From New Canaan to Sweden, local teen dances on skates
Earlier this month, Ashley Mulhern skated for America. The 16-year-old New Canaanite tidied her long hair in a tight bun, laced up a pair of white ice skates and carved the path of her footwork in ice at the World Synchronized Skating Challenge Cup in Gothenburg, Sweden.
After placing second in the national synchronized skating competition in January, Mulhern joined her 15 teammates on the tri-state Skyliners Synchronized Skating team in representing the States on ice in Sweden where they ranked fifth in the world.
The Skyliners, a seven-year-old competition team comprised of 16 high school girls, is the first junior level synchronized skating team in United States history to earn a medal at every international skating competition and bring home two gold medals in three years.
"The coolest thing is to be able to represent your county," said Mulhern, sitting with her waist-length brown hair tossed in front of one shoulder at her home last week.
"That's really special to me. I remember standing, ready to get on the ice, in Sweden, and I teared up because it was just so awesome. ... And in the background you hear the stands chanting `U-S-A!' It's a lot different competing for your country than competing just for your team."
Mulhern, who has been a Skyliner for three years, describes synchronized skating as "the Rockettes on ice." It's similar to synchronized swimming in that it involves a team working and moving in unison, but it more closely resembles the art, grace and eloquence of dance, she said. On ice, Mulhern and her teammates intertwine arms and dance to music at high speeds as one fluid unit, creating bird's-eye views of circles, squares and pinwheels.
Many of the girls spin on one blade, too -- but not Mulhern. She's left-handed, which throws a wrench in her ability to twirl in sync with her right-handed teammates.
"I don't spin in the programs at all because I would be going in the opposite direction as the other girls, which doesn't really work well for keeping in unison," she explained. "Anytime I'm skating with the team, I'm doing it as a right-handed person. It was frustrating at first, but with years of practice it became easy."
Mulhern said there are only about 300 synchronized skating teams in the nation. Organized in 1956 -- much later than other skating disciplines -- the sport, originally called precision skating, has a small but dedicated following, she said, and it still lacks representation in the Olympic games.
Mulhern first laced up a pair of skates at age 4. Figure skating was a hobby for her early on, and at age 7 she developed an interest in competitive synchronized skating.
Now she skates six days each week. On the one day she strays from the rink, she laces on ballet slippers to practice technique and grace.
"The hardest part about it has nothing to do with being on the ice or practicing, it's really just the sacrifice of missing so much school to travel to compete and not being able to spend time with friends as much," Mulhern said. "It's a huge time commitment, but I wouldn't have it any other way."
She added, "Fifth best in the world is not something many people can say."