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Fire on Ice

It’s the sound of a steel blade touching pristine ice; the crisp rush of air as she lands a perfect triple; the elaborate silk and satin costumes with feathered plumes arching high over her head; or simply, the smile of a young girl who has successfully landed her first double flip. Since age 7 when she first strapped on a pair of roller skates, Judy Stasenka, administrative assistant and news editor for the Nebraska T2 Center, has loved the sport of skating. “I love skating and I love what I do,” Stasenka said, smiling. From her demeanor, it’s clear ice-skating has captured her heart, soul and imagination.

A Midwest roller-skating gold medalist in the mid-50s, Stasenka eventually concentrated her energies on ice-skating. “I enjoy the beauty of the ice more,” she said quietly, folding her hands in her lap. “What really got me started with ice skating was the discipline it required, the thrill of competition and what it felt like to move around on ice. My father was a great supporter. He even built an ice rink in our backyard.” Her passion and perseverance paid off—in 1958 she joined Holiday on Ice, a touring company running since 1943 that has been seen by more than 300 million people. “It was a wonderful opportunity for a girl my age, just out of high school,” she said.

Life with the Holiday on Ice tour was hectic but enjoyable. Skaters practiced from 7 a.m. until noon, then performed in two evening shows. On weekends, Stasenka performed in three or four consecutive shows. “There were times we were in skates for more than 12 hours,” she said. The more than 200 technicians, choreographers, stage managers, costumers and make-up artists traveled back and forth across the country. At that time the show ventured as far south as Mexico and in later years would travel abroad extensively. Stasenka left the show in 1959 to care for her mother in Nebraska.

Today, she continues to indulge her passion for skating and hone her craft as a student and teacher. “I read, practice and study constantly to keep up with the latest trends and guidelines in my sport,” Stasenka said. She is a member of the Professional Skaters Association, an organization dedicated to the needs of professional skaters, and the United States Figure Skating Association. Each year, she attends continuing education seminars to maintain her professional status, and holds a master’s rating in sports science medicine. “I want to be the best coach I can be for my students.” Currently, she is the only registered rated professional in free style skating and master-rated in sports science medicine in Lincoln and works with beginner through competitor level students in Lincoln and the Omaha area. Stasenka also specializes in choreography and style and designs programs for her students, some of whom take skating tests and compete.

“I get the satisfaction of sharing the joy I get from skating with my students, and I think it makes them better skaters,” she said. “Any coach tries to not only teach the student but give that student an experience they will carry throughout their lives.” To get to know her students, Stasenka takes each onto the ice to get a feel for their natural abilities and skill level then establishes realistic, long-term goals. Most of her instruction covers the basics—choreography, style, jumps, spins and footwork—but she also teaches sportsmanship and strength training and helps students develop their psychological approach to skating. Because many are children and young adults, Stasenka builds working relationships with parents. “It can be challenging,” she said. “But I usually have a good rapport with them because, ultimately, they want to understand how their child is progressing.”

Although busy with coaching duties and responsibilities at the University, Stasenka tries to find the time to skate for herself. In Lincoln, especially, ice time is a precious commodity, but when she has the chance, she laces up her custom-made skates, one pair with silver blades, the other with gold, and takes to the ice. Her pirouettes may be a little slower, her jumps a little lower, but as she glides along, she feels the same pure joy she experienced when skating in her father’s back yard or performing for thousands. “I have had a wonderful life doing something I love,” she said, her ever-present smile widening.

—Roxane Gay