Ten-year old Haley Scott dreams of being the first female ice skater to successfully do a quad lutz—skating backwards at a high rate of speed, jumping and then spinning four times in the air. She might just pull it off someday, because she trains four afternoons a week at the Jacksonville Ice & Sportsplex with a former Olympic coach, Karl Kurtz.
Kurtz started the sport at age 5. He and a neighbor went to a frozen pond near his Hershey, Pennsylvania home to try skating. He was a natural from the beginning, even though he had to wear his neighbor’s skates, which were much too big. His mom stuffed the front of them with socks.
“I figured out when I was moving along that I could scrunch down and then pop over a tree branch,” Kurtz says. “I felt like I could fly. It was the coolest thing I had ever done. I was hooked.”
After begging his parents for group lessons, he advanced to individual lessons, then to winning national and international competitions. Then he went on to join the Disney on Ice show as a principal soloist.
“Then I began coaching,” in Maryland and Delaware, Kurtz says. As a full time career, “one thing led to another, and I then I realized that I work in a cold environment so I wanted to live somewhere warm.” That brought him to Jacksonville in February 2013.
Kurtz was an Olympic ice skating coach at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Haley and her 7-year-old sister, Jordan, commute from their home in Port Orange, FL Monday through Thursday to take lessons from him. They go to school from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m., then their mother, Julie, picks them up for the one hour, 15 minute drive to Jacksonville. After skating from 1 to 4 p.m., they do their homework on the way home and also attend Florida Virtual School classes.
“We come here specifically for Karl, with his background,” Julie Scott says one day at the rink. “He’s done an amazing job with them.”
The Ice & Sportsplex, near Emerson Road and I-95, has the fifth largest Learn to Skate program in the country, and 18 coaches. Four of them have Olympic backgrounds.
There is the husband and wife team of Evy and Mary Scotvold, who once coached Nancy Kerrigan and other champions. And there is Felicia Zhang, who skated in the 2014 games in Sochi, Russia.
“It’s a great program here—a lot of great kids with a lot of great potential,” Zhang says. She is currently training a couple for the U.S. Nationals competition. Zhang, who started skating as a young child, recently moved to Jacksonville after retiring from competition to attend the University of North Florida, and to coach. Ice skating has been a lifelong passion for Zhang, as it has been for the other Olympic coaches at the Sportsplex. Coaching allows them to teach and nurture future stars as well as a way to stay with the sport for decades. They can’t imagine doing anything else.
Evy Scotvold was invited to the Olympic trials in 1952, when he was one of the top 10 male skaters in the country. Growing up in a skating family, he put on his first skates at age 5, and has coached around the nation, including in Boston, Los Angeles and the Midwest. He met Mary at a competition in 1974, when he and she were competing coaches of the country’s top two male figure skaters. They went on to become coaches at the 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992 and 1994 Olympics.
Mary also started skating young, at age 6, with her equally talented twin sister, Anne. Both girls discovered their love of skating at a friend’s birthday party, and their entire family was dedicated to their success. The family moved from Pennsylvania to Lake Placid, New York for nine months of the year for the girls’ training.
Mary was National Novice at age 12, but ice skating training at a serious professional level is expensive. Since her father had to pay for lessons for two girls, when they turned 14 he told them he could no longer afford it.
“I couldn’t skate anymore,” Mary says. “I cried and cried. I was a mess.”
She eventually accepted it, but in college began coaching to get back into the sport and earn some money. She attracted so many students that after college coaching became her career.
After retiring from coaching, and moving to World Golf Village in 2006, the Scotvolds began working on a part-time consultant basis with coaches and students at the Ice and Sportsplex. This is good news for Northeast Florida hopefuls, as the Scotvolds and five of their former skaters are in the US Figure Skating Hall of Fame. As coaches, the Scotvolds are also in the Professional Skaters Association Hall of Fame.
It takes a lot of hard work, practice and dedication to succeed as a competitive figure skater, as part of a pairs team or as an individual. It is also a serious financial commitment. The Sportsplex’s figure skating director, Tammy Pennington, says they offer instruction and coaching to skaters at every level—from complete beginner on up. But when the sport becomes a passion, “a high level competitive skater will spend about $50,000 a year for training,” she says. That level requires three to four sessions a day, five days a week.
Jacksonville has ice skaters with that kind of dedication and talent, Kurtz says. But it doesn’t come easy. “I never met a kid yet who said they didn’t want to be in the Olympics,” he says. “But, it’s a long road to the Olympics.” For young skaters, whether they get there or not, “it is a story that still needs to be written.”