By Megan Sauer
Synchronized figure skaters from Northbrook made history last year as the only junior level team to be chosen to represent the United States at international competitions in its debut season. Earlier this month, the girls maintained their unprecedented momentum by qualifying for the World Championships in the United Kingdom. This weekend, they hope to capture a national title.
Head coach Danielle Ostrower, 32, talks about the 20 athletes’ strengths, weaknesses and goals as they prepare for the national championships this week in Providence, Rhode Island.
Last year, Teams Elite earned international recognition. What was its jumping off point?
Teams Elite used to be completely recreational. They only skated in local competitions and had two to three teams. When I first walked into the rink, the director at the time told me, “This will never be a program with U.S. Figure Skating.” I remember thinking, “We’ll see about that.”
What was your strategy to make the teams more competitive?
I took over the organization in my third year coaching and started pushing to make the program a hybrid, having our teams compete in both local and USFS qualifying competitions. We always knew we wanted a junior team, but after we started competing in the intermediate division in 2015-2016, we knew we were building a pipeline.
The 2018-2019 season was groundbreaking for the junior team. What challenges have you faced living up to expectations this year?
After the success of last season, my athletes felt like they had it in the bag. We went through a rough couple of months where it was hard for them to understand, “Yes, you are very talented, but that’s nothing without hard work, and it doesn’t mean there aren’t other teams working harder.” It came down to competition experience for them to realize how hard it is to stay at the top.
What does it take to be a Teams Elite skater?
We are looking for well-rounded athletes. Back in the day, synchro was for retired individual freestyle skaters. Now, synchro skaters can ice dance, spin, jump and they have great skating skills for it all to come together. The biggest traits we also look for in our athletes is “coachability” and mental strength.
How hard are your athletes training as they ramp up for their international season?
Junior is on the ice three days a week, totaling nine hours. They also have three off-ice sessions. This includes “Progressing Ballet Technique” throughout the season, specifically core and barre classes. These athletes also do strength and conditioning as well as unison practice. They have mental training with a sports psychologist, who comes in every two to three weeks.
Mental training comes up a lot with competitive athletes recently. What has been the result with your team?
They’ve really learned to cope with performance anxiety, but what we really try to focus on is how to work as a team. The better they can empathize with one another throughout their physical training, the better they’re going to compete.
How do the team’s Chicago roots give them an edge over other teams?
Because we are near a big city, we can recruit all different types of athletes. Everyone comes with their own personalities and experiences, but they all feel a sense of pride representing Chicago and the Midwest, because a lot of synchro powerhouses are on the East Coast.
What is this team’s biggest strength as they push toward their goals?
At nationals, we’re coming after the one and two spots to make the World Team. I think our team does really well as underdogs. They feel like they constantly have to prove themselves.
What are your goals after this season?
We want to have a senior world team and just continue to be a powerhouse. We want to stay on top for as long as we can, but most importantly, to continue to give the skaters a rewarding experience.
Clarification: Off-ice sessions include “Progressing Ballet Technique” or PBT.