West Edmonton skater takes it one glide at a time

By Christina Zoernig

EDMONTON — When Terry and Patti Purich put a pair of skates on four-year-old Natasha’s feet, the last thing they expected her to do was glide away on the ice like it was second nature at that year’s Christmas skate at Hawrelak Park.

At first, Terry thought his daughter was just imitating the motions she had seen while watching her brother’s hockey games. But it was what she did a short time later that made him realize that his daughter had talent.

“About 30 minutes later she was skating backwards,” he said. “I taught millions of kids [to skate] with chairs and everything.” Skating backwards is just not that sort of skill beginners master right away.

Little did he know that 12 years later, he would be watching his daughter skate on international television as she competed at the NHK Trophy in Sapporo, Japan, as one half of the only Canadian team in the pairs division.

One of the high-level skaters currently skating at Ice Palace Figure Skating Club, Purich differs from the typical teen. She takes her dedication to her sport to a completely different level that demands strength, precision and the passion to pursue what she loves.

Standing at four feet and 10 inches, Purich’s petite stature might mislead someone into thinking that she’s dainty. However, she’ll prove you wrong the second she steps out onto the ice.

Being a former gymnast and Ukrainian dancer, Purich is an athlete with a natural ability to perform that marks her as a powerhouse among the junior skaters.

“She is very strong and powerful,” said coach Ravi Walia. “She has a quickness to her that is really good for jumps. We call it ‘fast twitch muscles’ and that’s what makes her really explosive and her jumping really good.”

Even as she tried other sports at a young age, Purich was often reminded by others about how her size would be perfect for figure skating.

“Everybody always told me I had the right size to skate, but I never thought of it,” she said.  “I wanted to do hockey, but my mom wouldn’t let me because she said I was too small.”

Watching Olympic champions Jamie Salé and David Pelletier in the 2002 Olympic Winter Games held in Salt Lake City flipped the switch for Purich’s interest in competitive skating.

She began to skate at the Sherwood Park Figure Skating Club.  She quickly made progress in the physically and artistically demanding sport, and soon her parents sought a coach.

Natasha Purich

Natasha Purich is one of many skaters from the Ice Palace Figure Skating Club who compete nationally and internationally. Supplied photo.

While other locations such as the Royal Glenora Club have reputations for training high-level Olympic skaters, Purich’s search brought her to the Ice Palace Figure Skating Club in West Edmonton Mall to be coached by Walia.  Walia, a three-time national medalist and an ISU Technical Specialist for Canada, had taught her briefly in Sherwood Park for a few classes.

“Ravi Walia is a junior Canadian champion,” said Patti, Purich’s mother. “He’s skated with all the Olympic skaters, so I don’t think there was any question about whether it was the Royal Glenora or the Ice Palace.”

The Royal Glenora Club, which is a private club, would have required the Purich family to buy a membership.  For the family, who lives in Sherwood Park, this seemed unnecessary when the Ice Palace already had someone who had taught her before.

As she continued to train at West Edmonton Mall’s Ice Palace, Purich soon began to compete both nationally and internationally in competitions such as the Canadian Figure Skating Championships, the NHK Trophy and the Junior Grand Prix for single and pairs skating.

Her achievements include an eighth place win at the 2011-12 Canadian Figure Skating Championships for her pairs and single skating, and the 2011 Canadian Junior champion alongside pairs partner Raymond Schultz.

But success doesn’t come without its price.

While Purich does her best to lead a normal teenage life, she has had to make sacrifices to get to where she is now.

As a student in a sport school, Purich found herself missing many classes to compete at major competitions. Teachers would take note of her many absences.  Now, in order to balance her training with her school, she is completing her academics through correspondence courses.

“I do correspondence now for school just because last year I was away so much,” said Purich.  “The teachers, even though I was at a sport school, didn’t really appreciate it, so I kind of had to.”

Her daily routine is demanding — especially if you repeat it from Monday through Friday.

Purich does her school work for three and half hours in the morning followed by an hour of training or ballet.  After an hour to herself, she then spends about four and a half hours at the Ice Palace.

Luckily, school doesn’t get too repetitive for the Grade 11 student.

“You’re always trying to learn something new,” said Purich.

However, Purich is like any other teenager when it comes to keeping on top of homework during the week to leave her weekends free.

“You need to have fun still with your friends,” she said.  “I like to hang out with my parents too.”

“I try to be like just an average kid.”

While the sport has demanded a lot from her, it does give back in more ways than one.

When Purich decided to try pairs skating with partner Raymond Schultz last year, Purich was given the chance to be coached by Walia alongside one figure skater who made a lasting impression — Olympic champion David Pelletier.

“He ended up being my coach and that was icing on the cake,” she said.

Since Walia hadn’t coached pairs before, the collaboration between the coaches allowed Purich to gain more experience while working with her partner on the ice. Purich was able to work on her synchronization, body awareness on the ice and mastering difficult movements like the split-twist.

Yet with Grade 12 just around the corner, Purich decided to take a break from pairs skating in order to give her more time for school next year.  However, she hopes to try it against in the future.

As an athlete in a physically and artistically demanding sport, Purich has been faced with many challenges in figure skating over the years.  The greatest challenges sometimes come from within herself.

As a competitive figure skater who identifies herself as a perfectionist, she has to keep in mind that her attitude can make all the difference when she is skating.

“The most challenging thing for skating is definitely just not getting disappointed in yourself when you make mistakes,” she said. “Knowing that even when you get older, you never stop learning and keep improving.”

Sometimes the challenges aren’t always from within.

While the Ice Palace skaters also practice at Terwillegar Community Rec Centre, Callingwood Recreational Centre and sometimes the Kinsmen Sports Centre, most of Purich’s practices are at the West Edmonton Mall rink.

As one of the club’s 1,150 skaters, of which only 100 compete, Purich is exposed to the many challenges that the mall can offer — particularly when you always have an audience.

With the rink nestled near the heart of the 5.3 million-square-foot mall and over 30.8 million visitors a year, the skaters run through their simulations and practices under the watchful eye of the general public.

“Sometimes it can be distracting,” said Purich. “Like today I got a piece of a crumpled-up napkin thrown at me and I looked up at the lady and she flipped me off.  I just said ‘OK, whatever.’ But it’s good because you have people shout at you sometimes and you have to zone them out.”

The most popular name she seems to get called is “Ginger” because of her red hair.

“You get used to not caring what people think,” she said.

Despite the frustrating distractions that the mall sometimes offers, most of the skaters welcome the audience as they learn to practice focusing more on their routines than on those watching.

But the most notable challenge that any athlete must overcome is the ever-increasing level of difficulty in a sport.

With harder jumps and a demand for better flexibility, Purich maintains her training regimen to allow her to perform her best when she competes.

“I think what she’ll be working on is trying to develop more of a technical side of skating,” said Walia. “For her [that would be] learning more triple jumps and more difficult triples… that’s required on a more international level.”

For Purich, flexibility is one thing that she is working on after skating pairs with Schultz.

“I wasn’t too flexible [in pairs skating],” she said, “and I’m still no Gumby, but I’m working on it.”

While Purich has achieved many great accomplishments in the past few years, her future goals include representing Canada in the Olympics.  Though the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi are too soon, she has her eye on the next ones.

For now, Purich’s focus is on competing at Worlds while continuing to skate for her passion for the sport.  Sharing her experiences with those around her, she follows the best advice that her coach and choreographer have given her.

“Do it because you love it. No matter what, just try to put on a great face and things will eventually get better.”