Reece Yaksitch is only 10 years old, but she gets the joke: Bakersfield isn’t exactly the most likely place to find a talented figure skater.
“I get kind of a confused reaction sometimes,” Yaksitch said before bursting into a fit of giggles after a recent practice at the Bakersfield Ice Center. “Some kids in my class, they don’t even know what figure skating is. And they don’t know that we have an ice rink.”
Oh, yes, Bakersfield, you have an ice rink – and some pretty good young figure skaters. Yaksitch is the headliner: She qualified to skate at the State Games of America next month in Grand Rapids, Mich. But she’s just one of 16 local skaters who will compete starting Monday at the World Recreational Team Championships in Anaheim.
“It’s grown tremendously,” said Hayleigh Weldin, who’s in her seventh year coaching figure skating at the Ice Center. “We started with a small group, but it showed there were people with interest. Over the years, it’s grown tremendously ... not just for figure skating, but hockey, too. Both of our programs have skyrocketed.”
It’s hard to fathom Bakersfield being an ice sports haven, especially in the middle of a double-digit stretch of days with triple-digit temperatures, but there’s no doubting this: It sure feels good to walk into the Ice Center and get blasted with chilly air.
“It just makes me feel good, just being on the ice,” said Haley Diebel, a 6-year-old headed to Anaheim.
A skater and a dreamer
Four years ago, the day she turned 6 years old, Reece Yaksitch’s parents held her birthday party at the Ice Center.
That started a journey that will lead Yaksitch next month to Michigan for the State Games, a national competition that she qualified for early last year and that’s organized like a mini-Olympics.
“I’m really excited,” she said. “I’ve just been waiting and waiting for the time to get here.”
This four-and-a-half-year whirlwind all started with that birthday skating trip, after which Reece’s parents set her up with private lessons. Soon, she was competing throughout the state, from San Diego to San Jose.
“I have always told my kids that they need to participate in a sport,” said Nicole Yaksitch, Reece’s mother. “It’s ironic that (we found one) when we had her sixth birthday party there at the Ice Center. From there, she told me she wanted to skate.”
Reece is in the freestyle division with skaters aged 9 through 12 in a competition with more than 1,200 skaters representing all 50 states.
“It is amazing what she’s done in the four and a half years that she’s skated,” Weldin said. “She’s gone through a lot of ups and downs, but she is so good at being able to challenge that and fight back ... each level you go up, the skills get a lot harder, but she’s perfectly aware of what she has to do.”
Reece said when she started skating, she fell to the ice multiple times every day.
“Her blades have gone through her legs; she comes home with cuts and bruises,” Nicole Yaksitch said. “Every time she learns a new skill, there’s lots of falling. She gets frustrated ... I’m just there for moral support. I’m her cheerleader.”
One experience that helped to ease the long training process was when Reece met and got to skate with 2012 Olympic bronze medalist Gracie Gold.
“Sometimes I’ll dream about being at the Olympics,” Reece said, “but mostly I like just dreaming about how fun it is.”
Never too hot for a little ice
Before the Ice Center opened in 2003, Bakersfield didn’t have a lot of places to skate, at least not on ice. The Bakersfield Ice Palace was open on Rosedale Highway for a few years in the 1990s, and the convention center floor (where the Rabobank Theater sits now) was turned into a public skating rink a few times a year, but that was it.
“I was a roller skater from when I was 3 years old,” Weldin said, “but when I made the change to ice, Bakersfield didn’t have a rink. I had to travel to Valencia and Burbank to practice.”
Still, Weldin’s love for the sport kept her with it, and she eventually competed with Team USA for the Los Angeles Ice Theater team. She was also a national showcase skater.
Her love for her hometown brought her back to Bakersfield, and she’s helped to grow the sport in the past seven years. Her program now includes dozens of girls (and no boys, though there have been a few in the past).
“It’s been a long, rough journey, but I’m so proud to think of where we started and where we’re at now,” Weldin said. “We’re pulling in more girls and more students every day, and we’re able to share with them the love and passion that we have.”
The World Recreational Team Championships are another opportunity. The event requires no qualification, just a minimum level of experience, and because it only comes to California every few years, Weldin’s team is taking advantage.
“Every skater is different,” Weldin said. “Some of the girls, they’re excited and look forward to skating in front of a large crowd, and then some of them, you know, they shy away a little more. ... We always try to run their lessons like it’s a competition so they’ll be prepared.”
It’s a safe bet that 11-year-old Coco Chapman will be prepared. She’s a home-schooler who’s already in the eighth grade and also an accomplished pianist. But these days, it’s figure skating that’s capturing her attention.
“It takes away my worries,” she said. “It’s a sport that’s very encouraging. It makes you want to progress and advance.”
Chapman said she actually equates the artistry of the sport – its majestic jumps and spins intertwined with more understated elements and performed to music – to playing the piano.
“The rhythm of a jump, it’s similar to the pattern of some notes,” she said. “And in both you have to be brave. Sometimes you mess up, but you have to keep working and practicing.”
And so it is for these figure skaters in a hot, dry town: With each practice, more experience and fewer raised eyebrows.
“It makes me really proud,” said Reece, “because oftentimes we go to competitions, and there’s a bunch of people that are like, ‘Where did you come from?’”
Zach Ewing can be reached at 661-395-7324. Follow him on Twitter at @zewing. Trevor Horn can be reached at 661-395-7374. Follow him on Twitter at @trevhorn.