Young skaters dream of Olympic gold, no matter the obstacles
(CNN) — Like many over-scheduled 14-year-old girls, Presley Chandler has a very busy daily routine. But hers is probably busier than most.
Presley, an eighth-grader in Crookston, Minnesota, has two-hour figure skating classes at least three days a week, not counting the hours she practices on her own. She spends nearly her entire day on the rink each Sunday. If that's not enough to fill her time, she has dance class on Thursdays.
The commitment is worth it, she says. She dreams of making it to Nationals one day.
"That's my ultimate goal -- just once," said Presley, who's now in her 10th year of training. Of course, making it to the Olympics would be a "dream."
It's a dream shared by loads of other children and teens who put in countless hours of hard work practicing on the ice. No wonder: Figure skating easily ranks as the most popular sport in all of the Winter Olympics. On Thursday, aspiring medalists will watch 15-year-old Olympians Polina Edmunds of the U.S. and Yulia Lipnitskaya of Russia compete in the women's figure skating finals in Sochi, Russia.
With only 13 figure skaters making up Team USA's "Team A" this year alone, the young skaters know that their competition is steep.
Presley Chandler's skating dream dominates her life and affects the whole family. Lessons start at 6:30 a.m. or earlier and are 22 miles away. Presley often has to choose skating instead of going out with her friends.
"I do spend most of my days skating. People ask, 'hey, do you want to go to this with me?' and I have to say no," she said, "but I'd almost always rather be on the ice."
Then there's the toll on Presley's body. Last year, doctors found two stress fractures in her right foot, halting skating practice for all of spring and summer.
"She wasn't happy to be told to rest. I've seen her take some hard falls, and she gets right back up," said her mother, Kelly Chandler.
Presley now sees a sports medicine doctor and a chiropractor regularly.
Still, her mom said, "I think the rewards definitely outweigh the risk for the skaters who have a passion. ... It seems much more difficult as parents to watch!"
Competitive skater Tiffany Henry Reed, 14, knows all about the physical risks. She broke her tibia in July in a skating accident. She was in a cast for six weeks and a boot for four weeks and returned to the ice in October after rigorous training.
Now, she's back to doing what she loves. Tiffany practices more than two hours every day except Sunday, works out with a personal trainer and works with a mental conditioning coach to handle the psychological pressure of competition at that level.
Skating from the tweens
At the tender age of 9, Isabelle Inthisone has five years of figure skating experience.
After six weeks of swimming lessons that didn't go so well ("she screamed and cried"), her mother discovered that she took much better to the ice.
Isabelle's current schedule is full, to say the least. She trains six days a week on the ice, works with a personal trainer and takes Pilates and private ballet lessons.
And for two summers in a row, the young skater from Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, has trained with Rafael Arutyunyan, Nadia Kanaeva and Phillip Mills, all coaches to current Olympian Ashley Wagner.
The investment seems to have paid off. She has placed in first place in 18 of 20 competitions over the past two years, taking second in the other two.
Isabelle's mom, Jessica Praxaya-Inthisone, and her husband have worked long hours, taken on extra projects and cut back on expenses in order to pay the costs of training. Isabelle's skating made them reprioritize their family plans, such as selling their previous home in Minnesota instead of moving back there when they no longer had to live in Wisconsin for work.
Beyond the financial sacrifices, Praxaya-Inthisone describes the typical demands on any parent as "more magnified" when raising an athlete.
"Health and mental wellness always seems to on the forefront of our minds," she said. "Getting enough calories, rest and mental relaxation seem to be the biggest challenges with such an extremely busy schedule. To ensure that Isabelle has a balance, we almost treat it as if it were a career and schedule everything out with time slots -- even TV time, play dates and birthday parties."
Praxaya-Inthisone often discusses the pressures involved with skating with her daughter but says that that concept has not dawned on Isabelle just yet.
"Her mentality at this age is that this is all for fun, and she is out there to perform and not really compete. Her ballet instructor teaches her that you need to enjoy the performances in order to bring out the best ability."
Praxaya-Inthisone says she's felt criticism from other skating parents about the amount of time Isabelle is on the ice. She admitted she struggled when other skating parents gave them the cold shoulder or made snide remarks.
"Some parents will make comments that school is more important than skating, so that is why they don't skate as much," she said. "One time a parent asked me, 'What does Isabelle do besides skate?' implying that she had no life and was forced into it."
Non-skating parents and especially Isabelle's school, on the other hand, have been quite supportive of the girl's passion.
A rewarding dream
Her mom says Isabelle isn't the only one in the family who has benefited from all the sacrifices.
"She is a great role model to her younger brother, Ben," Praxaya-Inthisone explained, saying he wants to excel just as his sister does. "It is rewarding to us, as parents, to know that she is teaching others through her accomplishments that hard work and dedication does pay off. Nothing is easy, but if it is something worth working for, then work hard for it."
All three moms say they've seen their daughters blossom while they pursue their passions.
Darlene Reed, Tiffany's mom, says Tiffany is disciplined in school and has learned to accept life's highs and lows.
"Figure skating teaches Tiffany skills she can carry with her throughout her life," Reed said.
Kelly Chandler, Presley's mom, says it's been rewarding to watch her child set and achieve goals. Presley never sweats a lost competition and always congratulates the winners, serving as a role model for younger skaters, her mom said. And she never complains about missing out on some other event, party or concert because of skating.
"I am so glad that she found this sport, because she really is being shaped into a well-rounded, hard-working role model and learning life lessons that will stay with her forever!"
As for Praxaya-Inthisone, she and her husband view what they're doing as "the ultimate American dream."
"We tell our children about the struggles and obstacles that we faced as refugees coming to America from war-torn communist Laos in the 1970s. We tell them how their grandparents held a dream for a better future and belief that greater opportunities are only made available to all in the U.S. They risked their young families' lives for that dream."