Skating club shows off talent at LC Walker Arena

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By Cynthia Price

The Muskegon Lakeshore Figure Skating Club has a whole new lease on life, generating a lot of excitement right now.

The club’s Holiday on Ice show Dec. 9 marked one of the big changes for the group:?they performed for the first time at the L.C. Walker Arena, which is their home going forward (the same ice rink on which the Muskegon Lumberjacks play).

The members from Muskegon, Norton Shores, North Muskegon, Whitehall, Grand Haven and Spring Lake were joined by two guest skaters, Grace VanZanten and JoJo Billings, both of whom are U.S. Figure Skating Association Gold Medalists. VanZanten and Billings held a workshop for Muskegon Lakeshore Figure Skaters after the show.

The girls skated to everything from The Nutcracker Suite to “I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas.” Andy O’Riley of Positively Muskegon and the Muskegon Channel emceed.

The performance was nostalgic for some who remembered when, more than 50 years ago, the Walker Arena hosted  the newly-formed Muskegon Skating Club. It was founded in 1960 by a group including Wayne Essebaggers, whose buddy had treated him to a skate at the Arena to cheer Essebaggers up after he and his fiancée called it quits.

“I’d skated before on an outdoor rink. but I never had figure skates, just the old hockey skates,” he says. “I just fell in love with figure skating.”

Essebaggers and a group of friends started the Muskegon Skating Club and he put together the bylaws that would allow the club to affiliate with the U.S. Figure Skating Association.

“It was a wonderful experience - we had a wonderful bunch of people back then, people coming over from Grand Rapids, all around... We didn’t have any vision at the beginning - we were just a bunch of people that wanted to get together and skate,” he says.

The Muskegon Skating Club had a series of figure skating teachers, including a man named Gil McKellen, who had a career in the ice follies with his brother Tuffy, and eventually turned the program over to the well-known local Elsa Lowe.

Just after Lowe was hired and a Thanksgiving show was planned in 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and the show was put on hold. At the same time, Essebaggers was drafted, so he never did get to perform in any of the many shows that Elsa Lowe hosted over the years.

However, Essebaggers returned after serving in Vietnam to marry and have a famous child: Miss Michigan Stacy Shepherd, who was a top 10 finalist in the Miss America contest, is his daughter.

And Elsa Lowe, who is still alive at the age of 92, went on to teach figure skating and head up the program at the Walker Arena for many years. A native of Austria, she toured Europe performing in ice shows before settling in Muskegon in 1948. When she won the Distinguished Service Award from the Muskegon Sports Hall of Fame in 1998, the write-up said that over 2,000 people would attend the figure skating shows she put together.

It was that same year, 1998, that the Lakeshore Skating Club began. For years they operated out of the Lakeshore Sports Centre, but are no longer affiliated with them.

Muskegon Lakeshore Figure Skating Club historian Teresa Heger, whose daughter Anna is a senior just finishing up eight years run with the team, says, “I think when the club at L.C. Walker folded, their skaters merged with Muskegon Lakeshore Figure Skating Club.” And September Yancone, the club’s communications manager, says that the membership has “morphed over the years (splits, fractions and re-mergers).”

But now there is a strong feeling of cohesion and excitement due to being back at the Walker Arena with its new look and Rad Dad’s Tacos inside.

The club is also excited because of its new Skating Director/coach, Josh Smith. Smith is a USFSA double gold medalist who began coaching in 1998 and has coached across Michigan, including at Ferris State University. While at FSU, White saw his team win an ISIA world championship. (He is also the principal at Orchard View Middle School.)

With so much going for its group of talented performer, the Muskegon Lakeshore Figure Skating Club is looking forward to a bright future.