Synchro skaters from all over the world come together to chase a dream

All 32 blades are whispering over the ice of the Burlington Skating Centre, home of Nexxice, one of the world’s best synchronized skating teams. As they sweep past, in squadrons of four, all in spiral position, all inches apart, the effect is powerful. There are chills marching up an arm.

A team like no other, Nexxice is putting the finishing touches on training for the world championships in Italy. The first North Americans to break the Finland-Sweden stronghold on worlds in 2009, Nexxice is out to display the goods, come April 4 (short program) and April 5 (free skate) in the picturesque mountain town, Courmayeur, in northern Italy.

Last year, Nexxice finished second by only .52 points to a Finnish team at the world championships in Boston. They delighted the noisy crowd with their Die Fledermaus program, dressed in gold ruffles – and particularly at the end where three women lifted their only male team member, Lee Chandler, above their heads. The crowd went wild at the cheekiness of it all.

What sets this team apart from their world competitors isn’t necessarily the lifts and the tricks: it’s the very high quality of their skating skills and edges, thanks to choreographer Anne Schelter, a Canadian so respected in international circles, that she has given seminars on “The Second Mark” for the ISU. Her “Annie’s Edges” videos and practice routines – all aimed at improving skating skills – are highly sought around the world. “I didn’t know there were DVDs,” wrote one coach. “I’d buy them in a heartbeat, sight unseen.” It is said that when the music comes on in a rink from her “Circle Cycle” exercises, the entire rink stops what it is doing and joins in.

Schelter began watching synchro skating when Marie Lundmark, Finnish chair of the ISU synchronized skating technical committee asked her to do a seminar on the Second Mark for the synchro judges. “I got pretty hooked,” Schelter said. “These skaters were flying around the ice.”

She’s been working with Nexxice for eight years now. Her first plot: she wanted to bring more real skating to the game, so skaters would move across the ice more easily and effortlessly. “I had a great group to try out my stuff on,” she said, meaning Nexxice.

Nexxice became special when Schelter joined the team, said coach Shelley Burnett. “She has created something unique. She has turned it into more of a skating sport and she has really changed the face of synchronized skating for the better. She put the focus on edges and on good skating with beautiful flow.”

Now, Schelter says that the standard of synchro skating has risen so much that the requirements for the step sequence are as hard as any of the other disciplines, their lifts more dangerous. “And our job is to make it look easy,” Schelter said.

Nexxice has made such a mark internationally, that skaters from around the world seek to join its ranks. (All they have to do is get permission from their national federation to skip over to Canada.) On the team are: Yu Hanamoto, 20, who loves Yuna Kim and Joannie Rochette, and is from Japan; Katia Leininger, 23, from France, and Julia Uhlitzsch, 24, from Germany, who got a work permit for a year to come to Canada to skate for a world class team (“Nexxice is famous for its special style of skating,” says she, from a country with only two synchro teams – and hers has finished second the previous two years); to learn better English and to make that job at the pizza restaurant pay for the venture.

Most of the team members are from the Greater Toronto Area, but there is one from Sherbrooke, Que., and the trailblazing Chandler, 23, came from Boissevain, Manitoba and has been with Nexxice for four years. He is the first male ever to skate with a senior team in Canada.

“It was definitely a little bit different in the first year,” he said, referring to media attention. (European teams often have two or three male team members. There are some males on junior teams in Canada.)

“But we’ve grown together and it is one big family. I found that after a few years, it doesn’t matter.” He uprooted himself from Manitoba to come to Nexxice to improve his skating. Manitoba has synchro skating, but had never had a competitive team, even at the novice level.

“It was just an experience to compete for my country,” he said. Now he works full time at a Lululemon store and shares a townhouse with three other members of the team. They all make financial sacrifices to skate.

Kristen Loritz, 21, of Toronto, six years with Nexxice, remembers the first time she tried out, knowing nothing about synchro.  “It was very different from anything I’ve ever done,” she said. “You may think it’s easy, but when you get thrown in there, it’s a whole different story.” Loritz lives at home and studies communications at University of Toronto.

Becky Tyler, 22, of Etobicoke, Ont., likes the atmosphere of being “each other’s best friends” and having the support while competing internationally. “We look up to [Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir], and we are constantly in awe of what they do in their programs, like edge work and knee action and things that we can bring into our programs as well. I think our team really focuses on pushing the boundaries on skating skills. We like to keep it strong and poised, and I think our confidence level while we skate is what sets us apart.”

Anna Cappuccitti, 15, of Brampton, Ont., is the youngest member of the team and a first-year member. “It’s a really big accomplishment making the team,” she said. “It’s very hard. I know when I was little, I always used to look up to Nexxice. They got to travel the world, doing what you love every day, so that was just a dream. Now a dream come true.”

Already tryouts are starting for next year. A skater from Australia has sent a request to try out for the team. It’s that special.

Photo: Jim Coveart

Beverley Smith

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