Staggering skating figures

When the clerk at the Toronto-area figure skating store asked Aleksandra if she wanted to know the combined cost of all her purchases, she shook her head.

The high cost of figure skating - sometimes more than $10,000 a year - forces families to sacrifice, but most don't hesitate

It takes time, and a lot of money, to build an elite figure skater like four-time Canadian champion Joannie Rochette. ((Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press))

When the clerk at the Toronto-area figure skating store asked Aleksandra if she wanted to know the combined cost of all her purchases, she shook her head.

She had spent a king's ransom on skates, skate sharpening and costumes for her daughter, Ana, in previous months. It was a painful reality she didn't want to face at that moment.

"I guess you don't clearly want to know," Aleksandra says now.

The truth is inescapable, however: the cost of developing a young figure skater is high, in terms of both time and money.

Each competitive skater has to pay for equipment, ice time, tests, coaches and competitions. The cost increases as the skater advances through the ranks.

"Even at the lowest level, the cost of competing is about $10,000 a year," says Mike Slipchuk, high performance director at Skate Canada. "You could spend that in the blink of an eye. I have heard of costs running as high as $30,000. That's a lot of money to spend on a young skater."

Slipchuk says there are ways to cut costs. For example, instead of buying a new pair of skates, which cost about $500 or more, parents could save money by buying good second-hand skates for their children. It makes sense, he says, given that a growing child could go through two sizes in a year. 

Aleksandra, a self-employed interior designer, knows the costs better than anyone. Her 11-year old daughter has shown great promise on the ice and is determined to compete in the Olympics.

"Clearly, her skating is a costly venture," Aleksandra says, listing the expenses, ending with costumes. "This season Ana has one," she says with a sigh. "But next season she will need two."

Aleksandra says she and her husband, director of product development at a telecommunications company, spend about $10,000 a year on their daughter's pastime. To ensure they can afford it, the couple has passed on private school for Ana, as well as expensive family vacations. They have also put off moving into a nicer home.

This scenario is familiar to many skaters, including four-time Canadian champion Joannie Rochette.

"Of course, skating is very expensive," she says. "When I was a kid, we spent many weekends at hotels for competitions. Both my parents worked. It was a big sacrifice for them."

Girl's skating 'affects entire family'

Ana's skating costs her parents more than just money. "First and foremost, it's a major time commitment that affects the entire family," says Alexandra.

In the summer, the family's schedule revolves around Ana, who attends camp at a Toronto skating and curling club. In the winter, she skates six days a week. On four of those days, Aleksandra wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to drive her daughter to a nearby rink. While she sits in the stands for an hour watching Ana, Aleksandra's husband gets their six-year-old daughter ready for school.

Aleksandra isn't the first mother to make such sacrifices.

"When I was a kid my mother would watch me skate every day," says Rochette, who is competing at the national championships in Saskatchewan this week. "She would sit through every lesson and make me do my homework while the ice was being flooded."

Slipchuk explains: "More families than not would do anything they could to help their child move through the ranks of figure skating. Sometimes, a family will move across the country to give their child the opportunity to compete. In some cases, one parent moves to a new location with the child, and the other parent stays home and covers the cost."

Says Aleksandra: "You look at your budget and you say, 'Trips to places I want to go might not be that important at this time. So let's allow [Ana] to follow her dream and see how far she can get with it.'"

Still, parents are motivated by more than dreams.

Young skaters learn life skills

"A lot of parents want their kids in figure skating because it gives them direction," says Slipchuk. "When I was teaching, I knew a lot of parents who wanted to keep their kids in skating until the end of high school. It gave the kids a path and kept them occupied. A parent would rather spend a couple thousand dollars a year and know where their child is than have the child in trouble on the street.

"These kids might not get to the top echelons of the sport, but they are learning skills that will benefit them in the future."

Aleksandra agrees. "It's good for Ana to have that structure in her life," she says. "She wants to skate, to stay in the gifted program at school and to attend ballet classes. She knows what she has to do in a day to get to all those places. It makes her really organized."

Aleksandra also says figure skating teaches her daughter the value of hard work and gives her a sense of accomplishment. "That is why we make the sacrifices we do."

How much longer can the family afford to support Ana's passion?

"We want to help her get to the highest level she can. But it makes me nervous," Aleksandra admits, pointing to the gloomy economic climate and the growing needs of their younger daughter.

"At this point, we're taking it season by season, and we'll see how it goes. But looking five years down the road? We don't have a clear picture."