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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

(page 2 of 4)



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

When I was a kid, basketball and baseball were my sports. Later, I flirted with golf, joined the company softball team, and kept my gym account current, despite going AWOL so many times that I’m surprised there wasn’t a warrant out on me for impersonating a member. Into my 30s, I stayed fairly trim, my metabolism still revving enough to stave off a rear-guard assault on middle-age spread.

Reality hit at 40. I flabbed up to a 36-inch waist and carried 220 pounds—and rising—on my six-foot frame. My cholesterol soared. The blood pressure needle pushed into mild hypertension territory. My cheeks bulged like a blowfish. I blamed the usual suspects: stress, overwork, overeating, overbeering. Deep down, I was scared—both my mother and father had a history of heart disease—and embarrassed. I knew it was bad when I saw a picture of me in a poolside chaise. I looked like a grinning manatee. Something had to be done, but what? The answer seemed to lie back at the rink.

I started sneaking away at lunch a few days a week, armed with a pair of fancy new hockey skates, and discovered my first experience hadn’t been a fluke. I really did seem to have a knack. Observing the better skaters, I began to mimic their technique, teaching myself moves like hockey stops and crossovers, the scissoring leg motion that helps you gain speed and turn fast. I learned how to not just coast backward, but to really skate in reverse with power and balance.

I discovered that the Millennium rink was a world unto itself—a subculture with its own hierarchy. There was the usual public rink assemblage of rail-clutchers and shriekers, flailers and stumblers. There were the one-timers—the couple eating at the Park Grill seized by the romance of the moment, the out-of-towners looking for a diversion after visiting Macy’s windows.

But there were also regulars—the lunchtime jocks who traded their coats and ties for a hard hour’s workout; the afterwork crowd squeezing in a few quick turns before catching the train home. One of my favorite groups was a pack of skateboard kids who made the place a favorite haunt. They would be there day in and day out, in hoodies, cornrows, and ink, usually with headphones stuck in their ears.

They were young, fast, wild, and good. I was old, slow, timid, and bad. But, as I improved, they began to tolerate me, then to humor me, and, eventually, to accept me. In fact, after a while, I became kind of an old-guy mascot to their hip-hop fraternity. I knew I was in when I fell, and instead of sailing by with nice-move-bozo smirks, they converged and, in one grand group hockey stop, snowed me under with a prickling blizzard of ice shavings.

Still, my new hobby might have gone the way of my brief infatuations with golf, tennis, and the Rockin’ Abs machine. But one day, a woman in jeans and a parka vest burst onto the ice and began tearing around the rink. She didn’t do flashy tricks: a spin or two, perhaps, and an easy, graceful jump. Not one of the hockey jocks could skate like that.

The moment hit with the force of an epiphany. Spraying ice on your buddy was fine. This, on the other hand . . . how cool would it be to learn jumps and spins, to be able to seize the ice with the kind of authority and power that could stop the tourists in their tracks? Something inside me—call it ego, call it the primal competitive fire stoked by the memory of some long-forgotten Little League glory—clicked.

The question was, Where could I learn this stuff? When the woman was done, I took a chance and asked. She told me her name was Alyssa Blackwell, and she was a lawyer at a firm just up the street on Michigan Avenue. She’d been skating since she was a child—had competed nationally, in fact—but injuries, age, and the realities of marriage and children had intruded. Now she only took to the ice for a few minutes at lunch. “I know this is crazy,” I stammered. “But would you ever consider teaching an adult? I mean, like a few tricks? Lessons?”

She shrugged. “Sure. I usually teach at the competitive level, but we could meet here at lunchtime a couple of days a week.”

Great, I said. “One thing, though,” she added. “You can’t do any of this stuff in those.” She pointed at my hockey skates. “You have to have toe picks. Figure skates.”

* * *

And so it happened that I skulked into Rainbo Sports in Northbrook. Amid the glitter-sparkle skirts and the wall of women’s skate tights, the puffy pink blade covers and purple jelly lip-gloss, I couldn’t have felt more intimidated if I’d asked for an appletini at a biker bar. But when a helpful staffer approached, I managed to blurt: “Figure skates.”

I started with a pair of Softecs, sort of a hybrid of a hockey and figure skate, that fit like in-line boots but had blades with a taper and the all-important jagged spike at the tip: the toe pick, the thing that helps figure skaters vault into the air on jumps and allows them to “hook” into a spin.

Back at Millennium, I laced into my new skates sheepishly, then began my first lesson: half an hour of instruction in balance, posture, stroking, and stopping. I quickly understood the vast gulf between figure skating and hockey skating. Hockey players tend to skate hunched over and take short, choppy steps that help them generate bursts of power and make quick stops and direction changes; figure skaters are more upright and take long, fluid strides, chest up, chin out.

But then there were the arms. I had always thought figure skaters were just being fancy when they stretched out their arms and held them parallel to the ice. And it’s true: flat, extended arms probably do look better than the churning ape-swing of the hockey jock. The reality is that arm positions play a crucial role in both balance and steering.

Still, the first time Alyssa showed me, I gave her a beseeching glance. “Do I have to do the arm thing?” I asked, glancing around, intensely aware of the tourists and lunchtime hockey regulars. “I’m afraid so,” she replied.

I took a deep breath and flung out my arms. I looked around. A smirk. Not too bad. “Now point your toes!” Alyssa said, showing me the proper gliding position. Jesus. Sweat began to bead on my forehead. Stop doing that funny thing with your leg. Get lower. Arms out—out! Watch it! Shit. I teetered, then tottered, and—like a felled redwood—I began to topple, slowly at first, then picking up speed, crashing to the ice with a loud oof! Alyssa skated over, straining to suppress a laugh. “You OK?” I looked up, miserable.

On and on it went, day after day. Turn out your legs—like a ballet dancer! Arch your back! There seemed no end to the frightening indignities. But I didn’t quit. It was a matter of pride now.

For three months, I suffered through a variety of chuckles, suspicious glances, and get-a-load-of-Peggy-Fleming smirks. I knew, of course, what some people were thinking. Whatever. I and my friends—not to mention my wife—knew better. (Not, as Seinfeld said, that there’s anything wrong with that.)

The truth was, some knuckleheaded taunts were far less upsetting than the condescension from real figure skaters. They’d show up occasionally, ringers who’d probably been skating as long as they’d been able to walk. The tourists ignored them, but I could tell right away what was about to happen: They’d stroke around, casually chatting with their friends, as I cavorted like I knew something. They’d bide their time, and then, in a silver flash, unleash some complicated footwork or launch a soaring, twirling jump, unmasking me for the impostor I was. Once, after I had completed a particularly satisfying spin, a seven-year-old girl skated up next to me and, blades chattering into the ice, ripped into a blur that put me to shame. The unnecessary coup de grâce came from the girl’s little friend, who announced: “She spins faster than you.”

Mercifully, I improved. Problem was, spring had arrived. The Millennium rink closed. What’s more, Coach Alyssa couldn’t teach me anymore due to her work schedule and, later, a pregnancy. So I moved to McFetridge Sport Center’s ice arena, a park district rink just a few blocks west of Wrigley Field that stays open all year.

I began attending morning sessions—figure skaters only—and got my first glimpse of the real skater’s world. By the time Millennium had closed, I thought myself something of a hotshot, a delusion fed by the occasional flattering remark from a tourist. At McFetridge, I was once again the stumbling oaf. This, after all, was a world where mothers and fathers rose at 4:30 a.m. to bring their daughters (and, on occasion, sons) to the rink. All the skaters worked with coaches. The 13- and 14-year-olds in sparkly outfits soared into the air, twirling double jumps like you see on TV. They would swoop and dive past me like sparrows buzzing an old hound, the force of the whoosh nearly knocking me down. At Millennium, when a skater fell, guards raced over to make sure he or she was OK. At McFetridge, coaches snarled, “Get up!”

I discovered that I wasn’t the only borderline old fart bitten by this peculiar bug. At McFetridge alone, I met Rodney Eiger, a 66-year-old psychiatrist, who took up the sport after his daughter, Lillie, became involved; Rick and Patricia Kahn, a couple in their 40s, who started taking lessons after their sons’ coach egged them on; and Jim Ringstad, a 50-year-old married guy, who had always enjoyed the sport on television and decided to take the plunge himself 11 years ago after escorting his four-year-old son to a lesson.

* * *


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