July 23, 2013 Updated: July 24, 2013 at 10:27 am
With legs stretched in a wide "v," Ayaha Chen sat on the floor at Performance Fitness, planted her palms on the ground and lifted.
Trainer Melissa Vriner commenced counting. One, two, three seconds ...
"Don't drop. Don't drop. Don't forget to breathe. Good job!" Vriner said as Chen's arms visibly quivered with the exertion of holding the entirety of her 14-year-old self rigid about a foot off the floor. It's a skill necessary for lifts in pairs skating. Chen, however, is a singles skater.
Vriner stopped counting after 29 seconds when Chen finally relaxed her arms and rocked back to the floor with an exhausted sigh.
"That's the best I've seen," said Vriner, program coordinator for U.S. Figure Skating. "She had her hips like a foot off the ground. That's exceptional."
The hand plant was one of 15 skill assessments Chen and 18 other young skaters underwent this month as part of the Standardized Testing of Athleticism to Recognize Skaters program, or S.T.A.R.S.
Based on data collected over the four years U.S. Figure Skating has offered the tests, the average time a senior-level, elite female skater can hold such a pose is 6.1 seconds.
Chen is a novice competitive skater.
"If an athlete is testing above their peers, that's good information for coaches and parents," said Peter Zapalo, director of sports science and medicine with U.S. Figure Skating. "It would be so interesting if we knew how (Olympic champion) Evan Lysacek was performing when he was this age."
The Colorado Springs-based figure skating organization founded S.T.A.R.S. to help young skaters assess their fitness levels, see where they are performing compared to their peers and adjust workouts to avoid injury. This year, 22 sessions are scheduled around the nation. The assessment sessions, or combines, traditionally draw between 50 and 100 up-and-coming competitive skaters.
"We're not trying to do talent identification. We recognize that if one of our athletes can jump 18 inches or do 50 pushups, that doesn't make them an elite figure skater," Zapalo said. "But we realize that our top skaters are all high performers athletically."
The S.T.A.R.S. tests - which include the vertical jump, front and straddle splits and timed tuck jumps - gauge agility, balance, coordination, strength, power and flexibility. All are skills necessary for success on the ice.
"We're training ahead of the on-ice skills curve. The athlete needs to be well-balanced in all those areas to be a successful skater," Zapalo said. "If you want to do a Biellmann spin, you have to be able to do a split."
The tests also help athletes avoid injury by identifying and pre-strengthening weak areas before skaters hit the ice.
Though the S.T.A.R.S. program isn't aimed at recreational skaters or the broader youth sports community, the principles involved could benefit any athlete, Zapalo said.
Eighteen-year-old Jordan Moeller said the testing helped him identify a weakness in his flexibility that he and his coach subsequently worked to improve.
"Each time you do the seminar, you can see where you're at," said Moeller, a junior singles skater who was attending his third S.T.A.R.S. combine. "Over time, it has gotten better. I was able to see what I needed to focus on."
The standing vertical jump, one station of the S.T.A.R.S. assessment, directly translates to on-ice jumping skills.
Skating jumps are "pretty much all about explosive power, with no momentum. It's how high can you get using just explosive power," said Max Aaron, 21, the U.S. Men's Champion, member of Team USA and an Olympic hopeful known for his jumping ability on the ice. A native of Scottsdale, Ariz., Aaron trained in the Springs and graduated from Cheyenne Mountain High School. He joined fellow Team USA member, Olympic hopeful and Cheyenne Mountain graduate Agnes Zawadzki, 18, to participate in the S.T.A.R.S. skill assessment to help draw attention to the program.
With competitive skating programs growing more technically difficult each Olympic year, assessing one's off-ice abilities at key on-ice skills becomes more critical, Aaron said.
"Harnessing the energy from off the ice and letting it out on the ice, it can be a challenge, but it's something that people can work toward," Aaron said. "With the off-ice training, they have more of an understanding of what needs to be worked on the ice. It helps a figure skater mature."
Contact Stephanie Earls: 636-0364