By Jillian Risberg
They have Olympic sized dreams and six hometown darlings who made it all the way to the US Figure Skating Championships in Detroit are keeping it within reach every time they step on the ice.
What ties them together is Mennen Sports Arena in Morristown. Ava Ziegler and Dalila DeLaura started skating there as tots.
Eastern Sectional champion Ava, of Dover took fourth place at nationals with a pewter medal and the 12-year-old had the second highest program components score of the competition.
“It was very exciting and I was proud of myself because I’ve been working hard on improving all of my skating skills, my component scores and my spins and jumps — so it meant a lot,” she says.
Juvenile Pairs, Dalila DeLaura, of Chatham and 14-year-old Ryan Xie of Hillsborough also earned the pewter medal and were the youngest pairing on the podium.
It all led to this — and Dalila says she was thankful to be there.
“I am proud to be a two-time national medalist and grateful to my parents, coaches and parter for the support which helped make my dream a reality.”
Thirteen-year-old Antonio Monaco of High Bridge competed with the Juvenile Boys.
“When I got to Nationals, it felt great to have so much support from my skating club and my coaches and my school,” Antonio says. “They encouraged me to try and do my best at the competition and feel proud that I was there no matter what the outcome.”
Isabella Bickenbach of Chatham and her partner, Drake Tong, of Forest Hills, NY qualified in Juvenile Dance.
“It lets the younger kids that are starting to skate or just starting to compete give them something to look up to and look forward to and see that if you work hard and you’re dedicated it really can pay off,” says Whitney Trif, the skating school administrator.
To become an elite figure skater requires a demanding schedule of practice, commitment and an underlying passion for the sport.
“Some of these kids are here training twice a day, before school and after school — 20 hours a week ice time — ballet off the ice, yoga, strength training to get their body prepared for competition,” Trif says.
Ava gets down to basics — from eating healthy to training her program and making sure she perfects every little detail.
“I had very high expectations and I really wanted to win,” says the competitive skater. “I’ve been training very hard and I had a really successful season.”
For Antonio it means never giving up and always striving for the top.
“I really want to make more progress on my jumps and building up the consistency of all my jumps,” he says.
The dedication to train becomes a part of a skater’s life.
Going into the competition, Antonio says he trained really hard with the goal of running a clean program as he did at sectionals.
“I wanted to work on focusing on one element coming up at a time,” says the North Atlantic Regional Competition champ, who started skating at age five.
According to Trif, the kids learn life lessons on the ice that they can apply to their future outside of skating.
“We tend to see a lot of our skaters go on to top colleges and wonderful careers,” she says. “It gives them such a self-confidence because they’re out there by themselves, no teammates besides the two pairs teams that have each other.”
Skating is an expensive endeavor, so these kids are lucky to be able to follow their love.
“For as much as they work hard and sacrifice to be out there — their parents work very hard and sacrifice to be able to support their child’s dream,” Trif says.
As a sport the skaters started to focus on training their muscles off the ice and nutrition. Trif says it’s become very physical and more is expected of them.
The coaches are a guiding force and she says it’s important you’re at a rink with professional coaches who are accomplished (both) as a skater and a coach.
“Sometimes you’ll go to rinks and it’s teenagers coaching that don’t have experience. But if you come to Mennen and some of the better training areas, you’ll see really strong coaches where this is their profession. That’s very important if you’re looking to compete and move forward in the sport.”
Immense effort goes into the skater’s performances at Nationals.
“What they did in those two minutes is the only thing that matters,” Trif says. “So, you have months and years of training down to two minutes. Not many sports are like that.”
She says the skaters were excited, but definitely nervous. They wanted to enjoy the experience and take it all in.
“I love to perform,” Ava says. “To be my own artist and paint the picture.”
According to Dalila, there were many teams from around the country that were older and more experienced competitors.
“I kept telling myself that I can only be my best and whatever happens I know I trained hard and I had given it my all,” the 11-year-old says.
When the skaters return home at the end of the season, it’s a matter of fine tuning their moves.
“They’re already training,” Trif says. “They’ll start to get new music with new programs and work on new skills. May/June they start competing a lot, and in fall they have the regional Eastern competitions that allow you to go to nationals.”
According to the administrator, each skater will pick their next competition and Ava (along with some of the others) is participating in the Morris Open the last weekend in March at Mennen.
“It’s kind of starting at the bottom again,” Trif says. “They’re going to be maybe younger in the groups, and skills are going to be harder. So next year they may not make it to nationals, but that’s okay because they’re moving up in the sport.”
What viewers don’t see behind the TV scenes is just how tough the skills are and what goes into the sport.
“They changed the way skating was judged a few years ago and now everything has a point value,” Trif says. “Skaters will do a step before a jump that makes it more difficult or put their arms over their head in the middle of the jumps. They’re being very creative with how to get more points.”
The pressures of a sport like figure skating can take its toll.
“I think they feel it at times,” Trif says. “But the skaters that really progress, make it to nationals and move forward have such an internal joy and love for it that they’re able to combat that stress and pressure and use it as fuel versus anxiety.”
With the endless hours devoted to skating, taking time for oneself is equally imperative so you don’t burn out.
“Some need to skate a little bit every day, others do better skating four days and taking two days off,” Trif says. “Each skater’s coach works with them to put together a training schedule that is specific to their individual needs.”
Heading into the competition, Dalila felt confident in her ability to deliver a clean performance and soak up the experience of being at nationals.
“Only a small fraction of skaters ever achieve that honor,” she says. “I intended to deeply feel the moment and appreciate my journey.”
Antonio echoed that sentiment.
“I was able to qualify for Nationals and prove to myself that I could go and compete,” he says. “Not many other people can say that. It makes me really proud of myself.”
When it comes down to it, the skaters all have their own aspirations, whether Olympics or Nationals again at a higher level — and the everyday hard work that they’re going to put in to get there.
“My long term goals are to make the 2022 Olympics top four,” Ava says. “It’ll take a lot of hard work and training — but with all my coaches by my side, it’s definitely going to be possible.”
That wouldn’t be a stretch, as Ava has skating in her blood. She was just 16-months-old when she first stepped on the ice. Her mom, Patricia Mansfield Ziegler, a longtime coach placed fifth at nationals in 1995.
“When I was pregnant with her, I was better on skates than walking,” Mansfield Ziegler says. “There’s no doubt in my mind she chose this sport for her, not because of me.”
Experiencing nationals and getting to live her passion every day is magical.
“It makes me very happy because I can just express my emotion every time I get onto the ice,” Ava says. “I do my program and let it all go.”
According to Trif, the skaters have so many options as they look toward the future and move up the ranks.
“I intend to stay committed to pairs skating and train to be a senior level skater for Team USA,” Dalila says.
And the community is beyond thrilled for these talented athletes.
“Proud of everything that the skaters have achieved (and) they’re just good kids,” Trif says. “Skating allows them to become strong, confident, wonderful adults and that’s what we all want in life.”