Congratulations to Alyssa Cambria (L) and Vida Weisblum (below) on passing their Senior Moves in the Field tests! They are my first students to pass the new, updated versions of this test and they skated wonderfully. Coaching the new material has been fun – I think the changes are excellent and very relevant to today’s step sequences for singles, dance, and synchro. It seems that most skaters are adapting well to the revisions implemented in September. In general, I’d say that they are finding the loops and the twizzles to be the most challenging. But all that work and repetition is paying off – Bravo!

Hello! Here is what I have been up to lately, when not at the rink:

The Home Tome: humorous tales from the home front and beyond.

To read it, click here.

Maribel Vinson-Owen

March 8, 2011

Since watching RISE, I have been thinking a lot about Maribel Vinson-Owen and the impact she has had on our sport. RISE hits home an obvious point about coaching lineage that we don’t often think about: our coach had a coach and that coach had a coach, going back to before there was even film footage to document it.

One of my coaches, Ron Ludington, was Vinson-Owen’s student for his whole amateur career. I was also trained by two of his former skaters: Stacey Smith and Robbie Kaine. All of these coaches have influenced me in different yet profound ways, both directly (in lesson) and indirectly (through example). They have helped to shape who I have become.

Though skaters learn a great deal from emulating other better skaters, and coaches are starting to use video as a helpful teaching tool, skating has been and continues to be largely an oral tradition, passed on from one individual to another. And though the sport is always evolving and coaches bring new ideas to the arena, coaches are mostly imparting the knowledge, the technique and the psychology that they learned from their own coaches.

I can’t help but wonder what techniques and perspectives have trickled down from this iconic woman through my coaches.  And, of course, the fact that Maribel Vinson-Owen combined coaching and writing has captured my interest. How else to pay tribute but write an article about her? This week, I am thrilled to have story about her on the yahoo sports site called The Post Game:

To read it, click here.

In researching this article, I called Ron Ludington and he was kind enough to expand on some things he shared in RISE.

He told me that when she threw that chair at him they were both “on edge” because he was late for his lesson. Mind you, that lesson was at 2:30 AM! We are all familiar with the challenge of finding clear ice (and when I first trained with Luddy at the Skating Club of Wilmington, I did skate Pair sessions at midnight) so this tidbit did make me chuckle.

He said, “Maribel and I fought like cats and dogs, but I have nothing but admiration for her. She was an amazing motivator. She taught skaters of all levels and abilities and guided us in the right direction.”

Learning more about Maribel Vinson-Owen and all the coaches and skaters featured in RISE has truly inspired me. I can only hope that, in my own way, I have a positive effect on my skaters and that I am helping to carry on the best parts of the skating tradition.

***

Thank you for reading.

Charlie Brown: The Skater

December 26, 2009

Every holiday season, I re-watch “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and every year it both warms and breaks my heart. I can’t help it: I love Charlie Brown’s existential woe, his thwarted attempts to direct the Christmas play, his pitiful little tree, and the way his friends pull together at the end to make it all nice.

Of course, I especially like how the whole thing starts with a wintry skating scene. The Peanuts Gang does an impressive synchro-esque splice right at the beginning. Though Snoopy doesn’t have on a pair of skates, he manages a gorgeous spread eagle (or should I say spread beagle?) After a weaving round of crack the whip, Linus’ blanket somehow gets wrapped around Charlie Brown and flings him into a tree trunk. A pile of snow proceeds to plop on his head. Good grief, I just can’t get enough.

So, naturally, I was thrilled when Charlie Brown himself contacted me a few weeks ago for skating lessons. Turns out he has decided to try and make it to the upcoming Olympics. This has presented me with a dilemma: knowing that Charlie Brown isn’t exactly overflowing with self-confidence, I don’t want to be too discouraging…but.

Well, here’s the first draft of my response.

Dear Mr. Brown,

Thank you for contacting me about my coaching services. I am a big fan of yours. As per your request, I have analyzed the skating footage from the opening scene of your iconic holiday special in order to assess your stated goal of making it to the upcoming Winter Games.

The news is mixed. First, let me say that your ability to skate (and even stand up) amid snowflakes the size of baseballs is impressive and demonstrates a great deal of balance. Second, I have noticed that you are a simple man with simple needs, in terms of equipment. Most competitive skaters these days transport their skates in bags specially designed for optimal performance. Many of these bags even have wheels that put on their own laser light show. Your method of carrying your brown skates old-school style with the laces knotted and looped over your shoulder is unconventional yet refreshing. I presume that since you have no guards over your blades, they are in pretty shoddy condition. I like this: it shows that you are not a diva.

Your costume choices are…interesting. The hat with earflaps is an excellent pick, especially considering that it will be pretty cold up in Vancouver. Your yellow shirt, on the other hand, is a bit problematic: you may want to switch out those zig zags for something with softer lines in a color scheme more flattering to your skin tone.

Your musical selection, by Vince Guaraldi, as rendered by Schroeder, is to be commended.

Now to the skating. Your ability to bellyflop then spin on your stomach with that much momentum tells me that you are more aerodynamic than the size of your head might otherwise suggest. Of course, it is more ideal to rotate in a vertical position, but this is something we can work on.

Granted, in skating, as in life, it’s not always about how much you fall, but your willingness to keep getting up. Unfortunately, I noticed that after you careened into the tree, your recovery was inconspicuously absent from the film.

Before this event, I did spot a few split-seconds of competent gliding on your part. Truthfully, though, you would need many more hours of practice, in fact perhaps thousands of hours of practice, in order to make your Olympic dreams come true. This means that you’ll have to give up your extra-curricular activities, namely your role as the unappreciated Director of the Christmas Play. With all the work we would need to do, you simply don’t have time to be out looking for the most pathetic Christmas tree you can find.

Most importantly, Charlie, you’ll have to make some serious changes in your attitude. Your constant claims of depression and bellyaching about the meaning of Christmas will have to cease immediately. Likewise, statements such as, “Good grief, everything I do turns into a disaster” and “Everything I touch gets ruined,” are not indicative of a gold-medal mentality. Furthermore, you’ll have to wipe that worried look off your face; judges prefer smiles. I urge you to discontinue your use of Lucy’s psychiatric services despite her convenient location right in your path and her bargain price of 5 cents. Instead, I can recommend a few excellent sports psychologists.

This brings me to your mother: I can’t understand a word she is saying! And when I telephoned your teacher to see if we could “tweak” your school schedule in order to get some clear, mid-day ice time, I couldn’t understand her either.

Finally, to make it in this sport, you’ll need to abandon your anti-commercialism stance, as you will probably need corporate sponsorship in order to afford my fees. The good news is that right now several companies happen to be looking for a new athlete for endorsements.

Minor detail: the U.S. National Championships start in about two weeks and you have unfortunately missed all of the qualifying events. However, your association with the legendary, late Charles Schulz could hold some sway with United States Figure Skating.

In all, I think your chances of making it to the Olympics are slim, but I’d hate to say that your goal is impossible. If nothing else, I’m sure your skating career will not pan out any worse than your attempts at becoming a kicker for the NFL. (Again, Lucy’s services might not have been the wisest choice.)

There is some extremely exciting news in all this: while your skating talents are really only mediocre, some of your friends I saw skating on the tape look to have great promise. In fact, Snoopy seems like he could be a real podium climber. If he does not already have another coach, please have him contact me so that we can start training immediately.

Best,

Jocelyn Jane Cox

                                                                  ***

Thanks for reading and Happy Holidays! If you have any advice on this letter or any suggestions I can pass along to him, please click on “comments,” below.  🙂

If you haven’t already seen it, check out my article on page 30 of this month’s Skating Magazine. It’s about sibling ice dance teams. I know: it’s shocking that I’d report on that subject…

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There is a novel out right now (it’s currently in hardcover but will come out in paperback next month) that features a young figure skater. It’s called My Sister, My Love and is written by Joyce Carol Oates, an author who has won all kinds of prestigious literary awards and teaches at Princeton. She has published 34 books since 1964. Though I haven’t read any of her other full-length books, her short stories stand out as some of my favorite. I was delighted to see her read from one of her books when I was in graduate school. So I was excited to learn that she had written about our sport and curious to see how she did it.

Well, not only is this a book I absolutely cannot recommend in general, it is offensive and I think it would be to anyone even remotely involved in figure skating.

It turns out that this is basically a fictional rendering of the infamous JonBenét Ramsey case, the six year-old beauty pageant girl who was mysteriously murdered in 1996 in Boulder, CO. Though DNA evidence seems to have proven that no one in the family committed the crime, the parents and even the little girl’s older brother were suspects; the tabloids focused on them relentlessly. In 2006, an American teacher living in Thailand admitted to the murder but the DNA at the crime scene didn’t match his either, so the case remains unsolved.

In Oates’s book, the family is called the “Rampikes” and is told from the perspective of the girl’s older brother who is now a 19 year-old with a mind addled by drugs. In this version, the little girl is a promising figure skater and the murder is pinned on a creepy man who had been stalking her. However, Oates makes the mother the actual murderer – it was a drunken, angry accident. As if this all isn’t dark and sinister enough, the mother tells the father that the son did it. She drugs the kid then tricks him into admitting it in front of a video camera and the father proceeds to try cover this up. Along the way, there’s lots of child abuse, perversion, jealousy, insanity, drug addiction, alcoholism, obsession, philandering, delusions of grandeur and, well, that not-so-uplifting murder.

So I guess I’ve spoiled it for you – but I don’t think you should go out and buy this book. That is, unless you enjoy seeing skating depicted in the worst possible light and grossly misrepresented. In fact, the way Oates has made a mockery of our sport caused me to slam the book closed several times.

Not only does Oates equate skating with beauty pageants, she makes skating out to be a dirty, perverse circus, teeming with stalkers and sexual innuendo.

Let me interrupt here to say that, though I have been involved in skating for most of my life and currently make my living in this field, I do not believe that I am overly sensitive about it. I do think skating turns out to be a positive experience for most who participate, but I certainly recognize that, like most activities, it has some foibles.

And most of us are accustomed to the fact that skating is rarely depicted accurately in movies or books. We all know, for example, that triple jumps aren’t mastered in a matter of weeks, that real competitions don’t feature spotlights, and that skating isn’t and never was (at least in recent history) judged on a scale from 1-10. These are some common misrepresentations. But I think we’re all willing to cut non-skating people (producers, directors, writers) some slack. I, for one, loved the spoof, Blades of Glory, and that was of course wildly inaccurate.

Likewise, I’m willing to forgive Oates for some of her mistakes. She thinks that five year olds get scores of 5.9 out of 6, they skate six-minute “routines” and then if they win a competition, they get prize money of $5,000. The protagonist’s best skating move is apparently something called a “butterfly gyre.” Huh? In this book, promising local skaters get featured in People magazine, and sought after by television crews and newspaper staffs. She thinks that when little skaters do well, the parents are suddenly admitted into the most prestigious country clubs.

Part of me finds some of these inaccuracies kind of amusing and the other part finds her lack of research disappointing. I’d like to think that if I was going to write a whole novel about tennis or fly fishing or professional knitting, I’d learn at least some of the correct terminology and try to figure out how that particular world actually works. The internet makes this kind of basic information so readily available.

But I digress. The point is that Oates is completely off base on just about every skating detail. Her biggest gaff is pretending/assuming that skating is like beauty pageants. For example, here are the names of the skating competitions in this book. They will give you a good chuckle: Little Miss Royale New Jersey, Starskate Ice Capades, Little Miss Jersey Ice Princess Challenge, Miss Tots-on-Ice Debutante. Winners of these competitions are “crowned.” They wear tiaras and they win that aforementioned prize money.

Here is what the announcer says to introduce our little skating contender for the Miss Atlantic City Ice Capades:

“Ladiez ‘n’ gentlemen…what a luscious sight: she’s wearing a black lace Spanish veil mantilla d’you call it? Quite a dramatic costume for a 5 year-old. This little skater is a real pro…left shoulder daringly bared, tight black-sequined bodice, black taffeta skirt very very short…black lace panties peeking out beneath, black eyelet stockings and sexy black leather high-top skates like boots.”

Yikes! I don’t know if this is how announcers and commentaries sound at kiddie Beauty Pageants (doubt it) but this is certainly not how it goes in skating. I found Oates’s constant reference to peek-a-boo panties so frustrating – “a peep of white-lace panties flashing beneath,” “crimson-lace panties teasingly visible beneath,” “a hint of white-silk panties” – that I started angrily counting: the total was at least 15 mentions.

Granted, skating costumes aren’t overflowing with extra fabric. Our little skaters do wear make-up and sometimes too much. Granted, the costumes are sparkly. And yes, this is really the only sport where smiling and gracefulness are part of what is being judged. But this is part of what makes skating so difficult: making these complicated moves look so effortless requires lots of technique, discipline and athletic strength. These facts get almost entirely omitted from the Oates’s story. She includes some falls, some injuries, a few quick images of training, and a string of demanding Russian coaches, but these details take a back seat to the costuming, the cosmetic dentistry (at age five!), and the provocative, airbrushed headshots for modeling contracts. The main character (again at age five) has her hair dyed and her mother changes her name from Edna Louis to Bliss for publicity purposes.

What’s most bothersome is Oates’s over-sexualization of the competition scene. She describes the ushers as “shapely young girls in skating costumes, pink satin high heels and pink satin caps with Tots-on-Ice 1994 in white.” She describes the stands as being filled with nefarious, middle-aged men: “hoping to be inconspicuous, even as they cradle cameras, camcorders, and binoculars in their laps appear to be alone. For invariably at such young-innocent-girl skating competitions there are such male spectators.”

No, Oates, this is not how it is.

To make matters worse, Oates makes the little figure skater an idiot outside of the rink. By age six, though she can supposedly do all these jumps and is headed for “the Nationals,” she doesn’t know the alphabet, can’t write her own name, and still wets her bed. We are to presume that this underdevelopment is the result of being so focused on skating. Surely I don’t need to say that successful skaters are notoriously disciplined and that this dedication most often spills over into the rest of their lives. Or do I need to say that? This book has made me wonder how the general public perceives our sport. How does it look from the outside?

I suggested this book for my bookgroup. (Still hoping that they’ll forgive me.) I was concerned to discover that the non-skating people (intelligent, discerning women) took no offense to the depiction of skating. They figured that skating is probably just like this. In fact, combing the web, I couldn’t find any other reviews that address the skating aspect of this book. The negative reader reviews on Amazon.com also make no mention of it. That is…until I added my own review this week. To read it, click here.

I recognize that Oates’s novel is a critique of society. She is critical of the tabloid press, of pushy, delusional parents, of our culture’s over-reliance on medications and many other negative things that are going on right now. I realize that much of this book is exaggerated for effect (i.e. anorexics in 4th grade, 8 year olds overdosing on pharmaceuticals, etc.)

I just think Oates has gone too far here, especially since the fiction/nonfiction line is blurred: she is writing about a real event. She’s also writing about a real sport and making it into something it’s not. In the end, all I can really say is that for me, and most of my students, skating has been a source of strength and confidence. The costumes are pretty and the glitz is fun, but these are just parts of a much larger whole.

                                                                       ***

Do you think the general public sees figure skating as a type of beauty pageant? What can we do to promote it in the best possible light? Did you happen to read this book? Please click on “comment” below.

Do you think skating should be depicted in literature in a more real and positive way? I’m working on it, I’m working on it…:)

Thanks for reading. To see what else I’ve been writing, lately, click here.

 

Traffic Solutions

April 9, 2009

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In last April’s installment, The Traffic Issue (click here), I wrote about an ever-present and perilous issue in Figure Skating Town: crowded freestyle sessions. For those of you who have witnessed or experienced everyday practice sessions in one of the thousands of ice rinks across the country, you know that chaos is the name of the game and that skaters collide often. It’s a challenging situation since every skater out there is practicing something different, and therefore carving out a unique path. There is rhyme and reason to what each skater is doing, but no guarantee it won’t crash them into someone else.  

Well, at the encouragement of many of you, I contacted the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to see if they could help us develop new ways of controlling freestyle traffic. Their report, which I was hoping to present at U.S. Figure Skating’s Annual Governing Council meeting in May, is finally finished. The problem is that I don’t think it’s actually very helpful at all. It proves what most of us already know: that this skating thing is completely unique…and, scary as it may be sometimes, we already have a pretty good thing going. 

Here are just a few of their wayward recommendations:

  • Paint two solid yellow lines down the middle of the ice surface. This will separate traffic traveling in opposite directions and prohibit passing. 
  • Install beeping devises in each skater, so that when they are backing up, others will know.
  • Have all skaters wear hats with rearview mirrors so they can see behind them.
  • Outfit each skater with GPS wristwatches, so that they can identify the best route to their next element.    
  • Install stoplights at the blue lines.
  • Hire local policemen to enforce rink traffic laws.
  • Open a skating traffic school and require each skater to obtain a permit before skating on a freestyle session. This would include obstacle courses, methods of parallel parking along the barriers, and learning which skaters have the right of way.
  • Provide each skater with gloves featuring turn signals. These blinking lights will let other skaters know which way they are planning to turn.
  • Give every skater a horn they can honk incessantly when traffic is not moving to their satisfaction. This will save their vocal chords.

Okay, so here are the only recommendations from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that I can really endorse:

  • Outfit every skater with a full suit of foam rubber to serve as bumpers if they crash into one another or the barriers.
  • Have the brakes checked regularly.
  • Coaches should wear neon orange construction suits so they can be better seen by oncoming traffic. (After all, coaching is a construction project of sorts…)  

Finally, here are a few of my recommendations, based on my own studies of rink traffic:

  • Open your eyes.
  • Look around.
  • Pay attention.
  • Be polite. 

These may sound pretty obvious, but we all know these skills are not always, eh hem… fully utilized. Hey, forget those fancy, US government traffic scientists – maybe I will present my own concepts at Governing Council after all…

Anyway, happy rink travels.

Julianne and Alissa, November 2008

Julianne and Alissa, November 2008

I don’t know which was more sweet – Alissa Czisny’s dreamy, flawless Short Program at this year’s Nationals or her and coach Julianne Berlin’s emotional reactions upon finding out that she’d won the title after the Long Program. I just re-watched both and cried for the second time.

It’s easy to get mesmerized by Czisny’s soft interpretation of The Swan in the Short and, in turn, hypnotized by her Long Program to Doctor Zhivago. She is the epitome of grace and elegance. In addition to her famously competent spins and her excellent jumps, there is a quietness to her knees and an effortlessness to her turns. She is, in my opinion, a skater’s skater. 

Besides, amid a sea of little girls, she is a woman. At 22, of course she is a baby in the grand scheme of things, but she is 5-7 years older than her closest American competitors. To me, the longevity of Czisny’s career is a victory in and of itself in the same way it was for Michelle Kwan.

With all the injuries these girls withstand in this era of infinite triple jumps, all the travel, and all the pressure, it’s becoming more and more difficult to get to the top and to stay there. Czisny’s been competing and succeeding internationally, at either the Junior or Senior level for about eight years. She’s had her share of ups and downs, she’s persevered. And there she was in Cleveland, shyly weeping in the Kiss and Cry, what seemed to be tears of relief and joy when she realized she’d won. And her longtime coach right at her side, was equally moved. Uh oh, my eyes are welling up again…

Czisny has been training with Julianne Berlin for 12 years, since Czisny was 10 years old, a fact that I think makes this story all the more heartwarming. Czisny has, by her own admission, struggled with nerves (who hasn’t in this sport?) and, while watching, I couldn’t help wondering how Berlin has helped her through this along the way. I contacted Julianne after Nationals and she was kind enough to answer all kinds of questions about that winning moment, team teaching with Linda Leaver and Brian Boitano, and their strategy as they lead up to Worlds at the end of this month.

Berlin lives in Huntington Woods, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, and coaches at the Detroit Skating Club. She has been coaching for 26 years, since she was a student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She has been married for 13 years and has two boys, ages 10 and 12.

Jocelyn Jane Cox: So what was Alissa like, growing up?

Julianne Berlin: The main thing I remember about Alissa is that she has always been so neat, so on-time and so organized. She is very precise, from her hair, to her skating dresses. We are very similar in that way. Also, ever since she was little, whenever I first walk into the rink, she has always given me the cutest smile. Even if I’m not working with her that day, she’ll look up from what she’s doing with a smile that seems to say, “I’m so happy you’re here.” She takes a moment to make that connection.

JJC: What do you admire most about Alissa?

JB: I admire her dedication, her discipline and her determination to never give up. Whenever she hasn’t done as well as she wanted at a competition, she has tried to learn from it. She has a good attitude and keeps working hard. Even now, if she finishes everything she has to do, and there are eight minutes left in the session, I have to force her to get off early. She does go on vacation once a year but she is so driven that I have to encourage her to pamper herself, like to just go get a massage, or get her nails done.

JJC: What has it been like to watch her develop as a skater and a person?

Alissa and Julianne at her first International in Slovenia where she won, in 2001

Alissa and Julianne at her first International, Triglav Trophy, in Slovenia where she won, in 2001.

JB: Being with her for so long, it’s almost like watching your own child. I know everying thing about her– her highs and her lows. I would move the moon for this girl. She has always been lovely and well brought-up — kind, respectful, and polite, almost as if she’s from the 1950’s. She has the manner of a soft-spoken princess, not a diva at all.

Alissa is very capable. I have always known that she was very talented, but she was kind of a late bloomer. Over the years, she has always given more than 100 percent, so she deserves everything she’s gotten. It think her story is kind of like the American Dream.

JJC: Tell us what’s different about this year. What changes have you made?

JB: Well, working with Linda Leaver and Brian Boitano has been really positive. In 2007, when she was third at Nationals, we were talking to Linda and Brian at an alumni breakfast. We all really hit it off, so I suggested that Alissa go out and work with them. I feel like the luckiest coach in the world to be working with Linda. I feel like she’s mentoring me and that all of my up and coming students will benefit from what I’m learning from her. Even though she’s out in California, we are team teaching, and we really see things eye to eye. Brian is a great influence on Alissa – they are more like friends, talking about what it’s like to compete, etc.

The fact that we’re working together is almost eerie: I remember watching Linda Leaver with Brian Boitano at either the Olympics or at Worlds one year and noticing the bond that they had. To this day, they are like family to each other. I wanted that with my students, too. They have both had a really positive effect on Alissa.

The other difference is that we got Alissa out of her hinge boots and into Jacksons. Alissa has always been in tune with her equipment, her body and her balance, and things just weren’t working. She originally started in the hinge boot in 2004 because she had fluid on her ankle, and they did help correct that and also helped to make her ankles stronger, but, at a certain point, I don’t think they helped with her overall technique and her progress. In the last few months, she has been feeling really good in her skates – the sharpening, the mounting, the fit.

The other thing is that we started training earlier this year, in June. She has competed every month since then. In 2007, she did the Champions on Ice tour. This was kind of a setback for the following season, because she didn’t get to start training early enough.

JJC: So it seems like you’re a fan of team coaching. Tell me how this has worked for you.

JB: I have always known that was something I had to do because of my two boys. My own kids would always come first, and if something happened, I wanted my students to be with coaches who were also knowledgeable and who they were comfortable with.

When I first started assistant coaching in Detroit, both Alissa and her twin sister Amber, (who was also a great national competitor) were both working with Diana Ronayne. I was young and pregnant and helping out. Then, Diana moved to the Broadmoor. After that, we worked for a long time with Theresa McKendry.

I think that the more you can expose your skaters to good people, the better they can be. Alissa has worked with lots of different coaches and choreographers such as David Wilson, Yuka Sato, Lori Nichol and others. She has worked with ballet teachers, trainers and psychologists. Through this, I gain a lot, and my other students are going to get better as well. I am her manager, I am in charge, but I pick who I think would be helpful to her. Right now, we have assembled a perfect, customized team for her. I didn’t realize until recently that Linda Leaver did the same thing with Brian Boitano.

I used to have other coaches travel with my students to competitions. At a certain point, I noticed that I needed to travel with Alissa to provide a sense of stability. I am someone she can trust, and count on. I am always there for her, unconditionally, whether she’s in 9th place or 1st place, it doesn’t matter.

JJC: What were you thinking while she was skating the Short Program at Nationals?

JB: Well, of course I practically have a heart attack every time she skates! I’m always wanting her to show the world what she can do, and what she shows me every day in practice. During the short, she did that. Whether or not she lands all of her triples or not, I think she’s the most beautiful skater in the world. There is something special about her. She’s got a lot of heart and you can almost feel the struggle. No matter what she gets at Nationals, she always gets called to do a lot of shows. She is a feminine skater, a woman, and I think that really showed.

JJC: What about when she was skating the Long?

JB: I was beside myself – there was so much pressure. I couldn’t stand by the boards, I was walking around, pacing. She had two errors. She’s human.

JJC: What about when you found out that she won?

JB: I thought she really deserved it. It was her time. I am glad that she was so far ahead in the short.

JJC: What advice would you give to coaches to help skaters persevere through disappointments?

JB: I treat every event as a learning experience. We keep strategizing and we keep developing goals. I always try to find the positives, first. For example, maybe you didn’t land the triple lutz but you did do a great combination.

And again, I think keeping skaters inspired comes back to variety. Bringing different people to the table keeps things fresh. And, Alissa still has fun working with her sister Amber, once per week on spins. They have always done that together.

Keeping the skater healthy is also obviously important, so we do a lot of off-ice training, and incorporate rest and recovery.

JJC: What is your mentality and Alissa’s mentality as you now get ready for Worlds?

JB: She is clearly at her best. She has been struggling with performance anxiety for a long time but we are getting cleaner and the nature of the mistakes has changed. Competing at Four Continents was a really fast turnaround, but we felt it was important because that’s the rink where the Olympics will be.

Leading up to Worlds, we are continuing to improve her consistency. In the long, we are considering adding one more triple in order to give her more of a buffer.

JJC: Thank you so much, Julianne. All the best to Alissa and to you.

                                                                   ***

Did you see Alissa’s performance at Nationals? Were you also touched by it? Click on comment, below…

Thanks to everyone who commented last week.

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So I got an e-mail yesterday from US Figure Skating that has gotten my wheels turning and my fingers tapping on this trusty laptop.

It was an advertisement for a company called K12, “the nation’s leading online learning provider for students in grades K-12.” My initial reaction was surprise and, admittedly, even a little disgust. By sending this out to the membership, is US Figure Skating basically endorsing not going to school?

I don’t know whether this went out to the entire membership or just coaches or just adults. (Did you get this e-mail as well?) It concerns me that this online schooling seed is being so directly planted in the minds of skaters, coaches, and parents by our umbrella organization. Of course, many competitive skaters and other athletes are already not going to school – and by going to school I mean passing through the front doors of actual buildings containing classrooms, blackboards, lockers, cafeterias, and gyms – but is this something to actively promote?

Home schooling, mail-order schooling, and now online schooling have been prevalent in our sport for years. Many skaters have gotten excellent educations and gone on to be productive citizens through these methods. Doing this has allowed to them to train more, and, for some (though not necessarily all) this has helped them achieve more success as athletes than they may have, otherwise. Conversely, many other athletes and non-athletes across the country have gotten mediocre educations within both public and private school systems. Many schools are under-funded, teachers are underpaid, and some students slip through the cracks. Some parents contend that, whether they become skating champions or not, their children are better off not being in classrooms. Many parents would argue the exact opposite. In the end, no matter where students obtain their educations, it’s a matter of what they make of it. (This is true of what rink they skate at as well.)

As a coach and former competitor, I recognize that skating success can be correlated, to a large degree, to the amount of time spent on the ice. And my visits to Nationals and Junior Nationals over the last several years have underscored the fact that full-time high school students who are squeezing in their skating in the wee hours of the morning or on crowded after-school freestyle sessions have difficultly keeping up with athletes who aren’t going to school.

I don’t know exactly how many National-level competitors still go to school but I’d be interested in those statistics. (Anyone?) My sense is that the scales are gradually tipping to more unconventional schooling. Maybe instead of Should skaters go to school, I should be asking, rather: Can skaters still go to school? Is it even feasible these days to move up the ranks while attending school? Which skaters at the top right now still go to school? (College doesn’t count since the in-class commitment is considerably smaller.)

I understand that alternative schooling is an appropriate choice for some, I just have a hard time accepting that US Figure Skating would endorse this so directly. I believe that there is value in actually attending school for many reasons. First, there is all that socialization: how to get along with other people, how to accept the differences in others, and how to navigate a multitude of social intricacies such as where to sit, who to befriend, how to work on group projects, when to stand your ground and when to go with the flow. Some might argue that you can pick up these skills in an ice rink and that’s true, to a degree. (And let’s face it, skating is an education in and of itself.) But ice rinks can also be very insular – everyone is working so hard on such specific things and with so much focus that there is very little room for the outside world. That isn’t inherently bad, I just think it’s important for kids to get exposure to other things, elsewhere.

In its advertisement, K12 claims that it “gets kids thinking big…Every subject is delivered online, with hands-on experiments, plus books and support from expert teachers.” Call me old fashioned, but there’s definitely more to learning and to growing up than what can be derived from a book, or a computer screen, or a series of personalized e-mails, or on the ice, for that matter. (And I write this as someone who has derived a whole lot from each of these things.) Being in school, day-in and day-out opens students up to all kinds of distractions to filter, frustrations  to hurdle…and also inspirations to ponder.

Let’s not gloss over the academic aspect. Getting into good colleges is becoming increasingly competitive (admittedly not everyone’s goal). K12 may very well provide excellent educational material. But just like skating on sessions with other good skaters is motivating, it’s motivating to be around other good students, and challenged by them, as opposed to working in isolation.

Granted, schools could and should be more flexible with students who are pursuing outside activities. With the help of coaches, parents of skaters can try to help their school districts to think outside the box when it comes to scheduling accommodations, such as waving study halls and gym class, so that skaters can go in late, or leave early, or duck out during the lunch hour if possible. I have written several letters to school administrators to help justify schedule tweaks. Parents seem to have varying degrees of success with this, here in New York State. I wonder if US Figure Skating and the governing bodies of other elite non-school sports could work together to foster more compensations within the educational system (i.e. educate the educators) so that athletes don’t feel like they have no choice but to seek other schooling options?

In my high school years, while I was a National competitor, I was fortunate to be able to attend my public school in Delaware for only half a day from about 7:40 in the morning until about 12:30. Like many other kids at the University of Delaware program in those years, I did not go to lunch, I had very few study halls, I did not have art class, or any other electives, and I did not go to gym class.

I realize this was not exactly a typical high school experience. I did, however, have a full-load of academic courses and somehow managed to participate in a bunch of clubs like the yearbook and literary magazine. I went to the prom in an extremely poofy pink dress. I learned a lot from participating in skating but also through observing my teachers and making connections with kids with different interests. I started to figure out who I was and what my opinions were beyond the realm of skating. This opened my eyes and got me thinking about what I might want to do after I was done competing. It was due to the direct encouragement of teachers that I started to think I might want to become a writer. Of course, I also became a skating coach and I am happy about this. I have tried a lot of other things, so coaching is something I feel I’ve chosen rather than something I’m doing by default. There is a sense of freedom in that.

Would I have gone further in my skating if I had switched to another method of schooling? Quite possibly. Or maybe being even more dedicated to this sport than I already was would have turned me off of it all together. We’ve all seen kids overdose on skating. We’ve seen what it has done to their bodies and their families. And when things don’t go well, the result is much more devastating for a skater when skating has become his or her only source of self-identity.

I know that everyone is different and circumstances vary, that people have all kinds of geographical and logistical constraints in their training. I realize that once you’re on the Grand Prix circuit and even Junior Grand Prix circuit it’s especially difficult to juggle traditional school hours. I am not chastising elite competitors who have made this decision. What breaks my heart is when I see young skaters who have yet to prove themselves as athletes taken out of school in order to pursue a dream that may or may not come true. I wonder how much online schooling really increases the chances…

I fear that US Figure Skating’s sponsorship connection with a company like K12 could encourage the wrong families to make this decision, prematurely. I fear that it makes not going to school seem like the skating norm.

Elite competitive skating is something you can only do when you’re young, so I understand that families feel compelled to do everything they can to seize that opportunity. But proms and homecomings and high school graduations only come around once in a lifetime as well.

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I am sure there are lots of disparate opinions on this topic: please provide your own thoughts by clicking on “comment” below.

And, yes, I have been silent for the last few weeks – I have been in the process of moving. Have you heard that moving is widely considered to be one of the top five most stressful events in life? This is definitely true, even when you’re moving for very very good reasons. Anyway, this move is an upgrade in many senses, and in no small part due some excellent garbage pickin’ I did in Manhattan. Read more by clicking here.

In the last month, I have amassed lots of ideas and research for more CSOM installments, most excitingly, a great interview with National Gold Medalist Alissa Czisny’s coach, Julianne Berlin. I plan to run this quite soon.

Dream Skating Students

January 13, 2009

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I’m not saying I don’t love the skating students I currently have. In fact, I already work with a lot of talented, nice, and interesting characters. But, in life, you must dare to dream. So, as part of my New Years resolution, I vowed to take my coaching career to the next level. I’m going to reach for the stars. I want athletes who can go the distance, who climb podiums around the world and win medals. I want to hug them in the kiss and cry. I want to get interviewed about my prodigies after they perform. I want to conduct press conferences while wearing a mink coat!

In order for all of this to happen, I am going to have to identify potential and talent then go after it. This is why I have put together a list of dream skaters. Of course, it’s un-cool and unethical to solicit students from other coaches, but I’m pretty sure no one on this list has a coach yet (otherwise, please let me know). With one exception, I’m not even sure if they’ve ever been on the ice. No matter, I’m going to start them off right and help them skyrocket straight to the top.

It’s a new year and time to shine. So without further delay, I present my list of dream students. (And don’t you dare get any ideas of trying to recruit them for your own.)

Kermit the Frog: Granted, I’ve never actually seen him hop, but I gotta believe he has some good spring in those little legs. Come to think of it…I’m pretty sure I saw him run once, in his role as a journalist. Maybe he seems somewhat uncoordinated and awkward, yet he has such a positive attitude. And what about those puppet strings? They’re barely visible, but they’d serve as a constant harness! If we can figure out how to keep those strings untangled, I predict triples within a few months. Maybe even a few minutes.

Lisa Simpson: Due to her dedication to the saxophone, she already has a great feel for music. If she could apply this same focus to skating, I have no doubt she could scale the ranks very quickly. Can’t you just imagine her lining up by the rink door at Regionals? She should probably get a sweater to wear over that strapless dress of hers, maybe a wraparound or a sparkly fleece. Of course, Homer would be clueless, but most dads are, right? And Marge would help her get the job done.

Charlie Brown: According to his Christmas Special, we know he can pond skate. Of course, he took a pretty nasty fall,  including a belly flop, a spin-out and an unfortunate crash into a tree, but that was only because Snoopy flung him into the air. Let’s look on the bright side: thanks to this, and all those times he’s fallen attempting to kick the football when Lucy pulled it out from under him, we know he’s prepared for all the spills an aspiring skater takes on the ice. We’re probably going to have to enlist a sports psychologist for this one, though. The fact that he’s an analytical type means he’s capable of thinking through every aspect of the sport, yet I suspect, for this same reason that he might be an over-thinker…Really, something’s got to give for this guy! I believe that, under the right tutelage, skating could be a huge boon to his confidence. And even though I don’t usually condone this, I’d recommend that he quit school, since nobody can understand what his teachers are saying, anyway. Furthermore, I’m thinking we could snazzy up the zigzag on his yellow shirt with some black sequins…and commission Shroeder to compose some perfect music.

Big Bird: Well, his limbs are a little long and his middle a bit thick, but height is good for ice dance and we’re always in need of new male partners. You know how people are always saying that the constant movement of skating skirts makes skaters look like they’re moving faster? Just imagine how all his feathers would fly!

The Tazmanian Devil: This guy is a natural spinner and he’s already a master of twizzles. For jumps, we’d just have to focus on his lift-off. And we might have to work on getting him a little lighter on his feet, so he doesn’t tear up the ice. In competitions, he’d have to skate last or the zamboni would have to come out and clean up after him (or perhaps they’d have to rebuild the rink…)

Betty Boop: She’s cute, she’s sexy, and she has already demonstrated a great deal of balance in those stilettos. I’m thinking she and Big Bird would make a stellar ice dance couple.

Papa Smurf: Two words…Adult Nationals. Another two words…Club President. Enough said.

I’m intrigued by both Dora and SpongeBob – they might have potential, I’m just not as familiar with them. I do hear that Dora already has a pretty lucrative career as an explorer. And I’m not sure about Spongebob’s rather square-ish body type. He’d certainly come in handy when the ice is wet, though.

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Who did I miss? Who are you gunning for? Click on comments below. 🙂

Do you think those Smart Cars are ridiculously cute? So does The Informer.  Click here.

Running at Midnight

January 6, 2009

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Once an athlete, always an athlete, right? Hmm…unfortunately, this isn’t really the case.

Oh, those muscles, the flexibility, and that cardiovascular strength I took for granted, until they were long gone.

One of the crazy things about growing up as a skater, or perhaps as an athlete of any kind, is that “working out” and being “in shape” were basically byproducts of the larger pursuit. We trained for all those hours and of course did all that off-ice cross-training – weights, stretching, and dance classes – but this focus had very little to do with appearance or even health. It was about getting stronger, faster, better, improving skills in order to maximize our programs (and scores).

When all that is over and done, it’s strange to exercise for exercise’s sake. You want to maintain some semblance of that former shape, yet how to muster the motivation?

Many non-skaters and non-coaches in my life often proclaim, “You’re so lucky to be on the ice, working-out all day!” Granted, it’s true that we coaches probably expend more physical energy than those who are hunched over their computers 40 or more hours per week (exactly what I’m doing at this minute, by the way). Really, though, aside from an occasional (and highly risky) demonstration and some gliding around with students, we’re not “working out” at all. It’s kind of like the jobs I’ve had in retail: you’re on your feet just enough to exhaust you but not quite enough to qualify as exercise.

So, over the years, I’ve dabbled with yoga, pilates, power walking, and ice hockey (more on the latter some other time – the tales on that topic are numerous and entertaining, indeed.) For the last few years, I’ve belonged to that dreaded thing called a GYM: the local YMCA. I visit this gym exactly once per week, no more, no less – once is all I can tolerate.

It’s pretty much drudgery. While there, I lift some barbells so tiny you need a microscope to see them; I fold myself in half on the crunch machine certain I’m contracting lice even through the towel I put under my head; I stretch on the mats trying not to think about germs; I ride o’er hill and vale on the stationery bike; and then I force myself to…drumroll, please… run on the treadmill.

I detest the treadmill. The only way I get through it is thanks to the distracting power of People Magazine. If there isn’t a new edition on the magazine rack, I throw a silent yet violent inner tantrum. All I can do, instead, is watch good ol’ Rachel Ray and The View, in closed captioning on the TV looming above, the words scrolling across the bottom of the screen a few annoying seconds after they’re spoken.

I have to be careful: despite all the skating and the balance you’d think would go along with this sport, I am kind of…well, klutzy. I drop things, spill drinks, and trip over invisible seams in sidewalks. For example, during my latest adventure in homemade soup, I managed to overturn a burning-hot portion of it so that it sizzled its way through my hand. Point is, I’ve had a few mishaps on the treadmill. Think about Lucille Ball, if she were going to visit the gym. That would make a great episode of I Love Lucy, but in real life it’s a source of vague terror and potential embarrassment.

Yet, I force myself. What has made it slightly easier in the last few months (even when People Magazine didn’t come through for me) is that I’ve had a distinct goal: I signed up for the Midnight Run in Central Park, a 4-miler that starts at exactly midnight on New Year’s Eve. I did this wacky run five years ago and it was one of the more memorable New Years of my life. It was time to try it again.

I enlisted four friends to run with me and started “training”. Ha! What I mean is that I started running on the treadmill for 15 minutes then increased that by either one or two minutes every week so that for my last run of 2008 I was up to 29 minutes. In other words, an absolute eternity.

I’m not sure if skaters should run. I tend to think it’s a little too jarring on the knees. It certainly makes mine feel somewhat creaky and this bothers me since one of the main things I coach (and demonstrate) on ice is kneebend. But I was yearning for a goal and a New Year’s plan apart from the usual debauchery.

It’s hard to say what’s more challenging about the Midnight Run: staying awake and pumped for it (thanks Beyoncé) or weathering the cold. Our pre-party at my apartment was like a festival of layering interspersed with uncontrollable bouts of dancing (again, thanks Beyoncé). The temperature this year was 17 degrees and with wind chill the radio said it was going to feel like 5 below – I would have said more like 50 below, but who am I to niggle? The winds were gusting at 25 miles per hour. Eek – it was even colder than the rink! The funny thing is that, once we started running, we discovered that there was lots of ice underfoot. Of course, this caused me to think, I should have brought my skates, har har, a notion I would have shared with the group if I hadn’t been panting so hard.

A particularly tall and handsome member of our running group runs this loop in the park all the time so he was preparing us for what was ahead. “We’re going to go up again, then back down, then flat, then up, then down, then that same thing about three more times, and then we’re done!” He made those next 2,000 miles sound so simple. One member of our group was like a lightening bolt out ahead. I tried to line myself up right behind her to see if I could get any benefits from drafting, like cyclists do. One of us had to stop “to re-tie her sneakers” twice, but everyone saw right through that as a resting ploy (and appreciated it). The fifth member of our group boldly took off his mittens mid-race in defiance of the cold. I was certain his fingers were going to freeze then fall off but they apparently stayed attached.

I guess what I’m getting at here is that it was fun. It was kind of like skating with all those other teams back at the University of Delaware when I was a teenager. It was difficult and sometimes painful, but it felt like we were all in it together. Besides, the long-dormant athlete in me enjoyed having that goal: the finish line. Okay, and also the all-night diner we planned to visit afterwards where they would be serving French fries for as far as the eye could see (or that’s how I was envisioning it, anyway, during that tough patch around mile 3.5).

Will I do the Midnight Run again? Yes. After all, I really like fries…

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Happy New Year! Hope you also had an excellent one. What did you do? Leave a comment below.

Thanks to my fellow runners and thanks to everyone for your extremely kind comments in my last installment.

To see some impressive photojournalism and read more scintillating details about the Midnight Run in the words of The Informer (me), click here.