by Jacquelyn Thayer
For every championship title that seems a foregone conclusion, another may come down to a simple decision: stay novice or take a leap of competitive faith?
Before creating something of an upset in the junior pairs field at the 2017 U.S. Championships, Nica Digerness and Danny Neudecker began their off-season planning to continue a novice career that had begun, with their partnership, only a year before. They would tackle a few junior-level club events in the summer, a typical way to stretch while remaining focused within their national aims.
And U.S. Figure Skating offered a further enticement: assignment to their first Junior Grand Prix event, in Saransk, Russia.
“And then that was our goal, you know — to do a Junior Grand Prix,” continued Neudecker. “Then we did pretty well at that, so then we got another one. So we just kept kind of building on everything. Our second Junior Grand Prix in Germany [where they finished 13th] wasn’t as good, but it was still good experience. And then we had Sectionals after that, which we took first, and going to Nationals, we really just tried to keep everything the same, really, as far as our training and programs. You know, we just focused on emoting to the audience and to each other — I think that was our biggest highlight of the year, basically.”
The choice to advance was also the wiser for other reasons — with Neudecker turning 21 in March 2017, and therefore aging out of junior international eligibility, the pair have been obligated to enter the senior ranks in a wide-ranging U.S. field. Summer outings at Broadmoor Open, Skate Detroit and Pike’s Peak Classic have presented highs and lows, typical for off-season events, while their mindset remains modest.
“We’re just going to see how it goes, just skate our best,” said Digerness.
“We’re pretty much treating it the same as last year,” added Neudecker. “Our expectations aren’t really super-high, you know. It’s our first year, so we’re just kind of taking it one day at a time, really.”
But the success of the past year has meant a raised profile, and the pair recently made their debut at Harvard’s legendary An Evening of Champions event — prime opportunity to build both performance experience and exposure. While strong tech, including a triple twist and triple throws, helped boost them to last season’s achievements, the greater focus now is on continuing to grow their presentation.
“I think the biggest thing is we’re working on the total package now because we have the tricks,” said Neudecker. “It’s more about the lines and extensions, the choreography — just the component side now. So we’re working on that more, I would say.”
“We’re trying to change it up and go out of our comfort zone,” said Digerness.
“Yeah, because even when we skated novice, we had two kind of balletic pieces then,” said Neudecker. “Then in junior, we had that. So we’re trying to change that up totally. We’re just trying to express more and go to a different style.”
Still, a move to senior also demands an expansion of the technical arsenal. They’ve added a triple toe, while behind the scenes are also working on a throw triple flip. But particularly beneficial have been the takeaways from their week at U.S. Figure Skating’s summer pairs camp, where up-and-coming teams and coaches worked with top names including Nina Mozer and Robin Szolkowy.
“I think we learned a lot about useful exercises,” said Neudecker. “Mainly exercises we’d never really worked on before that were also really basic, and we’ve been practicing those pretty much every day. The biggest one is we’re incorporating a stretch band. We use that for death spirals and stroking, crossovers — basically everything, we do with this band [that] goes on your arms.”
“It helps a lot with our lines,” added Digerness. “We’ve done a lot more lift exercises and stuff like that.”
“Yeah, we still do the same amount of lifting off ice, it’s just we do different exercises,” said Neudecker. “You know, sometimes we don’t even do our full lifts; we just do these exercises like the twist, doing, like, pop-ups and full lifts on the ground, doing platters, things like that.”
With the move up has, coincidentally, come an expanded training environment. While the pair worked alongside only a handful of other teams last season, ranging from novices to top-level seniors Alexa Scimeca and Chris Knierim — who missed much of the season with illness — Sappenfield’s camp has grown significantly in 2017, with the regular stable ranging near double digits.
“Last year there was only one other junior team, Lindsay [Weinstein] and Jacob [Simon], and we weren’t actually on the ice with them that much — we were really kind of on our own last season,” said Neudecker. “I think this year, there’s more incentive and motivation because there’s so many teams now. Seriously, you can kind of feel the energy going on some days. It’s competitive sometimes. But I don’t think last year was like that at all.”
Both are students, Digerness finishing up high school as a homeschooler and Neudecker studying communications at University of Colorado – Colorado Springs. Additional diversions? For Digerness, her pet chinchillas; for Neudecker, video games, along with work teaching Learn to Skate.
And as they embark in earnest on this debut senior season, assignment to a Senior B — they’ve so far made the short alternates list for Challenger Events like Autumn Classic International — is one concrete goal. The pair’s central aim, though, is more holistic. “Just, honestly, to make a good impression at senior,” said Neudecker, “and just show that we’re ready for senior.”