AT THE JUDGES
She was used to ice rinks, but 15-year-old
Katherine Hadford was freezing. “I can’t feel
“It’s really cold,” agreed
her coach. “Try the lutz again.”
Katherine, usually called Kati, was in
Portland, Oregon, to compete at the 2005 United States Figure
Skating Championships for the first time as a Senior. “Senior”
is the highest level in figure skating: the top three finishers
in her event would go to the World Championships, and three
girls under the age of 19 would be sent to the Junior World
Championships. Kati was hoping to make the 2005 Junior World
Kati’s first practice of the week
was at a numbingly cold rink, and most of the other skaters
left the session early, complaining. Soon Kati and her coach
Priscilla Hill had the rink to themselves. Priscilla cheered
as Kati landed a beautiful triple lutz-triple toe loop, the
hardest combination in ladies’ skating.
That afternoon Kati had her first official
practice at the Rose Garden Arena, sharing the ice with eight-time
National champion Michelle Kwan. “I always looked up
to Michelle and watched her on TV. It was really cool to be
on the same ice with her,” she said. For a moment, Kati
found herself watching Michelle instead of thinking about
her own skating.
It started with the Olympics
When Oksana Baiul won the Olympic gold
medal in 1994, Kati was only four years old. She was fascinated
by the figure skating on television and asked her mother
a stream of questions about the skaters, saying “They
look like birds on the ice.”
Kati wanted to try skating right away. After only three
classes, the instructor said that Kati needed private lessons
because she had a lot of talent. Kati’s mother didn’t
quite believe it, and Kati stayed in group classes. Eventually
she skated in a small competition and won, although she
was the youngest, smallest skater there.
After that, Kati had two private lessons
a week. Her mother couldn’t get her out of the rink.
Kati would skate for four hours at a time if she could. She
loved competing too, because, she says with a giggle, “I
liked to show off.”
At the age of nine, Kati was the youngest
singles skater ever to qualify for Junior Nationals. After
that she had a lesson every day. She skated from 5:30 to 8:00
in the morning, went to school until 2:00 in the afternoon,
and spent the rest of the afternoon at the rink. It was clear
that she needed a high-level coach, but there was no one available
where she lived. Her parents made the tough decision to start
working with a coach at the University of Delaware, two hours
away. For four years, Kati and her mother spent four hours
in the car every day. Kati did her school work in the car,
but attending school became impossible.
Kati has been home-schooled since she was
nine. She says she didn’t mind leaving regular school;
her best friend was a serious ballet student and had a similar
schedule, but none of the other girls she knew were into sports,
just boys and makeup. Kati had no interest in that. She couldn’t
go to parties and sleepovers anyway because she got up so
early to skate. Most of her friends now are skaters too. They
have fun together between skating sessions, talking and laughing
and playing music in the dressing room.
When Kati was 12, her hard work started
to pay off. She qualified for the National Championships as
a Novice, and finished in fourth place. Because of her high
placement, she was assigned to compete at the international
Triglav Trophy in Slovenia, and she won the bronze medal.
Kati continued to move up quickly and passed her Senior free
skating test when she was only 14.
Her first year as a senior was a disappointment.
Kati was growing fast, and she had trouble landing jumps with
her new long legs. She also suffered a severe concussion when
a piece of equipment in the gym broke and she went head-first
onto the floor holding a 25-pound weight. She missed several
weeks of training, and later that season she lost more time
when she sprained her ankle.
It was time to make some changes. Kati switched coaches and
started working with Priscilla Hill at a different rink
in Delaware. Kati’s family got an apartment nearby,
and now Kati’s mother or grandfather stays with her
during the week and the family is together on weekends.
Many skaters Kati’s age move away from home entirely;
this arrangement is better for Kati, for now.
Kati also takes
lessons from a Russian coach, Natalia Linichuk, who mostly
works on choreography with her as well as spins and jumps.
Priscilla and Natalia are both very warm and supportive,
and Kati loves her lessons with them.
Priscilla also teaches two-time National Champion Johnny
Weir. He coaches Kati sometimes, mostly helping with choreography.
Kati says, “Johnny is one of my favorite skaters. It’s
really fun to be on the ice with him. He doesn’t act
like he’s better than everybody… he just thinks
he’s the same as everyone else. I love skating with
him because he pushes me. He can do quad jumps!”
It takes a lot of people to make a figure
skater great, and it takes a lot of time. Kati skates one
40-minute session with each coach six days a week, and two
sessions on her own every day. She also does Pilates and strength
training. Almost all her free time is spent on school work,
although she goes to her brother’s and sisters’
soccer games on Saturdays.
Kati went into the 2004-2005 competitive
season feeling well-prepared and eager to show the judges
what she could do. The first round of qualifying competitions
was the South Atlantic Regional Championships, and Kati won.
She came back to Delaware glowing, and her coach had to remind
her that there was a long way to go until Nationals. “I
know it was exciting to win,” said Priscilla. “But
you still need to focus!”
The Eastern Sectional Championships, the
next step on the way to Nationals, were held in November in
Massachusetts. Johnny was competing at a Grand Prix event
in Paris the same week, and Priscilla had to be there with
him. She spent hours on the phone with the other coaches from
Delaware and did her best to coach Kati from a distance. When
Johnny won in Paris, they announced it on the loudspeakers
at Easterns and the crowd cheered.
Kati skated well at Easterns. She looked
graceful and beautiful, and she landed most of her jumps.
She finished third, a great finish for her second year as
a senior, and qualified for Nationals. It was the best moment
in her life as a skater. In Paris, Priscilla high-fived a
friend in the hotel bar when she got the news about Kati.
Kati and her mother flew to Portland in January with Priscilla,
Johnny and Johnny’s mother Patti. Kati was excited to
arrive at the National Championships with the National champion.
Patti reminded her that she saw him every day at the rink.
Still, says Kati, “It was cool, walking into the hotel
with him. Everyone was looking at us.”
Wednesday of Nationals week, Kati practiced
at a public session in a shopping mall, on the same rink where
Tonya Harding used to skate. It was a zoo. “There was
a lady juggling rocks while she skated, and a man tumbling;
there was a guy wearing hockey skates trying to do freestyle,”
says Kati. “Apart from that, it was a good practice!”
At her official practice that afternoon,
a lot of kids asked Kati for her autograph, which made her
feel like a celebrity. She went to bed early, with the TV
on. She said it helped her get to sleep.
The ladies’ short program was the
next night. Kati was excited but not nervous. Johnny put his
hands on her shoulders and told her, “You’ve practiced
really well, you’ve worked hard, you’re ready.
When you do your spiral, smile at the judges and make them
fall in love with you.” He hugged her and whispered
something that made her giggle.
When it was Kati’s turn to skate
her short program, she did a double lutz instead of a triple
and missed the second jump of the combination. She was shocked
by her mistake. “I didn’t feel like I attacked
it,” she said ruefully afterward.
At practice on Friday, Kati’s skates
felt wobbly and she had trouble landing jumps. It turned out
that one of her blades was loose. Priscilla tried to fix it,
but the skates were old – Kati had had them since April
– and the screws kept coming out. Priscilla finally
got the blade on tight, but after the free skate Kati noticed
that the blade was too far to one side.
On Saturday afternoon, Johnny won his second
national title. He took time afterward to give Kati another
pep talk before she skated. Kati had never competed in front
of such a large crowd, but during the warm-up she felt that
the audience was very supportive, cheering every jump and
Kati’s free skate didn’t have
much resemblance to the clean run-throughs she had done so
often in practice. She was hoping she could pull up in the
standings and make the junior world team, and maybe she thought
about it too much. She fell three times, and only landed one
clean triple jump. The audience roared for her layback spin
though, and cheered when she landed her double axel. Kati
usually doesn’t think about her mistakes as she does
her program, but this time, she wanted to rewind and start
As she sat and waited for her marks, she
couldn’t believe what had happened. She felt like she
was having a bad dream. Priscilla grinned at her and said,
“There are 13,000 people watching you. Smile! Look like
you’re enjoying yourself.” Kati managed a smile,
but she was upset. She finished in 17th place. The future
Back at home, Kati remembers the good
things. She loved skating in front of such a huge crowd and
practicing with Michelle Kwan. She’s proud to have been
a part of the U.S. National Championships. “I have to
think about the whole competition, and not just one practice
at a time,” she says.
Kati realizes that even though she didn’t show the country
what she can do, bad days are a part of sports. She’s
already focusing on next season, listening to music for her
new programs, working on a quad jump and a triple axel, and
preparing for summer competitions. Next time, she’ll show
the judges what she can do. And she has gotten a new pair of
skates, with the blades tightly attached.
To learn more about skaters,
competitions and figure skating moves, visit www.usfigureskating.org.