Coaching through feats, falls

On the ice, lessons about grace under pressure

Maryland Journal

December 31, 2007|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,Sun reporter

Pat Muth's student had already fallen attempting an axel - the most maddening jump for a young figure skater - nine times in the first few minutes of her recent lesson at the Columbia Ice Rink in Howard County.

"Ooooh. Ouch," Muth, 67, said as 9-year-old Ana Shimeall took the 10th and, by far, hardest blow of the afternoon. Muth skated out to her.

"Do you have butt pads?" she asked. Ana sheepishly shook her head no. "You need to ask Santa Claus to bring you butt pads."

Ana began to set her feet and arms for another attempt as Muth glided back to the side of the rink and said with pride, "She's willing to fall."

For more than 30 years, Muth has been coaching young children in Columbia through great feats and, more often than not, fall after fall after fall. Muth loves the sport, the way the cold air blows her hair when she skates fast, and what it teaches young people - to perform under pressure and swallow disappointment.

She wishes that she had been given the opportunity as a young figure skater to push her body and her nerve to the limit. Typically it takes a skater one year to master an axel and each double jump thereafter. That's seven years of training for difficult - but not even Olympic-level - jumps.

"Sometimes I'll tell a student to do something and they look at me like, `Do I have to?'" Muth said. "It's so frustrating because I would have killed to have an opportunity to really train. There are rinks in every corner now, but there were never any all around me."

For a full-time figure skating coach, Muth has an unusual background.

She never competed or performed in professional shows. Her family moved too much, from England to Washington to Texas to England again and finally to Baltimore. In the 1950s, when she had rink access in Texas and could train, the skating world - with its heavy emphasis on meticulously traced figure-eights - was nothing like the brute athleticism of the sport today.

From age 19 to 30, she didn't skate, returning to the sport when her daughter, Martha, began group lessons at the newly opened Columbia rink. The family had moved to the new community so Pat's husband, Philip, could work as a planner for the Rouse Co., which built Columbia.

In her early 30s, Pat Muth learned to jump again, from the simple waltz to the axel - a jump with 1 1/2 revolutions - which is difficult because the skater takes off facing forward. While taking lessons and ice dancing, she co-founded the Columbia Figure Skating Club in 1973.

Since then, the club and the number of skaters in the region has grown, in part due to Muth's ability to sell the sport to children and their parents.

Katie Tincher, 6, assisted Muth this month in teaching a group of "tots" the hokeypokey. Muth uses the "turn yourself around" lyric to teach toddlers how to swivel around on the ice. Katie started skating after Muth gave her free tickets to the club's annual performance of The Nutcracker on Ice, which Muth organizes.

"She loves Miss Pat," said Katie's mother, Chris Tincher of Marriottsville. "She has the patience of a saint. She's very good with them. She took an interest in Katie. ... The kids really gravitate toward her."

Approaching the sport as an adult has given "Miss Pat" a different perspective but no less dedication, said Martha Muth, who coaches with her mother. In the early 1970s, before the Muth family had a second car, Pat would walk a half-hour to the rink in the Oakland Mills Village Center.

When parents call seeking private lessons for their children, Muth asks them whether their children know how to skate. If they say no, she gives them the facts.

"Here are the costs: ice time, lessons, skates, which are hundreds of dollars alone," Muth said. "Then I try to explain to them how hard it is. How your body is balanced on this skinny thing, and there's a thing on the end of it that makes them trip. They see it on TV, come to the rink, go flying out and crash. And then they cry because they're terrified."

After explaining this to a parent this month, Muth said the woman accused her of trying to talk her out of lessons for her daughter. Muth said that wasn't the case. She only wanted her daughter to take group lessons first to get a feel for the ice.

"On the first day, we don't do much skating," she said. "We talk about blades and the toe pick. I have them crawl out on the ice to feel it, and then I help them slowly get up."

Her coaching career started when she volunteered to teach a class for handicapped children. From there, she began going to coaching seminars, reading about the sport and eventually began student coaching under her friend Denise Cahill, an accomplished competitor on the national level.

"Denise always says that the best teachers are the ones that can teach one thing 18 different ways," Pat Muth said.

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