Family's life revolves around figure skating

Andy and Kendra Bell with daughters Mariah, 16, and Morgan, 21. The two sisters are competing in the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Omaha this week at the CenturyLink Center. Andy lives in Texas and visits his wife and daughters on weekends in Colorado, where the skaters' coaches live.

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In the Bell house in suburban Denver, skating is everything.

It's the thing that gets everyone up early in the morning for trips to the rink. The thing that means mom Kendra and her national-level skating daughters Morgan, 21, and Mariah, 16, must make a weekly 160-mile commute for training in Colorado Springs. The thing that kept Morgan from high school dances and Mariah from her beloved Weimaraner, Dakota. (The dog lives with Grandma and Grandpa because the family is out of town too often.)

Skating is so central to this family that it has taken it apart. Six years ago, Kendra and the girls moved from Texas to Colorado so they could train with a new coach. Andy stayed in Houston for his job at a petrochemical company. Dad visits the family in Colorado at least a few weekends a month.

It wasn't always this way. A couple of decades ago, Andy and Kendra were getting married in Council Bluffs, where much of her family still lives. Neither were skaters or knew much about the sport. They couldn't have imagined that one day they'd be sitting around at a national skating competition in Omaha, watching their daughters compete for gold and casually throwing out comments about spins and Lutzes and Salchows.

Even once they were in it, they wondered out loud if it was too much. But one day at the rink, talking to another skating parent about the cost of rink time and skates and costumes and coaches, a man standing nearby walked over to Kendra. He said he had a teenage son who was a hockey player, so he understood it was expensive. But he had an older son, too. A son he'd just put in drug rehab for the second time.

“He said, 'You are going to spend money on your kids. You can do it while they're being productive or you can do it when they're being not-so-productive,'” Bell recalled. “And I said: 'I'll never complain again.'”

From the time they were in elementary school, the Bell sisters have been nothing if not productive.

Morgan was already skating at 6 years old, competing at 8. As she got more into the sport, so too did little sister Mariah — even if it wasn't exactly by choice.

“Mariah was a rink rat,” Morgan said. “She was always there, so mom put her in group lessons at 3.”

After a while, it was clear the girls were good. They kept up the sport as they moved around the country, from South Carolina to Illinois to Texas.

They were so serious about it that they'd scope out coaches to work with when they were on family vacations. On a trip to Colorado, they found coach Cindy Sullivan. Morgan said she knew right away that working with Sullivan, who had worked with nationally competitive skaters, could change her skating, make her more competitive. Maybe, for the first time, the Bell sisters would make it out of regional competitions and stand a chance at qualifying for nationals.

When the vacation was nearing an end, the girls started plotting.

Morgan wrote up a PowerPoint presentation, outlining the reasons why the family should move to Denver. Mariah took a different tactic.

“She made up a song and proceeded to sing it the whole way home to Texas,” Kendra said.

“Oh, that's embarrassing,” Mariah said. “But it's a good thing we did it. It did work.”

Andy and Kendra agreed to pack up their lives, split up their family and give the girls a chance at making it as far as they could on the ice. But they let the girls know it was a sacrifice that they wouldn't make if everyone in the family wasn't all in.

“We had been married over 20 years before we had different ZIP codes,” Kendra said. “I said I wasn't going to work harder than (Morgan and Mariah). They had to keep proving to me they wanted to be there, that they wanted to do it. It had to be an onus on them to do it every day, and I would support them in any way I could.”

Though both girls were attending school full time, they listened and put in the time.

Finally, in 2011, both sisters qualified for nationals for the first time: Mariah as a novice and Morgan as a senior.

Mariah's entry into national competition at 14 wasn't all that unusual. But Morgan, in her first nationals at 19, was a rarity. Most skaters at that level have been competing at nationals for years, working up the ranks from novice to junior to senior.

“I saw a lot of competitors come and go,” Morgan said. “But I stuck it out and I eventually got there.”

That first year, Mariah took the novice bronze. Morgan was 17th among the senior ladies, but she did well enough in her short program to earn a spot on the network broadcast.

It was enough to make her stop doubting all the sacrifices, the missed parties and classes and normal teenage years.

“When I made my first nationals, I was walking around a mall with my dad, before I went and skated my long (program,)” she said. “And I saw all these kids there my age, and this was their thing to do on a Saturday. And I was as getting ready to go skate on national television.”

The Bells had finally made it, but there was more work to be done and more sacrifices to be made.

Team Bell grew. There were the parents, of course, but also two primary coaches, a coach to focus on spins and one to focus on jumps. There was a choreographer, a costume designer, someone to sharpen their blades.

The cost of a skating career varies, but it's never cheap. Ashley Wagner, the defending national champion whom Morgan will have to face in competition, put the cost at close to $80,000 per year, per skater.

“Financially, we've got to be pretty focused,” Andy said. “Everything centers on skating.”

Last year, both sisters again qualified for nationals. Mariah moved up to junior level and finished fifth. Morgan, competing again at the senior level, was 18th.

The older Bell was disappointed, but she wasn't done. She kept training, took time off from college after finishing her associate's degree. This year, she said, should be better. She'll skate for the first time tonight.

Both she and Mariah have an added boost in Omaha: one of the largest cheering sections of any competitor at the championships. Relatives from Council Bluffs bought more than 60 tickets for the event, Kendra said. They sit together in the arena, wearing matching green and orange buttons. On Wednesday night, they were there again in Section 119, ringing cowbells and throwing more stuffed animals on the ice than for the previous several competitors combined.

Mariah, skating to the music of “West Side Story,” started her program strong but then fell on a Lutz and didn't rotate all the way through another jump. After she received her scores, which earned her the silver medal, she told reporters that she was pleased with her program but disappointed about the two noticeable wobbles.

But like her big sister, Mariah said the mistakes just mean that she still needs to keep going.

“It's going to haunt me,” she said. “But it's just going to make me work harder for next year.”

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>> Video: Interview with Olympic gold medalist and world champion figure skater Tara Lipinski:

>> Video: Coach Damon Allen discusses what judges look for during competitions:

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