In most sports, 3 1/2 minutes is nothing.
Entire uneventful sequences can pass by in that span in football or basketball, not even to mention in timeless baseball.
But for Downers Grove’s synchronized skating teams, 3 1/2 minutes is all they get. Watching the Dazzlers at work — skating in unison with effortless smiles — belies the years of preparation and dedication that goes into the short routine.
“It’s the complete epitome of a team sport,” said Katie Czech, 18, of Lisle, a high school senior on the team in her final year. “You’re only as strong as your weakest skater.”
But that pressure has made the team stronger, Czech said. The program draws skaters from all over the western suburbs, including Woodridge and Lemont, and the girls show up to work hard.
The teams, grouped by age, practice early on Saturday and Sunday mornings beginning around 6 a.m. at Downers Grove Icearena on Walnut Avenue. [Click here to see a photo slideshow from the Dazzlers' Nov. 28 exhibition.]
They’ll spend about an hour on the ice, starting with 10 or 15 minutes of drills and exercises. But there’s plenty of work off the ice as well.
“We also stand up and walk through the program, working on the little additions, the head movements, the arm movements,” said Dazzlers Assistant Coach Debbie Buirge, a Woodridge resident. “We’ll run the program and look for any corrections.”
In addition to teams that compete locally, the Dazzlers have three traveling teams for girls from elementary through high school who travel and compete across the Midwest. In addition to the intermediate team for girls between ages 12 and 18, there’s also the open juveniles, who compete in 2 1/2-minute sequences, and pre-juveniles who compete in two minutes.
Their routines consist of synchronized formations — lines, wheels and intersections — and step movements. Each team has one routine from the beginning to the end of the season, though the coaches might make slight adjustments if there is something the girls can do better or there is an element consistently not winning favor with judges.
During a competition, the teams are judged by two panels. One looks at the technical aspects — grading on the difficulty of the team’s routine. Another panel reviews the execution, taking into account the speed, unison, clarity of the footwork and other factors.
For instance, if they spot more than three girls putting their foot down at the wrong time during a step sequence, the entire team loses points, Buirge said.
“You have to work together and cooperate and solve problems,” Czech added. “That really forms close bonds. I consider my coaches to be even friends, and I know that’s very rare.”
There are 19 girls on the intermediate team, most of whom have been skating in the program for years. Czech, for one, has been with one Dazzlers team or another since she was 10.
“Most of them have grown up with us,” Buirge said.
They come from a strong foundation, too. The open juvenile team, which feeds into the intermediate team, has won the top prize at Midwestern sectionals five out of the past six years, and already this year the team has won first at its two competitions.
But no matter how well they do at sectionals, the pre-juvenile and open juvenile teams do not compete at the national level. Only the intermediates can go on to nationals, and they can earn a spot by placing at the Midwestern sectionals in January.
“That’s the ultimate goal for the season, to make it to nationals,” Buirge said.
Many of the older skaters were with the team when they last went to nationals three years ago, when they placed eighth overall. It was a strong finish, Czech said, but they want to top it this year.
At their first competition of the season last month, the team took second place. Then in Ann Arbor, Mich., last weekend, the team improved their score and took first.
While one can’t quite compare scores side by side from different judging panels, Buirge said, it’s still a clear mark of improvement.
“We’re feeling very optimistic,” Buirge said. “It’s a great start to the season, and if we can keep things going the way they are, I think they can have a chance.”