As her music, “Butterfly Lovers,” began to play at the US Figure Skating Championships in Boston, Iris Zhao was relaxed. “I let it all go and did what I’m supposed to do,” said the Acton 12-year-old, who, like many top competitors, is poised well beyond her years.
But in the chilly stands at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center Wednesday, her parents were plenty nervous. May Liu tried to concentrate on “the beauty of her skating,” while Rich Zhao busied himself with his camcorder as he always does, so that later, his daughter’s every move could be analyzed. “The most important competitions still grab my heart tight,” he said.
Behind every would-be Olympic figure skater is the Skating Parent, who acts as chauffeur, accountant, manager, nagger, and cheerleader. For years, such parents would sit on cold, metal seats, praying and applauding during high-stakes competitions in which a two-minute performance can make or break a skater’s ranking.
Unlike hockey dads, who have three periods to grouse about bad calls and team play, skating parents hold their breath during loops and lutzes performed on quarter-inch blades. The nervous energy, if it could be harnessed, could light up Boston.
“As a parent, you want to be the puppeteer when they’re on the ice. You just want to hold them up,” said Star Moree of Minneapolis, whose daughter Madlyn, 13, was competing in the juvenile girls’ free skate category. Madlyn began skating when she was 3.
Of the dozen girls ages 11 to 14 who competed in her group, Madlyn was the 10th skater to take the ice. Her mother prefers her to get an earlier draw: “Then I can breathe better during the rest of the performances.”
There are all manners of sports and stage parents. But in figure skating, with its individual performers who have no offseason, parents are intimately involved in every aspect, from picking costumes to paying the sizable bills.
Because it is a polite sport with an emphasis on grace and elegance that takes place in a hushed atmosphere, figure skating parents tend to be better behaved than in the rough-and-tumble world of hockey, where booing — and even body blows — emanate from the stands.
“In many hockey communities, it is not uncommon to have a class on how to behave at games or e-mail reminders sent out regarding being a good sport,” said Moree, whose 10-year-old son plays hockey and whose husband played in college and now coaches youth hockey. “Figure skating events are much more mild. You may have a skater show a bit of emotion over a poor skate, hence the ‘kiss and cry area’ at nationals.”
Coach Peter Oppegard says that because figure skating takes such focus and discipline, grounded parents are essential to the cause.
“It’s really important for parents to know how competitive it is,” said Oppegard, the three-time US pair skating champion and Olympic bronze medalist. “It’s a journey you have to love. I tell parents to enjoy the process; mostly their skaters already do.”
But Oppegard gets the intensity. His 9-year-old daughter is a ranked gymnast who trains four hours a day. “I understand what the parents go through. It’s nerve-wracking, because you have no control over the outcome.”
Many of the top-ranked young skaters have multiple coaches, choreographers, and even a personal trainer. Peter Biver, a three-time US Figure Skating gold medalist, is one of Madlyn Moree’s five coaches, concentrating on her jumps.
“Figure skating is inconvenient and expensive, and when you combine those two things, it’s hard for parents,” he said. “There are good parents, and there are pushy parents. When I get yelled at, I tell them, ‘Will this matter five years from now?’ ”
Of course, not all skating parents are good. Legendary Olympic coach Frank Carroll witnessed bad behavior at this week’s competitions in Boston.
“I had a girl who skated badly, and her parents didn't allow her to go back and watch the boys skate,” said Carroll. “She had to stay in her room at the hotel, then they flew out the next morning.”
The worst parental behavior happens on the local level. Nancy and Dean Lurker, whose 10-year-old daughter skates, recalled parents who were kicked out of their local skating club near Peapack, N.J.
“It was nonstop screaming week after week after week,” said Dean. “The kid would come off the ice crying his head off.” The Lurkers changed to a less competitive skating club.
“It’s no different than hockey parents, or football or baseball,” said Dean. “They vicariously start living through their child.”
But there is a difference. Because figure skating is an individual sport, parents make a point of clapping for each competitor during both daring jumps and depleting falls. The latter is done to encourage the fallen to get back up and continue.
Kathy and Dino Ferrante were in Boston from Huntsville, Ala., to watch their son Luke, 13, compete. He started when he was 6, and skates six days a week, four or five hours a day, before and after school.
They got to know other parents at their local rink and at competitions, where their son has made close friendships. “His skating family is like a second family to him,” said Kathy.
It’s a sentiment echoed throughout ice rinks. “The best thing is what the friendships mean to them,” said Nicole Ugel of Washington, D.C., who has three children, ages 10, 11 and 13, who figure skate. “I’ve hardly seen my kids in the three days since I’ve been here. But I know they’re safe and happy. It’s a real community.”
As a single parent, Ugel’s entire salary as a special education consultant goes to her children’s skating. She gets by with help from her parents, and from merit scholarships from various skating foundations.
Many parents this week described their annual skating expenses as equivalent to a year of college tuition, ranging from $30,000 to $50,000. “It’s a time sacrifice and a financial sacrifice for families," said Star Moree, whose daughter was competing in an $800 lilac outfit and $900 skates: $500 for the blades, $400 for the boots. She and her husband David own a natural health business and she does part-time physical therapy.
Their 10-year-old son Mason plays hockey. His dad, who played Division 1 hockey for Northern Michigan University, coaches Mason’s regular-season team. “Hockey can get expensive as well, but overall we find it much more affordable than figure skating,” she said. Many of the coaches for youth hockey are volunteers, and sharing ice time with a large number of skaters keeps rink rates lower.
Some top figure skaters are home-schooled. Madlyn Moree attends Northern Educate Sports Academy with other figure skaters and hockey players. It has classrooms at her skating rink in Vadnais Heights, Minn.
Some commute between home and coaches. The Moree family splits time between Minneapolis and Faribault, Minn. Jasmine and Joshua Fendi, twins who took gold in juvenile pairs this week, train in Artesia, Calif., with Oppegard, but their family hotel business is two hours away in Big Bear Lake, where their father works.
“Their schedule is crazy,” said their mother, Mia. “It’s four hours a day just ice time. Then you have your stretching time and your ballet time. And they work out once a week for strength training.”
After winning pairs on Tuesday, Josh competed Wednesday in the boys’ free skate. As he took the ice, his family clapped and whooped and held up colorful handmade signs. At the end, he came in seventh of 12. His father greeted him with a hug.
While their son Luke skated fluidly to “It Had to Be You” by Harry Connick Jr., Kathy and Dino Ferrante sat nervously, she leaning forward, his arm around her shoulder. They applauded when he landed both of his double axels and were visibly pleased when it was over.
But it was a tough field, and Luke came in fifth. “He missed the podium by three-10ths of a point,” said his mother.
The best skaters can have an off day, and they can only hope it doesn’t come at high-stakes competitions. Madlyn Moree skated beautifully but near the end of her program fell on a double lutz/double toe combination.
“It’s her bread-and-butter jump, she never misses,” said her mother. “It’s one of those fluke things.”
Among the girls, Iris Zhao, who skates at the Colonial Figure Skating Club in Boxborough, took gold. It is an honor that she — and her parents — have been working toward since she first took to the ice at age 4. She skates 16 hours a week, year-round, with six coaches, including two choreographers.
“It’s been really fun,” said her beaming dad, Rich, an IT engineer. “It’s a real accomplishment for the girls, and for their parents.”