From Triple Flips to Toe Loops: UCSD Figure Skating’s Journey to Nationals

The UC San Diego Figure Skating team used its variety in skill sets and camaraderie among members to qualify and compete at the U.S. Intercollegiate Championships.

On a Sunday afternoon, when most students are getting started on last-minute homework assignments or relaxing after a busy week, Astrea Villarroel-Sanchez and her friend Julianna DeContreaus are skating laps around an ice rink, punctuating their strokes with jumps and spins. Their blades make a scraping, sharp sound as they cut through the ice fluidly, carving edges in the ice as they go. They skate with their arms as much as their legs, holding them aloft like dancers and propelling their bodies forward.

They both wear vests with “UCSD Figure Skating” embroidered on them. As part of the team, Villarroel-Sanchez and DeContreaus need to prep for the upcoming U.S. Intercollegiate Championships in figure skating. The two skaters practice their edges leading into their jumps, rapidly spinning at center ice with their arms above their head, and attempt jump combinations. They fall every once in a while, but are always right back up on their feet and launching themselves into another jump in no time — they have to forget what happened as soon as it does. At the end of the session, DeContreaus dons an orange sash to let the other practicing skaters know she’s about to run her program and then weaves around the ice to Latin music.

All of this was part of preparation that Villarroel-Sanchez, DeContreaus, and the rest of UC San Diego Figure Skating had been engaging in all season long, which culminated in a trip to Denver for nationals. After placing third in the Pacific region qualifying competition, UCSD Figure Skating was set to compete with figure skating teams from the West Coast, East Coast, and Midwest. It’s a feat they haven’t accomplished since President Rachel Miller, now senior nanoengineering major from Earl Warren College, first joined the team.

“We were a team of six that year, and this year we had 10. It’s an incredible experience,” Miller said. “I’ve been skating for 17 years, and I’ve never competed in an arena that large. Figure skating is an individual sport, so being part of a team and representing your school is really special.”

For many of its talented skaters, UCSD Figure Skating is an opportunity for its members to continue doing what they love, even after they’ve finished competing on the high school circuit. Skating in college gives them an opportunity to keep up with an activity that has always been important to them in addition to their academics.

Villarroel-Sanchez, a sophomore cognitive and behavioral neuroscience major from John Muir College, is one example. Formerly an early-morning skater, she has learned how to adapt her practice schedule to her academic commitments. She skates for an hour to an hour-and-a-half, five to six days a week.

“I was not expecting to continue skating in college, but when I saw this team existed, it reinvigorated my passion for skating all over again,” Villarroel-Sanchez said. “Usually when you graduate high school, you stop skating. I really enjoy skating, and this team has given me an opportunity to keep doing that and to represent a university.”

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Another member, freshman Georgia James, an undeclared physical science major from Sixth College, started skating at the age of four at her local rink in Riverside and spent her fifteen years skating moving up to the highest level. For her, the time commitment was always worth it, but she never thought she would be able to continue skating in college. UCSD Figure Skating has given her an opportunity to compete without being at the national or Olympic level. She values the emphasis UCSD Figure Skating puts on encouraging skaters of all backgrounds and skating levels to join the team.

“What’s cool about UCSD Figure Skating is that it’s not just people like me, who have been skating their whole lives. We also have members on the team who only started skating in college. One of our other skaters just started skating in college and he can already do an axel,” James said. “A lot of teams on the east coast have coaches that are paid by the school, and we don’t have that, so we often help and support each other. I think that’s the reason we ended up doing so well. We’re now one of the top ten teams in the nation.”

Miller, Villarroel-Sanchez, and James all express how strong the camaraderie between the skaters on the team is, particularly because the team travels to so many different competitions together. As Miller and James talk and laugh together, it’s clear how close they are and how well they know each other.

“We’re all super close. There are some of us who have been skating together for four years,” Miller said. “We really help each other out personally, academically, and in skating.”

“My individual event was a really big milestone for me. I have struggled a lot in figure skating because I’m not that cookie-cutter figure skater. I lived a normal life, ate a cupcake once in a while, and didn’t skate six hours a day, six days a week,” James said. “I often struggled with never attaining the performance level that I wanted for myself. But this competition was a really big deal, because I was able to overcome these mental roadblocks. I don’t think I’ve ever skated so well. And that was largely because of the attitude on our team.”

Nationals was a culmination of the team’s months of hard work, which made it an emotional experience for some. For James, who has always struggled to find confidence in herself and her performance out on the ice, competing with UCSD Figure Skating at such an important event gave her a new outlook on what she as a skater is capable of and reminded her not to compare herself to others.

James, an avid musical theater fan and theatrical performer herself, chose a piece of music from “The Lion King” musical for her short program after seeing the musical on Broadway with her mother. Her face lights up as she describes her love of “How to Train Your Dragon,” which led to her to choose the compilation of music from the sequel for her program.

“There’s a part in my program where I hold the long spiral, and I actually started to cry in the middle of my program. For me, it’s a really emotional piece of music because I skated to it when I was younger. I was in this big arena the first time, and I finally [came to] appreciate these fifteen years that I’ve spent skating. I never thought this was going to happen to me. So, I got off [the] ice, and everyone was crying.”

Miller, who funded all of her own skating endeavors in junior high school and high school purely because she loved to skate, had few chances to compete before joining UCSD Figure Skating. The way all the skaters earnestly discussed their years of training, it was clear that the activity was a major part of their lives. It was very hard for Miller to imagine that she could give up skating after high school, seeing as it had been the center of her life for so long.

“In intercollegiate skating, I can skate up to the level that I want to without that pressure that comes with normal-track skating,” Miller said. “Nationals was a culmination of that place of wanting to skate for myself and my school, while pursuing other goals in my life, too. After my program, I was definitely very emotional.”

Villarroel-Sanchez, James, and President Miller all see a bright future for UCSD Figure Skating, which ended up finishing tenth at nationals. James knows of a few skaters from her hometown rink who are attending UCSD next year and plan to join the team. What with many skaters graduating this year, recruitment and finding new members is of the utmost importance. Experienced skaters and beginners are both equally welcome, as all three skaters believe diversity in skill level is part of what makes UCSD Figure Skating so successful.

“I have put a lot of heart and soul into the club we created. It’s grown exponentially over the years. I really just want to see it keep growing and be a place that is nurturing and positive for people at all levels.” Miller said. “We’ve all grown so much from being part of this club. What helps us competitively is that we have such a large support system for each other. I’m really proud of the fact that this is a team that works because they want to, not because there’s a coach yelling at them to.”

“We fund the program ourselves, we go to practice ourselves. We have no incentive other than the fact that we love skating. We’re only there to support each other. I don’t think I could have done as well as I did at nationals without that,” James said. “I didn’t come away with a medal from this competition. But not in a bad way. In a way that makes me want to go back, because now I have the idea that I can actually do this.”

Photos courtesy of UCSD Figure Skating Team.

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