, and today, she serves as team leader for Team USA at international competitions.

If you ask Hyden what her day-to-day responsibilities look like as team leader, she’ll tell you that it’s basically like being team mom, juggling both logistics for the skaters and their emotions. Managing any situation that gets thrown her way can be stressful, but for Hyden, it’s all worth it when she is able to build positive relationships with the athletes and help them become successful.

“The moments that I've been most proud of are actually the moments where you see someone turn things around,” Hyden said. “Maybe they went out and either had a horrible warm up or they had a horrible short program, and then they come out the next day and maybe you talked to them, maybe the sports psych talks to them and their coach obviously is counseling them, and then you see them figure out their own inner strength and come out and just really do it.”

Kelley Ristau (Official)

Kelley Ristau stands in front of a large piece of technology for the James Webb Space Telescope while holding a baby
Kelley Ristau is credited with working on the James Webb Space Telescope

Kelley Ristau grew up in love with two things: skating and space. Flash forward several years and Ristau has found a way to pursue both passions. To stay involved in skating after retiring from competing, the former synchro skater serves as an ISU and nationally appointed technical specialist for synchronized skating. Outside the rink, she currently works as a chief engineer, overseeing the strategy for developing spacecraft technology.

Ristau has also found that the two jobs appeal to the side of Ristau that is extremely detail-oriented and that enjoys thinking objectively about the requirements for either a successful product design or skating program.

“I like to think through things as logically as possible,” Ristau said. “[In skating] I have the rules that say this is the requirement, and did they meet the requirement? That’s actually what we do in engineering. We have a set of requirements, and we need a product that does these certain things and our whole goal is to make sure that through the design build and test cycle, we’re actually meeting those requirements. So, it’s a very similar process in that sense.”  

Looking back she credits her experience as a skater and official for helping her land her current job, noting the importance of the leadership and teamwork skills she developed on the ice and on the official’s stand.

Cindy Sullivan (Coach)

Cindy Sullivan headshot
Cindy Sullivan

Cindy Sullivan fell in love with coaching as a college student at Colorado Women’s College when she started coaching classes at the local rink she skated at, and she has been training athletes ever since. With more than 45 years of coaching experience, Cindy Sullivan has worked with skaters from the grassroots level to Team USA, including 2010 Olympian Rachael Flatt and 2022 Olympian Mariah Bell. 

Watching her skaters develop both as athletes and human beings has been especially rewarding for Sullivan. As someone who hopes to inspire her athletes by being a positive role model, empower them to be confident in themselves and trust their gut every time they step on the ice, the biggest joy Sullivan experiences as a coach is seeing their progression as they achieve important milestones in their careers.

“I love when you start someone on a certain element like double Axel, they're just like, ‘Oh, I don't think I'll ever get that.’ And then they do and they're so excited,” Sullivan said. “Even when they land their first Axel, those moments – that to me is what coaching is all about, taking this person who knew nothing and developing a skill and then they achieve it.”

Claire Waters Ferguson (Past U.S. Figure Skating President)

Claire Ferguson headshot
Claire Ferguson

The first female president of U.S. Figure Skating, Ferguson (1935-2024) was a trailblazer for female leadership in figure skating. She served as the NGB’s president from 1992-95, and was the first American woman to be elected to the International Skating Union Council in 1994.

During her tenure with U.S. Figure Skating, Waters Ferguson led the organization through major changes that would make a difference for years after her tenure. In 1994, U.S. Figure Skating signed a multi-year contract with ABC that allowed the organization to sell its TV rights rather than having to produce their own events.

Not only did she increase television coverage for U.S. Figure Skating, but she served as a role model to other women in the sport.

“From a personal side, as a skater in her early teens when Claire was president of U.S. Figure Skating, it was huge for me to see her as a such a strong female leader,” U.S. Figure Skating Board Member Jennifer Hartley said.