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After a family tragedy, Shannon Porter turned focus to her skating

Shannon Porter is the first female from New Mexico to ever qualify for the U. S. National Figure Skating Championships Junior Free Skate. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal.)

Shannon Porter is the first female from New Mexico to ever qualify for the U. S. National Figure Skating Championships Junior Free Skate. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal.)

In July 2012, the lives of Trish Porter and daughter Shannon, then 11 years old, were shattered when they learned of the death of husband/father Pat and son/brother Connor, 15, along with friend Connor Mantsch, 14.

Pat was piloting a Beech B-60 when it crashed on takeoff and burst into flames. The three were on their way home to Albuquerque after vacationing three days in northern Arizona.

For Trish and Shannon, the loss of their loved ones didn’t bring their lives to a screeching halt. Instead, the pair committed to continue living life.

“That’s how Pat and Connor would have wanted it,” Trish said. “But I say, ‘Thank you, God.’ I mean, really, our faith in the Lord and in Jesus Christ is really what has gotten us through. And our friends and the support have been huge. …

“We know (Pat and Connor) are in heaven, so we know we’ll see them again because of their faith in Jesus Christ. And that gives us peace, and that gives us hope. That gives us comfort. We know we’ll see them again, and that allows us, I think, to go forward. It would be really tough if we didn’t know that.”

For Shannon, now 14½, that means continuing her dream of becoming an Olympic figure skater. Toward that end, she was one of 12 girls ages 13-18 who recently qualified to compete in the U.S. Figure Skating Junior Nationals in St. Paul, Minn., on Jan. 19-20. She is the first New Mexican to qualify for that event in the free skate.

In the genes

Pat and Trish Porter were Olympic athletes, with Pat growing up in Colorado and Trish in California.

Pat was an eight-time U.S. cross-country champion and competed in the 1984 and 1988 Summer Games in the 10,000 meters. Trish was a high jumper. The two met while both were at the 1988 Games in South Korea.

They married in 1991 and moved to Albuquerque in 1994.

Son Connor evolved into an accomplished fencer. Shannon, though, veered from the Summer Olympics theme.

“Pat and I both loved track,” Trish said, “but I really felt I wanted the kids to go in the direction that they should go. I wanted my kids to find what they loved. Shannon’s funny, because she found her passion very quickly at a very young age.

“We took her to Beaver Creek (Colo.) for ice skating when she was 18 months old. When she was 2½ she could skate, and at 4 she started a learn-to-skate program. Then we started private lessons at age 5. It’s the perfect sport for her because it suits her personality. She’s a girly girl. Ice skating blends the athleticism with the beauty.”

And now Shannon is on the fast track to being among the elite figure skaters in the country.

It hasn’t been easy

Shannon, who is 5-feet-1, 84 pounds, and just beginning to grow, her mother said, gets up at 5:30 or 6 in the morning twice a week before attending classes at Albuquerque Academy, where she’s a freshman. Those early wake-ups are for weight training, Pilates and gyrotonics. Six times a week she’s on the ice, totaling 14 to 15 hours.

“I get pretty tired after these skates because it’s my main intense training of the day, and being graceful takes a lot of energy,” she said laughing while lacing her boots before a recent practice at the Outpost Ice Arena in the Northeast Heights.

She even practices smiling.

“I try to every day,” she said. “During ballet (she does that, too), I look in the mirror and focus a lot on facial expressions.”

Shannon regularly works on the two routines the judges will see at nationals.

“I have a short program (2 minutes, 40 seconds) and a long program (3:30),” she said. “I usually practice those every day. My goal with training is to get my jumps really consistent for when I compete. The rest of the time, I work on jumps and spins that aren’t in my programs.”

To help her refine her skills, she works with coaches Eddie Shipstad, who’s based in Colorado Springs, and with Barb Shepperson, who instructs Shannon during her workouts in Albuquerque. During extended weekends, Shannon and Trish will trek to Colorado to work with Shipstad.

“There are certain technical things that Shannon needs to remember and be aware of,” Shepperson said at the rink. “And if those aren’t happening, I have to remind her.”

Shepperson, who said her coaching duties also include being an amateur psychologist, said Shannon has progressed further than anyone she has coached.

“Nobody else who has trained here has made it this far,” she said.

Shannon said her time on the ice immediately after the tragedy was therapeutic in helping her deal with her crushing emotional loss. She said she found that skating allowed her to go out and not be weighed down by her thoughts.

“After the accident the only thing I could really do was trust God in everything possible,” Shannon said. “Skating was just a way to share the story and have people ask me to tell my story so I could honor my father and brother.”

Said Trish: “The day of the funeral, she did a celebration of life (skating show). She did it for my family because most of them had never seen her skate. It was great. It was amazing. You have to have that strength inside.”

Pain part of equation

Trish, who watches most of Shannon’s afternoon/evening practices, said on a good day Shannon might not take a tumble even once. But on a bad day, it might be 30 to 40 times. And it’s not like Shannon’s wearing body armor.

“Oh, yeah,” Shannon said, “I’d fall so many times, and some are really painful. But I wear more butt pads when I’m learning a new jump.

“It took me, oh my gosh, six months maybe to get the single axel down. I wanted to land it so bad, and then it just happened. Now it’s so easy, such a basic jump. But it’s very important, the foundation. Now I do double axels.”

But even as she climbs her sport’s ladder, she’s had to deal with the rigors that come with workouts. Earlier in the month she also was slowed by the flu.

“This summer I struggled with a lot of injuries, and it was hard to come back to training,” Shannon said. “I really had to come back mentally strong. I never got to a point of quitting; I was just worried about being as good as I was.”

Among the dings were to her wrist, plantar fascia (foot) and a lower leg ailment. Twice she split her chin.

Helping her deal with the mental aspect of the game is her “mental games” coach, Mark Walsch from Performance Edge in Albuquerque. He’s one of 18 members of Shannon’s support group, said Trish, who added that it routinely costs $50,000 to $80,000 a year to help Olympic-caliber skaters to reach their goals, counting travel and coaching.

“I think that when I compete, instead of winning, my main focus is on skating good and to trust my training and not be nervous,” Shannon said. “I think it’s a confidence boost knowing what I can do is good enough to win. So, even though winning is fun and all that, when you skate good, there’s no other feeling like it. And that’s what matters to me.”

If she qualifies for the Junior Worlds, scheduled for Boston next spring, she’ll make that journey at the risk of missing classes at the Academy. She would earn that spot guaranteed if she finishes first in St. Paul. Otherwise, she’s at the mercy of wild-card picks by U.S. Figure Skating. There could be as few as two advancing to Boston.

“Yeah, it would be an upset if she won,” Trish said. “If she ‘podiumed’ and made fourth, that’s a possibility. She did four different triples in her last competition for the first time and landed five triples total. She’s tough.”

But for Shannon, the really big events for which to qualify take place in 2018, 2022 and 2026. Those are the years of the next Winter Games.

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