Ice Network

The Inside Edge: Skaters balance training, studies

Nagasu, Johnson meet rigorous classroom demands; Duhamel adopts pup
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Alex Johnson, left, poses with students from the University of Minnesota Figure Skating Club, of which he is a member. -Courtesy of Alex Johnson

This past December, as some skaters competed at the Grand Prix Final, others were engrossed in another kind of final: final exams. Competing at the senior level is demanding enough, but several athletes do it while attending college full time.

Kevin Shum, who took part in the Junior Grand Prix Series last fall, finished 12th at this year's U.S. championships in Kansas City. He did all that while a sophomore at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studies computer science and engineering.

"Last fall I took Introduction to Algorithms, Math for Computer Science, Oral Communication for the computer science department, Sports Technology, and Sport as Performance," said Shum, who noted how tough it is to add a training regimen to his rigorous course load.

"I sometimes don't even know how I manage, but it's nice for me to have a balance," he continued. "When I'm on the ice, I don't think about school, and when I'm in school I don't think about anything skating related. I don't have to constantly stress about both schoolwork and skating. It also forces me to be very productive and to structure my time, and prioritize what I really want to do."

He said that he sometimes has to make sacrifices, skipping some skating time to prepare for an exam, or missing school to travel to a competition. Despite these inconveniences, Shum remains dedicated to his craft.

"Whatever I do on the ice is exactly what I have to do, and nothing more," he said. "I'm ruthlessly efficient."

Johnson studying at UMN

After spending a few years taking online courses, Alex Johnson is back at the University of Minnesota, enrolled full time at the university's Carlson School of Management and planning to graduate next year.

"Originally, I was in science and engineering at the university back in 2008, and somehow I was on a super-long leave of absence," Johnson said.  

Johnson took six courses last fall, all while training toward a sixth-place finish at the U.S. championships. This semester, he's taking 18 credits -- mostly finance courses -- along with studying Italian.

"I wanted to do a foreign language because I love languages and I love Italy," Johnson said. "I think it's so valuable to develop different parts of your brain."

Johnson's business communications course involves public speaking, which he said is much more anxiety-producing than skating in front of a packed arena and a nationwide television audience.

"I would rather go compete at nationals than present to a class of 20 people," he said with a chuckle. "I literally got back from nationals and I had to give an introduction speech to the class. After delivering the assignment, I was like, Alex, you should not pursue a career in public speaking."

Johnson said the biggest problem with simultaneously going to college and training is sleep deprivation.

"In the fall, there were numerous times when I was up until 2 a.m. working on a project, and the next day I would come to the rink and just feel exhausted," he said. "But it's almost kind of a blessing because it makes you very efficient. Instead of doing repetitions that you don't need to do, I would go in, warm up, do my elements and do my program. I feel like so many skaters get injured because of over-training. It's all about quality over quantity."

Nagasu hits the books in the Rockies

While Johnson and Shum plan to continue going to college full time next year, Mirai Nagasu -- who attends the University of Colorado Colorado Springs (UCCS) -- said she will cut back on the first part of the 2017-18 season while continuing her studies.

At present, the reigning U.S. pewter medalist is taking accounting, statistics and a course in management and marketing.

"If I'm not at the rink, I'm probably home studying," Nagasu said. "I panic when I'm not prepared. I'm a really intense studier."

Asked how she managed a competition schedule that included trips to two Grand Prix events and two senior B's, Nagasu said, "I drink a lot of coffee! I've had a lot of late nights recently."

Nagasu said that she would occasionally take a tiny bit of time out of her training day for school.

"There were a couple of days that I had exams that I wasn't prepared for, and it definitely distracted me, but I went to the rink and got the job done, and then asked if it was OK to go home and study," she said. "Once I come home, my stress level turns to my education."

Several other senior-level skaters are also at UCCS, including Max Aaron, Angela Wang, Jordan Moeller and ice dancer Karina Manta. Aaron has been a full-time student all year, studying finance with a minor in communication.

"I like keeping busy," Aaron said. "I like having an outlet outside of skating. I have friends in the sport and friends who have no idea what skating is."

Aaron schedules his training first and then builds his school schedule around his training day. UCCS is very familiar with working around athletes' training schedules.  

"When the semester started, I talked to the professors and asked them in advance what would be due," Aaron said. "I don't do homework during the competition. I do my entire semester's (homework) ahead of time. I'm already finished with all the chapters of homework for this semester. All I have left are exams to take. Whatever I do, I'm all in."

Wang is majoring in exercise science.

"I want to be a physical therapist," said Wang, who carried 14 credits last fall. "I spend all my time with them anyway! I see the impact that it's made. I think the human body is amazing.

"It was a lot," she continued. "I think the first two weeks were the hardest, adjusting. I went from taking just one class to a full load. I adjusted my schedule after the first couple of weeks to make sure I was getting rest and recovery. I had a month off from school before nationals, which was nice, to just concentrate on training and rest."

Nevertheless, Wang feels that going to college helps her skating.

"If I have a bad day at the rink, it's nice to go to school and forget about it," she said. "Nobody cares if I run a bad program."

Manta is majoring in English with a minor in pre-law.

"I really love school, so it doesn't feel like a chore to be going," she said. "It definitely takes a lot of planning. I have the whole week planned out. I enjoy skating and school more when I'm doing both, because for me, it has a positive effect. It's my personality to have a lot of things going on."

Agent Moeller?

Moeller is following an interesting path at UCCS, studying criminal justice and psychology. His coach, Kori Ade, has a degree in forensic skeletal biology, and Moeller is considering a career in forensic psychology.

"It's been a busy semester," Moeller said. "I'm doing Introduction to Biopsychology, Introduction to Research and Measurement in psychology, Violence in Society, and Graffiti and Crime. I know, it sounds really depressing."

Just to make sure he's really busy, Moeller has also started a job at the Olympic Training Center.

"It's always a constant adventure of trying to juggle schedules," he said. "I have to adjust and readjust. But I feel like the busier I am, the more motivated I am to get stuff done, just because I have to be."

Moeller also feels that having something else to focus on benefits him overall.

"As skaters, we get tunnel vision because we're very focus-driven," he said. "It's so easy to get wrapped up in it, and if we have a rough day in training, there's nothing else to balance that out. Training is the first priority, but school allows me to have other outlets. I could always get more sleep, but I try and prioritize that so I don't go insane."

Rescue dog

Meagan Duhamel returned home from the Four Continents Championships with a silver medal…and a dog. She had heard about a program run by a humane society that gives away Korean dogs that would otherwise be used for dog meat soup.

"Korea is the only country in the world that has commercial dog meat farms run legally," Duhamel wrote in an email. "First, I donated to the Free Korean Dogs association and after a few days I thought, why don't I adopt one?"

Free Korean Dogs takes dogs from meat farms and puts them in shelters, and then arranges for adoptions within Korea as well as sends some dogs to new owners in Canada and the United States. Duhamel's new dog, Mootae, joins her rescue beagle, Theo.

"Mootae had been rescued and was living with a Buddhist nun at a temple," Duhamel wrote. "She said Mootae follows her in the morning to meditations and that he is a peaceful dog. It seemed right up my alley! Mootae flew back to Canada with me, and he seems happy at home with his new brother, Theo."

Duhamel, an outspoken vegan, says that one of her long-term goals is to open an animal rescue center.

Starting fresh

Max Settlage, the 2014 U.S. junior pairs champion who split with partner Madeline Aaron last summer, has found a new partner: Winter Deardorff.

Deardorff, who is from Kentucky, competed as a novice singles skater at the 2017 Eastern Great Lakes Regional Championships, where she finished sixth. She had never tried pairs skating prior to trying out with Settlage last August.

"I really liked the way that skating with another person felt -- it's kind of a comforting feeling," she said. "I'm very excited to try something new."

Settlage, 24, and Deardorff, 16, made the decision to team up at the end of February. They'll train in Colorado Springs with Dalilah Sappenfield.

"I wanted to think my options through really clearly, but this was the best possible option for me," Settlage said. "We have a lot to get done, but I know Dalilah will get us where we want to be. I can't tell you how excited I am for the coming season."

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