Five Enduring Lessons From the World of Figure Skating
Washington, D.C. doesn’t often get a cold snap strong enough to freeze portions of the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal in Georgetown. When the temperature does drop enough to freeze parts of the waterway, skating enthusiasts from around the area flock to the old lock near the intersection of Chain Bridge Road and Clara Barton Parkway, just miles from the heart of D.C.
Lacing up my old skates two days in row earlier this month to skate outside in a sea of red Washington Capitals jerseys was other-worldly. Pucks flying, music blaring on portable Bluetooth speakers, newly sharpened blades kicking up ice—it’s just what the doctor ordered.
My day trips to the canal also made me realize how much I’ve learned from the sport in the last three decades, from the heyday of women’s figure skating in the early 1990s to the judging scandal that rocked the pairs event during the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salk Lake City.
Here are some of my reflections on the sport that should be dubbed “America’s favorite pastime.” (Sorry, not sorry, baseball fans!)
1. Good things don’t come eas(il)y.
Sweat equity. It’s the sunk cost of doing anything worthwhile. I learned this lesson early. You want four-pack abs, good grades, homemade ice cream or, heck, a naturally occurring ice rink? Get to work. It might not always be fun getting there, but the destination is worth it.
As a kid growing in New England, my siblings and I helped our dad build an ice rink every few years in our backyard. Dad installed a floodlight on the back of the house so we could play hockey and skate into the night.
But that meant we had to install the sides of the ice rink in sub-freezing temperatures. I remember having to stick my hands in freezing-cold water to help fasten and plug any leaks in the tarp we attached to wooden sideboards that my dad built.
Not to mention, it took all night to fill the rink using our garden hose. The project required a lot of effort and patience before we were actually able to skate on the rink. But that’s any worthwhile endeavor in life, as most Olympic-level athletes and figure skaters will tell you.
Scott Hamilton, for example, who won the gold medal in men’s figure skating at the 1984 winter Olympics in Sarajevo, in one of his books asks, “What’s the point of doing anything if it’s easy? It’s so much more valuable when a challenge has to be overcome.”
2. Help others when they’re down.
No stranger to adversity, Scott struggled with an illness that stunted his growth and he sadly lost his mother to breast cancer in 1977, when he was only 18 years old—seven years shy of winning Olympic gold. As if that’s not enough, later in life, Scott survived multiple bouts of cancer.
That combination of struggle, heartache, and success, however, motivated Scott to give back and start his own charitable foundation, the Scott Hamilton CARES Foundation, which funds innovative cancer research and educates survivors on ways to cope with cancer diagnoses.
“I take my mother with me wherever I go,” he says. “Yes, I mourn her, but I mourn her in a way that I’m inspired to make a difference so the next 18-year-old kid doesn’t have to feel that devastation of losing their mother. And that’s what keeps me going.”
Pivotal life events change a person and provide perspective—perspective that spurs important charitable work. As my co-worker Stephanie says in a heartfelt blog, “The great joy of it all is that we find contentment in our personal lives and make a positive difference in the world.”
That certainly was the case for Scott and many of his contemporaries, like Kristy Yamaguchi, who, similarly, started her own charitable foundation, Always Dream, after winning Olympic gold in Albertville. Always Dream donates books to children from low-income households.
3. Failure is inextricably linked to success.
The determination to keep going—to put one foot in front of the other even when times are tough—is one of life’s key ingredients. What’s more, falling down—or so-called “failure”—is okay. It’s part of the journey, and it’s a lesson Scott teaches his own figure-skating students.“The first thing I teach my skaters at my teaching academy is how to get up—because we’re going to fall,” Scott tells PEOPLE. “The more times you get up, the stronger you are to face the next thing, which will happen—because that’s life.”
Sonja Henie, the Norwegian-born figure skater and movie star often credited for transforming the sport of figure skating, in her memoir shares a similar belief. She recalls a childhood memory—an interaction with her brother, Leif, who confronts Sonja about her fear of falling on the ice.
“Who do you think you are,” her brother asks, “to think you can learn to skate without falling?” He then teaches her to fall without hurting herself. In the intervening years, Sonja says she had spills but “none, fortunately, at crucial times, and none that ever did serious damage.”
4. Relationships matter.
The common thread in all of these stories are the relationships that fueled these world-class athletes. Had Scott not witnessed his mother’s bravery in the face of cancer, perhaps he wouldn’t have pressed on to win his Olympic gold medal in Sarajevo seven years after her passing.
Two-time Olympic medalist Nancy Kerrigan, likewise, might never have had the will to muscle through the assault that nearly derailed her Olympic dreams in 1994 had she not grown up playing hockey with two roughhousing brothers in the suburbs of Boston.
Sonja Henie might never have recovered from the traumatic first injury she experienced on the ice had her brother, Leif, not told her that falling is part of the sport and taught her how to pad her fall every time she takes a spill.
Two-time Olympic pairs champion Ekaterina Gordeeva, who I met at a book signing years ago, lost her husband and figure-skating partner Sergei Grinkov when he collapsed suddenly at a routine practice for the “Stars on Ice” tour in 1995. He was only 28 years old.
During a televised tribute, Ekaterina modeled to the world how to grieve. Surrounded by her closest friends and family—and the fans who loved her—she skated her heart out in front of the crowd, the very thing she and her late husband grew up doing together.
Little did I know that, in some small way, as she skated that day, Ekaterina was modeling for me a lesson that I would one day use in my own life when tragedy struck unexpectedly. Bottom line, relationships push people to be better, to do better.
5. Relationships save lives.
In some cases, relationships even save lives. I remembered this recently after Brad Wilcox, fellow at the Institute for Family Studies, said on Twitter that married men live longer because their spouses often push them to seek medical care.
Married women, likewise, are pushed by their loved ones to seek out necessary care. I recall Peggy Fleming, the 1968 Olympic women’s figure skating champion, sharing that in the late 1990s that her husband, Greg, originally spied the lump on her chest.
As it turns out, she had breast cancer, but early detection saved her life. As she said in 2010, “I didn’t get through the Olympics by myself; you have to choose your team very carefully,” Fleming said. “You also need a breast cancer team you can trust who can help you make decisions.”
All that to say, resist (if you can) retreating to the metaverse, contactless delivery, and the vicious cycle of awkward dating-app talks that never go beyond a few text messages. Attend an event; buy flowers at Trader Joe’s; and spring for drinks and an appetizer on a real, live date.
The major takeaway from my years of fangirling and admiring the people behind the costumes? Connect with the people you know in real life. They, ultimately, will help you weather life’s storms—and, in my case, they’ll invite you to join a little-known party on a frozen D.C. canal.