Resilient Hockettes bounce back during COVID-19

Hockettes Junior
The Hockettes junior synchronized skating team has continued practice with safety precautions, including masks at all times. (Jennifer Schwab)

by Emily Little
Medill Reports

Synchronized skating is all about adjustments. It’s making tiny changes in response to the rhythm of other skaters so that all the choreography works together. This year, teams are making these adjustments on a much larger scale — a pandemic scale.

When COVID-19 closed ice rinks in March, the Hockettes junior team, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, didn’t let this halt plans to move forward into the skating season. The coaches and skaters used every possible opportunity to practice together, whether virtual or in-person.

“You can tell that (the skaters) are just thankful to be there,” said Lindsay Grajek, head coach of the junior team. “They don’t take it for granted, that’s for sure.”

Michigan ice rinks took a major hit in the wake of COVID-19. Governor Gretchen Whitmer only allowed gyms and recreation centers to open on September 9, leaving many teams like the Hockettes without a practice facility for months. Coaches had to quickly develop new practice methods to keep their athletes engaged and excited for the unprecedented season ahead.

The Hockettes began their season in June like many people: on Zoom.

No one knew when they would be allowed back on the ice together, but they kept to their goals and priorities. They used the time apart to focus on team culture, nutrition, the judging system and even started discussing some basic skating techniques.

“There was a fear of the unknown,” said Leah Nagal, a second-year skater with the junior team. “We didn’t really know what was going to happen in the future, but we were gonna keep working towards what we want, as a team.”

In July, the team finally resumed on-ice practice together in Sylvania, Ohio, about a 45-minute drive south of their home rink in Ann Arbor. The skaters still couldn’t connect, but the coaches decided to use this time to work on their foundational skating skills.

The junior team worked on their no-hold elements for the first few months of practice. (Jennifer Schwab)

“That’s always been our weakness,” Grajek said. “We’ve always been really strong in the technical (score), but the components aren’t strong.”

Synchronized skating is hardly a socially distant sport. Skaters are constantly within six feet of each other, touching each other’s arms and hands throughout their routines. This left the team only able to practice no-hold elements, like the block or twizzles.

Trying to practice certain elements without connection wasn’t easy. Grajek recalled attempting to teach younger teams a pivoting block, a maneuver that requires lots of tension through a line of skaters, while disconnected.

The junior team is now connecting again after making sure that all skaters and parents are comfortable with that. They found a way to choreograph two programs through rapidly changing practice schedules in Ohio.

Skaters wear their masks throughout practice, and both coaches and athletes are constantly washing their hands. (Jennifer Schwab)

Each ice rink has its own protocol to ensure skater safety. At the Ann Arbor Ice Cube, skaters put on their skates in their cars, pass a temperature check and fill out a waiver with their parents before entering the facility. All participants wear masks throughout practice, and the coaches pass around hand sanitizer constantly.

Off the ice, the skaters count on each other to be safe for the team and follow all social distancing guidelines. They know that if someone doesn’t follow the rules, it will have consequences for the rest of the team.

For the skaters, the biggest challenge of the pandemic has been the shift in team rituals.

“We’ve definitely struggled with not being able to give your friends hugs,” said Salome Mouliere, in her third year with the junior team. “Just being able to talk without a mask and being able to read facial expressions has been” so important. Moving beyond that was “really hard for us, but we’re finding ways to understand each other.”

Some competitions for the season have been shifted to a virtual setting, while others will be in-person with limited attendance. No matter the setting, the team is looking forward to showing their brand new short and long programs to the skating world starting in December.

Though this has not been the season that the team envisioned, the coaches and skaters have not let this distract from their goals. The Hockettes have taken every opportunity they are given and used it to their advantage. The coaching staff has used the word “resilient” to motivate the team.

“I’ve seen this amazing resiliency in them,” said Grajek. “And sometimes I think to myself, ‘Man, I can’t believe how positive they have been.’”

Emily Little is a health, environment, and science reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @EmilyM_Little.