When I was 8 years old, my sister, Claire, my father, and I watched Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner win the World Figure Skating Championship on ABC's Wide World of Sports. They are still just one of two U.S. pairs teams to ever have done that, and as we marveled at their balletic lines and their daring and flair, I was filled with vicarious pride.
Almost a year later, we three again gathered around the television, this time on the night of the pairs short program at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics, to cheer on our beloved Tai and Randy. As we watched them warming up on the rink before the competition, Randy leapt up into a jump and crumpled to the ice. Tai looked concerned. We were concerned. Later, when it was their turn to skate, Randy attempted another jump, only to fall again. We soon learned he'd suffered an injury, and they had to withdraw. I remember seeing Tai sobbing backstage, and Randy's drawn face: a lifetime of hard work shriveled up in an instant. Claire and I burst into tears; my father shook his head in disbelief and pulled us onto his lap. It's one of the most vivid memories I have of my childhood.
Ever since, I have thrown myself into skating fandom with an abandon sometimes approaching obsession. Never a girly-girl (that was my sister), I wasn't attracted to the sport for the princess costumes, the glitter, and the glamour. Nor was I ever interested in skating myself: I was an enthusiastic roller skater and studied ballet, but my stiff-legged, nervejangling forays on the ice made me realize that skating was too hard. But watching skating? That fulfilled me then-and still-like nothing else. I read and post on online skating message boards, debating the minutiae of programs, performances, results. I schedule work and outings around major competitions, subscribe to Ice Network so I can watch live skating as much as possible (often at odd hours of the late night and wee morning), and pore over International Figure Skating magazine.
Yes, I've been regularly disbelieved, mocked, or laughed at when I come clean about my love for skating. Skating is silly! It's like watching a demolition derby: hideous falls, crashes, vicious competition (thank Tonya Harding for that one). It's over-the-top, tacky, flamboyant, ridiculous. No real sports fan could take it seriously.
But I ardently believe that they should. At the very core of what makes skating special is its precarious blend of skill and art. Some skaters are more athletic, others more artistic, but to succeed at the highest level, the skater must be both technically assured and beautiful. Yet how can beauty be measured and judged in the way that a 100-meter dash or a high jump can? Isn't beauty in the eye of the beholder? Of course it is, which makes figure-skating judging so messy and ambiguous. Unlike many other sports, you can't simply measure the winner down to the thousandth of an inch or second- because skaters are required to be more than an accumulation of jumps and spins and dance moves. There's something personal, undefinable, that they're bringing to their performances, and that's what resonates with us.
Judgments are subjective, beauty and value are impossible to quantify: These are important lessons. I'm the mom of two quirky boys, one of whom is autistic, so I've spent an inordinate amount of time filling out checklists and watching my children be tested, assessed, judged. Plus, I taught English literature at two high-powered schools, Yale and Vassar, and would often have competitive or anxious students fret about their grades. Once I had a tearful student ask me: "Am I a B+ to you?" "Of course not," I told her. "You're a lovely, gifted, kind, bright, motivated student who got a B+ on an essay." For both my children and my students, it's been important for me to convey that their inherent value can never be reduced to a mere letter or a number, their essence never summed up by an assessment or a ranking. Skating reminds me of this: Judges can get it wrong. Judges can disagree. Someone who comes in ninth or even 16th can give a heartfelt, impressive, and beautiful performance. Johnny Weir captivated the world with his impassioned (and crazily costumed) programs despite coming in only sixth in the 2010 Olympics. And what about Michelle Kwan, who "lost" two Olympic titles she was "supposed to" win but is one of our greatest sports figures? In skating more than in any other sport, I think, the "losers" can also be champions.
Then there are the falls. Every skater falls in practice, often, and everyone, on occasion, falls in competition. When they do, they're alone on the ice, under the lights, in front of a panel of judges, in an arena full of spectators. Take this moment in the 2014 Olympics: Four-time U.S. champion Jeremy Abbott was a medal contender and a special favorite of my family's. My husband, our two boys, and I watched in anticipation and delight as he began his short program. But a few moments later, we collectively gasped as he took a horrendous fall on a quadruple jump, slammed into the boards, and lay on the ice, grimacing, for an endless 15 seconds. "Oh no! Is he going to get up?? Is Jeremy okay?" my boys cried in alarm. And then, amazingly, he got up and finished his program. By the end of it, we were all in tears. Since then, I've heard my boys say many variants of: "If Jeremy could finish his program, then I can do X, Y, Z." He changed our criteria for what constitutes victory.
Watching figure skating with my family is especially meaningful to me because skating is filled with a huge variety of personalities, styles, and approaches-just like my family, just like the world. There are the skaters who amaze us with incredible jumps, ones who dazzle us with their speed and flow, others who have remarkable flexibility or spinning ability. Some are lean and balletic, others muscular and stocky. My own family is a mix of personalities as varied as any skating championship, but when we sit together on the couch, we all find joy. The quads and triple Axels wow my younger son, the musicality and lyricism touch my older one, the costumes and makeup and hairstyles delight my stepdaughter, and the human drama engages us all. Watching this diverse group, we see a community in which a great range of perspectives, voices, and styles are valued and have something to contribute. I need my children to know this is possible and wonderful, and I need them to feel it deep inside, the way you feel when something or someone-Tai and Randy for me as a kid, Jeremy Abbott for them-touches you. This knowledge is what will help them make their own place in the world.
And as the skaters take to the ice at Nationals this January and then at Worlds starting in late March (held this year in Boston), I guarantee there will be captivating programs, crushing disappointments, touching comebacks by veterans, and breakthroughs by exciting newcomers. There will be life lessons for us all, our human struggles and triumphs literalized with the skaters' falls and crashes, slipping and sliding, leaping and gliding and soaring. And I'll be watching from my couch, loving every minute of it.