Brandeis skaters make strides towards the Olympics
Sami Winawer ’23 and Evan Israel ’24 attempt to make synchronized skating history while on the first American team of a new division.
In early February, Sami Winawer and Evan Israel traveled to France to compete at the French Cup.
While many students can be found sleeping in on a Friday morning, Evan Israel ’24 and Sami Winawer ’23 are on their way to the Skating Club of Boston. The two Brandeis students are on the Hayden Select Synchronized Skating team. The team is part of a brand new division called the “Elite 12,” which was created with the hopes of bringing synchronized skating to the Olympics.
Synchronized skating teams generally have 20 people on the team with 16 on the ice at a time, but in the Elite 12 division, 16 people are on the team with 12 on the ice at a time. In a March 18 interview with the Justice, Israel cited two major reasons why synchronized skating has not been in the Olympics until this point: financial concerns, as well as not having enough room to house the very large teams in the Olympic Village.
Winawer and Israel have both been skating for about as long as they can remember. Winawer’s mother, who also skated growing up, signed Winawer up for skate classes when she was three and has not looked back since. “It's been just about 17 years I've been on the ice, which is crazy,” she said. She began synchronized skating when she was 10 and started competing internationally during her senior year of high school.
Similarly, Israel started skating at the age of four. “I just randomly asked for a pair of ice skates for my birthday. I couldn't tell you why, no one in my family skates. I had no connection to it, but it just kind of stuck,” she said. Israel joined a synchronized team when she was seven and stayed with that same team for 11 years.
When looking at colleges, Winawer and Israel knew they were not done skating yet and prioritized going to a school in the Boston area because of the Hayden Select teams. They were both on different teams within this same organization prior to joining Hayden Select this year.
With skating, both Israel and Winawer have had to face the challenge of balancing skating and school. Their practice schedule is Tuesday nights, Wednesday mornings, Friday mornings, and Saturday afternoons, which sometimes limits which classes they can register for. Additionally, they occasionally have to miss classes for multiple days at a time when traveling for competitions. Luckily, since they both have been skating at a competitive level for many years, they have experience juggling school and skating.
They both agreed that time management has been a skill they acquired while being a skater and student. “I'm big on procrastination, so especially when we have competitions and stuff, you really have to be on top of your work,” Israel said. Additionally, being able to communicate about scheduling and being proactive about missing class are other important skills they had to learn. “Knowing how to communicate with people who are in positions of power over you, and professors especially — that layer of professionalism I think will [stay] with me through my career,” Winawer said.
Being on the team is a significant time commitment, especially since it is an off campus activity. While the coaches are understanding since everyone on the team is in college, missing practice is not much of an option, according to Israel. “Imagine you have a cheerleading pyramid and you take one person out of the bottom — it's not going to work. That's essentially the same with Synchro. You can't just take one person out of a formation; you have to be there and committed to the team at all times,” she said.
Recently, their team traveled to France for the French Cup and to Colorado for the U.S. Synchronized Skating National Championship. They went to France in early February and competed against two other countries who have teams in the Elite 12 division. This was the first competition for this new division. Hayden Select won, and Israel said regarding the victory, “We were the first ever Elite 12 champions which was super cool.”
Hayden Select is the only Elite 12 team in the country, so while in Colorado, rather than competing against other teams, “we went to do an exhibition to kind of show the judges and the audience hopefully where the future of the sport is going,” Winawer said. They achieved their goal of receiving their highest score of the season. They also had a rose ceremony, as they did not get medals. “It was really nice to feel like they [U.S. figure skating] were finally recognizing us and it felt like maybe this could go somewhere and our efforts to create this new division were not for nothing,” Israel added.
Both Israel and Winawer have competed by themselves, but they agree that they prefer the team aspect of synchronized skating. “It's a completely different feeling taking the ice by yourself versus taking the ice with your 15 or your 11 or however many best friends … we're all supporting each other along the way and that's the main reason why I've been able to stick with it for so long,” Israel said. She also added that they are all friends outside of skating, which strengthens their bonds and support for each other on the ice.
Furthermore, synchronized skating has been able to be more inclusive than other disciplines, Winawer noted. “The fact that it's a team sport allows for more gender identities to compete. In other forms of figure skating it's separated into men and women … it's very hard to be a more inclusive space,” she said. Synchronized skating “opens up room for so many more people to participate,” she continued.
As for the future of their skating careers, Winawer will be retiring within the next few years in preparation for law school. Before then, she hopes to make a Worlds Team: “Two teams are selected every year in the senior level to go represent the United States at Worlds. Next year, they're in the U.S. — they're in Lake Placid — so it would be a real honor to get to go compete at a home Worlds,” she said.
Israel will be taking the year off from synchronized skating as she intends to study abroad, so she will be focusing on single skating for the time being. She hopes to rejoin the synchronized skating world when she returns, but until then, she hopes to stay involved in other ways. “I'm currently working at ‘Get it Called,’ which is a skating publication. They post articles and stuff about synchro competitions and synchro related events,” Israel said.
They both have the same ultimate goal for the sport: to see it get to the Olympics. Additionally, Winawer hopes to see synchronized skating “grow to include more people from more races, gender identities, and socioeconomic backgrounds.” In general, she hopes skating will become a more inclusive and accepting sport, “and also hopefully get to the Olympics,” Winawer concluded.