Friday, February 24, 2006


Time to Skate Into the Ice

Now that the curse of the teen terror has been broken...

Sophisticated Arakawa's flawless Ina Bauer
Sandra Bezic made a great comment last night during the Torino Olympics ladies free skate that has since helped me more subtly distinguish the great skaters from the exceptionally good ones. I knew there was a quality I was seeing in the top handful of ladies that I wasn’t seeing in the just-as-proficient, though younger, second tier, but I couldn’t name it. Sandra nailed it. I think she was talking about either Joannie Rochette or Fumie Suguri when she said, “See how she skates INTO the ice? That’s what separates her from those less experienced skaters who merely skate on top of the ice. All the TOP ladies skate INTO the ice.” That was it! I always find it bemusing how some feelings can’t be completely felt until the correct words to describe them are found.

The idea of “skating into the ice” seized my imagination, and I started to actually see it happening on the TV screen, to feel the extra mastery of gravity that was involved in that kind of deep skating. Truly, this is something that can only be developed through experience. Joannie Rochette was the youngest of those who had complete command of the ice while skating, at 20, and Shizuka Arakawa, 24, skated deepest of all; not only because of her size (along with Carolina Kostner, she’s the tallest in the sport at 5'6"), but because of her extreme rapport with both the skating surface and the audience–the kind of rapport that painters finally find after years and years of covering canvases. Last night we saw a seasoned, polished, and even slightly burnished performer wield her long-developing art with mature mastery.

Arakawa was the first actual “lady” to have won Olympic gold since Kristi Yamaguchi in 1992. This means that Arakawa’s list of added-value options that all champions come with is already impressive. Not only did she single-handedly save the entire Japanese population from having to commit harakiri by winning the country’s only Torino medal, but, along with Cohen, Slutskaya and Suguri as her backup crew (also legal adults), she broke the Olympic spell of the teen terror.

In 1994, teen terror Oksana Baiul (then 16) fluttered her way past far-more-accomplished, but charisma-anemic, Nancy Kerrigan (23), and I thought it was a travesty. The year of the Lipinski (15) came next, and I don’t even remember who skated against her because my mind is fixated on that triple-salchow-triple-loop-triple-loop combination she did. Then Sarah Hughes (16) skated away with the gold while far more experienced skaters stumbled. Now, we’re talking about three really good skaters here, but aside from Lipinski’s record-holding jumping passes, nothing about any of them was really “great” yet. Of course, teen terrors pulling Olympic-winning performances out of their perky little behinds creates great drama and inspiration, but it’s hardly good for the sport. Not one of them continued to skate in the amateur world, assuring that they would never become the great skaters they had probably always dreamed of becoming. The mythic import of winning an Olympic gold medal in one of the event’s premier sports is weighty; too much so for a teenager to bear, apparently.

Baiul, certainly, as the first and most volatile, is also the most tragic of the teen terror trio. Everyone who watched her fall deeper and deeper into the folds of fame until her light was all but extinguished probably joins me in cringing when they think about it. I haven’t heard from her much since the epic car crash of 199? and the sad, unsuccessful comeback after rehab, but apparently she has skated a few shows here and there.

I love Tara Lipinski because she’s such an unabashedly ruthless little media hound, but she’s also such a lost little bunny. There’s a deeply knowing look on the surface of her eyes that barely covers a fearsome void. She feels detached, somehow, even when she pops off those still-impressive triples in exhibitions or shows–a pepetually smiling doll who is mutely crying to be a real person.

I get the same empty feeling from Sarah Hughes every time I see her on camera. She seems sad. They all do. I’m sure I’m exaggerating. But there’s something there. There’s something about being put on a pedestal too early, achieving any kind of apical reward as a precocious teenager, that makes further development seem impossible and, possibly, presumptuous. They all seem like soulful, kind young women, but they’re stunted, somehow. It’s as if they all got just a little nipped in the bud by their gold medals.

Gedevanishvili finds room to grow
Now, the game has been set aright again. Thanks to Shizuka et al., we won’t have to lose another super-charged teenager before her unique talent has a chance to blossom. By the next Olympics–which is being held on the west coast, in Vancouver, which means I’ll see it televised LIVE, YAY!–we should be seeing a wider range of unique figure skating lifeforms in full bloom. Kimmie Meissner now has time to refine her line and make contact with her emotions; Emily Hughes has time to channel her immense enthusiasm ever more subtly through her natural talents; Carolina Kostner can get over her fear of flying (and falling); Georgian newcomer Elene Gedevanishvili can grow into her jumps and learn how to contact the audience. And they all have a chance to come to terms with the new, less obedient, adult bodies to which they’re about to be introduced.

Sarah Hughes had already met hers when she pulled off the greatest performance of her life in Salt Lake City after a so-so season. This year, it was evident that Miki Ando had suddenly become a skating hormone bomb, and I wonder if she’ll skate through it or give it up. She looked uninspired, dissatisfied and completely disenchanted on the ice. I hope she doesn’t get in trouble at home–she’s SO close to landing that quad salchow.

It’s hard to imagine the stature and accolades Arakawa will command when she gets home. She basically just earned the symbolic key to the whole country of Japan in perpetuity, which is sure to include a deafening and often challenging level of fame. She doesn’t strike me as the ice show type, but I doubt she’ll continue beyond this year’s world championships as an amateur. She seems a stable personality, so she’s not likely to get eaten alive by the ravenous Japanese celebrity machine. Her elegant teammate Fumie Suguri, already a star in her own right, is slightly older at 25, and sure to retire soon as well.

We already know Slutskaya, the old lady of the event at 27, is going to retire, and as for Cohen, I get the feeling she’d rather be a movie star–or maybe I’m just being catty. I’m on the fence as to whether Sasha will still be around in four years, and from the look in her eyes–that kind-of-angry, kind-of-vague look that I catch all the time–it seems that she’s undecided as well.

But no one will have to worry about any of that until after this year’s world championships, which provide a ready-made stage for an Olympic rematch. I’d like to see Suguri on the podium this time, but frankly, I love the top three as well. Then again, the equation will already be different due to the fact that 15-year-old Mao Asada, who couldn’t compete in the Olympics because she was too young–even though she had qualified–will be there challenging everyone with her killer triple axel.

Then there’s the wild card–every sport has one, and in ladies figure skating it’s Joannie Rochette. Bezic and Button were going on and on about the exceptional quality of her skating during the ladies free skate last night, and I was right there with them, moved to emit hums of amazement simply over her edges and extension. I think Joannie Rochette is the strongest all-around skater in the field, but she has yet to prove herself consistent in international competition. Bezic hinted at the fact that she lacked self-confidence, and I have a feeling Rochette will stick around and let that grow for a few more years. Not only does the reigning Canadian champion skate just as deeply as any of her more mature rivals, but, as the always astute, sometimes poetic, Sandra Bezic pointed out, she skates without making a sound. Strong, silent, beautiful, AND able to kick your ass–the perfect stealth competitor. She could turn Vancouver into an inside job in 2010, and, if she can pull it together quickly enough, could be a major threat in Calgary when the world championships begin there next month.

Meanwhile, there are a bunch of twelve-year-olds out there who will be vying in the junior arena over the next few years to become the next Olympic teen terror–watch out, she could be someone you know!

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