T wo Sundays ago, it was dark by 4:30 and snowing lightly outside the Northford Ice Pavilion. Chilly gusts of wind spun snowflakes and stung noses. But running inside was no way to avoid the cold. Compared to the ice rink where Team Esprit practices, the evening outside was balmy.
Team Esprit, pronounced “ess-pree,” is a Hamden-based synchronized skating team coached by Jill McCarthy and Heidi Richetelle. McCarthy and Richetelle have known each other, and the sport, for most of their lives. When Sherri Maturo née Siclari, who McCarthy calls “the originator of precision skating in the state,” began the Hamden Figure Skating Association in 1976, McCarthy and Richetelle were competitors on the original skating team: the Figurettes.
“We were always skaters,” McCarthy says. “It’s just love. You have a passion for skating that never leaves you.” She and Richetelle, in turn, signal they will never leave skating. “I don’t think I’ve ever left the rink,” McCarthy says. The two coaches have been working with Team Esprit, the granddaughter of the original Figurette team, for over fifteen years. “We do the music editing, choreography, coaching. We even have a say in the costume design,” Richetelle says.
On Sunday night, the oldest of Team Esprit’s age groups—the Open Juvenile Team, composed of high school skaters—was in the rink to review its medal-winning performance at the 22nd Annual Cape Cod Synchronized Skating Classic, held the weekend before, and to practice for Team Esprit’s upcoming Holiday Show on December 29. The show, which will be held at the Northford Ice Pavilion, is a chance for all three of Esprit’s age groups to perform, and a chance for spectators to see the home team in action, since most of its competitions are held out of town.
Many of the skaters on the Open Juvenile Team have been with Esprit for about a decade. Megan Jackson, the team’s director, explains one of the benefits her daughter gets from the sport: “She’s a shy individual… But when she’s on the ice it brings her personality out—she’s not afraid to be on the ice, she’s not afraid… to be the center of the attention.”
And Team Esprit’s routines do capture and hold your attention. Last Sunday, the skaters performed their set to a medley of classic spy music—sly salt shaker percussion, brassy horns and galloping guitar riffs. The macho tunes underscored the grace and poise of the performance, which, for all of the effort and hours spent practicing, looked remarkably effortless and slick. One thing can be said about ice sports: they’re cool.
According to McCarthy and Richetelle, the sport has changed dramatically since they first laced up their skates as Figurettes. It’s become more popular, to begin with, and much more complicated. Where there was once a single category, now there are 19, sliced up by age and competitiveness.
With so many teams competing, all of them with an eye towards qualifying for nationals, it’s important not to slip out of the spotlight. “The flavor of synchronized skating has really turned towards theater on ice,” McCarthy says. “The judges want to be entertained.” With that in mind, when the Open Juvenile Team performs their spy-themed skate, they do so in costumes emblazoned with sequin tuxedos—a flock of James Bonds and Harry Palmers whizzing across the ice on blades that even their hard-boiled inspirations might be wary of.
Team Esprit’s other divisions also have themed performances. The youngest group will be skating to music from the recent cinematic version of The Jungle Book, draped in snakes. The middle age group is themed to Alice in Wonderland. It’s campy fun, but still rigorous. As the skaters grow up through the divisions, McCarthy and Richetelle say they see their athletes becoming loyal to the sport. “It’s very rewarding to instill the passion for the sport that we had in the kids and then watch them progress and improve and compete at a national level,” Richetelle says. “And then they go on and still want to skate after they’ve graduated, in college and as adults.”
Written and photographed by Sorrel Westbrook.