Constable: Bored dad takes up figure skating and wins honors
Sitting in the Seven Bridges Ice Arena in Woodridge, cold and bored while waiting for his young daughter to finish her skating lessons, Brian Skeen didn't have enough time to drive home to Downers Grove, zip out to grab some food, or run errands. Surprisingly, even to him, he did have time to launch a figure-skating career that now has the 50-year-old software engineer competing at this month's U.S. Figure Skating national competition for adult skaters.
Growing up in Bristol, a small town north of Yorkville, "as rural as it was, there weren't any rinks around us," Skeen says.
"My parents took us a couple of times to a pond to try out skating. We were little kids, standing up a couple of times, falling, and being really cold," Skeen remembers. "It wasn't a painful experience, just uncomfortable, more misery than fun."
A 1989 graduate of Yorkville High School, Skeen borrowed a pair of ice skates in college to play goalie for his friends' pickup hockey games on the frozen retention pond behind Bennett Hall at St. Joseph College in Rensselaer, Indiana. He'd have to wear a few pairs of socks to make the skates fit.
"They'd stick me in goal and give me a shovel to use as a stick," Skeen says.
Team sports never seemed to fit for Skeen, who did enjoy individual sports such as tennis, biking, martial arts, snowboarding or skateboarding.
"The big thing in the '80s was skateboarding," Skeen says. "We built ramps. It was good fun."
He did similar jumps and spins while snowboarding. His reintroduction to ice skating came eight years ago, when his then-5-year-old daughter, Nico, attended a birthday party at Seven Bridges and "had a blast."
Skeen, and his wife, Julie, enrolled their daughter in weekly Friday skating lessons, and the dad became the "designated chauffeur," watching from the stands for more than a year.
After his wife bought him a pair of hockey skates at a garage sale, Skeen would skate with Nico at the end of her lesson. He caught on quickly. Kids take a while to go from tentatively walking on skates to pushing off and making the long, powerful strides that skaters call strokes, but Skeen could do that almost immediately.
"Adults have the strength," says Gilbert Sosa, a former competitive figure skater and coach for Skeen and others.
"I kind of went 'Monkey see, monkey do.' I watched the kids' lessons very intensely," says Skeen, who discovered Seven Bridges was giving adult lessons on a different rink at the same time. "I'm going to be here anyway, I might as well take lessons."
He did so well and had so much fun during a year of group lessons that Skeen also took private lessons from Sosa.
"I started taking an interest in jumping and the fancy moves," Skeen says. "Those came to me almost immediately."
He went from a simple waltz jump (jumping forward on one foot, and landing backward on the other) to the other five jumps, from Lutz to Salchow. "The axel (a jump where the skater spins a revolution-and-a-half in the air), I'm still working on," Skeen says, noting he can complete that jump but needs to perfect his landings.
While taking lessons with Sosa, Skeen began testing on the U.S. Figure Skating Adult tracks. He currently skates at the bronze level, the third-best of four adult levels. He also is a member of the Northern Ice Skating Club.
In addition to his competitive solo skating, Skeen is a member of the adult team for Creative Ice Theatre, a Naperville-based group that performs exhibitions and competes in theater show contests. In 2019, the team performed a "Cinderella" show at the national competition in Birmingham, Alabama. "It turned out to be a real Cinderella story for the team," Skeen says, as it won the silver medal.
His first individual competition came at the 2020 United States Figure Skating Midwestern Adult Sectionals in Springfield. Skeen finished second in the adult men's bronze division to win the silver medal with his routine to the song, "Send in the Clowns." The pandemic shut down other competitions until the 2021 U.S. Adult Figure Skating Championships, June 23-26, in Rochester, Michigan.
"He just got really into it," Nico, 13, says of her dad. "And it's really fun when you have a skating buddy."
While Nico isn't interested in competing, the two still skate beside each other after their Friday lessons. She says she likes having a dad who is a competitive figure skater.
"In the adult community, it's not nearly as competitive as it is for the kids," Skeen says. "Adult competitive skating is exciting and interesting, but the drama is intentional. We have fun with it."
While many of the older skaters were avid competitors as teenagers, Skeen isn't the only adult who started skating in his 40s. The proliferation of suburban ice rinks has helped fuel adult programs, says Sosa.
As a teenager, Sosa skated at the U.S. Olympic Training Site in Colorado Springs, where he fell short of reaching the Olympics, but had fun sharing the ice with 1968 Olympic gold medalist Peggy Fleming and a young Dorothy Hamill, who went on to win the gold at the 1976 Olympics. Now 70, the Glen Ellyn man no longer competes, but he still skates and coaches.
As an adult, Skeen rose through the ranks in a martial arts program, and those fighting kicks and spins "translate very well to the ice," says Skeen, who likes to joke, "I have a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and I have blades on my feet."
If a psychic predicted the suburban dad would become a competitive figure skater, "I would have laughed," Skeen says. "But I've learned so quickly and picked up so much. It's been a blast."
As he glides around a rink where young girls practice spins and budding hockey players hone their skills, Skeen seems in a world of his own.
"It's just sheer joy. I'm loving every minute on the ice," Skeen says. "An undiscovered talent that came to the surface."