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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 4 of 4)

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

In November 2008, I passed the first of two tests I had to take to qualify for the competition. A few months later, I passed the second.

In preparation for the big event, Larry choreographed, then taught me, a program—a one-minute-and-50-second performance routine. Set to “Nessun dorma,” the program began with me striking a dramatic pose, right arm extended straight up, chin and gaze tilted down and to the right. I slowly brought the right hand down across my face, then swept into a “forward pivot,” anchoring my toe pick in the ice and describing a small circle. The routine included combination jumps (one after another in quick succession), two sit spins, and some footwork. In the grand tradition of figure skating, it ended with what was supposed to be a blur spin as the music crescendoed.

One hundred and ten seconds may not sound like much, but the first time I did the routine in practice, I nearly passed out. I skated off the ice and flopped on a bench, gasping. My hands and legs shook and my heart palpitated. Eventually, through repetition and more gym work, my stamina and skill increased. And something else happened. I lost weight—more than 30 pounds. What’s more, my cholesterol plummeted from 210 to 180. My astonished doctor stopped the medication I’d been taking for mild hypertension. The fitter I got, the better I skated. The better I skated, the more I wanted to skate.

I returned to Millennium a different skater—in vastly better shape and improved in virtually every way. I could feel the curious eyes of the skate guards, the lunchtime regulars, and the members of my urban gang as I powered around the rink, flush with new confidence. This time when I broke off a fast, centered spin, there were no little girls who could show me up. “Awwwwww shit!” one of my skate-rat buddies yelled, his voice climbing an octave. “You been skating! I feel you!” Even the lunchtime hockey dudes gave me props.

In January, I entered a warm-up event in Wyandotte, Michigan, and was shocked when I won gold. Then it was April. I began a final push, practicing my routine at McFetridge several times a week—sometimes several times a day—my music booming over the speakers. All the while, my friends kidded me about what I was going to wear for the competition. A puffy shirt? A unitard? Did I have a Bedazzler? Trying to avoid looking like a Vegas lounge act, I went with black pants, a white tuxedo shirt with a studded collar, and a black vest—the groom on the cake.

Finally, on Wednesday, April 22nd, I piled my stuff into my Jeep and drove to Grand Rapids for the big day. There were eight skaters in my category—Bronze Men, the lowest skill level at the competition (Larry skated in the highest). I had already scouted my competition—sneaking peeks at the other skaters during warm-ups. I knew I could take some of them. But a couple seemed to have far better spins and jumps. I buried the thought.

We gathered in a pen by the stands, dancing in place and blowing on our hands, waiting for the previous group to finish. I thought I was going second, but the judges made a last-moment switch, so when they called my name, Larry whispered, “Go, go!”

I burst through the small gate on one end of the rink, skated a small, fast circle with my arms flung out at the crowd the way Larry had instructed, then skidded to a stop and took up my position. The music began immediately.

In the months leading up to this test, my heart would pound, my color would drain, and my hands would go clammy every time I imagined this moment of truth. I worried that I’d freeze or panic. Brian Boitano may have been able to drop into a meditative zone with millions watching, but no amount of Deepak Chopra mumbo jumbo was going to bring serenity to my knocking knees.

And yet . . . for some reason, a feeling of peace came over me. Maybe it was the countless hours of practice, the snowy, subzero days when I would be the only dope on the ice at Millennium, the blur of all those early mornings, the endless program run-throughs. Maybe the rush onto the ice had worked in my favor by denying me time to fret. Whatever the reason, I skated with a Zen calm through the beginning section, maneuvering into position for my first big opening combination—three quick single jumps followed by a couple of strokes, another jump, then footwork.

My sit spin came about two-thirds of the way through, and when I swung my leg wide and settled low into position, I could tell that the hard work on my quads had paid off. The crowd erupted as I pulled up into a fast spin, raising my arms over my head, then charged toward the end of the program: a last, dramatic jump and the big ending spin. I whipped myself around, as I’d done on so many mornings, slowly drawing in my arms and my right leg to increase centrifugal force. It felt good. I gained speed, hugging my body, waiting for the last note, and then . . . froze. When the routine was done, I flung my arm in the air triumphantly, chest heaving, hair matted with sweat.

The 75 people in the stands clapped loudly. In true figure skating tradition, small stuffed animals came sailing onto the ice. There was a time a few years ago when I would have snickered at something so corny. “Nice job,” Larry said, beaming, when I came off the ice. It took a few minutes for the scores to be posted, and while the other skaters performed, I allowed myself to hope. Finally, an official emerged with a sheet of paper, which she tacked to a board in the center of the concourse. I rushed over to look and . . . third. A bronze medal. “Listen,” Larry consoled, “it’s not where you finish, but how you felt about your skate.”

I rolled my eyes. Please. But then I thought about it, and I knew he was right. A couple of years earlier, I had been a rail-clutching stumbler in a pair of beat-up rentals, just trying to stay upright. Now I was an honest-to-God competitive figure skater, who, before a panel of judges and stands full of people, had performed an error-free program, one good enough to win a medal. I had spent a year rising at 5 a.m., enduring countless snickers, getting up from countless falls. I could have tossed in my blades at any moment.

When I was a kid watching the Olympics on TV, I would sometimes smirk at the kiss-and-cry, the little booth where skaters sit down, panting and sweating, and await their scores. I thought it was sappy then. Now I got it. I suppose no one would have blinked had I shed a tear. I didn’t, though. After all, how would that have looked? A grown man crying?

For my Blades of Glory moment, I stood on the podium with a medal around my neck as friends and officials took pictures. It may have been a bronze, but I wore that damned thing for the rest of the weekend.

* * *

I still feel funny telling people about my hobby. How to explain? To this day, I’m not exactly sure why I fell so hard for such an unlikely sport. What I know is that I’m grateful to have found something that pulled me off the couch, that helped me feel better about myself. I know that some days when I’m skating at Millennium and it starts to snow, when the lights are twinkling and I draw in a long, deep draft of frigid air, when I suddenly launch into a jump, hang for a spinning instant, and then touch down, blade biting the ice, it’s pretty close to a feeling I had as a kid sledding down a hill of virgin snow: joy.

As I write this, it’s October—a little less than a month before Millennium reopens for the year. Last Christmas I bought my wife some skates—a pair of pink and white Softecs, the women’s version of my first figure skates. She doesn’t love skating the way I do, but she’ll humor me and take a twirl. I’m training again, learning a new program in case I decide to compete in the spring. Will I? I’m not sure. But if you see a grown man working on figure skating moves amid the swirling mass of tourists, couples, cool kids, shriekers, and ice princesses, you’ll know why. Try not to laugh.

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