Isabelle Fowler’s journey in competitive ice skating literally began in her own backyard.

Now 14 and living in Highland Park, Isabelle was in kindergarten when she taught herself how to “spin and twirl” on a rink built by her father in the shadow of the family’s Merriam Park home. The rink took up most of the family’s backyard, where Isabelle shared ice time with her hockey-playing brothers.

Her mother, Natalie, said they actually thought she was going to play hockey. “But she only wanted to twirl, usually right between the hockey players,” she said.

Isabelle’s backyard figure skating eventually led to bigger things. Advancing quickly in the sport, she began skating competitively by age 7 and has since participated in figure skating and synchronized skating events as far away as California and Massachusetts.

Isabelle Fowler skater
Isabelle Fowler, 14, trains with Saint Paul Figure Skating Club director of ice dance Madeline Moore at the Pleasant Arena in Summit Hill. Photo by Brad Stauffer

Joining the Northernettes

Last year, she successfully tried out at the novice level for the Northernettes, a Twin Cities-based synchronized skating organization. This season the Northernettes had skaters from ages 8-19, including several teams that competed nationally.

The novice team includes about 20 skaters. The team participated at the Midwestern regionals at the end of January and did well enough to qualify for the U.S. Synchronized Skating Championships on March 1-4 in Peoria, Illinois. There they had a bit of a slip-up, but still finished in the top 10. 

Northernettes coach Alana Christie said the national event attracts qualifying teams from across the country. The top 13 teams from each region compete for spots at the podium.

Isabelle Fowler skater
Fowler is a member of the novice Northernettes team that competed in the U.S. Synchronized Skating Championships on March 1-4 in Illinois. Photo by Brad Stauffer

“The hardest part about synchronized skating,” Isabelle said, “is trying to coordinate every movement with 15 other teammates on the ice.”

A quick study

Though Isabelle is a first-year synchronized skater, she’s been a quick study, Christie said. With help from Isabelle, the novice team had a successful season this winter, medaling in four of five events.

Christie knew early on that Isabelle would be a good fit for the team. “When I saw her at a tryout last spring, I said, ‘This girl needs to get into our organization; I know she’ll pick it up and excel at synchro,’” said Christie, who founded the Northernettes in 2017.

“There’s definitely a learning curve,” she added. “But she’s a fantastic teammate. She’s a super-determined, motivated kid who has thrown herself into the sport.”

Practice makes perfect

Isabelle practices about six hours a week with the Northernettes when the skaters are training for a competition. In addition, she skates about 8-10 hours every week with her freestyle and ice dance coaches.

For the novice team, the competition involves only one freestyle program. The junior team, which is a notch above, skates both short and long programs.

“The hardest part about synchronized skating,” Isabelle said, “is trying to coordinate every movement with 15 other teammates on the ice.”

Isabelle is a student at Minnesota Connections Academy. After third grade at Nativity School, she switched to the online school so she could skate full time.

Learning on the backyard rink

She was born in Belgium, but the family moved back to Saint Paul when she was 5 and the idea of building a backyard skating rink took hold.

“It was really cold and we weren’t used to all the snow, so we were trying to find some things to do around the house,” Isabelle said. “My dad grew up playing hockey, so he decided to make an outdoor rink in our backyard.

“I started by pushing a little chair around and then I slowly got better over the years to the point where I’d go out before kindergarten and skate.”

Joining Saint Paul Figure Skating

At age 6, Isabelle began working with a coach at the Saint Paul Figure Skating Club. Before long she began performing in front of an audience. Her debut was in Colorado, where the Fowlers were visiting relatives.

“She went to skate at the local rink there over Thanksgiving and they actually asked her to be a guest skater for their holiday show,” Natalie said.

In 2019, when the Saint Paul Figure Skating Club hosted the Upper Great Lakes regional championships in Minneapolis, 10-year-old Isabelle raised a lot of eyebrows with a very strong performance.

Though she wasn’t old enough to compete in the qualifying series, Isabelle ended up placing fourth in the region against about 80 skaters and was “kind of on the fast track after that,” Natalie said.

Busy months ahead

For Isabelle, a busy schedule is on the horizon. This summer, she’ll compete as a freestyler with the Saint Paul Figure Skating Club. She also volunteers as a Learn to Skate coach-in-training at the Charles M. Schulz-Highland Arena.

Isabelle said she could go a lot of different directions with her skating. Coaching is appealing in part because she likes working with young children.

She also has dreams of bigger and better competitions, perhaps even making it to the Olympics. The International Skating Union is lobbying to make synchronized skating an Olympic sport.

Still skating for fun whenever possible

Though some young athletes can experience burnout, Isabelle’s busy schedule of practices and competitions hasn’t diminished her enjoyment of the sport. On the contrary, she still heads to the Groveland Recreation Center’s outdoor rinks to skate “for fun whenever she can,” Natalie said.

Isabelle said she enjoys just being on the ice. “At Highland (Arena), I love just skating around because it reminds me of where I started,” she said. “I love seeing little kids who are like how I used to be—and seeing how much I’ve grown in skating since then.”

— Brian Johnson


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