Figure Skating, The Olympics, and Not Knowing Anything Anymore

This is long, but it's going to ultimately explain everything you need to know about getting your kid to the Olympics. Or not - which is what I actually have the authority to write about - and why not is also a very happy place to be.

So, I'm one of those insufferable sports parents who shows off her kids doing sporty things. For instance, here is my Skater Grrrl competing this summer near Washington, DC.

She practices most mornings before school. She practices every afternoon after school. She gets up Saturday morning before even the coffee is awake and skates some more. On Sunday, she goes to the gym or works out with a trainer named "Sarge" who possesses some magical power to motivate middle school kids to run and jump and lunge up and down a soccer field for an hour straight, helping them to learn how to turn, pivot, and sprint in safe ways so they don't tear up their bodies during soccer, football, or basketball games.

Sometimes - under duress - my skater takes a ballet class.

Not your average Ice Princess
Even with all this work and discipline and time and sacrifice, she's still not one of the top skaters in her level in our region (which stretches along the East Coast from Pennsylvania to Florida.)   And even her United States Figure Skating Association level - Intermediate - isn't the highest competitive bracket. Above her are hundreds of Novice skaters. And Junior skaters. And Senior. Only Senior level skaters really get a chance to go to the World Championship. 

Or the Olympics.

My daughter gets asked a lot if she's planning to go to the Olympics.

She usually smiles politely and says, "Well...we'll see."

I understand why people ask. Before I started getting involved in the sport as a Skate Mom, the only time I really paid attention to figure skating was once every four years during the Olympics, and maybe during the media coverage of the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerigan Cage Match. If someone would have asked me to describe how a skater was chosen to participate, I'd have guessed, well...something like Lana Turner at the soda fountain counter, just waiting around until someone made her a star. Except a star on super-sharp 9-inch blades.

The reality of how skaters get to the Olympics is less romantic and a bit more time consuming.  

First of all, when it comes to female skaters, you have to keep in mind that the peak training years strongly correspond to the years girls are most potentially stark raving mad. 

Okay, maybe not mad.

But seriously. Think of yourself at 13 years old. 16 years old. Even your early twenties. Was schoolwork getting more difficult and were adults  beginning to ask you OMG! what you wanted TO DO with THE REST OF YOUR LIFE? Were you starting to think of the opposite sex without also thinking smelly or weird? Remember wanting to stay up late and then sleep all weekend? How about rebelling from grown-ups who wanted to tell you what to do, where to go, getting in your business, asking you Are you okay? What's gotten in to you? Did you hear a word I said?

Was your body starting to change? Getting taller? Suddenly stumbling over your feet and bumping into walls? Were you getting rounder or curvy or lanky or knob-kneed?

Okay. Now put all that together, dress it in a body-hugging, shape-revealing practice outfit, trundle it out onto the ice at 6:00 AM before school every day. Tell friends you can't go to a sleep-over or football game on Friday night because you have a lesson early the next morning. Spend hours - sometimes months - jumping into the air and falling until you finally nail the next difficult jump. Then, spend weeks practicing and perfecting two competitive programs, compete the programs over the course of six to nine months, know that everyone who does well at your level is at least as talented as you are and works just as hard, skate the two-and-a-half-minute program of your life against up to 24 other skaters in your qualifying group, know that judging has a lot of gray areas when to comes to art versus technical skills, not get a medal, cry, cry some more, stop crying, wake up the next day, shake it off, and start all over again.

Now, do this for seven to fifteen years. Or more. 

Oh yeah! Also! Don't have a career-ending injury at 17 years old. Come up with the approximately $50,000-$100,000 a year it takes to train as a top competitive Senior. Possibly move yourself and your family across the country to a city with a high-end training facility. Peak at the right time before Regional, then Sectional, then National Championships. Win first, second, or third against the the best athletes in the country. Make sure it all happens during an Olympic year. If you place third, cross fingers that your country has three berths this year for the Olympics, not just two (how many spots your country has depends upon how other skaters in your country placed at the previous year's World Championships.) 

Hope. Wish. Pray.

In the meantime, practice.

In the beginning, kids say, Yup! Sure! I'm gonna go to the Olympics. 

Who doesn't want to dream big?

As kids move up the ranks - not in just skating, but in any sport - the dream gets a little more...quiet. Winning swim meets becomes a matter of shaving seconds off your time over kids who are gunning hard and doing the same. Growth spurts in gymnastics can mean relearning skills every time two or three inches of height give you an entirely new body to figure out. You start the season and some kid who was a no name last year is suddenly posting scores that make everyone look his way, not yours. Losing weeks or months or an entire season of training to an injury is something you start to see happening to your competitors, and you accept it's just a matter of when - not if - it's going to happen to you. 

Sometimes, hearing chatter that you're the next best thing and heading for the Olympics is like uttering "MacBeth" backstage. jinxes. Top athletes call it "the Grecian Competition." (Or not. I just made that up.)

Sometimes, the closer you get, the fact of just how far away it all is becomes crystal clear.

I think this dream of a dream within a dream is lovely.

What I find ever more miraculous is witnessing kids who persevere and build high-level skills in their sport knowing that the common understanding of "success" means getting their face on the Wheaties box or bringing home international gold medals or netting a seven-figure contract...and knowing that they may never attain that definition of success.

Knowing that most of their friends or family won't truly understand what they are doing...or why...if The Big Time isn't in the cards, but they are still training like Big Time athletes.

And honestly, as I hit the snooze button one more time this morning, I'm not always sure I understand that reason myself.

After a particularly difficult season with a few bright spots, but a lot more false starts and being reminded the hard way that ice is very, very slippery, my daughter said with finality, "I don't want to skate anymore."
What do you do when a kid who has achieved so much suddenly wants to quit in a tough moment?

You listen. And you talk. And you talk some more. And you say "now is the time to keep on, if you're going to keep on".  And you say "you've put so much into this, are you sure?" And you get sad. And you get philosophical. And you try tactics. And you say "maybe just try something else for a while." And maybe you even get angry because what you wouldn't have given when you were her age to have had this opportunity...this ability?

But after all the drama, you say what you knew you were going to say to your teenage daughter all along.

You say "Okay. This is your sport, not mine. It's your decision. I love you."

"If you are not a skater, you probably can't imagine what I mean. I could try to tell you by saying it's a feeling of ice miles running under your blades, the wind splitting open to let you through, the earth whirling around you....It's a sense of power, of command over distance and gravity, and an illusion of no longer having to move because movement is carrying you." - Sonja Henie.

A few weeks later, the same child walks into the kitchen and says, hey, do you think you could take me to the rink today?
You can't help yourself, you shout, "What!"  And, God forgive you, you ask, "Why?"

And the child looks at you as if you'd just been hit on the head.

"Why what?" she says with genuine bewilderment. "I love to skate. What did you think?"

Last month, I attended a Learn To Skate session at a local ice rink. My 6-year-old son was taking a lesson, and some of his friends were joining him. There was a lot of teetering. A lot of tottering. Many falls. A few tears.

One little girl looked especially hesitant about getting on the ice. She needed two hands to keep her standing, and the club teen skaters helped the little girl through the lesson, marching forward to a red hockey line, turning, marching back. For a half-hour they held her hands and marched and marched across the ice.

Finally, she let go one hand. Then the other. She marched. She fell. She got back up again.

By the end of the lesson, the little girl began skating, tentatively, across the rink. Her mom called after her, it was time to go home. But the newest skater had discovered the wonderful possibility of being a different person than she had been a few moments ago. And of controlling that possibility.
I can only guess this is part - or much - of why my teen child keeps putting on her skates. Why she practices and pursues her sport. The possibility of creating and re-creating herself is so clear. Of course, that's grown-up fancy-pants talk trying to deconstruct what, honestly, I'm not sure I'll ever understand.

The 5-year-old my daughter once was would tell you, "I'm having fun."

The 13-year-old would say the same thing.

Anyway...I find it a blessing to be a part of her journey. As she gets older, each year, I become less a part, more an onlooker. 

I share so much about my kids - and sincerely adore hearing about other people's kids - because I think it's so...hopeful...when we see young people working hard and following their bliss, ultimately, only answering to themselves. And competing against themselves. 

And winning. 

For all you need to know regarding maintaining your sanity as a skate parent, check out the blog of skate coach extraordinaire Xanboni

To find out first hand what it feels like to parent an Olympian figure skater - before, during, and after - check out Allison Scott's blog Life On The Edge.

If you want to see where else I write, it's here.


Fairly Odd Mother said...

I watched the parents of the last Olympic gymnasts compete and had that thought. . ."Oh, wouldn't it be great to be in their shoes, watching my child do this?" And then I bit my tongue. . .hard. I have no future Olympians in my home, though the desire to raise someone who makes everyone say "WOW!" is always silently there. But, I've come to realize that it's okay if I'm the only one (ok, my husband too) who says that "WOW" and if it's while gushing over the latest LEGO creation. Greatness comes in all flavors. I have always been so impressed at your daughter's dedication and grace on that unforgiving, slippery surface. I actually teared up when it sounded like she was leaving skating--I understand, but, whoa, it seems to be such a part of her. Beautiful, smart post Josette.

Alexandra said...

I always wanted to ask parents with kids who were super-focused on academics, "oh, is she going to be on the supreme court?" Lots of kids are really really good at lots of things. But we have such a love affair with athletics, we all want to know the star.

theSpacemom said...

My Daughter (8) is fighting with her coach to take her pre-preliminary MITF. She discovered Olympic skating this summer and wants to be in the Olympics. I don't know where this is going to go, but yeah, I doubt the Olympics is on the end point.

Your daughter is beautiful and healthy. She is smart to acknowledge that she needs a break and that she loves skating. You're both doing wonderful.

MommyTime said...

Occasionally, of course, those of us who insisted on playing "teacher" from the time we were five years old turn into professors with PhDs when we grown up. But the odds of doing that are SO MUCH HIGHER than getting on the supreme court or the Olympic podium. The trickiest of tricky things, of course, is finding a balance between really working hard (because why outlay the money and time if you won't work hard?) and being a well-rounded person whose whole life is not caught up with something that will most likely can't become a career. At least the odds are always staring you in the face in skating. The parents of 8-yr-old soccer and football boys, on the other hand? Often need a huge dose of this reality check but rarely seem open to it.

(P.S. You are my role model of a mother who manages the strong, loving parenting of children who are expected to become so well-rounded. I can only wish to be as good as you at this.)

Jenn @ Juggling Life said...

If there is ever a "right" answer to a parenting dilemma, this is it. said...

Thanks, all! And MommyTime, I agree...I've always wanted to be a writer and an actor. I'd call myself a writer these day, even if I haven't won a Pulitzer and don't have a number one best seller. I've been on stage, performed Shakespeare, acted in commercials, and played an extra in a movie with Sean Astin before he was a Hobbit. If I had continued with acting, I probably could have gotten to the point of paying my bills (as long as I wasn't allowing the water to run all night or leasing Mercedes.)

But to say, "I'm going to win an Oscar when I grow up"...something different entirely.

MommyTime said...

On the other hand, winning an Oscar has always been my secret daydream. Acting or scree-writing, I'm not picky. (Of course, if I actually worked professionally in either of those fields, I might have a slightly better chance... :)

Mary @ Fit and Fed said...

Ooh, I like Xan's comment. The nice thing about skating as an adult is that I know I love it for the experience itself, there's no other reason to do it as an adult. Something to remind myself of as I continue to knock myself out on moves tests..... those are necessary to develop the skill, but the fun of using the skill, to music, is the real thing.

wootini said...

THANK YOU for writing this, and for illuminating the path of raising a tween/teen competitive figure skater. My young skater (about to turn 10) has just recently started to question everything about her life, including her skating - and it's breaking her heart and I'm losing my mind over here. It really helps to hear that we are not alone. When you say 'stark raving mad' you aren't kidding.

Anonymous said...

Instead of condemning these individuals, why not place the blame where it belongs: on the US Olympic Committee. Without question, all these athletes except Ms. Wagner were giving the stock answer as instructed. To get more info please visit

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