Figure skating is only important to most people once every four years. During a brief few weeks, ice skating makes headlines as skaters compete for Olympic gold. But for senior Lily Jaffie-Shupe, ice skating is not a trend that is quickly forgotten after the Olympic torch is extinguished. For Jaffie-Shupe, every day revolves around ice shards and glittery costumes.
Jaffie-Shupe first glided onto the ice 11 years ago at a friend's sixth birthday party. By age nine, Jaffie-Shupe was taking private lessons, and during middle school, she was practicing three to four days a week. At 14, Jaffie-Shupe was consistently landing the most difficult single jump — a one-and-a-half revolution axel — and now, she has become one of the Washington, D.C., area's top Ice Skating Institute (ISI) skaters.
On Feb. 6, Jaffie-Shupe passed the Freestyle Seven test of the ISI. According to an e-mail interview with her coach, Lilli Buell, "There are 10 levels of Freestyle, but only a handful of skaters have passed the Freestyle Seven test on the East Coast." By passing this test, Jaffie-Shupe is now qualified to compete at one of the highest local and district levels. She can also compete at the ISI World Recreational Team Championship this summer, where last year she placed first in Artistic Freestyle Six. Jaffie-Shupe has outlasted the many teenagers who have left the sport because they cannot balance the demanding schedule of both school and skatig. Her dedication and commitment to the grueling sport have allowed her to excel beyond most skaters and still find time to give back to the community.
Taking the ice
As the song "Mambo #5" begins, Jaffie-Shupe and her partner quickly glide back and forth on the ice while the straps of their red leotards, on which they have sewn silver sequins, sparkle in the light. The duo completes its outfits with sequined black top hats and microphones, props in a spotlight performance, which involves performing musical interpretations of songs.
Jaffie-Shupe's busy skating schedule keeps her on the ice for an extraordinary amount of time. On average, she skates six days a week at five different ice rinks and participates in approximately 10 competitions a season.
None of this would be possible without determination, says Jaffie-Shupe, who explains that not everything has come quickly. It took her two-and-a-half years to nail the axel jump, she says, but landing it is often the make-or-break point in a skating career.
Jaffie-Shupe spends hours honing her skills, and she says that her love of skating has enabled her to improve. According to former U.S. Olympic coach Audrey Weisiger in an e-mail interview, "A great skater has a passion for their sport that pushes them everyday to build upon each practice and competition to get better and better without being told by their coach or parent."
Jaffie-Shupe finds that, while she has the enthusiasm, skating is still mentally and physically exhausting. When she had trouble landing her axel jump, Jaffie-Shupe enlisted the help of a sports psychologist to work with her on visualization. She says she has found that, in order to compete at a high level, seeking outside guidance is sometimes necessary.
Skating for the gold
The week before competitions, Jaffie-Shupe skates for short intervals and focuses on cleanly performing her skating program and elements. Feb. 18 has arrived, the day of the Tucker Road Snowflake Invitational in Fort Washington, Maryland, and Jaffie-Shupe watches other skaters perform, stretches and dances around with her iPod, hoping to stay relaxed and in the zone for her performance.
On Feb. 18, Jaffie-Shupe, for the first time since she qualified, had the opportunity to compete in the Freestyle Seven level. She skated in the Freestyle Seven and the Artistic event at the Snowflake Invitational. Although there were no other participants at her high skill level, she did not automatically win. Jaffie-Shupe says that when this happens, participants "skate against the book," meaning they must complete a certain percentage of requirements in order to place. Jaffie-Shupe scored high enough to take first in both events.
Before competitions, Jaffie-Shupe says that she feels anxious and nervous — feelings common to many skaters. She tries to de-emphasize any one competition by skating in as many as she can with the hope that she can relieve the pressure of performing. Her next competition is Skate Annapolis at the U.S. Naval Academy this coming weekend. Jaffie-Shupe is excited to take the ice since the event draws some of the area's top skaters and will give her greater competition.
Although Jaffie-Shupe must train intensely in order to remain in top form, she still finds time to use her skating to help others. Every Saturday at 10 a.m., Jaffie-Shupe can be found at The Gardens Ice House in Laurel. Instead of focusing her attention on practicing her jumps, she slowly moves around the rink alongside a young boy. For the last three months, Jaffie-Shupe has been assisting the Special Olympics, which is an international nonprofit organization that offers "sports training, competition and life-changing experiences to people with intellectual disabilities," according to Director of Public Relations Kirsten Seckler.
Spending time with a mentally disabled eighth-grade boy named Jesse has allowed Jaffie-Shupe to connect her love of skating with giving back to the community. Although she was initially frustrated due to difficulties understanding what Jesse was saying, she has learned to be patient and encouraging.
Once she realized that Jesse was not taking skating lessons outside the Special Olympic workshops, Jaffie-Shupe took on the role of his coach. "We used to do programs all the time, but now since I'm the only one teaching him, I'm trying to help him learn new moves," she says.
Seckler adds that, by involving people both with and without disabilities, great friendships can emerge. Jaffie-Shupe and Jesse now practice programs that are 30 seconds and a minute in length. Jesse has had two competitions over the past few months and has placed first in both, she says proudly.
Jaffie-Shupe's work with the Special Olympics is a stepping-stone toward her ultimate goal of coaching. "Eventually, I want to be a skating coach. This is a really good way to get started with that," she says.
Life as an athlete
But for now, Jaffie-Shupe is focusing on learning new moves and competing in demanding events. Sometimes, Jaffie-Shupe is frustrated that other students do not consider figure skating a sport, since she knows the discipline needed to perform and compete. "I live my life as an athlete," she says.
Ice skating does have its drawbacks, says Jaffie-Shupe, since she does have less time for school and friends. She doesn't snowboard when invited, saying, "I don't do things that would hurt me because I want to make sure that I can always skate." Although her friends have weekly Friday sleepovers, she often finds herself missing them to skate early the next day.
Still, she says that the benefits outweigh any drawbacks. Skating helped her stay focused in middle school during a period when kids are vulnerable, and it has helped her center herself in high school. "At our age, it's really important to know what you love," she says. "Figure skating helps me feel like I know where I'm going with my life."
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