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SMILE AT THE JUDGES
By Sarah S. Brannen

She was used to ice rinks, but 15-year-old Katherine Hadford was freezing. “I can’t feel my legs!”

“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 team.

 

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.

Skating with a star
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.

Qualifying competitions
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.

2005 Nationals
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 spin.

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 over.

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.

     

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