"The first time I saw Sun Valley's outdoor rink, I was amazed," said Tiffany Lau of Hong Kong. "It is so beautiful—you get to skate outside and it's not crowded at all."
Lau is one of 16 figure skaters jumping, spinning and stroking their summer away on Sun Valley's two rinks under the auspices of coach and professional skater, Craig Heath.
Heath, who lives in Hong Kong when he is not in Idaho, said the skaters' sojourn to Sun Valley is the highlight of their year.
"They love it here," he smiled. "They can't get over what is available to them in this little American mountain town. The kids get to skate all day on both the indoor and outdoor rinks, they are coached by some of the best professionals in the world, they attend Saturday night ice shows and get to watch their idols and they get to breathe clean air and enjoy the sunshine.
"Most of all, they love having the room."
Even at the peak of peak season, the Sun Valley rink is, by Hong Kong standards empty.
At home, Lau, a 15-year-old member of the Hong Kong Junior Team trains at a rink inside a mall where the ice is filled to capacity all day, every day. Each skater working with a coach, is relegated to a few feet of space, a circle delineated by a permanent marker, in which to practice their skills. "Big" tricks, like Camel Spins, where a skater's leg extends straight behind her are even further cordoned off.
Skaters wait in line to practice their Camel Spins in a specially designated area and this trick is not permitted on public holidays when the rinks are even more crowded than usual.
Jumps are limited to early morning or late night hours, and Lau said she is often at the rink until 11 p.m. just to find enough space to practice landing her double axel
"When I started skating here, it felt like I was finally skating for real. I could actually skate fast and work on all my jumps and spins without running into anyone," said Lau.
She first set blades on Idaho ice in 2005 and has been back twice, lured by the west's wide-open spaces. This summer, she is here for two months and skates four to five hours a day, working with Heath and other coaches in both private and group lessons.
Sun Valley's open ice also made an indelible impression on another young competitor from Hong Kong.
Louvinia Wong, 15, is spending her second summer here. "The first thing that I thought of when I got here, was wow!" she laughed. "It's not crowded. I feel so much freer in this space. It's paradise."
Hellas Lee, 11, came to Sun Valley for the first time in early July. She and her mother are visiting for a month and Lee said Sun Valley is even better than she expected, and she expected great things.
"The ice is so big and there are so few people," said Lee, her eyes wide and smile broad. "I love to be able to skate without waiting. In Hong Kong we wait and wait and wait."
Sitting outside with Joyce Chan, a Hong Kong skater who relocated to Sun Valley two years ago, the girls giggle and try to outdo each other with horror stories about the crowded rinks.
Lau said she has hit people with her arms, and been hit, more times than she can count. All roll their eyes at the many rules that govern the use of space. Wong wins, however. She actually broke her leg when someone skated into her during a practice session.
But the "Hong Kong kids" as they are affectionately known around the rink, don't keep to themselves. They skate with members of the Sun Valley Figure Skating Club and others from all over the country in summer session clinics and classes.
This weekend, many will join skaters from Sun Valley and Arizona to compete in the Group Showcase during the Sun Valley Summer Skating Championships.
More than 30 students of coaches Gia Guddat, Lisa-Marie Allen, Holly Wheeler, Terri Moellenberg and Heath will go for the gold in a high-energy, circus-themed routine choreographed by Guddat and coach Stephanee Grosscup.
The number will be performed at the Sun Valley outdoor rink late Sunday afternoon, July 22, and the public is invited to watch.
The skaters from Hong Kong are thrilled to be a part of the group number. "We all really like to do the Group Showcase. The choreography and costumes are amazing," said Wong. An added bonus for the Hong Kong skaters is the levity of this program, based loosely on this summer's popular film, "Madagascar 3."
"In Hong Kong, training is really serious," said Lau. "Doing Showcase here is fun and helps our skating in different ways than just working on the elements of our programs. We can relax a little bit and perform."
The skaters from Hong Kong also enjoy the camaraderie and spending time with their seasonal friends. "The kids here are so nice, it's great to come back and skate with them in the summer. Everyone is welcoming and friendly," Wong said.
Local skaters agree. "We love it when the skaters come from Hong Kong," said Sun Valley Figure Skating Club member Emma Stuessi, 13. "They are really sweet and they're also really good. They make us all skate better and try harder."
Many of the Hong Kong kids are participating in other events in this weekend's competition, under the watchful eye of Heath to whom the skaters are very loyal.
"Craig really cares about his students," said Lau, "and not just as skaters. We talk to him about school, about boys, about our lives. He really wants us to skate well, but he also wants us to enjoy the process."
Heath said, "It's easy to see why they're so happy here and I love giving them this gift. Not only does their skating improve, but they also get to spend time with great kids and do some western activities like horseback riding and fly-fishing. Many come with their parents and enjoy a real vacation."
Standing on the edge of the outdoor rink at the end of one of his "Spin to Win" clinics, Heath watched his students. Their happiness was palpable as they stroked around the early morning ice against the backdrop of the Sun Valley Lodge.
"I love Sun Valley," Heath smiled. "It is such a special, unique place and I wanted to share that with these kids. They feel so free here, they feel so good on the ice. We want them to be inspired, by the environment, by the professionals around them, by the headliners in the Saturday night shows. It's a terrific experience overall."
"When we go back to Hong Kong everyone is jealous," laughed Wong. "We wear our Sun Valley Figure Skating Club jackets and tell our friends about our summer, both the skating and just doing fun things in a mountain town. We tell them about this paradise."