The Skating Program at Toyota Sports Performance Center Showcases Its Talent
- Written byAmber Klinck
- Photographed byJeff Berting
The energy is high at the Toyota Sports Performance Center (TSPC) in El Segundo. Athletes of all ages occupy the ice throughout the day, with some beginning their training as early as 5 a.m. Home to the Los Angeles Kings, the Toyota Sports Performance Center doubles as an advanced training facility for competitive and recreational skaters alike.
“The TSPC skating program is built and structured to serve skaters of all levels, ages and aspirations,” says TSPC’s figure skating director, Gabriella Weissmann. “What makes us unique is that we offer programs all year round, so the skaters and their families really become a part of our skating community.”
“You don’t want to push them early, but you do want to get them on the right track. I really like that all the coaches here work well together; there’s very little ego. We try to help each other, and we really want all the skaters to do well—Whether they go to nationals or they’re here to have fun, go to Disney on Ice … whatever their path is.”
Skating has been a part of Gabriella’s life for as long as she can remember. “I have skated since I was old enough to walk,” she says. “My mom and sister were both ice skaters and now are both coaches as well.”
Gabriella, who joined the TSPC team in 2015, describes the community of skaters and coaches as being like family. “Everyone is so supportive and truly cares about one another,” she notes.
This sense of community translates to each individual skater, regardless of their age or skill set. For the novice, the rink is playful and instructive. For the determined athlete, the TSPC skating program offers an opportunity to train with highly decorated coaches in a state-of-the-art venue.
“I’ve been coaching here for about 12 years,” says Robert Taylor, United States Figure Skating gold medalist and U.S. novice men’s champion. “I have some national competitors who are in their teens that I have worked with for many years: Henry Privett-Mendoza and Harrison Jon-Yen Wong—he skates for Hong Kong.”
But it’s not just national competitors and international skaters who Robert trains with. He works with athletes of all levels, and that variety is something he enjoys. “Everyone is so different with different personalities. I love working with all ages, and I’ve done that since day one,” he says.
Robert began skating at age 10, which by today’s standards is relatively late. Still, he excelled and trained with some of the industry’s best. “My coach for most of my career was Frank Carroll,” says Robert. “I was fortunate to have him as my coach.”
Renowned in the world of American figure skating, Frank worked with celebrated athletes such as World Figure Skating champion Michelle Kwan and Olympic gold medalist Evan Lysacek. Robert competed until 1980 before beginning his own coaching career at age 21. During his first 10 years as a coach, Robert worked side-by-side with Frank.
For skaters with big goals to succeed in the competitive realm, access to coaches with decades of experience is invaluable. Over the years the TSPC coaching team has attracted incredible talent, including notable athletes such as Michelle, Evan and Gracie Gold. But it’s the dedication to their students that makes the most impact, enabling TSPC coaches to impart their years of experience in a meaningful way.
Aileen Haggerty, age 17, began skating with the TSPC skating program when she was 4 years old. “The coaching team here is really supportive,” she says.
“They know what they’re doing,” says 16-year-old Josh Simkin. “Having coaches take the time to work with their students—one group works on spins, one group works on jumps—it really helps the skaters get a taste of what each part of figure skating is all about. I think it’s better to have coaches who specialize in certain things because we get better critique. It offers different perspectives too.”
Access to exceptional coaching plays an integral role in a skater’s career. But without the passion to skate and an unwavering commitment to their time on the ice, coaching can only get these young skaters so far. The most successful athletes are fiercely focused. For them, skating is a calling that they are truly devoted to.
Josh began skating at the TSPC in 2013 but has been skating for 14 years total. “My mom is Canadian, and I have a twin sister,” Josh notes. “My mom got my sister into skating at the age of 3. I went to see one of her competitions, and I got really jealous watching her dance and have such a great time on the ice. So I begged my mom, and I started skating.”
Josh has been to nationals twice, but his dream is to compete internationally. When he’s not on the ice, he is studying to become a mechanical engineer.
Shari Richmond, age 16, stumbled into skating by chance. “I was in Girl Scouts, and we used some of our cookie money to pay for a group lesson. I really liked it,” Shari says. Now she skates five to six days a week for two to three hours each day.
Henry Privett-Mendoza, age 17, began skating when he was 6. He skates six days a week for three to four hours a day and competes as a junior man in singles.
“[My parents] are really supportive,” Henry says. His moms are understanding of the time he spends on the ice and the adjustments he has made to enable him to do so. “I go to school online,” Henry adds. “A lot of students bring their computer to the rink and do their work here.”
The dedication these young athletes put into skating is extraordinary. It goes far beyond discipline; it’s a passion.
Twelve-time national competitor Bebe Liang trained with the TSPC skating program from 2006 to 2010 before becoming a coach. “This will be my 10thyear coaching,” Bebe points out.
“I’ve been skating since I was 6,” she adds. “I always understood that it was my thing, but I didn’t truly enjoy it for myself—and the training I put into it—until I was 16 or 17. I had to ask myself if it was something I really wanted to do, and [that’s when] I started to actually appreciate it.”
In the world of skating, the window to compete is small—meaning athletes have very little time to waver between skating as a hobby or as a competition. “Skating is a very young sport; you want to be pretty competitive by the time you’re 12,” Bebe explains.
Identifying talent and encouraging the dedication required to succeed is a delicate task when working with such young athletes. “You don’t want to push them early, but you do want to get them on the right track,” Bebe says. And that’s a collaborative effort. “I really like that all the coaches here work well together; there’s very little ego. We try to help each other, and we really want all the skaters to do well—whether they go to nationals or they’re here to have fun, go to Disney on Ice … whatever their path is.”
There are many things that draw skaters to the ice. “I like being on stage a lot,” says Shari. “That’s my favorite part about skating: the performance.”
On Saturday, December 14, the TSPC presents their annual holiday show—one of their most anticipated performances. This year it’s Under the Big Top: A Holiday Spectacular,and preparations have been months in the making. Bebe and Brianna Weissmann are co-directors of the show. “We started preparing in August,” Bebe says.
“Our annual holiday show is one of our most popular events. Our semi-professional production showcases skaters from as little as 3 years old to national-level competitors. It is a fun and exciting event for the entire family to get them in the holiday spirit,” Gabriella adds.
The excitement surrounding this year’s performance is palpable. The event has been a longstanding success with months of hard work going into each production: the choreography, the costumes, the talent—one night and two shows where the skaters can leave it all out on the ice. This is where all their dedication translates into why they devote so much time in the rink—because they love it.