Figure skating: Keiss Chan and Jenni Yang
Sophomore Keiss Chan and senior Jenni Yang stand with their figure skating team on a stage with a Jumbotron in the middle, surrounded by parents and friends in the audience. What follows is the moment that stands out the most to Chan: Her team has just finished its performance on ice and is waiting for its scores to be announced.
Generally, the announcement is a cause for celebration. “My team usually gets a decent place—we’ve gone to a lot of previous international competitions in the past,” Chan said. “So we look up, they announce our score and we’re all celebrating because we got a good score.”
Yang and Chan are both part of the San Francisco Ice Theatre’s 24-member junior team, which they joined in seventh and ninth grade respectively for a total of 10 years of skating each. Chan described their shared sport as “ballet on ice.”
As part of the San Francisco Ice Theater’s junior team, Yang and Chan have accumulated noteworthy achievements. Their team has qualified for the National Theatre on Ice Competition each year, winning third place in 2022. They have also qualified for international competitions held every other year by being one of three top teams in the U.S.. They will attend the next international Nations’ Cup in Boston this year.
Along with team competitions, Yang competes individually. According to Yang, the difference between individual and team figure skating extends beyond separate competitions, with more opportunities for individual skaters to compete. “Individual skating is more technical, so there are more jumps and more spins that you have to do in a program,” she said. “But for team skating, we just have to keep formations and keep in sync.”
Yang and Chan practice year round—usually individually before school on weekdays and with their team on weekends—but compete only in the winter. Chan trains with private instructors to work on her jumps, spins and individual program. In team practices, they warm up with their team before splitting up into different groups to run through general exercises. “I go [to practice] before school most of the time, and I skate for two or three hours on the weekends,” Yang said.
Programs are developed with music that frames the overall concept chosen first, according to Yang. Yang and Chan’s coaches then choreograph the program, weaving in jumps, spins and edges (Chan described these as the skating in between jumps and spins).
According to Chan, the team practices and performs two programs throughout the entire season: a three-minute short program called the “choreographic exercise” and a five to six minute long program called the “free skate.”
For instance, the San Francisco Ice Theatre’s free skate program last year involved a puppet theme, complete with hair, makeup and costumes. “There was a puppet leader and a rogue puppet, and they took over the group of everyone else, who were normal puppets [in the performance],” Chan said.
A key challenge with choreographing programs is accounting for the difference in skill levels between all 24 skaters. “It’s hard to find 24 skaters who can all do this jump and this spin,” Chan said. “So sometimes the coaches will have everyone doing one specific element, but if that can’t happen, they might have half of the skaters do an element in the center while the other skaters do something else on the outside.”
When it comes to actually performing, hiding fatigue can be a challenge, according to Yang. “Most of it is just being elegant when you’re actually really tired,” she said.
What Yang enjoys the most about figure skating is also what she finds the most challenging: jumps. Yang is currently working on a triple Salchow (three rotations in the air), a far cry from her first successful axel jump in eighth grade—a moment that stands out to Yang in her skating career—after a series of falls and under-rotations. “An axel is a jump where I rotate one-and-a-half times in the air,” she said. “I’d been working on that jump for almost a year, and it felt really good to finally land it.”
On the other hand, Chan loves the community aspect of team figure skating. “It’s not just about the competition, although that’s a large part and that’s fun too,” Chan said. “You get to make friends, and sometimes we have team-bonding [activities], which are really fun.”
Despite living in California, where Yang explained that figure skating is not particularly popular, ice rinks are air conditioned and open all year, and she faces few other skating-specific challenges. “[Nothing else] besides getting cold and having your toes freeze off,” Yang joked.