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

Meanwhile, I found a coach to replace Alyssa. In the early nineties, Larry Holliday had been one of the few African American men to reach the top levels of the sport, with a real shot at competing in the Olympics. A devastating knee injury dashed his hopes, but even now, in his mid-40s—my age!—he still competed.

When I asked Larry if he would coach me, I told him my initial goal: to learn enough so that the real skaters wouldn’t laugh at me. He suggested a different challenge: Why not compete? Specifically, I could take part in an event called the U.S. Adult Figure Skating Championships. The event, held at places like Lake Placid, New York, offered gold, silver, bronze, and pewter medals in a variety of categories based on age and skill level. The quality of skaters ranged from those like Larry—a veteran figure skater doing triple jumps—to those like me, who were beyond beginner but are to Olympic competitors what the middle-age hack golfer is to Tiger Woods.

I could enter on the lowest rung, but even qualifying for that would be a big challenge since the next competition, to be held in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was in April 2009—only a year away. If I was game, it would take a big commitment. I would have to train. Like a real skater. A figure skater.

That’s how I started rising at 5 a.m., spending two hours at the rink four times a week, taking private lessons with Larry on Monday and Friday, and practicing on my own during weekend public sessions at McFetridge and at Oakton Ice Arena in Park Ridge. The first thing I learned was how little I knew, starting with rink etiquette. On one of my first days at McFetridge, I was practicing spinning near one end of the rink when a coach swept up and curtly informed me that “spins are performed in the center.”

The realization began to dawn on me that I needed not just a firm grasp of fundamentals but real fitness. Take one basic move: a sit spin. First, it helps to master the spinning position itself, a pose known as “shoot the duck.” To achieve this, you crouch on your left leg until your thigh is parallel to the ice while holding your right leg straight out like a Russian folk dancer, toe pointed, arms stretched straight in front. To initiate the spin, you whip your arms across your body, as if sweeping dishes off a table, and bend into position, right leg swinging wide, then in front to add speed. You hold this pose for several revolutions, head up, back arched, your weight firmly over the ball of your left foot.

And that’s the easy part. The hard part is coming out of it, which requires rising on your left leg, using little more than your quivering quadriceps, while pulling in your arms so that you’re spinning faster and faster, before eventually pushing out to embark on your next spin or jump.

Speaking of jumps: Even the casual fan has probably seen countless triple toe loops and triple axels in Olympic competitions on TV. But I can attest to the fact that learning the mechanics of even the most basic jump can make trying to master the details that go into a golf swing—head still, left arm and leg straight, club head parallel to the ground on take back, and so on—seem like learning to draw with crayon.

As with spins, you need enormous strength and balance for jumps. More than that, you need courage. The axel, named for the Norwegian skater Axel Paulsen, who first performed it in 1882, is the scariest jump for many figure skaters. They approach the move blind—typically skating backward on the right leg, looking over their left shoulder, arms out. They step onto the left foot, then vault, “stepping up” into the jump as if climbing stairs, and then, for a single axel, twirl one and a half revolutions before alighting again on the ice.

Stories are legion of skaters catching a blade and slamming into the frozen surface. One older skater I met at Rainbo said she had taken a header twice. The resulting concussions drove her from the sport.

To save my noggin—not to mention various bones—Larry trained me on the harness, a Peter Pan contraption that uses a cable connected to a runner across the ceiling and attached to a belt cinched around a skater’s waist. At the moment I jumped, Larry would give the tether a yank, giving me more lift and saving me from sprawling to the ice on my landing.

To develop the leg strength needed for my sit spins and jumps, I became a familiar face at the company gym. Soon I made the center’s “gold list” of exercisers who had checked in at least 16 times in a month. My regimen drew some funny looks. The weight training exercises—squats, bench presses, curls, and more crunches than I can count—were fine. It was my “off ice” jumping in the aerobics room—I’d go flying across the floor, then launch myself into a whirling axel, sometimes landing in a heap—that prompted stares and alarm.

In the summer, I traveled to Hackensack, New Jersey, for an adult skating camp, a sort of fantasy weekend for Johnny-come-latelies that included instruction from Olympic gold medalists such as Oksana Baiul. Later, I even finagled a meeting with perhaps the best-known American male figure skater, a man who delivered one of the all-time clutch performances by any athlete in any sport to win Olympic gold in 1988. Brian Boitano dropped into Chicago to be inducted into the Italian American Sports Hall of Fame and, under the cover of a journalist, I took him aside afterward and asked his secret—that is, how he had stayed so calm in such a pressure cooker. Meditation, he told me. “Centering yourself.” Gee, thanks. I’d have to settle for imagining the judges in their underwear.

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5 years ago
Posted by jazzpants

I had the honor of watching Bryan skate and meet him and Larry at Adults National this past April. I was quite surprise to find out in the space of 2.5 years he went from being a beginning skater to being eligible to compete as an Adults National competitor. (It took me 7 years to get there myself!!! Yes, part of me is QUITE JEALOUS!!!) And of course, I would like to point out that Bryan is a great example that thru the risk of challenging this masculinity, he got back a LOT more: from his pride that he found something he does well and he has found a form of exercise that not only is effective in drastically improving his health and most importantly, he's gained something that he loves doing for himself! (And if that's not enough, he's gain quite a bit of a following amongst the adult skating community... particularly a few female admirer... ;) )

I am happy and proud of his accomplishments and I am surprised how humble he is in regards to his own skating. He definitely has the "gift" for this sport and I hope he continues with it for a long time to come. :)

4 years ago
Posted by joengle

I am constantly amazed by Bryan's many talents! As for his ice skating, I remember well the fall through the ice. While playing hockey on a pond in Maryland he skated to close to a stream flowing into the pond. The ice broke and down he went into the freezing water. His Father and I received a frantic call from one of his friends. They got him out (never did find out how) and took him across the street to Montgomery Ward where he was wrapped in blankets. My husband and I were frantic until we found him shaking, wet and cold but okay -- thanks to his wonderful friends!
I am needless to say, extremely grateful to them! Bryan's Mom

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