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Rural teen skaters excel in a sport not made for mid-Missouri - a place with only one rink

Mylee Hawkins (left) and Jessi Johnson pose for a photo on the Washington Park ice rink in Jefferson City. Hawkins and Johnson both fell in love with a sport that is hard to access when there's only one rink in the region.
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Mylee Hawkins (left) and Jessi Johnson pose for a photo on the Washington Park ice rink in Jefferson City. Hawkins and Johnson both fell in love with a sport that is hard to access, with only one rink in the region.

Mylee Hawkins, 16, and Jessi Johnson, 15, are best friends. But they don’t go to school together and they don’t even live in the same city. What brings them together is their skating.

The teens are competitive figure skaters. They’ve been skating since they were toddlers, at the Washington Park Ice Arena in Jefferson City. It’s the only ice rink in the region–with the next closest one being two hours away in Wentzville. To get to the rink in time for practice, which is only available on a limited basis, both Hawkins and Johnson take one of their classes online so they can leave school early enough to make the 3 p.m. freestyle skate.

Johnson said it’s one of the harder things about being a skater in mid-Missouri.

A girl with long, blonde hair is typing into a calculator surrounded by notes and books. She is sitting at a concessions table in the ice rink.
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Jessi Johnson takes a break from ice time to work on her algebra homework in the Washington Park Ice Arena lobby. "I feel like [skating has] really helped me to realize how strong I am. And I mean, that sounds kind of cliche, but like, not just physically, but also mentally. I mean, it's a struggle, it really is, I'm not gonna lie," Johnson said.

“You definitely have to make your schedule fit the rink schedule, because if you can't come to this hour freestyle, you're either waking up at like, five in the morning to come skate every day, which I don't think is very fun. Or you're just going to the public sessions that are super crowded and hard to skate at," she explained.

Things are actually easier than they were several years ago. Before 2018, the rink wasn’t open year round, so skaters had to drive to the Wentzville rink when the Jefferson City rink was closed. That's where Hawkins started her Learn to Skate lessons. Now, the girls said they feel like they have more opportunities to grow and develop in the sport.

Hawkins lives in Fulton and still has to make the half hour trip to Jefferson City. Despite that, she was selected to train with the National High Performance Development Team–a camp that chooses the top skaters in the country to prepare them for the USA skating team.

We've been here 50 years, we just have never sent someone this far.
Mylee Hawkins

“Whenever I was on the national development team, they're like, 'Oh, my gosh, are you from a new rink?' And I was like, 'Nope, we've been here 50 years, we just have never sent someone this far,'” Hawkins said. (The rink opened in 1960, making it about 63 years old.)

Hawkins admitted sometimes she feels a sense of responsibility for other younger skaters experiencing the same challenges she does. And accomplishments within the sport are obtainable no matter where a skater comes from.

"These kids are looking up to me," she said. "I want them to have someone to look up to. I want them to know that it doesn't stop at an axle. It goes so far past and they just have to push for it. Because it's there."

Brent Echols, Hawkins' and Johnson's coach, has been teaching skating for about 25 years. He said it's been difficult to help young skaters understand they can go far in the sport even with only one sheet of ice.

"There's a lot of challenges here. We're coming from a small town so it's hard for people and for children and students to understand the depth of figure skating," he said. "If you don't see a lot of it, then it's hard to understand that you too can do that."

A girl with a brown braid and a red shirt is standing next to her mom. Her mom has long brown hair and is wearing a black shirt with a necklace. They are both smiling.
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Mylee Hawkins (left) stands with her mom Julie Hawkins in their house in Fulton, Missouri. "I am proud of Mylee because I mean, just everything she's accomplished," Julie Hawkins said. "She's a hard worker. She has overcome so many different obstacles just in terms of barriers to being able to be as good as she is. And she's never let any of those barriers stop her."

And it was a hard journey to get there. Julie Hawkins, Mylee’s mom, said being a competitive skater in rural Missouri has a lot of barriers. With her full time job in Jefferson City, Julie Hawkins said it was a major challenge going back and forth between her work and Fulton to pick up Mylee in time for practice.

“Everything was just barely enough time to get a little bit of time in, so it felt like everything was chaotic chaos, really, trying to make things happen," Julie Hawkins said.

Mylee Hawkins used to go to the morning freestyle session, which means she and her mom would get up at 4 a.m. to drive from Fulton to the rink for an hour of practice, and back to Fulton in time to get ready for school and work. The whole process would repeat after school. Mylee Hawkins said the two hours every day in the car could be relaxing at times to get in the right headspace before practice, but it was also a lot of time spent in the Subaru Outback.

Luckily, Mylee Hawkins can now drive herself to and from the rink. It's been helpful, but she still has a lot to balance. On top of being a figure skater, she also plays softball and has a job at the rink.

"We all feel the stress at times because she's been divided and pulled in a lot of different directions," Julie Hawkins said about her daughter. "And making sure she's still, you know, getting good grades. We just do the best we can to encourage her to make sure she's managing her time wisely and taking advantages of the moment."

The most highly competitive skaters typically come from urban areas where there is more access to ice time, coaches and development opportunities.

Echols used to take a handful of skaters to the Wentzville rink for the entire day to make up for the lengthy travel time. They would skate, take breaks, eat and repeat throughout the day. But even though Mylee Hawkins and her friend Johnson don’t have the same access as skaters in bigger cities, they try not to let that affect their love of the sport.

“Everyone comes from a different background. And it's how you take the hits you have, like if you can work through having a rough rink where your rink floods all the time, like if you can work through that and still be the same skater as someone who had the easiest path possible…” Hawkins paused to find the right words. “But how much more did you have to work through? And how much more did you have to persevere?”

Chris Conner, an MU professor who teaches a class on the sociology of sport, said this outlook on a sport riddled with roadblocks in mid-Missouri can actually work out in the athletes’ favor long term.

“They want to excel at something and be good at something and be recognized for that. And that builds self-worth. That builds lots of things that lead to living a positive and healthy life," he said.

According to Conner, succeeding in the sport that gives people joy, gives them a purpose – something to work toward.

A figure skating girl with a blonde braid spins on one foot with the other lifted horizontally away from her body.
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Jessi Johnson practices her camel spin, in which she spins on one foot with the other lifted horizontally away from her body. A perfect figure skating spin would stay exactly in place, but Johnson admitted her spins still "travel" sometimes.

"There's some element of ice skating, right? Of being able to manipulate one's body in a way that is amazing and beautiful to watch and moves you," Conner added. "Now, as it relates to bringing people together and finding a sense of community, yeah, you obviously have that going on as well. And that's kind of the thing that sports does, is it gives us something to connect with, even if we don't have anything else in common."

Julie Hawkins has noticed this impact on her daughter. She works in juvenile justice, so she said she knows how important it is for young people to feel a sense of identity.

"Having some kind of interest that helps them kind of define, even how they see themselves, is huge because it keeps them on a path where they're continuing to pursue their dreams," she said.

Fellow skater Johnson said she looks up to Mylee as a "not really older," good skater. Johnson competes as an open juvenile, which is a few levels behind Hawkins who competes at the novice level, but Johnson knows she’ll get there with determination and practice.

“Knowing that we probably do have more struggles that we have to come across with our rink than other people," Johnson said. "It makes me feel more fulfilled with what I’ve accomplished.”

It hasn’t been the easiest road for Hawkins and Johnson to continue the sport in a region not built for competitive skaters, but it has been a way to create their own support system.

For the audio transcript, click here.

Kassidy Arena was the Engagement Producer for KBIA from 2022-2023. In her role, she reported and produced stories highlighting underrepresented communities, focused on community outreach and promoting media literacy. She was born in Berkeley, California, raised in Omaha, Nebraska and graduated with a degree in Journalism at the University of Missouri, Columbia.
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