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Ice follies/where do good athletes go?/hope for a Leung in the Olympics

January 14th, 2006 · 6 Comments


I’m reluctant to admit I’m a fan of figure skating. We’re fans all right, fans as a family. It can’t be denied, only proved by our lifestyle. For example, although we’ve never owned a TV, we borrowed one from my boss in 1992 and 1994 so we could see skating in the Olympics. (now we use my TV.PVR on the Mac.) And this year, we cleared the calendar on Saturday January 14 so we could watch the US Figure Skating Championships from St. Louis (on ABC from 1 to 4 pm and 8 to 11 pm Pacific Time).

Yes, I’m reluctant. I’m first afraid that someone might question me and discover that I can’t diagnose the difference between a lutz and a loop. But more than that, I’m embarrassed to say I like to watch skating, a sport plagued by poor reputation.

Skating needs an image consultant

On the list of sports that have PR problems, skating would be near the top. Which images come to mind? Judging scandals ala the 2002 Olympics Skategate (note: pair Sale & Pelletier married on December 30th) and bizarre debacles such as 1994’s Tonya-Nancy drama (Google: “Tonya Nancy“) overshadow the ways these competitive athletes combine physics and physiology as well as musicality and empathy to create beauty and sport. Despite its focus on fashion, skating needs an image consultant.

Turn on the TV this time of year and you might see old Olympians skating to Kenny Rogers, a strange flashback and bittersweet reminder of the disappeared decade in which both performers hit their peak. I can understand Lauren’s reaction (and laughed when I saw her post). While Ilia Kulik skated to “Lady” I only shook my head and tried not to laugh at the dated piece.

Go to one of the skating shows advertising various Champions or Stars on Ice and you can see these athletes awkwardly trying to preserve their pride while earning a living as professionals. At the 2002 show, Viktor Petrenko went around the ice with a dog puppet on his hand, barking in time to the music of “Who Let the Dogs Out”. While it was intriguing to see how wearing a puppet affected his skating moves, I suspected that this experiment distracted from the entertainment aspect. I felt sorry for this skater who had once been the best in the world, now reduced to dancing with a dog puppet.

Darren Barefoot pointed to another skating show, this one on TV, Skating with Celebrities. I confess I am curious to see how well these pairs can do. Not only must the celebrities, including Debbie Gibson, Bruce Jenner and Todd Bridges, master skating, but the pairs have to work together. Challenging. But I also suspect the timing of this show this winter has to do with channeling the Olympic hype and the ever-high ratings for scanal-plagued skating.

This year’s controversy at U.S. Nationals

Yes it’s time for another Olympics and time for more skating stories. Which debacle will it be this year? I wonder. Already Michelle Kwan has made headlines by pulling out of the US Nationals due to an injury and petitioning for a place on the Olympic team. I was upset to see the news. Although Michelle has a record number of national titles, five world titles, and an impressive resume, she may not be prepared to compete internationally this year, especially under the new detailed scoring system. In the only skating show we were able to catch on network TV this winter (and one of the few Michelle skated), the judges did not treat her generously, telling her she needed to improve. So now a decision must be made on Saturday without Michelle’s skating.

Here’s an editorial from the San Francisco Chronicle: Kwan doesn’t deserve berth. Via Technorati, I found this comparison of arguments for and against Kwan as well as a history of petitions. The Miami Herald argued Choose Kwan; what does U.S. have to lose?

NBC’s Olympic skating site already has a number of videos and articles regarding this weekend’s nationals and the 2002 and 2006 Olympics including one piece on the depth of the Japanese women’s team and another opinion on Kwan.

But I’m not a big fan of Michelle. I admire the way she is able to pull out a victory in any situation, her endurance, perseverance and ability to focus. She’s tough and I wish I had her determination. I’m not a fan of Sasha Cohen either. The woman is built like a rubber band and can do Biellmanns and spirals beyond imagination. She’s also skating the most sophisticated programs of any of the Americans. Although she is now expected to win nationals easily, it will be interesting to see if she has solved her mental blocks that have hindered her in previous years. Often she has lost her focus, made mistakes but then also blamed her failures on the ice or other factors, rather than herself. But perhaps she is growing and learning.

Exciting skating

I realized that I have a favorite. Thursday night, I was suddenly excited, continually refreshing my browser page as results were posted, to see Emily Hughes in second place after the short program. My husband Ted, the true skating fan in the family, enjoyed watching Emily’s sister skate to her gold medal in 2000. The pressure of having Sarah Hughes as her older sibling and the constant comparison must be immense. The one time I saw her skate this fall, I didn’t think the Gloria Estefan number fit her style well. But Emily is doing well and somehow something in me wants to see her succeed this week. I hope that she shares some of Sarah’s refreshing humility and simplicity.

I’m also hoping we’ll get glimpses on TV tomorrow of the pairs and ice dancing competition which finished Friday. American pairs have not done well in recent years, however the news that Inoue and Baldwin won the national championship with a triple-axel throw gets me excited to see this move that no other pair in the world can do. Ice dancing has been invigorated by the young couple of Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto. Congress passed legislation at the end of 2005 that allowed Canadian Belbin and others like her to become citizens and thereby compete in the Olympics for the United Sates. These two have great style and a sense of humor, known for their “Green Acres” and “Elvis” costumes. It was no surprise that Belbin and Agosto won nationals, and it will be fun to see how they can do in Turin.

Tomorrow we’ll have three hours of TV time focussing on the men, but I’m not that excited to watch them. So far Johnny Weir and Michael Weiss are leading after the short program, but if we send them to Turin, I don’t think they will bring home medals. Then again I don’t know which men could compete against the field. I’m curious to see whether knee surgeries and marriage have impacted Evgeni Plushenko’s skating (he met his wife by pursuing her when he saw her in a convertible – she had no idea who he was). Brian Joubert who seemed to be Plushenko’s heir apparent a couple seasons ago could be one to watch. So is Stephane Lambiel, world champion.

I like the Canadian men’s team better. I liked Elvis Stojko, and Emmanuel Sandhu has some of his eccentricity, performing unusual routines. Jeffrey Buttle however has more consistency and a style we enjoy.

As Darren indicated, his wife will be busy this Saturday watching both Canadian and American national championships. I wish we could watch the Canadian championships too. I’m particularly curious to see how Mira Leung performs. She’s from Vancouver and shares our last name, so how could she be bad?

The problem with fanatic fans

Yes, skating fans are a bit strange and simplistic in their preferences. Also under-educated. I’m reluctant to confirm that reputation with my own admission of ignorance. But it shocked me to see the fans reaction in the 2005 Marshall’s Challenge televised last month. At this event, fans voted to determine which two skaters would advance to the finals, and then again to determine the winner. I could not believe that Michael Weiss was voted as one of the top two skaters. He performed to a medley of old George Michael, throwing in one of his gymnastic moves and utilizing his exhibition skates with the extra blade in the back. But to me it was clear he was not the second best skater. I wondered whether it was the pop music appeal or his acrobatics or charisma (of sorts) that tempted the audience.

Skating is expensive. I don’t know how many families afford it. Yet I suppose it is good that former Olympic athletes can continue to earn a living through skating shows and tours.

Where do good athletes go?

What happens to athletes? This week, in preparation for the Seahawks playoff game, the Seattle Times published a list describing what had happened to most of the All Time Seahawks greats: Where are they now?. I’m intrigued to discover what athletes decide to do with their lives. After making such intense investments, it must be difficult at least for some to find what happens next and to find a different identity.

While watching a couple televised skating shows over New Year’s, I realized that Nancy Kerrigan is the only American woman medalist still participating in these events. Her appearance in both programs caused me to consider what has happened to all the other women. Sarah Hughes, 2002 gold medalist, has returned to normal collegiate life at Yale. Neither Tara Lipinski nor Oksana Baiul, 1998 and 1994, respectively, have developed an intense professional career. Kristi Yamaguchi, 1992, had her second child this winter.

Teaching our children to skate

Even though I’d rather see competitions, Kristi’s show this year was worth watching. The theme was family, and all the skaters in the show were parents. Apparently it was one of the first times some of these children had seen their parents skate. Of course, this may be because the kids are all relatively young, many toddlers and babies.

The highlight to me was seeing Gordeeva and Grinkov’s daughter dance with her mother. Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov (see story here) received gold medals for pairs in the 1988 and 1994 Olympics, taking time off in 1992 to have Daria. After Sergei died suddenly, Ekaterina has continued to skate in professional shows. Something about seeing Daria and Ekaterina skate brought tears to my eyes.

We take our own daugthers to the rink. While Ted had time off from work, we made our annual pilgrimage to the Bremerton Ice Arena (where I took the photo above). Despite the distance from the island, it was the place to be – we saw three other families we knew, including another blogger.

Slowly but surely the girls are learning how to skate. Already Abigail wants to go around the rink by herself, and this time Michaela joined her. So Ted only had to take Elisabeth. With three small kids who couldn’t skate, it seemed best if I watched them on the side while Ted took turns teaching each one. However, if our girls can skate on their own, then I too can continue my own progress as a skater. Next time we return to the rink I’ll bring my skates which have been sitting in a box for years. I’ll lace up my boots tight, loosen my pride, and make my own Ice Follies show.

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6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Joy Des Jardins // Jan 14, 2006 at 6:17 am

    Julie, I’ve ALWAYS loved figure skating…since I was a child. I used to watch all the championships over the years, but haven’t been as faithful in the last few years. Thanks for the reminder…even though today is my birthday, I’d like to watch the championships as part of my day…it’s been a while. I’ve always had a secret desire to be a beautiful figure skater…I think I’m a little late. Enjoy!

  • 2 Rod K // Jan 14, 2006 at 6:27 am

    We will either be parked in front of the TV or the Tivo will be watching it for us 🙂

    Yes!! Skating is expensive, we are now at a point where we go through a pair of boots a year.

    Some of the former Champions are now coaches teaching young skaters the sport.

    It will be interesting to watch how the new judging has changed the sport.


  • 3 COD // Jan 14, 2006 at 6:28 am

    There is a homeschooler with an outside chance at making the Olympic team.

  • 4 Darren // Jan 14, 2006 at 10:52 am

    Have you seen “Ice Diaries”? It’s a documentary program following four national-level skaters to the US Nationals:


    Julie really digs it.

    By the way, Mira Leung skated an exceptional long program yesterday and (I’m pretty sure) is going to the Olympics.

  • 5 Daisy // Jan 21, 2006 at 8:44 am

    What a great, extended post on one of my guilty pleasures too! I’ve been a hard core fan since the “Battle of the Brians” at the 1988 Calgary Olympics. I have to admit I was rooting for the Canadian Brian Orser over Boitano, but have followed television coverage of both obsessively since then 🙂
    Don’t get me started on all of my favorites, I’d be writing for days, but I am sure I will find new favorites this year and be blogging about them then.

  • 6 Rae // Jan 22, 2006 at 9:37 am

    I have a future summer Olympian, too, Julie. Mine happens to have a Gold medal in the 200 Butterfly as her goal.