The crowd went wild. It wasn’t exactly a surprise, as they were on home ice. But the audience’s excitement only added to the pressure of an already tight competition. The skaters steeled themselves and performed their routine just like they had practiced hundreds of times before. In a flash, they were done, with only their bated breaths as proof that it had actually happened. But the anticipation wasn’t over - they had to wait and see if they’d fizzle out… or make history.
It was a competition like no one in the skating world had ever seen before. And that’s saying a lot, given the sport’s long and storied history. Many people may not know this, but ice skating has been around for thousands of years and has been an organized sport since the 17th century. Founded in 1892, the International Skating Union is the oldest governing international winter sport federation. So it’s no surprise that many forms of ice skating have flourished.
Canadian Olympic Committee
When we think of figure skating, we often picture the historic rivalry between Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, or the sizzling chemistry of Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue. But there’s one form of figure skating that is not as well-known: synchronized skating. In it, a team of 8-20 skaters skates together as a flowing unit, performing difficult maneuvers at high speed and in perfect synchronization. Though it’s not an Olympic sport, the stakes are just as high.
Synchronized skating started gaining popularity in the late 20th century, so the International Skating Union launched the ISU World Synchronized Skating Championships in 2000. The annual event brings together the most elite teams from around the world to compete. In its 18-year history, teams from two countries have dominated the championships: Sweden and Finland. But in 2015, the competition was so fierce that it went down in the books as one of the closest in skating history.
The 2015 Championships were held in Hamilton, Canada, so all eyes were on the home teams. The top team, NEXXICE, had won gold in 2009 but was going through a dry spell. Their secondary team, Les Supremes, had only ever made it to 3rd place. Meanwhile, Finland’s Marigold IceUnity had won the year before and were the favorites this year as well. But that didn’t stop the Canadians from giving it their best at every turn. After all, they were on home turf, and they took advantage of that.
NEXXICE’s head coach, Shelley Barnett and their choreographer, Anne Schelter had an interesting strategy this year: to feed off the crowd’s energy. "A couple of weeks ago we had a practice here and piped in crowd noise for portions of it," said Barnett. "And we noticed that they picked up and were skating better in those sections." It remained to be seen whether loud cheers could put them over the line and onto the podium.
The first phase of the competition was the Short Program. This category is meant to showcase the skaters’ technical abilities. The lower-ranking teams went first, with the big hitters - including Finland, Sweden, and Canada - performed near the end of the first phase. Decked in all black, NEXXICE skated a fun, country-tinged routine to The Road Hammers’ “MUD.” Then their scores were revealed.
NEXXICE received a score of 71.06 out of 100 - the highest so far. The team was elated but didn’t celebrate too much, as Sweden, Finland, and Russia had yet to perform. Sweden obtained a score of 69.94, while Russia scored 66.25. But it was Finland’s team who came close to beating the Canadians with a score of 70.39 - only a 0.67 point difference. The four teams went into the final phase with extremely close scores. It was anybody’s game at that point.
The day of the finals, the crowd of 7,600 at FirstOntario Centre was the largest ever to witness a synchronized skating event in North America. They were all anticipating the Free Skate Program, in which skaters can showcase more artistic abilities on top of their technical skills. Of the top teams, NEXXICE was one of the first to perform, and brought the house down with their brilliant choreography to Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” They scored an impressive 143.67 out of 200. Now it was their rivals’ turn.
NEXXICE’s performance was followed by Marigold IceUnity. It was a nail-biting few minutes while everyone waited to see their marks, and then everyone’s jaws dropped to the floor: they had scored 143.67 - the exact same as the Canadians. But the scores from the Short Program put NEXXICE just over the top. That is, unless the remaining team pulled an upset.
Mikael Rantalainen Photography
The last team to perform was Sweden’s Team Surprise, which has won more world championships than any other squad. With only 1.12 points of difference in the Short Program, they had a high probability of overtaking NEXXICE. Once they finished their routine, everyone waited anxiously for the score. Then it came: 132.03 - well below Canada, Finland, and even Russia. NEXXICE was officially the World Champion. But they weren’t the only ones celebrating.
Roy Ng Photography
Russia’s squad, Team Paradise, had finished fifth in the Short Program, then scored a decent 137.23 in Free Skate. When Sweden’s score was announced, the Canadians cheered but were drowned out by the surprised and elated cries of the Russians. They had won bronze, their country’s first medal in the history of the World Championships. But no cheers were louder than those of the crowd.
The realization that their home team had just won elicited a thunderous roar from the audience. The squad itself couldn’t be happier. "It is an absolute thrill to win in Canada," said coach Barnett. "To have the advantage of home support and to feel it right through the whole week. It was gratifying to reward that support with a win." Even the secondary team left the competition more than satisfied.
Les Supremes earned a score of 199.77, the highest they’d ever had in an international championship. Though it put them in sixth place, their fast, entertaining, burlesque-y number had the crowd on their feet. "It's hard to describe in words," said head coach Marilyn Langlois. "I think they had a blast out there and shared it with the audience." If the 2015 World Championships are any indication, we can expect big things from synchronized skating.
Inside the Games
Though synchronized skating is not an Olympic sport, it’s not for lack of trying. In June 2015, the International Olympic Committee rejected the ISU’s request to have the sport included in the 2018 Winter Olympics. Perhaps it’s a money issue, since adding accommodations for a bunch of new teams would significantly increase the cost of the event. But if the popularity of synchronized skating keeps growing, we might just see it at the 2022 Games in Beijing.