It's 4 a.m., and most of the Palos Verdes Peninsula is still counting ZZZs. But Jamie, 17, Jessica, 15, and their mom, Carol Pedersen, are already dressed, in the car with snacks and homework packed, and on their way down the hill toward the city of Artesia. By 4:45 a.m., Jamie and Jessica will be laced up and on the ice at East West Ice Palace, ready to practice spirals and edges.
From August to March, the threesome does this routine four times a week and again on Saturday and Sunday, with call times of 5:15 a.m. and 6 a.m. It doesn't end there; they head back to The Skating Edge in Harbor City on Thursdays after school for an hour of private lessons, coupled with yoga and gym training to round out their workouts.
With sleep at a premium, any sane person might pose the question, "Why do they do this?" It's all in the name of synchronized ice skating. The sport has been wildly popular in Europe for decades but wasn't introduced in the United States until the 1980s. The last 15 years have brought a surge of western momentum for the sport, with the U.S. hosting its first World Synchronized Skating Championships in 2000. Efforts are now being made to add it as an official Olympic event.
Synchronized skating is a team sport in which eight to 20 skaters perform a program together. It uses the same judging system as singles, pairs and dance and is characterized by teamwork, speed, intricate formations and challenging step sequences. The variety and difficulty of elements require that each team member is a highly skilled individual skater. There are approximately 525 synchronized teams around the country registered with U.S. Figure Skating.
After seeing a synchronized skating show at Ice Chalet in Rolling Hills Estates at the age of 6, Jamie knew instantly that she wanted to pursue the sport. At the time, there was only a small, burgeoning team in the South Bay. But with the dedication of her coach, Alison Kending-Wade at Ice Chalet, Jamie and a group of local girls grew in the sport together.
In January, Jamie reached a pinnacle in the sport by making Team USA and competing in the 2012 French Cup for synchronized ice skating. Her team finished in the top half of the senior division. "It was a really cool trip. The European teams were amazing to watch," Jamie says. "We were thrilled with our finish with such elite competitors."
Jamie's sister, Jessica, is skating right on her tails. She started skating at the age of 5 but didn't initially take to the sport. "During my first lessons, I would cry until the teacher took me off the rink," Jessica says. "I liked to play soccer and tennis, but I eventually chose soccer and skating. Now I love it!" Jessica is currently taking time off after breaking her wrist during a fall in training, but she aims to return next season to follow in the footsteps of her sister-making the big jump from novice to senior level.
The girls have made huge sacrifices. Although she plans to attend her senior prom, Jamie hasn't attended a formal dance during her four years of high school. But she says the opportunities that have come with competitive skating have made it all worthwhile. The girls travel to four major competitions per year, visiting places such as Colorado, Michigan, Maine, Massachusetts, Iowa, Illinois, Washington State and San Francisco.
Although their parents, Don and Carol, worry about them finding a healthy balance with such a tough regimen, they believe the intense training has developed many positive characteristics in their daughters. "As long as they are enjoying it, I think it's good for them," Don says. "It's taught them social skills, dedication, team work, self-esteem and work ethic that I hope will serve them well later in life."
In addition to all this skating and traveling, the entire Pedersen family somehow manages to find time for volunteer work. When Don's mother was a patient at Torrance Memorial Medical Center more than a decade ago, Carol noticed how much the dogs in the Auxiliary Pet Visitation Program were making patients happy. Carol enrolled Dakota (a golden retriever that has since passed on) in the program in 2003.
"We really thought Dakota would fit in well. During the training, she curled right up next to a lady in the cancer ward, which made her feel so comforted," Carol says. "It was very touching."
Don and Carol now accompany Holly (a golden retriever) and Misty (a yellow Lab) to visit patients once a month. Don, who serves as Culver City's chief of police, knows first-hand the importance of feeling comfort while undergoing medical care. Ten years ago, he received a diagnosis of Stage IV throat cancer, which had spread to his lung. Thoracic surgeon Joseph Carey, MD, performed a life-saving upper lobectomy to remove the lung cancer.
"It's a great facility [Torrance Memorial], and the care team is amazing. They were so positive and encouraging," Don says. Today Don is cancer-free and feels he is helping to give back through his visits with Misty. "I still run into Dr. (Thomas) Simko (his radiation oncologist)," Don says. "My experience has given me a better appreciation for what patients are going through and has helped me to better interact with them."
Jamie and Jessica serve in the Assisteens, a volunteer youth service program through the Women's Assistance League in San Pedro. Through that, they work several hours a week in Torrance Memorial's high school volunteer program, assisting patients and staff. The girls have also recruited friends and classmates to join them.
"My family has always stressed the importance of giving back. It really gives you a sense of empathy toward others and helps you appreciate how fortunate you are," Jamie says.
With college on the horizon next year for Jamie, she isn't quite sure how skating will fit into the picture. But with the support of parents like Don and Carol, Jamie and Jessica are surely skating toward the gold medal podium of life.