Freshman figure skater glides to victory

Picture the stereotypical figure skater. She’s 5 feet 1 inch tall with the curves and stature of a toothpick. Her flowing locks are harmoniously forced into a tight bun on the back of her head, and pounds of glittery makeup cake the face surrounding her pearly white smile.

She puts on a wonderful show, but she would argue it takes a huge amount of effort to walk in her shoes – or, more appropriately, skate in her boots.

One Gannon University student can attest to living the life of a competitive figure skater – but she’s far from the stereotype.

Danielle Mather – an 18-year-old freshman physician assistant major from Oswego, N.Y. – rises to a towering 5 feet 3 inches and has the shape of a person, as opposed to a toothpick, but she knows, and arguably rules, the world of competitive figure skating. Like many other Gannon students, she sports curly brown hair, a dab of eyeliner, a black fleece jacket and Ugg boots as she strolls down A.J.’s Way clutching her smart phone.

Unlike many Gannon students, though, Mather has been figure skating for 15 years. Not only skating, however, but constantly winning competitions.

Mather first started skating when she was 3 years old. She began by participating in family skate sessions, and then after a year of enjoying the ice, she enrolled in a learn-to-skate class, and eventually moved into private lessons.

Mather specializes in freestyle skating, which is a series of jumps, spins, footwork and artistry combined with whatever music the skater chooses. In this kind of skating, only one athlete is on the ice, which means it is completely up to Mather to either make or break her score.

Over the years she’s been skating, Mather has progressed from beginner to Senior Lady in freestyle skating – the highest rank a skater can get. She is also considered a triple gold medalist in freestyle. She has competed in countless events and performed well in almost every single one.

“I think I’ve taken over 30 tests,” she said, “and I’ve only failed one.”

She said her main reason for getting into skating was the ease with which she learned the sport. “It kind of clicked,” she said.

She said she kept skating all these years, though, because stopping never seemed like an option. Pressure from her family or her coaches wasn’t an issue, she said, but instead she felt a sort of need or calling to continue skating.

“There’s just something that keeps pulling me back,” she said.

Mather said she has had time in the past to contemplate her dedication to the sport, such as when she was recovering from various injuries, but she always ended up returning to skating. “I just can’t not skate,” she said. “It doesn’t work.”

She said she doesn’t really know why stopping was never an option, but those who know her say her dedication to skating is what has kept her on the ice for the past 15 years.

Her longtime head freestyle coach, Renée Epps, said Mather has a real passion for figure skating that becomes especially evident when she’s on the ice.

“Danielle’s extraordinary,” she said. “It’s really been my privilege to have her as a student.”

She also said that Mather works incredibly hard to achieve what she has, and that her competitive nature and determinedness give support to the ease with which Mather has skated through the different levels.

“Not only is it so easy because Danielle is naturally gifted, and figure skating is just something natural to her body, but Danielle is very enthusiastic,” Epps said. “She’s an extremely hard worker, and one of my very favorite things about Danielle is she is a fierce competitor.”

Epps said she has been teaching skating since 1984, and she has been coaching Mather for the past 11 years. It’s clear that Epps is incredibly proud of all of Mather’s accomplishments.

Another person who is very proud of her accomplishments in skating is her father, Dan Mather. He said he has watched Danielle progress from being able to do very little to winning several gold medals. He said she works very hard, but it’s the passion she has for the sport that keeps her going.

“I’m inspired when she falls and she gets back up again, and she goes and does it again,” he said.

Epps said Mather has achieved the very highest levels that there are in freestyle. “Most girls do not get their senior freestyle,” she said, “just because it’s so hard to achieve and it takes a very, very high level of free skating.”

Another freshman physician assistant major at Gannon, Julia Leix, has been figure skating since she was 5 years old. The relationship between coach and skater, she said, is different from anything else out there.

“They built me into a great person,” Leix said of her coaches. “I feel like it’s a different sport because it’s really one-on-one. That’s a lesson, just her and you. They’re like family.”

Leix and Mather would say the close bond that forms between coach and skater is not the only thing that makes figure skating a unique sport. Mather said it was sometimes difficult for other people her age – not to mention her teachers and school officials – to understand her commitment to skating, because it was not considered a school sport.

She said it was especially bad in high school. “I practiced all year round, while those athletes only practiced for a season,” she said.

She said that before college she used to practice for two to three hours a day, seven days a week.

Leix, meanwhile, said skating isn’t always given the credibility she says it deserves. She said people often don’t understand how hard skaters work to achieve their goals.

“You don’t live to train 30 or 40 hours a week for nothing,” she said. “It’s a dedication to do figure skating. Come out onto the ice and skate around – do what we do – and then maybe you can talk.”

Another difficulty that comes into play with competitive figure skating is the judging. Mather said competitions can be very intense, especially because there are so many things – a lot of times complete accidents – that allow the judges to take off points.

She said a skater can lose points if a hair tie or bobby pin comes off, and plenty of possible costume violations keep the judges busy, too.

She said the judges can often be unfair, depending on what a skater looks like on the ice. “They’re not supposed to judge you on what you look like,” she said, “but you know they do.”

All the difficulty that goes into skating has clearly not fazed Mather, though, according to Epps. She described Mather as focused, dedicated and determined.

“Not a lot of things frighten her when she takes the ice, and that’s kind of rare,” Epps said.

She also said Mather’s hard work almost always works to her advantage on the scoreboard. “Danielle is one of those kids that I could put a $100 bill on the table and tell you that she’d almost always skate clean and almost always come in the top four in medals,” she said. “It’s a really, really rare occasion when Danielle does not perform well.”

Leix said figure skaters must have a real dedication to the sport in order to succeed. “You really have to be able to keep excelling,” she said. “I think once you get to a top level, that’s how you have to be and that’s how you have to look at things. If you want it, you can get it, you just really have to want it.”

Epps said it’s now going to be up to Mather whether they continue their lessons. She said there are some moments when Mather sounds like she’s going to continue competing, and there’s other moments where she’s overwhelmed with school. She said they won’t know until something actually happens.

Now that Mather has reached the top of her freestyle game and the state games are over, she said she’s gone on to working on her international ice dances – a tremendously difficult thing to achieve, according to Epps.

She said Mather has passed four out of the nine dances, and that once she’s done with the rest, that’s pretty much it for her skating career. “There will be nothing left for her to achieve, literally,” she said.

Epps also said Mather is free to take lessons for as long as she’s able to after this point. Figure skating, she said, is nothing like riding a bike. It takes a lot of hard work, and the skills can – and will – be lost if the skater doesn’t practice continually.

Both Epps and Leix said Mather should keep competing as long as she can.

Leix said that Mather is currently at the prime age for her specialty. “The girls that win the Olympics are like 18 or 19,” she said. “You don’t see 30-year-olds doing freestyle.”

Since she came to Gannon, though, Mather’s had to put skating in the backseat for a while, but she said she is by no means done with it. She said trying to find ice time in Erie has proved difficult – ice time is only offered at one rink in the area, and it’s only for a couple of hours on Thursdays. She’s only made it to the rink twice since she’s moved in.

Though she hasn’t been able to skate as much as she’s used to, Mather is certainly keeping herself busy at Gannon. When she’s not studying for the PA program, Mather can be found reading a book or listening to music.

She said she enjoys reading “typical girl stuff,” such as Nicholas Sparks, although she said she will read pretty much anything. As far as music goes, she said she’ll listen to pretty much anything, with the exceptions of country and metal.

Other than that, she enjoys spending time with her friends. She acknowledged that it’s difficult to describe her life outside of skating, because that’s what it was all about for so long.

As Mather moves forward with her life, she said she’s not entirely sure what she wants to do, but that she has big plans for the future. Her original goal, she said, was to become a doctor someday, but her grandfather and uncle – both doctors – talked her out of it.

She said their stories of a doctor’s life taking a toll on family time didn’t appeal to her. “I wanted to have a family,” she said, “but I wanted to be in the medical field.” She said she found some middle ground in Gannon’s PA program.

She said her cousin, who is currently in medical school and did mercy medicine in Ghana, set an example she’s eager to follow. “Listening to his stories was very eye-opening,” she said.

Ultimately, she said she is looking forward to working in an operating room some day.

Dan Mather said his daughter used to talk about skating professionally for a while by joining an organization such as Disney on Ice. He said that since she’s started college, though, her priorities have shifted.

“She’s such a motivated individual that now she’s motivated on becoming a physician’s assistant, and so she’s studying and going down that road right now,” he said. “I think she realizes it would be hard to take a year off or two years off of her schooling to try to go and skate at Disney on Ice or something.”

Danielle Mather said the most important thing, though, is that she be able to continue doing what she loves.

She said she worked full time as a skating instructor at her home rink last year, and she is eager to get back into teaching. It’s one part of skating she doesn’t see herself giving up any time soon. She said she did inquire about a job with the Westminster Figure Skating Club of Erie, but they weren’t looking for anyone new at this point.

“It’s frustrating,” she said, “because I know I’m better than those coaches.”

She said the biggest problem with finding a job coaching – and not just in Erie, but anywhere in the country – is that the coaches who have seniority will automatically be favored over anyone new, even if the new person is at a more advanced skating level.

Regardless of these frustrations, Mather said she has never considered giving up skating. She said she can be having the worst day, but being out on the ice always makes her feel better.

“There’s days I absolutely hate it,” she said, “but it de-stresses me. It helps me get away from the world.”

KELLY MORELAND

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