Going for gold

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Amanda Bernard is the first member of Martha's Vineyard Figure Skating Club in 19 years to be nationally recognized for her figure skating. —Mila Lowe

Early morning last week, without the hurly-burly sounds of hockey or the piping voices of newbie skaters, the Martha’s Vineyard Ice Arena is silent. The ice seems to be waiting for someone.

Amanda Bernard steps into the rink and begins a series of rhythmic strides, building speed and power, producing crisp, biting sounds. She moves forward, then backward. The arena goes silent again as she leaps, pirouettes in the air, and lands quietly on one skate, the other flung behind, arms wide in a sort of artistic embrace. Ms. Bernard completes a flawless 10-minute freestyle routine, the likes of which have not been seen in this building for nearly 20 years.

In December 2016, Ms. Bernard passed the Gold Moves in the Field test, which is the highest level of testing offered by the US. Figure Skating Association. As an accomplished athlete and senior at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, she is the first person in nearly two decades to reach this level of achievement, and national recognition in the field of figure skating.

Like most high-achieving figure skaters, Ms. Bernard, now 17, has been on skates since she was 5 years old. “I guess I was in the fifth or sixth grade when I decided to enter competitions, to try for the next level,” she said. “When I was younger, skating was more about being where my friends were, but then [achieving a gold medal] became a life goal: I wanted to complete it before I finished high school. So last summer I worked really hard, skated four hours a day from 7 to 11 am, five days a week, to get ready [for the gold-medal judging],” she said.

Every year, 40,000 to 50,000 American figure skaters strive for the gold standard, the final stage of eight judged levels. Only 3 percent of them are successful.

The previous, and probably the first, Islander to go gold was Jane Taylor, Ms. Bernard’s coach and mentor, and a former collegiate and national champion in the sport. Ms. Taylor was an Island kid who locked onto the sport of figure skating at the “advanced” age of 10. “I don’t know why I loved it so much. I just loved being on the ice, the friendship, and the coaching, things that will always be there,” Ms. Taylor recalled while watching Ms. Bernard’s routine carefully.

Ms. Taylor recounts that Ms. Bernard tried and failed on each of her initial attempts at the first seven levels, then passed easily on her first attempt at gold, the most difficult test. “When you are working at it, it’s hard to understand the magnitude of your achievement,” Ms. Taylor said. “But this is a really big deal for her, especially coming from a small community like the Island.”

“Jane told me to be confident, just do your best, and if you didn’t feel confident, just fake it ’til you make it. [The gold medal achievement] is just starting to sink in,” Ms. Bernard said of her gold medal testing.

Ms. Taylor teaches figure skating through private lessons and for the Martha’s Vineyard Figure Skating Club, and she has nurtured Ms. Bernard’s talent for eight years.

“I’ve had 75 or 80 kids over the past 14 years,” Ms. Taylor said. “Amanda is a superb athlete. She’s accomplished the most.”

“Skating was fun as soon as I started,” Ms. Bernard said. “Coaching was a huge part of it. Jane pushes me, and that’s good. The supportive environment here at the rink and in the community helped me a lot.”

We have seen athletes in high-profile individual sports like figure skating and gymnastics who begin at an early age, then develop an unbalanced personal life along with their athletic prowess. That’s not the case here.

Ms. Bernard seems a tad embarrassed by the attention. She communicates a desire to have a balanced life, rather than to be perceived as a star. She is an honors student and plays lacrosse, field hockey, and basketball at the varsity level, in addition to figure skating. “I enjoy team sports; it’s a good feeling to be part of a team,” she said.

“Figure skating is different because it is an individual sport. In team sports, you’re not alone, but [in figure skating] you have no one else to rely on. There’s more anxiety, more stress. So I guess that aspect is a character builder,” Ms. Bernard said, grinning.

“I think skating will always be part of my life. I help Jane with her class on Saturday mornings, mostly with little kids who can’t really skate yet. But I know how much Jane has done for me, so if I can help someone else, I want to.

“And my parents have always been supportive. Skating is an expensive sport, and going to competitions, probably 20 or more, takes a lot of time, but they have always been there,” she said.

The future looks bright for Ms. Bernard, who said she wishes to continue to compete at a collegiate and possibly national level. She doesn’t intend to compete in the Olympics. “You have to give up valuable pieces of your life to try to compete at the Olympic level,” Ms. Bernard said.

Ms. Bernard is considering a career in physical therapy, based in part at least on what she has learned from her arduous skating career. She is considering Boston University and Stonehill College in North Easton, colleges which offer skating programs, at this point in her senior year.

“The biggest takeaway for me from this is that if you do work hard at something, it’s very attainable,” she said.

We know that life can be a balancing act. Ms. Bernard’s story reminds us that it’s easier to keep your balance when you are down-to-earth, even when you’re flying above the ice.