I had a wonderful opportunity to see the Ladies Short Program of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships last night. As a former skating mom, yeah, I was reminded of a few things I don’t miss: the Carpool Circle of Death getting skaters to the rink and home again, with trips to the dance studio for my long-suffering younger daughter thrown in. Long evenings at the rink while my skater practiced on and off the ice. Club politics so hideous that the recent fiscal cliff disputes in Congress look like friendly poker games in comparison.
My experiences, and those of my former skater, are common in the sport. To the untrained eye, Ashley Wagner, Agnes Zawadzki and Mirai Nagasu appear to be sweet young things who look pretty as they glide across the ice in their sparkly dresses. That’s not an entirely misleading image, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Don’t kid yourself. To make the climb to the top of Senior Ladies, a young woman needs discipline and determination, along with a large helping of grit and the mental toughness of a Marine.
I’m not down on the sport, but I’d be lying if I said it was all easy or fun. I’ve sat in rinks from Philadelphia to Dallas watching my daughter compete. I’ve celebrated birthdays at skating competitions and fretted over coaching bills, ice costs and the realization that she’s outgrown both her boots and her blades. My husband got up for years before dawn to take her to the day’s first practice. (As a coach, my daughter still does.) My daughter practiced on holidays and took as much extra time as we could afford during school breaks, all while keeping her grades up. She had to put in that much effort because in the United States, ladies singles is the most competitive of all the disciplines of figure skating, simply because of the sheer numbers involved.
Hundreds of Juvenile Girls compete in the nine regional competitions every year. I did the math once. Those girls have a better chance of being struck my lightening than they do of stepping onto the podium as a Senior at the U.S. Championships. By the time she reaches the Senior level of the sport, a girl will drag herself onto the ice when she’s tired or sick, and sometimes when she’s injured. She’ll have experienced more than the average share of rejection over her competitive career, as judges downgrade jumps and spins she’s worked on for months and years. Or she’ll puzzle over how an identical jump or combination spin can magically gain two levels within 24 hours. Those are the bad days.
Hopefully Ashley, Agnes, Mirai and their fellow competitors have many good days to cherish. My daughter has said more than once that when she competed, skating brought her peace and joy. She was lucky, or her dad and I did something right – she hung up her skates on her own terms and left competition for coaching with few regrets.
All of the young women you’ll see if you tune into the US Figure Skating Championships on television have struck their own balance between the sport and the rest of life. I hope they have families who love and support them whether they win or lose. They probably do – the result of a family who insists that their skater wins every competition is a broken girl. I hope they are eating right and getting enough sleep. I hope they have friends who don’t care whether they land their triples this weekend or not. I hope they have friends among their competitors, because no one else understands in their bones the toll the sport can take on bodies and psyches. Most of all, I hope they value themselves and their accomplishments on and off the ice.
PS: All the ladies in this year’s championship are a credit to their sport, but I’ve watched Agnes Zawadzki skate since she was a Novice Lady. I’ve only ever seen her demonstrate good sportsmanship as well as outstanding programs, so I’ll admit to having a slight bias in her favor. Go Agnes!
What female athletes do you cheer for? Why do you like them?