Originally published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Saturday, March 2006
By Anindita Dasgupta
EDITOR'S NOTE: Anindita Dasgupta, a former intern at the Gazette who attends Mount Holyoke College, writes today about competing with a new University of Massachusetts synchronized skating team.
AMHERST - Several weeks ago, under the watchful eyes of my teammates, I placed a red and black 'temporary' tattoo reading, I (Heart) My Team' on my stomach.
Despite vigorous scrubbing with multiple cleaning products, the tattoo remained firmly etched on my skin - a constant reminder of my trip to Georgia with The MassachusETTES, the University of Massachusetts Figure Skating Club's synchronized skating team.
We are an odd group - prone to bad luck, with falls resulting in hospital visits, faulty hotel reservations and double booking of ice. But we're good-natured enough to make the best out of the obstacles we encounter.
Our coach, Cathleen Renzi, explained synchronized skating best when she said, 'It's something along the lines of synchronized swimming, with more beads, more contact and knives attached to our feet.'
The sport involves between 12 and 20 skaters performing a program with emphasis on precision and fluidity. We try to create the effect of absolute unity.
This includes what we wear, how we wear our hair (all 19 of us wore it in tight buns with identical parts and roses at the same angle) and how we don makeup. By the end of the season, the team even functioned off the ice as a singular unit of 19, rarely separating and constantly blocking fire exits.
On Jan. 25, we left Massachusetts for Georgia to compete in the 2006 Eastern Synchronized Team Skating Sectional Championships. We were to compete against seven collegiate teams. Our mission was to qualify for 'nationals' by placing in the top six.
For the team, skating well at Easterns and qualifying for nationals was about more than the honor of competing in a national competition. It would validate the $1,000 each skater had paid for this season's ice, a fee most collegiate teams don't have to pay. It would make returning fromSpringfield at midnight after Sunday practices and waking up at 5 a.m. for Tuesday practices worth it.
Qualifying for nationals might even prove to UMass that The MassachusETTES are a serious team, and should receive more funding.
For me, a trip to nationals would make up for sleeping on a futon every Monday night in Amherst to get to Tuesday morning practice, sprinting to catch a bus back to South Hadley to make my 8:35 a.m. class, growing my hair long, missing the last week of an internship and even cutting short a vacation in India.
It would all be worth it, as long as we made it to nationals.
A young team
We are a young team, just completing our second season. The team was created in 2004 by two UMass students, Sarah Potts and Cathleen Renzi. The team is mostly UMass students, with two exceptions - one from Springfield College, and myself, a Mount Holyoke MassachusETTE.
In the past two seasons we have placed ninth at the 2005 U.S. Synchronized Team Skating Championships and third at the Boston University Competition and performed between periods at a UMass hockey game. We also changed our team name (from Mass Attack) and our coach. Renzi took over at the end of the first season, and Potts left the team.
This season, the team received $2,290 from the UMass Student Government Association. These funds are earmarked for competition entry fees and dresses, but with our adviser Judy Gagnon's help, we were able to put $800 toward paying for ice. Unfortunately, it costs $1,000 to cover ice costs for just two weeks.
So, we made do with what we had been given. We made good use of our limited ice time, and felt we were as prepared as possible for Easterns.
On the ground in Ga.
Our plane hit the ground with a jolt in Atlanta, eliciting high-pitched yelps from team members and glares from the rest of the passengers. After we gathered all 22 articles of luggage from the baggage claim, some of us piled into the 16-passenger van rented by a skater's father, John Zack, along with the luggage, while the rest took a train to Norcross.
Our team, now split for the first time all day, practiced the program while humming our Santana medley at the train station.
'We had plenty of time to spare while we waited at the train station, so we decided to put it to use by having a mini off-ice session,' Shannon Flynn, 19, said.
The theme of practicing in unconventional places stayed with us through the trip. After dinner, 19 girls dressed in mismatched pajamas piled into our coach's room, designed to hold about five people. Six at a time, we practiced the program as quietly as possible - not just out of respect for our non-skating neighbors, but because our CD player did not survive the plane ride, forcing us to rely on our coach's laptop speakers - another example of our sorry luck.
Each night, we practiced in Room 206 of our hotel to keep the program and counts fresh in our minds. It wasn't until early Friday morning of our trip that we would have the chance to practice our program on the ice.
Our alarms went off at 4:30 that morning. Sleepily, we dressed identically in our black strappy leotards, black yoga pants and maroon stretch shirts.
Praying we hadn't left our skates in the hotel, all 19 MassachusETTES piled into the van and headed toward 'The Cooler.' We had secured practice ice for an hour at a ice rink near our hotel.
We were barely awake enough to waste time joking with each other. We spent an hour focused on perfecting our program. The next time we took the ice, judges would be watching.
On the way back, Megan Palmer, 19, decided it was imperative that we have a team cheer. In her thick New York accent, she sang, 'We are awesomely fantastic. Better than the best, cooler than the cool. We are awesomely fantastic!'
After stuffing our arms with muffins and bagels from the breakfast buffet, we collapsed in our beds, with 'We are awesomely fantastic' running through our brains. We slept until noon, when we again piled into the car to eat lunch at Panera. At lunch, a few MassachusETTES compared theirBoston accents with Megan's New York one.
'Cawfee! Say Yard!'
You get the idea.
The accent comparison continued on the way to the Gwinnet Ice Arena, where we would watch other synchronized skating divisions compete. We arrived at the rink in time to watch the younger sister of team captain Christina DiNocco perform with her squad, Team Boston. We sat together in the stands in complete synchronicity, our maroon jackets dominating the B section of the bleachers.
Cheering Team Boston on, we visualized ourselves skating in the arena in front of dozens of people, and more importantly, in front of the seven judges who, on Saturday, would decide our fate.
On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at a mall for a quick dinner and a quicker mission. As a tradition, most synchronized skating teams wear giant, glitzy, sparkly earrings. We managed to get them last year, but decided not to bother with an extra expense this year.
But after watching other teams skate earlier in the afternoon, we realized we were one of the few teams without them.
We ran in couples and triplets around the mall, searching for 19 pairs of the biggest, shiniest, fake diamond earrings we could find.
Eventually, someone found the earrings at $7 apiece. Then, in true MassachusETTE spirit, most of the team members grabbed ice cream from a Cold Stone Creamery shop to celebrate.
Saturday began at 4 am We had to get up for our official practice ice, scheduled at 6. Each team has 12 minutes to run through its program and get comments from its coach. Judges are notorious for spying at these events, so we had to apply makeup and lots of gel, to help our overall presentation.
Official practice went well. Although we were nervous, it was great to get our nerves out before we competed in front of all seven judges and a large audience.
We again returned to the hotel, raided the buffet and collapsed into bed. We awoke a few hours later to wash the half-bottle of gel out of our hair, then reapply the remainder in new buns. We prepared to compete.
This is what it took, cosmetically: Gel, hairspray glitter (still visible today in my black hair), hairnets, fishing line to 'sew buns' in place, clips to keep stray hairs from flying, foundation, pancake (special skating foundation meant to stop skaters from appearing pale on the ice), waterproof liquid eyeliner, mascara, blush, eyeshadow, two shades of lipstick, hairspray.
It all went on. Some of it would never come off.
Arriving at the rink, an hour and a half before we performed, we stretched in the lobby. Megan would occasionally break the nervous silence by reminding The MassachusETTES that we were 'awesomely fantastic' and 'better than the best.'
Twenty minutes before we competed, we were shown into a locker room. We pulled up our dresses and laced our boots. Christina's mom taped our laces to our ankles with tan skating tape to match our freshly painted tan boots.
After reapplying lipstick, we huddled for a team photo. Kaitlyn Costa gathered us in a circle and recited her usual pre-performance prayer.
'As we prepare ourselves to skate, we pray the lord to do it great. And if we die before we're through, we pray, oh lord, that all the other teams will too! GO UMASS!'
Megan led us in one more carousing round of 'We are awesomely fantastic' as we left the locker room.
As we removed skate guards and waited to be announced, Cathleen turned to us and said, 'You guys look great and you know that's what it's really about!'
With a smile, I replied, 'You're a really bad liar, Cate.' And then I stepped onto the ice.
And the judges say ...
I am proud of how we skated. We had two minor falls, and in both cases, the recoveries were quick. We improved so much from last year. We added difficult footwork. We looked professional.
We stood a chance and didn't let our nerves get in the way.
Cathleen told us the results. We came in seventh place, one-tenth away from sixth, one-tenth away from going to nationals. Three out of the seven judges gave us ordinals for sixth place while four judges placed us seventh.
We gathered our bags, and quietly left the rink.
Even without nationals, it was all worth it. I sacrificed sleeping in my own bed Monday nights, but it meant spending time with fellow MassachusETTE Carolyn and interacting with her housemates. It meant hanging out with non-Mount Holyoke students. It meant getting another perspective on college life.
Even now, as I comb my hair, I see small specks of gold glitter catch the light.
I smile at this reminder because just as I have given up trying to remove my tattoo, I don't want to get rid of the glitter. Competing was an experience I wouldn't want to forget.