In matching bright-striped costumes, the ice skaters at the Polar Ice House of Cary link arms and lean forward in a line, backs flat, each extending one leg straight behind them. It creates a strange optical effect, as if a single outstretched limb were rippling down the line. Gracefully turning and lowering their legs, the skaters split off into pairs, arm in arm, light glittering off their costumes.
This is synchronized ice skating, in which teams of eight to sixteen perform programs of precisely timed figure skating moves. The sport combines choreography, music, and costumes into a seamless spectacle. Competitive teams are judged on their exactitude and presentation. While the sport has strong footholds in the U.S. Midwest, New England, Canada, and Europe, it is a relatively new arrival to the Triangle. Catching up will take a lot of work, especially in the South, a place with little ice skating tradition.
One local team may have found the person with just the right experience and energy to coach them to the next level. Her name is Jannika Lilja, a world-champion skater, a former New York high-end fashion designer, and a tireless, charismatic advocate for the sport. As head coach of Triangle Formation, she's nurturing a young, regional team with international aspirations.
"Many of our skaters dream of skating for a world team, and they have big goals," Lilja says. "They want to be known for synchro in the Triangle."
Today, Lilja, twenty-nine years old, is hustling into the Penalty Box, the snack room at the Cary ice rink, to unload a heavy bundle of skating costumes. A dozen teenage girls are waiting in various states of readiness for the ice, and, in addition to the INDY, a local TV news crew is waiting for an interview. Oh, and there's a private skating lesson to squeeze in before team practice starts in a few minutes.
Lilja glides with ease from one task to another. Costumes are quickly piled and sorted on a table, teenagers are gently prodded into finishing their hair and makeup while being herded toward the ice, and the cameraman is directed to a quiet spot next to the rink. Finally, Lilja escorts a young skater onto the ice for that private lesson.
- Photo by Caitlin Penna
- Jannika Lilja
Meanwhile, some of the moms attending practice flip through a six-inch binder of clippings of Lilja's double career. They gasp at fashion magazine spreads of Kristen Bell, the Kardashians, and Jessica Simpson wearing Lilja's designs, and nod approvingly at newspaper stories chronicling her international skating feats.
"In the South, we don't have as many skating opportunities, so for us, to use her skills as a skater and a coach is a huge opportunity," says Katie Wrege of Cary.
Burned out from long work weeks in the New York fashion world, Lilja was looking for a way to combine her loves of skating and fashion in a more moderately paced city. In 2016, the Triangle Ice Gliders were looking for an experienced coach to help them grow. After Lilja took over, they merged with another local synchro team, the Raleigh Rockers, to become Triangle Formation.
Triangle Formation is an umbrella organization that has five teams of various ages and skill levels. Lilja is responsible for managing the organization, coaching four of the five teams, designing and producing the costumes, choreographing each program, and directing outreach efforts.
"Her creativity is endless," said Wrege. "She's the whole package, whether it's the steps to the technique to their costumes. The whole picture is her vision."
Part of Lilja's challenge in bringing her vision to life is the need to educate skaters, parents, and the public in a small skating scene about what, exactly, synchronized skating is—and what it could be.
"No one really understood how a larger synchro program works when I moved here, so we've really started from scratch," Lilja says. "We had to start at zero and really learn the sport from the beginning."
The real work takes place on the ice. Skaters practice the same routine three times a week for months until every smile and every movement is perfectly matched. Each team has just one competition program per season, and it takes nearly a year to perfect.
Lilja's career began at age four, in her hometown of Espoo, Finland, just outside Helsinki. She began synchronized skating competitively almost immediately. She had her sights set on a world championship by the time she was eight, and started competing internationally at eleven. At eighteen, she won a world championship with the Helsinki-based team Marigold IceUnity in 2006.
But, a year after winning the world championship, another passion called—fashion. She left Finland to study fashion design and knitwear at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. After college, she moved to New York, where she worked with fashion luminaries such as Rodarte, Marimekko, and Yigal Azrouel.
Lilja's role with Triangle Formation brings her interests together—costuming is a key part of competition, creating a first impression and getting the team into character.
"When you enter the ice, you need to deliver the theme of the program right away. The judges don't know the concept, so the more you can do with the look of the costume, the makeup, and the hair, the better," Lilja says. She designs, sources, and hand-makes every team uniform in a small workroom in her house, and she's been designing costumes for a global clientele for years. Her attention to detail is so exacting that once, unable to find a suitable striped pattern, she sewed individual stripes onto more than a dozen uniforms.
Lilja's efforts to raise Triangle Formation's skill level and profile are paying off. The team has doubled in size since she took over. She hopes to expand the roster to a hundred, and elevate at least one team to a more competitive national level. But she's not just building a team—she's building better, more well-rounded skaters and athletes.
"When I came down here, everyone told me, 'You can't do synchro here, that's not going to work,'" she says. "A year and a half later, we have sixty athletes and hopefully we can keep growing the program. We've been able to make these kids really care about this sport."