It's just before 6:30 on a freezing October morning. Miami University's campus is eerily quiet -- no cars on the streets, no students hurrying down the sidewalks to get to class.
The lobby of the Goggin Ice Center is empty, too, but the lights are on and today's hits play on the radio throughout the building.
At exactly 6:45, girls clad in athletic gear enter the lobby from the locker room, balancing on ice skates, the blades protected by plastic covers. No one says anything as they organize into four groups of four.
In each group, three "bases" work together to lift a fourth girl, the "flyer," above their heads.
After a few minutes of practicing lifts in the lobby, the members of Miami's senior synchronized skating team hit the ice.
The 20 girls on the team circle the practice rink, wearing various combinations of black leggings and Miami shirts topped with vests or warm-up jackets. Many have the red, white and blue Team USA emblem on the back.
At the elite level where Miami's team operates, synchronized skating is a complicated amalgam of teams. Today, there are two teams: senior and collegiate, but until two years ago, a third team at the junior level also existed. The collegiate team competes against other schools' synchro teams while the senior team represents Team USA and competes against other skating clubs, both nationally and internationally.
Miami's senior team is one of five teams at their level recognized under Team USA -- teams selected by the Synchronized Management Subcommittee to represent the United States at international competitions. Adrian College in Michigan is the only other school in the nation to have a senior-level team. The rest are local skating clubs not affiliated with universities or colleges.
As the early-morning practice continues, the girls work on progressively harder techniques, from spins to putting their lifts on ice to music.
One group goes first as the rest of the girls watch. They skate, moving closer together until they're close enough to lift their flyer in the air. They rotate across the ice as one unit. As soon as their flyer is lowered to the ground, everyone claps at their success.
The music restarts, and the next group tries the same lift. As each group finishes, they convene on the side of the rink and discuss their stunts.
"Did that feel better?" assistant coach Lee Ann Shoker asks.
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"No..." one of the bases says.
"Well, it looked better!"
Both Lee Ann and head coach Carla DeGirolamo stand on the ice with the girls, skates and all.
Carla DeGirolamo started skating as a five-year-old girl in Cleveland and eventually became a student-athlete at Miami.
She was on Miami's senior team for four years from 1999 to 2003 and served as team captain for two of those. Now, she's in her 10th year as head coach of the program and was an assistant coach for six years before that.
When building her team, Carla looks for girls with both strong technical and performance skills.
But, she said, there's also a little bit of an intangible that comes into play. There's a spark that hits her when she sees some girls skate. She looks for the girls with an inner fire in their skating and a passion for what they're doing. She looks for the girls who don't hold anything back.
Sarah Haugh began skating when she was eight years old. She had tried just about every sport when she was little, but there was something about skating that was different.
She started with freestyle -- solo skating with jumps and spins -- but solo ice dance is what she loved most and continued into high school. She wanted to keep skating when she got to college, but wasn't sure how.
Sarah fell in love with Miami University during a visit for Make It Miami. She knew the school had a synchronized skating program, but there was one problem: She had never done synchro before.
She decided to give it a try anyway. It might give her a chance to be a member of Team USA if she made the senior team, something Sarah has dreamed her whole life.
Wow, senior team, Sarah thought. That would be incredible.
During her first year at Miami in 2015, she didn't really think it was possible. In fact, she thought the idea was almost ridiculous.
Tryouts began, and Sarah skated alongside girls who'd been skating synchro their whole lives.
As the week of tryouts came to an end, Sarah didn't know what to expect. One day after taking a nap, she woke up, checked her email and saw Carla's name.
"The emails always start off in a way that makes you think you didn't make the team," Sarah said.
First of all, we'd like to thank everyone who tried out, the email began. Shoot, I don't think I made it, Sarah thought. But she read a little further.
We would like to congratulate you on a spot on the junior team!
She was so excited that she sprinted to her friend's dorm to tell her the news.
The skaters try out every year for a spot on the team, and every year, each receive an email. Sarah can recall every moment each of those emails arrived.
There was the time sophomore year when she was at another skater's house with a few other girls, and they all got the email at the same time. All of the girls went off to a different room in the house. Sarah ran into someone's bedroom, opened the email and collapsed on the floor. She was going to be a cross-skater and skate on both the junior and collegiate teams. This meant she would have almost double the practices.
Last year as a junior, she was, once again, with a group of skaters when they all opened their emails privately. And again, Sarah had made the team.
But this time, she started crying as she realized she had made the senior team. Her dream had come true.
She was Team USA.
Bailey Styzinski's journey to skating began when she was just two years old. And she hated it.
Her parents would give her coaches Starbursts, and every time Bailey skated across the rink, she got to put a candy in her pocket.
By the time she was five, she had joined a club synchro team and started to enjoy the sport. She loved the idea of being part of something bigger than herself.
Around the age of seven, Bailey had to choose between skating and everything else she was involved in. She knew skating was her favorite activity, but she really had to stop and tell herself, Okay, this is it.
At one of her first big competitions, she saw the Miami skating team compete.
She knew that day she wanted to be a skater at Miami. She hung posters all over her wall of her favorite Miami skaters.
"I just always knew Miami was my dream for skating, at least," Bailey said. "But I had to fall in love with it academically, as well."
She came to Miami as an engineering major, but soon realized she hated engineering. Now in her junior year, she triple majors in professional writing, strategic communications and media and culture.
When tryouts for the synchro team came around before the start of her first year, she was ready.
The tryouts are intense and mentally draining, with skating and off-ice conditioning. The coaches test everything from how the girls use their facial expressions to perform to how well they can skate and what kind of athlete they are.
New members and the most experienced skaters are all mixed in together. Everyone tries out for a spot every year. "
All these girls on the senior team, I had looked up to since I was in high school," Bailey said. "You have to be the best of the best to come here."
Bailey looked around and wondered, How the heck am I gonna make the team?
Like Sarah, when Bailey got her email, she was around other skaters. They were all staying on the third floor of MacCracken Hall.
Everyone got the notification on their phones at the same time.
Bailey found an empty corridor, opened the email and took a deep breath. She had earned a swing position on the senior team, meaning she would share her spot with another girl and wasn't guaranteed to compete.
The first thing she did was call her private coach back home and then, of course, her mother.
Bailey has made the senior team every year since.
Miami's synchronized skaters are some of the best in the nation. They live the Champion Standard -- a concept Carla encourages the team's members to apply to every aspect of their lives. Being the best student, the best athlete, the best sister and the best daughter.
Before performing their routines, the girls always say, "Win the day." But they're not only thinking about winning competitions, they're thinking about being the best person they can be every single day. And that, they hope, translates into championships, Bailey said.
To do this, Bailey said, it's important to compartmentalize and focus on one thing at a time -- always giving everything she has to everything she's doing in every moment.
Being a student-athlete is about athletics, about academics, about how you conduct yourself in everyday life, Carla said.
"Being a champion is who we are, more so than something we train for," she added.
Everything the team does has to be at the highest level. The things the girls do off the ice impact what they do on the ice.
"If we're working for excellence in all areas of our being, it's just what we come to expect. It's that holistic approach to life and training and how that all works together," Carla said.
This year the senior team has six competitions, four in the U.S. and two abroad. The ultimate goal is to qualify for Worlds in Helsinki, Finland in April. The process of creating the "programs," or routines, began long before the team arrived in August. Carla and the other coaches sort through notebooks and notebooks of ideas -- most of which get crossed out -- until they have a program that will best highlight the team's skills.
The senior team skates two programs each season. The short program lasts two minutes and 50 seconds, while the free, or long, program lasts four minutes.
Before the team arrives for their first practice, the programs are rough outlines. Then Carla lets things grow with the team. It's a fluid process, she said.
This year, the short program is set to a remix of Destiny Child's "Survivor." It's strong, aggressive, and powerful, Carla said.
"Those are the things we wanted to have the team show this year," she added. "I think it's something the athletes really connect with."
Carla told the girls to think about what the song means to them individually. "This is for anyone who's ever told you that you couldn't do something," she told them.
"This is for anyone who's ever challenged you and made you feel you're not good enough."
The message resonated with a lot of the girls, especially those who were part of the program last year.
We are survivors, Sarah thought. We have been through a lot, but we're still here. We're still skating. We're still thriving and doing the best we can.
The free program is a tango, which Carla said is strong and powerful but in a different way than the short program. It's longer with a more feminine quality and more complex choreography. They have more freedom to highlight their creativity.
The girls based the tango on visions they discussed for the program. Sarah said she pictures being in a lounge with girls dancing and people smoking cigars or having a scotch. Just vibing.
The lifts are in the long program. This year, they're working on a creative lift where it looks like one girl is walking on stairs through the rest of the team.
They also added more partner elements, like in a traditional tango. It's a combination of sharp and smooth movements.
It's now 7:12 a.m. The girls have been on the ice for less than 30 minutes, but it's time to do a full runthrough of their long program.
They all remove their jackets and toss them onto the wall of the rink.
Sarah, co-captain of the team, rallies the girls. They huddle in a circle, hands in.
"All right, ladies, win the day on three!"
"One, two, three, WIN THE DAY!"
The girls skate to the center of the ice and hit their first formation. They freeze until the music begins, transforming into intense tango dancers on ice.
Their faces are controlled. They all stare straight ahead, looking to where the judges would typically be seated.
Carla and Lee Ann whoop with every successful pass across the ice. At one point, the team splits into two rows that intersect while the girls are spinning. Some narrowly avoid elbows to the stomach.
When the song ends, the girls skate back to the wall, the cold air turning their heavy breathing to puffs of steam.
"That intersection was fast! Everyone had room," Carla says. "It was great! Good work."
The girls catch their breaths and head over to the TV at the other side of the rink. They watch a recording of their runthrough. Carla pauses the video to interject her thoughts.
She has a friendly tone, almost soft-spoken, but she gets her message across.
"Let's run it again," she says.
her 16 years on the coaching staff, Carla has seen the program become more demanding. There's more lifting, vaulting, jumping, spinning and pair skating elements than there were when she was a skater. The schedule has shifted even more as the team pushes toward its goal of competing in an eventual Olympics.
When Carla first started coaching, the team's competition season began in January. This year, their first competition was the first weekend in November.
The skaters are used to the annoying fact most people will never realize their sport demands the same dedication and skill required of any athlete, Bailey said. They think, OK, skaters. They're just skaters.
Growing up, Bailey didn't even see herself as an athlete.
"That's how society portrays it," she said. "But we're doing cardio and lifting weights. Synchronized skating has become such an athletic sport."
It's physically demanding. The girls are on the ice, in the dance studio or in the weight room at least four hours a day during the school year.
Sarah wakes up between 5:30 and 6 a.m. every single week day, no matter what.
The morning begins with practice, either on or off ice, depending on the day.
After practice, Sarah goes to her 8:30 class. Once she gets through her day of classes, she's either back at the rink or headed to weight training at the Gross Student-Athlete Development Center. After that, she'll usually make her way to Kofenya or attend a meeting for one of the medical clubs she's involved in.
Somewhere in between all of that, she tries to find time to eat, shower and change her clothes every once in a while, Sarah joked. And maybe take a nap if she can fit it in. That's the best part of her day sometimes: A nap.
She doesn't get to sleep much, and she drinks a lot of coffee, but she's learned to make use of what little time she does have. You can always find skaters at King Library or Kofenya. Always, Sarah said.
"I have to spend a lot of time just plugging in my headphones and drowning everything else out, so I can focus on what I need to do in my free time," Sarah said. "It causes me more anxiety if I didn't finish homework or something like that, so I will always give up sleep over not doing work."
Sarah majors in kinesiology, nutrition and pre-med. Between classes and skating, she also has to find time to apply for medical school.
This year, she's been trying to take in every moment and take more time for herself, despite the stress.
"I just don't want to miss anything," she said. "I don't want it to fly by. I don't want to blink and for it to be over." As lame as it sounds, Sarah said, she's trying to do things like going outside more and drinking tea.
"I've been using a lot of face masks, lighting a lot of candles in my room and just being more at peace than I have been in the past. It's a lot, and it's hard to manage, but I think it's also made me a lot stronger."
A lot of students don't really care if they have a five-minute break, Bailey said.
"But if I have a five-minute break, I'm taking my textbook out," she said. "I can't stress time management enough."
This semester, Bailey is taking 20 credit hours on top of working multiple jobs, coaching and working as a secretary in the classics department.
Meals are eaten on the go, and often include a lot of snacks and protein bars. If she has a slow day at work, Bailey tries to set aside 20 minutes for herself when she's not focusing on schoolwork or skating.
On the weekends, she likes to have fun.
"We're skaters, we can have fun sometimes," she said, laughing. But she also knows it's OK to sit in her house and do nothing. The schedule has shifted even more as the team pushes toward its goal of competing in an eventual Olympics.
When Sarah first joined the team, the coaches told the girls if someone falls, you have to keep moving.
"Because you do," Sarah said. "You have to keep skating the program."
She tries to block it out and not pay attention.
But, she said, "You still have to be aware that it happened because it could affect you for further parts in the program."
When it does happen, though, it's every skater for herself, she said. The skaters have to let the teammate who fell get back into the routine and trust she'll do so as soon as possible.
Falls and collisions are just part of the sport.
Unlike in solo skating, synchronized skaters are always close to one another. The girls have to know exactly what direction to go and how they're going to move. You have to be able to sense it, Sarah said.
"I think a lot of times, what we do looks simple because we've been skating for 10-plus years," she said.
Lifts, especially, take a lot of strength and practice. The coaches are very particular about how the team executes a new lift.
They have to figure out the timing between the three bases, be strong enough to lift the flyer above their bodies while also gliding across the ice and rotating. In the end, the lift should look effortless -- that's the goal.
Carla skates out to the center of the rink. She doesn't just tell the girls what to do; she does it along with them. She demonstrates the footwork, giving tips with each step across the ice she takes.
She asks a group to come out to the ice and link arms. They have to move in complete synchronization -- if one slips up, the chain will be broken. After each group has gone over that section, Carla calls everyone back to the center. "
All right, let's do it again," Carla says. "I'll film it."
While working on the intersection, two girls bump into one another. Carla glides across the ice to see what went wrong."Nothing like getting punched in the stomach at 7 a.m.," one girl says, rolling her eyes.
"OK, one more time," Carla says. They run through the intersection over and over until they've gotten both coaches' approvals.
Earlier in the semester, Sarah was reflecting with a friend about her time on the skating team. She almost started crying, thinking about how far she'd come.
Her first year, she was a swing on the junior team, so like Bailey, she shared her spot and wasn't guaranteed to compete.
"I was essentially the bottom of the totem pole."
Sarah looked around at everyone in the program and thought, This girl's better than me. There's no way I'm going to ever make senior over her.
"I just..." she took a deep breath. "If someone told me I would be here senior year, my freshman year, I would have told them they were crazy."
Her sophomore year, she wasn't even sure she'd still be part of the program. But she continued working, living the champion standard. She completely dedicated herself to the sport and tried to maintain a positive attitude.
"This has been a dream of mine since freshman year to be where I am now, but it was in the back of my mind," she said.
She kept that dream to herself, embarrassed to even tell anyone about it.
"I thought people would tell me I was crazy, but I must not have been, because here I am."
The arena starts to fill with natural light around 8 a.m., just as the sun begins to rise. The girls have 15 minutes left of practice.
Carla plays the first 30 seconds of the "Survivor" remix over and over.
The song starts. They run through the beginning. Carla stops the music. They start again. They won't make it to the full run-through of their short program today -- that'll have to wait for tomorrow.
At 8:15, the girls put their blade covers back on and head to the locker room to get ready for the long day ahead.