February 20, 2007

Savoie Hits East Hill

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Matt Savoie was in for a shock when he arrived in the East Hill this year. Hailing from predominantly flat Peoria in central Illinois, he had also spent much of his life on the smooth ice of the rink as a mainstay of American figure skating. But no athletic preparation could have prepared him for the slopes of Ithaca.

“Having to climb up a hill every morning to go to class [is] fun but it’s also … a struggle,” he said.

Savoie knows something about frustration, though. The three-time U.S. bronze medalist was in third place after the short program at the 2002 U.S. Nationals but just missed making the Olympic team when he fell on a triple axel and dropped to fourth place.

His experience as an alternate in Salt Lake City didn’t prepare him for last year, when he won his third bronze medal at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in January and secured a spot of his own on the U.S. team for the Winter Games in Torino.

“The 2002 Olympics was a particularly intense experience for a lot of the athletes, even for an alternate … because it was in the United States. There was a lot of attention and pressure on athletes in that regard,” he said. “This time around last year it was completely different situation for me. I wasn’t in school. I was just skating. I wanted to make the team but it wasn’t my … primary goal of that season. It was the primary reason I didn’t go to school. It was more of a surprise … and certainly a lot less disappointing than being an alternate.”

In eighth place after the short program in Torino, Savoie placed fifth in the long program to take seventh place overall. Though he placed higher in the second portion of the competition, Savoie didn’t think that he skated much better. He missed the same element, a triple lutz, at the end of each program.

“I doubled it a lot more gracefully in the long program than the short program,” he said. “[My long program performance] was probably one of the best performances I’ve ever had and to have it come on such a huge stage was very meaningful to me. … I was really happy with both performances except for both mistakes, and the Olympics experience overall was a great one. … When I’m finished competing, regardless of how I do, … there’s a tremendous sense of relief just because that stress is off my shoulders.”

After he finished skating, he had free time to spend with his family and enjoy being in Italy. Between the short and long program, he took advantage of living in the Athlete’s Village, hanging out with other athletes such as fellow figure skater and Cornellian Jamie Silverstein, a junior.

As teenagers only a few years apart, Savoie and Silverstein both competed on the junior skating international circuit. During the Olympics, they were exciting about reuniting at Cornell.

“In a way I sort of benefited from that distraction,” Savoie said. “It was most interesting to see the way other athletes train. I don’t know what it’s like in other sports, but figure skating feels pretty self-contained and self-focused. We don’t … get to cross-train with other athletes, and just being around speed skaters who are biking everywhere and running all the time … it was an interesting experience to see that part of other people’s lives.”

He regretted not going to see more of the other events, recalling that the only one he saw, a short track speed skating event, was a lot of fun. The scheduling and distance between events, however, made it hard to take advantage of the opportunities.

The Olympic experience was great for Savoie up until he boarded the plane to come home. Then the sickness that had already reached teammate Evan Lysacek caught up with Savoie.

“I was able to hold it off for all three weeks but people were getting sick,” he said. “It’s that time of year and being in close quarters with a lot of stressed out people. … It was a cold and flu breeding ground. The whole plane ride home was pretty miserable.”

For some, the same words could be used to describe law school. As a busy first-year law student, Savoie didn’t watch the U.S. Figure Skating Championships four weeks ago. He doesn’t even have a TV. However, he is still an active member of the figure skating world.

Last May, Savoie was appointed to the International Skating Union’s singles and pairs skating technical committee as an athlete representative. The committee’s mission is to evaluate all technical aspects of the way the sport is run, a large part of which being to oversee the recently transformed scoring system.

“It’s done a lot of great things for figure skating, made people focus on elements other than jumps, encourage people to be more creative in the way they execute spins or construct a program generally, but there are also a lot of downsides to it,” Savoie said. “Those are being worked out. … It’s nice to have a hand in that, to be the athlete representative on that committee. It’s a lot of responsibility, but especially since it’s the early stages of the scoring system, it’s going to be a good experience to see how it develops.”

He mostly corresponds with the committee by e-mail. There was a meeting at the European championships in January, but the first week of classes after winter break made it impossible for Savoie to attend.

Law school takes up most of Savoie’s time, so he doesn’t get to skate as often as he’d like. He tries to make time for about three hours a week, but that varies over the semester. More than homework or school, his opportunities to skate are limited by transportation issues — just getting to a rink when time is available.

“I’m mainly using it as a fitness activity,” Savoie said, “rather than a career. I like to skate even if I’m not competing. In fact, I like it more than competing. … The way I’m sort of approaching skating right now is just to try to maintain skills, but now I understand that there’s going to be a fall-back in what I can do and how well I can do things. I still want to give myself the option in two more years or however long if I feel like it returning to competition because I’m very fickle.”

Savoie hasn’t officially retired. After the Olympics last year, he competed in the World Championships in Calgary, Alberta last March and placed 11th among the world’s best. Injuries, however, are a major factor in his decision about competing. His knees and hips are damaged to the point that they hold his skating back.

“I really enjoy challenging myself, and in a way that’s kind of why I wanted time from skating. As you get older, it’s a lot harder to challenge yourself to the extent that you want. … It’s an intellectual challenge, and I’m really enjoying that aspect of it,” Savoie said.

He will have to make a decision by summer if he wants to return next year.

“This year was sort of a way for me to evaluate whether I did want to compete or not and then if I did whether I’d be able to manage it at the same time as a law school career,” Savoie said. “[After experiencing the workload], I’m going to think that that’s less and less of a possibility, and I’m enjoying law school a lot. But if I end up making the decision to officially retire, then I’ll be very happy with the role I have in the sport right now, because I continue to perform in shows and I’m coaching and also serving on this committee.”

Though he doesn’t compete, Savoie hasn’t stopped performing in exhibitions ranging from the Cornell Figure Skating Club’s December show in Lynah Rink to the 37th Annual Evening with Champions skating show in the fall, a Boston benefit for the Jimmy Fund supporting research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. In March, he is scheduled to appear at a local show in nearby Cortland, NY.

He is also an experienced teacher, having coached off and on since he was 19. So when Stacy Petri, Director of Skating at Ithaca’s area rink contacted Savoie about teaching there when he came to Cornell this year, he was happy to help.

Now, he works with all levels of skaters in private, one-on-one sessions — consulting and coaching in what little free time he has, though with his schoolwork taking precedence.

“He’s been really great about everybody getting a turn to work with him,” Petri said.

She describes his teaching style as “very technical,” a quality which makes sense in light of his committee service. Savoie will explain the reasons for his advice, and the students are only too happy to learn from a former Olympian.

“The kids were a little star struck [at first],” Petri said. “[But] he’s been with us for awhile now so it’s subsided a little bit. He’s so laid-back and positive. They more view him as their teacher now.”

For modest, down-to-earth Savoie, one of the biggest adjustments to living in Ithaca has been being away from his family. This is the longest time that he’s ever spent away from central Illinois, and he comes from a very close community.

“Looking back, it does feel a little bit like I was more removed from the attention that I was getting, especially in my hometown,” he said. “I’m from … not a small town but it’s not a town known for figure skating. My friends in the public in Peoria were pretty excited, and luckily since Italy doesn’t get a lot of central Illinois news, I wasn’t exposed to that attention. It was a pretty amazing response that I got from people in my community, and I can look back on that now as being pretty unique, and I’m very appreciative of it.”

Savoie stayed near home during his pursuit of success in elite figure skating. While continuing his training and competition schedule, he also graduated from Bradley University with a degree in political science and earned a master’s degree in urban planning from the University of Illinois-Champaign.

“I’ve always been interested in philosophy generally but also environmental issues. After the master’s program I became even more interested in [going to law school] just because I feel as if urban planning is wholly grounded in law and what you can do through a legal system, and in order to effect change through urban policy or the environment that way, then having a legal education would be invaluable,” Savoie said. “Any job that can sort of integrate my academic experiences in urban planning and the legal background I hope to acquire here … that would be my dream job. I hope I can get to practice both.”

In the fall, the first-year students were thrown together into the pressure cooker of law school. Savoie likes the close-knit law school community, and he developed closer relationships with his classmates than he ever has before.

“I’m spending a lot more time at school than I did when I was an undergrad or in graduate school just by virtue of not having to go practice,” he said. “It’s nice to be able to throw myself into something in a way that I wasn’t before. Last year I was able to completely absorb myself in skating for the most part. This year, and hopefully for the next three years, I’ll be able to do that with law school.”

Petri views Savoie as a great role model for the youth figure skating community of Ithaca.

“A lot of our kids, growing up in Ithaca and the surrounding areas, are also very good students,” she said. “[Savoie] had to train so hard to make the Olympics and still got into Cornell, and that’s something so outstanding for our kids to see … that work ethic.”