Intern's turn on the ice-- Future law student brings unique perspective to sport of ice dancing


By Frank Weir

Legal News

As the Olympic drama unfolded in Vancouver, many TV viewers likely wondered what it's like when ice skating performers suffer the ultimate indignity: falling in front of a coliseum filled with people and millions more watching the telecast around the world.

A 22-year-old intern in the office of Washtenaw County Circuit Court Judge Donald Shelton does know what's its like . . . and only too well.

"Down you go and the whole crowd goes 'Oooohhhhh.' You're mad at yourself because you know you can do whatever it is you were doing without falling and you feel like you've let everyone down."

But Lauren Senft adds that the feeling passes quickly. "There's too much to do. You know you've got to get up, perform your routine from that point, and start preparing for the next important element."

Another inside secret? Falls hurt far more in practice than in competition.

"When you are performing, your adrenaline is really running and you're totally focused. The physical pain of falling is far less than when practicing."

Senft, a current Eastern Michigan Univeristy student in its criminology and criminal justice program with an eye toward law school, retired two years ago after competing at the international level as a member of Canada's ice dancing team.

She was born in Vancouver and took to the ice at the age of three. Her mother was, and still is, an international skating judge and saw to it that Lauren and her two older brothers tried their hands at skating.

"One of my brothers promptly fell and cut his chin while the other just sat there and ate the snow," Senft says with a laugh. "I was the one who took to it naturally. I fell in love with skating."

At the age of 13, Senft and mother decided that ice dancing was her event. "That's actually kind of late to start ice dancing. My partner was 17 and we met in Barrie, Ontario. My family literally moved there since he was a promising partner for me and there are far more girls who want to start ice dancing than boys. You go where the partner is and where the training center is and begin training. That's how it works."

The process was new to Senft, but things clicked...and fast.

In their first year together, the pair placed fourth at the junior level in the Canadian National Championship. The following year they took second in a 5-4 split decision.

"That made me think I just might be good at this and experience real success at it," says Senft.

The ice dancing partners then went to the junior world championships held at The Hague and placed eighth. It was the highest a North American team scored in the championships that year. After that, they were old enough to enter the senior division.

They made the national team their first year and remained on the team for four years. As members of the national team, they competed often. The pair represented Canada around the world in ice dancing competitions.

Their highest finish was fourth at nationals, where they missed the world team by one spot in 2007.

"That was terribly disappointing for both of us and my partner just lost hope and gave up the sport," says Senft. "I still wanted to skate and teamed with an American for a year. But we immediately ran into difficulty because of our differing nationalities and neither the Canadian nor U.S. Olympic teams wanted to deal with us because of our split nationality.

"It sounds kind of funny since I'm only 22, but I chose to retire from the sport at that point. One of my Russian coaches told me I was too young to retire but I was ready to move on, honestly. Most skating partners, whether in ice dancing or pairs skating, begin working together at a young age and literally grow up together. There is this amazing unison and chemistry that makes a big difference in how successful you are. If you lose your partner along the way, it is extremely difficult to find another one who matches your skills level."

And the stories about a sport dominating an Olympic athlete's life from a young age are all true, Senft said.

"I trained six hours a day, 24/7. I got two days vacation at Christmas and a week in August. That was it."

Senft ended up in Southeast Michigan when she and her partner came here to train in Canton with two Russian coaches. Undoubtedly most local residents don't realize that Canton has one of the two premier skating training centers in the world.

The location of the other? Moscow.

"The Canton center is amazing. I thoroughly enjoyed training there since I got to work with the best teams in the world. That's a real honor. Everyone there pushes each other to do their best and it's a family atmosphere," says Senft. "Skaters come from all over the world to train at a center like Canton and so the skaters become your second family. It's like your home away from home."

Given her familiarity with Olympic athletes and that Vancouver is her hometown and where her parents live, Senft was in Vancouver for most of the games. After a brief visit to Michigan, she headed back and remained there until the games were completed. She said the spectacle in Vancouver was overwhelming.

Adding to Senft's experience was the honor of being chosen by the Canadian Olympic Committee to help carry the torch on its relay across Canada and back again.

"I was a little nervous since I don't think I'm much of a runner and my dad claimed that I 'pranced' more than ran," says Senft. "Our torch relay was the longest ever in the Olympics in terms of distance and it really united our country. You hear stories of people crying and being so proud to be a Canadian. You can't go anywhere without seeing everyone decked out in red and white Canadian gear. It is just really fun."

Senft added that there were events all across Vancouver celebrating Canada culture and history. And there were numerous "houses" honoring the cultures of the countries whose teams are visiting. "There is a Russia House, a USA House and so forth. People are finding that the German House has great beer and the Swiss House, great fondue. You also have the chance to meet some of the athletes from those respective countries at their houses. All of them have TV coverage in the house of their teams while they are performing.

"There can be a bit of a wait to get into some of the most popular houses. The Irish House is one of the most popular. It's one big unending party there!"

Senft said that the judging system in Olympic ice skating events has been completely changed, partly due to the efforts of Senft's mother, Jean.

"At the games in Nagano in 1998, she exposed serious problems with how ice skating events were judged. At the time, the system was highly subjective and included just two divisions: technical marks and artistry marks. There was a lot of wiggle room and my mom revealed that she, as a Canadian world judge, was told by other judges how teams were going to finish even before they had performed. It was very difficult to challenge a judge's scores other than to say you didn't agree with them since there was no way to point to something substantive in the system that they had violated by artificially inflating their marks."

Senft adds that Nagano, coupled with another judging scandal at the Salt Lake City games in the ice skating pairs event resulted in a complete overhaul of the Olympic skating judging system for singles, pairs, and ice dancing competitions. Now there is a technical panel (Senft has served on technical panels for Skate Canada but did not do so in Vancouver) that determines the level of difficulty of an element that a skater has performed. If a skater pulls the blade of her skate to her head, that's a level four. If she is not able to do that, then it's rated a level two by the technical panel.

"It's very clear now, very black and white. The world judges then score how the move was performed and a numeric evaluation combining the skill level with the performance is arrived at.

"There's no wiggle room. Once the technical panel has rated the performance difficulty of an element, there is no way a judge can overcome a poorly done element. They add or take away points in relation to the level set by the technical panel but they no longer are in the sole position of giving a mark to a skater no matter how they really have performed. If a skater performs an element poorly, there is no way a judge can affect the low level that the technical panel undoubtedly will give the skater for that element."

Senft adds that there is a whole host of things that members of the technical panel look for in an element. "When a pair does a lift for instance, they look at their positions as the female is lifted into the air, how the male lifted the female, how he set her down. That's an example of how they rate elements performed."

She says that the new system has pushed the sport to a higher level. "Teams are far more acrobatic now and we are seeing really exciting lifts that are very challenging." She cites the "Canadian Goose Lift" which is a creation of the Canadian ice dancing team as an example of the sort of invention that performers are developing to enhance their scores under the new system.

TV watchers may have noticed how much more movement is involved as skaters glide along the ice. They are moving their arms constantly, swaying to and fro, switching from foot to foot, leg to leg. "That's all a result of the changes in judging," Senft explained. "They can increase their scores by the way they are moving, by how they are shifting their weight. It is much more difficult to perform an element if your center of gravity is switched to one side and you'll score higher as a result," she said.

And what's it like as you await your turn on the ice, with years of training resting on just a couple minutes or so on the ice?

"You feel very vulnerable," says Senft. "Everyone deals with it differently. Some are dead quiet before they take to the ice. Others are like me: I want my coach to stand there and let me talk. I need to talk, about anything. But when I get on the ice to do my warm ups, and they announce my name and the country I represent, my nerves vanish. I am focused on what I need to do. My coach always told me to smile to the crowd as I entered the ice. They always smile back and you feel less vulnerable. You feel that the crowd is with you."

Senft will finish her undergraduate studies at EMU in June. She is planning on law school and would like to concentrate on criminal law. Whether she will apply to law school in the U.S. or in Canada presents a quandary.

"In some ways, my dream would be to return to Vancouver and practice there. It's my home. But both my brothers attended university here in the states and they loved that experience. My parents visited Ann Arbor and we attended the U of M-Notre Dame football game and my dad was just in awe.

"He could not get over how huge the crowd is and the size of the marching band! In Canada, you might have 10,000 people at a really big college sports event and the band is small. He couldn't believe how the band here filled the entire football field. So a part of me would really love to experience U.S. university life: the sporting events, the loyalty to the school, school colors."

Senft will take the LSAT in October and wants to take a year off before entering law school. "I want to do some traveling. My life always has been school and skating."

But her idea of relaxation and travel may differ from many college-aged kids in the states. After retiring from skating, she signed up to volunteer for a summer with the organization, Cross Cultural Solutions.

"I thought it would be a great way to do some good and see some of the world that I had not visited before. It was far removed from skating and I knew if I stayed here, it would be hard to watch all my friends continuing to compete."

And where was her summer sojourn?

She worked in an orphanage and in a female correctional Peru.

"It was a shock for sure. The first prison I entered there was for men. I was by myself and I was immediately surrounded by 50 male prisoners milling about freely inside the walls. I thought what is going on here? I learned that prisoners there make their own clothes, cook their own meals. They have to pay a fee while in prison and if they don't, their prison time is extended.

"They make jewelry and other handicrafts and one of my duties was to take their items to the local market, sell them, and bring the money back to them so they could pay their prison fees.

"It was a wonderful and eye-opening experience," she said.

Published: Tue, Mar 16, 2010