The Collegiate Sport You Probably Haven’t Heard Of: Synchronized Skating

This is a little out of the normal coverage on this website.  This weekend is the national championship for synchronized skating in Plymouth, Michigan.  If you’re unfamiliar with synchronized skating, don’t worry, I’ll go over the basics.  There is a lot to this sport, and I’m only a little familiar with it.  My better half is a coach at the younger levels of the sport after skating for years at the highest level of the sport.  This sport is not an NCAA sport but there is a collegiate division at the championships, and some teams, like Miami University and Adrian College, are varsity sports at their schools.

I went to the ISU World Synchronized Skating Championships in 2017 and saw a lot of amazing skating.  At the senior level the teams skate two programs, a short program and a free skate, and this is my favorite short program I’ve ever seen.  That’s a strong introduction to the synchronized skating world.  Just as in individual or pairs skating, falls happen, but with 16 skaters on the ice, the consequences can be more severe.  In that video, during their intersection two athletes get their skates hooked and take a rough fall.  One athlete gets a pretty nasty cut on her ankle but finishes the program with no signs of injury, other than the red spot that grows on her ankle as the program continues.

Scoring and Rules

Most teams will roster 16 skaters and alternates, but a team can skate with fewer or more in most divisions.  This is what score sheet looks like, and it can look a little confusing at first glance.  Synchro is a judged sport and there are an odd number of judges, usually 5 to 9, and 5 members on the technical panel.  Along the left is the list of technical elements that each team completes in whatever order they choose.  Each element has a level that a team is trying to complete, which determines a base value for that element.  The technical panel evaluates the execution of the element to determine if the team will be granted the level and base value they were attempting. The judges score for each element is on a scale of -5 to +5.  Those turn into the number shown in the GOE, or grade of execution, and adds or subtracts from the base value. (Note that the score sheet linked above is from 2017 when GOEs ranged from -3 to +3.)

The judges also score program components: skating skills, transitions, performance, composition, and interpretation.  These may seem abstract but there are documents that guide the judges how to score this stuff.  These combine and are usually announced as the technical score, the program component score, and then their total score.  The judges do have video replay to re-watch portions of the program before submitting their score.  Even with this, there is some “in the moment” judgement that happens at each competition.  Due to this, scores from different competitions can’t always necessarily be directly compared.

How to Win

Aside from judging variation, the individual performances are always a little different.  Every team leading up to the official USFS qualifying competitions is trying to trend their scores higher and higher, but small point changes can suggest that the performance was similar to previous competitions.  Changes in value of around ten points or more is usually more concrete improvement.  In short, to win at synchronized skating a team should do high level elements well, have a well thought out program, and a theme that the skaters can connect with.

This Saturday in Michigan

Did you get all that?  Good.  This Saturday the collegiate division skates from about 2pm to 4pm with 12 teams competing.  At this level, each team only performs a free skate program.  The twelve teams in their skate order are:

  1. Boston University
  2. Notre Dame
  3. Michigan State
  4. University of Delaware
  5. Team Excel
  6. Adrian College
  7. Miami University
  8. University of Illinois
  9. UMass
  10. University of Michigan
  11. Liberty University
  12. Western Michigan

Team Excel is a team not associated with a specific university, but the skaters on that team are full-time students from a group of local universities.  Usually a sectional competition eliminates some teams prior to the national competition, but not this year.  All teams that skated at a sectional competition qualified for nationals.

Miami has scored higher than any other team, at any other competition this season to the best of my knowledge.  Finding complete results for every competition is not the easiest thing in the world.  Anyway, Miami scored a 97.52 at the Dr. Richard Porter Synchronized Classic in early December.  They are currently the only team this season to break 90 points, which they have done three times in four competitions.  That’s not to say no one can beat Miami.  Adrian, Western Michigan, Delaware and University of Michigan have all posted scores in the high 70’s and low 80’s, which could put them within reach of Miami with a great skate.  Most of the teams in the field are trending up in scores and are preparing to have their best skate of the season at nationals.

Check it Out

To pay attention to this weekends action, the collegiate division, along with the junior and senior divisions, can be watched on NBC Sports Gold streaming package or twitter will have scores and updates.  All other divisions in the event can be live-streamed for free through the U.S. Figure Skating Fan Zone. It’s a fascinating sport to know and learn about, especially if you’re like me and all sports experiences prior to this were ball sports without judges.  Saturday afternoon someone is going to win a national collegiate championship, so tune in or hang out on twitter to see who takes the gold.

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