Saltwater Portrait

Harrison takes flight for gold medal

Flight attendant scores big at national skating competition
Thomas Harrison of Millsboro shows off the two medals he won at the U.S. Adult Figure Skating Championships in Scottsdale, Ariz. BY NICK ROTH
April 30, 2013

Thomas Harrison flies around the world as a flight attendant, but there is no place he'd rather be than on the ice at the Centre Ice Rink in Harrington.

For the last 10 years, the Millsboro resident has worked as assistant director and teacher for the Bay Country Figure Skating Club, instructing students of all ages and helping choreograph the rink's two annual shows. Two years ago, Harrison also started competing. At the 2013 U.S. Adult Figure Skating Championships in Scottsdale, Ariz., Harrison scored gold and bronze medals in a competition that drew more than 500 skaters from across the country. At 48, he said he still surprises himself on the ice.

“I never honestly thought at 48 I'd still be teaching, let alone be skating and competing,” he said. “I really thought I'd be slowing down at this point. But as long as my body lets me continue, I'm going to do it.”

Also earning accolades at the national event were Bay Country Figure Skating Club director Jerry Santoferrara with two gold medals and assistant director Katrina Bohn with two golds and a bronze.

Harrison's gold medal came in the light entertainment competition, where his minute-and-a-half-long routine “Come Fly With Me” was an ode to his profession as a flight attendant backed by Michael Bublé's version of the classic Frank Sinatra tune. The bronze-medal performance was set to music from Zorro, which Harrison described as a more edgy number. To make the accomplishment more impressive, Harrison competed with a sprained ankle that he suffered just a week before the competition.

Harrison has been a skater for most of his life. Growing up in West Chester, Pa., he remembers the days when he could skate on a frozen pond. At 10, he said, his mom signed him up for lessons.

“I just I loved the jumping, and I loved the spinning,” he said. “I remember when I was growing up my mom took me to an ice skating rink and I started lessons right away – and I was hooked.”

He was also heavily involved in musical theater productions at a young age, performing professionally in summer stock theater shows. He said he's always had the flair for performance, whether on stage or on the ice.

As he grew older, his involvement in ice skating dropped off completely as he tried to figure out a career path. He took a job as a flight attendant 17 years ago, working mostly overseas flights out of Philadelphia International Airport. It was a friend in the airline industry who told him about the Harrington rink and got him back into the sport.

“I had no idea where Harrington was,” he said. “I drove up and had my skates and the skating director at the time offered me a job. I have been here now teaching for 10 years.”

Working only a few days a month, he said, a flight attendant job provides the perfect flexibility to dedicate himself to the rink.

Shortly after the Scottsdale competition, Harrison, Bohn and Santoferrara turned their full attention to the club's spring show, “A Tangled Tale As Old As Time,” which ran April 26-27 in Harrington. The show featured 72 skaters of all ages and skill levels. The work leading up to the performances is overwhelming, he said, as the three coaches are tasked with choreographing and teaching all the skaters in a limited time on ice. Many of the skaters come from the rink's learn-to-skate program, while those with bigger roles audition with the club.

“You can see each level of progression with the students,” he said. “Some are doing it just for recreation; they have no aspirations to compete, to do shows. Others want to excel and go for the highest level they can go for.”

Harrison takes the shows very seriously. He said he's generally a friendly, loose kid of guy, but when the pressure is on and a show is imminent, he said, his mood can change.

"It's a lot of work to put 72 kids on the ice to do a major production," he said.

Harrison said he loves what he does and will continue to do it for as long as he can. He said a joke around the rink is that he always says it's going to be his last year, but he always shows up again the next.

“ I just love what I'm doing. It's still in my blood,” he said. “I will continue to do it as long as my body holds up. I've had the bumps and bruises, the aches and pains, but as long as I can physically still do it I'll be out there teaching and skating.”