The Broadmoor World Arena hosts the 2022 U.S. Synchronized Skating Championships this Saturday, with the national collegiate division finals set to take place this Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Eastern time.
While the U.S. Championships are not an NCAA event, they ultimately serve as the highest honor in collegiate synchronized skating. The entire division is 14 teams, with 13 of those programs set to compete on Saturday for a national championship.
Three of the programs competing (Miami, Adrian College and Trine University) this week are varsity sports despite not participating in NCAA events. Most other teams are affiliated with a specific college as a club team.
It’s truly a wild west of programs; Team Excel, for instance, is made up of an intercollegiate network of college athletes from multiple colleges.
The other club teams representing a university are: University of Michigan; Western Michigan; Michigan State; University of Delaware; Illinois; Boston University; UMass; Boston College and Liberty.
Hustle Belt spoke with Amy Yuengert, Western Michigan’s head coach, about their season and nationals this weekend. She provided insight into the sport and how this season for the Broncos has gone.
In-person competition highlights the 2021-22 season
During the 2020-21 season, the pandemic wiped most competitions off the schedule or made them virtual competitions. To qualify for nationals, the team must skate at one of the sectional events. The east coast teams skate at the Eastern Sectional, while the Midwestern and Pacific Coast teams go to the Midwest Sectional and Pacific Sectional— which are often held in the same location as different events on different days.
Like any other sport, competition day is the reward for all of the hard work in practice. The 2021 season was especially tough with interruptions to practices and competitions being canceled. This season has been a step towards normal.
“We’ve had a really positive season and I think part of it is due to the fact that we really didn’t get to compete much last year, so this year there has been a lot of excitement and girls are really willing to work hard and work through challenges,” Yuengert said. “They’re just excited to get back out there.”
Challenges were still plentiful while practicing, traveling and competing through the Omicron surge that ran its course during the heart of the competition schedule.
Synchronized skating is a sport without positions, but only because they don’t have names. Each skater on the ice has their own path and responsibilities. Each goes to a unique place in each element and each position requires different things from the skater.
The pandemic has added a level of difficulty for coaches as they make changes to the program during a season.
“That constant worry, is someone going to be out for two weeks or not. In a sport like synchro where your spot is very unique to each person, sometimes it’s tough to just throw someone else in,” said Yuengert.
A Crash Course in Synchronized Skating
Synchronized skating is a sport that has a panel of judges and a technical panel that determines each team’s score and the winner. It’s not a sport with scoring rules as concrete as football or basketball and that makes it an exciting, messy, controversial, beautiful sport.
A collegiate synchronized skating program must have eight elements. In previous seasons every team was competing with the same elements in their programs. There might be slight differences in how the elements look based on the level of difficulty being attempted and each team gets to order them however they want. This year in the collegiate division, the teams had three required elements and had their choice of five from eight possible other options.
There are a minimum of 12 skaters per team and up to 20 can be on the ice. Some teams will have alternate skaters for injuries and illness and choose to skate an even number. (Symmetry gets difficult with a line of six and a line of seven, after all.)
Each competition has nine judges and a three-person technical panel, with both the judges and the technical panel each tasked with carrying out specific calculations based on both live viewing and film review, scoring teams based on parameters set up out by the U.S. Collegiate Championship.
The judges evaluate each performance on program components and grade of execution. The program components are skating skills, transitions, performance, composition and interpretation of the music/timing. There are guidelines for awarding points in each category, but the judges’ discretion carries a lot of weight.
The technical panel watches the elements live and via replay to establish what level was accomplished. Each element has several levels teams can attempt, usually up to a level four. The higher the level, the more base points are awarded.
For example, the “twizzle” element at level three has a base value of 5.5 points. If a level three is attempted but not properly executed, it could be knocked down to a level two for four base points, or a lower level for even fewer points.
“I think people are strategizing differently,” Yuengert said regarding the new adjustments. People are choosing [their programs] due to their strengths. It’s actually very refreshing for the sport.”
The calculus is not easy. Attempting a difficult program does not guarantee a high score. The elements have to be skated well enough to get the correct level called by the technical panel and the judges assign a grade of execution score. An element can be called at the correct level but points can be deducted for poor execution. Poor execution of elements can also show up in lower program component scores.
“A lot of what we talk about is having your best skate to date, and hopefully the scores go along with that,” Yuengert explained. “I think sometimes in a subjective sport it’s hard to base your goals on an outcome. Before we go into each competition we have [the skaters] talk about what they want for that competition and how they want to feel when they get off the ice.”
Such an approach makes sense, as the program can be built to target a certain number of points, but the judging and how the score is awarded is not something any team can control. Setting a goal score can be easily hit with a generous group of officials or not achieved by a truly excellent skate because the judges were harsh on everyone that day.
Finding the secret sauce to maximize the points for each team is the role of the coaching staff and it’s about finding the balance of skating well in the most technical program.
“People are not just doing an element because it’s worth points, it’s because it will enhance the program,” expressed Yuengert.
2022 U.S. Championships: Parity at the Top
More than half of the teams competing have produced a score that could put them in the mix with one truly great skate.
Miami has been excellent all season. However, most recently in the final tune-up before nationals, WMU put out a skate that very nearly beat them. University of Michigan has been a rocket ship at the three competitions they’ve been at this season.
Each team on the chart has scored over 85 points in competition this season. Predicting a winning score or even a winning range can be tricky. The elements can change from season to season and so can their point values, so the previous seasons don’t help.
This group of teams is all within range to either win with a score they’ve already shown they can produce or can win with a significant but certainly not impossible improvement.
Miami - Highest Score: 113.70
Miami has scored the highest score in the collegiate division this season, and maybe more importantly, won each competition they have competed in. They have scored more than 100 points twice in their four competitions.
At their last competition, they came back to earth a little bit. They beat WMU by only .74 points. In synchro that is nothing. They still got the win, but other teams in the field may be closer than a 113.70 score at sectionals might suggest.
Michigan - Highest Score: 105.72
Michigan has competed three times and has not won a competition this season. They do own the second-highest score of the season. It came on the same day that Miami scored their highest as well.
Their season can be described by massive growth. They jumped their score by 10 points between the first two competitions and then by 18 points at the next. Their last competition was a month ago. A lot of improvement can happen in one month. With a clean skate, they very well could defend their 2020 championship.
Western Michigan - Highest Score: 95.11
Western Michigan is peaking at the right time. After a mid-season dip, the scores have steadily increased and scored their highest at their most recent competition. Western has competed five times which is more than any other team this season.
Head coach Amy Yuengert says there are points still to be earned on the technical side of the scoring protocol. “There were some points that we left on the protocol in our tech score, so we worked really hard on the consistency in our intersection, since those are worth a lot.”
If every element is getting called at the level being attempted in the program, there isn’t a way to increase the base values without changing the program mid-season. Score increases are limited to the grade of execution scores and program component scores. Having the ability to improve base values, grades of execution and program component scores means Western Michigan could have another jump in them.
Michigan State - Highest Score: 89.92
Their scores posted this season started lower than any other team here. Steady improvements have gotten Michigan State to a place where a medal at nationals, or a win, wouldn’t be crazy.
Over their four competitions, they have increased their score 27.8 points. A good skate and four more points could get Michigan State to have increased their final point total by more than 50% from their first skate of the season. That is not easy to do.
Team Excel - Highest Score: 89.21
Team Excel won the Eastern Sectional competition but outside of their section has only competed head to head with Adrian College. Some travel plans were restricted this season and kept the Midwest and the Eastern teams separated more than usual. With so little cross over it’s hard to say where they stack up.
The Boston area club is right below the headliners but fewer things are known about how they directly compare. They could be a dark horse in the collegiate division.
Adrian College - Highest Score: 88.88
The collegiate team at Adrian College is historically strong. Adrian has a Senior team, a collegiate team and an open collegiate team. Teams in the Senior division also compete internationally as a part of Team USA. Many organizations have cross-skaters that skate on more than one team within the organization.
Generally, the teams try to go to the same place at the same time to compete but the Senior team went to Neuchatel, Switzerland to compete. Having cross-skaters on two teams makes for strong skaters, but also logistical issues when teams are in different places and different COVID requirements. It would not be a surprise for Adrian to put all of that to the side have their best skate of the year at nationals.
University of Delaware - Highest Score: 85.93
The University of Delaware has skated twice and scored an 85.04 and an 85.93. They have consistent scores in their limited appearances. Delaware took fourth place in 2020 and is a strong skating program. Two points make a line but only two scores are not enough data to use as a predictor.
They have the last skate in the collegiate division. Based on their performance this season and how the program has scored in their recent history, they could shake up the standings right at the end.
The skate of the season will win it
In a wide-open field of teams, putting out your best skate of the season could take any of these teams to the podium. As Coach Yuengert said, “It’s going to be anyone’s game, really. I like going into nationals with that in mind because it’s truly going to come down to who skates the best on that day.”
The competition, which started on March 3rd and runs through tonight, will have the collegiate division taking the ice on Saturday starting at 7:30 p.m. Eastern time. The event is streamed and can be watched with a Peacock Premium subscription. Live results are posted as the competition progresses.