Whenever Austin Hale and Alicia Bertsch practice, the figure skaters ' ultimate goal is unspoken but always present. Someday they'd like to compete in the Olympics in pairs skating.
Because Hale is 16 and Bertsch is 12, the goal is far enough away that it's kind of pointless to talk about, but they are good enough to actually dream with some legitimacy. With only a few months of training together, they finished second last year at nationals and this year they have moved to a higher division where they have the highest national score so far by more than five points.
``I just work towards it,'' said Hale, a Carroll junior. ``If it comes true or not, I just work my hardest and hope for the best.''
Hope definitely helps them work a little harder and concentrate a bit more.
``We want to work up to it first,'' Bertsch said. ``We want to make sure we're really consistent with the competitions before we get into all the pressure. When we do a program over and over and get it really, really consistent, then we'll know when we're ready.''
But it can be fun to dream. Bertsch and Hale will compete at the Midwest Sectionals in Cleveland this weekend, and they've already qualified for nationals in Omaha, Neb., Jan. 19-26. If they succeed there, the duo will likely qualify for Junior Nationals and start the climb toward international and senior-level competitions.
``We don't really talk about Olympics, but it's obviously every skater's long-term goal,'' said coach Alena Lushin. ``For pairs skaters, it's important to develop the right way. Our next step is to represent the U.S. in juniors grand prix and junior worlds and from there to seniors. It's a long process. We do have that goal in mind. They do have potential to be a national team and represent the U.S. in international competitions, but at this point it's very hard to say. As their coach, I would rather they learn and develop slower than rush.''
Both have careers that developed as singles skaters first. Hale has been skating for eight years, and Bertsch for seven. The odd thing is that Bertsch lives in Ann Arbor, Mich. She spends the summers in Fort Wayne to work with Lushin and Hale, and then drives down every weekend to practice on Saturday and Sunday afternoons at Lutheran Health SportsCenter.
Because she had her own pair skating background, Lunin said she recognized early that Hale would be a good pair skater. His size, strength, coordination and balance are particularly suited to pairs skating, she said. She waited until he was 15 and had matured physically to try convincing him to switch from singles. A knee injury encouraged him to try pairs as well.
Lunin started searching for Hale's partner in nearby states and found Bertsch. He's 5-foot-11, 155 pounds, and she's 5-1 and 98 pounds. They have similar coloring so many guess they are related, which can also help impress judges. A couple of tryout workouts showed they also had some chemistry. Bertsch call him Austini, and he tells her to shut up and trust him. So far he's dropped her only twice, and she says one was her fault.
Sometimes it's harder to find a partner than it is to succeed as a team, partly because there are many more girls skaters than boys, especially boys who would consider becoming pair skaters. Bertsch said her last partner kept dropping her so she decided to look for someone new.
While they weren't convinced early, Lunin said she could tell Hale and Bertsch were going to be good partners from the start.
``We kept getting better and better every day this summer,'' Bertsch said. ``I think we're still getting better, and that's what's fun about it.''
Usually, it takes teams at least two years to click, but Hale and Bertsch were good from the start. .
``Somehow it was in sync from the get-go,'' Hale said. ``We just kind of had it for some reason. I was new to pairs so I didn't know what was expected. When we first met, we both were quiet, but we got used to each other and now we can't shut up.''
Now they are good enough to dream.