Check out Slate’s complete coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics. Also enjoy this Magnum Photos gallery on ice skating.
Did you ever compete in the Olympics?
No, I didn’t either. I never walked into the opening ceremony with my fellow teammates, never received an Olympic jacket with “USA” embroidered on it, never earned the right to call those five rings my own. Here’s the thing, though: I actually trained for them and discovered definitively, by the end of 11 painful years, that I didn’t have anywhere near “what it takes.” In training alongside many athletes who did make it to the Olympics, I did, however, have ample opportunity to learn the multiple ways in which I fell short.
The sport for which I did not represent the United States in the Olympics was figure skating. In order to make it to the Winter Games as a skater, you have to be ranked first, second, or third in your country. Back when I was considerably more nimble and significantly more svelte, I finished in eighth place in the junior pairs competition at the U.S. Championships. That sounds all right in one way, but when you’re brought up to feel that gold is precious, this basically feels like dirt.
I can confirm that, despite all the sparkle, figure skating is an extremely difficult sport. I say this mostly because I failed at it, but there are additional reasons. You might know this from firsthand experience. Maybe you once rented skates at an indoor rink and tried to help your child find her balance, though yours was equally precarious. And I’ve often heard people say they “just don’t have strong enough ankles for skating,” while others have recounted frightening falls that convinced them never to lace up again. That’s fair enough—after all, skating takes place on a slippery surface so feared in other contexts that it’s combated with industrial amounts of road salt.
Even if you’ve never skated, you’ve certainly watched skating on TV. This might have prompted you to consider the acrobatics of competitive skating, and how challenging it would be to spin and jump on steel blades about one-eighth of an inch wide. You don’t need your own scars from the sport to intuit that this will inevitably lead to injuries. Indeed, when you see a skater, you can assume that some part of her body (likely a limb) is swollen, torn, or bruised. What this sport does to the human foot is not fit for these pages (or, I might add, sandals).
But here’s something you may never have thought about: the smile. This—more than the sequins, more than the subjective judging, more than the “kiss and cry“—is what differentiates skating from other sports. Just try to identify another athletic event (save for maybe synchronized swimming) that requires such physical mastery demonstrated along with a smile, simultaneous to a smile.
For the record, I always excelled at the smile; it was some of the sport’s other aspects that eluded me. I was never one to “skate through the pain,” for example. Quite the opposite: I had virtually no pain tolerance and was fearful, to boot. These qualities were especially unhelpful because I was pursuing pair skating, the riskiest and most acrobatic realm of the sport. When it eventually occurred to me that I was too timid (not to mention too tall) to be a pairs skater, I switched over to ice dance, a supposedly safer pursuit. I loved the crazy costumes and the emphasis on detail rather than velocity. The fact that I got dropped on my head during a lift in practice would have made for the subject of an inspirational television feature if I had made it to the Olympics. There was ample drama—blood, sirens, a scary ride to the E.R.—but in the end only a few stitches and a broken collarbone. Other athletes, Olympic-caliber athletes, could have come back from that. I, however, reached my limit. I moved into a dorm room and started college.
In sum, to become an Olympic-level figure skater, one has to have talent, composure, burning desire, financial backing, good looks, a compact body type, pain tolerance, and a lot of luck. As already indicated, I was lacking in many of these categories. Additionally, I had an aversion to cold.
Maybe I sound bitter. Maybe I am. It’s just a little vexing that, every time my skating career comes up, I inevitably get asked about the Olympics. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this doesn’t seem to happen with other sports. If someone mentions that he played football, his listeners don’t automatically say, “So, did you play in the Super Bowl?” Or baseball: “Were you in the World Series?”
I don’t think people ask if I was in the Olympics in order to taunt me or to throw salt in my wounds. Perhaps this is all they can think to say. Maybe it’s just a matter of word association: peanut butter/jelly, shark/Jaws, skating/Olympics. Though I know millions love to watch the sport, maybe they really only do so every four years. I can’t really hold this against anyone.
The truth is that if I had been in the Olympics, you would quite possibly recognize me. You might have a haircut like mine or have a long-standing crush on me. Furthermore, I’d probably still be wearing the sparkly costume I’d worn while competing there. Or, at the very least, I’d have on a T-shirt depicting the five Olympic rings. I might even be smugly tossing Wheaties into my mouth from a box bearing my likeness or sipping Coke from a can decorated with my silhouette. I’d be proud of this achievement to an annoying degree. I’d surely start most (if not all) of my sentences with, “When I was competing in the Olympics …”
In a nutshell, if I’d been in the Olympics, you’d sure as hell know it. And if I’d actually done well? That medal would still be looped around my neck.
If you’re beginning to think I’m living too much in the past, you would most definitely be correct. Please understand that I gave my whole young life to this pursuit. I sacrificed all that is normal—other extracurricular activities, high-school parties, friends, and thousands of my parents’ dollars that could have gone toward my education or even a car. All of this to be Olympic-less.
My sole comfort is that I am not alone in my shortcomings. I am acquainted with many other also-rans (also-skates?). In fact, we are the majority. For every American skater you see on TV, there are thousands ranked below her. And if you were to see these lesser skaters perform, you might mistakenly think that many of them are equally competent or at least in the same so-called ballpark as the vaunted Olympians. They (we), very simply, are not.
You may be wondering what I learned from my competitive experiences. I learned that Olympians are people, too: They’re just better and stronger than the rest of us in almost every conceivable way. They do indeed “want it” more, and they don’t care how much it hurts. They’re muscular and fit as fiddles. They commit to the sport day after day, year after year, without any guarantee that all that hard work will pay off. On game day, they excel. They remain composed and even manage to smile. And maybe there’s something even more, some elusive, magical X-factor … but I’ve obviously never figured it out.
The only thing I really took away from all my training is a pair of rather shapely calf muscles. These consolation prizes—just like gold, silver, or bronze—were hard-won and have turned out to be surprisingly long-lasting.
Are my calf muscles and I watching the Olympics? You better believe it. Just know that, even as I root my heart out for the stars and stripes, I’m also snacking on a bowl of slightly sour grapes.
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