Figuring Out Figure Skating

As a Christmas gift, I received tickets to the US Women's Figure Skating Championship held in Cleveland, Ohio this past Saturday evening.

Figure skating, like gymnastics, is one of those sporting events which when on television, you are mesmerized by the seemingly impossible movements made to look effortless.  I like skating, but I'm not a frenzied fan.  Like most people, I watch it if it's on TV and can list the usual suspects of its biggest stars of Michelle Kwan, Tara Lipinski, Emily Hughes, and Kristi Yamaguchi.

I arrived to the event and was surprised by how much I was transfixed by the figure skating cult: aka, little girls with their parents swooning over the aura, dazzling spins, and the magic of the ice.  Their high pitched screams hit falsetto notes that I was not sure was even possible to reach by anyone other than professional opera singers. 

You don't hear that on TV.

On television, viewers are graced with the only the top ten skaters, images of their coaches, and their parents supporting in the stands.  Once in a while, the network will have a shot of a few fans with signs and cute acronyms.  I was anticipating that.

I got so much more.

As my 29 year old body ages, I have come into radical appreciation for my health, flexibility, and its ability to recover from injury.  While waiting for the skaters to begin their routines, I overheard a mother of one of the skaters explain to some nearby fans that her daughter skates about five hours everyday.  Their discipline and commitment astounded me.  So, you can imagine my amazement as I contemplated how much these young women and their families put into these short-lived public careers.  Skaters peak young, most of them are in their mid to late teens, a handful in their early twenties.  Alissa Czisny, the newest reigning champion, topped the age list at twenty one.

It gave me thoughts as to whether or not I could raise a daughter in such a driven culture.  So much of what I was witnessing was artistic and majestic, but the gory details of day to day training, I hypothesized, was less glamorous; a schedule of sacrifice, driving, and more sacrifice.  That kind of commitment is hardly glittering like the trademark costumes, but absolutely admirable.

And then the emcees for the arena interrupted bmy day dreaming.  They were rounding up some young girls, all skaters, and asking them who they were cheering for and what they were most excited to see.  Their answers were bright, cute, and funny.  Their excitement translated to the crowd.  And then came the general question, "What do you love about skating?"

The girls paused to think over the loaded question and the emcee filled in, "It's the outfits isn't it? OF COURSE!"

The outfits?

Not the thrill of gliding or the grace of the sport?  The competition?  Not even, how dare I put this out there, the pure love of skating itself?

The outfits?

I was more than annoyed at the emcee and chalked it up to situation being what it was: the emcee needed a quick answer.  Nothing more.

And then I noticed a pattern.

As I sat nestled in between groups of young skaters, I noticed they alternated between screaming, "You hit your sequence!  We love you!" and "Your outfit is ugly!"  I was stunned.

What stressed me further is that their parents sat right beside them, saying nothing.

You don't see that on TV.

Perhaps it is my ignorance of the skating culture, but I was appalled at the all too frequent references to skating attire, the colors of the skirt, the glint of sequins, the general appearance of the skater and not the glory of their athleticism.  Sure, the dress is sparkly and interesting, but what holds the outfit together are the gorgeous muscles and flexibility underneath them, the unimaginable amount of hours pressed into their limbs striving for perfection and flawless landings.  The art, sport, and execution of movement calls for respect.  Each and every skater had mine.  I assumed, wrongly, that those skates and their families who were in that realm of competition would understand and hold to that.

Some could argue that at the level of competition, people say rude and negative things about athletes.  But I argue that if we are to raise healthy and strong girls to grow into graceful women who understand the rules of winning and losing, it begins when they are seven and eight years old, screaming disrespectful things to other athletes, and intervening.  How we cultivate a sense of mutual respect for women, including our athletes, calls for radical parenting for our young girls.

And if I ever attend another skating competition in the future, I'll try to sit near other regular fans like myself who don't care to know who did the skater's make-up or hair.  Or if the colors of the skater compliment one another.  I'm in it to appreciate their art, their unyielding effort at perfection, and the emotional bow at the end.

Maybe I'll just stick to TV.

by Lisa Factora-Borchers
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Lisa Factora-Borchers is the formal editorial director at Bitch Media. Her work is widely published and she is the editor of the anthology, Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence.



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5 Comments Have Been Posted

I used to ice skate when I

I used to ice skate when I was a teen. I started at 11, which was a considerably late start than everyone I skated with. You're right, there was always this air of "ooh pretty outfits" but I loved the competition. It's a really athletic endeavor, though not usually recognized as such. There's definitely a part of skating culture that condones the whole stage-parents thing.

Fellow fan

Great post.

As someone who grew up watching figure skating while wearing an Oksana Baiul t-shirt that was three sizes too large, I am saddened to hear about the preoccupation with appearance rather than talent or skill.

I am not surprised, but it is disheartening to learn of this behavior because I believe it degrades the integrity of the sport.

Figure Skating

I started skating when I was 5. I wanted to be like Dorothy Hamill, but I knew I wasn't training at a high enough level to be a real serious threat on the ice. So I just enjoyed myself and found a sport that helped build my confidence and provided me a level of grace that a girl from a klutzy family (we're known for tripping up stairs) wouldn't otherwise acquire. To this day, an ice rink is the one place in this world I can go and have all the pressures of the world melt away. We all should have a place like that in our lives. I'm glad you were able to experience the wonders of figure skating. It can be a magical world.

As for the rudeness of the girls, I can believe it. I find the lack of manners in our society to be astounding. Some of the things that people, both young and old, do amaze me. My father was a lieutenant colonel and respect for others was instilled in us at a very young age. Many parents do a wonderful job of disciplining their kids but others need to step up and take responsibility for instilling a strong set of values in their kids. As my mother would say, If you don't have anything nice to say then don't say it.

Great blog, one of the best

Great blog, one of the best I've read lately!

However, I know this isn't the most popular or intellectual opinion, but I must say that sometimes the skaters' outfits REALLY ARE ugly. I've only watched skating during the Olympics, but I can recall a few times where an amazing performance was difficult to watch due to the distraction of a particularly heinous outfit. So, maybe it's not appropriate to encourage kids to be so judgmental, but I do imagine they see their fair share of jewel-encrusted horrors.

Now, as far as the emcee's comments... well, that's just pathetic. It's one thing to call out ugly when you see it, it's quite another to insinuate their entire purpose is to watch the pretty outfits.

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