Ice Network

Hurricane Irma disrupts Florida skaters, coaches

Storm impedes routines of athletes as they prepare for competition
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Hurricane Irma left total devastation in its path, and the storm also caused members of the Florida figure skating community to alter their plans in order to travel to competitions. -Getty Images

With Hurricane Irma bearing down on them, Silvia Fontana and John Zimmerman took refuge… in an ice rink. Zimmerman said the brand new Florida Center Hospital Ice rink in the city of Wesley Chapel was the safest place for his family during the storm.

"They built it with hurricanes in mind," Zimmerman said of the facility. "It's Category 4-rated, with impact glass all around."

Wesley Chapel, where Fontana and Zimmerman reside, is about 20 miles north of Tampa near Florida's gulf coast. Irma, originally forecast to go up the east coast of the state, ended up tracking just to the east of Tampa on its northward path. It came ashore near Naples as a Category 3 storm.

Fontana and Zimmerman -- along with Zimmerman's parents and Fontana's mother -- packed up their three young children on Sunday and set up air mattresses on the floor of the coaches' dressing room at the rink. Sofia, 5, Eva, 4, and one-year-old Jack thought the whole experience was an adventure.

"We stayed in the lounge for a bit, watching TV and playing games," Zimmerman said. "Once we ended up bunking down for the night it was fun. The rain was pretty torrential, strong and heavy, but it came in spurts. The winds were at the level of exciting but not 100 percent scary. After about an hour you get kind of used to it."

"It was scary," said Fontana. "When we left the house we weren't sure what we were going to come back to."

Despite being surrounded by trees, the Zimmerman house survived unscathed and the family was back at home on Monday. Many of the skaters who train in Florida evacuated in advance of the storm, as the governor recommended.

"I'd say 80-percent of the families decided to evacuate," said Amanda Evora, who coaches at the Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex, which is roughly 40 miles south of Tampa. "It will be interesting to see how quickly everyone can come back. My flight today was canceled twice, so my fingers are crossed that things will be open tomorrow. There's still no gas at any gas stations in Florida."

Evora and fellow coach Jim Peterson already had plane tickets out of town Thursday, as they were heading to New York City for the Middle Atlantic championships. On Monday, Evora was still stuck in the city, with airports in Florida remaining closed. The third member of the coaching trio, Lyndon Johnston, was on his way back by car.

"It was hard leaving because we knew [the hurricane] was coming," Peterson said Monday afternoon. "We started getting a lot of phone calls! It's hard when you're not there. We had a plan in place but that got thrown out the window. A lot of our skaters did evacuate, and as of now, we still don't have power."

With various regional championships coming up in short order, it was tough for skaters to leave their rinks and coaches. On the other hand, widespread power outages were forecast and did, in fact, occur. Without electricity, there is no ice. On Monday, Evora said that she and Peterson were working hard to find ice for their skaters.

"Plan A is to head to Tampa, where one rink reportedly has power. We'll travel there if the power doesn't come on in our rink," she said. "It has been out for about 24 hours or so."

As of Monday, skater Nathan Bartholomay was able to report that power had come back on at the Ellenton rink late that night.

According to Zimmerman, his rink in Wesley Chapel never lost power, but there aren't too many skaters expected to show up. As she texted her students to find out if they had gotten home, Fontana received reports of terrible traffic jams.

"All I get is pictures of lines of cars," she said.

Zimmerman said that FEMA had considered using the rink as a staging area, but fortunately it wasn't necessary.

Some skaters have imminent competitions to prepare for, like the 2017 U.S. International Figure Skating Classic in Salt Lake City this weekend, and the Junior Grand Prix competition in Belarus, which starts next week. Peterson said he will be, if all goes well, flying to Belarus next Monday with one of his teams, Elli Kopmar and Jonah Barrett. If necessary, he planned to have the team head to Salt Lake City, where he is now, so they can get in some training time.

Bartholomay and Deanna Stellato-Dudek will be competing in Salt Lake as well, and they were able to fly in early so as not to miss last-minute practice. It wasn't easy, though. After changing plans multiple times, the pair flew from Tampa to Jacksonville on Thursday, spent the night, and then flew to Houston before arriving in Salt Lake City on Friday.

"A hurricane is always a little unsettling," Bartholomay said, after Monday's practice in Salt Lake City. "On Tuesday, we got a call from U.S. Figure Skating suggesting that we might want to leave for Salt Lake a little bit early. That was kind of an affirmation for us that we should go with our gut."

"Everything was pretty last-minute," Stellato-Dudek said. "We had thought we would have the weekend to pack and prepare but instead had to do everything in a rush. We're very thankful to U.S. Figure Skating for getting us out of harm's way and to the competition."

"It was pretty chaotic at the airport," Bartholomay added. "You haven't flown until you've flown on a plane full of people who haven't flown before! People were complaining about really normal things."

Despite the upheavals, the pair says they have been practicing well and they're looking forward to the competition. The rink in Salt Lake City has been accommodating, allowing them to skate on sessions normally only for singles skaters; "I bet we scare them," said Stellato-Dudek, laughing.

Bartholomay says that, like all athletes, they take challenges in stride.

"Honestly, it's kind of hard not to just roll with it when something like this happens," he said. "Everybody wants everything to be perfect but you'd be surprised how easy it is to adapt. Things have been going really well. When you're ready, you're ready."

The good news for the skating community was that everyone got through the storm unscathed, and even their homes were, for the most part, undamaged.

Peterson said that the most difficult aspect for him was the feeling of powerlessness.

"You're in airports, you're in hotels, you feel completely helpless," he said. "The best you can do is just give your students direction. As a coach, you always want to be in control of the situation. We always want to be there and manage."

For Evora, the last few weeks have been doubly stressful. Her family, who live in Houston, continue to cope with the flooding and damage caused by Hurricane Harvey.

"My sister's house is 67 feet above sea level, and the water rose to 64 feet," she said. "Their neighborhood was flooded."

Evora delegated a friend to check on her own house in Bradenton.

"I had our seamstress drive over and she said it was fine inside and out," Evora said. "I'm so thankful that everyone has survived with minimal damage."

UPDATE (9/18)

Life is not exactly back to normal for Florida's skaters and coaches, as they cope with the damage and power outages caused by Hurricane Irma. Some rinks in the Miami area are still without ice, sending skaters scrambling to find a place to practice.

John Kerr coaches at the Pines Ice Arena, about 20 miles north of Miami. Irma knocked out the power at the rink for a week, causing the ice to melt. Although the power has since been restored, skaters won't be able to resume training there until mid-week.

Kerr and his students have been skating at Panthers Ice Den in Coral Springs, about 25 miles away from Pines. Panthers is the home rink of Andrew Torgashev, who was in Colorado Springs when the storm hit.

"He couldn't come back when he was planning to," said Torgashev's mother, Ilona Melnichenko. "It was good that he could train there because our rink was closed for one week."

Melnichenko and the Panthers arena have welcomed skaters from nearby areas who need ice.

"We have a lot of coaches and their students, and it's working really well; everyone is happy," she said. "After Hurricane Wilma (in 2005), we didn't have ice for three months and we had to go to different rinks to teach, so this time we've been lucky."

Most of the skaters who normally train at Pines are preparing for regionals, and one student, Mexico's Sofia del Rio, will be competing at the Nebelhorn Trophy next week. Exacerbating the problem was the fact that the schools in Florida were closed all last week.

"You can definitely tell a bunch of the students had cabin fever, so I think getting to the rink was a relief," Kerr said. "They had no school, and they had no power, so they couldn't even play video games.

"It's crowded at Panthers, to be honest, but it'll get better tomorrow, when school starts. Hopefully, we'll get [Pines] back this week and get back to a normal routine."

Kerr, his wife and their baby boy live in Coconut Grove; their house sits on an island, right by the water.

"If you were anywhere near the water, you lost power. A lot of the trees are uprooted," Kerr said. "Where I live, there was a pretty big storm surge. When the water recedes, everything is dead. It's a bit of a mess! It's going to take quite a bit of time to clean up."