Ice Network

Boston's skating history on display at U.S. Champs

Club's 100th anniversary, 'Boston Strong' performance highlight tradition
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Numerous trophies line the hardware cabinet of the Skating Club of Boston, serving as a constant reminder of the city's rich skating history and tradition. -Sarah S. Brannen

BOSTON -- After finishing her short program at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center, Megan Wessenberg was feted by a few flying stuffed animal lobsters on the ice. A group of about 30 fans were perched at one end of the ice arena with signs reading, "Gooooooo Megan."

You get octopus on the ice in Detroit. In Boston, it's lobster.

"I told her it's not often you get to do this and compete in your hometown, so enjoy it," said her coach, Mark Mitchell.

And there are few places in the country where skating history is as strong as it is here in Boston.

The city is home to The Skating Club of Boston, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. The club boasts numerous national, world and Olympic medalists, dating back to Theresa Weld Blanchard, who was the first U.S. ladies champion, winning her crown a century ago. (Weld Blanchard also was the first American Olympic skating medalist, claiming a bronze in 1920.)

So much of Boston and skating is its history. Among other notable skaters who have trained at the Skating Club of Boston over the years are Maribel Vinson Owen, Dick Button, Tenley Albright, Paul Wylie and Nancy Kerrigan.

The club has had its share of triumph but also of tragedy. In 1961, the entire U.S. figure skating team was killed in a crash en route to the world championships and many of those lost were from Boston. There is so much memorabilia, trophies and documents galore, that the rink doubles as a museum to the sport.

Ross Miner, the 2013 U.S. silver medalist who represents The Skating Club of Boston and is competing in the men's event this week, said he was helping move old dinnerware at the rink one day and inadvertently came across a letter from the then mayor of Boston congratulating the club's team for its performance at the 1961 U.S. Championships.

It is hard to escape the history -- not that it's something the club wants to do -- but there is also a concerted effort to move forward.

Hosting the 2014 Prudential U.S. Figure Skating Championships this week is a huge reminder of the city's past and present in the sport. And it is appropriate that Boston is hosting the 100th edition of the U.S. championships.

"You can't ask for a better inspiration for these kids at our club than having nationals in Boston," said Peter Johansson, the skating director at The Skating Club of Boston.

But it's also a time for the city to look to its future in the sport. Boston has already been chosen to host the 2016 World Championships, the first time it will be the host city for that event.

And the club is in the process of building a new facility. Construction on a $61.5 million, three-rink facility (two NHL sized, one Olympic) is expected to begin this year. The club's current location is a one-rink facility that it began using in 1938.

Mitchell coaches many skaters at the club including the junior Wessenberg and U.S. Olympic hopefuls Miner and Christina Gao. The coach, a three-time U.S. medalist who trained at the Skating Club of Boston in his competitive years, has witnessed a transformation.

 "Growing up skating here myself, you know about the city's history, and the history cannot be denied," Mitchell said. "We are so lucky to have that, but I think there's really been a renaissance here in the last 10 years or so."

One big change Mitchell has seen lately is the increased popularity in the "junior activities" at the rink, including Friday night exhibitions.

"When I was there we did those because we had to," Mitchell said. "Now the kids want to go and get together."

The club has been able to attract young skaters to New England, especially since there are so many elite colleges and universities in the area. Gao, for instance, had been training in Toronto but came to Boston not only to work with top coaches in Mitchell and Johansson but also to study at Harvard.

Miner, the 2013 U.S. silver medalist, is a native of Vermont but has lived in Boston for about a decade. Miner lives in Watertown, less than a mile from where officials located one of the suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings. He was so deeply impacted when the bombings occurred at the Boston Marathon last year that his free skate is titled "Boston Strong." The music, from Michael W. Smith's album Glory is both harrowing but inspiring.

The program has been a challenging one for Miner because of its emotional implications. It has him and others at the rink.

Simon Shnapir, who trains in Boston with pairs partner Marissa Castelli and coach Bobby Martin, said he expects the program to resonate with the city when Miner performs Sunday in TD Garden -- the home of the Celtics and Bruins.

"We've seen it in practice, but I know once he goes and competes we'll all really feel it then," Shnapir said.

Added Castelli: "It just shows how strong Boston is."

One of the proudest moments in the lengthy pairs career of Castelli and Shnapir came last June when they were honored at the club's annual banquet, and a banner in their names was hoisted to the rink's rafters. They won the 2013 U.S. pairs championship and were added to the history of the club.

"Our history is so rich," Castelli said. "We just hope to continue it."