6:45 a.m. The Clearfield Recreation Center in Williamsville is cold and quiet as a handful of figure skaters trickle in, stifling yawns. Lacing up skates, layering on sweaters, they chat about the school day, which hasn't yet begun.
7:30 a.m. On the ice, skaters spin and jump -- axels, loops, double-toes. Music blares from a boom box near the ice as twirling skirts glide by from every direction. No longer quiet, the rink is filled with some serious skating.
For Amherst Skating Club members Jessica Vieth, Miyoko Ohtake and Lindsay Oswald, it's a typical morning before school. While other teens are sleeping, these girls are training for the North Atlantic Skating Championship, which will be held at Niagara University from Oct. 28 to Nov.1.
A regional qualifying competition, it will attract 350 athletes from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Ohio, vying for the Junior Olympics or the U.S. Nationals.
These young early-morning skaters, along with members of the Niagara University Skating Club, are used to the pressure of competition.
Jessica Vieth, 16, a junior at Williamsville North High School, has already achieved what other skaters only dream of. Last year, competing in figures (the intricate circles and figure eights skaters trace on the ice), Jessica came in first at Eastern Sectionals, and third at U.S. Nationals. Coached by her mother, Laurie Vieth, since age 3, Jessica says that winning a medal at Nationals was the culmination of years of hard work, discipline and determination.
"I'm a perfectionist," she says. "I'm tough on myself when I have a bad day, so I just try to calm down and relax. I also know how important it is to push myself. Winning a medal at Nationals was great, but so was the experience of just being there! You're treated like someone special; you're among all the champions. You're one of them, whether you're on the ice or dancing at a party."
'I want to be a champion'
Miyoko Ohtake, 12, also has found skating to be rewarding. An eighth-grader at Mill Middle School, she was the only member of the Amherst Skating Club to compete in Junior Olympics in April in Anaheim, Calif. After a fifth-place finish in figures and a 13th-place finish in freestyle, she is determined to improve her standings.
"If I do well at North Atlantics, I hope to go back to Junior Olympics," says Miyoko. "But even if I don't do well I still love skating and I feel that I've spent my time wisely."
Lindsay Oswald, 12, is also hoping for success. After breaking her leg in July 1996, this seventh-grade student at Casey Middle School had only three weeks to prepare for last year's competition.
"I came in 11th out of 15 skaters," she remembers. "I wasn't ready, but at least I didn't come in last! In the next six weeks I want to really concentrate and keep skating and never give up!"
Western New York's other rising stars include members of the Niagara University Skating Club: Lindsay Bloom, 11; Katie Rizzo, 15, and pairs team Chelsee Cwalina, 11, and Adam Backus, 14. All are coached by Don and Sue Mitchell.
Cool and collected, Katie speaks with the voice of experience. A sophomore at Clarence High School, she has competed in four North Atlantic competitions, finishing last year in eighth place.
Lindsay, a Park School seventh-grader, speaks frankly about her aspirations: "I want to be an Olympic champion," she says. "I will push myself as far as I can to get there. Last year I was first alternate, but this year I want to make it all the way. Skating is what I do every day for hours, and I love every minute of it!"
Like the other skaters, Lindsay's schedule leaves little time for much else. Does she ever feel like she is missing anything?
"When I was younger I used to get upset if I had to miss a birthday party or something," she remembers. "I felt different from other kids, but now I'm glad I feel different. My friends understand how much skating means to me, and they don't get mad if I miss something. I'm doing something I love."
Two for one
As one of the few pairs teams from Western New York competing at the North Atlantic event, Chelsee and Adam are hoping to make an impression on the judges.
Skating to music from the movie "Rudy" and wearing Notre Dame colors, they enjoy the dramatic lifts and throws that make up their program. In 1996 they placed fourth at Junior Olympics.
After taking almost a year off from competitive skating, Adam, a sophomore at Williamsville East High School, has returned with a new sense of purpose.
"I was getting bored with the repetition of skating," he says, "but then I realized how much I missed it and was curious to try it again."
Until last year Adam played hockey and competed in figure skating. "I played travel team for three years, but I had to quit because of the time commitment. I decided to go back to figure skating because I see more of a future in it. I like being part of a pairs team because it's different and it's creative."
Chelsee agrees, saying: "Pairs is fun and interesting; I love being thrown in the air. I love the danger in it and the excitement. But I also love competing in freestyle because I love to jump."
The North Atlantic Skating Championship, hosted by Amherst Skating Club in conjunction with Niagara University, will be held at the NU ice complex from Oct. 28 to Nov.1. The opening ceremony, at 7 p.m. Oct. 28, will feature Caryn Kadavy, 1993 U.S. national professional champion, appearances by professional skater Chris Conte and exhibition numbers by local skaters. For tickets, call 693-8524.