Ice Network

Ice House celebrates 20 years of Olympians

Hackensack facility home to 10 PyeongChang-bound skaters
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Switzerland's Alexia Paganini is one of 10 skaters headed to PyeongChang who trains at Ice House in Hackensack, New Jersey. -Getty Images

Elite sessions at the Ice House have an Olympic feel these days: Ten of the skaters training at the four-surface facility in Hackensack, New Jersey, have booked tickets to the PyeongChang Games.

"It's all anyone is talking about -- everyone is really excited," Alexia Paganini said. "We're all in the same boat, trying to be the best we can be for PyeongChang. Everyone is so supportive. When we do run-throughs, everyone is clapping."

The 16-year-old Paganini, who competes for Switzerland, and most of the rest of Hackensack's Olympians -- including two-time Canadian world ice dance medalists Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje and former European silver medalist Alexei Bychenko of Israel -- will perform in "Ice Dreams," an Olympic send-off show Saturday at 6 p.m. that also marks the facility's 20th anniversary.

"I'm laughing because it's been 20 years and it seems like five minutes," said Craig Maurizi, the Ice House figure skating director since 1999. "If the walls could talk...there are a lot of stories, not too many I can share."

When Maurizi came on board, legendary Russian pairs coach Tamara Moskvina was at Ice House with Olympic champions Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze and three-time U.S. champions Kyoko Ina and John Zimmerman. Moskvina returned to Russia after the 2002 Olympics, but other top coaches -- including Alexander Zhulin, who trained Olympic champions Tatiana Navka and Roman Kostomarov, and five-time U.S. champions Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev -- followed.

Nikoli Morozov came to Hackensack around 2005, and over the years has coached Japanese stars Miki Ando, Daisuke Takahashi and Nobunaro Oda as well as 2016 U.S. champion Adam Rippon. Currently, he coaches Weaver and Poje as well as PyeongChang-bound Brendan Kerry of Australia.

Maurizi attributes the facility's high profile in part to Sarah Hughes, who trained there with Robin Wagner for a few seasons prior to her Olympic triumph in 2002.

"When Sarah won, it was just fantastic, not just for the Ice House but for skating in the New York area in general," he said. "There were a lot of people who were interested in seeing where she trained."

Paganini's ascent to Olympian was fast and, in some quarters, unexpected. After placing fifth in junior at the 2017 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, she began training under Maurizi and Igor Krokavec at Ice House. Her new coaches suggested reaching out to the Swiss skating federation.

Paganini's father, Celso, was born in Switzerland, while her mom, Margo, also a Swiss citizen, hails from the Netherlands. The couple moved to the U.S. 17 years ago and reside in Harrison, New York. Alexia has had a Swiss passport since birth.

"I don't really consider myself (as coming from) one specific country," said Paganini, who speaks German. "I consider myself a universal person, a Swiss-American."

Despite its long tradition in the sport, Switzerland did not qualify any figure skaters for the 2014 Sochi Games. When its skating federation learned of Paganini's intentions last spring, it was interested.

"They feel they are the luckiest federation on earth," Maurizi said. "For them, it came out of the blue, so to speak. They had no inkling. There was no prior conversation. It was only when she switched to us (that) it was bandied about."

"It's unreal to be able to fulfill my long-term dream, and it's crazy it's actually coming true," Paganini said.

It didn't happen automatically. After Paganini, the 2016 U.S. novice silver medalist, competed for the U.S. at a Junior Grand Prix event in August 2016, she received a release from U.S. Figure Skating and did not compete internationally for 12 months. She traveled to Switzerland in August 2017 for a pre-season monitoring session, during which she passed all of the senior tests, Maurizi said, as well as an international test that required three different triple jumps.

Paganini first represented Switzerland at the 2017 Slovenia Open in early September, when she beat the likes of Kailani Craine, winner of the 2017 Nebelhorn Trophy and a four-time Australian champion, and Nicole Rajičová, the three-time Slovakian champion who also trains at Ice House (and who also used to compete for the U.S.). That event was a tune-up for Nebelhorn, where six Olympic ladies spots were up for grabs. Sixth after the short, Paganini pulled up to win the bronze after a solid free skate to music from The Phantom of the Opera.

"She wasn't even 100 percent (at Nebelhorn)," Maurizi said. "She had a small stress fracture in her back and was training at about 50 percent capacity, but she gutted it out."

In December, Paganini won the Swiss title in Neuchâtel, where two-time world champion Stéphane Lambiel was on hand with several of his students.

"He was very nice, very encouraging," Paganini said. "Everyone was very welcoming. They wanted me; they gave me the opportunity."

Earlier this month, Paganini skated personal-best programs on her way to placing seventh at the 2018 European Figure Skating Championships.

Maurizi expects his skater to show improvement at her next competition, and beyond.

"Alexia is one of the most receptive and coachable skaters I've ever worked with," Maurizi said. "Some skaters are able to have a better sense of music and to emote at age 16; others are still growing. I'm 100 percent confident that, when she is ready, she is going to be a very expressive skater, and we're hoping to show some strides at the Olympic Games."