Serpentine journey to skating nationals
Qualifying for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships is never easy.
But for Happy Valley resident Samuel Mindra, the journey to the 2021 nationals has been especially circuitous.
The 17-year-old Mindra placed third among 12 competitors in the Junior Men's division of the competition. Despite a challenging year, he improved significantly upon his 10th-place finish in 2020. His score from the short program and free skate performances was a personal-best 181.49.
That Mindra competed at nationals for the fourth time in six years is a testament to his resiliency. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, he was displaced from his home rink, Sherwood Ice Arena. In order to train, he spent time at rinks in Colorado, Washington and Klamath Falls.
"There is very little that phases him. He's very straight-forward and to the point. When he knows what he wants, he does what he has to do to make it happen," said Mari Malama of the Portland Ice Skating Club, who has coached Mindra for seven years. "Even if that means living away from home for most of the week in a trailer park to train and only see his family on the weekend."
The process of qualifying for nationals was different, too. Instead of the usual regional preliminary competitions, skaters qualified by submitting videotaped programs. Mindra qualified with the third-highest score among 33 junior men who submitted entries.
Last year's 10th-place finish earned him the chance to represent the United States at the 2020 International Challenge Cup last February in the Netherlands. On his first trip outside the United States, Mindra placed fourth among Junior Men (second place for the short program, fifth for his long program).
"It was fun for me. It was different and new," Mindra said of competing internationally. He enjoyed the environment and the opportunity to watch world-class skaters up close, and competing internationally for the first time provided a shot of confidence and a clear vision of his future.
"It helped me to know I could reach my goals," he said.
That competition happened shortly before COVID-19 shut down rinks, including Sherwood Ice Arena, whose owner recently announced he would permanently close the facility.
For more than six years, Sherwood Ice Arena has been home base for Mindra, and for many of his Portland Ice Skating Club teammates. Losing the familiar facility meant an ongoing search for training options. To prepare for nationals, Mindra spent more than a month training in Klamath Falls. The Bill Collier Community Rink is outdoors, so has been allowed to stay open. It was there, on short notice, that he refined and performed his routine that was submitted to qualify for nationals.
Mindra's resiliency was first tested during a frustrating two-year period when an injury prevented him from competing. A displaced fracture in the growth plate in his right ankle was initially diagnosed as an ankle sprain, delaying the surgery and rehabilitation work required.
The injury, along with the complications all teen athletes experience with growth spurts, made for an especially difficult period — during which his coach thought Mindra might give up skating.
Malama said Mindra's family and support group in the skating community encouraged him not to abandon his dream of competing at the sport's highest levels. That struggle made his accomplishments a year ago extra special, Malama said.
The fifth of nine children, Mindra's introduction to skating came when he was about age 4. He found he enjoyed it more than other sports, and when he was 11 he began to train with Malama. Since becoming serious about the sport, he has spent six days a week at the rink. He is a high school senior at Oregon Connections Academy, a public online school.
Malama said she saw Mindra skating with his family at Lloyd Center before she was asked to coach him.
"Anyone could see he was talented, but he was also fearless," she said. "In all the years that he was skating without a coach, he had figured out how to do things himself. He would watch skaters on the freestyles before public sessions and try to copy what they were doing."
That focus and commitment served Mindra when the pandemic closed Sherwood Ice Arena. Mindra and his teammates used video meetings to train for 10 weeks during the spring. In May, he traveled to Colorado Springs to train at the Olympic Training Center. He traveled to Tacoma, Washington, for time on the ice until that rink was shut down in November.
The closure of Sherwood Ice Arena, if permanent, would be a blow beyond his own skating. Mindra recently joined the Professional Skaters' Association and began teaching some younger skaters at the Sherwood facility.
If the Sherwood facility remains closed, it would leave Winterhawks Skating Center in Beaverton and Mountain View Ice Arena in Vancouver, Washington — each with one sheet of ice — as the only facilities for ice skaters and hockey players in the metro area.
The future of the sport could be in peril if rinks around the country are forced to shut down permanently, Malama noted. She said that figure skaters can train with social distancing, unlike a contact sport such as hockey.
"Bottom line, it is possible to let skaters skate in a safe manner," she said. "Many rinks across the country have been doing that since May. It's difficult to fathom why a rink must shut its doors when the mall is bustling with holiday shoppers."
This week, the uncertainty about where to train in the future will be put aside as Mindra competes at the premier event for U.S. Figure Skating.
Mindra was excited to perform his routines to music used by Japanese skaters he admires. He chose his short program music — "Legends" by Sacred Spirit — and edited it himself.
Despite the chaotic year, Mindra got stronger during pandemic shutdowns thanks to vigorous off-ice workouts focused to build his strength and flexibility. The technical elements of his programs are more advanced than last year. His long program includes seven triples, two of those in combinations.
Despite the more difficult jumps — and the challenges of perfecting them on ice sheets far from home, Mindra said he is excited and confident, though he'll miss the energy that comes from performing for spectators.
"There's less pressure (this year) because I've got the experience of success at nationals, so I know what to expect," Mindra said prior to the competition.
That confidence showed as he jumped from eighth place after his short program to third place overall with a strong free skate performance on Jan. 21.
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