My Synchronized Skating Chronicles, Part 1: tryouts and my inane, yet rare, social awkwardness

I just recently got back from competing at the 2014 US Synchronized Skating Championships (Masters Division) and felt the need to recount my past season in agonizing detail.  Thankfully, I kept a journal that recorded every glorious moment.

My artistic representation of synchronized skating

My artistic representation of synchronized skating

How did I not get the memo?

At the ripe age of 31, I got introduced to the world of synchronized skating.  Though I skated my whole life, I somehow didn’t get the message on what exactly this thing is, how its such a big deal in the skating world and why so much make up is needed.    So… what is it?   It’s like if synchronized swimming and the Rockettes mated and their sublime offspring was born on the ice.  There is precision, theatrics and athleticism all bundled up in one big sparkly bow with false eyelashes and a lot of hair gel.   It’s truly impressive.

Skating Liza Minnelli's rendition of "New York, New York" at an Admirals Game.  Circa 1990-1991-ish

Skating Liza Minnelli’s rendition of “New York, New York” at an Admirals Game. Circa 1990-1991-ish

For me, my youth skating experience included some elementary forms of synchro.  We pulled together some team exhibitions for the local hockey team, the Norfolk (Hampton Roads) Admirals.  Our dresses were handmade and cheap – so that no parent had to spend excessive money.  No elements were entirely that difficult, and all skating levels were represented.  It wasn’t until my freshman year of college I stumbled across a legitimate, competitive skating team.  Being the 18-year-old brat that I was, I stayed on that team for exactly one semester before I quit.   From what I remember, it was fun, though I’m pretty sure the girls weren’t all that nice.

Some time last year, I heard that the DC area had a great reputation in the adult synchronized skating world and that their teams consistently placed well at Nationals.  My first thought was – whoa, a National competition?!?  My second was – the team that consists of adults?  You mean I’m not too old to still compete?!  As a competitive spirit, I was intrigued.  I marked the information session on my calendar and began my YouTube research.  Plus, one of my friends at the rink is a synchro goddess, and she was my biggest cheerleader in my attempts at learning a new skill.  What’s a synchro goddess, you ask?  It is someone who has been a part of this sport since he/she was a zygote and partakes in playing “fantasy synchro” each season.   Unbeknownst to me, that does in fact exist.

Performing part of the Nutcracker Suite to a surprisingly tame audience at an Admirals game.  Circa 1992

Performing part of the Nutcracker Suite to a surprisingly tame audience at an Admirals game. Circa 1992

The tryout or not

It was nearly tryout season.  I was looking forward to the information session, which was a precursor to the tryout.   I like trying something new, so it was going to be a fun adventure.  Plus, I was confident in my skating skills, so I was looking forward to learning something new.  Then, tragedy struck.  Well, not exactly.  I had an unfortunate reaction to a chiropractic adjustment, which not only made my back exceptionally tense to the point of not being able to turn my head, but also spurred a weekend full of debilitating migraines. This of course was aptly timed with the information session.  I felt like a big pile of steaming dog poo, and I didn’t want to go because I knew I wouldn’t skate my best.  I’m a perfectionist, so this was the absolute worst scenario that could possibly happen.   Also, I knew that for me to tryout, I needed to go to the information session.  I couldn’t just show up at the tryout and not know what is expected of me!  Actually, if I’m going to be totally honest here, a few weeks prior to the information session, I started to get cold feet for some unknown reason.  I suppose it was the fear of trying something new.  Sure, new is exciting, but it’s also scary, especially the older you get.  Anyway, for storytelling purposes, let’s ignore that particular fact and just concentrate on the fact that I had an epic migraine and my back hurt, and I was worried about not skating up to my already ridiculous high standard.

I digress…

I reluctantly went to the information session with my synchro goddess friend.   I was heavily medicated and didn’t know my butt from my elbow.   Naturally, not only did I feel like utter crap, but I also was totally socially awkward (I blame my concoction of medications).  I was not my finest self.  I still hang my head in shame when I think about it.   Anyway, after some off-ice discussions about the team, dues and practice times, it was time to hit the ice.  If I had to guess, I would say that I lasted about 10 minutes on the ice.  I was dizzy, in pain, nauseous and entirely drugged.  I apologized to the coaches and got off the ice.  As I was taking my skates off, I thought to myself, “well, I’m never coming back as I just made a total ass out of myself.  Hopefully, they forget about me, so I don’t need to recount this nightmare embarrassment.”

Official tryouts were the following week.  There was no way in hell was I going to show my face.  My ego was still bruised and it was going to take some time to forget my epic failure.  For the record, I should state that in retrospect, my skating wasn’t a total catastrophe.  For the 10 minutes on the ice, I skated just fine; however, because I’m a Type-A, anal-retentive perfectionist, I didn’t skate to my high standard.  Nevertheless, the coach sent me a very sweet email encouraging me to still try out.   Unsurprisingly, I wrote her a short essay (one of what became many) explaining my current physical and mental state, how I was too embarrassed to show my face again and my inexperience with synchro would probably result in me not coming back, but I would see how I felt at the end of the week.  The truth was I still was interested, but I still felt like crap and I was embarrassed for my poor showing.  Like much of my life, I decided to leave my synchro-fate up to fate.  If I felt good, I would suck up my pride and go tryout.  If not, then I would curl into a ball and hide, and pretend this never happened.

No, really, I made a t-chart to help me make a decision

No, really, I made a t-chart to help me make a decision

Fate spoke.  Tryouts came and went and I was nowhere to be seen.  Like clockwork, I ended up getting a bunch of migraines through that weekend and was totally useless.  The timing of tryouts also happened to correspond with a big work conference that I was managing, so I was under a fair amount of stress (and anger!), which is probably why I continued to be a hot-migraine-mess.  I sent another essay of an email to the coach apologizing for not coming, explaining my predisposition for migraines, thanked her for the vote of confidence.  I concluded with the fact that I was not meant to be a synchro skater, but perhaps next year.  The coach emailed me back and said that they saw enough of my skating, that they still needed a couple skaters and that they would love to have me, if I was interested.  I was shocked, honored and totally speechless.  I had a huge decision in front of me.  I knew it was going to be time intensive and expensive, but it would be fun and different.  The ladies seemed really nice and the coaches were obviously cool, especially if they were going to let a fool like me grace the ice with them.  So, like all good indecisive people do, I turned to a t-chart of pros and cons of joining the team.  Each day, I came up with a new point, or counterpoint, to joining the team.  It was exhausting.  I couldn’t reach a decision to save my life.  I changed my mind on what seemed to be an hourly basis.  My wonderful spousal equivalent was incredibly supportive and he told me to not worry about the finances, and that he would chip in more towards our mortgage and joint bills, so that I could live out my sparkly, synchronized dream.  After several rounds of email-essays and debates with the coach, I made my decision:  I was going to be a part of the 2013-2014 Master’s team.  I was certainly in for a fun, new and different experience.

To be continued…Part 2:  More social awkwardness, false eyelashes and the joy of competing

Why skating needs some (more) pizazz

I grew up in the era of the Battle of the Brians and  Katerina Witt was queen of the ice.  There was drama, rivalry and sparkles – what was not to love?   I was totally hooked and ended up taking lessons that following summer (and never stopped).  I was twelve when the “whack heard around the world” occurred.  It was reality TV before it even existed.   It was too good to be scripted.  Seriously, an unsophisticated skater gets her ex-husband and bodyguard to try to break her rival’s leg.  It’s pure evil genius.  Naturally, everyone tuned in for the Olympics that year.

and proof that I kinda know what I'm talking about...

me, age 16 (back in the ’90s)

Through the ‘90’s figure skating was immensely popular.  I even would argue that the Kerrigan-Harding saga helped, as did Baiul’s love of alcohol.   Skating was always on TV.  I know, as I had about a million VHS tapes from various televised events.  The general public seemed to grasp the 6.0 judging system, perhaps they even admitted it was a tad biased and arbitrary, but it didn’t matter.  The costumes were (mostly) elegant.  The skating seemed effortless.  And even with an uneducated eye, you could kind of understand the judges’ decision.    Maybe you even argued with the German judge – why the hell did he give her a 5.7?!   It was totally a 5.9, in my book!   Perhaps, you couldn’t pick out a triple lutz from a  triple toe loop, but who cared; it was a joy to watch.  It was also during this time when Michelle Kwan rose to fame.  She was poised, elegant and rock steady.  She was always a gracious competitor and always a class act.  I still believed she deserved to win the gold over Tara Lipinski. That’s just my opinion.  I’ll be team Michelle until I die.  I digress….

Then, in 2002, an unfortunate thing happened – an Olympic judging scandal.  In that moment, the flaws of the judging system and the biased nature of the sport were exposed.   In this particular instance, there was a behind-the-scenes vote exchange.  The French judge was to give the Russian pair team first; in exchange, the Russian judge would give the French dance team first.  As a lifelong skater, I could have told you how biased the sport was, but whatever, unfair judging and skating go together like head trauma and football, and doping and baseball.   Sad, but oh so true.  Anytime you have a sport that is determined by a panel of judges, there will be prejudices and preferences.  It’s the unfortunate reality of the human condition.

A change needed to happen, and it did.  Enter the IJS – or the International Judging System – an attempt to make the scoring system more objective, which in my opinion de-pizazzed the world of skating.   How can you de-pizazz something with so much drama and bedazzlement?  Easy – make the scoring so complex and the skating so mechanical and formulaic that the joy has been totally eradicated; there is no amount of sparkle, nude mesh or lycra that has been able to rescue it.  Now, we are in a world where everything had a point value.  In order to win, you had to rack up a helluvalota points, thus upping the technical ante.    On top of that, the complex nature of the scoring made it hard for the general public to follow.  Why would skater X with a flawless program lose to skater Y who fell?  It all comes down to Code of Points and Grade of Execution.  What the hell is that?!?  Exactly…

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a complete supporter of skaters pushing the technical envelope and they should be awarded points for doing things that are hard and impossible (Pamchenko, anyone);  however, I believe that skating is at its best when it is the perfect melding of art and sport – that the best skaters are technically competent athletes with grace and musicality.  I guess I am traditional about something after all.

Aside from skating, what other sport is athletic, yet graceful and beautifully over-the-top? Isn’t that why people watch?  Surely football fans don’t watch because the players are known for their willowy ability to tackle each other.  Same with hockey – you don’t watch because they elegantly get into fights.  You watch because it’s pure grit and aggression.  It’s totally physical, and that’s what makes it awesome.  On the other hand, people watch skating because it is delicate yet deceptively tough– all wrapped up in a one lissome, athletic, bejeweled ball of perfection.  It shouldn’t all be technical ability, and it also shouldn’t be all art and grace.  It’s supposed to look easy, the technical elements should be wow-worthy,  and it should be aesthetically pleasing.  You don’t need a trained eye for that – you know what you like, and you know what looks hard (the judges, however, they DO need a trained eye).  So, how do you judge that in the most unbiased way – awarding both the artistry and pure physicality of it all, AND do so in a way that the general public can understand?!  That’s tricky.

With the Olympics around the corner, and the fact that there is a bit of a controversy over the selection of the US team, I’m hoping that skating will return once again to the popularity it once had, as I selfishly want to have a reason to watch skating all the time.  Technically, I watch skating all the time anyway, but it’s all on the Internet, and it makes me feel like more of a skating loser than I already am.

In order for skating to get its mojo back, it needs something.  Maybe it is in the form of a new star – someone that people love, someone with a great backstory.  This may even happen in the Olympics (hopefully!).  Or, maybe now that the IJS is ten years old people sort of understand it, and thus will be more inclined to watch. Personally, I have noticed that the overall skating quality seems to be higher than in previous years.  That may be due in part to working out the kinks in the new judging system, or it happens to be just an awesome batch of talent, or the fact it’s an Olympic year.  So, who knows what will happen and how.   I just think that skating is a tad bland and it’s missing a key ingredient.  It needs something other than various shades of chiffon to bring back the pizazz.   Regardless, I’ll keep watching.

Chazz Michael Michaels and Jimmy MacElroy are the epitome of pizazz Blades of Glory photo: www.ew.com

Chazz Michael Michaels and Jimmy MacElroy are the epitome of pizazz
Blades of Glory
photo: http://www.ew.com