Photo credit Cynthia Slawter Photography
By Christie Sausa
Last season, 2022 World Junior bronze medalists Team Elite didn’t qualify for the World Junior Team, placing fourth at the U.S. Synchronized Skating Championships.
This year, after a new approach from head coach Danielle Ostrower, they triumphed in their first International outing of the season at the Budapest Cup, clinching the gold medal.
“It felt pretty surreal,” admitted Ostrower. “I knew we had something special with this group of athletes, but to see it come to fruition was unexpected. And it left me with a lot of pride. "
This win marked their fifth Challenger Series medal overall, making them the U.S. junior team with the most Challenger Series medals. It also began their redemptive season arc as they work toward qualifying for the ISU World Junior Synchronized Skating Championships 2024.
After last year’s result, Ostrower “checked out of social media and life” and used the time to reflect on where the team could improve and make a new plan for the season.
“All hard situations come with life lessons, and there's something you can learn from them when the time comes. For me, it was looking at our training, culture and organization and saying, ‘We can do better,'” she explained.
“If we want to be the best, then we need to be the best in and out of skating, so we’ve had a lot of conversations about team and training culture and what it means to be an athlete mentally and physically. "
Ostrower praised the team’s response to this renewed focus.
“This team has bought in tenfold, and they have done everything and more than the coaching staff or I have asked of them,” Ostrower said.
Even before the Budapest Cup, this dedication paid off; in November, Teams Elite earned second at the Synchro Fall Classic in Irvine, California, and won gold at the Boston Synchronized Skating Classic in Boston, Massachusetts. The events proved to be good preparation for the international events to come.
“California (the Fall Classic) was a great opportunity for us to showcase our programs for the first time,” team member Amanda Lee said. “Obviously, in the long run, we had a couple of issues, but I really think we improved upon both of our programs in Boston. And we were really satisfied with our performances.”
Going into their International season debut, the Northbrook, Illinois-based team treated the competition like any other, aiming to medal while focusing on their preparation.
“I would say goal-wise, ideally, we would want to do well enough to medal,” Lee said prior to heading abroad. “We definitely try to treat it like any other competition. We try not to put any extra pressure on ourselves, and we really try to hone in on our training and remember all the preparation we put into the competition.”
Teams Elite trains approximately 10 hours a week on the ice and three hours off, but their training is more than just physical. They have put more effort into improving their mental preparedness.
“Something that I think is really unique about this team is how much we trust our coaches in the process,” said teammate Abbi Nelson. “Before we do a run-through of each practice, we like to remind ourselves of why we're doing it and how it will help us in the long run. So I think that that's really helpful in preparing for competition.”
“I would definitely say that one notable strength about this team is that we have a lot of respect for the process,” Lee said. “And beyond that, we have a lot of respect for each other and are willing to do whatever it takes to reach our goals this season.”
Ostrower worked hard to instill this process-focused mindset in her skaters and appreciates their dedication.
“This team, unlike any other that I've had, is very committed to the process of achieving your goals, not just achieving the goals, which I think has made a big difference in the outcome that we've had so far,” said Ostrower.
In keeping with their new approach, Teams Elite chose music that challenged them and reflected the skaters they wanted to be - but only after Coach Ostrower initially chose a different piece of music for the short, and they started training with it.
“I kept thinking about our goals, the direction of the sport and how do we make them look as good as we know they are,” Ostrower said. “I just wasn't feeling like that piece of music was doing the trick and wanted something more mature, elegant and bold.”
When she found “Moonlight Sonata,” Ostrower played it for the team, and they “immediately fell in love with it.” So Ludwig van Beethoven’s masterpiece became their new short program.
Their free program, a snake charmer theme that tells the story of manipulation between the snake and the snake charmer, is also a departure.
“These are both very bold themes for us and something that maybe is more unexpected for Teams Elite,” Lee said. “And I just think they're two very great programs to skate to, and there's a lot of great opportunities for us to showcase our skating skills.”
“It's been somewhat challenging to learn how to expand our expression in our body movements, but it's something that I think our team has taken in stride, and we've really committed to it and focus on that a lot each practice,” Gordon added.
They noted they have fewer pre-skate superstitions and more affirming rituals, such as speaking words of encouragement to each other, going around the circle and stating one focus they have for the program and further committing by exchanging high fives and eye contact with Coach Ostrower before stepping on the ice.
“We used to have to hype up and get the energy going and now recognize that every skater on the team has their own process and to be respectful of it and then come together to do what we need to do to prepare as a team,” Ostrower said. “I will prepare them as a coach, and then they will find their connection to one another. And many conversations surround what they can control and don't have to worry about controlling.”
With one gold medal performance achieved, the team is intensely focused on earning a spot on the World Junior team. Still, they remain committed to appreciating the process and doing their personal best.
“Our outcome-based goal this season is definitely to be on the World Team,” Lee said. “But beyond that, we aim to put full effort into our process on and off the ice and leave the season with no regrets.”
Teams Elite will look for another international podium finish when they compete this weekend at Hevelius Cup. To follow along, visit the Challenger Series Synchronized Skating Competition Central. They then will look to solidify a spot on the World Junior Championships team t the 2024 U.S. Synchronized Skating Championships. To purchase tickets, visit ussynchrochampionships.com.