Figure Skating Was My First Love

How I rekindle the romance every few years.

Author by Theresa Fisher
Art credit: Megan Schaller

I fell in love with figure skating in the early ‘90s, back when I lived in a no-cable household and skating competitions were among the more exciting programming options on channels 2-13. 

I spent as many nights as I could sitting slack-jawed in front of the TV, gasping at Kristi Yamaguchi’s footwork and rolling my eyes whenever Tonya Harding took the ice, because that’s what everyone else was doing and judgy mindsets are easily absorbed by kids, I guess. I learned to say things like “Oh man, she doubled that triple-loop-half-loop-toe-loop combo” and cluck my tongue at unfair technical marks, as though I was an authority on under-rotated Salchows.

I assumed figure skating was America’s favorite sport and skaters its most cherished celebrities — because love is blind and bedazzled chiffon leotards are blinding, and I couldn’t imagine anyone charming the audience as well as Kristi Yamaguchi, in bladed, high-heeled boots no less.

I don’t run into my first love — televised figure skating — as often as I’d like. Our reunions mainly take place during the lead-up to the Olympics, when channels 2-13 once again air the ultimate spectator sport. But as soon as I catch a glimpse of a skater gliding across the ice with outstretched arms, or sitting stone-faced in the Kiss and Cry, I get sucked in. And so begins the periodic process of falling back in love with figure skating. Here’s how I rekindle the romance.

I Watch The Greatest Hits

Gold-medal performances can make you nostalgic for Olympics you weren’t alive to see. Remember how Dorothy Hamill floated across the ice at Innsbruck like a magenta dream? I don’t, but that doesn’t mean the “Hamill Camel” doesn’t give me chills. Hamill’s ’76 free skate is a must-see. As are most gold-medal performances, including more recent stunners from Yuna Kim (2010) and Yuzuru Hanyu (2014).

I Watch The B-Sides 

Some of the most moving performances come from ice royalty who never got the gold. This 1998 US Nationals triumph from Olympic silver medalist Michelle Kwan makes me weep for all the world-famous, highly celebrated skaters who almost made it to the center of the podium.

I Celebrate The Fashion

Gaudy sequins, tasteful sequins, spandex tuxedos, norm-core, velvet period costumes. It’s all there. No matter the year, no matter the event, you can rely on figure skaters to push the boundaries of athletic fashion. There’s plenty to learn about the history and evolution of ice fashion, the rules for competition attire, and the process of designing skating apparel. And there are plenty of slideshows of the best and worst and most skating-y skating outfits from the past 94 years. 

I Get Into The Stats, Just Like A Real Sports Fan

Figure skaters are supreme physical specimens. Thanks to 60-ish hours a week of training, they’re in better shape than I will ever be. And they regularly challenge the thresholds of biomechanics in ways I never will. If I ever lose sight of their athleticism, I just pull up a few factoids about the things they do with their bodies. For instance:  

When skaters perform any of the six recognized jumps, as this ASAP Science video explains, they hurl themselves about 24 inches in the air (NBA players dunk at 28 inches) and stay there for .5 to .7 seconds, moving at a speed of up to 350 rotations per minute, before landing on one foot while supporting six to eight times their body weight. 

I Lace Up My Skates And Hit The Ice

I’m a mediocre skater. But every time I set blade on an over-crowded New York City rink and slowly move in a circle for 20 minutes, I feel reinvigorated by my potential. The slightest hint of style or skill — a raised leg, a cross-over, a half-loop — makes me feel accomplished. All beginners can learn tricks, according to Rosie Tovi, a former member of the US national and international teams who’s coached professional singles and pairs skaters. Tovi recommends that novice skaters tackle a Waltz jump, which she demonstrates here.

I Catch Up With Commentators 

After garnering praise for their sharp analysis (and coordinated outfits) at Sochi in 2014, Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir were promoted to head figure-skating analysts for Pyeongchang. The former US Olympians are inheriting the throne from Scott Hamilton, the 1984 gold medalist who’s undoubtedly dominated figure-skating commentary for the past few decades.

Like Hamilton, Tara and Johnny can clearly explain what’s wrong with a seemingly magnificent triple Axel. But unlike Hamilton, they don’t narrate performances with rehearsed excitability. Their style is more “deadpanned passion with subtle notes of snark.” It’s a style that some viewers find a tad salty. But I am not one of those viewers. I give Tara and Johnny a 180 (which, to the best of my understanding, is an exceptional score). Their commitment to sequins is admirable. Their progressive views are refreshing. (Watch Johnny’s 2010 response to derisive comments about his masculinity.) And their love of skating is infectious.

I Self-Soothe With Spins

My heart skips a beat every time I watch a skater gear up to jump. But you know what’s entertaining to watch in an anxiety-free, I-don’t-need-to-cover-my-eyes sort of way? Skaters spinning across the ice like jet-propelled dreidels. Spins consume an enormous amount of energy — a rapidly twirling skater creates 200-300 pounds of centrifugal force — but they rarely cause bad falls, at least not in high-level competitions. Instead, they showcase skaters in their element. I seek out supercuts of spin sequences —  dizzying scratch spins, elegant Biellmann spins, origami-esque camel spins — whenever I need to settle down. 

I Strike Up A “Good Ol’ Days” Conversation

A lot of skating buffs lament the heightened focus on jumping in contemporary figure skating. As they see it, the changed scoring system (implemented to minimize bias after the 2002 Olympics) rewards skaters for churning out difficult triples (and quads, for the men) at the expense of artistry. If you get a skating insider started on the topic of the new scoring system vs. the old 6.0 system, they will get fired up and teach you something new about skating, which you can then spout off during the Olympics. 

I Appreciate The Good New Days  

It’s true that figure skating has declined in popularity. TV ratings, endorsement deals, and skaters’ salaries are all a shell of what they were in the ’90s. And maybe the jump-centric scoring system does inhibit artistry. But the sport is also undergoing positive changes. This is the first Olympics, for instance, at which skaters are allowed to perform to music with words. As Tovi, the former US skater, pointed out, lyrics may be what skaters need to feel emotionally connected to their music during jump-heavy programs.

And it’s the first Olympics with an openly gay US team member; Adam Rippon, the 28-year-old alternate who’s been trending on Twitter since his dazzling free skate, came out in 2015. More recently, Rippon drew attention for saying he would not meet Mike Pence during the Olympics due to the Vice President’s previous support for gay conversion therapy. Rippon is also one of three former or current Olympians who’ve recently opened up about their eating disorders, a problem that’s endemic to figure skating but rarely acknowledged as a struggle for male skaters.

Overall, figure skating is getting less stuffy and more tolerant. So long as the sport never ditches sequins or spinning (or melodrama), I will fall back in love with it every few years.

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