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Excitement brimming for Manatee's Olympic skaters

Some of the connections are visible.

Like the autographed skates 8-year-old Skye Armstrong pulled on before Wednesday’s practice at the Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex.

Or the enlarged photo on the wall showing a text message to one of the skaters:

“Congratulations on being nominated to the 2010 Olympic team.”

Some bonds you can’t see, but are no less tangible.

“She’s like my big sister,” Courtney Kreiling, 11, said of one of the woman skaters.

She meant Amanda Evora.

Yet the Gullett Elementary School fifth-grader’s affinity is shared by many at the arena for Evora and Mark Ladwig, Caydee Denney and Jeremy Barrett, the newly minted U.S. Olympic figure skating pairs who train at Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex and will perform Sunday and Monday nights at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, British Columbia.

“When they skate, a part of us will be out there with them,” said Noah Chinault, 14 a Braden River High School freshman.

That attachment includes more than the many skaters who spend hours upon hours training at the complex.

Take it from Tom Lindemuth, the general manager and self-described working stiff.

Since the quartet qualified at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships last month in Spokane, Wash. — Denney and Barrett were first, Evora and Ladwig, runners-up — the subsequent buzz has energized everyone.

“What these kids have done has taken us all on this ride with them — the skate guard, the concession stand lady, the waitress in Suds (Sports Grill), the older folks in our fitness center who feel like these skaters are their grandkids,” Lindemuth said. “We all know the Olympians. We’ve all got taken along on this fairy tale ride. My hair stands up thinking about it.”

They’ll all be glued to the TV, too, either at home or at a watch party at the rink’s sports bar.

“Those kids are like family,” said Blanca Flores, the manager for Suds. “It’s exciting.”

That Ladwig, Evora, who attends University of South Florida Sarasota/Manatee, and Barrett live in Manatee County — Denney lives in Wesley Chapel — and train here has raised the profile of the rink.

“There have been people who came in and said, ‘How long has this rink been here?’ Only 10 years, I tell them,” said Kelly Paige, a staff coach, with a laugh.

“I’ve had people calling me — friends, business associates — ‘Is that where Skye skates? Does Skye know any of those people?’ ” said her mother, Angela Armstrong, a Parrish resident. “You’re with these people every day. So down to earth. So sweet. And to see normal people make it to the Olympics. Not one or two but four Olympians from our area. It’s just surreal.”

Paul Schatz thought so, too.

The 18-year-old’s goal was to qualify for the Winter Games, but the foursome’s success feels like his own.

“They’re from our rink. I’m able to say I know them. I skate on the same ice. I’ve gotten advice from them,” said the Palm Harbor resident and St. Petersburg College student. “It’s all pretty cool.”

Judy Kreiling agreed.

Her family has attended previous Winter Games, but going to this one will be extra special.

“You always root for your country, but to know these people, having watched them skate for so many years, makes it so much more,” Kreiling said. “It’s something we’d always hoped for, but this was like bam! It makes you tingle that they’re all out there.”

Naturally, the quartet’s achievement has fueled the dreams of the rink’s many young skaters.

Like Emma Chinault, a 12-year-old who has trained there since she was 3.

“I’ve known them for so long and I feel like they’re an inspiration,” said the Haile Middle seventh-grader and Noah’s sister. “I’ve always wanted to go to the Olympics, but this definitely makes me feel I can do it.”

That also goes for Elizabeth Guillot, 14, of Apollo Beach.

“It’s every little kid’s dream when they start skating to go to the Olympics,” said the East Bay High School student. “To see four people you know, who are so nice, who have worked so hard for this accomplishment is just so cool.

“No matter how they skate, they’re always going to be amazing to us.”

Amazing, indeed.

Paige, who has coached 20 years, believes most of these young skaters realize how hard it is to make the Olympics.

It takes talent, training, funding and luck, too.

“That’s not to say it can’t happen. It happened here,” Paige said. “The likelihood of the two pairs placing 1-2 (at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships) is phenomenal. The kids have seen it and who’s to say it can’t happen to them?”

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 745-7055, or write him at Bradenton Herald, P.O. Box 921, Bradenton, FL 34206 or e-mail him at vmannix@bradenton.com. Please include a phone number for verification.

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