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Got Olympic Figure-Skating Dreams? Start Young, Local Coach Says

By Kyla Gardner | February 19, 2014 6:43am
 Skating coach Denise Darling said interest in skating lessons has increased since the start of the Sochi Winter Olympics.
Ice Skating: Olympic Dreams?
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HYDE PARK — Figure skating coach Denise Darling has been fielding extra phone calls in the last week and a half.

"We see a huge surge of kids inquiring about figure skating," Darling said. "When they see the Olympics, the first thing they do is say, 'Mom, I want to skate.'”

Though ice rink attendance has been down this winter, Darling said she expects outdoor rinks to be a little fuller in their last week, weather permitting.

Darling's regular students at Midway Plaisance ice rink also have taken note of the Games.

"Especially since the Olympics started, they'll ask, 'Can you do this jump? Can you do this jump?'" she said. Darling, who lives in Indiana, competed and performed in ice-dance shows for a combined 20 years and has been coaching for 10.

4-Year-Old Skater Angelica Akerele-Ale
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Darling said most of her students take to skating as a hobby — but there are the dedicated few, like 4-year-old Angelica Akerele-Ale of South Shore, who already has been skating for a year.

"She loves it. She wants a backyard ice rink," said Angelica's mother, Adedunla. "We'll see where it goes. She's mentioned [the Olympics], and my family talks about the fact that she's mentioned it, but it's a big, long journey."

Darling said aspiring Olympians have to take to the ice early to even have a chance.

"Four years old is even a little late" to begin skating, she said. By the time skaters are performing the triple salchows and axels necessary for competition, the demanding sport has taken a huge toll on the body.

And there's also the price tag — Darling estimates that some skaters spend $50,000 per year in gear, coaching, ice time and travel.

The coach said she expects to keep fielding calls from new students as the figure-skating events continue in Sochi. But when the closing ceremonies happen Sunday, Chicago will have its own closing ceremonies: Seven public ice rinks will shut down for the season that day, even though Chicago's winter weather won't be close to over.

Kids who skate year-round like Angelica will head to McFetridge Sports Center, a Chicago Park District indoor rink in Irving Park, and other rinks in the suburbs. Johnny's Ice House recently built its second indoor rink on the Near West Side, but classes book up quickly; there is even a lottery for some classes.

The only other indoor rink in the city is Saddle and Cycle Club, a members-only ice rink in Edgewater, Darling said.

A lot of kids inspired by the Olympics may forget their ice dreams when spring brings warm weather, sunshine and greenery, Darling said.

"Kids come to the rinks [in winter], and they're ready to hit it," she said. "But in a few months, that's when you find out who wants to do this and who doesn’t."

Another student of Darling's, 5-year-old Daniel Wu of Hyde Park, is one of those hobby skaters just having fun during the winter months.

"We're going to do rollerblading in the summer," said his mother, Shanshan, at Midway Plaisance Saturday. "I just want him to have fun."

Darling is happy to to take students of all ages and abilities, Olympics dreams or no.

"I never made it to the Olympics, but I was the star of every show I was in," she said. "There's definitely more to skating than just the Olympics."

Two outdoor ice rinks will remain open after Sunday: The ice rink at Lincoln Park Zoo will remain open through March 2. Millennium Park's ice rink will remain open through March 9.