The eight skaters on LU Radiance — Liberty University’s synchronized skating team — fidget and squirm as the Zamboni makes its slow trek around the rink.
“I just wanna skate. Come on. I hate waiting,” says Sarah Ashley McNeill, jumping in place to keep warm.
It’s halftime during a Friday night hockey game at Liberty. The hockey game is packed with fans and LaHaye Ice Center is standing-room only.
Team Radiance grows restless. They arrived two hours early to prep for their two-minute performance. The Zamboni seems to inch across the ice.
When it’s time, the team skates gracefully to the center of the rink.
The seven female skaters wear sequin-studded purple dresses that glimmer under the rink’s harsh lighting. The sole guy sports a purple tie.
In unison, the skaters strike their opening pose, smiles plastered on their faces. The crowd hushes. The music begins.
With just one week before their big competition, one goal rises above the rest: no falling.
This weekend, the team will compete at its only competition of the year: the Eastern Sectional Championships in Lake Placid, N.Y. There, they will face off against 10 collegiate teams, from North Carolina to Massachusetts.
In synchronized skating, or “synchro” for short, teams of eight to 20 skaters perform intricate sequences of footwork, spins and formations. The goal is to flow across the ice in perfect unison. One false step can throw a skater out of formation, or even worse, cause her to fall.
Radiance will perform a two-minute program to the Broadway hit “I Could Have Danced All Night.”
Depending on whom you ask, the team has one of two goals for the Eastern Section Championships.
“Top five,” said Tatiana Gomez, the coach.
“Not last place,” says Sarah LaRoche, the captain.
In the last two years, Radiance placed 11th (out of 12) and 8th (out of 10).
“We’ve never come in last place,” LaRoche said with a smile. “But we’re going to do much better this year.”
Founded in 2008, Liberty’s synchronized skating team is currently the only college team in Virginia.
Nationwide, synchronized skating is the fastest-growing discipline within the world of figure skating, according to the United States Figure Skating Association (USFSA).
On a competitive level, the sport gained traction in mid-1980s, when the U.S. held its first Synchronized Team Skating Championships.
In 1997, synchronized skating became a collegiate sport, but only three colleges fielded teams. Currently, there are about 50 teams, and more cropping up each season, said Anna Meyer, an athlete development coordinator with the USFSA.
“It’s been exponentially growing,” Meyer said.
LU Radiance has eight skaters, the minimum required to compete. What the team lacks in numbers, it makes up in spirit.
Radiance is a tight-knit team that takes its successes and failures in stride. Falls become epic stories, told and retold after practice. Teamwork trumps individual talent.
“I love it,” said Seth McLaughlin, who joined last semester. “I would like to see more guys, but guys in figure skating are a minority, anyway.”
During her college search, Sarah Ashley McNeill honed in on Liberty because of its synchronized skating team.
“Synchro is my favorite because you spend so much time working with other people,” said McNeill, who has skated since early childhood. “When I knew I’d have a spot on the team, that’s when I made the decision to come here.”
As a club sport, Radiance’s budget is tight and the team can only afford to travel to one competition per year.
Still, Radiance requires a steep time commitment. Since August, LU Radiance has met twice a week for 6 a.m practices. They run through their programs until each step is memorized and performed in unison. Off-ice sessions are held to review their program on video, and do extra drills.
During hockey season, Radiance performs at halftime, providing a rare chance to perform for an audience.
Smiles unwavering, the skaters of LU Radiance take their final bow and exit the ice.
“That was like the worst program we’ve ever done. Ever,” said Gomez, half laughing, as the team members walk back to their locker room.
LU Radiance suffered not one, but two falls during its program. Even the hockey fans flinched.
In synchronized skating, a downed skater affects the whole team. Even with a quick recovery, a fall can rattle nerves and throw a program out of whack.
In the locker room, the team dissects its performance. The footwork was strong. They pulled off some tricky moves.
But the falls, oh the falls. The team replays the mistakes over and over again.
After a few minutes, the replays are replaced with laughter. The mishaps are temporarily forgotten. Team Radiance is in high spirits again.
“At least it was so bad that we don’t feel bad about it.” Gomez said. “It was almost funny.”
The team has one more practice until Lake Placid. Gomez points to the glass half full:
“Well, you guys, that was good practice for what we’re not going to do at Easterns.”