Glossary of Skating Falls

Have you noticed this week that even Olympic skaters fall? One of the things I write about in my book, First Day on the Ice: Tips from a Professional Coach (and Mom), is the fact that everyone falls…little kids, big kids, skating coaches, and yes, even Olympians.

As someone who has fallen on the ice too many times to count (thousands?), I can attest to the fact that you get used to it. Skaters fall in just about every way imaginable. Backwards, forwards, sideways, and (sometimes, unfortunately in my case) upside down.

It’s said that skaters “learn” how to fall, in other words, in ways that are less jolting, and it’s true. We conform to it…we slide with the falls. When we are at our peak, we are flexible, our reflexes kick in, and we get our hands out quickly to break some of the impact.

This is not to say that experienced skaters don’t ever get hurt by falls – and of course, you are quite welcome to wince and shout out “Oooooohhhhhh!” in your living room – but if you see an elite level skater fall on TV, the chances are good that they’re far more upset about the loss of points and ranking than any pain they might be feeling.

In my job as a skating coach, I see all kinds of falls all day long. Some of them look terrifying and some of them look downright…well, funny. At some point, I decided to try to catalogue all the different types of falls and I’d like to share them here with you.

The Splat: In this fall, usually best performed from forward skating, you hit the ice like pancake batter hits the griddle. In the more sophisticated version, there is an involuntary flip at the end.

The Sidesaddle: This fall is the one most highly recommended for adults and simply involves sliding off to one side or the other with grace and a bit of dignity. The affected hip and wrist will never be the same, but at least you’ll still have your teeth.

The Bellyflop: This is one of the more exciting falls, often associated with the entrance to a Camel Spin. If the skater has temporarily forgotten that she is at the rink and not the swimming pool, this will surely remind her. This fall is rendered even more breathtaking because it literally takes your breath.

The Geyser: This fall is unique in the way it first shoots you up in the air, causing you to momentarily defy gravity before you plummet back down. In order to get your money’s worth, stick around for the exciting grand finale, which is usually a full-bodied whiplash.

The Jackhammer: In this vertical fall, the tailbone makes first contact with the ice with a velocity and force that shakes the entire building. In response, the spinal chord will continue to vibrate for days.

The Pretzel: Many physicists have tried, but it is impossible to explain how skaters accomplish this complicated fall and likewise detangle from it. This human knot is twice as common and complex for pair and dance teams.

The Slide: This is the fall that reminds you just how slippery the ice is. If there are other skaters on the ice, the challenge is to steer yourself away from them. In other words, you want to avoid impersonating a bowling ball heading straight for the pins.

The Surprise: This fall is not your fault. There is absolutely nothing you can do to prevent it and no way to see it coming. The ice quietly sneaks up on you, swiftly grabs you from below, and pulls you down. All of this transpires in a nanosecond, so any witnesses who observe it will be just as surprised as the skater.

The Slo-Mo: This is the exact opposite of the previous fall. This one seems to take forever and you’ll see it coming from miles away. You’ll try to flap your arms in an attempt to fly out of the situation, but this will only put you more off balance. In the meantime, your life will flash before your eyes. You’ll have time to wish you’d done all those good things like taken better care of your childhood goldfish… tape-recorded your grandmother’s voice… spent more time laughing and less time working.

Mostly, you’ll wish that you’d invested in a set of… butt pads.


Alternative Names for the Figure Skating Kiss and Cry

The Figure Skating events of the 2018 Olympics are underway and the sport is reaching its graceful tentacles into the minds of millions. During this time, skating insiders may be called upon to answer some difficult questions, such as: What’s up with this judging system? And: Why did beautiful so-and-so get beat by that robot who fell twice? Or, one of my favorites: Is there actually such a thing as a “Kiss and Cry” area? Is that what you guys really call it?

Yes, this is where skaters and their coaches anxiously await their scores then react to them. This rink-side nook is usually decorated with black or royal blue carpeting and a few fake plants. The term Kiss and Cry apparently originated in Finland in the late 1970’s and was bandied about while they were setting up the rink for the 1983 Worlds. Kiss and Cry is now an official term utilized by the International Skating Union.

I have mixed feelings about this term. As someone who grew up in the sport and has now made it my profession, I naturally want skating to be taken seriously. After all, this is a challenging and rigorous pursuit.

Then again, as someone who grew up in the sport and has now made it my profession, the term “kiss and cry” also seems…well, pretty funny. After all, what everyone loves about skating is the human drama and the reactions afterwards are a big part of the show.

But I wonder, could there be other names for this area? Here are a few possibilities…

The Hug and Sob

The Smooch and Sweat

The Huff and Puff

The Sit There and Smile even if You’re Devastated

The Celebrate and Regret

The Wave to the Camera and Wiggle the Arms of a Teddy Bear as if it’s Dancing

The First Minute of the Rest of your Life

The Squint and Try to See Your Scores

The I Didn’t Get to go to Prom

The Oh Well There’s Always Next Year, Except for the Olympics, which Actually Won’t Happen for Another Four Years and It’s Statistically Unlikely Your Super-fit Yet Also Fragile Body Will Hold Up that Long

Podcast about the Olympics


Thank you to the Coffee and Bars podcast for inviting me to be a guest host on this round-up of the Olympic Figure Skating Team Event. This was fun and unexpected.

In addition to chatting with Sylvia and Joe about the performances…I quote Adam Rippon regarding the rodeo, then talk about how my brother Brad and I got started in the sport, my memories of Maia and Alex Shibutani when they were little, and my unwavering faith in Nathan Chen. First time for everything! #FirstDayontheIce.

Coffee and Bars hit my radar recently due to their brilliant 2018 Olympic Figure Skating Drinking Game. If you haven’t read it yet (or played it!), check it out!

Why I Bawled Like a Baby for the Last 10 Minutes of I, Tonya

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I saw I, Tonya even though I was kind of dreading it. As a skating insider, depictions of the sport on the big screen have always bothered me, and most of my skating friends. (The exception is Blades of Glory, which was wildly off base and also hilarious.) The I, Tonya trailer made me cringe for several reasons, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to revisit the embarrassing “incident,” i.e. when Nancy Kerrigan was famously attacked at an ice rink.

I competed in figure skating during the same years as Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, albeit in different events and I quit a few years before “the incident”. I was loosely acquainted with them — more with Nancy than Tonya since we were both on the East coast and therefore crossed paths at training camps and qualifying competitions.

I was in the audience, sitting with my friends, when Tonya Harding landed her triple axel in the 1991 National Championships (three years before Nancy Kerrigan was attacked.) That historic performance in 1991 earned Tonya the gold medal, meaning she was considered the best female figure skater in the United States. I had performed/competed on the same sheet of ice in ice dance either earlier that day or maybe the day before. I didn’t know much about Harding’s family, I didn’t know she was abused by her mother and her husband, and I don’t even think I realized that she was married. What I knew about Tonya at the time was that she was a bundle of energy and athletic talent. My friends and I reacted to that performance with amazement. She skated fast, she exploded into the air, and she landed (miraculously, given all that velocity)…on her feet.

I watched the film in a sold-out theater in the center of Manhattan. I have been a skating coach now for over 20 years, and my own competitive years feel like several lifetimes ago. Our story lines and family details are very different. But it was bizarre and almost surreal to see such a familiar persona and familiar world depicted on the big screen with some realism. It was strange to see someone I kind of knew portrayed by an actress. The movie was done surprisingly well; I winced throughout, not so much because of the inaccuracies of the sport (and sure, there were many), but more by the accuracy.

Here is scene that captured the essence of skating for me: [SPOILER ALERT] Near the end, as she is preparing to compete at the 1994 Olympics, Tonya sits in an empty dressing room, rubbing far too much make-up on her cheeks. Looking at herself, she grits her teeth, and smiles through tears.

I have never decided whether skaters smiling through pain is pathetic and fake or the ultimate display of strength. It’s something I had to do; most competitive skaters have. The truth is that figure skating is physically painful and filled with a level of pressure that is difficult to explain or express. Even if you’re not an Olympic contender, you and your family have to sacrifice for so many years to get anywhere near the top…and your success rides on these singular and very public performances that last only a few minutes. The smile is a way of pretending that you’re confident and also an attempt to convince yourself, too. Very few other sports demand this level of composure and this scene managed to capture that challenge for me.

[CONTINUED SPOILERS] A few scenes later in the film, my heart broke as Tonya, in court, tried to convince the judge to give her jail time instead of banning her from skating. This is how much she loved and needed the sport despite what it did to her. This was her level of fearlessness. My heart broke again as they showed her in the boxing ring, making ends meet after her skating career was over. We see her fighting just as much, and getting hurt just as much, in another brutal venue.

But here was the kicker and what took me from merely crying to full-on sobbing: When the movie was finished, they played the real video footage of the real Tonya competing and winning in the 1991 National Championships. Even though the credits were rolling, the entire sold-out audience in that Manhattan theater sat and watched her performance to the very end, the performance my friends and I also marveled at, live, in the arena 27 years ago.

The details and the facts of the Nancy-Tonya incident are still nebulous; the movie doesn’t fully answer the question about what Tonya knew or didn’t know regarding the attack. But here is what was crystal clear: there, on the big screen was the actual person, bursting with raw talent and undeniable strength amid ridiculous odds. We were all watching, and acknowledging this, every single one of us.

Bravo on Passing New Senior Moves!

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!

Maribel Vinson-Owen

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.

Movie Review of RISE

courtesy of US Figure Skating

Like many people in the skating world, I watched RISE, with a lump in my throat and a knot in my stomach. For those of you who don’t know, this is the figure skating movie about the 1961 World Team who perished in a plane crash, on the way to the World Championships in Prague.

Beforehand, I wondered if I should cut my skating lessons short that night in order to rush over and see the movie. I am glad that I did.  Likewise, beforehand, I wasn’t sure whether or not to aggressively recommend the film to my skating students, because I wasn’t sure how painful it was going to be to watch. Though it is a horrible tragedy and it is difficult subject matter, it is treated tastefully and has a positive message. The focus is not on the crash itself but on the skaters and coaches who were on the plane. This event had an impact on so many lives and on the American skating community for years to come.

I think my skating students should see this film, as should their parents, as should anyone involved in skating and other sports, too. It is playing again in theaters around the country on March 7. I recommend that you get your tickets now. You can find theaters and buy tickets here.

Not only is it important to learn the history of this specific event, RISE provides us with an all-too rare opportunity to view skating footage from a bygone era. (Like people tracing out figure eights!) It also gives us a chance to understand that skaters of yesteryear, despite their plain costumes and their different skating style, struggled with many of the same challenges as skaters do today. Even back then, some top skaters moved across the country to seek expert coaching, some families were split apart, and some parents pushed too hard. These athletes experienced injuries and disappointing performances, and also victories. Finally, viewers can take a bit of time to consider the skating community as a whole rather than just our own little corner of it. Skating requires so much focus on details that we can easily forget that we are participating in something bigger than ourselves.

The title, RISE, (the ‘i’ of which cleverly depicts a skater mid-jump), is accompanied by a subtitle: Can the end of one dream give rise to another? The documentary’s answer to this question is: YES. A panel of skating greats like Scott Hamilton, Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Michelle Kwan, Brian Boitano, et cetera, help us to see how we can be inspired by these athletes from the 1961 World Team.

One of my favorite aspects of the movie is how it effectively conveys the concept of legacy and the connectedness of everyone in the skating world. In some way, most of us are either directly or indirectly connected to this event through our coaches or skaters that we know. For example, I was coached by Ron Ludington, who was trained by Maribel Vinson Owen, who is featured in the film.

And many of us have benefited from the Memorial Fund, a very direct form of connectedness. I knew that F. Ritter Shumway set up the Memorial Fund after the crash, but didn’t realize that he did so only eight short days afterwards. Thousands of skaters have been helped by this financial assistance, a very direct form of connectedness.

I was interested to learn that the 1961 National Championships were the first to be televised. And there is an old cigarette advertisement that had the whole theater laughing. There are some photos of the crash wreckage that are not overly gruesome but heart wrenching.  There are some compelling stories about skaters who might have been on the plane but were not either due to injury or sickness.

I enjoyed the segments about the SC of Boston and about the Broadmoor rink in Colorado Springs. Before the Broadmoor was razed, my brother and I trained at that beautiful (though crumbling) rink for one summer. We also competed at our first Midwestern Sectionals there and discovered just how beautiful and majestic that hotel is.  (We also learned how higher altitude really does affect your stamina.)

Evidently, there was a RISE pre-show hosted by Matt Lauer and Peter Carruthers that our theater didn’t play. But we did see the after-show. This was sort of an Oprah-esque set-up where participants in the film (including the filmmakers) immediately discussed the movie and the topics at hand. It was kind of like seeing the DVD “extras” while still sitting in the theater.

During this portion, both Frank Carroll and Evan Lysacek were interviewed. Evan said something to the effect that, after a performance, it is great to be out on the ice by yourself while the audience applauds, but the real celebration takes place when you step off the ice and hug your coach. The way Evan has so kindly shared his Vancouver victory with Frank Carroll is truly endearing.

I gasped, along with many others in attendance, at Dorothy Hamill’s disparaging comment about the rink named after her, in Greenwich, Connecticut. There were likely many people in our theater who coach or skate there.

As always, I enjoyed seeing Scott Hamilton and think he had some of the most poignant things to say. He said that one of the main lessons he learned from skating is that, “You reap what you sow.” In other words, if you don’t practice hard, and go to the rink even on the days that you don’t want to, you can’t expect to succeed. He also reminded us that when, in any aspect of your life, you fall down, you just have to get back up. (In other words, “rise.”) Maybe these are obvious adages, but it can’t hurt to hear them again, especially from him, and especially in light of the health issues he is going through right now.

My one criticism of RISE is probably not a fair one: I wanted more! While it was fascinating to learn about these individual stories, I didn’t feel like there was enough detail about enough people. I suppose there is only so much ground that can be covered in 94 minutes. And truth be told, this sense of wanting more prompted me, when I got home that night, to pore through the pages of SKATING magazine’s February issue, a large portion of which is dedicated to the crash and the film.  I am now also intrigued by Patricia Shelley Bushman’s book, Indelible Tracings: The Story of the 1961 U.S. World Figure Skating Team. So my interest has been further piqued and I presume it has created similar curiosity in many others.

Like I said above, go see RISE on March 7. Many of us have seen that iconic photo of the team lined up on the steps of that fateful airplane. After seeing this film, their faces will look a lot more familiar.

What did you think of the film? Feel free to leave a comment below.