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

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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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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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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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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