On the ice

Figure skating club is for all ages and abilities.

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The Martha’s Vineyard Figure Skating Club (MVFSC) began in 1981 when two women, Molly Finkelstein and Pam Glavin, wanted to provide a new opportunity for Islanders out on the ice. 

Way back when the Martha’s Vineyard Ice Arena was an open-air skating rink, Finkelstein and Glavin sought to teach folks — especially young people — the fundamentals of skating: how to choose and size your skates, how to accelerate, how to turn, and of course, how to stop. 

But instruction didn’t stop at the basics. The two skaters decided to bring over coaching staff from Falmouth so anyone interested in progressing further in figure skating or ice hockey could take advantage, 

Cue Beth O’Connor, who currently heads up the skating club alongside Jane Taylor. O’Connor joined the club in 1984 after attending the annual ice show the club puts on. She told The Times the very first time she saw the figure skaters, she was enamored with the elegance and skill involved. “I was like, Wow, that is amazing. I would love to be a part of it,” O’Connor said. 

At the time, O’Connor was dancing five times a week, which she greatly enjoyed doing. But she wanted to challenge herself, and ended up asking her mother (repeatedly) if she could join the club. 

Eventually, O’Connor’s mother caved, and brought her to the ice rink for some lessons. At the early age of 9, O’Connor was immediately hooked, and the passion never waned for her. “I still love it, of course, but now I want to help others who are interested in getting better,” O’Connor said. 

She skated all through high school, and took some time off the ice for college, but realized her senior year that she didn’t want to be a math teacher like she initially intended. “I wanted to join an ice show,” O’Connor said. With this epiphany, she strapped her skates back on, signed up for more lessons, and started training daily. She recorded some audition tapes, sent them out to various producers, and got a job as a figure skating professional. 

Over the many years the club has existed, programming opportunities have expanded so that folks of all ages and abilities can join the club and boost their skating abilities (or learn the basics). For O’Connor, it’s always been important to illustrate how the ice rink isn’t just for ice hockey players. Once word got out that a new figure skating program was available, the number of participants exploded. “Being a small community, parents talk, kids talk, ‘Oh, does your kid do this? I might have my kid try it.’ It’s very much a word-of-mouth thing on Martha’s Vineyard,” O’Connor said. 

In the early ’90s, O’Connor’s mother, Nancy Blankenship, became the treasurer of the club. She founded the first interclub competition back in ’92, which started as a one-day event that often filled the stands with excited onlookers. Just a few years later, the competition spanned a whole weekend, and clubs from all over New England, New York, and other places came to the Vineyard to show their stuff. “The most amazing part is this group is made up of volunteer parents on the board putting their time and energy into creating something great for their children,” O’Connor said. 

As of now, the club is gearing up for its 33rd annual Ice Show on Friday, April 8, at 6 pm, and Saturday, April 9, at 1 pm. The theme for this year’s show is “Live, Love, Skate,” and is directed by Taylor. According to O’Connor, more than 100 skaters of various ages and abilities will be involved with the show. 

The MVFSC offers four different tiers of programming. The earliest is its grant-funded preschool program, which has operated since 2005. O’Connor said she regularly contacts Island preschools and daycare providers to see if they have children at the appropriate age who want to participate. It’s a very minimal fee, O’Connor said, and stressed that the program establishes the fundamentals necessary to start learning basic moves. “We want them to not be afraid of falling, to not be afraid of the ice,” O’Connor said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, ‘What happens if the ice cracks? Will I fall into the water?’” 

O’Connor always assures kids that skating is safe when done under the proper supervision and with the right instruction and knowledge base. She said a lot of kids have anxiety and fear when it comes to being out on the ice, so the first trick she teaches young skaters is how to fall. “Because all the great skaters fall down. That’s really important to not let that stop you,” O’Connor said. “You need to know how to fall, and how to stop. Those are the two really essential things.”

The club also has a learn-to-skate program subdivided into age groups: the snowballs are ages 3½ to 5, and the snow gliders are ages 6 and up. That program is completely full this year, and there is a long waitlist for kids looking to sign up. “The rink will shut down for maintenance in April, then we will reopen in the summertime and have lessons again in the fall,” O’Connor said. 

After the learn-to-skate program, once skaters pass a certain level, they can enter the bridge program, the club’s junior freestyle figure skating program. This is when kids can take lessons and advance through the ranks of skating to learn more advanced skills like spins, jumps, and other tricks. After graduating from the bridge program, skaters enter into the freestyle program, which follows the U.S. Figure Skating Association curriculum. 

For O’Connor, every element of skating involves a different life lesson. The most important thing it taught her was how to be confident in her own abilities, and how to push past mental barriers to achieve greatness. “There are moments of glory, moments of defeat, moments of agony. Jump after jump and just not landing. My mother used to call me a Zamboni, because I would spend so much time falling on the ice,” O’Connor laughed. “You are up there by yourself with the spotlight on you, trying to land a jump on a little 7/16-inch of a blade that’s only eight or nine inches long. It’s a mental, physical, and emotional sport, and that’s why I love it.”

Anina Garvin, 14, told The Times she started figure skating when she was 3 years old. Her preschool would take trips to the ice rink, and eventually her mom signed her up for the program. At first she struggled to master some of the basics, but after enough practice, things clicked for her. “I was like, ‘Hey, I can do this.’ It’s a really cool feeling when you land a jump and think back and you’re like, ‘All that work for this,’” Anina said. 

According to Anina, she has been working on her axel jump for almost a year now. That’s one-and-a-half turns in the air. Although she tries to do competitions when they come around, Anina said 99 percent of the time, she is competing against herself. She has competed in the November Vineyard Open for years, which was canceled last year because of COVID. 

Once she lands her axel, Anina will progress from her novice moves to her juvenile freestyle moves. She said she’s happy she stuck with skating, and advised anyone interested in getting involved to get out on the ice and start learning rudiments before trying a jump or spin. “It’s really hard, especially at first, but don’t let that discourage you. You will eventually land if you just keep working on it,” Anina said. 

Maia Donnelly, 16, said she would come to free-skate with her dad when she was in preschool. “We would come practice for a few and then go get a doughnut; it was so much fun,” Maia said. Maia is very passionate about skating, and although she is confident in her abilities, she tends to be pretty hard on herself, she said. “I would say controlling frustration when things don’t exactly go my way, but that is definitely something that figure skating and hockey have helped me to get better with and be able to manage. Over the past few years I have definitely gotten a lot better at just taking a deep breath and moving on.”

Maia’s next goal out on the ice is to land a triple axel, and at that point it’s all up in the air. 

Ryan Giordano, 17, said he started out on hockey skates and progressed all the way through learning to skate and entered the bridge program before switching over to figure skates. Ryan always marveled at the skaters on television during the Winter Olympics and other major competitions. He is now working on manifesting his goals of becoming an Olympic figure skater and elevating himself to the top level of the sport. “Now, as I am in the college process, I am thinking about competing and training every day,” Ryan said. “I’m looking to go to Nationals, and then I want to make it to the Olympics. I just realized recently that I have those dreams now.” 

In January, Ryan made Vineyard figure skating history by passing his second gold test, becoming only the second skater to do so in the Martha’s Vineyard Ice Arena’s 40-year history.

Ryan passed his senior solo free dance, which is a three-minute program choreographed with skating skills and spins, but no jumps. 

According to Ryan, he will skate all through college, and after that the possibilities are endless. For him, being the only male in the club, Ryan wants to show other guys that figure skating is far from just a girl’s sport, and there are opportunities available to men with a passion for skating apart from hockey. 

“I am looking forward to college and joining a club with more people and more male skaters,” Ryan said. “Don’t think to yourself, ‘Figure skating is just a girl’s sport.’ It’s a sport for a guy and a girl, and don’t let anybody stop you from making your dreams come true.”

The Martha’s Vineyard Ice Arena offers public free skate sessions on Wednesdays from 12 to 1 pm. Go to mvfsc.org to learn more about the Martha’s Vineyard Figure Skating Club, or to sign up for programming.