Kayleen Smeaton still remembers when her father, Chris, took her ice skating for the first time.

Smeaton was 7 and the lesson took place at Daley Bicentennial Plaza in downtown Chicago.

No one realized it at the time, but that long-ago lesson is the excuse Smeaton is using to miss four days of school this week.

The Oak Park and River Forest High School senior has a legitimate reason for skipping class. She will be in Berlin with her synchronized skating team representing the United States at the Berlin Cup.

“It’s amazing,” Smeaton said. “It’s pretty much a dream come true.”

Smeaton is one of 21 girls on the Chicago Jazz club team that left Tuesday morning for Berlin, where they will compete in two days of competition against teams from countries such as Russia, Canada, Finland and Sweden, before returning home Sunday.

Synchronized skating is the newest skating discipline in which teams of 16 skaters perform two programs – a short program lasting 2 ½ minutes and a long program of four minutes. The format is similar to singles figure skating except for the intricate choreography involved.

The first U.S. synchronized championships were held in 1984 and the first world championships in 2000. The U.S. has won two world championship medals since 2007.

All of the synchro skaters have to be proficient individual skaters. Smeaton has reached the junior level, the second-highest level, and prefers synchro to solo skating.

“I’ve done some solo competitions but I think what attracted me to synchro is there are so many people on the ice at the same time,” Smeaton said. “It kind of lessens the pressure and adds this sense of community and family.

“A lot of the girls have been doing this together for several years now, so my team is pretty much like a family and it’s nice to have that aspect.”

Smeaton got her formal start in skating via park district lessons at McFetridge Ice Arena. It was there, about a year into her career, when she got her first look at synchronized skating.

“When she was 8 or 9, she went to an ice show and saw high school girls do a team skate and said that’s what she wanted to do,” recalled Smeaton’s mother, Sue. “We didn’t know much about it, but she wanted to give it a try.”

Smeaton will never forget that day.

“I was watching the show at McFetridge Park,” she said. “I was like, ‘that’s so cool, I really want to do that.'”

Thus began a nine-year career of learning increasingly difficult skills and forming a bond with teammates.

Smeaton trains individually for two hours a week at Ridgeland Common Ice Rink in Oak Park and another 12 hours a week for the Jazz, which is based in Rolling Meadows. Most of the club practices are in Rolling Meadows but some are at rinks in Glenview and Park Ridge.

Most of that training takes place before school, with some sessions starting at 6:30 a.m. The regimen is not for everyone.

“Sometimes it is very challenging,” Smeaton said. “I think my mom has trouble sometimes waking me up to get up and go. It’s a little easier now because when I was younger our practices were even earlier.”

But the hard work has paid off. Smeaton competed internationally for the first time last year in France. The training is nearly year-round, with a month off in the spring and again in July before preparation for the new season begins in August.

The Jazz found out in September they would be competing in Berlin and Smeaton said it took about two months for the girls to perfect the two routines they will use. The team is more confident than it was last year.

“We’ve improved a lot and we’ve become a lot stronger in the last year, but other teams have improved too,” Smeaton said. “I’m not as nervous as last year but it’s still kind of nerve-wracking because we haven’t seen the other teams’ programs. You don’t know what you’re up against.”

Though the presence of so many teammates is comforting, Smeaton believes synchro is actually more difficult than solo skating.

“Personally I think it’s harder,” Smeaton said. “Even though you don’t have to do as many jumps as you would in a solo program, there’s a possibility you will have to do a jump. In our program we have a couple of girls who do jumps and if they can’t skate for some reason, you have to be ready.”

Synchro skaters also deal with the pressure of knowing that if one person falters, the entire team is penalized, and moving together in unison is harder than it appears. But the Jazz are motivated.

“There’s a lot of girls who are younger than us who look up to us and we take that into consideration because we want to set a good example for them,” Smeaton said.

Though Sue Smeaton will not be accompanying her daughter to Berlin, she is thrilled.

“It’s an outstanding experience for her,” the elder Smeaton said. “You put on that Team USA jacket and take pride in it. After all those years of hard work, they’re proud to get the opportunity to travel overseas and meet other skaters from other parts of the world.”

Smeaton and her teammates have five competitions remaining after Berlin, including a Midwest sectional meet in Minnesota, from which the Jazz hope to qualify for U.S. nationals in Rhode Island in February. The top two teams at nationals will compete at the world championships in Croatia.

Though she intends to continue skating recreationally and will teach and coach younger skaters, Smeaton will hang up her competitive skates at the end of this season. She plans to major in education at St. Norbert College and hopes to become a high school math teacher.

But she will take valuable lessons from skating with her into adulthood.

“A lot of what I’ve gotten out of skating is just setting my mind to doing something,” Smeaton said. “When you’re learning a new jump or some other hard skill you just have to say, ‘I’m going to do it,’ and then do it. You have to try.”

The Smeaton family’s love affair with ice will continue. Smeaton’s brothers Hayden, 12, and Aaron, 10, play hockey like their father did. Sister Gillian, a sophomore on the drill team at OPRF, is the only sibling who doesn’t skate competitively.

Smeaton has come a long way since that day at Bicentennial Plaza, but she couldn’t have done it without parents who were willing to take a chance on an unfamiliar sport.

“[I thank] mostly my parents,” Smeaton said. “They paid for the training and they’re the ones who woke me up in the morning and who spent the time to drive me to the rink until I could drive myself.”

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