By Hannah Blank
Award-winning coaches offer ice skating lessons year-round at the Bellingham Sportsplex, giving students of all ages an opportunity to learn, whether competitively or recreationally, from the best.
Skating Academy Director Keri Ferguson knows what it’s like to do all of it – from competing at a national level to coaching and now, directing the skating program in Bellingham. She has incorporated skating into her life at all levels.
As a child, Ferguson had a couple bouts of bronchitis, so her pediatrician recommended she go ice skating to help build the strength of her lungs. Growing up in Portland, Oregon, Ferguson said she was surrounded by ice rinks, so she picked up some skates and got started at the young age of 4.5 years old.
At just 8 years old, Ferguson took gold in the 1969 juvenile division of the Pacific Northwest Championship. Then at 11 years old, she took another gold at the South Atlantic Junior Ladies Competition.
Ferguson began her career at a young age, but ended her competitive days around the time she was 15 years old. Soon after she stopped competitively skating, the ice rink she skated at in Portland, Oregon asked her to start coaching at 16 years old. She credits her ambitious coaching career to how young she was when she started. She said she maintained her competitive spirit which allowed her to successfully train young athletes.
Ferguson calls her coaching style “grassroots to champions.” She said she has taken skaters at the introductory level and seen them through to the national level of competition. She said this is usually unheard of because skaters tend to switch coaches for various reasons throughout their skating careers.
In her more than 40 years of coaching, Ferguson said she has instructed multiple U.S. National gold medalists. She said she is incredibly proud of her students and where they’ve gone in life, noting many of them are now well-recognized national, international and Olympic coaches.
For Ferguson, skating is about the journey of goal setting. It’s not all about the end result.
“Sometimes you don’t reach the goals that you have set, but the drive to get to that level of a goal has helped you accomplish a lot of other things along the way,” Ferguson said.
As director of the Skating Academy, Ferguson said she wants her coaches to work within the framework of their skaters’ goals, not their own. A coach’s job is to set up their skater for success, however, that may look different for each individual. If a skater wants to compete at a national level, Ferguson knows what kind of training it takes to get them there.
According to Ferguson, there’s a necessary collaborative triangle between the coach, the skater and the skater’s parents in order for the student to succeed at a high level. She said a skater needs to have the drive to compete, parents who are encouraging and there needs to be a coach who knows the business. This is the trifecta of factors for a successful, competitive skater.
Although she didn’t compete in her youth, figure skating coach Marina Shoff found herself back on the ice after a 28-year hiatus. She even competed in a few competitions in 2006.
Shoff had been living in Bellingham for 14 years before she found out there was an ice rink in town. She said the day she found out there was a rink, she got a pair of skates and got right back into training like she had in her youth: two hours a day, five days a week.
“Skating does not get easier as you go forward,” Shoff said. “It gets harder and takes more time.”
Shoff said she believes skating is an underrated sport because of how easy the professionals make it look. She said if you equate what you see to how you feel on skates, it’s drastically different and only then can you understand how much work skaters put in.
Shoff said she was spending so much time at the rink, she ended up becoming a volunteer for the Learn to Skate program, a program similar to one she attended as a child that sparked her love of skating. Before she knew it, volunteering turned into teaching and she became a part-time figure skating coach at the Bellingham Sportsplex.
She said her job is not just to teach figure skating, but to instill a love of skating so they can always come back to it later in life, like she did. Group skating programs for beginning ice skaters are where Shoff was first formally taught to skate. Outside of group lessons, Shoff didn’t have personal training; she put in all the hard work herself.
With that background, Shoff said the Learn to Skate program is something she finds to be very special.
The Learn to Skate program is offered at the Bellingham Sportsplex Skating Academy where the basic skills of ice skating are taught to participants starting as early as 3 years old.
This program, supported by U.S. Figure Skating, USA Hockey and US Speedskating, focuses on the fundamentals of skating in a fun and safe environment, according to their website.
These group lessons are where many competitive skaters start. Tassie Kowal’s daughter, Savannah, is one of them.
As president of the Bellingham Figure Skating Club, Kowal is familiar with the demands of being a skater. On top of having a skater of her own, Kowal is in charge of the club’s meetings and the logistics that come with being affiliated with U.S. Figure Skating, such as following all of their rules and regulations.
Savannah competed at a national level in Michigan over the summer. Kowal said it has been fun to see the growth her daughter has gone through in skating. She said skating is what feeds her daughter’s soul.
Kowal said she took skating lessons when she was in middle school with her sister, but never reached the level her daughter is at. She said that as she watches her daughter skate, she can see that Savannah is one with the ice in a way that she never was able to accomplish.
Kowal said when Savannah hits the ice, she can leave everything at the door and for a period of time, just skate.
Both Ferguson and Shoff shared similar sentiments about the time they spend on the ice. While they have many years of experience on Savannah, they expressed the same love for the pastime.
The view of skating as a lifelong sport is a theme repeated by both Ferguson and Shoff, not in a competitive sense per se, but as a habit.
“They don’t have to go to the Olympics,” Shoff said.“I want them to come away with a sense of accomplishment and that they can always go back to the ice and just skate.”