How the skating community is different and why it matters.
I remember back to 1996 watching the US Championships in San Jose. I was a 15 year old boy, a first year intermediate and very much still deep in the "awe" phase of all things figure skating. I saw a man on the ice who was new to me. I had never heard of him before though he was no stranger to the skating community. Rudy Galindo had twice been the US pairs champion 2 years before I had even met a pair of ice skates. I heard Dick Button and Brian Boitano artfully tell his story, building up this great anticipation for his freeskate, where he would skate last in front of a home crowd. They described his many skills and contrasted them with the other skaters of the time. He was artistic and elegant, light and musical. I remember thinking that he was the only one I saw on TV that skated like me. In fairness, that was a very generous comparison but really let's just say, that was how I saw myself skating. The commentators noted that in the short, Rudy received lower marks than what they felt were deserved, seemingly because his skating was "different".
Rudy skated flawlessly in the long, receiving a standing ovation from his home crowd, just as he had done in the short program placing 3rd. I watched with held breath and a raised eyebrow, Would they score this thing fairly? Then the marks came up, 2 perfect 6.0’s for presentation. Mr. Button confirmed their accuracy and Rudy won the day. Here was a man who was different, in the same way that I felt different and 2 judges, on television, thought that he was perfect. Rudy wasn’t the only person who became a big star in my eyes that day.
I first met Lorrie Parker in 2002 when I was in my second year on the junior international circuit. US Figure Skating still sent international assignments out by mail. I’m aging myself. I remember receiving the packet at home, my new Team USA jacket was on its way, I’d be traveling to Val Gardena, Italy and Lorrie Parker would be my team leader. My parents didn’t understand why I was most excited about meeting Lorrie. Lorrie had been one of those judges who awarded Rudy a 6.0 that night in San Jose. Lorrie lived up to everything I had imagined. Lorrie Parker is one of those officials who’s boundless energy and enthusiasm is nothing short of infectious. She has a commitment and love of the sport that I recognized and related to right away. As we would say today, Lorrie is my tribe but I had already known that years earlier.
Several years later and I was serving as a Technical Specialist at an event in California and Lorrie and I were on the panel together and I was still "fanboying." I would be administering evaluations of elements for skaters with the woman who had very early on, almost single-handedly proven to me that skating could be fair. Very cool. At that same event I was walking the concourse and saw a little girl that had grown up at my rink and had moved west. Her coach, none other than Rudy Galindo. I had met Rudy briefly on a Champion’s On Ice tour bus many years earlier but I didn’t expect him to remember me. He did, by name and he shook my hand, the same hand he had covered his mouth with after skating a performance that inspired me so many years earlier. We became friends on social media and I remember gleefully texting my fiancé when Rudy had "liked" our engagement announcement on Facebook. These two didn’t know that night in 96 that someone at home was watching. They didn’t know that in no small way they had a hand in proving to a young boy that if you were brave enough, you could be different, be yourself and some people might think that was just perfect.
This is our skating community. It’s small. One definition of COMMUNITY is “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.” As skaters we also share a common set of experiences. When you meet another skater you already know some things about them. You already know they are resilient, you both know what it’s like to fall down and get back up over and over again. You know that you share a love of that feeling of flying and the freedom you only find on the ice. Skaters know what it's like to commit all of their time and energy for years for a fleeting chance at glory. A moment that can be taken away by any of a million variables or even just an untimely slip on ice. This is one of the reasons our sport is different. We all know how hard it is. We all know how much everyone else had to go through to get there. That's why you don’t often find skaters hoping for their competitors to stumble. We cheer for each other. It’s like a football game, only if everyone cheered for both teams. In my experiences at skating competitions, they are much less like competitive events and much more like family reunions.
In addition to our shared experiences skaters share another thing in common. One definition of FAMILY is “all the descendants of a common ancestor.” In skating, our coaching lineage can also serve somewhat like our ancestry or our alma mater. I can still vividly remember what coaches have said to me in lessons 25 years ago. Good coaches just have that impact on us. I was at Eastern’s this past year and had a chance to chat with Mary Lynn Gelderman. I had known who Mary Lynn was for years and had always admired her but we had never really had a conversation. When I was maybe 13, I had gone to a camp in Lake Placid and I had the opportunity to have a 15 minute lesson with her coaching partner, the legendary Peter Burrows. I was very eager to impress Mr. Burrows so I had asked to work on double axels when at the time, I was hardly landing double loops. After mopping the ice with an attempt that looked like God only knows what, I sheepishly skated back to the refined coach. He said, “Young man, show me your best landing position. It doesn’t matter how you fall, get up and finish with your best.” It stuck with me for all these years and is a practice I still continue with my skaters to this day. When I told Mary Lynn this story she smiled an elegant, knowing grin and said “Yup, that was Peter.” This is what I love about the skating community.
Science is now teaching us that people who have a sense of belonging within a community live healthier, longer and more fulfilling lives.
These people, experiences and stories are what connect people who may have otherwise never met or have little else in common. These are the things that bond us because of how interconnected we are as members of the skating community. Skating is unique in the way that it makes room for people of all ages to be involved and how your role in skating to change over time. In my personal experience, I still remember the first coach I ever had on the first day I stepped on the ice for group lessons at the Graf Rink in Newburyport, MA. She had me work on mohawks and I was terrible at paying attention! Fast forward to 26 years later and I'm serving on a technical panel with one of her skaters and helping them with questions on IJS. To this day, that same coach is still helping me learn, now as a professional, by recently organizing a PSA Conference at the Skating Club of Boston. In another example from this year, this past fall I found myself at a medal ceremony at Sectionals supporting the student of a friend who I had grown up with who I had somewhat considered a "rival". After the announcer finished introducing the skaters for their medals he came and stood with the 2 of us. We realized that 19 years earlier, the 3 of us were those boys on the podium together and now we are all coaches and officials. It comes full circle in skating. This is why the relationships we form and how we treat each other is so important.
One of the ways that skaters first find this sense of belonging is being part of a club. I can still remember the names of people I skated with at every club I’ve ever belonged to. Skaters spend so much time together and unlike at school, they already share something in common with each other, their love of the ice. It’s a bonding experience for skaters to know that regardless of their alma mater, they are a part of something bigger. In these times, I can't think of a better lesson or gift to give a young person.
With this longevity and sense of belonging comes one important reality, in skating we are forever entwined and INTERDEPENDENT. Having been a member of and done work for many different clubs over the years I think it’s also critical to remember, this is a community not a competition. While different skaters and coaches may have different motivations, every club or skating organization I’ve ever been a part of shared a common goal, to spread awareness and participation in the sport of figure skating and share all of the benefits the sport brings to its skaters.
To me, the most important and long lasting benefit of the sport of figure skating is belonging to the skating community. One skater’s success inspires another skater’s success. One coach’s achievement leads to the next coach’s achievement. One club’s prosperity is another club’s prosperity. With the shared goal of bringing in more skaters, inspiring them and educating them well we all can grow the sport and the community that has given us so much and continues to give so much to our skaters.