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Ice Folly: Facing middle age and an expanding belly, Chicago mag writer tries figure skating

A personal odyssey from flailing rail-clutcher to competitive champ

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Who you calling Ice Princess?: Bryan Smith didn’t intend to become a competitive figure skater. Pictured at Johnny’s IceHouse with none of his would-be rivals
Who you calling ice princess?: Bryan Smith didn’t intend to become a competitive figure skater. Pictured at Johnny’s IceHouse with none of his would-be rivals

 

“Go! Go! Get out there!” my coach hissed. My name had just echoed over tinny loudspeakers at the Patterson Ice Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The people in the stands, along with the panel of five scowling judges—peering over their half glasses, pens poised maliciously over their scoring forms—were straining to see whether “Bryan Smith-ith-ith-ith . . . from the Windy City Figure Skating Club-lub-lub!” was going to show-ow-ow his face—or whether he’d realized the spectacle he was about to make and had gone galumphing, skates and fancy-boy outfit and all, out the door, across the parking lot, and back to Chicago, like a trapped groom taking a cold-feet powder.

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Bryan Smith skates on the McCormick Tribune Ice Rink for WGN’s Around Town

But it was too late. I was on. I clumped past my rivals—a collection of fellow amateur skaters pantomiming their programs in a small pen under the stands—tugged down my too-tight black vest, then lurched toward the ice. Chest puffed out—a Cowardly Lion before the Great Oz—I skated a long arc (arms flung in “presentation” the way my coach had instructed) and settled in at one end of the frigid rink. The applause, mostly from my friends, sputtered to a last lonely clap.

I stood alone in the cold, grim silence. I flung my arm up, striking my opening pose, straining to hear the first notes of music—“Nessun dorma” from the Puccini opera Turandot. Miss it, and I’d spend the rest of the program rushing to catch up. In those dark moments when my mind gives way to the imp of the perverse, conjuring the caught-naked-in-high-school nightmare, among other embarrassing scenarios, I could scarcely have dreamed up a more mortifying situation.

I was no figure skater. Until about a year and a half before that moment, I couldn’t have told you the difference between a toe pick and a toothpick. Hitherto, I had been your average 40-something rec-league baller, with a comfortable roll of Will Ferrell gut flab and a healthy aversion to all things spangly.

Yet here I was—dressed like a bistro maitre d’, arms posed cheekily, heart all bunny-fluttery—ready to launch into a figure skating program complete with jumps, pirouettes, and flailing arms. As the music began, I stood, for a horrible second, frozen. How did I get here?

* * *

It all started a couple of years ago, on a raw and gray winter evening. Some friends had packed their daughters in the minivan and trekked up from suburban Indiana to Chicago for a weekend of holiday cheer. My wife had been enlisted to babysit while our friends took in a show, but after a busy afternoon she had run out of ideas to entertain. When I got the call, I could hear the desperation in her voice. “I need reinforcements,” she pleaded. “Would you take them skating?” I hesitated. After all, before that day, the sum total of my skating experience consisted of a handful of turns at the roller rink. And the time playing pond hockey when I fell through the ice and nearly drowned.

So, like a man condemned, I met the gang at the outdoor rink at Millennium Park. I surrendered my shoes, laced into some battered hockey rentals, and clomped onto the ice. The girls stayed with me for approximately three seconds. I didn’t blame them. I couldn’t have looked dorkier if I’d been wearing green tights and an elf cap.

But something weird happened. After a couple of shaky laps, I fell into a rhythm. At one point, I flipped around and began to skate backward. After an hour or so, the girls were done, but I kept going. On my last lap, a cold blast of arctic air swooped in and hit me like a slap, but for some reason I didn’t mind. It felt good.

No one else seemed to mind, either. In fact, when I looked around, everyone seemed to be laughing and smiling. Couples held hands, buddies dragged one another to the ice in heaps. A light snow began to swirl; a Christmas carol drifted from the speakers. It was magical. A few minutes earlier, I had felt like Scrooge. Now I was ready to hoist Tiny Tim and God bless every one.

As my wife and I packed the kids into a cab, two things occurred to me: One, that was the most fun—and best exercise—I’d had in months; and, two, the Millennium rink sat just a couple of blocks from my office.

* * *

Photograph by Ryan Robinson; Photo assistants: Marc Altman and Colin Beckett

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