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Rinkside at the U.S. Championships, Part 5

Mitchell, Johansson busy by the boards in Cleveland

Brian Boitano thinks figure skating needs a champion like Alissa Czisny.
Brian Boitano thinks figure skating needs a champion like Alissa Czisny. (Lynn Rutherford)

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By Liz Leamy and Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(01/24/2009) - Former world competitor Mark Mitchell has embraced the coaching chapter of his life with the same determination he displayed during his eligible skating career.

This week, Mitchell and his longtime coaching partner, Peter Johansson, a four-time Swedish national champion, have been busy with eight competitors at the 2009 AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships, in events spanning the novice to senior ranks.

"We're lucky to have such a good group of kids; they're a tight-knit bunch and are very supportive of one another," said Mitchell.

This week represents the 13th consecutive U.S. Championships for Mitchell and Johansson, who are three-time Professional Skaters Association and U.S. Figure Skating Developmental Coach of the Year recipients.

"The last time we were in Cleveland for nationals, in 2000, we had one student, a junior lady, so we had time to watch everything," said Mitchell. "This time, we have more students, so there's not too much of an opportunity for that."

Mitchell and Johansson's 2009 entourage includes Stephen Carriere, the defending U.S. men's bronze medalist; Katrina Hacker, who placed sixth in senior ladies last season; Curran Oi, the 2009 Eastern Sectional men's silver medalist; Brittney Rizo, the 2009 Eastern Sectional ladies' silver medalist; and Ross Miner, the 2009 Eastern Sectional men's champion. Junior lady Gretchen Donlan and two novice competitors, Yasmin Siraj and Keilani-Lyn Rudderman, round out the group.

With the championship men's and ladies events still to be decided, the coaches' track record is already good. Miner won the junior men's title here in Cleveland, while Rizo and Hacker sit fourth and fifth, respectively, after the ladies' short. Oi and Carriere also skated well, finishing sixth and eighth, respectively, in the men's short program.

"Every year we train them as hard as we can and hope they can do their job when it comes time for competition," Mitchell said.

"They're all there for each other on an everyday basis, even on those days where some of them might not be so happy, and that is important."

Two weeks ago, the Skating Club of Boston (SCB) held their annual U.S. Championships send-off exhibition for its club members. It featured SCB's national contenders, who performed an exhibition program and were awarded good luck mementos at the show's conclusion.

"It's such a great club with such an extensive history," said Mitchell.

During Mitchell's own competitive career, he traveled to many rinks and wound up spending a number of years training at SCB.

Mitchell first discovered skating when his older sister, Donna, who is now a synchronized skating coach, took lessons at a local rink near their hometown of Hamden, Conn. Within a few years, he was winning area competitions.

In the early 1990s, Mitchell earned a silver and two bronze medals at the U.S. Championships and placed a career-high fourth at the 1993 World Championships.

Toward the end of his eligible career, Mitchell met Johansson at various international events. The two clicked immediately, despite often contending for the same placements.

"It was kind of funny how [close together] we would finish, and it happened quite a lot," laughed Mitchell.

In 1996, they settled in Boston and began establishing their coaching base. Within a short period of time, they built a strong stable of competitors and were major players in the American skating community.

"We had come to Boston at a time when a lot of coaches had left, and, from there, we started to teach a new generation of kids," explained Mitchell.

The two men, who have coached Carriere, Oi and several others since they first started skating, are known for instilling good jump and spin techniques. Both stress the importance of remaining humble, a major asset considering how intense and competitive many people in the skating world can be.

"It's important to teach our students the right things. We want all of them to work hard and to behave well, and we expect the same things from everybody," said Mitchell.

The coaches work five days a week and take weekends off, as do most of their students. The two are adamant about making certain family and education remain top priorities for all of their skaters.

Johansson spends much time at the start of the season working with students on jumps, spins, power and edges, while Mitchell is at home doing music research for programs for the upcoming season. During the summer, the two coach at various non-qualifying competitions. By the fall, they are usually busy traveling around the world to various Junior and Senior Grand Prix events, as well as U.S. qualifying competitions.

Ultimately, for Mitchell and Johansson, a good job is all about making sure students are prepared to compete to the best of their abilities in a friendly and sportsmanlike manner.

"I think, more than anything, it's important that [the skaters] love what they're doing and learn from their experiences so they continue to get better in what they do," said Mitchell.

Brian Boitano on Alissa Czisny

Skating legend Brian Boitano says the skating world needs Alissa Czisny.

"Having young kids as champions in the sport, I don't think it helps the sport at all," the 1988 Olympic champion said. "I think it actually hurts the sport."

Not only are very young skaters often challenged by puberty and injury, Boitano said, but many skating fans relate more easily to older champions.

"I think it would help to have someone like Alissa, who has some life experience, as a champion," he said. "She's out there juggling skating and college. People can watch and say, 'Hey, I know what she's sacrificed to get there.'

"Jill Trenary, Katarina Witt, Nancy Kerrigan -- they were all women. According to the demographics of our sport, a lot of fans are women, and they can relate to what it takes [for a woman] to compete at that level."

Boitano, who has been mentoring Czisny the past two seasons, added that consistency on top would also help the sport's popularity.

"Name recognition comes with placing [at the U.S. Championships] year after year," he said. "The sport really needs great, long-running storylines."