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Gliding grace

For Ali Kitchen, early morning practices are a small sacrifice as she speeds toward her dream of competing at the Junior Olympics.
Thursday, February 19, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:50 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Thirteen-year-old Ali Kitchen of Columbia huddled in the back seat of her mother’s car, wrapped in an extra blanket and hunched over to produce more body heat.

“When it’s cold here, it’s cold in the ice arena,” Ali said. Her hands pulled up under the fringes of the blanket.

The high for this January day was 41 degrees at 5:30 a.m. Ali was remarkably wide-awake despite sleeping only about five hours.

She’s used to it though. Every Wednesday and Friday during ice-skating season, Ali’s alarm wakes her at 4:45 a.m., and soon she is bundled up in the car for the 45-minute ride to the Washington Park Ice Arena in Jefferson City. Of course, if Columbia had a rink, she might not have to wake up until 5:30.

Ali skates six days a week, at least a couple of hours every day, often spending more than four hours a day on the ice.

Starting Young

She started skating when she was 6. “I fell in love, and here I am,” Ali said.

She started competing in the second grade and still relishes the competitions. “Most of the time, it’s not about winning,” Ali said. “It’s about having as much fun as you can.”

Every winter she competes in eight to 10 competitions. During the summer, when the Jefferson City rink is closed, Ali goes to the National State Games of America in Connecticut for a week to skate. She also goes to St. Louis a couple of times a week and to a summer camp in Indianapolis.

“She’s always pushing for a little more,” her mother, Susan Kitchen, said.

But just because Ali spends six days a week on the ice doesn’t mean skating is all she does. She dances. She cheers. She volunteers. She knits. She carves wood. She plays softball. She plays basketball.

And she makes straight A’s. “No A-minuses. All A’s. That’s how it has to be. School comes first,” Ali said firmly.

So she does a lot of homework in the car. “It’s scheduling. Mom has it all down,” Ali said.

At the rink on this winter morning, made colder by the ice below her feet, Ali threw herself into practice. She flew around the rink, skimming, twirling and laughing.

After two lessons, Ali and her mom pulled out of Jefferson City and eased back onto U.S. 63. The sky turned golden, almost tangerine, and it became Ali’s favorite time of the day: watching the sun rise before school. “It’s the best,” she said.

Leaning back in the car, Ali pressed a water bottle to her lips. “You can relax a bit,” Susan Kitchen told her, checking her daughter’s face in the rearview mirror. They had a long drive ahead.

[photo]

Ali curls up with her mother, Susan Kitchen, during a weekend tournament in St. Peters in January.

The beginning of competition

Twelve hours later, after Ali attended school, she was in the center of organized chaos in St. Peters, near St. Louis, where the weekend’s competition was held. The Jefferson City Figure Skating Club competitive team, on which Ali skates, congregated in a locker room — each skater staking out her own space, their garment bags hanging in neat rows, the benches stacked with makeup boxes. It’s the central hub, the hang-out, the in-between resting point, a safe place to freak out, a quiet place to cry.

Anna Berry of Jefferson City entered late, minutes before her warm-up. She spun around, gasped when she realized how soon she had to skate and then put her hand to her mouth. The team hustled around her, digging through her bag to find props, costumes, skates. Her mother was fetched; Anna, her silky blond hair pulled up high in a pony-tail, was fussed over and calmed down.

With practiced flicks of the wrist, the girls applied makeup to themselves and to each other. Even the youngest skaters got blush on their pale cheeks and bright color on their lips. Their hairstyles rivaled the up-dos of princesses: luxurious curls, elegant buns, tight braids, all beautiful and shining. With experienced eyes, they corrected mascara and tucked in stray tags. Hair spray was applied and reapplied. Sometimes, so much hair spray is added that at the end of the day, the only way to release the hair is by soaking it in a tub of warm water.

For each event, there are new hairstyles to mold, props to gather and different costumes to wriggle into. The costumes run from $40 to $200, so it’s a good year when they can be re-worn. Custom boots start at about $500, and the blades alone are between $300 and $400.

A mother's love

Lisa Baker of Columbia — who skates with her four daughters, two of whom currently compete — estimated she spends $5,000 a year on the sport. But the benefits far outweigh the costs, she said.

“It’s really bonding to get up with the kids and come down (to the rink),” Baker said. “You definitely have to be committed to it. If you’re not committed, you’re not going to progress.”

It’s the mothers who alter the skaters’ costumes, making them sparkle and shine and, sometimes, creating them from scratch. The mothers are an integral part of readying their daughters to compete — helping with makeup, hair and clothes, tightening laces and calming nerves. They gracefully bear the brunt of dressing-room angst.

“Even if they have a bad skate, you have to pick them up and keep going,” Susan Kitchen said. “As soon as they’re dressed, we’re done until it’s time to congratulate or pick up the pieces.”

[photo]

Minutes before an improvisation event, Ali Kitchen anxiously tries to come up with a routine before skating onto the ice. Kitchen practices six days a week.

At the St. Peters competition, after every hair was perfectly in place, Ali and her teammates pulled on their coats and left the toasty dressing room to wait nervously for their warm-up

Standing at the glass, Ali watched her rivals on other teams, her hands clenched.

“I do get very nervous,” she said. “That’s what makes you do good. You get nervous and try your best. Whatever comes out at the end, that’s what happens.”

Finally, Ali glided onto the ice. Whether she won or fell, Monday would find her back out on the ice, aiming for the junior Olympics and dreaming of the next skate.

“There’s not bad things,” Ali said. “There’s always things to work on.”


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