Texas Figure Skating on Rise Despite Sweltering Climate
By Andrea Kurth
For Reporting Texas
The Winter Olympics in Sochi may be over, but as ice skaters and their fans anxiously await the 2018 Olympic Winter Games in Pyeongchang, eyes turn to an unexpected place—Texas—where young figure skaters are already gearing up for the next games.
Despite the sweltering climate, figure skating is gaining its foothold in Texas, far from the legacy training grounds of California, Colorado, Boston and Michigan. Texans took the gold in both the ladies’ novice and junior levels at January’s 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston and Texas skaters of all levels placed among the top nationally, putting the state in the running for Olympic glory in 2018.
Four Texas skating clubs from the Dallas and Houston areas sent a total of 17 skaters to the national championships this year, the most the state has ever sent. They were led by reigning U.S. Junior Ladies champion and Team USA member Amber Glenn, who hails from Plano and skates for the Dallas Figure Skating Club. Her club also produced the third- and fifth-place winners in the same category.
The showing of elite athletes from Texas is a testament to the growth of skating in the region. New facilities attracted elite skating coaches to Texas in the early 2000s, contributing to a greater membership and an increasing number of high-level skating competitors in Texas, said Susi Wehrli-McLaughlin, membership director of U.S. Figure Skating.
“For the warmer climates such as Arizona and Texas, we have seen a big development in skating,” Wehrli-McLaughlin said. “Very good skaters [are] coming out of those areas.”
Natalia Mishkutenok, a former Russian skater who won an Olympic gold medal in 1992, moved from Colorado to begin coaching in the north Dallas area in 2000. She attributes the increase in elite skaters from Texas to the influx of many great skating coaches, especially Russian coaches like herself.
“When I came to Texas, we didn’t have a lot of kids. … The quality of skaters was not very high,” Mishkutenok said. “A lot of Russian coaches moved to this area and it started getting more competitive.”
In the past 13 years, the “quality of the skaters improved 200 or 300 percent,” she said. “We have more quality skaters that can compete in nationals and go to junior worlds and possibly the next Olympics.”
Like Mishkutenok, coach Craig Henderson was attracted to Texas by new skating facilities that lacked ice skating coaches. Henderson, a native Californian and former Team USA member, began coaching at the age of 22. After an injury — he broke his knee trying to do a quadruple toe loop — ended his skating career, he moved around the country, coaching figure skating on Cape Cod and in Southern California before settling in Texas at the age of 35.
“Texas itself was wide open. There just weren’t a lot of great coaches here,” Henderson said. “That’s why it was appealing to move here.”
The arrival of the Dallas Stars hockey team in 1993 also contributed to the growth of figure skating in the state, especially the Dallas area. After moving to Dallas, the franchise built a training facility in Irving and bought two existing rinks in the Dallas area. Today it maintains six rinks, known as the Dr Pepper StarCenters, which were built to expand the ice sports fan base through public use and youth ice programs.
Ice hockey is essential to the success of figure skating in the state, said Toni Miller-Lowry, a coach and skating director at the Dr Pepper Star Center in Plano. With their high maintenance and energy costs, rinks depend on income from both hockey and figure skating to remain financially stable, Miller-Lowry said.
In addition, children who see the Dallas Stars play become interested in hockey and skating and want to learn how to skate. Children must first begin skate school before transitioning into ice hockey, and those who love to skate want to start competing in figure skating, Miller-Lowry said.
“The Stars draw kids in, and that’s the steppingstone into figure skating,” she said. “If you did not have the Stars, you would not have the amount of kids wanting to learn how to play hockey.”
Now coaches who have lived in Texas for 10 or 15 years are beginning to see the fruit of their labor. The skaters they began to teach at a young age are now in their teens and can compete in national and international competitions.
Former Team USA member Steven Evans began skating with Mishkutenok at the age of 8 and continued until his freshman year in college. He never considered leaving Texas to train elsewhere because he had great coaches in Texas, he said.
“We had a wave of Russian coaches move here in the early 2000s,” Evans said. “They started kids very, very young and have developed those athletes. They are now at the stage where they are elite athletes.”
Evans said now, when Texas athletes compete in regional competitions, they dominate the field, even against athletes from traditionally strong ice-skating states such as Colorado.
“Colorado is actually the headquarters of figure skating, and they would dominate the region in the numbers of athletes qualifying for nationals,” Evans said. “There has been a trend in which Texas is becoming more dominant. I think we’ve seen more skaters qualify and place in nationals than ever before.”
Despite the growth, Texas still lags behind traditional ice skating states in the number of elite athletes they produce. Amber Glenn, the U.S. Junior champion, said that lack of rivalry can affect top-level skaters in their training.
“There are so many Olympians in California and Colorado,” Glenn said. “In Texas, you don’t have that competition, so you have to get motivation from within.”
Glenn, who began figure skating in Plano at age 5, may be Texas’ best hope to reach that elite skating status. The 14-year-old competed at the World Junior Figure Skating Championships in Bulgaria in March and placed seventh as the youngest skater in her event. Though it was only her second international competition, she has her eye set on greater sights.
“The 2018 Olympics is my goal,” Glenn said.
That kind of continued success is integral if Texas wants to establish itself as a real contender in the figure skating scene, Miller-Lowry said.
“When you have a successful coach, it puts up a gold star. Judges and parents watch,” she said. “As long as success continues, people will say: I want to move there and I want to train there.”