I entered Martin Brodeur Arena in Saint-Leonard, a Montreal suburb where nearly half the population is of Italian origin, to meet with some of its daughters. The interview was scheduled in an upstairs room, before the team warm-up. I ran up the steps, only to find the doors locked. The music was loud; a spasmodic beat of feet tapping against the floor reverberated. I peered through the crack between the doors and noticed a group of young women rehearsing a routine. Confused, I concluded it was a group of ballerinas. A man noticed me: "Staring at the girls, eh?" I blushed, as he led me to another entrance.
Team Photo: Courtesy of Les Suprêmes de St-Léonard
There, I finally stood before Les Suprêmes de St-Léonard - the reigning Canadian synchronized skating team champions, as a result of their victory in Montreal last winter. In addition, they proved their world-class talent by gliding and gyrating to a bronze medal at the World Synchronized Skating Championships in Ottawa in the spring. Who are Les Suprêmes, whose motto is "A successful team beats with one heart"? According to 24-year-old team member Vanessa Rosa-Delvecchio, they are "a dedicated team, each member working hard for one another."
Les Suprêmes skate as a group of twenty girls and four spares. When they clasp each others' hands, as forty blades cut sharply through the ice, they become one entity. "The love of the sport," continues Rosa-Delvecchio, is their motivation. As she spoke, the man who had teased me earlier reappeared. "Hey, that's my daughter!" he said, good-naturedly and proud. A little parental support always comes in handy! The team showed its poise during the off-ice rehearsal. Their smiles were broad and radiant, and giggles broke out here and there. Julienne Bucci, also 24, confessed that before she gets on the ice "she feels really sick to my stomach." Sure fooled me. Thankfully, though, "practice makes perfect." As Bucci explains, the team practices three to four times a week, three and four hours at a time. They stretch, skate, practice their choreography, and work on their conditioning. It took years and years of hard work to reach the senior level, and still more determination to become Canadian Champions. After finishing second several times in the national championships, Les Suprêmes finally won gold in Montreal in 2003.
The crowds - usually comprised of other skaters, family and friends, and swelling numbers of fans - are increasingly enthusiastic. At the Nationals at the Maurice Richard Arena in Montreal, "the fans went nuts," says Bucci. Later in the year during the World Championships, a capacity crowd of 7550 people at Ottawa's Civic Arena created pandemonium. The day after Les Suprêmes won bronze, the Ottawa Sun headline read: "Les Suprêmes Rock Packed Civic Centre."
Les Suprêmes have a flair for putting on a good show. Ironically though, the team choreographer, Kathy McCraw, is not a skater. "I can't skate for my life!" she offers candidly. As a former Canadian ballroom dance champion, she knows a thing or two about music and dancing, however.
Over the years, McCraw has seen a vast improvement in Les Suprêmes' ability to absorb and retain a "feeling" for the music. They have elevated their threshold of difficulty and their creativity every year, resulting in a magical 2003.
Les Suprêmes' coaches Benoit Venne and Lyne Forget possess a vast wealth of experience and knowledge about the sport. Since taking over Les Suprêmes in 1997, they brought the team to Canadian synchronized skating supremacy in just seven years. Venne and Forget are both affable, witty and elegant - like conductors on ice.
They are the ones who maneuver the imaginary strings binding their skaters together, devising a well-balanced program of circles, lines, blocks, wheels and intersections.
Les Suprêmes reached their zenith in 2003 by skating to "Love," by Nat King Cole and Nathalie Cole, during the short program. In the short program each team has a maximum of two minutes and forty seconds to perform the same technical elements. For the long, "free" program, Les Suprêmes paid tribute to silent, black and white movies. Each skater became a comedian, making funny faces - a flood of grimaces on ice. Tania DeiTigli, a ten-year veteran said it was the team's "all-time favourite program."
Like all sports, synchronized skating can be quite expensive. As amateurs, Les Suprêmes are not paid to skate, though Skate Canada provides some funding. To offset some of the expenses incurred for travelling to competitions, for instance, Les Suprêmes raise funds by selling chocolate, hosting parties at local clubs, selling half-and-half tickets at the Montreal Alouettes' home games, and team calendars. Coaches Venne and Forget readily acknowledge that more sponsors would be welcome. "Why not a cosmetics company," one says only half jokingly. "Look how beautiful they are!"
While I spoke with the coaches, the skaters took to the ice. As they zoomed by, their hair slicked in a ponytail, I could feel the vibes, their quest for perfection. There was an aura of certainty and passion about them!
When asked how the team would fair in the new year, DeiTigli declined to make any predictions, modestly saying: "As our coaches always tell us, skating is not about winning, it's about going out there and performing, knowing you had fun coming off the ice and you could not have done any better." Spoken like a true champion!
In 2004 the reigning Canadian Champions will be defending their title at the Nationals in Winnipeg in March; the Worlds will be held in Croatia in April. Undoubtedly, Les Suprêmes will be skating as one . . . synchronized to a heartbeat.
Gaetano Di Falco is a freelance writer in Montreal.