Kicking some ice
Composed of 11 skaters – including four from Saco – and led by Coach John Niles Merrill, the DownEasters performed in four competitions and traveled as far as Hershey, Pennsylvania – where the U.S. Figure Skating Eastern Synchronized Skating Championships took place – to compete. Merrill said the 11 skaters range from ages 19 to 63, with a median age of 43.
The DownEasters practice one day a week at Norway Savings Bank Arena in Auburn because of the skaters’ tight schedules and diverse, spread-out living locations, Merrill said.
“This goes against even my better judgment,” Merrill said with a laugh, “but it has worked. To look at it on paper, or when they said it to me last year, I said we can’t do this. You’ve got to skate twice a week.”
DownEasters skaters come from towns such as Naples, Brunswick and Augusta, where Merrill lives. One skater comes from New Hampshire.
“With all of our lives it’s practically impossible to get together more than once a week,” Merrill said. “We all give away our Sunday afternoons and evenings and it’s worked out great. I’m so proud of them.”
As a synchronized, competitive skating team, the DownEasters performed throughout the season to “Hooked on a Feeling” by Blue Swede, a Swedish rock band from the 1970s. The competitive season spanned from September 2016 and finished on Valentine’s Day weekend in February. They make one more appearance this month at Bowdoin for a non-competitive event, which will conclude the season.
The term “synchronized skating” contrasts with singles skating, in which one skater performs on ice to impress judges and attain the highest score within his or her abilities, similar to Olympic athletes.
Sigaud, 27, has been skating since she was 13. A Washington, D.C., native, she’s lived in Rockland since she was 6 but has lived in Saco for a year while pursuing her doctorate at University of Southern Maine. She’s been with the DownEasters since its inception nearly two years ago, though she used to perform singles skating instead of synchronized.
Points are awarded based on team unison, precision, speed, difficulty and the ability to work as a team in a way that meets technical requirements for elements – or stylistic, physical maneuvers such as jumps and spins – and are also visually pleasing, Sigaud said. She said synchronized skating is based on a geometrically focused scoring system because the elements are based on shapes, such as wheels, blocks and pivoting moves.
“Synchronized skating is uniquely challenging because as a team, if the age requirements are too stringent, you’re going to make the teams a lot smaller,” she said. “We compete in a division that allows us to have some younger people. The majority of people we compete against are not quite as spread out. We’re a little unique in that way.”
Sigaud said one of her favorite parts of being on the DownEasters is the social element.
“The team environment is really a great opportunity to keep skating and to travel with the team, and also to have that social component that can be harder to maintain as an adult,” she said. “I’ve made some really, really good friends on the team, which is awesome, and I really appreciate that we have all kinds of ages.”
Sigaud also said Merrill’s coaching is perfect for the team.
“What’s unique about John for our situation . . . is he’s a really good social fit,” she said. “He fits in with us off the ice as well, and he has a great attitude about what constitutes success. I think that oftentimes in sports, especially for children sometimes, success is synonymous with winning. I prefer his way, so it’s an all-around good experience for us and for him. I think he enjoys being with us.”
Merrill, 52 and a Certified A level coach, is more focused on personal success, which ultimately behooves the team.
“I see what works for them and what doesn’t,” he said. “Then I take those moves that work and put them into their choreography and make them learn it. I take elements of what they already do well and make those into a program. It’s unconventional in the skating world.”
Merrill, who was born and raised in Augusta where he first began skating, has had a lengthy skating career. Beginning his career as a competitive freestyle skater in the 1970s and 1980s, Merrill was chiefly inspired by the Ice Capades, one of the major skating companies in the world at the time, when he saw them perform at the Cumberland County Civic Center the first year it opened, in 1977.
“I conned friends of my parents to take me down,” he said. “From the time the spotlight turned down I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I never wanted to be a competitive skater. The Olympics was not my goal or dream. I wanted to be a show skater, which was very taboo because your goal should always be the Olympics, but mine never was. I wanted people to clap for me and to make people happy.”
He joined the Ice Capades in 1985 and performed on and off for them until 2000. He’s also worked for an array of companies in various capacities such as production and management, including Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, Disney on Ice and in Moscow, Russia for a “Nutcracker” performance in Olympic Stadium.
He’s also worked with prominent figures in the skating world, including 1976 Olympic champion Dorothy Hamill and 1976 Olympic bronze medalist Toller Cranston – two people Merrill credited with being profound influences on him as a skater – as well as Olympic champions Peggy Fleming, Nancy Kerrigan and Scott Hamilton. He worked with Cranston at the “Nutcracker” performance in Moscow and has found his name included in some prominent skaters’ autobiographies, including Cranston’s.
“If you look at a list of Olympic skaters from the ’70s to 2000, I’ve skated with them,” Merrill said. “I’ve been extremely fortunate.”
Sigaud and Merrill said the DownEasters plan to compete for at least another season, and Sigaud would like to see the team expand.
“We’re hoping in the future to be able to split into more competitive divisions, so as a whole unit we would still have that awesome age diversity that we have, but we might, with additional members, be able to compete in divisions that may challenge everyone in appropriate ways,” Sigaud said. “I think that that would be a win-win for everyone.”
She also said the team is always seeking new recruits.
“I want people – adult skaters or young adult skaters – to know that we’re always looking for new skaters, and we’d love to have people at various levels of skill acquisition come talk to us. Come skate with us.”
The DownEasters will perform at the Skate Club of Brunswick’s Spring Exhibition at Bowdoin College on Sunday, March 19 for a fairy tale-themed ice show. Looking for more information about the event or about becoming part of the DownEasters, email team manager Heidi Coffin at email@example.com or John Merrill at firstname.lastname@example.org.