Skating Home

Can Eliot Halverson make it to the Olympics—without leaving St. Paul?

FROM THE AGE of 7, Eliot Halverson had craved the spotlight. So this was perfect. On a steamy afternoon in August, he stood on a stage at the Minnesota State Fair alongside two of the world’s best—and best-known—figure skaters: two-time Olympic medalist Nancy Kerrigan and 2006 Olympian Emily Hughes. Halverson, now 17, was there to promote the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which take place this month at the Xcel Energy Center. He was the local connection, the fresh-faced St. Paul kid everyone (the organizers hoped) wanted to see.

Seven months earlier, Halverson had won the national junior men’s championship, just one year after he’d won a national novice title. It was a remarkably swift, though not unprecedented, ascent for a male skater, and his success was already garnering attention outside the cloistered world of figure skating. The city of St. Paul, where he lived with his mother, older brother, and younger sister, declared April 21 as Eliot Halverson Day. 

Now, for the state fair’s figure-skating day, he was on stage in Carousel Park, where 300 people had crammed onto benches to see a program emceed by KARE-11’s Eric Perkins. Skyride gondolas slid by overhead; the aroma of cooked sausage wafted across the park. Kerrigan, who once famously called a Disney World parade “corny,” smiled diplomatically through the decidedly corny ceremony. But Halverson couldn’t stop beaming. That he was still months away from actually qualifying for nationals seemed to worry only his mother, Deborah, who sat in the crowd trying to look inconspicuous. When Perkins asked Halverson about training at the St. Paul Figure Skating Club, he grinned even wider. “There’s no other place I’d rather be,” he said.

That gave some comfort to his coaches, Ann Eidson and Ted Engelking, who have never trained an Olympic skater, which many believe Halverson has the potential to be. If Halverson makes it to the 2010 games, it will be historic. Since 1952, only one figure skater from Minnesota has qualified for the event: Minnetonka’s Jill Trenary, who finished fourth at Calgary in 1988. And Trenary, the 1990 world champion, had to leave home to do it. As a teenager, she moved to Colorado to work with the legendary Carlo Fassi, who had coached Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill to Olympic gold.

Yet Halverson is determined to become an Olympian while living and training in St. Paul, and not just because it could be prohibitively expensive for Halverson’s parents to pay for his training elsewhere. “I feel very fortunate,” he says. “I have all my family and all my friends here, and I’ve never had to change anything to better my skating.”

Sitting in the dining room of the Arts and Crafts—style bungalow in St. Paul she shares with her kids, two golden retrievers, a cockatiel, and a fish, Halverson’s mother, Deb, puts it another way: “Joe Mauer’s from here,” she said. “We don’t have to go to a big training center to do it—and we want to prove it.”

Photo by Paul Harvath,
courtesy U.S. Figure Skating

A LITTLE SIGN marks the switchback turn off St. Clair Avenue that leads to Pleasant Arena, home of the St. Paul Figure Skating Club. A parking lot separates the drab two-story building from the Ramsey County compost site, with railroad tracks and I-35E beyond.

For years, hockey players termed the place Unpleasant Arena for its bone-chilling cold. Now, an overhead heating element keeps the air inside the rink at a consistent 55 degrees, perfect conditions for figure skaters, who need softer ice to ease the jolt of landing jumps.

On this August morning, Halverson takes the ice shortly before 10 a.m. His sleek, black workout clothing makes the lithe Halverson, who is 5-foot-7 and 130 pounds, appear scrawny. Yet it quickly becomes obvious that Halverson is the most accomplished skater on the ice. He glides through the first lap of his warm-up skate faster and smoother than any of other teens and preteens with whom he’s sharing this session.

Adolescent figure skaters can often be self-absorbed and surly, the predictable result of constantly being told how special they are. Not Halverson. In between spins and jumps, he stands and applauds other skaters. “He always cheers for the other kids,” says Eidson, who is also the club’s program director. “Some rinks, they’ll just cheer for the good kids. He treats them all as equals, and with respect.”

Club skaters are required to formally thank their coaches before leaving the ice. Halverson does so with a flourish, skating to Eidson and raising his right arm as if finishing a dance move in a Broadway show. “You never have to remind him to do that,” Eidson says. “Some kids do it because they have to. When Eliot does it, it’s genuine. He really means it. That’s one of his best qualities in identifying him and working with him—and one of his best qualities when he competes. The judges can see that.”

That Halverson took to skating at all still stumps his parents. Born in Colombia, Eliot is the middle child of three unrelated South American kids adopted by Phil and Deb Halverson. The 18-year-old Ian, Eliot’s older brother, was also born in Colombia, while Mariah, 13, is from Paraguay. Both parents say that at 6, Eliot began imitating figure skaters he saw on television. Not long after, he asked for ice skates, which he taught himself to use on the pond behind their house. Each year on Super Bowl Sunday, the Halversons and their neighbors held a mini-Olympics. Eliot quickly became the star attraction. “His mother and I would watch him skate, and look at each other when he would do things, and say, ‘Did you see that?’” says Phil Halverson. “He was doing jumps and spins, and I’m thinking to myself, Do other kids do these things? I had no frame of reference. I was thinking that it seemed quite remarkable.” When Deb took Eliot to Minnetonka for his first lessons, he saw pictures of Trenary. Amazed that someone from Minnesota had skated in the Olympics, he soon made it his goal, too.

His parents, who separated in 1999 and divorced in 2003, have remained supportive. Phil, an allergist who lives in Maple Grove, has since remarried, and Eliot spends every other weekend with the family. Deb sold her Maple Grove townhouse three years ago to buy the St. Paul bungalow, which is within walking distance of Pleasant Arena. She works two part-time jobs and home-schools Eliot and his sister. “My parents were separated when I was 8,” says Eliot. “I had to go through things a lot of 8-year-olds didn’t have to go through…[but] I’m lucky I have two different families that want the best for me—on and off the ice.”

PICK AN ICE RINK anywhere in Minnesota, and chances are it was once home to a future Division I college hockey or NHL player. But a world-class figure skater? You’d have better luck finding a world-class mountain climber. Though Minnesota has produced novice and junior champions, few have seen success as seniors, the top level. 

At Pleasant Arena, 70 banners hang from the rafters, honoring the St. Paul Figure Skating Club’s national champions and international qualifiers going back to 1939. But the club’s Olympians fit on one banner: John Lettengarver, a fourth-place finisher in 1948, and the pairs team of Janet Gerhauser and John Nightingale, who were sixth in 1952.

Gerhauser, now Janet Carpenter, still lives in the Twin Cities and has been a skating judge for many years. She has no explanation for the dearth of Minnesota Olympians, but believes Halverson has a good shot to make the games. “It’s really unlimited what he can do,” she says.

What he has done already is extraordinary. Halverson is one of only nine men since 1932 who’ve won national novice and junior titles in back-to-back years, a list that includes two-time Olympic gold medalist Dick Button, Lettengarver, and defending senior national champion Evan Lysacek.

Not unlike their young peers in tennis or gymnastics, ambitious young figure skaters often relocate to find the right coach, the right training site, the right choreographer. But no one who knows Halverson expects that to happen. Part of the reason is that Halverson feels he doesn’t need to. Until last year, world-famous Russian coach Alexei Mishin made annual visits to the Twin Cities for clinics, which Halverson relished. Last summer, when Halverson had trouble mastering a triple axel—a jump he needed to be competitive as a senior—Engelking and Halverson flew to Colorado Springs to work with respected coach Kathy Casey at the Olympic Training Center.

Several years ago, Eidson tapped Svetlana Kulikova, a young Russian ice dancer-turned-choreographer based in Connecticut, to work with Halverson. “Two peas in a pod,” Eidson calls them. Last summer, Halverson flew to Connecticut to work with Kulikova, and she came here in October. “If Eliot needs something, we’ll get it for him,” says Eidson.

This season, Halverson took an important developmental step by moving up to the senior level in national competitions, though he still competes as a junior internationally. That’s not unheard of—Michelle Kwan did it, too—but it comes with financial risk. As the U.S. junior champion, Halverson earned a $10,000 stipend from U.S. Figure Skating toward his yearly expenses. To maintain that funding, he must finish at least fourth at the St. Paul event this month, which will be difficult. It took Lysacek, for example, five years to make the top four at the highest level after winning a junior title. “It’s a little scary, I guess,” Halverson says, but “I needed a new goal.”

Last year, Halverson earned bronze medals in his first two international events. This year, attempting more difficult programs, he took fifth and seventh. “We didn’t place as well as last year,” Engelking says, “but we’re happy with the improvement in his skating.”

The seasons ahead will get tougher for Halverson, competitively and financially. Halverson says he is looking toward the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, though 2014, when he’ll be 23, may be more achievable. Unlike their female counterparts, male figure skaters take longer to develop. Halverson doesn’t yet have the strength to hang with the world’s best. 

This month’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships will provide Halverson his biggest exposure yet. It will also be the biggest test of Halverson’s hometown strategy, perhaps giving hope to those who’d like to see another Olympian’s banner hang from the rafters of Pleasant Arena.

Pat Borzi is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer. He wrote about the Olympic curling team for the February 2006 issue of Minnesota Monthly.