Jump, spin, win: How USC Figure Skating became a successful and supportive team in just a few years

(James Wolfe | Daily Trojan)

Members of the USC Figure Skating Club huddled together on the ice to chant the “SoCal Spell Out” in front of skaters from across the country. It was February 2019 and the club was celebrating a new feat: It had sent a team to compete at every level in the 2019 Ride the Tide event in San Diego.

It was a pivotal moment for the club — it had finally established itself as the legitimate figure skating presence that it has been ever since.

“To me, [the message] was ‘USC is here, and we’re strong, and we’re not going to go anywhere anytime soon,’” said Nicole Wong, a USC alumna who co-founded the club in 2016 and served as club president for the 2018-19 school year.

Wong and fellow alumna Erika Chang-Sing realized they had many friends at USC who were also passionate about skating, so the duo started the club to encourage their peers to keep up with skating in a fun, low-stakes environment.

At first, Wong, Chang-Sing and their friends were the only four skaters at the Pasadena Ice Skating Center each week. Since its inaugural semester, USCFSC has grown to 27 members and has attracted experienced and beginner skaters alike to join its ranks.

Even for those who skated every morning in high school, balancing skating with the demands of college can prove difficult. USCFSC president Zoe Perez, a senior studying history, joined the club in her freshman year to continue the sport she had devoted so much time to in a less competitive environment.

“For me, stopping competing was really hard, and I didn’t want to quit skating cold turkey,” Perez said. “This just seemed like a really low-pressure way to keep the sport in my life.”

Although many members have skated previously, some are relatively new to the ice. Hannah Nowak, a senior studying arts, technology and the business of innovation, joined the club this semester to try something new on campus. An Ohio native, Nowak skated as a child but lost the majority of her skills during her long hiatus from the ice. However, she said she still felt at home in the club despite lacking the decade-long experience of some of her peers.

“I have not met a more welcoming group of people to just be like ‘We don’t care that you suck because you’re great and we want to be your friend,’” Nowak said. “I’m a perfectionist, so not being at their level was a really hard concept for me to get over, but the minute I was there, [I realized] these are nice people who are talented.”

The low-pressure atmosphere of the club also attracts those who followed an unconventional path to competitive skating. Willow Cai, a sophomore majoring in cinema and media studies, had a semester off from high school and taught herself to skate using YouTube videos.

Cai tuned into the 2018 Winter Olympics and was fascinated by the figure skating events, so when she decided to pick up a sport in her free time, she knew she wanted that sport to be skating. The aspiring skater spent five hours a day at her local rink, learning basic techniques before attempting spins and jumps.

Cai decided to continue learning by joining USCFSC during her first semester as a Trojan in 2018.

“I joined the club because I thought I might be able to learn from the other people in the club who have been skating for a much longer time,” she said. “[I like] having people to skate with … and just being able to wear my skating apparel everywhere and be like, ‘My fun fact is I figure skate.’”

Unlike some student organizations at USC, USCFSC welcomes undergraduate and graduate students, allowing for members to get to know people they might not otherwise meet. The club has a booth each semester at the Involvement Fair, where interested students can sign up to skate.

Nathan Dennler, a graduate student studying computer science, brings competitive experience from his high school and undergraduate years to the team.

“I wanted to keep it up and have a way to stay active during grad school doing things that I enjoy,” Dennler said. “It’s also really nice being on a team of people, too, to keep me motivated.”

Members drag themselves out of bed every Wednesday around 4 a.m. to make the 5-6 a.m. time slot at the rink. During this practice, members learn or refine their skills and rehearse programs for upcoming shows and competitions.

The club hosts an annual December showcase at L.A. Live that includes solo and group performances by members across myriad backgrounds and skill sets. Soloists have the opportunity to craft their own routines and select their music. Even if a skater chooses not to perform a solo, they come out on the ice to take a bow as an announcer reads their biography aloud. 

Wong said the club’s first L.A. Live show in 2018 was the moment she realized she had achieved her goal of bringing together a diverse and supportive group with a passion for skating.

“I just remember the whole team coming together and having this massive hug in the middle of the ice when it was over,” Wong said. “Seeing people who were there to support the skaters was so heartwarming because it was the moment when I felt like we had support within our own team and we had support from others.”

Along with their annual showcase, the skaters take part in several competitions each year. In February, the club sent skaters to the Golden Bears Skate in Oakland, Calif., and the Pioneer Open in Denver. Three Trojans medaled at the Golden Bears Skate, while Lillian Zeng, a sophomore majoring in arts, technology and the business of innovation, took silver at the Pioneer Open.

Even though many members choose to take part in these competitions, the club’s environment is not always so serious. Seasoned skaters carve out time on the ice to help beginners, and the less experienced skaters aren’t afraid to laugh at their mistakes.

“There was this time on the ice where I was trying to record what I was doing and I fell so hard, like I just tripped over myself, and it caused this ripple chain reaction of everyone else behind me,” Nowak said. “They started falling in the middle of their jumps and I caught it all on video and it was hilarious.”

Cai admitted to falling time and time again as she learned to skate, leading her to pick up a new injury seemingly every day. It’s been important for the club to keep the energy light despite any mistakes on the ice, as it takes a lot of resiliency to become a skilled skater.

Wong, who has been skating since she was 4 years old, agreed that skating isn’t always pretty.

“I feel like figure skating is especially one of those things that people look at and they see the dresses and the makeup and the glamor that people associate with figure skating,” Wong said. “It takes a lot more than looking pretty to accomplish things in this sport and train and practice and build the character that you do as a figure skater.”

With skating’s status as a niche sport comes numerous other stereotypes as to what it means to be a skater. While the long hours, early mornings and tough falls that skaters endure tend to be viewed as overly intense by outsiders, USCFSC works to counterbalance the individual pressures of the sport by creating a collaborative, enjoyable environment. The club aims to make members feel as though they are on the same team even though they often compete against each other in competitions.

“Because it’s college, everyone’s super supportive and it’s not as cutthroat as maybe skating is perceived in the media,” Perez said. “We all hang out together, anyone can come to our competitions and shows, so I think it’s fostered a really good environment.”

Wong said some of the club’s most important lessons apply to life off the ice.

“You’re teaching them how to be a part of a community, you’re teaching each other how to be friends and just everything about the culture of the sport is what you’re learning in addition to the technique,” she said.

The community, united by a love for skating, has provided its members a home away from home at USC. Cai, an international student from China, said her skating family has been instrumental in helping her feel at home at USC.

“My first competition in San Diego, I was doing two elements in a team event and I kind of screwed up one of them, but my teammates were super supportive,” Cai said. “They were still cheering when I messed up and made me feel super safe and loved … It felt like I [was] with family which is really comforting for me.”