Golden Skate

Simpson and Blackmer encouraged by early success

Britney Simpson and Matthew Blackmer

USA's Britney Simpson and Matthew Blackmer perform to music from the "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" soundtrack at the 2012 World Junior Figure Skating Championships.

It was a little more than a year ago when 15-year-old Britney Simpson became figure skating’s version of a free agent. The Denver native was fresh off a debut on the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating with pairs partner Nathan Miller, and the duo was about to make their senior debut at the 2011 U.S. Championships in Greensboro, N.C.

As the championships approached, Miller announced his intention to move on from competitive skating, abandoning the bye that he and Simpson earned to compete in Greensboro, and preserving Simpson’s eligibility to skate once again on the junior level domestically.

With her season coming to a close, Simpson turned her focus to finding a new boy with whom to skate. She knew that she wanted to continue to gain invaluable experience on the junior level, so it was necessary to find an appropriate partner who still had junior age eligibility. Coach Dalilah Sappenfield suggested 20-year-old Matthew Blackmer.

“I watched his video online, and I thought that he had a lot of potential,” Simpson recalled. “I noticed his connection to music and that his skills were good.”

Sappenfield contacted a former coach of Blackmer’s who helped to set up a try out.

“I couldn’t believe that Britney wanted to skate with me,” Blackmer said. “She had much more experience than I did, and I was kind of surprised that she knew who I was.”

Blackmer made the trip from the Detroit area to Colorado Springs, Simpson’s training base for the try out, and the rest is history.

“Our stroking and skating skills were very similar,” Simpson said. “Even our posture, which is hard to develop, was there. We kind of just let the skating take over in the try out.”

Blackmer noticed immediately that Simpson was ambitious—a contributing factor to his decision in forming the partnership.

“We were looking for the same thing from skating,” he explained. “I noticed how dedicated and very disciplined she is. She was committed to doing her best.”

Blackmer decided to relocate immediately from his training base in Michigan to join forces with Simpson under the tutelage of Sappenfield and her son/assistant coach Laureano Ibarra.

“I am the oldest of four, and I was the first to leave home,” he said. “I’m more than 2000 miles away from my family, but it has been worth the sacrifice.”

The team immediately began preparations for the 2011-12 season, and soon found themselves entered into some of the biggest summer competitions. Strong showings at Skate Detroit and the Indy Challenge landed the duo on the International Selection Pool, and when it came time for Junior Grand Prix appointments, Simpson and Blackmer learned that they had been selected to skate in the event in Gdansk, Poland.

“We weren’t expecting a whole lot other than to skate our best,” Simpson recalled. “Of course we were excited to be there so early in our partnership, but we didn’t put too much pressure on ourselves. We just wanted to skate our programs and show everyone what we could do.”

The duo won the competition by more than eight points over the silver medalists, and earned a second assignment to skate in Tallinn, Estonia, as a result.

“We went into Poland with open minds, and really didn’t have any expectations of placement,” Blackmer said. “We learned that every competition is different, and we didn’t want to put extra pressure on ourselves to repeat what we had just accomplished.”

Simpson and Blackmer followed the gold medal performance up with a silver medal in Estonia, capturing a spot in the Junior Grand Prix Final in December.

“It was an okay event for us,” Blackmer admitted, regarding Estonia. “We made a couple of mistakes in the long program, but we took away a lot of experience on how to handle competition. We went in with some expectations after Poland, and we learned that we have to focus on enjoying the skating rather than the results. That gets you in trouble.”

In December at the Final in Quebec City, Simpson and Blackmer captured the bronze medals with their highest scores of the season, setting themselves up as favorites for the junior title at the 2012 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose.

“In Quebec City, we learned that we can compete how we train,” Simpson said. “We knew how we needed to train so that we could perform each program at our best.”

Her partner added, “We were not predicted to medal, so we focused on two clean performances, and it worked for us.”

The big test came in San Jose when they competed head to head with some familiar faces—four of the top six teams came from the Sappenfield-Ibarra stable of competitors in Colorado Springs. In the end, Simpson and Blackmer settled for the silver medals behind teammates Haven Denney and Brandon Frazier.

“It was a little bit of a roller coaster ride,” Blackmer said. “Originally we were in first place after the short program, but there was a scoring error that put us in third. It motivated us to throw down a great long program. No matter what, we did what we could do.”

Though disappointed to not come away with the title, the duo was still proud of their showing in San Jose.

“It’s always great to be on a podium,” Simpson said. “The top three teams all train in the Springs, and it was exciting to be named to the Junior Worlds team with our friends and training mates.”

As a result of  their podium finish in San Jose, Simpson and Blackmer were named to the 2012 U.S. World Junior Championships team. Just a few weeks ago, the pair traveled to Minsk, Belarus, and finished in a respectable 10th place in their first ISU Championships event.

“The experience was more than I had ever hoped for,” Blackmer said. “I knew the majority of the team, and it was so much fun to travel with them. We couldn’t have asked for a better team.”

“It wasn’t our best competition by far,” he continued. “I guess we felt a little bit of pressure because we did so well early in the season. We had high expectations, and that lead to us hoping to repeat our success which really wasn’t what we needed to do.”

Following the competition, the young team became aware of whisperings that perhaps the partnership had run its course, and that the size differential between the two skaters was not great enough to continue.

“We’re aware of our size difference, and some say that is the cause for the lack of difficulty in our programs,” said the 5’10″ Blackmer. “Britney is 5’3″, so we still have quite a bit of height difference between us.”

“Since Junior Worlds, we have been working to improve our difficulty,” he continued. “For example, we have started training triple Salchows. We’re also continuing to work on the triple twist and have upgraded our lifts to level four.”

“We were top ten at Junior Worlds in our first season together,” he summed up. “If someone told us at the beginning of the season that we would accomplish that, we would have thought that they were crazy.”

For next season, Simpson and Blackmer have decided to stay ’100 percent junior’, and hope to compete on the Junior Grand Prix circuit again.

“We want to win the U.S. title and make the Junior Grand Prix Final,” Blackmer explained. “Who wouldn’t want to compete at the Olympics test event in Sochi? We also want to get back to Junior Worlds and improve our ranking.”

Outside of skating, Simpson is quite busy keeping up with her school work—she attends school full time taking classes in math, English, science, and Spanish. Meanwhile, she also takes two online classes.

Simpson often volunteers in her mother’s special needs classrooms, and has earned numerous volunteer service awards. Additionally, she was named Colorado’s Most Promising Athlete in 2010 and the 2011 Colorado Figure Skater of the Year.

Blackmer, who is fluent in Russian, is a high school graduate who is currently working as a server at a popular resort in Colorado Springs. Though he began college while still attending high school, he is currently focusing strictly on figure skating. Blackmer hopes to continue his studies in Biology this fall at a local college in the Colorado Springs area.