Canadian Jeffrey Buttle, after winning the men’s World Figure Skating Championship in Sweden last weekend, noted in a TV interview that he’d come a long way since starting to skate at age two.
By his standard, Northern Virginia’s Parker Pennington, who has risen as high as sixth in the U.S. men’s figure skating ranks, got a late start. He didn’t hit the ice until he was three.
There seems to be a pattern of youngsters either seeing ice skating for the first time on TV, or trying it themselves and immediately resolved to make it their passion.
“I was three years old when I got onto the ice for the first time,” Pennington told the News-Press in an interview last week. Pennington is organizing a fundraising benefit ice show, in Connecticut on April 12, to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association (see story in last week’s edition).
“I went crazy. I was a wild monkey out there,” he said. “I felt free on the ice, like I could be me. I knew right away it was what I wanted to do.”
The 20 years since then has flown by, with Pennington racking up national titles at the juvenile, intermediate, novice and junior levels before entering the senior ranks in 2002, and competing for the National Men’s Championships for the last seven years. His best showings were sixth in 2003 and seventh in 2007.
Now, at the ripe old age of 23, he’s having to step back and reflect on where he wants to go from here. No doubt about it, he said last week, despite an 11th place finish at the U.S. Championships in January, he still wants to give it his best shot for a spot on the U.S. team at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
But a lot of reflection has gone into this decision, which came in the weeks following the January competition, and the News-Press had the benefit of some of his latest thinking about evolving his approach to the sport.
“Figure skating is not like any other sport,” he said. “It is the only sport where there is no chance for redemption. If you do not hit all eight of your jumps flawlessly, you have no chance to win.” A big football and baseball fan, he reemphasized, “It is so different from any other sport.”
“When you are on the ice, you are thinking of taking one thing at a time, of being in the moment. If you let your mind wander, you can get ahead of yourself and trip up,” he said.
But, he added, while there has to be this “focused concentration,” the good skater must also allow a flow into his performance, and let his personality show. “You have to relax to do your stuff, but it is hard because everything is on the line. You cannot allow that to enter your mind.”
“What separates great skaters from others is mental,” he said. “They are consistently in the moment. I am still learning about this mental component.”
“You have to change it up and have fun, to go with the flow, while still being very precise. Body language on the ice shows in the fluidity of movement and creativity. For the best skaters, they can be on the ice only 15 seconds and you are moved by them or not. They’ve got to have the ‘it’ factor that draws you to watch them, makes you want to watch them,” he said.
“I am still not there yet, but getting there,” he went on. “It’s about a presence that you command on the ice, a confidence. People see you and can tell that you either have it or don’t. It is about finding your ‘it-ness.’ It comes from within and there is no faking it.”
Pennington said there’ve been “moments” when he’s had this quality on the ice, and that the older he has become the more he’s able to identify its importance to his skating.
“It involves an inner peace and relaxation, a love for self through ups and downs, and trust through change, since nothing stays the same,” he said. “It’s a hard concept to grasp, but I am starting to see it as having control over my destiny, that it’s ultimately up to me and my state of mind.”
He added, “It’s a process of finding yourself, to explore what truly brings you happiness. All different aspects of skating bring me happiness, from the choreography to the challenge of competition. I am starting to feel differently on the ice with this. My movements are looser, and I am bringing to my elements more content and attack. There is not so much doubt. I trust things.”
He concluded, “It is important to do it for the happiness, but I want results too. I want to be a champion.”
At the same time Pennington strives to be a champion on the ice, he’s becoming one in life too, organizing his April 12 benefit in honor of his dad, Larry Pennington, a veterinarian in Connecticut who is a victim of muscular dystrophy, who has “sacrificed so much” for young Parker’s career.
For more information on supporting the event, contact Pennington’s official web site at www.figureskatersonline.com/parkerpennington/.