Penn State researcher falls for figure skating later in life

Video posted April 18, 2012 in Sports by Haley Blum



Gareth Mitchell is a geologist. As an associate researcher at Penn State, the 61-year-old can still be found out in the field, collecting samples and doing research on coal. 

“I'm a hands-on kind of fellow," he says. "I don’t mind getting dirty and doing the hard work.” 

He also likes working with his feet. On ice, particularly.

Mitchell, who goes by “Gary,” has been lacing up his figure skating boots for about 20 years. He has long loved the sport — “I saw movies by [famous Olympic figure skater] Sonja Henie when I was a young boy, and I thought it was the most marvelous thing to watch her skate to music” — but never did more than shuffle around on frozen ponds as a child.

The Carbondale, Ill., native moved to State College, Pa., in 1974 to attend graduate school, and after moving away with diploma in hand for a job at Bethlehem Steel, he returned to Happy Valley 26 years ago and began working in his current position.

Although Mitchell did not skate as a child, he and his wife, Cindy, took their daughter, Allison, to skate at Penn State’s on-campus ice rink.

Sitting in the stands, "we both thought, ‘I’d rather be out there,‘ ” Mitchell says. His wife signed the pair up for lessons straight after.

“I had a deep love of the sport,” he says, “but I had no skill.” Starting out, he says he enjoyed learning the basics of skating and the feeling of satisfaction that comes with mastering a new move.

For years, the family would skate together, renting out the ice rink’s small piece of studio ice every Sunday morning at 10 a.m.

“We put on the music we wanted to hear,” he says, smiling at the memory, “and Allison and I would get into jumping contests or spinning contests.”

Those contests are about as competitive as the family got — they enjoyed the personal challenges of the sport as opposed to competing against other people, Mitchell says. He and Cindy took up ice dancing, which was another challenge.

“Ice dancing is so precise, so difficult. It’s really hard to do with your spouse,” he says, laughing. “ ‘You’re off time!’ ‘No, I’m not!’ ‘Push!’ It’s a lot of fun. That makes a part of the family; you communicate on a different level when you have a sport that you’re all interested in.”

Mitchell became president of the Penn State Figure Skating Club 11 years ago. Allison, who also works at the university in the psychology department, and Cindy are also members, although Cindy now skates infrequently due to other time commitments.This April marked the fifteenth annual Penn State ice show in which the Mitchell family has skated.

“After [so many years], we became more comfortable with how things worked in the show and what was expected of us, and we could help other people,” Mitchell says of how his experience with the show has evolved over the years. “It becomes hard; you can’t be bossy, you can’t pretend to know everything, sometimes you don’t. You want people to feel comfortable, and you want them to have as much fun as you have.”

Both self-proclaimed “hams,” Mitchell and Allison say they love getting into character for ice-show numbers and showing off their moves.

“Of course, you like the things you’re best at, and I’m probably a better jumper than a spinner,” he says. “I have to work very hard at my spins, so I’m proud of my back spin.”

Sit spins are a different story.

“I just don’t have the flexibility for it anymore,” he says, laughing. His favorite jumps are the loop and the flip.

“I swore I was going to have my axel by 50, and I did do a couple, badly,” Mitchell says, still chuckling. “Again, at 60, I was trying to do it again. I’m going to get it! It might be 70. I’m going to skate ‘til I drop. It’s just something that I want to do.”

And no one’s opinion could change that, he says.

“A lot of [men] have followed hockey, and I always point out that, ‘Hey, maybe one day you’ll be able to skate without pads on,’ ”  he says with a laugh. “Most women are anywhere from envious to appalled. I really don’t care what people think. It’s something that I do that makes me extremely happy. Other people can’t take it away from me.”

Dressing the part

After 15 years of skating in the Penn State' ice rink's annual spring ice show, Gary Mitchell has worn many different costumes. His daughter, Allison, who skates with him in the Penn State Figure Skating Club, recalls some of the most memorable.