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Wynne reflects on U.S. Champs experience

What makes nationals a special event

Susie Wynne has first-hand experience of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships both as a competitor and as a commentator.
Susie Wynne has first-hand experience of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships both as a competitor and as a commentator. (courtesy of Susie Wynne)

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By Lois Elfman, special to icenetwork.com
(01/20/2011) - There is something about the U.S. Figure Skating Championships that always made Susie Wynne excited to be there -- whether as an athlete or a broadcaster. The two-time U.S. ice dance champion, who commentated at the U.S. Championships for ABC from 2000 to 2007, says it's a competition like no other.

"What always felt special to me about nationals was that you had the best coaches under the same roof. Coaches that you admired from the time you started skating and were watching competitions on television," says Wynne, who competed in senior dance nine times with Joseph Druar (winning in 1989 and '90) and twice with Russ Witherby (earning silver medals in 1993 and '94).

"They were all under the same roof," she continues. "Every skater you looked up to or competed against or just admired from afar or trained with was there.

"Then you had television and the Dick Buttons and all of the TV people and the hoopla around and the energy and the lights. It just had a different smell, sound and feel. All of these people that love the sport as much as you do, are as passionate about it as you are, are all under the same roof and in the same place at the same time. There's something magnetic about that."

Wynne admits she didn't really define her feelings in such terms until she began attending the U.S. Championships as part of the ABC broadcast team. As a skater she just knew it was the most intense and exciting event of the year.

The last year that ABC covered the U.S. Championships, 2007, Wynne and fellow commentators Dick Button and Peggy Fleming were asked to pick their favorite skating moment. Wynne couldn't, saying she found something to admire in each performance.

That year, she attended the Hall of Fame reception and was flooded with memories. Scott Hamilton pointed out Jan Serafine, president of the Board of Trustees of the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame.

"I remember her dad [Joe Serafine] meeting me at the side of the rink and asking, 'How does the ice feel, Susie?'" she recalls. Serafine sat rinkside and monitored the ice every year. "As a junior skater in San Diego (1981) I didn't know who he was. Now you see the history."

Just as skating was a tradition for the Serafines, it became a rallying point for Wynne's family. Relatives and friends came from all over each year to watch her compete. Others gathered together back home to watch her on television.

While competing in a world championship was fantastic -- Wynne competed at worlds five times, as well as at the 1988 Olympic Winter Games -- there was an electricity to the U.S. Championships that came from familiarity.

It took Wynne and Druar six trips in senior dance to land on the podium. So she understands the sense of anticipation young competitors are feeling on the eve of the 2011 AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

"By the time you finally make it [onto the podium] there's a sense that it was really hard fought," she says.

One thing Wynne has enjoyed in her broadcasting career, which began with the Grand Prix circuit on FOX in the late 90s, is watching the ascendancy of North America in ice dancing.

"It was exciting to watch that progression," she says. "Igor Shpilband came to the U.S. and started coaching. He had no trouble starting the little ones. He started at the ground floor and worked his way up. He brought up novice and junior champions first.

"Once I saw his handprint, you could see that things were changing. You could see people's styles changing."

The change began with five-time champions Elizabeth Punsalan and Jerod Swallow. Although they were always strong skaters, when they began to train with Shpilband and his former coaching partner Elizabeth Coates, the quality of their skating took a giant glide forward. In being taught be Shpilband and Coates, the students were in a way being taught by the legendary coaches from whom they'd learned, Ludmila Pakhomova and Gladys Hogg.

"People were skating differently than we had years earlier," Wynne says.

Among those skaters was Wynne's former student, Benjamin Agosto, who she'd taught in Chicago. It was, of course, Agosto and Tanith Belbin that brought the United States back onto the world medal podium for the first time in 20 years and onto the Olympic podium after a 30-year drought.

"When someone wins, everyone gets behind it," Wynne says. "People want to be part of it. Then the system works better. It operates well. Skaters feel confident. Then they try new things. It's a good movement."

Wynne was excited to watch the 2010 Olympic Winter Games from Vancouver and see two U.S. teams in the top four. Now a very strong possibility exists for Meryl Davis and Charlie White to win gold at the 2011 world championships. First up, Greensboro.

"You feel pride for them and excited that something new is happening," Wynne says. "It's growing and moving to the future."