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Brainy Ice Skaters May Have an Edge

The Caltech women's team surprises everyone by going to U.S. finals.

March 28, 2003|Stephanie Chavez | Times Staff Writer

They have discovered the symmetry between science and skating.

Four Caltech students have studied the arc of a perfectly spinning body and understand the physics of speed versus balance. They know all about the convergence of ice and a thin metal blade.

And in a surprise victory, the four have become the unlikely champions of the Pacific Regional Collegiate Figure Skating Competition, defeating Stanford University by one point and launching their fledgling team to the national finals Saturday in Denver. "The win is totally out of nowhere for us," said Mark Harriman, Caltech's associate director of athletics. "When was the last time Caltech beat Stanford and a UC campus in any sport?"

Although Caltech is among the most competitive universities in the nation, said spokesman Robert Tindol, it's not a college synonymous with the term athletic powerhouse. Instead, it boasts 30 Nobel Prizes (one for peace, 29 for science) and 47 National Medal of Science awards, the highest such honor in the nation. Entering students score at or above 1500 on their SAT tests (1600 is the highest attainable).

This is precisely why the women of the Caltech skating club believe they may have an edge. They know the odds against defeating the bigger, more established Eastern and Midwestern teams are slim. But they are the thinking skater's team, merging brainwork and skill.

Emily Schaller, a geological and planetary science graduate student, has calculated the acceleration rate of a successful spin. Lara Pruitt, a freshman in mathematics, said math is a lot like ice skating: "You are always on a curve when you are skating, and, well, the study of curves is math."

Kelly Martin, a sophomore geology major with an interest in geophysical plate tectonics, said the focus and concentration she practices at school flows with her into the rink. Team member Olga Kowalewsky Schneider, a graduate student in the aeronautics department, has boiled it down to mechanics.

"In physics, it's about movement and mechanics," she said. "I can tell you theoretically what I have to do to keep the balance and go faster. But can I do it? That's the question."

Schaller, who managed to find three other ice skaters at the 1,100-student Caltech campus in Pasadena, was the all-time leading point scorer in collegiate team competition history during her undergraduate years at Dartmouth, according to the U.S. Figure Skating Assn.'s Web site. The collegiate teams are designed to offer skaters a competitive outlet while pursuing academic careers.

Schaller said the fact that most skaters put studies first levels the field. She, for instance, studies for hours every day and skates several times a week. Her goal in life is not to win a gold medal, but to become a university professor.

The Caltech skaters said their hobby offers them emotional release from the numbers, statistics and calculations that dominate their lives.

"Science is not very emotional," Schaller said. "But when I'm feeling stressed out I can skate really hard and interpret the music with a lot of creativity."

When she is not investigating the surface geology of Mars, Schaller is practicing her favorite spirals at a Pasadena ice rink.

Pruitt, who grew up in Minnesota, has been skating since childhood. She talks eloquently about the two things in life she finds most beautiful: solving a proof and performing a perfect Charlotte spiral.

"There is definitely a parallel between skating and math: precision, concentration," she said. "But you can never express the kind of joy over solving a proof that you can when performing on ice."

Caltech Athletic Director Tim Downs said it has been at least five years since the university team won any national championship, or even a regional one. The campus has 18 inter-collegiate teams, including basketball, water polo and soccer. The new skate team is actually a "club" team, not part of an official NCAA division.

But the skaters' win took university officials by surprise, and the athletic department has since helped them find funding for their trip to the nationals.

"The initiative these women have shown in incredible," Downs said. But he's quick to add that it is their spirit that counts most.

"It is not our goal to win national championships, but that doesn't mean we don't want to be competitive," he said.

The Caltech team is one of 36 college teams nationwide with a total of about 350 skaters.

Team member Martin once contemplated a career in skating, and even dreamed about performing with Disney on Ice. But she loved rocks more. Earning admission at Caltech to study geology has been the grandest achievement of her life so far.

"But everybody does more than one thing. I happen to ice skate," she said. "I happen to be pretty good at it. But it doesn't mean I can't be smart at the same time."

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