Bringing figure skating to Southwest Florida
Todd Eldredge and Richard Callaghan bring their ...
ESTERO — The jump is called the double Axel, and it is named for the Norwegian skater who pioneered it in 1882.
The tune is called “Shut up and let me go,” and it is performed by the Ting Tings, a glitzy British pop pair with a sly, hipster sensibility.
Although the two may appear to have no connection, they are perfect companions on a Tuesday afternoon at Germain Arena. That’s when Julia Rowland is practicing the first to the sound of the second, doing her 11-year-old darnest to complete the move that has thus far eluded her. On the ice, she is a blur of hot pink fleece and black leggings, crowned by a blonde braid that threatens to disintegrate every time she twirls or leaps.
Her mother, Nicola, watches from the concrete bleachers, wrapped in a soft gray shawl as protection against the rink’s constant cold. Julia, she explains, is still a little less than a quarter short of a full double Axel.
It may seem like a nothing amount, a trifle as compared to the jump’s overall elegance. But Julia, like the other girls on Germain’s rink, are serious about skating, investing hours each day to train and prepare for future competitions. To be here, they and their families have finessed school schedules, forgone the pursuit of other sports and made more than the occasional social life sacrifice.
They jump high, miss their landings and fall down, only to get up and do it all over again.
“She just loves it,” Nicola says of her daughter. “It’s a passion of hers and I support it to the highest level.”
Fortunately, the highest level is what Germain Arena offers.
Let’s assume you only tune in to watch figure skating in years that end with even numbers.
In such a case, you might not know Coach Richard Callaghan, who recently made Germain the new home base for his Champions of America Competitive Skating Team. But it’s fairly certain you know Tara Lipinski, who Callaghan coached to United States Olympic gold medal stardom in 1998.
You may also know Nicole Bobek, who was U.S. Champion in 1995 and widely regarded as one of the sport’s most gifted, if sometimes most erratic, skaters. Callaghan coached her, too. And for the past 20 years, he has coached Todd Eldredge, the 1996 World Champion, a three-time U.S. Olympic competitor and a six-time U.S. Champion.
Yes, six times.
Teaching these skating luminaries has provided Callaghan with unforgettable coaching highs. He recalls when Lipinski took the gold: “You can come up with a word, but it just doesn’t fit the bill,” he says.
He has an obvious fondness for Bobek, describing her as an artistic, emotional athlete who challenged him to find a way to teach her without her knowing she was being taught.
“I’m sure for every good day there was a bad day, but I just really remember the good days,” he says.
If there have been highs, there have been difficult points, too. In 1999, one of Callaghan’s former students accused him of sexual misconduct and filed a grievance with the United States Figure Skating Association. Callaghan denied the allegations, and the grievance was later dismissed. The coach does not wish to speak of it.
“It’s old news,” he says.
Callaghan’s career began in upstate New York, where he started skating at an outdoor rink. He then joined the local skate club and eventually performed with the Ice Capades. He later married, had a daughter and ultimately helmed the Detroit Skating Club for 16 years. After Michigan, he moved to Florida’s east coast and continued to coach, making the move to Naples because of family connections. He began coaching here in September.
At Germain, his wife, Mandy, is part of his coaching team. So are Eldredge, who also has a Naples residence; Fedor Andreev, a 2003 Canadian bronze medalist and 2010 Olympic team hopeful; and Danielle Leong, a National Team alternate.
Leong, 23, began skating in Minnesota when she was 7 years old. She has trained with Callaghan for almost 10 years, and calls him a great coach. He expects hard work, though, Leong says.
“He knows exactly what he wants from you, and he tells you,” she says.
That kind of honesty works both ways, notes Debby Bazalgette. Her daughter, 12-year-old Claire, has skated with Callaghan for more than a year, first in Coral Springs and now at Germain. She describes Callaghan as “a character,” someone who is as quick to commend as he is to critique.
“He’s not for everyone,” Debby says. “A lot of people would be intimidated by him, because he is a perfectionist.”
But she’s not complaining. Having Callaghan and his coaching team at Germain is an answer to her prayers, Debby says.
“I still, to this day, can’t believe he’s here,” she says.
A coach’s method
Although Claire Bazalgette and Julia Rowland live in Naples, most of Callaghan’s and Eldredge’s students hail from elsewhere in the state — or world. One skater recently traveled from China to train with Callaghan’s team at Germain Arena.
Callaghan currently coaches eight students and Eldredge coaches seven. There is room for maybe five more in the program, Callaghan says. Most of the students started skating when they were 4 or 5 years old, and now are anywhere between 12 and 23.
They’re on the rink an average of three hours a day, training and conditioning off-ice as well. Julia Rowland, for example, practices every other weeknight and on the weekends at her family’s gated community dance studio. She also uses a slow motion video program that shows the physics of her skating to help her improve.
It’s a rigorous routine, but those are the demands of athletics, Callaghan notes.
“In any sport you have to have it in your blood, you have to have a work ethic, you have to have a tremendous enthusiasm to get to the top,” he says.
Skating has changed dramatically in his 35 years of coaching. More and better training facilities and coaches exist, he says. As a result, skaters are required to do more complicated moves than they once were, with 10-year-olds now skating like the 20-year-olds of two decades ago.
A skate program may have eight jumps, three spins and two sets of footwork. In one spin, Callaghan says, a skater might have to incorporate five different body positions. Finally, a skater also must be faster than those they are competing against and, of course, they must be certain to “sell it,” Callaghan says.
So if the girls at Germain are practicing three hours a day, it’s because they know that “somewhere in the U.S., the skater they’re competing against is on the ice four hours a day,” Callaghan promises.
While he’s known as an exacting teacher, Callaghan is also sure to point out the faults of overtraining. Some skaters want to do a move 10 times, but it’s a coach’s responsibility to prevent that, limiting them to only three or four times, if it’s sufficient.
“No matter how talented your skater is, they’re no good injured,” he says.
Injuries can derail a skater’s path to the podium, as Callaghan well knows. While in Coral Springs, he coached Kimmie Meissner, the 2006 World Champion and 2007 U.S. National Champion. But Meissner struggled with injuries this year, and in October withdrew from her Grand Prix skating assignments. She will not compete in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, either.
Callaghan says he feels bad for Meissner, knowing it was an important year for her, but does not bear the disappointment personally, as he might have in past years.
“At this point in my teaching career,” he says, “it’s really just for the kids.”
Germain has about 300 children in its Learn to Skate program. Those students don’t work with Callaghan or Eldredge, but they are exposed to the talents they are cultivating, believes Dave Kessel, Germain’s director of recreational facilities.
Where that exposure will end, Kessel can only imagine.
“Having this quality of coaching and this quality of skating here is certainly going to bring more to the Southwest Florida community,” he says.
It’s tempting to think of Callaghan or Eldredge popping into an open skate night and stumbling across an undiscovered talent, but Callaghan concedes that’s not likely. At his level and with his reputation, skaters seek him out, looking to learn.
“Someone comes along and they have the ability and the desire and you help them fulfill their desire, whatever it is,” Callaghan says.
What is likely, though, is that Germain’s skate programs and skate nights are the first chance many Southwest Florida children will have to explore the sport.
Julia Rowland was 6 years old when her mother, seeking some sort of rainy evening entertainment, brought her daughter to Germain for a night of skating.
Five years later, Julia works with two skating coaches, one of whom is Eldredge.
Then there’s Claire Bazalgette. She was 4 when her mother enrolled her in one of Germain’s Learn to Skate classes. Debby Bazalgette expected nothing more from the class, she recalls.
But now learning to skate is Claire’s way of life, for today and tomorrow.
“It’s not always the fun choice, that’s for sure, but I’m pleased that she makes this decision,” Debby says of her daughter. “I’m proud of her.”
Connect with Elizabeth Kellar at firstname.lastname@example.org