These Synchro Figure Skaters Struck Their Poses, And Then The Crowd Lapped Up The Intricate Routine

When a video appeared on YouTube with the title of “2015 World Synchro Champs SP Team Canada,” you could be forgiven for not being interested. Yet it snared nearly 180,000 views for featuring something that’s been called “the most exciting sport you’ve never heard of.” So what was the clip all about and what is this exciting but unknown sport?

In synchronized skating, a company of figure skaters – which might number up to 16 – joins up to compete. As you might guess from the name of the sport, they synchronize their movements. But they achieve that synchronization while gliding across the ice rapidly, with their feet astonishing the eye with complicated figures.

Figure skating itself is a sport with a distinguished history. People have probably been sliding across ice on skates for over four millennia. Research has revealed that skating probably began in the south of Finland. Skaters at first used bone that had been made flat yet sharp – and they glided rather than skated.

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Steel skates have been around since the 1200s or 1300s, being first made in the Netherlands. There, people started to put edges on the skates so that they’d make grooves in the ice to ease skating. Consequently, its appeal spread and in 1908 figure skating made its debut in the Olympic Games.

Given the popularity of skating in the Netherlands, it’s perhaps no surprise that the world’s governing body for the sport was established there. The International Skating Union (I.S.U.) came into being in Scheveningen in 1892. It controls competition in skating, establishing rules and running contests for each discipline – including synchronized skating.

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At first, synchronized skating was known as “precision skating” because of the initial focus on teams strictly maintaining their formations. Dr. Richard Porter – later to be called the “father of synchronized skating” – started the first team in 1956. They were the Hockettes, based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The group featured in breaks in the action during games played by the University of Michigan’s hockey team, the Wolverines.

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However, the strict drill-like movements of early synchro would give way in the 1970s to a creative boom. The sport grew massively and the new teams practicing it began to innovate. New undertakings required an increased level of skill from the athletes, who moved quicker, more stylishly and more nimbly.

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The huge popularity of synchro in North America led to a 1976 contest between Canadians and Americans in Michigan. But the sport also spread across the globe and the year 2000 saw the world championships held for the first time. The top formation skaters competed in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with the Swedish outfit Team Surprise ultimately taking first place.

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In fact, Sweden – along with the United States, Canada and Finland – dominated the early years of the world championships. But later, success became more widely shared. Indeed, 2019’s winners are the Russian competitors Team Paradise, who took their third top spot. Unsurprisingly, they are presently considered to be the best team in the world.

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Competition at the top level involves two sections: the short program and free skating. The short program – featured in the video that we’ll be taking a closer look at – requires five compulsory elements. They are an intersection, a formation move that the whole team undertake, a no hold piece with a sequence of steps, pivoting in three lines, and a circle element.

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Intersections are movements where skaters go towards each other lined up and then pass through each other’s line. This doesn’t have to just be two lines; indeed, skaters can create triangles and boxes. When they meet up, they can make it even more difficult by turning or doing extra steps. In the short program, they must meet at an angle – which also makes for a harder movement.

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The formation move is restricted only by the imagination, so long as everyone joins in. Skaters might grip each other’s arms to form a moving block. Otherwise, they might simply form a straight line to move across the ice at high speed. They can make it much more difficult by changing places with each other.

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Then the skaters might break to perform the no hold element. Now they form into four lines and perform steps in a sequence. They’ll turn, free skate, move their bodies and spin – all the while staying in perfect synchronization with each other. Confident teams will switch places with each other and pivot round fixed points.

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Pivoting itself requires an intricate maneuver in which three “spokes” spin round the ice. The wheel that they form can stay where it is and rotate on the spot, or it can move around. Skaters might smoothly shift into new shapes if they want to power up the difficulty level.

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Finally, skaters have to form a circle. This can include as few as four of them, but the whole team might also join in one big loop – and switch to two or three smaller ones while weaving intricate patterns on the ice. The judges are looking for skaters to keep their spacing without having to tug each other into line.

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In the free skating, teams ramp the excitement up even more by having to include nine elements. Now the skaters lift each other in the air, show off their skills in pairs and indulge in the twizzle. This is a movement in which the individual skater spins while moving along the ice. This makes for brilliant viewing when a team of 16 is doing it in formation.

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While for most onlookers the sport makes for beautiful ballet on ice, synchronized skating is competitive. Consequently, just like other forms of figure skating, judges mark the routines. On the technical side, a panel decides how difficult the elements are. And those decisions set the level of available points before any marking down for mistakes and so on.

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However, that’s not the end of the judging since you also gain or lose marks based on your skills, transitions, interpretation, choreography and execution. These are the scores awarded out of ten that you may previously have seen. The top and bottom grades are dropped and the rest averaged to give a result. Add that to the technical mark and you’re good to go.

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So we come to our video, which featured the Canadian team taking to the ice for their short program in the 2015 world championships. These were held in Hamilton, Ontario. This wasn’t the first time the championships had come to Canada, having previously visited London, Ontario, and the capital, Ottawa.

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Hamilton is a city of just over half a million people, sitting in the Golden Horseshoe region along the shores of Lake Ontario. It had the perfect space for the event in Copps Coliseum – now the FirstOntario Centre – which can seat as many as 19,000 people. Although built for hockey, the center has held lots of other events.

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Despite its lack of an N.H.L. team since the Tigers folded in the 1920s, Hamilton is a good place for lovers of the ice. The Greater Hamilton area features 27 arenas holding 35 rinks. But in 2015 attention was on the FirstOntario Centre arena specifically as a Canadian synchro team took to the ice.

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This team was NEXXICE, who had been Canada’s top group nine times in a row. They’d also previously won the synchro worlds – the only North American team to do so – in 2009 in Zagreb, Croatia. And for the previous three years, they’d been runners up. So by 2015 they were hungry to win.

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And they had to feel they had a great chance, with the possibility that a home crowd might lift them to triumph. Indeed, NEXXICE hail from Burlington, Ontario, which is close enough to Hamilton to be included in its census area. So the video footage opens with the 16 skaters being given a great reception.

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To begin with, the skaters link arms and glide down the ice. First moving forwards, then backwards, they complete a circuit of the arena as the crowd hails them. The noise must have been deafening in the rink. They slide to a stop and the announcer tells the audience that the next team to compete will be Canada.

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NEXXICE prepare for their routine to begin, disengaged with their hands on hips. The music strikes up at last and they begin to move, legs pumping to the music. They look relaxed and ready, one member so laidback that she’s even brushing dirt from her shoulder. For this routine, they have chosen “Mud” by homegrown country rock band The Road Hammers.

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Seamlessly, the skaters move together, joining hands to form two lines. They cross the rink in formation, and without any hesitation, the two lines have slid into one. The team kicks out almost like the can-can line from the Moulin Rouge, all the while gliding backwards on the ice.

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The line continues on, with skaters switching which way they face while remaining precisely the same distance from each other. Then they break apart, briefly forming pairs before whirling in and out of formations and settling into two loose circles. Amazingly, their next trick is to intersect the circles, with skaters weaving in and out of the inside O.

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Not satisfied with that, the Canadians spin and drop together. Once they’re back upright they form into a three-line block. Together and apart, they stay in sync as they spin, largely moving backwards. The block resolves into two lines, which flow into semicircles, which meet, cross while rotating and become four groups of linked skaters.

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We can see from the clip that it must have been quite a challenge for the skaters to hear the music – the crowd is absolutely deafening. The groups of four hurtle around the ice, separated so that they can make sweeping slides, with back legs straight and still up in the air. Then they meet in the middle, skating in between each other and reforming as a block.

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That block now covers huge swathes of ice, as the skaters perform countless steps, pirouettes and dips. They dance as one, four neat lines of four who work together as they move across the rink. The lines intersect once more before a sequence of spins that somehow lifts the crowd to a yet higher level.

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Finally, NEXXICE slides to a stop as the music comes to an end. And the crowd unleashes a tremendous roar, leaping to their feet to hand out a standing ovation to the triumphant Canadians. In turn, the team lift their arms in exultation, garnering the plaudits of the ecstatic audience.

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Enjoying the applause, the team bows to the crowd. In response, the audience waves a host of Canadian flags. The arena seems to be hitting fever pitch and the skaters are loving it. They turn to salute another side of the stadium. Then as one, they sweep across the ice, soaking in the plaudits of their fans.

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Almost reluctantly, the team makes its way to the side of the arena, where the exit lies. They begin to make their way off the ice, hailing the attendees as they go. The NEXXICE members are met by buddies as we hear shrieks erupting from the crowd and see coaches celebrate their fine performance.

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While we are waiting for the judges’ reckoning, we enjoy again some of the high points of the performance in slow motion. With the slightly less frenetic pace, we can see more clearly the intricate footwork that the team performed. And as the skaters intersect in one passage, we can gather that the choreography has been carefully arranged.

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The team comes into view, ready for the judgment of their routine. The announcer proclaims their score – and they have smashed it. Their score of 71.06 puts them in first place. Beyond excited and proud, the skaters clap with glee as the crowd cheers in a huge, rolling wave of sound.

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One of the team, Kristen Loritz, explained the feeling that she was experiencing to CBC. She said, “It was just electric out there – the crowd was fantastic. We felt the energy as we stepped on the ice and carried with us until the finishing pass. We practice with simulated crowd noise all week and that helped the girls relax.”

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Next, Team Canada would go on to scoop the equal-highest score in the free skating, leaving them on top of the world. The Finnish team, Marigold IceUnity, who were at that time the reigning champions, came second. The Russians, Paradise – who we’ve already noted as today’s best team – skated into third.

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Although NEXXICE haven’t taken the championships since 2015, they still compete at the top level. They skated to third place at the worlds in Colorado Springs in 2017. And they were in Helsinki to represent Canada once more this year, although they weren’t on this occasion able to get onto the rostrum.

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Meanwhile, synchro skating has managed to maintain its popularity. Hundreds of teams take part in the sport in the United States, while two dozen countries compete internationally. The I.S.U. has tried for years to get the discipline accepted in the Winter Olympics, though it won’t be in Beijing in 2022.

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One-time U.S. figure skater Gale Tanger explained that the road to the Olympics is hard, but love for the sport is not lacking. She said to InStyle, “We certainly have the passion out there and the people that see it think it’s wonderful.” The next world championships will be held in Lake Placid in April 2020.

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