Mike Barwig is an early morning warrior, an ice dancer. It’s 6:30 a.m. and the 63-year-old man glides across the skating rink at Motto McLean Arena. Twig-like pre-teens and tiny high school queens flitter about like fairies in The Nutcracker on Ice.
Barwig sets his toe pick with a crunch. He curls elbows into his torso for a pivot. He becomes a twirling father figure, a mass of mature manliness. As he spins, Barwig gradually relaxes his shoulders, opening his arms as if a flower in bloom. His final pose evokes a sapling tree in springtime.
At first glance, Barwig really doesn’t resemble the typical figure skater. He has broad muscular shoulders, a stocky neck and body composition that would seem more appropriate for a football coach. Actually, he was a football player. But that was a lifetime ago.
“I had married a figure skater,” Barwig says. “I met her while taking skating classes in high school.” High school football teammates teased him about his brief intro lessons. Never mind. He went on to walk-on as a lineman for Northwestern University’s football team. One marriage and four children later, he re-discovered skating.
“After I got divorced, I wanted something to do,” he says. “I always liked ice skating and I thought I should start up again.” There was a group in Lincoln he would join once a week. But he was based in Hastings at the time, working in the ethanol and biofuels industry. Eventually, he moved to Omaha with his career. The relocation allowed convenient access to rinks. He could then pursue skating more intensely.
Early morning skating sessions fit perfectly with his work schedule.
He now skates four days per week, upping the routine to six days while
training for competitions.
He does ice dancing and free-skating. He has gone to eight adult national competitions. Once, Barwig placed as high as third place at nationals with his dancing partner.
“Competitions are broken down by age group (by 10-year increments),” he says, “so now I’m in the upper group, which we call ‘61-to-death.’” The phrasing sounds harsh, but it goes to show Barwig’s
Figure skating coach Brenda Bader has been working with Barwig for a decade. She says Barwig represents a growing demographic for the sport.
“I actually coach three people who are in their 60s right now, several in their 50s and down the line,” she says. One 66-year-old female skater has even undergone hip and knee replacement surgeries. Yet that woman still makes regular trips from Lincoln to practice with Bader.
“The adult skating community is really growing,” she says. “We are finding a lot more skaters in the 50 and 60-age range because their kids are grown and they finally have time for themselves. They have established careers and can afford to do something for themselves.”
Among Omaha’s community of older adult skaters, Bader says the demographic is evenly divided between those who skated as kids and those who are newcomers.
Paula Turpin is in her late 50s. She represents the later group. While Barwig was practicing his loop jump—a leaping maneuver where he twirls in air and lands on the same foot—Turpin was perfecting her own moves.
“One of my daughters skated. That’s how I made time for myself. I had to bring her; so instead of just sitting here, I thought, ‘my gosh, I can skate with this time,’” Turpin says. Her epiphany came 15 years ago. She’s been skating since. “My daughter gave me the gift of time and place.”
Turpin, Barwig and other adult skaters allow time for extra warm-ups to avoid injury. Barwig even uses an elliptical machine for 15 to 20 minutes to minimize his arthritis before morning practices. Turpin has suffered hamstring injuries, but nothing serious.
“If you really like skating, there’s no need to quit,” she says, before leaving the rink to start her administrative job at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
They are part of a close-knit group of eight adult Nebraska skaters who travel to nationals almost every year from Nebraska’s three figure skating clubs.
Barwig has endured bumps and bruises from skating. But he insists that spending a few days away from the rink is more painful. For him, figure skating isn’t only exercise.
“There’s a certain freedom to it. You feel like you’re flying, when you get going fast enough. It’s not just physical. It’s also very mental,” he says. “There’s a challenge to always get better, not staying happy with the status quo. To me, that’s part of not getting old. It gets me out of bed in the morning.”