It was a scene that could hardly have been imagined a few years ago. On an ice rink in Goleta, a pair of Santa Barbara teenagers skated through a program of lifts, throws, side-by-side jumps, and a death spiral to the music of The Mask of Zorro.
Sam Alen and Sage Kerst, having advanced through regional and sectional competitions, will be among 12 couples competing in the intermediate pairs division of the 2019 U.S. Figure Skating Championships on Saturday, January 19, in Detroit (9:30 a.m. Pacific time on nbcsports.com).
Alen is a 17-year-old junior at San Marcos High. Kerst, 13, attends Santa Barbara Junior High. They spend most of their other waking hours at Ice in Paradise, which has proved to be a boon to devotees of skating, from recreational beginners to hockey players, ever since it opened near the Camino Real Marketplace in November 2015.
“This is pretty much my home,” said Alen, whose introduction to ice skating began at the opening of the facility. He previously had participated in gymnastics and ballet dancing. Once he slid on blades, there was no looking back. “He’s a rink rat,” observed Larry Bruyere, general manager of Ice in Paradise.
Not only did the rink give him large doses of exercise, Alen noted, but it also was one of the healthiest places to be during the Thomas Fire in December 2017. “The air was clean because of the filters,” he said.
Kerst has practiced figure skating since she was 5 years old in Arizona. She had to go to Ventura County to skate when she first moved to Santa Barbara, but just a few months later, Ice in Paradise ended her commuting days.
Terry Tonius, a longtime skating coach in Southern California, is the Ice in Paradise director of skating. He discovered Alen when he was a raw beginner. “He’s a hard worker,” Tonius said. “It’s not the easiest sport. There’s a surge of interest after the Winter Olympics, but when people get on the ice, they realize, ‘I’m not sure I can do this.’”
Tonius brought in one of his former students, Elizabeth Laignier, and her husband, Cedric Laignier, to work with the figure skaters. The Laigniers retired after a decade as touring professionals in cruise-ship ice shows. They met on the Explorer of the Seas in the Caribbean in 2011. They have settled here with their year-old son, Jonathan. “He will grow up on this rink,” Tonius said.
The coaches put Alen and Kerst together just over a year ago. Neither had any experience in pairs routines, and for them to qualify for this month’s nationals was a longshot.
“We don’t sell dreams; we look for realistic opportunities,” Elizabeth said. Cedric, a native of France, remarked, “It takes two to three years to reach the level [Alen and Kerst] have done in one year.”
They did it by practicing six days a week. “We’re both brand-new to this,” Alen said. “We’re learning from our coaches.”
They will compete with a three-minute program at Detroit. They went through it last week, beginning with Alen lifting his partner over his head. “She’s 100 pounds,” he said. “I can bench press 180.” Then there were the throws, Sam sending Sage spinning. “It was a little scary at first,” she said. Her least favorite part was the death spiral. “It hurts my hand, and it’s hard to make it look good.”
Other moves were the side-by-side double loops and double flips. Each was hard enough to execute individually, and they had to time them to be perfectly in sync.
Practice continued after they completed the program. Cedric told them to do five jumps together, and he added, “Good luck.” Sam countered, “There is no luck in skating. You do it or you don’t.”
Kerst said fifth place would be a good showing in the nationals. “Most of our competitors have been skating together over six years,” she said. “There’s a brother and sister who’ve been doing it for eight years.”
Sam declared, “I’m shooting for the podium [top three].”
FAST-FORWARD DECATHLON: Only the most diehard fans of track and field have the patience to sit through a decathlon, a two-day competition that consists of 10 events spread over five to six hours each day. An insanely speeded-up version, the Thoreson 30-Minute Decathlon, will take place Saturday, January 12, at Westmont College’s Thorrington Field.
Among the brave athletes who will attempt to move from the 400-meter sprint to the 110-meter hurdles to the discus throw to the pole vault — at a pace of three minutes per event — are Curtis Beach, a former NCAA indoor pentathlon champion from Duke; Olympic bobsledder Evan Weinstock; and Sharon Day-Monroe, a two-time Olympian in the women’s high jump and heptathlon. They will go off individually every three minutes starting at 10 a.m., and they will have 30 minutes to get to the starting line for the 1,500-meter run, the last event.
The craziness is being conducted in memory of Dave Thoreson, a former Westmont athlete who invented the 30-minute decathlon. Thoreson, remembered as a creative PE teacher at La Colina Junior High, died in October 2018. Following the decathlon, the Santa Barbara Track Club will hold a 30-minute challenge of three events for young athletes ages 7-13 at 11 a.m.