THE EDGE OF SUCCESS CARVING OUT A CAREER ON ICE
Figure skating has taken over Greensboro.
Every four years, families all over the world gather around their television, or in some parts of the world, a community television, to watch the Winter Olympics. Athletes spend years “” some dedicate their entire life “” practicing for their one moment in the international spotlight to showcase their talents. For bobsledders, fate is determined upon nanoseconds. For skiers, their future career is dependent on whether they make the gate in a certain time, at a certain angle and with the exact speed.
But for figure skaters, time and speed have little bearing on their fate. Instead, it’s all about jumping off the correct foot, off the correct edge, or spinning in perfect time with their partner, or landing three full rotations before moving on to the next maneuver. It’s about timing. It’s about grace. It’s about eloquence.
The U.S. Figure Skating Championships have returned to Greensboro. In 2011, the AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships were brought to the Greensboro Coliseum for the first time, and because of the positive feedback received from athletes and fans, it has come back again, but this time much bigger and much better.
The first championships saw an attendance of over 160,000 people, which, to put in perspective, is more than half the total population of Greensboro. This year’s event expects to draw even more thanks in part to the increase in competitors, and the fact that the event has expanded to another venue within the Coliseum area. There is also an area dedicated to the fans, appropriately called Fan Fest, which has vendors and photo areas for kids and parents alike. WFMY News 2, which also seems to have sponsored the “secondary” rink where much of the intermediate levels of skating competition have taken place, has also done live reporting from inside the venue. The small skating rink built inside of the Fan Fest area has afforded many people the opportunity to learn more about skating from local area coaches who put on small clinics explaining the difference between things like a triple axel and a triple lutz (the difference being when performing a triple axel, what is considered to be the hardest jump in figure skating, the skater is moving forward, jumps off the outside of the blade and spins three and one half rotations before landing on the back, outside edge. A triple lutz is when the skater is moving backwards, jumps into three full rotations, and lands.)
Upon walking into the main arena, you are bombarded with the faces of 2014 Olympic silver medalist Jason Brown and Olympian Gracie Gold, to name a few. To say these two faces will be seared into the memories of anyone who walks in the Coliseum would be a significant understatement. Brown’s childish face seems perpetually stuck in a boyish grin, while Gold’s seems to be more of a confident happiness. These are the two stars of the show “” the faces that have been chosen to be the billboard of the American figure skating world.
But in the past week, these faces are not the ones flashing pearly whites at the judges in the Coliseum and the Pavilion. It’s the younger figure skaters, the juveniles, novices, intermediates, and juniors, that have been pumping around the ice, hoping to earn a gold to validate all their hard work, and to lay a foundation of confidence as they pursue the long and arduous road to the 2018 Olympics that will be held in PyeongChang, South Korea.
This past Saturday, attendees were treated to the Juvenile Girls Free Skate competition, the Juvenile Pairs Free Skate competition, Juvenile Boys Free Skate competition and the Intermediate Men Short Program competition.
Before we go on, let’s go ahead and tackle some of the confusion in all of the event titles leading up to the Championships.
Under the International Skating Union, skaters are placed in either juvenile, intermediate, novice, or junior based on their age. This is not the case in America, presumably because we like competition so much. In America, skaters can test their way into the different levels of competition. To the layman watching skating for the past few days, this may help in answering why it looks like a 12-year-old is competing alongside couples that look like they are about to graduate college. This also allows for skaters to choose at which level they want to compete.
Back to the actual skating. In the warm-ups for the competition (we’ll reference the Juvenile Pairs Free Skate competition here) each pair of skaters works out the kinks in certain parts of their program. There is only a brief warm-up before the actual competition, and it’s here that you see kids that are 12-going-on-40 circling each other like the happiest little hyenas. There is a cordial respect as they move between each other on the expanse of ice, but all of that is out the door when the room goes silent and the program starts.
In Free Skate (we’ll explain the difference between this and ice dancing later), skaters are given certain guidelines they must adhere to in order to get full points without deductions for their routine. They are limited to a certain number of jumps, lifts, and required to showcase their technical abilities through various spins and footwork.
Watching a young couple that has yet to even ponder the thought of puberty skate a complete program (usually somewhere around two minutes thirty seconds, give or take a few) is quite the sight. Just to reiterate, these are children who have been on ice since they could stand, many of who have coaches that earn a comfortable salary.
But these children are different. This select group of youngsters is devoting their lives to mastering figure skating. Things like school and friends and relationships all take a backseat to the craft of spinning on a frozen sheet of ice.
While watching the juveniles perform their routines, which seem flawless and perfect to the average onlooker, one can’t help but consider the ramifications of missing out on what so many people consider a normal childhood.
A television show called “Dance Moms” debuted in America on the Lifetime network in 2011. On the show, mothers of young girls are portrayed as drama-crazy “momagers” who will do anything to see their little daughters rise to the top. The show, for all intents and purposes, is garbage television that is best consumed while gouging your eyes out with a rusty fork. Rather than highlighting the achievements of hungry young females looking to break into a dance career, cameras stay on the moms as they argue with coaches, bicker with each other about costumes, and often going as far as showing the glaring verbal abuse delivered to the dancers when they do not perform the perfect number.
Now, figure skating has not reached the level of reality television recognition, yet, but based on what we’ve seen so far at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships it shan’t be far off.
A young girl wearing an outfit that made her look like some sort of mid-19th century barmaid fell during her routine. It was devastating to watch, mainly because you know that all the hard work and practice “” perfecting a routine takes months of practice and choreography “” all came down to this single event. For any regular child, that is to say anyone between the ages of born and 12, pressure and stress are two things that are beyond the realm of total understanding. More or less, stress to a 12-year old should probably be best left to dealing with a first kiss, maybe some homework, and if you really push it, extracurricular sports.
Not in figure skating. We found the bar maid clad young lady sitting in the concourse of the Coliseum following her run. Her eyes, which should be filled with the sweet innocence and curiosity of someone who has just learned she gets money under her pillow when she loses a tooth, were instead filled with the glaring passion of failure. Whom we believe to be her coach was standing with her while she bounced on her (presumably) father’s lap, looking down at her. She is a great figure skater, but she didn’t win, and she knows it.
A quick look around the seats of the Coliseum, most of which were filled with parents and friends of competitors, evoked parallel sentiments regarding the stars of “Dance Moms.” While this a gross generalization, the mothers were often obese, mowing through a plastic plate of nachos dripping in cheese and sucking down cold, overpriced sodas. How poetic. And what an example they are setting.
One could easily assume that they were forcing their children to live out their own lifelong, albeit failed, dreams of being a star on the ice. However, some children just don’t care.
Once the children step onto the ice, their aura changes from innocent child still struggling to figure out which loop goes through which on their shoelaces, to professional contender in the spotlight. They are completely aware of the judges, the role of the judges, and just how to present themselves when starting the routine.
It goes a little something like this: A juvenile competitor skates a graceful lap around the ice before stopping near center ice. The stadium goes silent. The skater enters a statuesque pose, frozen. Once the music starts, the child transforms into a flowing blur of spins, jumps, and arm movements. It’s beautiful watching them perform, knowing full well that this moment could be a defining one in immature lives and ultimately has the potential to determine whether or not they decide to continue on in the career of figure skating.
If the routine goes as planned, the skater finishes in a similar statuesque pose, flashing a huge smile to the judges before bowing to the audience of peers and friends. Then people throw stuffed animals on the ice. Two minutes and thirty seconds to determine the future.
And that’s just in figure skating. In Ice Dancing, which is essentially ballroom dancing on blades, the competitors are judged by an entirely different set of criteria. There is a certain amount of time in the three-minute performance that the couples must be touching each other, and there are certain maneuvers that they are limited in performing, mainly because they are worth more points and the judges want to make sure the skaters have the technical abilities, as well as the difficult holds, lifts, and spins. In Ice Dancing, there are also certain dances that must be performed, and we bore witness to the Starlight Waltz and Paso Doble.
The next level of skating skill is intermediate, which falls right under the novice level. It’s actually quite hard to distinguish between the two categories, as it seems they are very equal in terms of skill level, with the former being a significant decision to move up from juvenile. However, the level of skating is obvious. The jumps seem to be a little higher, the spins seem to be cleaner with less travel on the ice, and when talking about pairs, the coordination between the skaters seems to bring them just a tad bit closer to each other.
Of the two options for where to watch skating, the “secondary” location in one of the pavilions offers a much more up close and personal viewing area. It was here that we witnessed the Intermediate Men’s Free Skate competition, which boasts young men showing off their spins and jumps in the allotted time.
Perhaps the jump from Juvenile to Intermediate also signals a shift in mindset for the athlete, thereby empowering them to make the decision to continue skating because they love it, or just quit because they are (hopefully) old enough to say no to their parents. Either way, the level of skating in the Intermediate competitions offers a closer level of comparison to championship skating in that each competitor genuinely looks like they are ready to handle the pressure.
Regardless, the children competing at this level are experiencing a life that very few people will be able to understand. Their dedication and discipline to the sport is admirable, even if they have yet to realize that there is an entire world out there waiting to be explored.
The U.S. Figure Skating Championships continue this week and into the weekend with the senior division of skaters “” those are the ones you saw in the Olympics “” competing on the national stage thanks to a televised broadcast. The Coliseum will be filled with fans of the sport, and there are several autograph sessions arranged for anyone who would like to meet their favorite figure skater.
If you just want to see some skating, though, don’t forget that downtown Greensboro has an ice skating rink that will remain open until Jan. 31, and it doesn’t matter if you don’t know how to stop skating. There are no judges, just people enjoying winter sport.
(I know that not all parents force their children to figure skate and make them follow through with it as a career. The expressions on some children’s face often give away their love, or lack thereof, for the sport. Whenever we saw a young man or young woman skating with a plastic smile, their eyes would show their true feelings on the matter. We are wagering that it’s about 70-30: 70 percent of competitors love what they are doing, while 30 percent of competitors will probably move to Costa Rica when they save up enough money so they never have to see ice again.) !