Ice Network

The Inside Edge: A soccer star turns to skating

Beständigová, Mansiz prove they are serious; ITNY ignites excitement
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Oľga Beständigová and Ilhan Mansiz found love, and then they decided to skate as pairs competitors together. -Getty Images

Turkish soccer player İlhan Mansız scored the most important goal of his career at the World Cup back in 2002, when he won the world bronze medal with the Turkish team. After injuries put an end to his soccer career in 2006, what was the next logical step?

Figure skating, of course.

Although he had never skated before, Mansiz competed on the "Buzda Dans," the Turkish version of the TV show Skating with the Stars in 2008. He and partner Oľga Beständigová won the competition, fell in love and hatched the unlikely dream of competing at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games.

"We won the show, and during the show, we both had the crazy idea to compete at the Olympics," Mansiz told us. "We skated on and off for three years."

It's one thing to say you're going to switch sports and quite another to actually do it, but Beständigová and Mansiz went through with the plan and competed at the Nebelhorn Trophy and Ondrej Nepela Memorial this fall.

"The first day [I was] a bit nervous," Mansiz said. "The short program was easier than the long."

"It was pretty exciting for me, but I was also nervous like I would never compete before," Beständigová said. "It's been a very long time -- eight years [since] I competed the last time."

"The elements itself aren't hard any more," Mansiz said. "To execute them all in the program is the hardest part, especially in the free skate."

The team finished 19th at Nebelhorn and didn't earn an Olympic spot, but they haven't given up. Prior to Nebelhorn and Nepela, they had trained with Doug Ladret, Tiffany Vise and Don Baldwin in Arizona. They are now back in Oberstdorf, Germany, working with Alex König.

"Our plan is to get enough points for the long program to qualify for the Europeans and possibly for worlds," Beständigová said. "We are planning to compete at the Golden Spin of Zagreb. Of course, we didn't make it to the Olympics, but we proved that you can learn new stuff and compete at the highest level, even if you are older. We got enough points in Bratislava (at Ondrej Nepela) in the short program to qualify for the Europeans, and that shows we were never joking. Ilhan is very talented, and I always believed in him."

Beständigová, who had skated pairs with her brother, Jozef, represented Slovakia at the 2002 Olympics and last competed in 2005. She said that the hardest thing for Mansiz to learn was to use less power and strength, to let edges and technique provide the power.

"We were happy with short program," she said. "It's so much fun when you skate well. We had a lot of support from the people, coaches, skaters, everybody. It was a really amazing feeling."

Ice Theatre stage door

After the Ice Theatre of New York (ITNY) preview performance at the Skating Club of Boston (SCOB) on Oct. 19, the 14 cast members had a quick bite to eat at a champagne and dessert reception. Then, they packed their costumes into cars and vans for a performance in New Hampshire the next night and three shows in New York City five days later.

Plenty of former figure skaters were in the audience in Boston, notably 1956 Olympic champion Dr. Tenley Albright. Pairs skaters Lara Shelton and Neill Shelton and Fred Palascak, and ice dancer Brooke Frieling also mingled at the reception, and YouTube celebrity Michael Buckley, who introduced the show, made an appearance.

Cast member John Kerr, who is skating without his sister, Sinead, said he had been up to Toronto to see her on Battle of the Blades a couple of weeks ago.

"I stayed for a couple of days to help her and Grant [Marshall] (her partner) out a little bit with some tricks. It was fun," he said.

Kerr is partners with Carly Donowick in the ITNY show.

"In many ways, it's kind of nice," he said. "It's kind of a different dynamic when you skate with someone who's not your sister, so you can be a little bit more intimate and you don't have to be embarrassed about it. And Carly is an awesome partner."

Kerr and his fiancée, Nadine Ahmed, are planning a June 21 wedding in Scotland; Ryan Bradley will be the best man.

"It's a very small affair. We're trying to make it just family," Kerr said. "She's Pakistani and she has a lot of extended family, so we're going to do a bigger thing in Miami in August … kind of more of a party. The one in Scotland should be very nice and intimate."

Kim Navarro said she and fellow cast members Brent Bommentre and Joel Dear have recovered from their summer appearances on America's Got Talent.

"It was a wild adventure," Navarro said. "I felt like I was on a roller coaster. I felt very disoriented and dizzy when I got off. Now that we've recovered, we got really behind the idea that we could help put skating on a bigger scene, in front of non-skating fans, too."

Next up for Navarro and Bommentre is the annual benefit for "Scott Hamilton CARES" on Nov. 2.

"Then we go into the tree-lighting season," Navarro said. "There are trees in malls in Texas that need to be lit with some ice skating shows."

Ten of the skaters in the ITNY show are ice dancers. Ryan Bradley and his girlfriend, Erin Reed, were singles skaters, and Jonathon Hunt used to compete in pairs with Laura Handy and Jennifer Don. Hunt teaches in New York and New Jersey.

"I have two pairs teams that I work with right now," Hunt said. "One's juvenile, one's intermediate. I tend to be the second coach because I've been doing quite a lot of shows."

Hunt last competed in 2005.

"I had to stop," he said. "I couldn't really skate because I had to have a double hip replacement. I did that 2 1/2 years ago; I was 29, I think."

Bommentre says that having so many ice dancers in the show is one of the keys to its success.

"It's so cool that most of the cast is either an ice dancer, so they're used to partnering, or they're a really seasoned professional skater," Bommentre said. "Erin Reed just passed her gold test. We're trying to convince Ryan to ice dance. Natalia [Zaitseva] is one dance shy of her gold medal. There's so much spatial awareness, which really helps with the longer numbers with more people."

The show was wonderful, including a brand new ballet choreographed by Edward Villella, "Reverie;" "Doodlin," choreographed by Chucky Kaplow; and a spiritual, uplifting new number, "Roots," by artistic director Douglas Webster.

"It's our mission to elevate dancing on ice as an ensemble art form," Webster said afterward. "I see this as a company that is fully accessible to people's emotions. It's my goal with every one of these pieces to take the audience on an emotional journey."

Skating in School

As well as coaching, Palascak is directing a SCOB program called Skating in the Schools.

"We're trying to build connections to the community in Boston," he said. "I work with elementary and middle schools. We take them down to the Frog Pond, which SCOB manages, and I teach them how to skate. And then we go into the classroom and I teach them about the science of skating. We talk about the chemistry of ice -- we do sports science, we do biomechanics, we do health and nutrition -- so they get this whole curriculum that I've developed. It's still a growing program. We're looking for new sponsors, looking for new schools."

"We're trying to bring the joy of skating to as many people as possible," club secretary Alisa Plazonja said. "So, we're expanding our programming with Skating in the Schools; we're at the Frog Pond, and with our new facility. We want to make skating as accessible as possible."

Happy skating,
Sarah and Drew
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