Monday, March 3, 2014

The Winning Edge

The perfect figure eight was once achieved by a young girl from San Jose, California. Her name was Peggy Fleming. She was beautiful and graceful on ice, and she won an Olympic gold medal for her perfect figures. The path to a gold medal in figure skating is a long and grueling one. It consists of early mornings and spending hours in the cold of the ice rink. A skater has to find the right coach, the right music, and the right routine. But most of all it takes grace, skill, and perfect figure eights.

Most gold medal skaters start young, before they can even walk well, let alone stand on a surface of frosted glass. I started late, much too late to win a gold medal. However, I was determined and gave it my best shot. My path in this frozen sport started when I was eight. I remember watching a professional ice skating competition with Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill, and wanting to skate like they did.  It was 1981, and there I stood begging my mother for ice skating lessons. She asked me if I would be committed to taking these lessons, because they were not cheap. I promised I would do whatever it took to be like Peggy Fleming and Dorothy Hamill. Well almost, I wouldn’t cut my hair in the Hamill bob, but I would practice until the cows came home.

I remember when we picked out my first pair of skates from the Gart Brothers’ Sports Castle on Broadway Street in Denver. They were new and bright white in the box. They were simple and not as fancy as some of the other skates for sale there. Beginner skates are often sold as a boot and blade pair, made by the same company. As you progress in skating the boots and blades become more customized and are bought separately. Riedell, Klingbeil, and Lake Placid are some of the top brands of ice skates, and can run you between three hundred to six hundred dollars for a pair of boots. Then you still have to get blades, or your journey will end quickly. They will set you back an additional couple of hundred dollars. My first skates were cheap, probably not more than seventy five dollars. Of course what mattered to me was the fact that they were white and not brown like rental skates.

The sales clerk made sure they fit correctly and were fairly snug. He said they would stretch and loosen as the leather softened with wear. He added that it was best if they were an exact fit because I would be wearing nylons, and not the thick athletic socks I had on that day. I would also grow out of these soon enough and be on to my next pair in no time.

Next he asked if we knew how we wanted them sharpened. My mother had a blank look on her face. There was more than one way to sharpen a pair of skates!  The clerk explained that there are different sharpening techniques for the type of skating one does. Hockey skates are edged in a sharp V-cut compared to the U-shape of figure skate blades; even speed skates have their own edges. Figure skates have two types of edge cuts, one fine cut for smooth gliding while doing figures and one rougher cut to provide grip while doing freestyle. He added that most figure skaters actually have a pair of skates cut for each and switch skates depending on what they are doing. I think my mom almost passed out from the dollar signs swirling in her head.

Later, I would have to decide if I wanted the toe pick closest to the blade surface removed. To pick or not to pick was the question? According to my mom, I would keep the toe pick, because I would only be doing freestyle for now. If I was able to stick with it, maybe we would revisit the toe pick question when the time for figure-specific skates were needed. Little did I know at this time, that my decision would become an advantage to my figure skating.

My mom proceeded to investigate what else I would need to begin my figure skating career. There were dresses, nylons, and leggings to consider, as well as what program to enroll in. Denver in the eighties had few choices in ice skating programs and many were over forty minutes from our house. The nearest would be the University of Denver, that offered weekend Learn to Skate classes. It would not be easy to get up every Saturday by six in the morning and make it to the ice rink. I had traded morning cartoons for the feel of wind in my hair and learning to fly.

So, my mom registered me, and I started at the bottom in the Alpha class. What I didn’t know is that I would learn Greek by taking skating lessons. See, the levels in the Learn to Skate program progress through the letters of the Greek alphabet: alpha, beta, gamma, delta and so on. At each level, I would learn a series of new moves. As an alpha, I started with skating forward, learning about my inside or outside edges doing swizzles, and how to T-stop. Once we mastered going forward then we would learn the same skills going backwards. Learning how to glide is not as easy as it seems.

In order to glide, I start by finding my balance on the center of my blades and push down on the balls of my feet. Then I shift my weight slightly on to my dominant right foot. All blades have two edges, an inside edge and an outside edge. If I lay a penny across the blade of an ice skate, I will see the right and left edges clearly and a “hollow” in the center. By shifting my weight to the right, I am able to position myself onto the outside edge of the right blade. With my left foot, I make a T-shape by placing it behind the right foot at a ninety degree angle. I bend my knees and push forward by putting more force on the blade of the left foot. I make sure to stay balanced over my right foot and pull my left foot up to where it touches the heel of my right boot to create a similar stance as the T-shape. If done correctly, I glide forward and will be in the correct position to perform a T-stop. This is just one example of the skills that I learned in my classes.

I was older than most of the kids in my classes and I advanced through levels quickly. I eventually started doing the ice shows which DU put on each year and started to learn routines. Once I had made it to the end of the Learn to Skate levels, it was time to make my first tough decision about my skating career. I would have to enroll in private lessons and find a coach willing to take me on. I would also have to buy morning ice time to practice figures and start advanced freestyle lessons. The ice time cost twenty dollars an hour, and I would need to buy two hours a day for six days a week. It would cost my parents one hundred and twenty dollars a week for my ice time. Then, they would pay my coach one hundred dollars a week for the figure and freestyle lessons in addition to the ice time. I took private lessons for four years, with only a couple of weeks off each year. My parents spent close to forty thousand dollars for my chance to win gold and that is nothing compared to those that attend the Olympic Center in Colorado Springs.

Did I mention what time I had to get up! I would wake at 4:30 am and shower. I would grab a brown bag from the refrigerator, which my mom or I had made the night before, make sure I had my skate bag, and finally rouse my dad to drive me to the ice rink. Figure practice started at 5:12 am on the dot! I would scribe my circles on the pure, clean surface of the ice and practice slow, methodical, one-foot glides and turns around the perfect circles. It was to me, an hour of mediation before putting every ounce of energy into my freestyle practice.

By 5:45 am my coach would join me to glance over my figures, often pointing out flaws here or there and in the end saying I was getting good. I remember the first test I took in figures and it was nerve-wrecking trying to lay four lines overtop each other in the perfect figure eight. I had to make sure each push-off for the left or right circle was exactly in the same spot and had enough force to get me all the way around and back to the start. I would show that I could hold an inside edge and an outside edge on my right foot first. Then I had to make a new set of circles showing the same thing on my left foot. Finally, I would repeat the inside and outside edges, but going backwards. At the end of it all, the figure judge, in her long fur coat examining my lines, barely said a word. I nearly shook to death from the cold and nervousness. My coach was congratulated and I simply got a piece of paper that read pass on it. The only comment the judge made was that she had been glad I was a natural skater and had not removed my first toe pick. She felt the toe pick made the skater stand taller and work harder not to catch it during the push offs.

Freestyle practice was completely different. I and the other skaters would stretch and then take laps around the rink, wiping out the figures from earlier. It was time to fly and the pace of my warm-up strokes increased until my heart pounded and nose ran. Then, I would check in with my coach and see what she would want me to work on that day. I would need to perfect my single jumps; my waltz jump, split jump, loop, flip, lutz, and salchow needed to have clean one-foot landings with an effortless flow into and out of the jump. I would also need to increase my speed and revolutions on my spins; my sit spin, camel, and layback would need clean entry and exit tracks. Finally, I worked on footwork, footwork, and more footwork! If I had time, we would go through my routines again; one for my two-and-a-half minute short program and then my six-minute program.

By the end of my four years I was landing double combination jumps and attempting a triple flip jump. I had a repertoire of forward and back spins and a fairly lofty, flying camel-sit spin. But my strongest attributes were my figures. They were clean and flawless. My coach rarely had to point out any errors and would show me the next one to try. To me it was like drawing on ice and I wanted to leave my signature.

However, figures were going by the wayside, and people like Debbie Thomas and Katrina Wit had changed the sport into nothing but jumps. When I did my last figure test, I knew I would never do these shapes again on the ice and I made each one count. Everything was so simple and smooth. Each turn felt easy and I didn’t struggle with speed and holding my circle shapes. In three passes it was over and the judges were huddled around my marks on the ice. One judge even got down to the ice to inspect the lines. There were three he confirmed for the others. Again I was given the slip of paper that said pass, but this time the oldest judge came to me and said, “Your figures reminded me of Peggy Fleming.”  She added, “If I hadn’t seen you go around three times, I would swear there was only one line.”

I was in shock! My coach gave me a pat on the back and said great job. I asked if I could look at my lines, now that it was over. The judges said sure and I was able to take a closer look. I had laid each turn over the next and the lines were so close it was hard to tell that there were three. My pushes were in the exact place the prior one had been, and the size and shape of my circles were near perfect. I had kept my promise that day and skated like Peggy Fleming.

 I never went to the Olympics, even though I got to hold the Olympic flag as a participant during the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1988 National Ice Skating Championships held in Denver. I had been told that Albertville, France would be my year, but things wouldn’t work out that way. The last year I skated, I did reach one goal and that was to skate like Peggy Fleming. I had achieved my gold, even if it was just a perfect figure eight.

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