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Gretchen Donlan loves a challenge—none more than being tossed into the air and spinning three times before coming down on the ice on a single skate blade. And doing it with the grace and agility of a butterfly landing on a leaf.
A pairs figure skater at the Skating Club of Boston in Watertown, Mass., Donlan (CAS’16) finds the sport “exciting and exhilarating, but also nerve-wracking,” she says. Considering what it must feel like to be lifted 10 feet above the ice several times during grueling three-hour practices, it’s not hard to see why.
“My partner launches me like a slingshot,” she says.
A veteran of the sport, the Hingham, Mass., native has been figure skating since the age of six, when she watched as her older sister became involved in the sport.
Donlan is coming off the most important skating season of her life. She and her pairs partner, Colorado native Andrew Speroff, finished first at two international events, the Icechallenge in Gratz, Austria, and the Ondrej Nepela Trophy in Bratislava, Slovakia. Those wins made the couple a team to watch going into last month’s 2014 US National Figure Skating Championships at Boston’s TD Garden.
Skating at this level is a full-time job, but the BU sophomore manages it while also enrolled as a full-time premed student, majoring in chemistry. “I went back and forth with my parents and coaches about taking the fall semester off to prepare, but I’m glad I didn’t,” says Donlan, who placed eighth in the national championships after making several mistakes in her free skate with Speroff. Undaunted, she is determined to continue skating competitively while pursuing her goal of becoming a doctor.
“I love having both,” Donlan says. “I like school a lot, and I love science, so I don’t mind it.”
Still, she acknowledges, pursuing both dreams at once can be hard. “Balancing it certainly is an art form,” she says. “Sometimes it can be frustrating. Figure skating is not an exactly an NCAA sport. You don’t have as big of a community. It can be difficult to find support.” Despite close friendships with her roommates, who volunteer at some of her competitions, her skating career requires her to miss out on the typical life of a college student.
“I don’t get to be like other college students and pull all-nighters,” she says. “If a paper is due while I am at a competition, I have to get it done beforehand. I have to be so scheduled and so on top of things to make it work. You have to dot your Is and cross your Ts.”
This weekend, Donlan will add one more challenge to her already demanding schedule. She will represent the University as a member of the BU Figure Skating Club team at the Liberty University Figure Skating Competition in Lynchburg, Va. And she will do so without a partner.
Competing on her own is not new for Donlan. In 2007, at 13, she was the national ladies champion at the intermediate level. It wasn’t until a year later that her Skating Club of Boston coach Bobby Martin convinced her to try pairs. Within months of being paired with Speroff in 2009, the two had made the national championships at the junior level.
The BU team has several solo skaters and small groups who compete in a variety of events, racking up points based on placement—similar to the setup of the team competition at the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi—and Donlan’s junior free program will contribute to the club’s effort. She’s never had the chance to experience the camaraderie of being part of a team, she says, so she’s looking forward to it.
Competing with the BU club, the 2009 and 2010 National Intercollegiate Figure Skating Champions, gives Donlan a chance to end her competition season on a high note after the disappointment at Nationals.
Unbowed by that loss, she’s more resolved than ever to remain part of the figure skating world. “Sometimes a big test is when things are disappointing. When you feel that disappointment and it really hurts, but you still want to do this crazy sport,” she says. “I guess I realized how much I love the sport, and how much I am unwilling to let it go.”
The Boston University Figure Skating Club will compete at the Liberty University Figure Skating Competition in Lynchburg, Va., on Saturday and Sunday, March 1 and 2. Results will be available online here. The team will also report from the event on Twitter.