I never made the Olympics as a figure skater. Yes, I'm a little bitter.
Did you ever compete in the Olympics?
No, I didn't either. I never walked into the opening ceremony with my fellow teammates, never received an Olympic jacket with "USA" embroidered on it, never earned the right to call those five rings my own. Here's the thing, though: I actually trained for them and discovered definitively, by the end of 11 painful years, that I didn't have anywhere near "what it takes." In training alongside many athletes who did make it to the Olympics, I did, however, have ample opportunity to learn the multiple ways in which I fell short.
The sport for which I did not represent the United States in the Olympics was figure skating. In order to make it to the Winter Games as a skater, you have to be ranked first, second, or third in your country. Back when I was considerably more nimble and significantly more svelte, I finished in eighth place in the junior pairs competition at the U.S. Championships. That sounds all right in one way, but when you're brought up to feel that gold is precious, this basically feels like dirt.
I can confirm that, despite all the sparkle, figure skating is an extremely difficult sport. I say this mostly because I failed at it, but there are additional reasons. You might know this from firsthand experience. Maybe you once rented skates at an indoor rink and tried to help your child find her balance, though yours was equally precarious. And I've often heard people say they "just don't have strong enough ankles for skating," while others have recounted frightening falls that convinced them never to lace up again. That's fair enough—after all, skating takes place on a slippery surface so feared in other contexts that it's combated with industrial amounts of road salt.
Even if you've never skated, you've certainly watched skating on TV. This might have prompted you to consider the acrobatics of competitive skating, and how challenging it would be to spin and jump on steel blades about one-eighth of an inch wide. You don't need your own scars from the sport to intuit that this will inevitably lead to injuries. Indeed, when you see a skater, you can assume that some part of her body (likely a limb) is swollen, torn, or bruised. What this sport does to the human foot is not fit for these pages (or, I might add, sandals).
But here's something you may never have thought about: the smile. This—more than the sequins, more than the subjective judging, more than the "kiss and cry"—is what differentiates skating from other sports. Just try to identify another athletic event (save for maybe synchronized swimming) that requires such physical mastery demonstrated along with a smile, simultaneous to a smile.
For the record, I always excelled at the smile; it was some of the sport's other aspects that eluded me. I was never one to "skate through the pain," for example. Quite the opposite: I had virtually no pain tolerance and was fearful, to boot. These qualities were especially unhelpful because I was pursuing pair skating, the riskiest and most acrobatic realm of the sport. When it eventually occurred to me that I was too timid (not to mention too tall) to be a pairs skater, I switched over to ice dance, a supposedly safer pursuit. I loved the crazy costumes and the emphasis on detail rather than velocity. The fact that I got dropped on my head during a lift in practice would have made for the subject of an inspirational television feature if I had made it to the Olympics. There was ample drama—blood, sirens, a scary ride to the E.R.—but in the end only a few stitches and a broken collarbone. Other athletes, Olympic-caliber athletes, could have come back from that. I, however, reached my limit. I moved into a dorm room and started college.
In sum, to become an Olympic-level figure skater, one has to have talent, composure, burning desire, financial backing, good looks, a compact body type, pain tolerance, and a lot of luck. As already indicated, I was lacking in many of these categories. Additionally, I had an aversion to cold.
Maybe I sound bitter. Maybe I am. It's just a little vexing that, every time my skating career comes up, I inevitably get asked about the Olympics. Correct me if I'm wrong, but this doesn't seem to happen with other sports. If someone mentions that he played football, his listeners don't automatically say, "So, did you play in the Super Bowl?" Or baseball: "Were you in the World Series?"