WEST ORANGE, NJ — The day after the 2018 Winter Olympics held its opening ceremonies in Pyeongchang, South Korea, a group of skaters took to the ice at West Orange’s Codey Arena for the Essex County Winter Skating Extravaganza, an exhibition that showed off the figure skating, speedskating and synchronized skating talents of athletes of all ages Saturday, Feb. 10. The penultimate performance was by Isabella Melendez, 15, a figure skater and West Orange resident who calls the rink her “happy place.”
A United States Figure Skating competitor and gold medalist in the Intermediate Ladies category, Isabella first stepped onto the ice at 5 years old. Her father, Mickey, is a hockey player and coach, and going to the rink with him motivated her to begin skating.
“My dad is a goalie,” Isabella told the West Orange Chronicle before performing at the exhibition. “So I always had aspirations to go on the ice and I just fell in love with it.”
When asked if she had ever thought about trying another sport, Isabella answered the question with a laugh and a shake of her head.
“I never felt like doing anything else,” she said. “After a long day of school or work or whatever else, I can get on the ice and do whatever I want. It’s fulfilling.”
For Isabella, figure skating is also demanding. Two days each week, Isabella’s day starts at 5 a.m. She has the ice until 6:45 a.m., and by 7:30 a.m. she is a ninth-grader at West Orange High School. She heads back to the arena when the final bell rings to skate from 3 to 4 p.m.
The rest of Isabella’s time is filled with school, Student Council and volunteering with the Essex Special Skaters, a division of the Special Olympics. She was recently presented with the Inspirational Motivation Award from the New Jersey Association of Student Councils.
“Sometimes it can be really challenging,” Isabella said. “An hour seems like a long time but it goes by fast. I’m busy but I like feeling like I’m doing something.”
For the last four years, Isabella has been coached by Rosie Tovi, a former competitive skater and U.S. Figure Skating medalist who is a former coach and choreographer at the Lake Placid Olympic Center.
“It’s been beautiful to watch,” Tovi told the Chronicle at the event about Isabella growing as a skater. “She’s improved so much technically, but also artistically. That’s a whole other thing, to open up like that and stay on track, and stay motivated and successful.”
Tovi said that being a skater herself has helped her coach Isabella and the other athletes she works with at the arena.
“It helps coaching beyond technique,” she said. “I have empathy for what these kids are going through. A lot of people don’t realize how hard it is. We can develop self-confidence on and off the ice, and I’m glad I can offer this level of coaching for them.”
According to Tovi, while figure skating is often described as “ballet on ice,” skaters have an athleticism that is more comparable to a football player’s. They fall hundreds of times before landing one jump, and the force of landing on the ice can reach up to a ton.
She said she has seen Isabella mature not only as a skater, but as a person in the time they have worked together.
“She has such amazing discipline,” Tovi said. “And that can really change your life. There’s such a maturity from this level of focus … that can really enhance her life outside skating. It’s more about life than skating, because you can’t skate forever.”
Isabella’s parents said it’s exciting to watch her skate but it also makes them a little jittery.
“It’s a little nerve-wracking to watch because we want her to do her best,” Mickey Melendez told the Chronicle at the arena. “But she’s been amazing to watch. She works hard, and we support that.”
“She has a real passion for it,” Nancy Melendez told the Chronicle. “She always says this is her happy place where she can be the best she can be. We’re lucky we live so close to the arena and that she has an amazing mentor like Rose to help her grow. It’s not just about skating, it’s about life.”
The music to which Isabella has been skating for the last two years is inspired by Spanish music, and which she said allows her to show her personality. She chooses music based on what she hears in her daily life.
“I use a lot of arm movements and anything that’s personal to me,” she said. “It’s really just what I’m into at the time, what I hear that clicks.”
As for the future: Isabella has been watching all the Olympic figure skaters enthusiastically, and keeps up with the sport year round. Maybe she will be on the team one day, and be able to compete at what she called the “big competitions.” For now, though, she just wants to skate.
“There’s a lot of things I’m interested in, like politics and art and college,” Isabella said. “But I’ll incorporate skating wherever I go because I can’t let it go.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic and Courtesy of Rosie Tovi