Eleven years ago, Missy Smith had never heard of synchronized skating. It sounded like the fishy leg kicks of synchronized swimming transplanted to the ice rink.
"But it's different than that," she says now. "A lot of people compare it to ... the Rockettes on ice."
For 11 years, Smith has skated with the Metroliners, a synchronized skating team from Bowie, and she says the team has become her life.
"Whenever I'm not in school or at work - though I work at an ice rink - I'm skating," she said.
And she has become part of the life of the Metroliners, a role model for the younger girls and captain of the junior team.
"I can't think of the Metroliners without thinking of Missy," said Michelle Clementi of Clarksville, the Intermediate Team captain and Smith's "little sister" on the team.
But Smith and several other girls who have been on the team since its beginning will be leaving this year for college, creating a gap in a team as close as sisters.
"They're like my family; I've grown up with them," said Rachel Fox, a team member who will be leaving this year. "I can't really remember a time I didn't skate with them."
The Metroliners grew out of a defunct synchronized skating team at the Bowie Ice Arena more than 10 years ago, according to Carla Smith, Missy Smith's mother and president of the Metroliners. After the eight founding girls took a synchronized skating class at the arena, they formed a small team that became the Metroliners.
The Metroliner program is divided into two teams - an intermediate team for girls ages 10 to 15 and a junior team for girls ages 13 to 19. At first, the Metroliners junior team competed only against other local club teams, but after three years, the team qualified for the United States Figure Skating Association competitions and began to bring the northern sport to the mid-Atlantic region.
"We're definitely the strongest team south of Massachusetts, including New Jersey, Virginia, Delaware and Georgia," said Carla Smith.
A sport traditionally confined to the Midwest and the Northeast, synchronized skating interweaves five basic skating elements - the wheel, the line, the block, the circle and the intersection - into a dance-like performance on ice, according to Amy Carver, coach of the Junior Team. With the moves choreographed to the music, the girls are judged on their execution, their synchronism and their expression of emotion.
"We try to think about what we can do to amaze the audience," said team member Julia Bancroft. "The sport is evolving, and every year you see amazing new maneuvers."
Because synchronized skating depends on the skill and performance of each girl, it demands a high level of dedication and team work. Each position is essential to the program, and girls cannot miss practice without upsetting the routine. This contributes to the team's bond, which motivates many of the girls to continue skating.
"I did individual skating until I was 12, and there was a lot of added pressure doing it by yourself," Smith said. "There was no one to share the experience with, and I love being part of a team."
Carver said companionship and social maturing are the underlying tenets of the team.
"This organization is not teaching them what synchronized skating is about," she said. "It's all about teaching these girls about working together and teamwork."
This companionship is facilitated through activities that discourage the petty competition that can wrench other synchronized skating teams apart, said Carla Smith.
"Other teams have said, `I wish I could be on that team because there's a bond,' " Bancroft said.
One girl who moved to Massachusetts quit skating for a Boston team because she hated the quarrels and competition between the girls.
"She called it the Nazi youth camp, and we're not like that," said Carla Smith.
Although separated by age, both the junior and intermediate teams are also intertwined, each junior girl acting as a big sister to an intermediate girl.
Michelle Clementi said her big sister, Smith, has been Junior Team captain since Michelle began skating. Michelle said she has learned a lot from Missy about leadership. But despite the team's strong emotional bond, the Metroliners have had to wrangle with skepticism from teams farther north.
"All the teams come from the north, and we are a southern team, so there's a lot of people who do not think highly of us," said Kim Eddy of Ellicott City, who has been on the team for three years and will be graduating this year from Mount Hebron High School. "As a result of that, we have to work a lot harder because the northern teams are automatically given the benefit of the doubt."
Bancroft added that rink time is less expensive in the north, and that also places the Metroliners at a disadvantage.