Figure skating heats up in Wesley Chapel

As Tampa Bay becomes synonymous with hockey this time of year, another ice-based sport is heating up in the region.

For the first time, the Florida Sports Foundation selected Pasco County to be the host community for the annual Sunshine State Games Figure Skating Championships.

The competition took place at Florida Hospital Center Ice in Wesley Chapel, from May 18 through May 20.

The games drew more than 300 male and female skaters of all ages, with skaters and their families trekking all the way from the First Coast to South Florida, and everywhere in-between, to compete in the statewide, Olympic-style program.

The majority of the participants were girls between the ages of 10 to 14.

Ten-year-old Jordan Scott, of Wesley Chapel, won the juvenile girls free skate event and was a recipient of the Betty Stark Award as the games’ top juvenile skater.

Skating sisters shine
A pair of young sisters from Wesley Chapel fared among the best.

Twelve-year-old Haley Scott and 10-year-old Jordan Scott each earned gold medals in their respective competitions.

Haley won the novice ladies division with a personal-best in the free skate (84.96 total score).

Jordan, meanwhile, won the juvenile girls free skate event (48.75 score) and was a recipient of the Betty Stark Award as the games’ top juvenile skater.

Haley won the same award back in 2016 for first-place finishes in the juvenile girls free skate and intermediate ladies short events.

She also won the games’ Dorothy Dodson Award in 2017, named after the late long-time figure skating judge that recognizes the highest combined score in the intermediate ladies free skating and short program events.

The success in Florida has translated to the national stage, for Haley.

Between October and January, she skated in the South Atlantic Regional Championships in Ashburn, Virginia (second place, Intermediate Ladies); the Eastern Sectional Championships in Foxborough, Massachusetts (second place, Intermediate Ladies); and in the 2018 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships in San Jose, California (10th place Intermediate Ladies).

Twelve-year-old Haley Scott, of Wesley Chapel, won the novice ladies division with a personal-best in the free skate (84.96 total score). Her younger sister, Jordan Scott, 10, also earned a gold medal in the juvenile free skate. (Courtesy of Julie Scott)

But, her proudest skating moment came the year before, when she earned a bronze medal in the juvenile girls division at the 2017 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Kansas City, Missouri.

Ranked among the nation’s top young figure skaters, the Olympics may be a reality someday.

“My goal is just to keep having fun, keep pushing to my potential, just enjoying the journey,” she said. “The Olympics would be great.”

The Scott sisters have each been skating for about six years, when they first tried it out at a friend’s birthday party.

They’ve been hooked ever since.

“I like the challenge of it. Each day you get to do something new and try to push yourself,” Haley said.

Added Jordan: “I also love competing. It’s really fun to ice skate.”

In the juvenile division, figure skater Kaitlyn Wright, 6, left, talks with friend, Briana Reich, 7, of Wellington. The two girls are coached by Lauren Salzlechner, also of Wellington. Wright and her family may be moving to Wesley Chapel in order to live near Florida Hospital Center Ice. (Fred Bellet)

A convenient training ground
The skating wunderkinds, along with their mother Julie Scott, moved to Wesley Chapel from Port Orange, chiefly for the offerings at Florida Hospital Center Ice.

Labeled the largest ice sports facility in the Southeastern U.S., the 150,500-square-foot, two-story complex features five ice rinks — an Olympic rink (200 feet by 100 feet), three National Hockey League-sized rinks (200 feet by 85 feet) and a mini rink.

While living in Port Orange, the family would commute three hours everyday to a skating facility in Jacksonville.

They made the daily drive for about four years, until Florida Hospital Center Ice launched in January 2017.

Now they’re just minutes away from sheets of ice.

“This facility is probably the best in the southeast right now. It really is. You really can’t beat it,” Julie Scott said.

The Scott sisters, who are home-schooled, use the Wesley Chapel facility about six days a week for practice and training. Their team of coaches is also stationed there.

“They’ve got ballet here. They’ve got yoga. They have it all. They have a trainer. It’s all in-house, which is really nice,” their mother said.

Other skating families are relocating to Wesley Chapel to access those opportunities.

Josh and Marissa Wright and their two children soon plan to move to the area from Boynton Beach. They want to be within a 15-minute drive of Center Ice.

They recently made the 3 ½-hour drive from South Florida so their 6-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn, could participate in the games’ basic series event.

When Josh first toured the facility, he was awestruck with the complex located off Interstate 75 at the State Road 56 interchange.

“It’s amazing. It’s unbelievable. I mean, there’s nothing like this,” he said, adding the facility his family currently uses only has one rink.

Florida’s figure skating surge
The first Sunshine State Games Figure Skating Championships began 32 years ago in Clearwater with less than 60 skaters.

It’s grown nearly fivefold since, and has been hosted at several other locations over the years, including Tampa, Ellenton, Jacksonville and West Palm Beach, among others.

Twelve-year-old Avery Kelley and her coach, Steve Belanger, both of Jupiter, made the trip to the annual Sunshine State Games Figure Skating Championships at Florida Hospital Center Ice in Wesley Chapel. Kelley, a competitor in the intermediate division, skates with “elegance and poise,” according to her coach. (Fred Bellet)

Betty Stark has served as the games’ figure skating director since its inception.

She said it’s “a good tune-up” for skaters with aspirations of reaching qualifying competitions, like regionals and sectionals, later in the year.

“A lot of the kids that participate in the Sunshine State Games get the opportunity, if they place, to go on to the State Games of America,” she said, noting several homegrown skaters have wound up competing nationally and internationally.

Stark, a former club figure skater herself at the University of Florida, has also witnessed the sport’s surge in the state across the past three decades.

“It’s been taking off a lot.” she said. “The number of rinks and the interest in figure skating has increased a lot. Coaches have been coming down here starting up programs. Guests coaches from across the country love to come down for the warm weather…and some of them just wind up staying here; and they bring their expertise from their years of skating and their coaching.”

Meantime, the figure skating event may remain here for the foreseeable future.

Pasco County Tourism Manager Consuelo Sanchez said the county plans to bid to keep the state games in Wesley Chapel for the next few years.

“We are interested to keep it here because it is the most important (figure skating) competition in the whole state of Florida,” she said.

Further, the event may be a springboard for drawing even larger figure skating competitions at Florida Hospital Center Ice.

“The good thing about bringing the Sunshine Games is we’re going to show that we can host big events,” Sanchez said.

“We’re already having conversations with USA Figure Skating to try and bring regionals and, hopefully, national championships here. But, they wanted to see that we have the capability of hosting these events, and this is a great experience.”

The facility is already no stranger to the big stage.

It was the training home for the USA Hockey Women’s National Team that won gold in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

It has also hosted multiple National USA Hockey championships and is the training home for international athletes — including six-time French national champion figure skating pair Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres.

And, it’s bucking the notion that ice sports are reserved for northern states and colder climates.

Said Julie Scott, “Everybody always asks us, ‘Why ice skating in Florida?’ But, why not? You’ve got these great facilities.”

Published June 6, 2018

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