Spring 2006 • Volume 12, Issue 2
Matt Savoie ’02 of Peoria is a man who knows what it is to be on the cutting edge. Not only is this summa cum laude graduate a high achiever academically, but he has accomplished what most athletes only dream about—he is an Olympian.
Savoie placed seventh in the men’s figure skating competition at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, a personal best at the international level. The only Bradley alumnus to ever compete in the Winter Olympics, Savoie shared his experiences and insights, first in an interview shortly after learning he had qualified for the Olympics, and again via e-mail after competing, while he was still in Italy.
Savoie recalls stepping on the ice at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in St. Louis, Missouri, on January 14. Besides placing in the national competition, Savoie knew this was his opportunity to qualify as a member of the U.S. Olympic team.
His once-distant dream of competing in the Olympics was a reality. His life suddenly became a whirlwind of interviews with the media, congratulatory chats and messages with fans and supporters, decisions about costume changes, and more intense practice sessions—not to mention one more competition before the Olympics.
“During an Olympic year, the championships become more intense,” Savoie says, a bit amazed at his sudden stardom. “Even though I’ve placed third before, the attention this year was so much broader.”
Savoie describes his own skating style. “My choreographer has been Tom Dickson since 1997. I don’t know if it’s from working with him or my own taste, but my skating is subtle. I tend not to be as flamboyant as some. That’s not to say others are over the top in any way. I think it’s my personality. I don’t feel comfortable being boisterous, even in real life.”
When Savoie steps onto the ice, it’s like stepping onto a stage and portraying a character. “The character is not necessarily a person, but more like an idea. In my short program, in which I skate to Adagio for Strings, there is an aspect of mourning but also an aspect of anticipation—a sort of appreciation for something bigger than oneself. For my long program, I skate to music from The Mission. There’s a contrast between primal forces and drum beats in the music…sort of soaring and sweeping melodies. There’s more joy in the long program than the short. Each program definitely has a different character.”
Savoie has concentrated solely on his skating since graduating from the University of Illinois with a master’s degree in urban planning in May 2005. He majored in political science with a minor in biology at Bradley, and this fall, he plans to attend Cornell Law School. Skating practice and training have been an integral part of Savoie’s life throughout his college career. He practices 10 hours on the ice and eight to 10 off the ice in a typical training week. His coach Linda Branan has coached him since he was nine years old, and his practice rink is in Peoria Park District’s Owens Recreational Center.
While many figure skaters move out of state to train, Savoie chose to remain in Peoria. “I didn’t feel like I was being held back by anything by staying in Peoria. When I started competing at a national level, my coach and I met coaches from out of town. I was able to work with them for brief periods in the summer, and that seemed to satisfy what I needed. I could go to Bradley and still skate. I felt no strong need to get out and find something better.”
An important factor in Savoie’s ability to have both a skating career and a college career is that tuition costs were not a factor. His mother Marina Savoie has worked in Bradley’s Cullom-Davis Library since 1975. Dependents of full-time Bradley employees who meet Bradley’s admissions requirements may receive free tuition. Savoie comments, “Skating is expensive, and to have to handle the expense of higher-level academics along with skating—I don’t know how I could have done that.”
Bradley’s Personnel Advisory Committee sponsored a community-wide fundraising effort to pay expenses for Marina and her daughter Marisa to watch Savoie’s performances live at the Olympics. At press time, more than $12,000 had been raised.
As he anticipated the ultimate athletic event, the Olympics, Savoie’s focus was on keeping the experience in perspective. “In a sense, things will never be the same, but I need to focus on enjoying the event and enjoying skating and not letting the perceived enormity of the event distract me.”
After competing at the Olympics, Savoie responded to the following questions via e-mail from Torino, Italy. Additional questions that did not appear in the print version of Hilltopics appear in italics.
Savoie: It's an amazing feeling. I'm just as proud of my school, community, and country as my supporters at home may be of me; so I don't find it difficult to communicate that pride to an international audience at the Olympics. All I have to do is be myself.
How did competing at the Olympics differ from other competitions you have participated in before?
Savoie: The only difference between competing in the Olympics and other high profile events is the increase in media attention at the Olympics. I didn't feel any different before the events in Torino or stepping onto the ice here; those sensations were very similar to any other competition. But during my long program, as I rounded the boards going into a jump, I noticed around 20 photographers leaning on the rink barrier, snapping pictures as I skated by. That was the moment I fully appreciated the distinction between the Olympic Games and the World Championships: at the Olympics it feels as if everyone is watching.
How did you stay focused with all the hype of the Olympics surrounding you?
Savoie: Luckily for me, I felt as if I was getting less attention in Italy than I was in the U.S. before I left. Certainly, there were moments when the media scrutiny felt oppressive; but for the most part, I did not feel as much hype leading up to the event while I was in Italy as I did when I was in Peoria. The media liasons employed by U.S. Figure Skating have also been extremely helpful in organizing and coordinating media interactions so that they didn't become burdensome.
As you waited for your turn to step onto the ice for the first time during the men’s figure skating competition, what were your thoughts?
Savoie: I mainly thought that the nerves and anxieties I was feeling seemed normal compared to other competitions. Beyond that, I tried my best to focus my thoughts on each element and on the character I was trying to portray during my program.
Describe your short program performance.
Savoie: I felt as if the short program started comfortably. The first two jump elements seemed easy once they were completed. I lost focus going into my third jump element (triple lutz), and I doubled and then stepped out of that jump; but the rest of the program felt fine. Strangely, missing that jump - one of my easiest - didn't bother me as much as I thought it would. I think the fact that the rest of the program felt even and comfortable made it easier for me to stay confident going into the long program.
What did you do between your Tuesday and Thursday competitions to mentally prepare yourself?
Savoie: I had two practices between the long and short programs. I tried to keep those practices easy, focusing more on refining the performance quality of my skating than on the technical elements. I also worked through my programs off the ice to organize my performance strategy and get deeper into the character of the long program.
You were the 14th skater in the long program competition. What kind of impact does the lineup in a competition have for the skater and for the judges?
Savoie: I'm not sure it has much impact on judging. The judges know each competitor well enough that they come into the event with expectations ready. The new scoring system also gives judges more flexibility in awarding program component scores, so they don't necessarily feel obligated to hold down marks in anticipation of awarding those marks to skaters later in the event.
For myself, 14th was a good spot because I only had a seven-minute wait after the warm-up, and I was done relatively early in the evening.
What were your thoughts during and after the long program?
Savoie: During the long program I felt as if I was able to contain my focus to each element as it arrived and to structure my mental performance space in a way that felt similar to my experience at nationals. I was jarred out of that focus when I noticed all the cameras peering over the barrier, but I quickly got it back before the next element. Toward the end of the program I felt a bit tired, but not so tired that I couldn't deliver a strong ending. Afterward, I was proud to have skated well and relieved to be done. I still made some mistakes that I can try to improve on for the World Championships, but it feels good to have those issues to occupy my time once I get home.
Commentators noted that you are “skater’s skater.” They said you bring sophistication and an introspective approach to figure skating. What role do you see for yourself in the figure skating world, and what advice would you give to an aspiring skater?
Savoie: I certainly don't consider myself a "skater's skater." However, I'm happy that people are finding something about my skating that intrigues them and that helps them to distinguish me from my competitors. I don't see a defined role for myself in the skating world, save to be myself and behave in a way that merits respect for myself and for my supporters. The only advice I would give to aspiring skaters would be to work hard, but not so hard that you can't find time to understand yourself and what makes you happy.
They also talked about the intricacies of the choreography and how you find ways to complete old moves in new ways. Will you comment on that, as well?
Savoie: My choreographer [Tom Dickson] probably deserves the most credit for the intricacies of each program. I like working with Tom because he doesn't seem to want to impose a character on me, but rather, to find characters, music, and movements that accentuate positive aspects of my personality and skating. Varying entries to jumps is one way we've learned to do that. Besides, it would be boring for me to have to perform jumps the same way every time.
Your seventh-place finish was the highest you’ve ever accomplished in an international competition. Please comment on achieving a personal best at the Olympics.
Savoie: I certainly wasn't expecting a seventh-place finish coming into this event. I had vague hopes of a top-10 result, but mostly I just wanted to be happy with the way I had skated. In the end, I know the personal best I earned here was still not the best performance I can give. I'm not disappointed with the way I skated; however, a seventh-place result does not objectively reflect whether or not I should be proud of the performance. It's more important to me to know I performed well here, but that I can do much better.
Tell us what it was like to experience firsthand the opening ceremonies of the 2006 Olympics. What was the most memorable aspect for you?
Savoie: The most memorable aspect for me was entering the stadium with the rest of the U.S. Team. There were other highlights, of course, like hearing Pavarotti sing and seeing the First Lady at a reception before the event. It was also interesting to experience the spectacle of the event from the ground floor, which isn't necessarily the best seat in the house. For instance, most of the athletes could not actually see the Olympic flame ignite or burning until we were walking out of the stadium.
Before leaving for the Olympics, you were looking forward to the camaraderie of being a part of the Olympic team. Tell us about your experience.
Savoie: It's fun to be around other athletes because we have all worked so hard and given up so much to be here. Sharing those experiences has been one of the most gratifying aspects of this event. Getting to observe the way athletes in other sports train and compete has been enlightening, and it certainly makes me look at our sport differently. Not badly, just differently. For instance, many of us are learning that politics and subjectivity affect all sports, not just figure skating.
Have you had many opportunities to watch competitions in other sports?
Savoie: The only other sport I've watched is short track speedskating. Some events, the ski events in particular, are far away and difficult to get to.
You are one of the athletes at probably the most recognized international event in the world. What is that like?
Savoie: I do feel a sense of pride in knowing that I've experienced something very few people get to; but more than anything that just makes me grateful for the sacrifices that my family has made for me to get here, and for the support I've received from my community and federation along the way.
What have you done to unwind while at the Olympics?
Savoie: I've been doing more e-mailing than ever, reading, and walking around Torino. I visited Venice for a couple days, as well.
Describe the overall experience of living, practicing, training, and competing as an Olympian.
Savoie: Living, practicing, training, and competing as an Olympian feels remarkably similar to doing all that as a non-Olympian. At the moment, doing all that in a media-charged environment with so many other excellent athletes does give the athletic aspects of my daily life more prominence. At the same time, I know that the experiences that got me here—hard work, pain, happiness, fatigue, exhilaration, sacrifice (both mine and others)—are not experiences had exclusively by Olympians, or even athletes, for that matter.
What are your plans as a skater while attending law school at Cornell? Are you considering the 2010 Olympics?
Savoie: My experiences since Nationals have made me curious about competing after this season. Nonetheless, I remain anxious to start law school at Cornell next year. It will be difficult, but law school is something I've looked forward to for several years now. Though I'll continue skating, I'm going to enjoy being able to focus entirely on academics next year. If this is my last year competing, I will be happy to have ended it on a high note.
Matt Savoie '02 will be on tour with Champions on Ice from June 23 through July 2 at the following venues:
Matt Savoie ’02 is the sixth alumnus to be an Olympian and the first winter Olympian in Bradley’s history. In addition, the following Bradley alumni have participated in summer Olympics. Track and field star Lambert “Pat” Redd ‘34 placed second in the broad jump in 1932; pitcher Mike Dunne ‘85 qualified for the U.S. baseball team in 1984; Kim Howard MBA ‘86 participated in the 1984 Olympics in women’s handball; Hersey Hawkins ‘88 accepted a bronze medal along with his U.S. basketball teammates in 1988, and Marcel de Souza ’80 played for the Brazilian Olympic basketball team.