Being ‘Pretty Good’ Is Not Enough for Skating Computer Scientist

A number of world-class figure skaters have graced the ice at Ingalls Rink during their time as students, but one Yale computer scientist has for many years been a constant presence there.

Michael Fischer has been skating most of his 67 years, and while he entered his first competition just one year ago, he has spent decades perfecting his moves and footwork, most recently training with former Olympians and Olympic hopefuls.

As president of the Yale Figure Skating Club (see related story), Fischer also encourages others in the Yale, New Haven and surrounding communities to take up the sport or hone their skills on the ice.

Fischer recently spoke with the Yale Bulletin & Calendar about his passion for figure skating. Here is what we learned.

Benched: A native of Michigan, Fischer began skating when he was a preschooler and joined a youth hockey team as a youngster. He spent most of his time on the bench, he says.

“I was a horrible hockey player,” the computer scientist admits. He eventually dropped out, and briefly gave up skating altogether.

Then, while lying in bed one night, he heard music emanating from the rink near his home and was lured back to the ice.

“I loved skating to music, which is why I’ve always been interested in ice dancing,” says Fischer, who began taking lessons with the Ann Arbor Figure Skating Club.

Fischer continued to improve his ice dancing skills through high school and college at the University of Michigan, where he met his wife, Alice, while the two were freshmen.

“Naturally, I took her to the rink to watch me skate,” recalls Fischer. “She saw me dancing with other girls and decided she wanted to be a part of it, so she joined the club, too.”

He continued pursuing his passion while a graduate student at Harvard University, often practicing with his wife.

Jumps, spins and lifts: While figure skating is not a popular sport for men in the United States, notes Fischer, it requires great athleticism.

“In figure skating, there is a lot to understand about body mechanics and body movement, and then there’s the actual doing it,” he explains. “It shares a lot with ballet, dance and gymnastics in that it requires a lot of training as well as raw power. You never run out of challenges, regardless of your level. You can always improve.

“I think what I enjoy about it must be what most athletes feel about their sport,” he adds. “There’s a great joy in moving my body.”

Better than just okay: After Fischer came to Yale in 1981, there was a period in his life when the demands of career and family limited his time on the ice. (He’s the father of three sons, who are all Yale alumni.)

However, he continued trying to improve as a member of the Yale Figure Skating Club, whose board he served on for many years.

About 10 years ago, he found that his weight had crept up to over 200 pounds.

“I started to realize that if I wanted to stay healthy, I had to start working on fitness,” he recalls. “So I started going to the gym and working with a personal trainer. Over a couple of years, I lost 45 pounds. As the weight came off and my body got stronger, I started getting back into skating more seriously.”

He soon began training with elite skaters Melissa Gregory and her husband, Denis Petukhov, who later competed in dance at the 2006 Olympics.

“They took seriously my desire to advance my skating skills as far as possible for my age and not be satisfied with ‘pretty good,’” says Fischer.

With the pros: Before he began his Yale career, Fischer had passed enough U.S. Figure Skating dance tests to reach the Silver level, just short of the highest rankings of pre-Gold and Gold.

However, he says, in the interim, testing standards had became more demanding.

“What was good skating 20 or 30 years ago now is considered an intermediate level,” Fischer explains. “So I had some catching up to do to meet the improved standards.”

He now skates about six days a week. On weekends, he takes part in advanced Yale Figure Skating club sessions at Ingalls Rink, and during the week he trains in central Connecticut. He is currently coached by international ice dance medalist Jennifer Wester, along with ice dance champion of Mexico Andrew Lavrik and aspiring ice dancer Katherine Pilgrim.

“Jenn has been wonderful at finding ways to get my adult body to discard bad habits built up over the years and to help me learn how to skate at a high level,” Fischer says.

Cajoling future skaters: As president of the Yale Figure Skating Club (his second time), Fischer says his top priority is to attract new members and keep the cost of its lessons affordable.

Fischer and his wife introduced their three sons to skating (one was briefly a member of a professional ballet company) and recently gave the oldest of their five grandchildren a pair of skates for Christmas. The computer scientist has also encouraged his students and colleagues to take to the ice.

“So far, I haven’t been very successful,” he laments.

Going for the Gold: In addition to readying himself for the difficult pre-Gold and Gold ice dance tests, Fischer would like to participate in a second skating competition. He earned first-place in his first contest last year, but admits that he and his partner were the only ice dancers in the competition’s over-50 category.

“The feeling of going out on the ice in front of people — knowing that this is our ice and no one else is on it,” he says, “is a real thrill.”

— By Susan Gonzalez

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