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ADVENTURES OF A SKATING TREKKIE

MICHAEL WEISS FOUNDATION ICE CHAMPIONS LIVE! SHOW

Story by Dorothy Knoell     Photos by Shirley McLaughlin

For the eighth straight year, the Michael Weiss Foundation Ice Champions Live! show brought together the past, present and future of figure skating in the U.S., with a goal of helping the sport ­ that is, those who participate in it, have the chance to maximize their talent and become the best they can be.

“I still remember what a struggle my family had when my sister and I were skating, said host and Foundation founder,” Michael Weiss. “It costs so much to skate and train. And this is a chance for me to give back to all those who helped me when I was coming up.”

This was my fourth trip to the show, and, as usual, one of my favorite skating trips, as I not only get to see great skating, but I get to see a real variety of skaters and skating styles and I know it’s for a great cause, and one you see results from immediately. The Michael Weiss Foundation offers scholarships ­of differing amounts, according to need, to up-and-coming skaters, and often times, you see past and present scholarship recipients in the show. As their accomplishments are announced, you actually get a chance to see your contributions at work.

Skaters,­ many of them scholarship recipients who come back now to “give back” to the Foundation, and others who simply want to help young skaters as they try to navigate the expensive path to skating success ­ perform for free, Weiss and his family provide free housing (at their house) and local sponsors provide lots of other necessities, while volunteers serve as set-up and take-down staff, ushers, program sellers, etc.

The show isn’t the only way the Michael Weiss Foundation raises funds, although Ice Champions Live! is the major fund raiser of the year. In addition to the show, those wishing to help can donate money or be a sponsor, but fans also get a chance to participate in a silent auction at the show venue (the past several years, the Kettler Capitals Iceplex). The auction in another way for people to donate in a couple of ways ­ you can donate something for the auction (one of my friends donated some beautiful homemade skating cards, another has offered an original art piece) or you can bid on the items that have been donated.

Browsing through the silent auction before the show makes for a fun few minutes or hour, depending on how long you want to browse. There are skating items (autographed pictures, figurines, jackets, tote bags, etc.) along with a lot of non-skating items, as well. I put a bid in on a really awesome gardening basket, full of really neat things. Unfortunately, I was out-bid (although how I¹d have managed to get the stuff home is beyond me,­ it was cute enough for me to figure I’d worry about that later when I bid!), but one of my friends won her bid on a really beautiful eagle figurine.

Of course, the show is the centerpiece of the activities of the day, and this year¹s show was, again, a wonderful afternoon of entertainment, in a little different vein that a usual skating show. In the Weiss Foundation show, you have a chance to really see the past, present and future of skating, and watch skaters and skating mature and grow. This year, there was a chance to see three or four different levels of ladies skating, as the show opened with 13-year-old Elisa Romola, the 2011 South Atlantic Juvenile champion and 2012 Junior National finalist, skating to Good Time. The spunky local girl, who noted how “amazing” it was to be in a show with so many past and present champions (“ It inspires you to want to skate even better.”), showed off several nice Axels and double jumps.

Later in the show, we had examples of what Romola might look like with a few years of practice and seasoning behind her, as Weiss Foundation scholarship recipients and past/present, U.S. champions Mirai Nagasu and Ashley Wagner.

Nagasu was a scholarship winner very early in the program’s history, at a time she really needed the help. Since that time, she’s been a U.S. champion and U.S. Olympian, and after some injury problems over the past few years, is aiming to regain the top spot. Her beautiful performance to Crazy Dreams showed off maturity and beautiful interpretive skills, along with a nice triple toe. What a difference from her first couple of performances in this show, as a very young girl (like Romola), still just dreaming of achieving big things as she flew enthusiastically around the ice, all arms and legs and potential. Those who have attended this show regularly have literally watched her grow from the possible future of skating into a skater who is a big part of skating present.

Then there¹s Wagner, who won her first national title last January and appeared to be absolutely at the top of her game heading into the 2012-13 season. She debuted her new short program to Red Violin, and was riveting with a triple flip, a double Axel into split jump, and loop. She is definitely a strong present (and probably several years into the future) hope for U.S. ladies skating. And seeing her mature, powerful skating a few minute after watching the tiny but determined Romola was a wonderful moment, as it reminded the audience that Wagner wasn’t far removed from that time in her career, but oh, what big steps she had made - in part, thanks to monetary help from the Foundation and others, and in part thanks to the former champions who left such a great legacy for her to aspire to, and in part to her own perseverance and hard work.

And for another side of ladies skating, there was former World champion Kimmie Meissner, returning to the ice after some severe injury problems since her 2006 world title. While her jumps were limited to a couple of double Axels and a double toe loop, she was graceful and elegant and showed how beautiful technique and connecting with an audience can keep a career going and help keep the public interested in skating. Meissner’s performance was one of the crowd’s favorites, especially when she relaxed and joked with the audience as there were delays in getting her music cued up and going.

The same kind of ‘past-present-future’ of skating was on display in dance, as well. Local youngsters, Gigi and Luca Becker, intermediate dance champs and also scholarship recipients, showed of very nice skills and musical interpretation in their performance. The 9- and 11-year-old sister-brother team has a ton of potential. It was fun to see them at this very young

Age and­ makes you want to follow their progress the next few years, when they may progress to the level of, say, Rachel (15) and Michael Parsons (17), the U.S. junior pewter medalists and Junior World Championship participants for 2012. This young couple showed a bit more polish, power and moves than their younger counterparts, as would be expected, and were at a different level in development. They showed off their Justin Timberlake/Madonna/hip-hop Short Dance, and were very entertaining and had some very nice lifts and twizzles.

These two forays into the present and future of skating were accompanied by a demonstration of the present/past of ice dance, as long-time British champions and world championship participants Sinead and John Kerr were also on the program. As it turned out, Sinead, according to John, had some visa problems and was unable to make it to the show, so John, like the true professional he is (he and Sinead left the ISU competitive arm of skating a few years ago), performed on his own to Ain¹t That a Kick in the Head. (A rather apropos song, as it turned out!). At times, he “held” his absent partner and was obviously doing his part of a duo act, at other times,­ like his single Axel jump that brought cheers from the crowd, ­ he was performing entirely on his own, but whatever he was doing, he was smooth, powerful, fast, and completely in control of his program and the audience, which responded enthusiastically to everything he did. His solo ice dance performance under challenging circumstances is certainly something to inspire two young dance teams as they face the competitive road ahead.

Kerr was smiling, and a bit breathless, after the show, noting that he had a great time dancing on his own, but admitting he had cut the music somewhat to shorten the program and that skating alone left him gasping by the end of the program, because he had to work much harder to do all those moves on his own.

“It’s a bit hard to keep going after a while,” he said with a laugh. “It was fun, but I definitely enjoy skating with Sinead more.”

There were also demonstrations of a couple of non-traditional (if you consider ‘traditional’ to be the ISU competitive track of singles, pairs, dance) skating offered in the show, as the Next Ice Age ice theater group and the Capitol Steps precision team. Both were well received and provided entertaining programs, the Next Ice Age skaters/dancers ­ with 13 skaters, a different number than the usual 12 or 16 ­ were flowing and beautiful through the early part of the program, then a bit more upbeat later. And the Capitol Steps, with its 16 skaters, formed intricate patterns and smiled beautifully and got a huge response from the audience.

Then, the men ­ again, a wonderful mixture of up-and-coming and those who have achieved in different ways and on different levels, and are at different points in their careers. Richard Dornbush, a scholarship recipient, provided the ‘skating present/future’ moment, as the 2011 U.S. silver medalist showed off big jumps and a series of three double Axels in his ‘nerd’ exhibition program, but noted he was working hard in order to challenge for the national championships later on.

The remaining men on the program are not aiming for medals any more in their careers, but are examples of different ways to find success on the ice after competition - certainly skaters Dornbush can look up to an try to emulate on the way to success on the competitive stage, and beyond.

Ryan Bradley is trading on his surprise 2011 U.S. national championship, his engaging personality and a dedication to retaining his skill level to fulfill a dream of being an in-demand performer in shows and tours (Stars on Ice, for one). His life has been a whirlwind since that national title, and he¹s enjoying every minute of it. His high-energy performance to Footloose (a perfect choice for him) was one of the crowd¹s favorites, and also showed that he was not far removed from competition, as he had a couple of big triples and was upset with himself for doubling an intended triple Axel.

Dan Hollander never won a national title, although he was bronze medalist twice, and never medaled at a world championship, but has put together a wonderful performance career by finding a specific niche that fits him like a glove ­ comedy skating, something he always wanted to do. Hollander offered one of his signature comedy programs, this one with him, starting out as a janitor mopping up and ending with him with a clever Popeye costume. And as has been his custom, too, the program still included good technical elements (how he manages a double Axel in his way-out costumes is a mystery, and he doubled an intended triple Salchow) and a lot of personality.

“Can¹t believe I blew that Salchow,” he moaned after the show, demonstrating how much these long-time pros still care about the technical content of their programs, in addition to making sure they entertain a crowd. “But it was fun out there.”

Steven Cousins, an eight-time British national champion, has also carved out a great performance career without winning world or Olympic medals. And although he¹s gradually moving from performance to choreography (he’s the event manager for the Disson shows this season), he is still happy to skate in an event like Weiss’ benefit show, and is still an audience favorite. His emotional performance to Let It Be Me was another of the crowd¹s favorites.

And then there is Brian Boitano, 24 years removed from his 1988 Olympic gold medal, yet still skating at such a high level that audiences tend to not grasp really how long it’s been since he was Olympic champion. Nearing his 49th birthday, Boitano was still the epitome of speed, elegance and power in one of his signature pieces from much earlier in his career, Nessun Dorma.

A huge death drop and glorious spread eagle were just two highlights of a program the audience went wild for. Certainly, it was a nice moment to watch Dornbush at a “striving for the top” moment in his career, then watch, just a few minutes later, someone who is such a good example of getting to the top, staying there and making a great career out never settling for anything less than the best he can be whenever he¹s on the ice.

To round out the show was host and three-time national champion and two-time world bronze medalist Weiss, who recently announced that after years of touring (Stars on Ice) and performing in many shows and competitions, he would leave the performing arena and move on to other things (he’s hosting several of Disson’s skating shows this year). However, he couldn¹t resist skating in his own Foundation¹s show, especially when he had the chance to skate to a song sung live by his almost 14-year-old daughter, Annie Mae.

Although Weiss may not be training much anymore, he was still up to a triple toe and a backflip, as Annie Mae sang Don’t You Remember. It was a touching moment and a fine finale for the show. After carrying his daughter from the platform in the middle of the ice back to the boards, Weiss returned to the ice for a few of his signature moves, including the “Freedom Blades Spread Eagle” and his backflip, before leading the cast out for a fun-filled finale, that included a ‘Tano Lutz from Dornbush (why not pay tribute to an icon when he’s right there to see it and, yes, cheer you on?), and simultaneous backflips from Weiss, Hollander and Bradley, which brought

cheers from the crowd, and some cute byplay from some of the Capitol Steps skaters as they stood arm-in-arm with Boitano during the finale (some “wow, can you believe I’m standing arm-in-arm with him, and he’s joking and goofing off with me?!?!!?” looks).

Boitano and Wagner also had a good time in the bow line, relaxing and goofing off with each other. The young skaters mixed freely with the veterans, at times obviously getting pointers, at other times just joking and laughing and getting a chance to feel like a part of the whole skating world, rather than just one person alone day after day in a rink, striking to be their best.

After the show, the skaters, both youngsters and veterans, gold medalists and medal hopefuls, talked mixed and mingled and talked with fans at the post-show reception, and those waiting hopefully outside the reception. Romola was one of several of the younger skaters eagerly getting autographs from the rest of the cast, and the veterans were all alike in treating everyone like family.

That¹s one of the things that makes this event such fun to attend – the mixing of skating generations, the chance to see youngsters learning from past champions and veteran skaters rejuvenated by performing and mixing with youngsters who are full of enthusiasm and hope as they face those challenges the veterans know all about. Seeing youngsters and veterans in the same show is also a treat, as is knowing that, while you’re getting entertained by great skating, you’re also helping some youngsters have a better chance to reach their dreams.

Kudos to Michael Weiss and his family, the many volunteers, and the wonderful skaters who, every year, make this event something special, and to those who attended and/or participated in the silent auction, know that you helped the Foundation raise more than $75,000 for scholarships.

Michael Weiss and Friends