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Wednesday, May 24, 2006 05:42 am

Teacup Cadet

After competitive figure skating, Springfield’s Lauren Beckler should glide through West Point

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When you watch Lauren Beckler skate, you can’t help but wonder whether the dainty figurine in some elegant music box has sprung to life and magically materialized before your very eyes. She’s beautiful, graceful, lissome, and delicate, and even her triple-toe-loop seems to hover above the ice  before landing with all the force of a feather. Plenty of Springfieldians have seen Lauren skate, in everything from annual Christmas exhibitions to Spotlight on Ice productions in which she has starred as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, in 2001; Tracy in Bandstand, in 2003; and, more recently, as Sandy in Grease and Grizabella in Cats — the big “Memories” solo she learned at the last minute, when the skater who was supposed to do the part was injured in a car wreck. But no matter how many shows skating fans have attended at the Nelson Center, anybody who has ever seen Lauren on ice might find it difficult to envision her in her upcoming role — as member of the United States Military Academy’s “Long Gray Line.” That’s right — the pretty little figure skater is about to become a steely-tough, gun-toting West Point cadet. Even the people who know Lauren best had to gulp a time or two to swallow that news. “Like, ‘Where did that come from?” is what my husband and I both thought,” says Melissa Beckler, recounting the moment when her daughter announced that she had begun the application process online. Vicki Thomas, the creative director of every Spotlight show, has watched Lauren grow up at the rink and can’t imagine why the skating starlet wants to trade her sequined dresses and silver blades for camouflage and lug-soled boots. “She just doesn’t seem like typical Army-officer material,” Thomas says. Owen Irwin, Lauren’s partner in pairs skating, was similarly stunned. “I never would’ve thought that she would choose West Point,” he says. It happened quickly. A few days after Lauren opened a “candidate file” on the Internet, she received an invitation to West Point’s Leaders Seminar. Last summer, after spending a week attending classes and workouts on campus, she came home determined to be a cadet. By winter, she had completed the half-dozen physical tests and reams of paperwork required for admission, and her letter of acceptance had arrived at her Pleasant Plains home. Over the next few months, Lauren’s mom noticed a pattern in the reaction she gets whenever anyone inquires about Lauren’s college plans. “People look at her and say, ‘She’s going to West Point?’ with a question mark at the end — a big fat question mark,” Melissa says.
It’s a logical query. Hanging out at her house, with nothing to do except review the speech she’ll deliver the next night as co-valedictorian of Pleasant Plains High School’s 2006 graduating class, Lauren looks more as if she’s heading to fashion school than to an elite military academy. Toenails painted the color of rose petals peek from beneath her tastefully frayed jeans, and a lacy camisole with a hint of sparkle shows beneath the hem of her hoodie. Her chocolate Breck-girl tresses, unfettered by rubber bands or barrettes, cascade around her shoulders. Then there’s her stature — or, more accurately, her lack thereof. At 5-foot-2, Lauren is so petite, she seems almost fragile. “I don’t know how much I weigh. I really don’t. Make something up,” she laughs. Well, what size are your jeans? “I wear a 2,” she says with a shrug. Lauren’s academy footwear is on special order. Apparently there’s not enough demand for size 4 1/2 Army boots for any retailer to keep them in stock. But Lauren’s not going to West Point to become the school’s pint-sized mascot or first teacup cadet. She’s as earnestly serious about this endeavor as she has been about everything else in her life. “I’m very competitive, so I always wanted to push myself as hard as I could, whether it was at school or in skating,” Lauren says. In school, she always took the most difficult classes offered and, despite spending hours at the rink and days traveling to skating competitions, still managed to make straight A’s. She finished with a GPA of 4.42 on a 4-point scale (advanced-placement courses were worth five points). The only B she made during her high-school career was in ninth-grade health. “She was always offended if I asked her if she had homework,” says Melissa, a teacher at Washington Middle School. “Of course she had homework, and of course it was already done.”
In skating, Lauren was just as devoted, spending about 15 hours a week on the ice from the time she was 10 years old. She practiced before school, after school, and on the weekends and taking ballet and Pilates in between. In 2004, she moved to Colorado Springs to train with Tom Zakrajsek, who coaches world-class skaters. Her diligence paid off. In the intensely competitive world of ladies’ figure skating, where winning a medal usually means outskating dozens of competitors, Lauren brought home awards by the truckload. At the most crucial competition — the Upper Great Lakes Regional Championships, held every October for advanced skaters from eight states — she medaled on her first try, at age 9. A few years later, at age 13, she won the silver medal at the ladies’ intermediate level, among a field of 96 contenders up to age 16. That same year, at a competition in Philadelphia, she won a tie for the bronze medal over a skater named Kimmie Meissner — who placed sixth at the recent Winter Olympics and first at the 2006 World Championships. But for Lauren, just winning wasn’t enough. “There were a couple of times she won that she didn’t think she deserved it, and that really bothered her,” Melissa says. She couldn’t enjoy victory unless she had skated her best.
There’s only one way to use the names Lauren Beckler and West Point in the same sentence and have it make sense: You have to add the term “perfectionist.” West Point is famous for accepting nothing less than the best, and Lauren has had that same expectation for herself all her life. In fact, her obsession with perfecting her work was once so intense, it threatened her academic career. “Terry [Lauren’s father] and I had to pull her out of preschool,” Melissa says. “She was not successful in preschool because she had to do everything just right.”
If she was working on an art project, for example, and the time came for music class, Lauren couldn’t stop what she was doing and go stand by the piano. She had to finish her work, put it away, and wash her hands before moving on to music. “And that was at age 3,” her mother recalls. “We knew then that there was something wrong.”
Melissa doesn’t mean “wrong” in a bad way. She says that Lauren was simply different. “Her dad and I have admired her since she was little,” she says. “She always seemed to be a kid that Terry and I followed instead of trying to lead.”
She had a tendency to “get obsessed with things,” Melissa says, then set her sights on a goal and do whatever it took to achieve it. At one point, Lauren became obsessed with learning the name of every tree she saw. Because the adults in her life didn’t necessarily know all tree species, she began carrying around a biology book that included an identification guide. She was 2 years old at the time. When Lauren asked her mom to make sure that they had bought enough balloons for a party, Melissa discovered that her 4-year-old daughter was solving division problems in her head. Math became Lauren’s next obsession, and whenever the family was trapped in the car with her, she would pester her parents for more math problems. “We divided balloons among people and multiplied balloons by people for the longest,” Melissa recalls. Around this same time, Lauren saw Olympic gold medalist Kristi Yamaguchi skating on television. Lauren found a phone book, carried it to her mother, and asked her to find a place where she could learn to skate. Lauren started taking group lessons at the Nelson Center at age 5, private lessons two years later. She wasn’t the most naturally gifted athlete at the rink, but she was always one of the hardest workers. “Lauren is very focused and very determined,” says Toni Hickey, who coached Lauren for six years. “She almost has tunnel vision. When she was skating, it was like nothing else around her existed, just what she was doing,” Hickey says. “She used to crash into people when she was really little because of it.”
By age 10, Lauren was consumed by figure skating. “She couldn’t talk about anything else,” her mom says. On the way home from the rink every day, Lauren would list all the jumps and spins she had done right and all the ones she had done wrong, then plan her practice for the next day accordingly.
When she began pairs skating with Irwin, she tried everything fearlessly. Her favorite elements were the throws, in which the male skater launches his female partner into the air to spin high above the ice, executing a jump. “I kept on having Owen throw me higher and higher. I loved it,” she says. “They had huge throws,” recalls Hickey, a former pairs skater herself. “They did a throw Axel and a throw double loop, and [Lauren] would fly 6 or 7 feet across the ice.”
Even injuries didn’t daunt Lauren. When she fell during a camel spin and lacerated her chin, she skated over to her coach and asked whether she could finish the practice session before going to the hospital. Another time, a bump in the ice caught her blade, and she smacked her chin so badly that she needed stitches. As soon as she left the emergency department, she climbed into a car with Hickey and Irwin, bound for a competition in Indianapolis. “She had to compete the next day in pairs, no less,” Hickey recalls. “She is really tough for a little one. She’s not a crybaby,” Melissa says.
Inevitably, though, Lauren arrived at a fork in the road. By the time she was 16, the demands of schoolwork and skating had increased so much that she had to choose between them. She and Irwin competed in pairs at Junior Nationals twice, placing as high as eighth in the nation in 2001. The next year, though, they slipped to 11th and came to realize that their partnership wouldn’t work. Then, spending most of 2003 in Colorado Springs, Lauren found it tough to stay excited about skating in Springfield. At the October 2004 regional competition, she finished 12th. A few months later, in January, Lauren became ill with mononucleosis and had to stay off the ice for three weeks. It took all of her energy just to keep making straight A’s. “She would go to her hardest classes [trigonometry, anatomy, and chemistry], then come home and sleep,” her mom says. Lauren realized that the upcoming school year would be even more difficult. Her course load would include advanced-placement classes in biology, chemistry, calculus, psychology, and English, plus economics and German (she tried to take physics, too, but couldn’t work it into her schedule). She knew that it would be hard to maintain her grades while spending hours at the rink and traveling to week-long competitions. “It was really hard for me to keep up with school and skate that much,” she says. “I just realized that it probably wasn’t going to work out anymore.”
She decided to give up competitive skating. Following a tradition forged by other elite skaters, she “tested out,” passing rigorous senior-level skating tests to achieve the status of a “double gold” skater before leaving the competitive ranks of her sport. The girl who had for years practically lived at the rink now showed up only on Saturdays to coach group lessons and a few private students. All of the intense effort she had poured into figure skating shifted toward her new goal: getting into West Point. There were applications to be completed, not only for the academy but also for congressmen, because no student can get into West Point without a congressional nomination (or a nomination from the secretary of the Army). There were seminars to attend, interviews to endure, physical exams, fitness tests. She had to have her eyesight and hearing certified, a full set of X-rays from her dentist, and even a fingerprint background check. By September, Lauren received from West Point a “letter of assurance” promising her admission if she secured a nomination. She later received nominations from both U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood. According to the USMA Web site, more than 15,000 students apply to West Point every year. Only 1,200 are accepted; of those, about 15 percent are female. Each candidate accepted receives an “offer of admission” in the form of a personalized leather-bound certificate. Lauren’s certificate, which arrived around Christmas, is prominently displayed in her family’s living room. But Terry and Melissa would not allow Lauren to accept the offer before she had explored a more conventional college. As alums of Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., they had encouraged Lauren to apply there. She attended an on-campus interview and was offered a full scholarship but returned home and immediately signed her pledge to West Point.
Whatever you want to say about how tough life is at West Point, you won’t scare Lauren. She’s heard it all, and she believes she’s ready for every grueling challenge West Point can throw at her. “It will just make me a stronger person,” she says. “I know it’s going to suck. I don’t have the illusion that it’s not going be as bad as everyone thinks it’s going to be — because it will. It will probably be worse.”
Her best friend, Rebecca Sachtleben, believes it will be more a matter of whether Lauren likes West Point than the other way around. “If she wants to get through it, she will,” Sachtleben says. “If she doesn’t love it, I can’t see her making herself do it. She’s a really smart girl, and she has so many other options, she could easily go into something else she might enjoy better.”
Owen Irwin, her former pairs partner — plus friend and classmate since the first grade — says that as soon as he got over the initial shock, he realized that West Point and Lauren might be a perfect fit. “I always knew she had the potential to do something great. I’m glad she found something she can focus all her energy on,” he says. The hours of hard work at the rink, the courage she acquired on the ice, and the discipline she developed while juggling schoolwork and skating will come in handy at West Point, Irwin believes. “They’ll get an eye-opener, because a lot of people don’t realize how tough figure skaters are,” he says. “It’s one thing to wake up at 5 in the morning; it’s another thing to get up at 5 and skate. You have people yelling at you, telling you what you’re doing wrong. You’re used to pressure. You’re used to falling down. “And if you’re used to falling down,” he says, “you’re used to getting yourself back up. You get up and keep on trying.”
Lauren is spending her summer working out — running and doing push-ups and sit-ups for an hour or two each day. Soon she’ll add swimming to her routine. She is due to arrive at West Point on June 25. When she goes, she will leave behind her skates (in their pink skate bag) and all her sequined spandex dresses and pretty hair bows. She’s looking forward to it. “I’m not as girly-girl as I come off,” she says. “I think I’ll be OK.”
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