By Sarah Whitman
Senior Staff Writer
WESLEY CHAPEL —Thousands of miles from Florida in Vancouver British Columbia, Wesley Chapel resident Caydee Denney takes to the ice to compete as an Olympic pairs figure skater. Back in her hometown, 11-year-old Nina McDaniel and 8-year-old Ashley Crawford watch Caydee’s every jump and turn, dreaming of one day following in her footsteps.
McDaniel and Crawford are competitive figure skaters living in Wesley Chapel. They train at the Ice Sports Forum in Brandon, the nearest rink to east Pasco County. For the two girls, life is never as sweet as when they’re on the ice.
“I wake up at 5:45 in the morning and I’m on the ice by 6:30,” McDaniel said. “I train three days a week before school. It’s a lot of hard work but it’s fun and exciting.”
McDaniel began skating when she was just 3-years-old. She began competing at age four and currently trains with coach Tommy Brannen at ISF. Brannen skated competitively as a youth and was a professional skater for 17 years with Disney On Ice. He teaches girls to set goals and work hard to achieve the impossible.
“To be a good figure skater takes determination and commitment,” Brannen said. “Every skater dreams of growing up and becoming an Olympic champion. As skaters grow, they have to assess what level they are at and decide what direction they want to take. They have to be focused to succeed.”
Brannen choreographs all his students competition programs. McDaniel took home 1st place wins at the ISI 50th Anniversary Championships held in Orlando last May, performing to music from “The Addam’s Family” and “Sleeping Beauty”. She competed in the freestyle, compulsory and spotlight categories.
“The most difficult parts are getting through the program artistically and the jumps,” McDaniel said.
Crawford, a second-grader, is new to skating but already dreams of taking the ice to win the gold. She skates with coach Terry Lynn Zellner, a colleague of Brannen’s at ISF, and practices after school.
“My goal is to ice skate for a long time and try to get in the Olympics one day,” Crawford said.
The weekend of February 20, Crawford and McDaniel will compete at the RDV Sports Complex District Competition in Orlando. Crawford will skate a Hannah Montana themed program, which features spins, crossovers and fun choreography by Zellner.
“I like to compete,” Crawford said. “It’s fun to do new tricks and do shows.”
Ashley’s mom, Cindy, also skates and will even compete in Orlando.
“I skated when I was a kid and always wanted to take lessons,” Cindy said. “When I saw Ashley on the ice, I knew I wanted to be out there too. I know I’m not going to be an Olympian one day but I try and push myself to see how well I can do.”
The mother and daughter sometimes skate together. Ashley said she is proud of her mom.
“It’s real fun to skate with her around the ice,” she said. “I like that she’s there too.”
The Crawfords are unique in the local skating world. Most ISF parents are supporters not skaters. They spend countless hours a week driving to and from the rink so their children can have time on the ice. They sit on the sidelines with water, juice and snacks ready to go.
Nina’s mom, Carmen McDaniel, spends entire weekends with Nina at competitions.
“It’s a big commitment as a parent and it can be tiring but I love watching her skate,” she said. “When she’s out there she has the big smile on her face and I can tell how much she likes it. I’m really proud of her.”
Carmen praises coaches at ISF for working with students to help them achieve individual goals. She said the rink is a great place to skate.
“Tommy Brannen is a wonderful coach,” she said. “He is not too strict but he isn’t to easy either. He works with Nina to help her improve, so she can keep skating at a higher level.”
Nina doesn’t mind doing her program again and again until she masters every move.
“Tommy’s a good coach because he teaches us it’s important to practice,” McDaniel said. “That’s how you get better.”
McDaniel looks up to Olympic champions Sasha Cohen and Oksanu Bayul, who she says move beautifully on the ice.
“I love to watch other people skate,” she said. “I like to watch my friends skate at competitions and cheer them on.”
All the skaters at ISF are cheering for Olympian Caydee Denney. Though they don’t know her personally, she is a role model to all the girls. McDaniel and Crawford know it is important to dream.
“I want to compete through high school and then I want to be a performer in Disney on Ice,” McDaniel said. “I want to be Belle in ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ Sometimes after I see the show, I imagine myself skating to the different songs and being in the show.”
Crawford is a fan of Disney but she is more interested in the competitive side of figure skating.
“I want to be in the Olympics and I want to win 1st place,” she said. “I want to skate for my whole life.”
It’s likely Caydee Denney had a similar dream not to long ago.
For information on skating lessons at the Ice Sports Forum, 10222 Elizabeth Place in Brandon, call (813) 684-7825.