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The art of an athlete

January 7th, 2004 · No Comments

This week the 2004 US figure skating championships begin. Our family has been watching some of the skating on TV this season. Earlier this year, I blogged how I thought this season might be boring, and Ted in a recent post said it’s been boring for him.

But I’ve realized in the past few weeks, that it hasn’t been that boring for me. I’ve found two ways to enjoy this years skating season. So far this fall, we’ve seen the Grand Prix series, which consists of six competitions and a finale. We’ve also watched a couple other competitions in addition to the Grand Prix.

True to expectation, Evgeni Plushenko and Sasha Cohen have won many trophies this fall. With Alexei Yagudin , the Olympic gold medalist, retired (and now on tour ), Plushenko, the 2002 silver medalist, has little competition at the top. Although he’s skating with an injured knee, he almost always has had a huge point cushion between his score and number 2. Likewise in the ladies, with Michelle Kwan not participating in the Grand Prix (also Sarah Hughes enjoying life at Yale and Irina Slutskaya ill ), Sasha Cohen has had the podium to herself many times, a cake walk to the trophies for this cookie baker.

But I’ve had a lot of fun watching the number 2s. I’ve realized how wonderful it is to see a skater do his best, to see someone do her program perfectly, and even if it doesn’t knock number 1 off the top, it’s still a beautiful moment. There are quite a few skaters on the international scene who have received medals – mostly not golden medals – but medals nonetheless, ones who have skated excellent programs.

One discovery – or at least he seems like a new face to our family this season – is a skater whom our girls refer to as The Belgian Man, Kevin van der Perren . He can’t do a quad but he does nice combination jumps with triples, and his Robin Hood program works well for him. He also does his jumps more as a dancer, turning his head with the rotations as a dancer would do – which, the commentators remarked, may be what is keeping him from having a quad jump.

Jeffrey Buttle from Canada did a wonderful skate on his home ice. And Emanuel Sandhu whom I noticed last year, has had problems with consistency but has showed he can pull off an excellent performance and give the injured Evgeni a run for the medal.

For the ladies, Ted and I enjoy watching the other Americans, seeing who might make the third place on the US team going to Worlds (assuming Cohen and Kwan get the other two). Jenny Kirk had one story-book performance this season. Her life itself is a bit of a story: her mother passed away from cancer and now she lives with her sister who takes care of her. Japanese skaters are an especially strong field. Fumie Suguri and Shizuka Arakawa can impress with their elegant skating.

Although it’s great when a skater can skate her best and get the trophy, as Sarah Hughes did at the Olympics, there’s something to be said for skating your best no matter what place you receive. There’s a medal of its own kind. Too often the glory goes to the gold, but the silver and bronze, and others have their own glory too, many times. So we’ve been rooting for Jenny Kirk, for The Belgian Man, for Shizuka Arakawa. Sure, Evgeni and Sasha are good and we like to watch them skate. But we like to see others triumph also, in their own ways.

The other way I’ve enjoyed watching the skating, is to see what happens when the underdog wins. What happens when a usually-number-2 makes it to the top. What does number 1 do with the woe. The Grand Prix finals were a study in this event. Neither Evgeni nor Sasha won. Emanuel Sandhu managed to do his best skate and also happened to beat the world champion on a technicality . And Sasha Cohen’s inconsistency that has plagued her in previous seasons has come back to haunt her at the end of this year. She has had a couple performances where she has fallen – at least two where she has fallen twice on her “Swan Lake”. Fumie Suguri got to take home the Grand Prix trophy.

What I like to watch is how the winner reacts and how the loser responds. In one competition a skater who had lost claimed “the ice was wet.” Okay, I know I don’t know too much about skating – and I’m sure she had a point there – but isn’t ice supposed to be wet?! I felt she was not taking responsibility for how she had skated, blaming it on the ice instead.

Yet when Evgeni lost the Grand Prix finals to Emanuel Sandhu, a big surprise for the world champion to lose to someone who often didn’t make it to the podium, he took it graciously, saying “maybe Emanuel skated better than me today.” I liked that.

What I like about sports the most is not the scores or the games but the people behind the plays and performances. When I read the sports page, I read the interviews and profiles. I read about the football player who had to have his colon removed. I read about the teenage mom trying to become the basketball star she once was so she can get a scholarship. That’s what I like. I look for the story behind the sports, for the vulnerability beyond the invincibility.

And this all reminds me of what I learned about myself during my years of competition. I went to a high school known for academics but I would have gone for the athletics. I learned the most not from the classroom but from the experiences I had running track and cross-country. In a public school I probably would have never gone out for a team. I wouldn’t have been good enough. I probably never would have even thought of it. But at the private school with its smaller size and intense athletics requirement, soon I found myself joining the track team, after making friends my freshman fall with a couple other runners.

I remember going to see one of the running coaches to ask him what I needed to do to get in shape for track. He asked me how far I could run if I had a pack of dogs at my heels.
Two miles, I said. I was pushing the truth.
I had never run a mile – I’d never run a whole mile without stopping and walking at least a little. In gym class I was always the last to finish.
Three months later I had dropped three minutes off my mile time and I was running in the league championships for the mile.
The rest of my running career however was a roller coaster ride.
I went up and down. Sophomore year, when I put a lot of pressure on myself, after having such a strong first season, I did poorly. Then junior year came around. I made varsity on the cross-country team and did well at the league meet. But again senior year, knowing it was my last season, I sank under the weight, making neither the varsity X-C team nor the league finals in the mile. I ended up running the 2 mile at league, just so I could run (fewer runners competed in the longer event) and humbly ending what I thought had started so well.

Looking back though I see I learned a lot. I learned more from my losing than I did from winning. I saw parts of myself I wouldn’t have seen in the classroom, where I usually did well. It was one of the first times in my life I found myself struggling, trying to do something where it wasn’t easy for me to excel. I did some deep wrestling. I had some ugly moments. Some good cries. I graduated with some grief, envy and disappointment: how I had wanted to run faster but never could be who I wanted to be. Never ran the times I wanted to run, the numbers I had memorized as goals in my mind and printed on posters in my room.

As if God was trying to prove a point to me, the year after I graduated a girl at the school, a senior who had never run before, decided to do cross-country, and not only became the #1 runner on the team, but the #1 runner in the entire state, breaking records! I saw how even if I had gotten a record, it wouldn’t last forever. Even if I had been as fast as my fantasies, it wouldn’t have endured. What mattered most in sport, I saw, was who I was. Not what I ran. Achievements would change. Records get broken every day and runners get forgotten. But who I was would last. I had gotten too focussed on the clock, putting my self-esteem in the stopwatch, an anxious adolescent running after worth, rather than being grounded and centered in my heart and head.

And that, I think, is the art of an athlete. Yes there’s beauty and grace in an excellent skate. There’s a wonder in the technical perfections, in defying gravity while moving on ice. But what I enjoy seeing most is the person inside the performance, the soul who’s spinning in circles, the beauty finding balance, the heart that’s centered right.

P.S. as I’ve been writing this draft some of the results for various championship events have been posted at the USFSA web site. Look there for more details or watch ABC on Saturday or ESPN2 tomorrow morning.

Tags: journal