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Issue Date: December 2008


Olympic Dreams

With skating championships coming to town, our writer returns to the rink and recalls a childhood spent on the ice.
Stefanie Wass
Colored disco lights flash from high atop the Kent State University Ice Arena. The ice, freshly cleaned, is a slick, smooth canvas awaiting the markings of spin circles and edge lines.

Tightening my skate laces, I breathe in familiar aromas, an odd combination of must, stale snack-bar popcorn and sweaty hockey equipment. Damp air, creaky metal bleachers, shiny blades of steel: Memories of an earlier life, askating life, flood my senses.

Strains of music from the loudspeaker signal the beginning of the public session. As I stuff my throbbing feet into well-worn, scuffed Riedell skates, I am suddenly 12 years old again, trying on expensive leather skating boots at Nicholl’s Sporting Goods in Shaker Heights. Its walls are plastered with pictures of Cleveland greats such as three-time world team member and national silver medalist Tonia Kwiatkowski, world ice dance silver medalists Chip Rossbach and Kristan Lowery and six-time national competitor Tom

Zakrajsek. I, too, am treated like a champion. The friendly manager ties and reties skate after skate, hammering the stiff leather for a custom fit.

Twenty-seven years later, I cram my feet into the old boots, tightening the frayed laces and hoping for the best. As odd as it seems, I have a burning desire to skate again. It’s crazy, I know — a 39-year-old mother of two wanting to skate circles under disco ball lights.

Perhaps my longing to skate has been rekindled by the upcoming United States National Figure Skating Championships coming to Quicken Loans Arena Jan. 18 through 25. Images of twirling ice princesses spinning for glory at The Q have set my heart aglow. Figure skating’s elite — world champion Kimmie Meissner, ice dancing medalists Belbin and Agosto and two-time bronze medalist Evan Lysacek — are coming to Cleveland for a chance at a national championship.

“I think I might want all-event tickets,” I tell my husband, secretly hoping to catch a few stars on the practice ice at Ice Land USA’s Hoover Arena in Strongsville. “Maybe this will be Kimmie’s year. Wouldn’t she make a great Olympic champ?”

My own Olympic dream started at Euclid’s C.E. Orr Ice Arena in the late ’70s, where I spent Saturday mornings trying to learn the basics: gliding, stroking and stopping. “Pick ’emup!” the Learn-to-Skate instructor would yell as I stood paralyzed against the hockey boards. Terrified of lifting my feet off the ice, I spent more than a few years in the basic skills program.

Lake Placid was bitterly cold in the winter of 1980 when my dad and I made our way through the crowds into the Olympic Village for a whirlwind father-daughter getaway weekend. Feeling like the luckiest 11-year-old on the planet, I stared in amazement at the Olympic tickets I had been given for my birthday. The women’s finals! I knew nothing of the U.S. hockey team. For me, the Games were all about figure skating.

Fighting the chill, I tried to take it all in — the varied languages, the trading of Olympic pins, tasty strudels from faraway lands. After watching Eric Heiden win his fifth speed skating gold, it was finally time for the main event: the ladies’ figure skating finals. From the very last row of the arena, I snapped blurry pictures with my disc camera and awaited the final results. Tears fell onto my puffy down coat as I stood for the national anthem — of East Germany. The U.S. favorite had lost the gold by a mere tenth of a point. For the first time, skating had let me down.

By age 13, I was ready for my first skating competition. Daily, I practiced the requisite jumps, flips, lutzes and axels, preparing in earnest for the granddaddy of local skating events, the 1982 Cleveland Invitational Championships (CICs, to those in the know). Clad in a rhinestone-embellished fuchsia dress and a heavy layer of blue iridescent eye shadow, I had reached my crowning moment. With a sassy flip of my Dorothy Hamill wedge haircut, I skated to center ice at Lakewood’s Winterhurst Ice Rink (now a training ground for future national and Olympic skaters and home to Olympic gold medalist turned coach Carol Heiss Jenkins).

Winterhurst was not to be my proving ground. Though I felt like a champion, the judges didn’t care for my two-footed landings and choppy footwork. But despite my dismal sixth-place finish (out of eight skaters), it never occurred to me to quit or take up another sport. Skating — medals or no medals — filled my heart with happiness. On the ice I was an artist, flying across a blank page in pursuit of beauty. And so I skated, spending summers spinning around Mentor’s Civic Arena and Shaker’s Thornton Park.

Perhaps it was best that fame didn’t come my way. Two years later, at a Discover Card Stars on Ice reception for local skaters in the basement of the old Richfield Coliseum, I witnessed the price of skating dreams. As throngs of fans, myself included, mobbed Olympic silver medalist Rosalynn Sumners for autographs, she sprinted toward a tour bus, seeking shelter from the glory she had pursued. I thought back to a lady I had seen at the 1984 National Championships earlier that year. Head covered with a scarf, eyes shaded by dark, oversize sunglasses, she hastily made her way through the hotel lobby.

“Who was that?” I asked my parents.

“That’s Peggy Fleming,” commented a knowing bystander.

Imagine that: The first lady of figure skating, hiding from the light of day.

Cold truths — skating truths — began to hit home.

As a college freshman, I knew it was time to hang up my skates. I had landed a coveted spot on a prestigious synchronized skating team. But I had no idea that I would be subjected to weekly weigh-ins, a humiliating exercise designed to assure lean on-ice glamour. As a spectator at the 1994 United States National Championships in Detroit, site of Nancy Kerrigan’s infamous knee-bashing, I mourned the price of fame, perhaps thankful that my skating prowess had not advanced to such a level. The U.S. crowned another champion that night, Tonya Harding, but her gold medal was stripped away as news of her involvement in the attack became public.

Skating is like a comfortable old friend. It’s not without imperfections, yet somehow, I continue to love it through thick and thin. Today, as a middle-aged mom, I find myself stroking around the KSU Ice Arena, cool air stirring my senses as I attempt spread eagles and scratch spins. My two daughters join me, then hurry off the ice for a snack of sticky, pink cotton candy. Skating for us is about family time, exercise and fun. Perhaps Olympic champ Brian Boitano said it best: “If I had never won a single medal, I’d still be in a rink somewhere. There wouldn’t be an audience or camera flashes or autograph-seekers, but I’d still be skating.”

I stroke to center ice, smiling as 10-year-olds effortlessly twirl and leap, showing off their prowess.

“Did you used to be a skater?”

A tiny girl covered in blue rhinestones looks up at me, mid-spin. Glancing around the arena, I see so much: years of Cleveland skating, Olympic dreams and an undeniable love affair with the ice.

“No,” I reply. “Iam a skater.”

With a smile, I glide away. Skating has finally turned me into a champion, a winner of lifelong passion for my beloved, though imperfect, sport.

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