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The Salon: Scholar & Synchronized Skater

Marlena Holter ’15 spends her weekdays like most Barnard students—studying for an upcoming test, rushing to class, and hanging out with her suite mates. But by eight o’clock on Saturday mornings, she’s spinning, jumping, and pivoting on the ice during a practice that lasts eight hours, with another eight- hour session on Sunday. Holter competes with the Skyliners Synchronized Skating Team, which draws skaters from the tristate area. She is part of the 19-member senior line, or division, which, along with the junior line, is a member of Team USA. The entire team of nine lines takes part in competitions throughout the country; junior and senior lines also compete internationally.

Holter started skating at age 7, after admiring the Olympic figure skaters she watched on TV. By high school, she was practicing 35 hours a week, leaving her house in Westchester at 5:15 AM to train before school, and returning to the ice after classes. “Skating became my entire life,” she says. Holter’s team won national championship titles in the junior and juvenile divisions in March 2011; she is headed to the Spring Cup, an international competition to be held in Milan in 2013.

Attending Barnard enables Holter to keep competing with the Skyliners, but in addition to 25 hours a week of skating, strength training, and ballet and acting classes as well as traveling to competitions, she is pursuing a major in neuroscience and doing research in the laboratory of biology professor John Glendinning. Her experiments deal with how mammals taste sugars, research that may shed light on humans and obesity. Most days find Holter at the lab conducting behavioral experiments and caring for the mice that are her subjects.

“Marlena has to work incredibly hard to balance all of her academic and skating demands,” says Glendinning. “What has impressed me most is that despite all these demands on her time, she manages to remain calm, focused, and cheerful.”

Given her schedule, Holter often has to tell friends she can’t meet them for a party or outing. “When we’re out on the ice on a Saturday morning, we all know what we did last night—we went right to bed,” she says. But the camaraderie of her teammates makes up for the missed parties. “There’s something to be said for having 18 other people who completely understand what you’re dedicating your life to. I’ve been skating with some of these girls since we were 8 years old,” she adds.

After college, Holter plans to spend a year skating on a team in Finland before attending medical school. She was inspired to pursue medicine as a career after suffering a concussion while skating and being treated by a neurosurgeon. Ultimately, she hopes to practice sports medicine. “Marlena is a marvel,” says Lisa Hollibaugh, Barnard’s first-year class dean. “Any new student who dives into the neuroscience/pre- med track is challenged by the rigorous workload, and yet she has managed to adapt to her course load along with her full-time skating practice schedule, with fantastic results.

Her mother, Pat Holter, acknowledges that skating has helped her daughter develop impressive study habits. “The skaters all do well in school because of the discipline and time management they learn,” she says. “Marlena has a tremendous level of endurance. She can do schoolwork for hours.” Both parents have had to wake up at 5 AM on many days and sacrifice numerous weekends to drive Holter and her younger sister, also a synchronized skater, to practices and competitions. “It’s such a special sport,” says Pat Holter. “With both girls we did soccer, karate, and other activities, and this is what Marlena chose to do.” She is a strong technical skater and serves as the senior-line captain, which requires her to call out the steps and provide support to her teammates.

Still, for all the demands of training and competing while handling a full course load, Holter says she is grateful for the opportunities skating has given her. “Stepping out on the ice at an international competition—not many people get to do that.”

—by Jennifer Altmann