Skating: Synchro with a cutting edge

Andrew Baker finds that skating is following swimming in the formation game
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The Independent Online
The John Nike Leisuresports Centre is a weird place, a little winter wonderland parked next to the M4 on the outskirts of Bracknell. Behind a gigantic pseudo-Schloss hotel a chunk of synthetic alp was home to floodlit evening skiers. Inside the ice rink building at the foot of the slope was a stranger scene still: a snake of black-clad figures coiling and uncoiling across the ice to the strains of "There's No Business Like Show Business". It was the Ice Metrics of Bracknell Skating Club, practising for tomorrow's British Team Precision Skating Championships, to be held on their home rink.

"Five, six, seven, eight -" the watching coach shouted, and the 14 skaters broke smoothly from a circular formation into parallel lines on opposite sides of the ice. With arms linked, the two lines skated backwards towards each other. Just at the moment when it seemed they must collide, and without so much as a glance, the arms went up and the two ranks passed safely past each other. It is the kind of manoeuvre beloved of army motorcycle teams at the Royal Tournament. On ice it is less dangerous, but no less tricky.

Team Precision Skating, apparently the fastest-growing branch of the sport, is best described as synchronised swimming with the water frozen. Teams of up to 24 perform two-minute short programmes and four-minute long programmes in which they try to impress the judges, watching from above, with the perfection of their circles and straight lines, the smoothness of the transitions between shapes, and new ideas.

"You don't want to give your team a programme that is beyond their abilities," said Lucine Chakmakjian, who with her partner David Philips coaches the Ice Metrics and their younger offshoot, Ice Precise. "We work on the basic steps and manoeuvres first and then go on to things like head position and different hand-holds and grips."

The most difficult move, according to Danica Banks, the team's 17-year- old captain, is one involving twin circles, in which a ring of 10 skaters rotating clockwise encloses a ring of four rotating the other way, while - and this is the important part - both circles move gently across the ice at the same speed. "It was OK when we did it in competition the other week with both circles going round in the same direction," Banks said. "But when they're going the other way we can't see where we are."

Any disaster is sure to meet with a sympathetic response from rival teams. "It's great how friendly everybody is in the sport," Banks enthused. "If anyone does slip over they always get a fantastic cheer when they carry on."

Seven teams of juniors compete at Bracknell tomorrow for the British title, and seven more at novice level. Valley Skating Club from Lea Valley in east London are the favourites to win every category - especially the senior championship, in which they are the only competitors.

The sport has some way to go to gain recognition at the highest level. There are international championships - Banks skates for the British Ice Britannia team - and the first world championships are due to be held in 2000. Olympic status is further off. But no matter. The scene at Bracknell tomorrow will be every bit as noisy as an Olympic final. "All the supporters bring banners and flags," Banks explained. "They sing songs at each other and bring along cow bells and teddy bear mascots, and there is always a great trade in lapel pins."

The greatest challenge for the organisers is getting all the skaters on to the ice on time. "Part of the trouble is the size of the teams," according to David Philips. "On Monday we'll have a kind of military operation in the changing-rooms, with each team allowed just so much time to get ready." In other words, the Team Precision competitors will really have to get their skates on.