- Figure Skating
An eye from rinkside: Experiencing Sochi up-close
SOCHI, Russia – The first Olympics I really remember was the 1992 Albertville Games, with Kristi Yamaguchi skating to gold and me skating along on my parents’ hardwood floors. In my socks, of course.
The truth is I’ve actually been figure skating (err, ice falling?) only twice in my life. I remember both instances vividly, mostly because I fell all over the place when I tried to emulate a Paul Wylie sit spin. I ended up sitting on my butt.
Embedded owg_slideshow: Olympic figure skating falls
But my passion for figure skating burned the same way it did for tennis, which I eventually took on as “my” sport. Most winters I would put on two pairs of thick socks and push the furniture to the corners of our front room. I would skate to the likes of Ace of Base and Michael Jackson. Not really Gershwin, looking back at it.
Witnessing figure skating live is something to behold – something very Olympic. In the two weeks that Sochi hosted night after of this sport in the Iceberg Skating Palace, I felt the excitement pulsing through my veins. There was no wooden floor for me to try and go and hit a quad Salchow like Yuzuru Hanyu; but that didn’t matter, I didn't need it.
More importantly, this Olympics had the Iceberg Skating Palace. Never have I seen an arena so wrought with passion as its own athletes took to the ice. The place thundered as Yevgeny Plushenko made his first appearance that opening night, then again for the likes of Tatyana Volosozhar and Maksim Trankov and a host of other home-nation skaters.
There were calls for the Russian fans to be more supportive of all skaters, and I mostly agree with that. Yet they roared for Jeremy Abbott after his infamous crash in the men’s free skate, spurring him to go on.
Embedded owg_slideshow: U.S. figure skater Jeremy Abbott takes a tumble during the men's short skate competition
They indulged in Mao Asada’s moving long program, in which the Vancouver silver medalist skated a swan song for the ages, vaulting herself from a disastrous 16th after the short program to finish in sixth.
Embedded owg_slideshow: Mao Asada's tearful Olympic figure skating free program
Near the rink you notice the little things: the way Plushenko moved over to the referee just before he pulled out, his face defeated and sullen; how furious Aliona Savchenko was with Robin Szolkowy at the end of their free skate; the blank gaze of Yuka Sato, Abbott’s coach, as she waited (and waited) for her pupil to get up from just below her on the boards.
In the media mixed zone, Plushenko couldn’t stop to talk after his short program in the team event, the 31-year-old answering my question as he kept walking, still with his skates on. “There will be the long program. We will talk then.” We didn’t.
Embedded video_content_type: Breaking down Yevgeny Plushenko's sudden retirement
Ashley Wagner stood in the mixed zone, peering at the TV as 15-year-old Yulia Lipnitskaya finished her own short program during the team event. “Shit,” she muttered, obviously as displeased with the score of her opponent as she was her own.
Gracie Gold got emotional at one point, telling NBC’s Summer Sanders about how her mom had reassured her before the ladies’ individual event began. “I told her, ‘Mom, what if this isn’t my destiny?’” She fell just once in three performances.
Embedded video_content_type: Gracie Gold, warrior princess
Pure madness ensued when Yuna Kim came back. “Queen Yuna,” arguably one of the most famous athletes – people? – in South Korea sped through the mixed zone. Her coached urged her down the line of reporters, only for the athlete to return. “Just one question,” the media handler said. And one question it was.
My spot in said mixed zone was just around a corner, away from the network cameras and nearby the Spanish TV crew – not necessarily a market with great Winter Olympic fervor. Perhaps my favorite moment was when 17-year-old Michael Christian Martinez rounded the bend one day after practice.
“Michael, a few questions for NBCOlympics.com?”
“Me? You want to talk to me?”
I did. And he agreed. Then smiled and told me how he started skating at a rink in a mall at age seven. He was the only Olympian to represent the Philippines at these Games. The first-ever figure skater from a Southeast Asian country. A mall rink sounds pretty similar to your parents’ hardwood floors, right?
RELATED: Michael Christian Martinez, the Philippines' lone Olympian
Though a reputation of cattiness and scandal (scandal!) and judging controversies and pageant mayhem follows the sport (some for good reason), this is what I took away from figure skating the most: it’s a pretty cool world. Press agents try to work to get their athletes covered; journalists discuss what storylines they’re working on; coaches don’t flinch when you walk up and say, “Hey, can we chat?”
I had lunch with Jason Brown’s family – who were, believe it or not, as nice as or nicer than the skater himself – on the day that the 19-year-old was set to skate in the men’s free program, in reach of a medal.
“He’s a performer,” his mom Marla told me. “When the kids were little, the three of them would gather in the basement and put on shows and concerts. He’s a competitor but he loves to perform. That’s what drives him.”
RELATED: Jason Brown's family support
Thinking back to my own days on the hardwood floors, I know exactly what she’s talking about. The difference? These guys are really, really good. And they’re on actual ice.
“You’ve finally reached the pinnacle of sport, most likely the culmination of a lifetime worth of sacrifice, and have trained specifically for just under seven minutes to define your career,” wrote former Olympian Kimmie Meissner about Carolina Kostner.
And that’s when I realize I have no idea what they’re talking about. Or what they’re feeling or thinking or doing or skating. Which makes it that much more inspiring from up close and from far away.
Embedded video_content_type: Sochi recap: Figure skating
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