Recognize this vignette of life at the rink? It’s barely 6 am on Saturday, and a group of young skaters are quietly warming up on the ice. As usual, there are more girls than boys. With every stroke, the yawning sleepiness on their faces is gradually replaced by the alert acceptance of one simple fact. If you want to be a figure skater, you have to be on the ice before the crack of dawn.
At first glance, there’s nothing unusual about these kids. They could be proxies for skaters found on almost any rink in southern California. Claudia Krogmeier, MAxel Lee, Phoebe Wang, Celine Bavaud, Alexandria Wong, Jasmine Mehaffey, Max Ko, Michelle Lee, Bramina Braet, and Ng Yi Ching. “We’re all dreaming about competing at the Olympics,” say Alexandria, the oldest at 13 years, and Max & MAxel, the youngest at 9.
But the kids are a long, long way from California. In fact, they’re a long way from anywhere.
These skaters train in Singapore, a small tropical island country in South East Asia. Little more than a hiccup north of the equator, Singapore is so small that even the government has affectionately referred to the place as ‘the little red dot on the map.’ Ice skating is the only official Winter Olympic sport in Singapore—which enjoys average temperatures of 26° to 30° Celsius year round. Yes, it’s hot!
Some of the kids at the rink are ‘third culture’ kids, carrying passports from other countries. However, increasingly, local children have taken up the sport, and they are willing to make as many sacrifices as they can to keep skating. Singapore, in general, has never let adversity stand in its way to achievement, and the same could be said for the local skating community.
The adversity comes in many forms for the skaters. Although Singapore is among the most technologically advanced countries in Asia, it doesn’t have an Olympic size rink. The existing rink is only 24 metres by 40 metres, about two-thirds of Olympic regulations of 30 x 60. The lack of an Olympic rink affects the development of the sport on many levels, including Singapore’s joining the International Skating Union.
Singapore is not yet an ISU member, so parents worry about how far the skaters can go in the sport. “ISU membership is SISA’s No.1 priority for the coming year. The executive committee continues to work on this goal,” says Sonja Chong, the president of SISA. Without ISU membership, the skaters in Singapore have no pathway to the Olympics.
The local association is doing everything it can to meet the other standards required by the ISU. In less than 10 years, the community has established a national sports body—Singapore Ice Skating Association—under the umbrella of the government’s Singapore Sports Council, and they been recognized by the Singapore National Olympic Council as a member.
Since 2002, SISA has held the National Championships with international judges in addition to holding judging seminars for Singaporeans and on-ice training workshops for coaches & skaters with overseas coaches such as Doug & Michelle Leigh and Lee Barkell from the Mariposa School of Skating, with Coach Anna Forder-McLaughlin and choreographer Anne Powers, also from Canada, and with Australian Coaches Michael Pasfield and Slav Baboshyn.
Most recently, SISA held its 6th annual National Figure Skating Championships and introduced the new international judging system to South East Asia. “I didn’t skate my best,” says 11 year old Michelle Lee, who is a member of the Youth Development team in Singapore, “but it was a great experience. I learned so much.”
Even with the advances that have been made by SISA, the skaters still face some significant challenges, with education topping the list. Most skaters, including those on the Youth Development and National Teams, have to be at local school by 7 am. (International schools start later at 8 or 9 am.) The local academic session runs until 1:30 but the kids often carry additional classes in the afternoon. Eleven year old Michelle Lee, for example, is taking an extra two hours of tuition every day, preparing for a major exam that will play a decisive factor on her acceptance into secondary school.
The skaters usually have to carry a school-endorsed co-curricular activity, which will be reflected in their overall grade, which also eats up time. They also have to be active members of a school team—if the school hasn’t endorsed figure skating in a big way.
Alexandria Wong, who is the 2007 Prenovice National Champion in Singapore, runs cross-country races for her school. As she was preparing for the figure skating championships at the end of March, she was also training for the National Inter-School Cross Country Championships for early April. Of 279 girls in her event, Alexandria placed 4th. The following weekend, she ran another 5 km in a biathlon with a partner. Alexandria placed 2nd of 18 in the run.
Max Ko, MAxel Lee and Bramina Braet attend Henry Park Primary School, which has been the most generous in its support of the skaters. It is one of only two schools in Singapore that offers the sport as an organized activity through the school. Nonetheless, all three skaters are on the school’s gymnastics team, and they all do ballet. “We don’t take a lot of holidays,” concedes Max Ko’s mother Michelle Koh. “If we aren’t skating, we’re doing gymnastics or getting ready for a dance exam.”
Many people believe that ice skating would get a better reception from the various government agencies if Singapore was granted ISU membership. Without endorsement by the international federation, it’s just too hard for people to see a future in figure skating. “Oh my goodness, I think that all the time,” says Michelle Koh. “Where are we going with this? But he loves the sport so much that he never even argues about having to get up early in the morning. What am I supposed to do?”
Further complicating things for the skaters is the rising demand for lessons. “The current crop of skaters has been so successful in bringing positive messages about the sport to Singaporeans that more children want lessons,” says Raymond Cheah, who has been a coach in Singapore for many years. Most skaters complain that they cannot book enough lessons.
The new Asian stars in International skating also have had a huge impact on generating interest in the sport in Singapore. The kids here identify with Mao Asada from Japan, Yu-Na Kim from Korea and US skaters Caroline Zhang and Mirai Nagasu, who share an Asian heritage, says Cheah, president of the All Stars Figure Skating Club. He points out that skating is a “low centre of gravity sport, and Singaporeans, on average, still aren’t as tall as people from countries that historically have dominated the sport.”
The early morning ice time on Saturday is deeply appreciated by the skaters who were selected for the National teams. In Singapore, skaters mostly train during public sessions, with an area coned off for landing jumps. This year’s Prejuvenile Ladies Champion Phoebe Wang, who skates with the willowy grace of a ballerina, is a perfectionist, but achieving excellence is that much harder when you’re fighting traffic from public skaters.
Still, the kids become professionals at getting the job done. Newly crowned Juvenile Ladies Champion Ng Yi Ching is famous for her stoicism, and she’s won’t turn 11 until July. In February she and Alexandria Wong were invited to perform at a gala event in Singapore that featured Russian skating giants Alexei Yagudin, Tatyana Totmyanina & Maxim Marin and Ilia Averbukh. Having survived that pressure, Yi Ching went on to score the highest technical points at the Nationals, after landing two clean double-double combinations.
People are hoping the situation will ease with the completion of another rink in Singapore in September. Even then, the new rink will not be Olympic size. As much as it concerns parents and sports administrators, the kids don’t brood about it. They have more pressing things to worry about such as double Axels. “I can’t think about all that,” says MAxel Lee on a matter-of-fact note: “I just want to skate.”