Friday, July 25, 2014


When I started skating again last October, the last thing on my mind was skating in front of a panel of judges.  Or God forbid, competing.  I thought I'd just be happy to skate backwards without falling down.  But my second day back, muscle memory kicked in and I landed a toe loop and a salchow and even managed to do a (very slow) scratch spin.  The seeds of my old competitive spirit were still there.

I replaced my old beloved (but crumbling) SP Teri custom boots and dull (beyond sharpening) Gold Seal blades with the more economical Jackson boots and Coronation Ace blades (more on that later).   I learned that the world of figure skating had changed quite a bit since I was last in it.  Gone were compulsory figures, always the bane of my existence. I would never have to do "patch" again. (If you're an older skater, you know what I'm talking about.)

 In the current world of adult skating, there was now a group of tests for Freestyle and for "Moves in the Field" (a completely new phrase to me).  Moves in the Field are really a watered down offshoot of compulsory figures - not as difficult but you still have to skate in a prescribed pattern.  In this new world of adult testing for the USFS (United States Figure Skating), there are 4 categories:  Pre-Bronze, Bronze, Silver and Gold.

I realized fairly quickly that to accomplish what I wanted to accomplish, I would need to skate more than 2 times a week.  A lot more.  With Pam's guidance, I started to learn all of these Moves in the Field, and for the first time in my life, I was grateful that I had spent a few years doing compulsory figures! It paid off.

What I wasn't prepared for was the concept of skating alone, in front of 3 judges holding notepads.  And they usually don't smile. It's a surreal experience.

In February, I passed my Pre-Bronze tests. That's the easy one. I didn't have to do a program, and I only had to skate in front of one (very nice) judge.   In March, Pam drove me to Artesia (the home rink of Michelle Kwan - they even have a Michelle Kwan museum upstairs). These tests were a bit more difficult, I had to skate a program to music,  and that was my first experience with the 3 judges and notepads.

I believe that's the first time I asked myself, "Why am I doing this?" 

I passed.

During all of this, I was working on my competition programs and preparing for the big artistic showcase that was taking place at Pickwick Ice in Burbank in June.  Pam and I decided that for this June competition, I would "skate up", meaning I would compete at the silver level, even though I hadn't yet taken the silver tests.  The reason for this was because I felt that I really was capable of skating at the silver level and I wanted to challenge myself.  Also, many of the skaters in the bronze category had come to this sport late in life and didn't have the advantage I had of a childhood spent on skates. It wasn't a level playing field.  (A couple of skaters in the bronze group actually thanked me for leaving that group.)  However, I was painting myself into a corner, because according to USFS rules, if I placed in this competition and went on to the national competition in August, I would HAVE to have passed my silver tests before competing in August.  There is no "skating up" at Nationals.

Well, I did place (more on that later), and am now set to compete at the National Competition in early August.

SO.  The first thing I had to do was pass the silver tests.  And I didn't have much time.

It's a pretty big leap from bronze to silver. On paper, it doesn't look like much, but when you have to string together 3 single jumps, 2 jump combinations, 2 spins, another combination spin, and footwork in 2 minutes -- it's a daunting task and I compare it to running a 5K as fast as you can.  The Moves in the Field also contain a sequence of  inside and outside, backward and forward, "three-turns in the field" which has tripped up many a skater.  Again, thank God I did compulsory figures back in the day.

Pam got me on the docket for June 22 test date (hello, did I give myself any time at all??) and I hit it hard, skating 6 mornings a week for two hours before heading to work. I wasn't so concerned about the Moves in the Field, but that Freestyle program was a beast, and I hadn't skated a perfectly clean program once. Not even once.

The morning of the test session arrived and I was an absolute bundle of nerves.  I wasn't ready for that Freestyle program and I knew it. I kept saying "If I only had two more weeks."  A small group of friends came to watch and though it stressed me out at first, I was so grateful for the support.

I passed the Moves in the Field no problem, then it was time to warm up for the Freestyle. They give you 5 minutes which flys by at the speed of light. I ran through my elements, and to my dismay I was two-footing the landing on my jump combination.  My legs were actually twitching on my footwork. Nerves nerves nerves....

Warm up was over, I got off the ice,  walked over to Pam and said, "Well, this ought to be interesting...."

"Just click off the elements," she said. "One at a time."

Keep in mind I had not skated this program cleanly in practice, not once. When they called my name, I felt like it was somebody else skating out to center ice. I was the observer of this person in the blue dress, just telling her what to do. 

I miraculously, inexplicably landed the jump combination - on one foot. "Ok," I thought. "Game's on."  One element at a time. I clicked them off one by one, the flip, the loop, the toe loop, the sitspin, the camel-sit combo spin, the jump sequence, the layback spin (not mandatory but I thought I'd throw it in for extra credit).  I got to the end of the program, the moment where you are so exhausted, you have to really just pull the last vestige of energy out of your body and deliver. One camel, that's all I had to do. Minimum of 3 revolutions. Come one, you can do it. Get that leg up there and count....1....2.....3.......

It was over.

I skated off the ice. My friend Fran was crying. ("That was a real nail-biter," she said.)  I couldn't believe what just happened. Pam was ecstatic.

Then the judges called me over to reskate one element.  I thought for sure it would be that dreaded jump combination. Maybe it wasn't strong enough.

"We just need to see you do that last camel again," they said.  "We can't agree on the number of revolutions you did. One of us says it was 3, and one of us says it looked like 2-1/2."

They gave me one practice try, in which I did 5 or 6 revolutions.  "Can you use that one?" I asked.

"No, you said that was your warm-up, so now you have to do it again for the test."

At this point I was ready to drop. I did it again (not as well), and they passed me.

Pam and Frank and I went out to celebrate with margaritas.  It was a very, very good day.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

From Hockey to Figure Skates

I don’t remember the first time I donned a pair of ice skates, but I remember loving the glide, the flow, the sense of flying in my rental boots at the Municipal Auditorium in downtown Nashville.

The city only “had ice” three months out of the year, when the Ice Capades came to town. During these winters, we skated overcrowded public sessions to organ grinder dance music. Before I knew it, I could go forward, backward and even do cross-overs.

When I was 10, Nashville started a youth hockey league. My father was approached to sponsor a team, so he signed me and my brother up for the hockey school. I guess he didn’t want me to feel “left out”, so I agreed to give it a go, and before I knew it we were buying all sorts of expensive equipment at the Athlete’s House near Music Row.

Well, after exactly one practice session, I knew this sport wasn’t for me. I wanted out. NOW. My mother however, had different ideas.

 “We have spent all this money on brand new hockey equipment, and you are going to learn to finish what you started.”

She made me finish out the year. It was a painful, long, humiliating year.

 As the only girl on the team, I was benched for every game. I was a liability, my team was winning, and I was simply not allowed to play. And that was fine with me. As my team racked up win after win after win and then finally entered the playoffs, the rink officials got wind of the situation and demanded that I be put in the final game. I’ll never forget it.

I played “right wing” position. I was nearsighted as hell, I wore coke bottle glasses, and I could barely see the ice through the fog in my lenses. My equipment, padding and uniform made me feel like the Goodyear Blimp, and I couldn’t see my feet.

Suddenly, someone shot the puck in my direction, and I flailed at it with my stick, not knowing (or caring) which direction I should take it.

 “That way! That way!” Coach Briskin yelled, gesturing wildly toward the other end of the rink. For some inexplicable reason, I was in control of the puck. I didn’t want it, but I dutifully nudged it down the ice.

 “GO GO GO!!” he wailed. I gave it a good whack toward someone on my left (thankful to be out of the spotlight), and BAM it went in the goal. We won that game, and that championship.

But. I. Was. Done.

 I announced to my parents that this was the end of my hockey career.

 I had just seen “Ice Castles” (3 times). I had watched the beautiful figure skaters with envy, longing to skate that way, eager to put on a dress and simply glide.

The following season, I did just that.

The Loop of Life

I don’t believe in coincidences anymore. I now think life has no set endings or beginnings, and I think maybe we all exist on a predetermined loop.

As a teenager, when other girls were out cheerleading or playing tennis, I was at an ice rink. So many formative years were spent on the ice, that I can’t separate my memories of growing up from my memories of figure skating – the wins, the losses, the friendships, the drama…all of it.

I quit skating when “real life” took over and I felt like there was really no place for me in that world. I had no idea that a competitive Adult Figure Skating program was established in the mid-1990’s. I assumed that part of my life was over (although I continued to dream about landing axels in my sleep on a regular basis).

In October of 2013 an attractive blonde lady walked into my booth at an arts and crafts fair. She thought she had lost her wallet. I told her I had almost lost mine the week before, at a Mexican restaurant, “Viva Cantina”.

“Oh that’s right across the street from where I work,” she said.

 “Where do you work?” (I knew there was an ice rink across the street.)

 “I work at Pickwick Ice Arena. I’m a figure skating coach.”

After I picked my jaw up off the ground, I told her my story. She asked me why I quit skating. I told her I was too old. She laughed.

She told me her story - that she was in the Ice Follies, that she had taken a 20-year break from skating to have a family, that she returned to the sport in her 40’s, going on to compete nationally and internationally.

By the end of our conversation, I had made a date with her, at Pickwick, to see if I still had it in me.

It turns out I did. She now coaches me 3-4 times a week.

To say this is the biggest challenge of my life is an understatement. Figure Skating in your (late) 40’s after a 20-year absence from the sport is like pushing a rock up a steep hill. I don’t think I ever worked this physically hard, including my teenage years.

4-5 days a week, I arise at the crack of dawn, make my oatmeal, take a shower, find my workout clothes and head to the rink. I then go to my full-time job for 8-9 hours, and few are the nights when I don’t have some kind of theatre rehearsal.

I am surrounded by accomplished skaters of different levels, most quite younger than I. Most are wonderful people; a few are not so nice. It takes a while to stretch now. It also takes much longer to “warm up” than it used to. When I jump, it is a monumental effort mainly due to the fact that my knees are not what they used to be. Spinning still makes me a bit dizzy. I simple spiral is not so easy anymore – it’s a bit harder to hoist my leg up and hold it in place. My speed is 60% of what it used to be. (I can confirm this with iPad video playbacks.)

I have landed on my tailbone twice, my knee more times than I care to count, and my feet are now under the care of a podiatrist. But I have goals. My main goal is to be a better, more well-rounded and musical skater than I was 20 years ago. I still have form, I have more musicality than I did in my 20’s, and I have the desire. I want to pass all the tests in the adult skating program. I want to pass every single one of them. I’m up for the challenge. And yes, I continually ask myself, “Why am I doing this? What am I trying to prove?” I’m not sure. But I keep going back, and I know I’m never going to walk away from this sport again. And if I’m being completely honest with myself, a part of it has to do with a very old promise to myself to make something right…
Skating in Nashville, TN - 1980
The day I met my new coach, Pam McDonald