The intimidation of being an adult skater


It is so odd being an adult skater.

It is the strangest kind of lived-in déjà vu to be 33 and retracing old steps while vaulting past a proficiency that took five years to gain the first time around. To be dusting off the long-dormant distinctions between a Lutz and flip, to be reaching across time to remember tricks and tips that helped almost as much as having the knees of a teenager, to be thinking about testing and maybe eventually competing at an age when your peers are fretting over the struggles of parenthood… it’s a surreal experience, for sure.

Stranger still are those things that HAVEN’T changed. I have always struggled with spins, particularly finding my axis and my balance both consistently and immediately enough to advance beyond a basic one-foot spin. (Other adult skaters have assured me that they, too, found spins to present a significant challenge; after 10 months of attempting them, I just about wept at center ice a couple weeks ago when I finally, finally made progress I could be proud of. But that's another post for another time.)

More universally, I find myself coming up against a damn near palpable mental block that feels like an insurmountable wall of OMFG I LITERALLY CANNOT. When I first tried jumps again nearly a year ago, I distinctly recall riding the edge into a waltz jump and just having an incessant internal commentary of “Nope nope nope nope nooooooope can’t do it” undermining my determination to get my jumps back. That constant voice of doubt has haunted me my entire life, and it felt like someone armed it with a megaphone and a barricade when I first tried pushing myself to do more in the early days of my ice skating renaissance. That thickly shrouding mental fog dissipated with time, but it’s always waiting to swallow me up in my more discouraged moments.  

But it’s not the disjointed haze of getting a grown-up’s re-education on childhood-gleaned skills that I struggle with the most. One of the biggest hurdles I’ve encountered is simply pitting how much I enjoy skating against how thoroughly intimidating it is to share the ice with tiny skaters who are a fraction of my age but worlds beyond me in talent and dedication.

When I first returned to the ice, I had the relative safety of an adult group lesson shielding me from this nigh debilitating discomfort, to say nothing about the advantage of coming to a for-fun class with a few years of lessons under my belt. I have no shame in admitting that the early appeal of coming back to skating was that I had a guaranteed place every week where I felt like I was at the head of the class.

But nothing ever gets accomplished from the protective embrace of one’s comfort zone, and no one improves as a skater by never venturing beyond 30 minutes of practice/30 minutes of group lessons once a week. That first low-freestyle session where I was struggling with mohawks and consecutive edges and half jumps while a dozen school-age girls were whirling and twirling and kicking the ice out of their upcoming programs was a thoroughly daunting one.

And it’s a good thing I got that shock to the system out of the way early on because the pre-work private lessons I soon picked up were a whole new kind of intimidation.

I had forgotten that seriously competitive young skaters tend to be homeschooled or tutored—until I stared down a then-unfamiliar rink packed with tiny ice prodigies at an hour when I would be settling into the homeroom routine at that age. As if it weren’t awkward enough getting to know a new instructor at a new rink, I had the demoralizing bonus of ambling my way around ice that was dominated by lithe little athletes who have more determination and talent in their tiny toes than I’ve accumulated in my entire life.

Occasionally, my weekly morning sessions have me crossing paths with another adult skater who also came back to the sport after so many years away. We share an English-major background, a frustration with struggling to make our adult bodies do what our teenage ones once easily executed, and the mounting intimidation of being the old people getting in everyone else’s way. She once mentioned feeling like she’s wasting the instructor’s time and I couldn’t disagree. How much satisfaction can there be in watching the slow progress of someone who will never compete on the world’s stage, who will never tearfully credit their huge win to you in a very publuc way, who is merely grateful that their body still has some fight left in it? (Fortunately, the coaches I've worked with as an adult skater have given no credence to this imaginary concern and have, instead, been nothing but wonderfully supportive and helpfully demanding in equal measures. But that won't stop me from wondering and worrying anyway.)

I have no illusions about my future as an ice skater. I will always be an adult skater, a casually dismissive moniker that quietly insists my most agile, hopeful years are behind me. But I will not accept that implied resignation and preemptive defeat.

The humility of fighting for every inch of progress I make from this inherently disadvantageous position, though, is an invaluable lesson. A few months ago, my Work Mom compared my Facebook posts to the Desiderata, which was not only one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received but also one of those tiny moments that packs a lingering punch. In a poem that I didn't know I'd been waiting my entire life to read, I found the quiet peace of perspective. One passage resonated with me with such an emphatic relevance that I often find myself retracing it like the familiar contours of a long-carried worry stone:

If you compare yourself with others, 
you may become vain and bitter; 
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. 
Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.

Tests and competitions make for fine down-the-line fantasies, but my time with the ice is where I go to calm my anxious brain. I am wary of foisting too many plans on my future as a skater when I am all too aware of how ruinous one false move can be, but I will not be paralyzed by the fear of either inevitable injury or the optics of being a thirtysomething woman celebrating an achievement that the kids I'm yielding the ice to utterly trounced before they learned the difference between an adjective and adverb.

I am skating for me. That threshold between on- and off-ice is where my adult worries (a sampling: deadlines breathing down my neck like half-crazed stalkers, aging limbs, the dog's next vet appointment, a panoply of political and societal concerns, upcoming property tax payments, the looming awareness that my in-laws are only getting older, maintaining the friendships that require just a little more work now that we're all going our separate ways, and, gosh, I sure hope I unplugged my straightener before I left the house) all stop vying for the biggest share of my attention and fade into a temporarily hushed absence. It is just me, my skates, and my determination for a little while, and it is the closest I come to finding tranquility in a world that brings out my inner accelerationist entirely too often.

My lessons and on-ice sessions are my self-care. The ice is my happy place. My goals are defined and easily measurable, and my progress is laying the groundwork for what comes next. But most of all, I am here because I want to be, and because I want to be better. The laser focus, the voluntary immersion, and the whole-hearted chase are a rare trifecta that I am monumentally grateful to have in my life, and are the motivation that helps me overcome every hurdle I face along the way as I keep looking toward what's next.

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