Penn doesn’t have a varsity figure skating team. But maybe now that 2012 graduate Ami Parekh is looking to become the first figure skater to go to the Olympics from the University, they may look to promote the club sport.
Parekh, who will officially graduate in August after transferring from Wesleyan, is the first woman to represent India in international senior skating competition, making her debut in 2007.
“I started skating after I watched the Olympics when I was young,” she said. “My brother and I would jump up and down on the kitchen floor trying to copy the jumps.”
Parekh started taking formal lessons when she was nine, and it wasn’t long before her coach decided she had some definite potential.
By the 2001 competitive season, Parekh had already begun to make a splash in the American skating scene. She placed first at the North American Juvenile Regionals, seventh at the U.S. Junior Nationals and first in the North Atlantic Intermediate Regionals (2002).
In 2006, Parekh made her international debut at the ISU Junior Grand Prix Spin of Norway after competing in several sectional and regional U.S. competitions. She placed 17th in Norway, and was then told that because of her age,18, she would have to move up to the senior level.
Parekh made her senior debut in February of 2007 representing India at the ISU Four Continents Championship, placing 20th and at the ISU World Championships, where she placed 44th.
“There was something exotic about it, representing India as a figure skater,” Parekh said. “In India when I did shows, people were like ‘whoa, what is that?’”
Then, everything was abruptly put on hold.
“I got injured, and I tried to come back after a month, but it was just too painful,” she said. “So I decided to stop because I thought I would just always have trouble with it.”
She instead chose to focus solely on school, enrolling at Wesleyan and then later transferring to Penn.
But the sport, like it does to so many who decide to hang up their skates for good, crept back into her life.
“My brother was training as an ice dancer in Aston, Pa, and during my breaks I’d go hang out with him and skate a little. I was really starting to miss it, my injury was getting a little better, and suddenly it felt like I could come back.”
Parekh originally toyed with the idea of making the switch from freestyle skating to ice dance and possibly competing with her younger brother. But he later decided to focus only on school, so Parekh transitioned back to freestyle.
She started slowly, working to get her spins, footwork and jumps back a little at a time, and it wasn’t long before people were beginning to suggest that she start competing again.
Now more than ever, she said, feels like the perfect time to really go for it again.
“I feel good, I feel even better than I did in 2007,” she said. “I feel stronger and more mature, mentally and physically.”
This past year, she drove to Wilmington, Del., to train with her coach, Karl Kurtz, while juggling a full courseload.
“It was a balancing act, and it was hard,” she said. “I’d sometimes go to class still in my sweats, and I was even really late for an exam once because of heavy traffic — but I pulled through. I was very lucky to have a car and to know some very supportive people. Karl helped me to move forward with skating while I juggled it all.”
On the weekends, when she didn’t want to make the trek to Wilmington, she would even log some ice time at the Class of 1923 rink.
“It was a comfortable atmosphere, so I’d skate there sometimes when I just wanted to be relaxed,” she said.
She made her official return to international competition this past spring, when she competed at the International Challenge Cup in The Hague, Netherlands, placing 20th overall, and subsequently qualified for the 2012 ISU Senior World Championships in Nice, France, placing 46th overall.
“It felt so awesome to be back — I didn’t feel nervous at all, I was just happy to be back,” she said.
Locally, Parekh also entered and won Skate Wilmington in July and is planning to enter larger international competitions starting in the fall.
Even though her classes are over, Parekh’s schedule — and her balancing act — are no less intense.
She works part-time jobs, teaches at her home skating club and squeezes in her own training.
“I’ve been skating as much as possible, but I can’t train as much as I could back in 2007,” she said. “I have to work because the Indian Federation doesn’t fund my training.”
Parekh is hoping to find and earn sponsorships in the coming months before the 2012-13 competitive season so she can focus harder on her training. And she needs to focus, because her competitive goals are lofty.
“The Olympic trials are approximately a year from now,” Parekh said. “That’s the goal.”
The Sochi 2014 Winter Games are certainly within Parekh’s reach, especially since she wants to represent India. She is within 10 technical points of qualifying for the Olympic standard, and if she can compete at more ISU senior competitions, she can improve her ISU World Ranking points.
What is different this time is that she may not be alone in representing India. She said winter sports have gained popularity in her country, especially in the northern regions.
“When you think of India, you think of heat,” she said. “But they have a national hockey team and speed skaters that have just started to compete internationally, and many of the players are from near the Himalayas, which abound in natural ice rinks. It’s been five years since I first competed for India, and I feel it’s not a new thing anymore. India could actually become a great place for developing the sport.”
As for figure skaters, Parekh said there could be a few who may make the Olympic point standard and compete with her. However, last year she was the only one to qualify for the ISU Senior Championships.
Parekh is also about to make another major change to her training — moving to Chicago with her family.
The change, however, will likely be a positive one for her career. Parekh plans to work with Oleg Vasiliev, who won gold at the 1984 Sarajevo Games in pairs and silver at the 1988 Calgary Games. Vasiliev coached the 2006 Olympic gold medalist and two-time World Champion team of Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin.
“She came to me to try out a couple of weeks ago in Chicago, and she seems to be a very hardworking, very talented skater,” said Vasiliev.
Watching the Summer Olympics now just makes Parekh even more excited to make her Winter Olympic dream happen.
“I love skating enough to want to try this, to make this work,” she said. “The Olympics would just be the best, best thing.”