Teens make quick leap to U.S. ice dancing's elite

PLAYING AROUND

Howard At Play

January 07, 2001

SHE IS 16. He is 14. She's been skating 13 years, since she was 3 - simply fell in love, her mother recalls, with what she saw inside after insistently asking what "that building" was, meaning the Columbia Ice Rink. He's been skating only four years - hockey was the draw, but now, he has no time for sticks and pucks.

Barely seven months ago, Amanda Buckler and Justin Thelen were hardly aware of one another. They were two young skaters from different counties working on different things on ice mostly at different times, although for the same coach in the Columbia Figure Skating Club.

The rest is recent history.

For Amanda and Justin have blossomed quickly into ice dancers with national stature - 11th, to be precise - at the intermediate level, just below what you see on television. Eleventh isn't bad, considering they were nowhere and most of their opponents had competed in national events before.

Now, ice dancing is a lovely, demanding event, with mirrored and complementary choreography de rigueur, as are lifts - usually the male doing the lifting, the female doing the dangerous but beautiful stuff all while gliding ever onward. Perfecting routines is quite challenging.

Amanda and Justin barely made mid-December's Junior Nationals conducted by the U.S. Figure Skating Association in Westminster, Colo., outside Denver, by finishing fourth - the last qualifying spot - at South Atlantic regionals.

But that national level was a first for Amanda and Justin, as well as two other Columbia club skaters, Lauren Hockel of Severna Park and Jason Weisberg of Columbia, who didn't reach their events' finals.

"We were just happy to get to nationals," said Amanda, who lives in Columbia and is a junior at Oakland Mills High School. "So we're really happy with 11th. I guess we were nervous - I can't remember. We just went out there and did our best."

Said Justin, who lives across Route 100 in Anne Arundel County, in Pasadena, and is home-schooled, "Being anywhere in the top 50 would have been terrific."

The trip to Colorado, their coach said, actually began with Justin, who had been trying jumps and spins on his own and asked coach Christine Binder about trying dance.

"There are always more girls who want to do that than boys," said the coach. So finding "about 10" potential partners - most like Amanda, with more complete skills, typical of the age - to try out with him was easy.

"He wanted to do it. I left it up to him, and he chose her," said Binder, adding that the two have proven a nice match in personality, temperament, work habits and stature (he's an inch taller).

"She's very musical, a very good skater, and she's been really patient with him," Binder said. "She's done a nice job. He's grown immensely [in skill]. ... What they have learned will flow right into what they need next year."

Justin understood the stakes right away. "I knew she was a higher-level skater than I was. I knew I really had to improve if we were going to do this. I sure didn't think we'd be where we are."

In fact, he had three skills tests to survive before he could compete in regionals, but survive he did. In fact, the final test, which he passed just two months after starting on the elements, normally takes young skaters a year to beat.

Work was the answer, both skaters said. Initially, that meant five days a week, an hour or more a day, sometimes at Columbia Ice Rink, more often at the newer, less-crowded Gardens Ice House in Laurel. That became six and even seven days as Colorado neared.

Amanda said she and Justin had picked out some lifts and spins to perfect for the future even before that trip, and the national experience only makes them want to do them more.

"We've really improved a lot in six months," Justin said. "Now we have a year to work."

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