Sean Wirtz has always been a good athlete, but no matter what sport he played in his home province of Ontario, Canada, he never felt more at home than when he was on the ice.
It was in his blood, after all.
Wirtz, who took over as the director of the Glacier Skate Academy in September 2018, comes to Northwest Montana from a famed figure skating family that counts two of his uncles as Olympians, and with his own decorated career to boot, one that featured medal-winning performances at some of the sport’s most prestigious competitions.
But life at the Stumptown Ice Den is more reminiscent of a different stage of Wirtz’s career. A time before the giant venues packed with thousands of spectators when he spent countless hours training under the watchful eye of his coach and uncle, Paul Wirtz, at his base of operations in the small northwest Ontario town of Marathon.
And today, with the academy, the valley’s various hockey programs, and the Ice Den itself experiencing a major growth spurt, Sean has his own promising coaching future ahead of him, and Whitefish, just maybe, could be the next small town to start a tradition of its own.
Paul Wirtz coached countless national champions and Olympians during a storied 25-year career in Marathon, a town of around 3,000 people on the north shore of Lake Superior. His students included his nephew Sean, another of Sean’s uncles, three-time Olympian Kris Wirtz, and 2018 gold medalist Eric Radford.
Paul and Sean attended their first major competition when the youngster was 13 years old, and from that day on Sean was hooked. A whirlwind career would follow for the younger Wirtz, who competed internationally for a decade as part of Team Canada, primarily as a pairs skater, before retiring from competition in 2007 and moving onto the show circuit. He picked up a new pairs partner around the same time and they landed job after job together, skating in everything from Disney on Ice to a cruise liner, and everywhere from Abu Dhabi to South America.
But at some point along the way, a weary Wirtz was ready to move on to the next chapter, one he had been preparing to enter as long as he could remember. Like his uncle, Sean Wirtz was going to be a coach.
“I love coaching, I love helping kids and give back,” he said. “Because I love the people that gave back to me when I was competing; helping me when they didn’t need to.”
His partner, however, was not quite ready to quit. Kristin Cowan had been on skates from basically the day she learned to walk and went on to perform in some of the world’s largest ice shows, following the same path as her mother, Robin Briley, who was once a performer in the Ice Capades. Cowan had her own competitive career as a teenager before finding her calling as a performer, mastering the technical skills but relishing the opportunity to “bring joy to people’s lives” in shows.
When Wirtz split with his longtime on-ice partner, a friend recommended Cowan, and ended up being a better matchmaker than they could have imagined. Cowan and Wirtz are now husband and wife, and when Wirtz finally convinced his partner to say goodbye to the world of shows, they looked for a place to settle down.
In Whitefish, Glacier Skate Academy’s longtime director, Chad Goodwin, left to take a job in Las Vegas at City National Arena (owned by the Vegas Golden Knights) in 2017 and the opportunity struck the couple in a way others did not. Wirtz in particular, because of his experience and his pedigree, had opportunities to coach at large facilities in major cities, and in fact did so for a time, but those experiences only reinforced something he had heard from a young age.
“When I was growing up my uncle always talked about how he built something from nothing,” Wirtz said. “I want to do the same thing, that’s why we moved here. It wasn’t nothing, it was doing OK, but to make it competitive is something different.”
Building a program stocked with skaters even approaching the levels Cowan and Wirtz reached in their careers is still years away, but it’s something already in their sights. The future of figure skating in the Flathead Valley starts first with the skating, and with getting as many people as possible on the ice from the earliest possible age.
“It’s to learn to love skating,” Cowan said. “They need to learn to stand, sit, fall down, get up, have fun on the ice and play on the ice.”
“They’re joining our Glacier Skate Academy, we want them to enjoy it, and then they’re going to progress and they’re going to get better,” Wirtz added.
The six-week Learn to Skate classes offered by the academy are available throughout the year and offer a chance for novices of all ages — so long as they are potty trained — to pick up the basics. Learn to Skate is a prerequisite for the next level of academy coaching and for any of the hockey programs based out of the Stumptown Ice Den, and the classes have seen a large uptick in enrollment since Wirtz and Cowan arrived, they said.
After Learn to Skate, youngsters who want a more immersive experience can sign up for the Star Skate program, a twice-a-week group class for 6 to 14 year olds. Those who possess the skills and wish to make an additional time commitment can then move on to the Glacier Skate Academy team, where specialized training and opportunities to attend local and regional competitions are part of the experience.
There are currently around 25 skaters in the top program and hundreds at all three levels, and the two coaches hope to double that number in the near future. As the population in the Flathead Valley grows and a crop of young skaters continues to develop, Cowan and Wirtz not only want to put Whitefish on the figurative figure skating map but also impart some of the lessons they say the sport taught them.
“You learn that drive and determination and perseverance and accountability and showing up on time, because it is an individual sport,” Cowan said. “You’re responsible for your own progression and as an adult that’s what I appreciate about it.”
The individual nature of skating can also make it isolating, something Wirtz and Cowan said was stressful even as professionals. But that fear becomes a rush of adrenaline when conquered, and teaches self-reliance in a way few team sports can, something they saw first hand during a recent competition in Las Vegas.
“The night before, (one of our young skaters) is crying and she’s like ‘I don’t want to do this,’” Wirtz said. “And then she got out there and she won everything … and now she just wants to keep going.”
The academy currently has a handful of skaters on a competitive track and another few hoping to head down the show track, but even many at the academy’s highest level are still primarily in the sport for social or recreational reasons, something Wirtz and Cowan share with pride.
The goal, after all, is to build a love of skating within the community, and one step in that direction was the recently concluded Christmas on Ice show that featured dozens of the academy’s students along with Cowan, Wirtz (as Santa Claus) and Olympic medalist Dylan Moscovitch, another Paul Wirtz pupil, at three December performances.
“The kids love it, they talk about it all year,” Cowan, who directed and choreographed the show, said. “It’s really fun to get out there and show your stuff but it’s not nerve-wracking like a competition. They still get nervous but you’re with your friends.”
Cowan and Wirtz recently bought a home in Whitefish and say they are here for the long haul, with a bold vision for the future. They want to double enrollment in their classes across the board, expand their presence throughout the valley, add another sheet of ice to grow the sport even larger, and “travel the country and world to represent Whitefish,” Wirtz said.
For now, he and Cowan are happiest to have found a home, and they couldn’t be happier with exactly where their journey has taken them.
“Maybe it’s just Whitefish,” Wirtz said. “When I came here I just felt good about the place. I felt like we could create something.”
For more information on the Glacier Skate Academy and all of its offerings, visit www.glacierskateacademy.org.