What I learned during my summer skate-cation

Even though school is an ever-diminishing speck in the rearview for me, even though college was such a great experience that it's the only time I’ve ever wished away the summer that I’ve always loved, the passage of Labor Day is still packed with melancholy for me. The unofficial, premature death of summer means shorter days, dropping temperatures, yellowing greens, and the slow backslide from ordinary garden-variety depression to its much nastier alter ego as the seasons of death bear down like the vicious beasts they are.

I usually bid the steamiest season adieu with miles of regret, mourning all the beach days and road trips and stereotypical summer fun I never got because adulting is literally the worst. And, sure, I didn’t see a single grain of oceanside sand this summer, but, really, the introvert in me knows that the shore isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Instead, I ping-ponged back and forth between my summer rinks and friends’ isolated oasis of a backyard pool that was packed with the kind of people who make forgetting my phone a non-issue because everyone I would want to talk to anyway is just a beach-ball’s launch or chlorinated wave away. All that sun and languid conversation and poolside boat drinks and floating were somehow both the perfect counterbalance to and soul-soothing complement of the hours I spent paradoxically sweating in an icy enclave that rapidly became another home—if not a straight-up refuge. (Also, who knew that swimming and steering flamingo floats like bumper cars made for the best arms days ever?)

I’ve still yet to manage seven consecutive days of skating like I intended to this summer, but I had a lot of other first-time goals come to fruition, and I’m a more confident skater for it. What’s more, I’m an adult skater with a bigger community than I ever thought my seemingly solitary sport would yield. And because of THAT, I am a more enthusiastic skater than I ever was.

My traditional-student days are long behind me, but life beyond the classroom is packed with bigger-picture learning lessons that build on those formal years of guided education. And it prepares you for knowing how to broaden your own horizons and accommodate the lifelong learning that’s necessary for becoming a malleable but fully formed work in progress that can hold its own while being receptive to the changes that life always has waiting around the corner. I’ve been back at skating for more than a year and a half and I still have so much more to learn. I know that the milestones are only going to get more challenging and the progress will be even more maddeningly slow, but I’ll get there. And every one of those accomplishments will proportionally mean more as they symbolically chip away at whatever hurdle rises up next.

I skated harder and more whole-heartedly this summer than I ever have in my life. And I am so grateful for every inch of progress and every second of ice time I got in return. I submitted myself to my first-ever skating camp (and have been counting down to next year since I said goodbye to Lake Placid). While I helped at my primary instructor’s summer skating camp last year, this was the first year I had a class all to myself—and helped with the advanced skaters, too. I made friends. I learned that freestyle isn’t so scary, and that waking up at 5-something in the morning hurts a lot less when there’s ice time at the finish line. I learned that glacial progress and infinite patience are bigger assets than I ever realized. And, most recently, I learned that video is one of the best instructional guides a skater has on their side—and that finally having the confidence to share that proof of progress is the best way to realize how freaking giant and encouraging one’s support network is.

So, even though I won’t be going back to school this week, I will be taking to the ice this fall with a wealth of accumulated insight that has only enriched my life as a skater.

Adult skating camps are treasure troves of experience
I left a piece of my heart in Lake Placid this summer, and I could not be more grateful for a skating experience that absolutely walloped my expectations in the best way possible. Like, how lucky was I to spend hours on Olympic ice, skate like I don’t have adult responsibilities to worry about, learn from some wildly accomplished skaters, and absolutely lose myself in this sport I love—all while meeting oodles of other adult skaters who made the experience even more magical?

Everything about my Lake Placid adventure made for the best summer kick-off ever. I didn’t realize how infectious my enthusiasm for the adult skating weekend was until so many of the skaters I’ve met on my home ice started asking more and more detailed questions about it and trying to figure out how to Tetris their own adult responsibilities around it. The luxury of adult-only ice time was the best refuge after navigating around the tiny skaters whose talent just dominates freestyle sessions, and it made for some of the most wide-open skating I have ever enjoyed.

Learning how collaborative and encouraging the adult skating community is remains one of the greatest lessons I’ve received, and it was the first significant blow to the apprehension and fear I bring to this sport. Getting a front-row seat to the struggles we’ve all overcome, the histories we carry, the passions we feed, and the inspiration we offer one another made my heart sing even when backspins stubbornly eluded me and I couldn’t help but compare myself to the highest echelon of talent at that camp. Whether or not double jumps and combo spins are in my future, I’ve learned how to enjoy the journey and to be receptive to the friends I can make.

Even if lousy memory retention obscured some of the more specific lessons I learned at adult skating camp, the fresh knowledge I walked away with has been cropping up in my skating ever since my return to home ice. I’m more focused, I’m more aware of how the piecemeal elements of skating work together, I’m more willing to take skating risks of all kinds, and I’m more determined to skate for as long as my body lets me. Perhaps most importantly, I’m more at ease with my hard-won progress and less inclined to beat myself up for not being as good as other skaters who’ve dedicated so much more of their lives to this sport than I have. I might not be a true beginner, but I’m still in the early days of my skating development. There is so much waiting for me that it’s hard not to get impatient, but I needed to learn how to graciously face delayed gratification. Nothing comes easy, but it sure as hell comes with hard work and dedication. Being thrown together with adult skaters from all over was the greatest education I’ve gotten on how infinitely varied—and, more importantly, valid—our respective skating backgrounds are. And the willing collaboration is the best reminder of how far we can all help each other go.

Teaching is an education unto itself
I am staunchly childfree but I really enjoy working with other people’s kids the more I’m given the opportunity. I am dying to get my fearless niece and curious nephew on the ice—but until we get there, getting to teach beginning but tirelessly enthusiastic young skaters scratched that itch better than I could have imagined.

My primary coach runs a skating camp every August, and I’ve been meaning to crow about what an amazing and rewarding experience that was. I had a class of four elementary-school-aged kiddos wiggling, swizzling, tip-toeing, and gliding their way across the ice—and they trusted me entirely to help them in their increasingly confident back-and-forth forays across the ice, and it honestly shocked me how seriously I took that young faith. You can only coax your fellow adult skaters along so far before they get frustrated and you get annoying, or they feel like you’re just trying to outshout the doubts in their own heads. They know how good they can be, and it definitely creates some unintentional cognitive dissonance when they have one person tirelessly cheering them on while they’re just as relentlessly telling themselves they can always be better.

Young recreational skaters, however, want to play tag and learn how to fall and, in my young students’ case, tell me everything they know about potential energy and its role in torpedoing across the ice (and can I take a second to squee over girls who pontificate with precocious eloquence about their third-grade science projects?). I kept asking them what they wanted to do and we must’ve cycled through the foundational basics three times in our half hour together, and those kids just wanted to keep at it. I held their hands across the ice, I was laughingly shooed away when I tried to help them up, and I was all but trampled when I told them their half hour of free time was upon them.

I got to work with a adolescent boy who was just starting to tackle waltz jumps, and his quiet determination and focus would have rocked me back to that time in my life if his demeanor hadn’t gotten there first. He reminded me so much of the boy friends I had when I was that age, and my heart just went out to him in the most nostalgic, I-recognize-this-soul, protective kind of way. Getting to see so many kiddos shatter so many stereotypes and tropes that were already on their way out when I was their age more than two decades ago was the kind of hope my secretly cynical heart has been crying out for.

What’s more, it was a priceless reminder of the mutual power of education. Whatever I taught my temporary students, I got so much back from the experience. I got to revisit basics that I can always benefit from, especially when I’m coming at them with a more experienced eye than before. In the days leading up to my class, I must’ve clicked every single link in my frantic googlings of every evolution of “how to teach the basics of skating” that the internet gave to me. Actually verbalizing things like “you go where your hips are pointing” and “get your center of gravity over your boot” reinforced those early lessons I have definitely forgotten about. And just being the enthusiastic, supportive cheerleader I so wish I had during my first go-around with skating makes me hope I made a difference to those young skaters. The opportunity to give someone something I never had is always going to be a privilege I will just jump at.

Skating isn’t really a solitary sport after all
My very first firsthand impression of figure skating, which came in the late ‘90s, was that it was a gratefully singular refuge from the team-sport hell of softball that had been an unwelcome intrusion on my introvert life for nearly all five of the years I spent involuntarily, regretfully mired in it.

Even back then, as a surly adolescent and surlier teenager, I made friends. Group lessons introduced me to several new acquaintances who made this new recreational endeavor a positive one, as well as, most notably, a new friend’s old friend from her first town, who would later be my sophomore year roomie and senior year RA in college. That warmth definitely diminished as I made the transition from group lessons to private lessons, and those freestyle sessions showed me just how catty and cliquey this sport can be. But maybe so much of my original distaste for the skating that eventually became another unwelcome obligation came, at least partially, from that lack of community.

Because if I’ve learned anything this summer, it’s that the adult skating community is collaborative beyond compare. In Lake Placid, we were all swapping tips and tricks and kudos both during and between classes. At morning freestyle, my skating bestie and I have been agonizing over our five-step mohawks and sharing every shred of new advice we get—and so many of us adult skaters are slowly creating text threads, friending each other on IG, and talking about taking the next round of tests together. We might be solo skaters, but we’re certainly not skating alone.

My skating bestie is a teacher, and, save for school holidays, today marked the last time we’ll be sharing weekday morning ice. We started saying our goodbyes Saturday morning, and I thanked her for so diligently introducing me to the freestyle regulars because it made our rink feel more like a home. And it floored me when she said that I did the same for her—this from the woman who knows everyone’s names and test levels and schedules!

I was never the kind of person who gravitated to big groups, or even other wallflowers. Getting back to my sanctuary of relative solitude as quickly as possible is always my biggest motivator. But, somehow, skating sucks the introvert right out of me: Truth be told, I think it’s that perfect combination of wanting other people to learn to love a thing like I do and sharing my enthusiasm with other people who Get It. I’m not a confrontational person, and so I prefer conversations that develop an idea or explore our shared understanding of and appreciation for a thing—I’m all for a heated argument when there’s no other choice, but give me harmony over defense any day. And finding other adults who don’t care that we’re never going to the Olympics and just enjoy being in love with skating for the sake of loving something is such a perfect fit for me.

And embracing the seemingly at-odds marriage of a one-person sport single-handedly increasingly my chosen family brings me to…

Skating is basically dualities in action
I thought this was an individual sport and found that it’s more of a community. But that’s just one instance of this sport’s seemingly eternal list of unexpected polar opposites coming to life.

We work and sweat like hell for a proficiency that looks like effortless grace. We rack up days and months and years perfecting a move that will ultimately account for mere seconds of a program. We scour the earth looking for practice rinks that we spend more time driving to than skating on. We love this sport whole-heartedly and agonize over it just as vehemently. We chase progress in this hobby like it’s the air we breathe. We push our bodies ahead even when it feels like our progress is totally stalled out. We get up knowing that the next fall is less of an if and more of a when. We find confidence in a sport that is rife with potential for humiliation.

Balance isn’t just an asset on the ice: It’s in the very makeup of this sport. Seeing two forces at play makes finding the sweet spot that much more tangible of a mission, and offers insight into the truths of skating that apply to so much of the rest of our lives. I have learned so much about myself because skating has reframed and refocused so many things in a more accessible way; I don’t feel like I’m exaggerating when I say that this frivolous pursuit I love has been the best therapy I’ve ever thrown money at, and I think it’s because I’ve voluntarily submitted myself to something that is so inherently humbling. Routine reminders that kids with parents my age are better skaters than I’ll ever be is a really great daily reminder that I am never, ever too good for anything.

What’s more, there is a cycle of inspiration and intimidation that I am increasingly convinced that every adult skater grapples with. The adult skaters I have watched and admired and aspire to are the same skaters who tear themselves apart over not being as good as the skaters they look up to. And it’s absolutely surreal to go to public skates and have someone shout “How are you doing that!?” at me when I’m just skating backward because realizing that my middling skills are aspirational to someone else is one of the most gobsmackingly jarring moments I will never get used to.

It’s so easy to take your own progress for granted. And I think that’s one of the most difficult contrasts to navigate in ice skating: It’s so easy to be intimidated by better skaters, but it’s just as easy to inspire newer skaters, too. You never know who’s watching you and grasping for the day they can do what you do. It’s important to not take your own progress for granted as you keep moving your own finish line a little further beyond reach because you never know who’s gonna internalize your brutal self-criticism instead of taking your encouragement to heart as they struggle with their own skating hurdles.

Freestyle gets easier every time you go
Ungh, this one hurts to admit because I fought so hard against just sucking it up and going. Partly because, yeah, I am not even a human before noon and getting to the rink before 7 a.m. hurts just to consider, but it was mostly letting fear hinder my own progress.

It definitely helped having a friendly force reminding me how welcome any skater is at freestyle, as well as my coach assuring me that the tiny ice prodigies who intimidated me the most were a non-issue. But, hey, considering that it took me 16 years to come back to the ice at all, taking another year and a half to start being a freestyle regular is kiiiind of a drop in the bucket, right?

My loop jumps might not be terribly consistent yet, but they’re getting there. My backspins might tap out at three shaky revolutions, but that’s better than it was six months ago. I’m looking at taking my Pre-Bronze Free Skate and Bronze MITF tests by the end of the year, and I actually feel less nervous about them than I ever did about my Pre-Pre MITF test. And it’s not only because I've been hitting the ice with increasing dedication but also because I have people in my life—many of whom I met this summer at freestyle sessions—who’ve been down those roads telling me that I can do it.

The scariest part of anything is taking that first step and committing yourself to the uncertainty of the future. But it doesn’t take long for the novelty to become routine, and it the transition from routine to passion moves even faster. A year ago, I was fine with skating twice a week, and an hour at a time at that. Fast forward to now, and how Labor Day weekend meant that most of the rinks in my rotation were closed—finding Saturday morning ice at my new home was nothing short of a miracle—and the agony of two days off the ice interrupting my mounting motivation was almost physically painful. It is getting harder and harder to justify turning off my 5:15 alarm and sleeping in when there’s a piece of my heart out on the ice waiting for me to retrieve it and make it proud of how far I’ve come—in terms of not only ability but also dedication.

Video is actually your friend
Hey, speaking of parties I fought hard against going to, let’s talk about video and how I recorded footage of myself practicing for the first time ever. After the video of my unbearably stiff MITF test damn near scarred me for life, I was super hesitant to watch myself skate again.

The rink was finally quiet enough this past Saturday for me to muster up the courage to record some MITF test elements, waltz jumps, and forward and backward cross rolls. And, hoo boy, that was a burden of knowledge I’m still processing. Do I ever look like Bambi on ice!

To be fair, I actually looked pretty adept on my forward eights for the Bronze MITF test (and seeing as it’s the easiest element on that test, I BETTER have mastered it), and my cross rolls have come along so well (so weird how practicing something every time you hit the ice does that).

But my waltz jumps. They’re the easiest jumps of them all, and my primary coach constantly tells me how mine are higher and springier than most other adult skaters’. So either the bar is super low or I was still waking up ‘cause… man, they look like itty bitty little hops. But once I shook off that embarrassment, I took the reality it showed me to heart. And I spent a good chunk of this morning’s freestyle just revisiting my waltz jumps—which are so foundational in other jumps like toe loops and Salchows—and realizing that, yeah, my tentativeness has become built into so much of my skating and that I need to stop compensating for the fear and just go for it. I didn’t get any video this morning, but I can feel the difference between being hesitant and just going for it. And it turns out that letting loose feels awfully good.

I also posted a video of my backward cross rolls on both IG and Facebook (this was the first time I’ve ever shared video of my skating). And for all the humility this sport has added to my life, a 17-second video was the invitation that literally hundreds of people seem to have been waiting for. Words like “graceful” and “elegant” got tossed around like I don’t fall up stairs and walk into walls. “I’ve been waiting for this!” emerged as the common, enthusiastic refrain. People I’ve not chatted with in months told me they were proud of me. It was an avalanche of validation I didn’t even know I needed. And having it quantified in rapid-fire notifications for an entire weekend made for probably the most important lesson of all: I really do have the kind of friends and support network who are leagues beyond what I karmically deserve. 


Popular posts from this blog

Bruised bodies with grateful hearts

Weird what some focus can accomplish, eh?

Lake Placid Adult Skating Weekend 2018: Part One