Blues figure skaters win third consecutive OUA Championship

Ashley Hui named OUA Coach of the Year

Blues figure skaters win third consecutive OUA Championship

In a close battle between the University of Toronto and Western University that came down to the results of the final events, the Varsity Blues figure skating team won their third consecutive Ontario University Athletics (OUA) Championship on Wednesday.

The Blues earned 88 points, four above the host Western Mustangs. Toronto’s consistency led to their success; the Blues finished on the podium in 12 out of 14 events.

Blues captain Lila Asher explained how the team managed to pull out the victory. “We were sitting behind Western for the majority of the time until the very end. They had a 10 point lead going into the last three events and then we had a second place and two first places that were enough
above Western.”

In her final year with the team, Asher won gold in the second last event, women’s pairs fours, alongside teammates Christina Liao, Melanie Zavitski, and Felicia Bonitatibus.

“The whole audience was silent while we were skating [and then] the whole crowd cheered, which is something that usually doesn’t happen,” said Asher.

Bonitatibus attributes the strong performance to the close bond and trust the group has developed in training sessions and competitions throughout the year. As a rookie, she’s been able to compete in every competition this year and said that “the team became a family as the season progressed.”

“All four of us skated clean and it was easy to smile throughout the program,” said Bonitatibus. “At the end, it sounded like everyone in the stands were cheering for us and we all hugged each other because we knew that we left everything out on the ice and could not have skated the program better.”

Fourth-year skater Melissa Eratostene won her first OUA open solo dance title following a well-executed Viennese Waltz and an Argentine Tango routine. She entered the event with additional motivation after placing a close second in the event at last year’s OUA Championships.

“Winning the gold medal in the open solo dance event was one of the most rewarding and memorable experiences of my varsity skating career,” said Eratostene. “Finally winning the event just proved how all the hard work I’ve put in the past four years paid off, and taught me that patience, perseverance and dedication is key to achieving your goals.”

“To me, winning the championship symbolizes all the hard work and dedication everyone on our team has demonstrated these past few years, and represents the resilience and perseverance through some of the challenges we have faced this year,” she added.

Blues head coach Ashley Hui enjoyed seeing how her team came together and supported each other “unconditionally.”

“Up until the very last individual event [pairs four], it was so tight, so just seeing them skate the program of their lives and bring the choreography to life was such an inspiring and re-energizing moment for the team,” said Hui. “No words can describe the amount of effort this team has put in.”

The third-season head coach also won OUA Coach of the Year honours following the event. The championship also marks the first three-peat in Blues figure
skating history.

“The way this team has grown so much with each other over the course of the last three seasons — the initiative, support, and bonds they’ve made — speak louder than any banner,” she said.

She asked for more: Ashley Wagner, the sports media complex, and female anger

What the Wagner controversy shows us

She asked for more: Ashley Wagner, the sports media complex, and female anger

 

Ashley Wagner is a mainstay of US figure skating — a veteran of the international competition scene and a household name. She left the Sochi Olympics with a bronze medal, placed second at the 2016 World Championships, and is a three-time US National Champion. At 26, Wagner is one of the most senior athletes involved in the US figure skating program — which made her qualification bid for the upcoming Olympics all the more critical. But Wagner failed to qualify on January 6, coming in fourth behind rising up-and-comers Brandie Tennell, 19, Mirai Nagasu, 24, and Karen Chen, 18.

Besides her elegant and performative style, Wagner is known for her outspokenness — at the Sochi games, she broke with official US policy and openly criticized the Russian government’s discriminatory policies toward their LGBTQ+ citizens. This tendency was sparked again after her failure to qualify, unleashing a storm of media attention. Following the event, she told reporters, “For me to put out two programs that I did at this competition as solid as I skated and to get those scores, I am furious, and I think deservedly so.”

Wagner acknowledged that judges should be strict on technique, and she attempted to explain that her issue was with the specific segment of scoring that impacted her overall result — the subjective component score. Wagner received a 68 on her component, or artistic, performance, while winner Bradie Tennell landed a 69.71. Tennell, though technically strong, has the “emotional range… from the bottom to the top of a shrug,” according to journalist Dvora Meyers.

This discrepancy led USA Today columnist Christine Brennan to lambast the US Figure Skating Committee on Twitter, writing, “Tennell is an amazing jumper and talent, but not in Wagner’s league on components, not even close. Judges here clearly wanted to dump Wagner.”

The compelling aspect of this controversy is the broader reaction to it. Wagner has been virulently attacked on Twitter. This response exemplifies how frequently public expressions of female anger or frustration are vilified. Compounded by the institutionalized gender inequalities in sport — which include unequal distributions of funding, media attention, and a male monopoly on perceived biological norms that underscore athleticism — Wagner’s outspokenness is a challenge to general patriarchal norms of female behaviour and perceptions of female athletes.

Prominent women in sport are often treated as if they arrived by chance — and as such, should display eternal gratitude for being awarded the right to exist on such a plane. A strong consensus exists among the scholarly community, expressed by Eoin J. Trolan at the PSU-USM International Conference on Humanities and Social Sciences, that women are “still viewed as women first and athletes second, while their male counterparts have no such concerns.”

Moreover, the sports media complex is instrumental in the reinforcement of this gendered hierarchy of value. Today, sports media extend far beyond television to include endorsements, advertising campaigns, and the more general use of sport-based imagery or rhetoric as a commercial tool. The glut of advertising and overall spectacle of the Super Bowl is a clear example of the normalization of this phenomenon.

Janet Fink of the University of Massachusetts Amherst explains that since “mass media [have] become one of the most powerful institutional forces for shaping values in modern culture,” the images and narratives looped across the world carry incredible power. For example, the Amateur Athletic Foundation of Los Angeles reports that 98 per cent of American boys between the ages of eight and 17 consume sports media. This means that generations of young men are shaped by misguided and damaging interpretations of sport and athleticism, as well as the role of women more broadly.

When female athletes are portrayed, the focus is rarely on their athletic achievements; rather it is on “their physical appearance, femininity, and/or heterosexuality.” Fink posits that these differences in media coverage create, foster, and disseminate stereotypical gender roles, “producing a variety of economic, social, and political limitations that intensify the patriarchal power structure still so sharply entrenched in our culture.”

The fallout of this patriarchal dominance extends beyond athletes to coaching staff, trainers, and even female reporters, as recent allegations against ESPN highlight. In the summer of 2016, a complaint against the media giant was filed at the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, alleging vast inequality between male and female employees. Beyond fair pay, the allegations included instances where “men have made unwanted sexual propositions to female colleagues, given unsolicited shoulder rubs, and openly rated women on their looks.” In one horrific example of the power of this culture, a former female anchor reportedly performed a scheduled broadcast while having a miscarriage to prove her commitment to the job — that she could ‘tough it out.’

In light of this, the response to Wagner’s comments make sense. In challenging the terms of her judgement, she violated the terms of her acceptable existence as a relatively prominent female athlete. She displayed unfeminine, unattractive attributes: she was not gracious, quiet, or grateful. She publicly voiced anger and frustration. She asked for more.

A conservative analysis of the situation might argue that no, this was not a factor of gender, but rather a violation of basic norms of sportsmanship. Wagner lost fairly, and she shouldn’t have run her mouth about it. However, Wagner never criticized other skaters and has been publicly supportive of the winners, tweeting “Congrats to the lovely ladies of the team, you’ve got me in your cheering squad now!” Further, in an interview with NBC on January 10, Wagner stated that the judges “absolutely made the right call with this team,” but she stood by her initial reaction.

University of Toronto Varsity Blues figure skating team co-captain Lila Asher agrees that it is “important for athletes to be gracious whether they win or lose, out of respect for their competitors.” However, she also explained that considering the timing of Wagner’s initial interview, which immediately followed an emotionally intense performance, “I think she is justified in expressing her genuine frustration.” Asher highlighted the intense pressures faced by female figure skaters to “perform a specific type of femininity,” and she mentioned how damaging this can be for young athletes, regardless of gender. She also pointed out the rampant homophobia in figure skating more generally, demonstrating how prejudice impacts the entire gender spectrum.

Thus the real nucleus of the Wagner controversy is not this obtuse notion of sportsmanship, but the backlash her post-performance comments generated — and the sports media that fed it. The complex is both a reflection of and a contributor to our patriarchal society, which is instrumental in reducing sport to a privilege too few can experience.

Women are not the only victims of these imbalances; men and non-binary individuals are also undermined by constructed notions of gender identity. As powerful men fall from grace across industries, the time is ripe for systemic change in sports media.

Return next week for Kate’s article on the steps needed to make significant and lasting change in sports media.

Behind the scenes with the Varsity Blues figure skating team

Blues take gold at first competition of the season

Behind the scenes with the Varsity Blues figure skating team

When stepping on the ice at a competition as a member of the Varsity Blues figure skating team, it’s cold, quiet, and all eyes are on you. Each athlete’s placement in their respective event earns points for the team overall. As we compete, we know the pressure is on and our team is counting on us. After countless hours of training, all we have is a tightly choreographed three minutes in which to perform with grace and polish.

Rather than adding extra pressure, the team environment of Varsity figure skating is incredibly supportive. Most of us grew up training as individual competitors, so representing a team and practicing in groups is a new experience. Through the weeks of practice, long bus rides, and early morning preparations, we find strength in our teammates and value our friendships as much as our gold medals.

Here’s an inside look at our journey, as the Varsity Blues figure skating team earned gold at the OUA Fall Invitational in Ottawa last week on November 23.

Not only do we support our own team, but it is a tradition to give good luck cards to the other schools at each competition. PHOTO COURTESY OF VARSITY BLUES FIGURE SKATING TEAM

Figure skating requires exceptional athleticism, as well as perfect matching hair. PHOTO COURTESY OF VARSITY BLUES FIGURE SKATING TEAM

First-year skater Felicia Bonitatibus gets some last-minute encouragement from assistant coaches Mackenzie Bent and Katia Fedyushchenko before her event. Bonitatibus was enthusiastic after a great performance, saying, “This was my first Varsity competition and the atmosphere was amazing, I couldn’t help but smile while skating.” PHOTO COURTESY OF VARSITY BLUES FIGURE SKATING TEAM

Veteran ice dancers Melissa Eratostene and Stéphanie Carroll are in their third season together. They impressed the judges with their unison in the Open Short Dance, including difficult elements like the pairs spin. PHOTO COURTESY OF VARSITY BLUES FIGURE SKATING TEAM

Meredith Busch and Gloria Gao have already hit their stride in their first year, skating together for the Intermediate Similar Pairs event. PHOTO COURTESY OF VARSITY BLUES FIGURE SKATING TEAM

Melanie Zavitski, another first year athlete, represented the team in two events in the competition. “This has been an amazing experience so far, and I am super excited to be a part of the team this season!” she said. PHOTO COURTESY OF VARSITY BLUES FIGURE SKATING TEAM

Thanks to consistent top-five placements, we collected enough points by the end of the day to finish in first place overall. Co-captain Keiko Marshall reflected, “It was a great experience to see where we stand with other schools and where we can make improvements, but as a whole everyone did so well! I think I speak for anyone in saying that I couldn’t be more proud.”

Head coach Ashley Hui was also proud of the team: “It’s not just their preparation for competition – it’s the team unity and obvious love for the sport that makes this team such a joy to coach. They have come such a long way in just a month and a half and I’m incredibly excited to see their development this season.”

Another banner for the blues

Figure skating team wins 2016 OUA championship

Another banner for the blues

In a win that was 25 years in the making, the Varsity Blues figure skating team claimed the 2015-2016 OUA banner last week at Varsity Arena. The competition saw the Blues defeat four-time defending champions Western by a margin of 27 points.        

It was an unexpected victory for the Blues, considering that this is head coach Ashley Hui’s inaugural season.             

After completing her bachelors of science at the University of British Columbia, Hui came to U of T to pursue a master’s degree in biomedical communications. It is this decision Hui credits as the first of many that started her journey towards coaching the team. “Schooling paved the way to me having… this opportunity,”  said Hui, adding, “ I never expected like a year ago, two years ago that I’d be coaching…it was just the way everything fell in[to] place.”         

After trying out for the Blues figure skating team on whim in 2013, Hui joined the team and took home two OUA medals in her career (one of which was a silver medal at last year’s competition with teammate Kaitlyn Liu in the intermediate similar pairs competition.) “If it wasn’t for biomedical communications, I wouldn’t have tried out for varsity,”  said Hui who laughingly added, “and three years later I guess I’m coaching now.”             

Like many athletes who come to the end of their career and decide to try their hand at coaching, the transition was a big change for Hui who, as a head coach, is now responsible for navigating team dynamics while managing a surprising amount of administrative work.

“The moment you start coaching you realize that you really have to be a people person and have to check in with every person on your team,” said Hui.

She summed up the transition from competitor to coach by remarking on the difference in preparing for a competition. She recalls something as simple as not bringing her skates to competition as an event that really made the contrast hit home: “I headed into my first competition as a coach and I kept on packing my bags but I kept on thinking they felt really naked and I was like what am I missing,” Hui remarked. “You always tell your athletes, ‘remember to bring your skates to the competition,’ so when you don’t have them when you’re so used to that, it’s a really big change.”             

Despite the bittersweet transition, Hui took to coaching immediately, remarking that coming into the season she had a plan for some specific changes to the program she wanted to make, as well as the type of team she wanted to create. “I knew going into it…there were things I needed to change,” she said. “Overall I think that I needed to refocus the team and help them really just focus on their training and so that they can train effectively.”

As a former varsity athlete, Hui came into the position with an understanding of the structural changes that needed to be made — starting with the team’s atmosphere. “Every single person I can confidently say enjoyed training and being a part of the team…and being a former athlete I think those were the things that we really, really wanted to emphasize,” said Hui.             

Improving last seasons OUA performance by 50 points, the Blues’ win on Tuesday confirms that Hui is doing something right. “I think going into OUA’s I had a better grasp of where the team stood amongst the other schools and yeah, I think the team was really, really relaxed” said Hui, adding that her motto for the year — training smart, not hard — paid off in the end. “We definitely pulled through and kept our heads down and that’s all that we needed to do.”             

By the end of the two-day competition, the Blues had amassed nine medals — five of which were gold — and tallied 92 points. When asked about who some of the key performers during the competition were, Hui laughs and, after naming almost half of her roster, says that every athlete played an important role in the banner win, even athletes who didn’t enjoy podium finishes.

“Everyone had their own place even if in standings they weren’t the top they were one of the top and so it’s all about consistency,” she said.              

When asked about her goals for next season and if she sees herself with the Blues long term, Hui explained she is excited to tackle the challenges that another season may bring. “The Varsity Blues program has been extremely accommodating and supportive this year with the changes that have happened in varsity figure skating,” she said. “It would be ideal to provide my athletes with a post-season to avoid injury and wind down in a manner equivalent to the way the season has progressed; unfortunately, we have yet to secure any ice time since the OUA Championship.”

Despite the red-tape, Hui said that coaching a squad like the Blues figure skating team is all about balance, and recognized that there may come a time when the team outgrows her. However, for now, she is enjoying the success of her team and looking forward to next season. “It’s going to be a fine balance finding out when that time will come, but… for now I’d say like we’re [doing] well for a new team with new growth.”

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