You’re never too old to become a figure skater

With expert advice and the right attitude, the sport is great for aging bodies. Maureen Palmer, producer, To The Worlds

Wendy Ord, director of the CBC documentary To The Worlds, took up figure skating in her fifties after a divorce, and today, her enthusiasm for the sport is contagious.

I personally decided to get back on the ice to teach my four-year-old grandson how to skate thinking, “How hard could it be?” After two spectacular falls (in the first minute) I hoisted myself up muttering, “that Wendy is crazy.” It turns out; she’s anything but!

A growing number of boomers are embracing figure skating and learning how to land Lutzes, Loops and Axels well into their old age. If you can get your head around the occasional fall, it’s the ideal exercise for an aging body: a weight-bearing aerobic activity that builds strength while honing balance, body awareness, posture and flexibility.

But there are some things to consider before hitting the ice. 

Start by consulting an expert

If you haven’t been on the ice in decades, or at all, it’s best to consult an expert before lacing up. Steve Ramsbottom, from the Vancouver-based Performance Institute, is a strength and conditioning specialist who has trained elite hockey players and world-class skaters.

Increasingly, he finds that he’s training people well into their fifties and sixties — “people who previously had a big interest in sports, then had careers and families, and now find free time and want to be active once more.”

It’s important not to attempt to pick up where you left off, says Ramsbottom, who recommends everyone begin with an assessment. “As we age, we get restrictions. So I screen for movement patterns, alignment problems,” he explains.

“Hips get tight if a body has been plastered into a seat. People find they can no longer perform a full-depth squat or overhead movements without compensation. Maybe they’ve sustained a shoulder injury, and their range of motion is limited.”

The good news is that the body can become strong again. The key, according to Ramsbottom, is a slow progression. “I don’t make clients in their sixties do squats until they vomit,” he laughs.

After an assessment, he teaches older skaters how to warm up properly. From there, he drills good movement patterns. “We progressively work on endurance and load. That’s where the foundation of strength and flexibility comes in,” Ramsbottom says.

Find a knowledgeable trainer

The same approach is used by Aaron Lowe and Megan Wing, the former ice dancing pairs champs who now own Vancouver Ice Dance Academy. Lowe has a master’s degree in human kinetics and Wing has her master’s in psychology. Together, they work to remove the physical and psychological barriers faced by older skaters.

Lowe coaches championship ice dancers Diana Barkley and Geoff Squires, who began skating as a pair in their sixties. “I get enormous satisfaction helping them master a new jump or a clean spin,” he says. “It’s all still fresh and new and exciting — a great psychological boost.”

“With older skaters, you need a knowledgeable trainer. Someone who can read their athletes and really listen when they say, ‘Hey coach, this hip is killing me today,’” Lowe adds. “Older skaters are really motivated and work their butts off. A coach that understands what happens to an athlete’s body over time can help an older athlete pace herself.”

In other words, while an elite athlete in their early twenties could push past injury in his or her quest for a medal, someone in their sixties who does the same thing risks becoming permanently sidelined. 

Wing believes another key to enjoying skating in your senior years is managing expectations. “We start to see a major physical decline after 65. That’s where the overuse injuries show,” she says.

But that reality is offset by a joy that’s unique to her older clients. “Skaters tell me, ‘I don’t care if I look stupid. Whatever happens, happens. Who knows about tomorrow?’” Wing says. Freed from the intensity with which many younger people attack sports, older skaters can truly live in the moment.

Prevent injury from concussions

The biggest challenge mature figure skaters face is fear of injury — especially concussions. Fortunately, older athletes don’t tend to let how they look prevent them from wearing helmets. “And, if they have done the proper training, they have more confidence in their skills and balance,” says Ramsbottom.

He adds that new research shows that a strong neck is key to minimizing concussion damage: “It’s especially critical for older skaters who have limited neck mobility and have lost good postural alignment.” Ramsbottom encourages clients to perform isometrics to strengthen their necks.

And if you want to be super-safe, there’s always padding. Wendy Ord, director of To The Worlds uses “the same stuff that bulletproof vests are made of. It’s soft, but when you hit the ice, all the molecules go together, and they go rock hard for two seconds.”

Mental attitude is the key to success

At almost 60, Ord’s got the speed, endurance and agility of someone decades younger. She’s trained for it and has gone to extraordinary lengths to protect her body. But the real key to Ord’s success, says Wing, who watched Ord’s journey unfold in To The Worlds, is in her mind.

“It’s okay to get old; it’s inevitable — you have to accept it,” Ord says. “But you don’t have to go down without a fight.”

Watch To The Worlds on CBC Docs POV.