SUMMER vacation is almost over for most children. But for some, the past months have barely included vacation - or summer. These youngsters, who number in the thousands, are competitive figure skaters. For them, skating means spending considerable time and money, and redefining personal and family life.
From as early as the age of 6 through late adolescence, they train for local, regional, and national contests and endure a discipline not ordinarily known by their school-aged peers.
``Even at the lowest competitive level, kids are going to put in four hours a day,'' says Eleanor Schultz, president of the Los Angeles Figure Skating Club.
``It requires complete dedication,'' adds Albert Moll, who directs the Hayden Recreation Centre in Lexington, Mass. Practices are hardly recreational for the club's 60 ``serious skaters,'' who show up at 5:45 a.m.
``It somehow evolves and takes over your whole life,'' says Linda Galligan, whose daughter Melissa has skated at the Hayden club for 10 years. ``She dropped Brownies, ceramics, and then sewing. Before she knew it, all she was doing was skating, and she loved it.''
Skating, though, is unlike practically any other extracurricular activity. Since it is a year-round pursuit, skaters never get the break they would if they played seasonal sports at school. Nor do they get the recognition received by school athletes.
``There's no spot for us in the school yearbook, and we don't have people come watch us,'' says Melissa, a sophomore.
Becoming a top skater involves other sacrifices. The annual costs can exceed $15,000. ``I have seen parents who have taken two or three jobs or have mortgaged their homes so that little Susie gets the right training,'' Ms. Schultz remarks.
That training usually includes at least several private lessons a week, beginning at $20 a half-hour. Ice time can cost more than $100 a week, and custom-made skates and costumes carry a big price tag.
Getting school officials to understand the demands of skating poses an additional challenge. In California, Schultz notes, exhausted skaters must still fulfill physical education requirements. Gaining release time to attend distant competitions - sometimes for weeks - can also put skaters at odds with teachers and counselors, according to Mrs. Galligan.
Having a successful skater also transforms family life, as parents try to support their youngster while maintaining a healthy perspective. ``We've tried not to let skating dominate our dinner conversation,'' says Stephanie Lowder, whose daughter Anna skates in the Hayden program. But skating inevitably dominates in other ways. ``We made plans over Thanksgiving last year,'' Anna recalls, ``but then I qualified for the Eastern championships. I felt awful.'' Summer, Christmas, and spring vacations are similarly taken up.
The family situation becomes more complicated when there are non-skating children. ``Parents can only split themselves in so many ways,'' says Mr. Moll. But still, the skaters and their parents say, the sacrifices are worth it and can lead to unexpected benefits. ``We've done quite a lot of traveling to competitions and we've had a lot of fun together,'' Mrs. Lowder reports. ``It brings a closer relationship between parent and child.''
The achievements on the ice also have an extraordinary effect. ``There's a tremendous exhilaration,'' says Schultz. ``You should see the faces on some of the parents when the kids are out there skating. It's pure joy.''
When Anna Lowder thinks of her skating, she smiles and says, ``It's difficult hearing about a party you couldn't go to, but when you go out there and really accomplish something, it makes you feel good.''