Mark Hamilton. Katarina Witt. Torvil and Dean.
Between them, they made pure beauty happen on the ice during the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo. Not even ballerinas could rival the skaters’ fantastic grace. I devoured every minute of television coverage, just like I did every winter Olympics.
It was as close as I ever got to actual ice skating.
I’d gone to an ice rink once, as a teenager. I expected to be reasonably good at it, for I’d spent many hours on roller skates, gliding on sidewalks and parking lots, but that in no way prepared me for the complete lack of friction inherent in ice skating. I clung to the wall as I laboriously inched around the rink, and my ankles always wanted to bend outward in my rented skates.
And that was it—just the one time. My family usually didn’t have the money for things like lessons. I got some swim lessons one summer because Grandma sent the money for them, but most of the time, if they didn’t have a class at school, I was out of luck.
So later, when I had kids of my own, I vowed things would be different. My daughter and sons not only had gymnastics and swim lessons, they also took piano or guitar. And they had skating lessons.
When the older two took their intro classes, I cheered them on and got to live a little vicariously. Okay, so maybe I never got to take skating lessons, but they did, and in some ways that was even better.
And then my youngest hit first grade and got his turn in the beginner class. I had nobody to sit with and talk to anymore. All my kids were on the ice, either practicing or in class.
For a couple of weeks, I sat on the benches, wearing my parka and watching as the primary-age kids struggled with keeping their ankles straight in the intro class. All the adorable little-graders lined up next to their much taller adult teacher. Parents cheered their kids on and offered sympathy for their frequent falls.
An adult on the ice would be totally out of place. I’d been there for years and had never seen a parent skating.
But the longer I sat there, the less I cared.
I asked at the office. No, there wasn’t any reason I couldn’t join my son on the ice. And the teacher didn’t mind having me in class.
So I bought my own pair of skates and discovered the ankle support was way better than with the rented ones. I went out and skated during regular practice sessions so I didn’t look like a complete idiot later in class. And then I sallied forth to join a bunch of first- and second-graders as we all tried not to disgrace ourselves on the ice.
I learned to swivel my legs in and out to build speed. I also learned several ways to stop (very important). And I learned that I didn’t die of embarrassment by being the only adult in a kids’ class.
The teacher actually liked having another adult to talk to, I think. Like me, he was in his thirties and had learned to take unusual events in stride. My son didn’t seem to die of embarrassment having me there, and I tried to treat him like any other kid in the class (DON’T RUN OVER THEM). I had plenty of my own stuff to work on, just staying on my feet. Like the kids, I ended up on the ice plenty of times. Being slippery, the ice had one huge advantage over the sidewalk—I didn’t skin my knees when I fell. That part was nice, although the ice was every bit as unyielding. At least skating slowly meant I didn’t hit the ice that hard when I fell.
I loved it. I had no illusions about trying to replicate the spins and jumps I’d seen on TV—that sort of thing takes many years of dedication. But I learned to skate backward, first with swivels, and later pushing off. When I turned around and glided forward, I could even hold one leg up so it looked particularly graceful. I could trace simple figures (like an arc) on the ice. And I even learned an easy, one-time-around, quick spin and stop.
This required a fair bit of practice on my part. Skaters merely circling the rink, whether forward or back, stuck to the perimeter. People actually crashing were surprisingly rare, although I used to picture many very worried-looking guardian angels getting a good workout, hovering over their kids.
The center of the ice, though was rarified territory. That’s where students worked on spins and jumps. And that’s where I headed to work on my simple standing spin.
I’d gotten quite a bit faster over the months that I’d been practicing, enough that good braking skills were a must. I spun about in my one easy spin, over and over, grinning as I felt myself move so gracefully.
And then—bam—I was on the ice. I don’t even remember what I did wrong, but gravity happens fast. And it wasn’t my knees that got the worst of it this time—I’d landed right on my tailbone, and that’s a surprisingly tender area.
I wasn’t sure I could even move. The very idea seemed like a complete impossibility. My only consolation, as I tried to explain to my body that it had to get up and skate out of there, was that my backside was at least getting iced. A little numbness would definitely help me get to my feet.
And then a cute little girl, maybe six years old, in a pink stating suit with matching boot covers, zoomed over and skidded to a perfect stop. “Are you okay, lady?” she asked, concerned.
“I’m not sure, but I think so,” I said. Sacrificing the very last of my pride, I gratefully accepted the little girl’s protection as I literally crawled forward on the ice to get to my feet again. I couldn’t stand up straight, so I skated off to the benches hunched over. When I got there, some gal was telling her kid to get out there and try again. I wanted to tell her that she should try it first.
There was no way I was skating any more that day. Several hot baths stood between me and normal walking again.
It was worth every bit of it, though. Hey, I could actually ice skate. And to this day, I can still skate, forward and back, although I don’t attempt spinning anymore. I’ve felt myself glide over the ice, miraculously graceful, and I didn’t let fear keep me from that.
And okay, maybe it wasn’t Olympic gold. It was still wonderful.