6-year-old skater 'has no fear'; Swansea boy headed to national championships

News-DemocratJuly 14, 2013 

Douglas "D.J." Whealon looks like a typical 6-year-old on roller skates, laughing and zinging around the rink in a squatting position, his right leg straight out in front of him, shooting the duck. But turn on the music to "Star Wars" and he's immediately at attention, the focused champion ready to practice his routine.

D.J. will skate at the 2013 Roller Sports Figure National Championships in Albuquerque, N.M., at the end of July.

"He's going to be one of the youngest competitors," said coach Sherri Milward, of St. Louis. "It will let him gain some experience."

D.J.'s mom, Teri Whealon, said she doesn't expect her son to place at nationals, even though he won the Primary Boys category last month during the North Central Regional Artistic Skating Championship in Minnesota. He competed against 20 other top skaters from 10 states vying to go to nationals.

In his category, skaters can be as old as 8 and that, said Teri, can mean a huge advantage in ability and strength.

"We just want him to be there, to see what it's like."

D.J. was 3 when he put on skates, started competing -- and winning.

"This is one I got when I was 3," he said, pointing to an award for winning the youngest category, called Tiny Tots.

Mother and son, along with grandma Joyce Snell, live in Swansea. D.J. will be a first-grader at Wolf Branch School. He practices at Spin City Skate Center in Troy. Coach Sherri has been training him for a year now.

The Whealons are a family with a skating history. D.J.'s grandparents, Joyce, and the late Jack Whealon, were pairs and dance skaters. Jack turned pro and taught for decades in California. Teri, 47, a professional photographer and graduate student in chemistry at SIUE, competed until she was 8. Her brother, Steve "Rick" Whealon, 52, of Belleville, took second in the national championships when he was 12, and competed into his teens.

"I still go out with (D.J.) and skate from time to time," he said.

D.J. practices three times a week at Spin City, plus he has lessons twice a week with Sherri. He traveled to several regional competitions this year, placing or winning in all of them to earn the chance to go to Albuquerque.

His routine, skating as a Jedi knight, lasts a little more than 2 minutes.

"Darth Vader is my favorite," D.J. said.

Practicing his routine during a morning workout, he wobbled a bit on his arabesque, a move that involves traveling down the rink upright with a leg out behind him at about a 90-degree angle. He transitioned into a neat waltz jump and back to an arabesque.

For the nationals, a few more difficult moves will be added, possibly a jump called a salchow. For next year, a sit-spin likely will be on the to-learn list.

Mom and coach said the most difficult thing D.J. has to learn on skates is to concentrate. He takes karate lessons, which helps with that, but, "He's a boy. He's 6," said Teri as she watched him goof around on his skates.

His favorite things to do on wheels?

"He likes spread eagles and skating fast," she said, laughing. High-fiving his mom as he circles the rink is fun, too.

"I don't like to fall down," D.J. said in a moment of standing still. "I like having fun and going fast!"

Sherri, who has coached regional and national artistic skating champions for more than 20 years, sees potential.

"He's very athletic. Really has no fear," she said. "That's what you want when you're dealing with a free-style skater. If he keeps at it and works hard, he'll be doing doubles (jumps)."

D.J. has an advantage other skates may not have.

"It takes dedication from the family, and they have that," Sherri said. "They've been in competitive skating, so they know what's involved."

Grandma Joyce sees the continuation of a legacy.

"Skating has always been a part of our lives. ... You love it and it's in your blood -- or it's not."

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