“I need skating in the same way I need air.”
The Pegula Ice Arena is home to Penn State Hockey and to festive communal skating but to Penn State collegiate figure skater Ariel McCoy the rink symbolizes late-night practices, countless hours spent perfecting jumps, calloused feet, bedazzled costumes, performance rehearsals and above all artistry on the ice.
“Pegula is my sanctuary where everything else fades away. As soon as I hear my skates hit the ice, I know I’m home,” said McCoy, a senior majoring in viola performance and print/digital journalism.
McCoy began her figure skating career in her hometown of Crofton, Maryland at the age of three. Her adolescence was spent developing in the fierce world of competitive figure skating.
“From the ages of seven to twelve it was hard maintaining my physique, my composure, my stamina… doing all of that in order to do well in competitions while still being a kid,” said McCoy.
McCoy’s journey from a child skater to a member of the Penn State Figure Skating Team required a reevaluation of the personal importance which she derived from the sport.
“I had to mentally release myself from the toxicity of the competitive circuit. Since then, collegiate figure skating has become the biggest creative outlet in my life,” said McCoy. “I finally stopped trying to impress others and I began skating for myself.”
According to McCoy, performance events like the 2021 Happy Holiday’s Ice Show have granted her the opportunity to illustrate the artistic talent behind a sport that she feels garners little recognition.
“People don’t realize all the elements that must come together for a skater to perform well. Not only do they have to exhibit a high level of technique and athleticism in their jumps and spins… they must learn choreography, have elegance, and entertain as a performer,” said McCoy.
Behind McCoy’s 2 minute 36-second holiday performance solo was over 15 hours of preparation both inside and outside of the arena. According to McCoy, hockey receives preference over rink time often pushing figure skating practices till 9 p.m. McCoy must take advantage of public skate hours in order to squeeze in individual practice time.
“Hockey is what makes the school money so they will always be placed as a higher priority,” said McCoy. “I think part of the reason Penn State does not take our team as seriously is because figure skating is not considered an NCAA [National Collegiate Athletic Association] sport.”
One hope McCoy holds for the future of the program is increased funding and recognition. Despite representing the university in competitions, the program is required to place “club” on all team gear and social media platforms.
“Obviously ‘club’ is just a word, and the team is what you make it but when you hear ‘club’ you think ‘oh it’s just a group of girls who like to skate’. There’s a lot of girls on the team who will tell you that little word carries a lot of weight,” said McCoy.
In the absence of university funding, the financial burden of equipment is placed on the individual student-athlete. According to McCoy, skates average $1,000 and costumes range from hundreds to thousands of dollars depending upon the custom fit and intricacy of the design.
Limited resources, including paid coaches, meant preparation for McCoy’s holiday performance solo extended beyond the plexiglass walls of the ice rink. McCoy choreographed her jazz routine within the parameters of her college apartment. Spending over 4 hours splicing and editing her performance music.
In the face of restricted resources and narrow recognition lies a passion for figure skating that grew with the girl.
“I am a product of my dedication to figure skating. My growth in the sport is reflected in my growth as a person,” said McCoy.
Though McCoy notes that the majority of Penn State’s student body is unaware of the figure skating program, she finds comfort and community in her friendships with fellow teammates.
“I’ve been with these girls since freshman year. We’ve grown together as skaters and really as women. I’ve been in the position where one of the girls on the team got second and I got third. I was just as proud that she got sliver as I was that I got bronze. It’s not about the individual it’s about the team,” said McCoy.
The 2021 Happy Holidays Ice Show illustrates the niche figure skating community present in State College. Figure skaters ranging from youth to the collegiate level showcased their programs on Dec. 5, 2021, at the Pegula Ice Arena.
“The community really supports and shows up for each other. I know that the little skaters look up to us and that is all the recognition I need,” said McCoy.
As the holiday performance season concludes and McCoy enters her final year competing for Penn State she anticipates sore muscles, sleepless nights, and ice burn. At the same time, she reflects on her sadness as time dwindles to engage in her purest form of self-expression at the collegiate level.
“If I was doing this for praise whether it be from my previous coaches or the university, I would have quit a long time ago. I put in the hours with technique and choreography because it’s how I can express myself and be me,” said McCoy. “I need skating in the same way I need air.”