Once is luck

Colorado figure skaters dedicate everything to their craft

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Nica Digerness with her coach Dalilah Sappenfield (center) and her partner Danny Neudecker at the Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs.
Claire Woodcock

Picture a day in 16-year-old Nica Digerness’ skates: she gets to the Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs at 9 a.m. to warm up, then she gets on the ice for a jumping lesson. At 11:25, her partner, 20-year-old Danny Neudecker, gets there and they practice their lifts for an hour with pairs coach Dalilah Sappenfield, one of the top coaches in the United States. They get an hour for lunch, then they alternate between on-ice and off-ice training until 4 p.m., when, depending on the day of the week, Digerness and Neudecker do high intensity cardio workouts before going home, having dinner, doing schoolwork for their perspective college classes and going to sleep.

Digerness and Neudecker, who both call Colorado Springs home, keep up this training schedule six days a week. But this is the type of highly regimented training Digerness and Neudecker need in order to achieve their goals of making junior sectionals, nationals and world championships in 2017, not to mention the pair’s long-term goal of qualifying for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. Their head coach, Sappenfield, keeps Digerness and Neudecker focused with training notebooks that outline their schedules for the next four years. It’s a dedication few of us can imagine, but it’s necessary to help the pair develop strength and stamina.

“I have a vision for my skaters,” Sappenfield explains. “What I want them to do for their music depends on where they are developmentally in their skating. For Nica and Danny, my goal this year was to bring out a bit more maturity and sophistication in their skating, so I chose music that I thought we could choreograph that into.”

In the last year, Digerness and Neudecker won the Pacific Coast novice sectionals, placed sixth at nationals and received two invitations from the International Skating Union Junior Grand Prix in Russia and Germany, all of which makes it hard to believe that Digerness and Neudecker only started skating together in January 2015. So in a year, Digerness and Neudecker have had to let go of the single skater mind-set and adapt to skating with a partner.

“When you work with a pair you always have to match and so you have to work a lot on … extension and lines,” Neudecker says. “It’s just like being in unison with your partner. And just the training is different. Like when I did singles, the training was totally different. I didn’t train as hard, so obviously that’s helped us develop.”

From Sappenfield’s perspective, single skaters are able to skate away when they fumble or fall. As a pair, Digerness and Neudecker had to learn to stay together and communicate with each other in order to keep the emotions that come up when competing at this level in check. Sappenfield says that Digerness and Neudecker as a team have grown from their dedicated work, and success will come from longevity, which takes a whole staff of people. The pair has jump coaches, spin coaches, strength and conditioning coaches, in addition to the other physical therapy resources the World Arena provides its athletes.

“If you think of it as a football team, you have a head coach and then you have coaches underneath that work on specific things,” Sappenfield says. “We work as a team to reach the goals of the skaters, so it’s a group effort. I manage the whole thing, but it’s definitely a group effort and I have a lot of people working with me.”

In the figure skating world, a newly established judging system has taken the technicality of the sport to new heights, which requires coaches to be even more mindful of expectations of the gold standard in figure skating.

“We’re seeing a lot more quad twists, quad throws, we’re seeing a lot more triple-triple jumps. … The technical aspect of it is even more demanding,” Sappenfield says. “So we start these kids very young doing all these triples, and also because of that demand we have changed how we coach. We now ask for a lot of recovery [time], and we ask for a lot of [physical therapy] so we can avoid injuries. But in every aspect it’s changed a lot. It’s more extreme, I would say. There’s more risk involved.”

Sappenfield says the overall move to quadruple jumps in competition has happened over the last five years. Before, solo or pair skaters would do one or two quad jumps per program. But now, Sappenfield says, it’s difficult to win without packing in even more. She continues to be amazed with how figure skaters can do three, four, even five quad jumps in a program.

That’s what Digerness and Neudecker are working toward — three-and-a-half to four tight revolutions in the air. But Sappenfield also says her job has become a lot more about managing risk, which requires taking the athletes’ body into consideration. It requires more off-ice training in front of a mirror in order to make sure the pair’s bodies are in unison. In their long program, Sappenfield says they’re advancing well with triple twists and triple throw jumps, but naturally, they’ve had their share of spills together.

“One time we were doing a twist and I fell and got the wind knocked out of me,” Digerness says. “I couldn’t breathe for like 10 seconds. I don’t like that feeling. It doesn’t feel very good, but the next time we do it, [the jump] gets better. We just have to get over the fear of falling and do it again.”

Neudecker says he feels “pretty bad” when Digerness falls because he’s the one responsible for catching her. He says he tries to forget the fall happened and just move on, which always involves getting right back up and trying the move again.

For Digerness and Neudecker, off-ice training, like ballet and weight lifting, helps build their confidence when they go into big jumps, throws and twists. The off-ice training also makes it easier for them to bounce back after a tough fall. For Digerness, the member of the team being launched into the air, she’s had some falls that have been too painful to forget.

“When an element’s not working very well, I really have to think of what I need to do in order to get it done, and not think of falling, or else I will fall,” Digerness says. “Mainly going back to the basics. [In an element], I don’t really feel too much other than what I’m thinking about technique.”

Digerness is shy to admit it, but her mother Savannah Mclean says there were a lot of unexpected sacrifices that came with making her daughter’s professional path to the podium a reality. She points out that Digerness is only 16, has already graduated high school and is very dedicated to her training time. But that has come at the cost of high school dances, sleepovers and many of the other “typical” experiences adolescent and teenage girls experience.

“She hasn’t had much of a childhood,” Mclean says. “I’ve tried to incorporate friends coming over when she can, but she’s so busy with her off-ice training. … She had so many activities in one day that by the time she’d get home we’d have dinner and she’d have schoolwork and be so tired. You don’t really have a life outside of skating, once you make that commitment to really be a serious skater, because there’s so much involved besides just what you see on the ice.”

But Mclean says she never gets tired of watching her daughter and Neudecker. Her daughter is a perfectionist and so committed, she says, that she sometimes has to pull her off the ice.

Digerness and Neudecker try not to think ahead to the big competitions. Instead, they say they take their training day by day, attempting to live in the moment. They say they haven’t thought much about their futures outside of skating, but that certainly doesn’t mean they don’t have other interests. Neudecker is currently working on a degree in communications and counseling from the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. Digerness, four years Neudecker’s junior, says she’s not totally sure, but thinks she might want to become a zoologist when she grows up. Her face lights up when she talks about spending time with her pet chinchillas.

“I used to have eight but we gave them away because I didn’t have enough time for all of them,” she says. “The three I have now are Chili, Chino and Pepper and they’re each different colors. I hold them, I play with them, I clean their cage like every other week and give them treats and dust baths.”

Digerness and Neudecker are looking to medal at nationals and to qualify for junior worlds next year. As their coach says, “Once is luck.”

It’s time to prove these two have more than luck on their side.