March 9, 2009
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 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.
March 3, 2009
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.
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.
February 12, 2009
Remember before cable TV and the Internet, when you had to wait for the Olympics to roll around in order to get a good dose of figure skating coverage? In between The Games, my brother and I religiously tuned into ABC’s Wide World of Sports on Saturday afternoons to catch the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” hoping Jim McKay would show a few snippets of skating.
We anxiously waited for our copies of Skating Magazine to arrive in the mail and even subscribed to that newspaper, American Skating World. We scoured these pages to find out results and glean at least a few personal tidbits about the skaters at the top. But information was scant, and slow to come. The world has obviously changed.
Of course, after the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan debacle in 1994, there was a skating frenzy. It seemed like skating was on TV 24/7, but in weird versions, like fabricated professional competitions — with the skaters grouped into ad-hoc “teams.” For a time, skaters such as Oksana Baiul and Tara Lipinksi appeared in tabloids like People and US Magazine. Some think all this was over-kill and the wrong kind of exposure. Some think that the 2002 judging scandal and the new IJS system have dampened popular interest. Whatever the case, it’s once again hard to catch much skating on television.
In comes icenetwork, which was launched in 2006, and then re-launched on a more full-scale basis in August of 2007. This website is a joint venture between U.S. Figure Skating and MLB Advanced Media (Major League Baseball). I think it has significantly changed the way you can experience the sport (and I would say this even if I didn’t occasionally write articles for the site).
Thanks to icenetwork, you can get more access than ever before. You can track individual skaters and events with unprecedented immediacy and specificity. Even at the height of the media’s fixation on skating, it was rare to see more than the top-five finishers of any event at nationals or even worlds. It has always been impossible to catch any of the short program or original dance segments. It was all about top finishers and final events. Now, you can watch video footage of everybody on icenetwork, from juvenile skaters at regionals all the way to the top.
I myself have been involved in figure skating as a competitor or a coach for almost my entire life, but I’m more of a “fan” of the sport than ever before — via my laptop — I’m keeping up with the new faces and the new names of skating. For example, this week, there’s an article detailing the newest world rankings (based on points earned). This references performances and results at the recent Four Continents in Vancouver and serves as a helpful guide for worlds. (To read it, click here).
During the week of nationals in Cleveland, I kept track of things there by watching both live and archived videos after getting home from work. While eating dinner at my desk, I flipped through photo galleries of skaters in action and backstage. I read the icenetwork articles and especially enjoyed the fact that we could get live results…IMMEDIATELY. Watching all this coverage reminded me how incredible it was to compete at nationals… this time, I almost felt like I was there, again. It also made me wonder what it’s like to coordinate all these different kinds of media.
I contacted Linda Przygodski, icenetwork’s Senior Editorial Producer, to find out, and she was kind enough to answer a few questions. She is a journalist who has been covering sports, entertainment, and all kinds of other subjects for over 20 years. In fact, before taking on this role with icenetwork, she was a beat reporter for NASCAR.
Jocelyn Jane Cox: I’m really impressed with the amount of coverage you provided for people at home during nationals: on-demand videos, live results, blogs, news articles, photo galleries, element sheets. How on earth did you pull all of this content together?
Linda Przygodski: First of all, I have a great team, some of whom were in Cleveland and some of whom were back in New York, at the MLBAM headquarters. I was basically on-site overseeing all information, assigning feature articles to freelance writers, coordinating interviews, and getting quotes. We had writers Mickey Brown and Rebecca Staed there from U.S Figure Skating and Sarah S. Brannen and pair skater Drew Meekins doing blogs. Todd Hinckley, back in New York, made sure that everything got up on the site in a timely fashion and we both monitored the live feed. This is actually the most challenging part, since we might hear that what looks great in Maine doesn’t look as great out in California. The crazy thing is that the European Championships were happening simultaneously and we wanted to keep track of that, as well. It was a challenging week to say the very least.
JJC: What was typical day like for you at nationals?
LP: I got up at the crack of dawn and checked what seemed like 172 e-mails from the hotel. I got myself together and tried to get to the rink between 9:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m. I learned last year that I couldn’t do this without any sleep. Usually, Lynn Rutherford (one of my freelance writers) and I would stay at the rink until the security guards kicked us out at night. At Skate America, we were locked in the arena and no one could seem to let us out. We had to follow the trash man to the nearest exit. We made a conscious effort to not have a repeat performance of that, but we missed the last bus back to the hotel most nights. Eventually, we gave up and just had cab come fetch us.
JJC: How many competitions do you, personally, go to per year?
LP: Skate America, U.S. Championships, and this year, I’ll be going to worlds. Next year, I’ll also be going to the Junior Grand Prix in Lake Placid and the Olympics. Sometimes it’s better for me to go, and sometimes it’s better for me to oversee things from the office. I absolutely have to be wireless, in case something goes wrong, so we decide on a per-case basis.
JJC: What is the best part of this gig?
LP: I love everyone I work with at MLBAM. It’s nice to travel only 20 percent of the time rather than 90 percent, which is what I used to do. You can only live out of a suitcase for so many decades! I also enjoy the athletes. The kids are great — we want to present them in their natural form and provide interesting content. Todd Hinckley and I have a shared and particular vision for the site. For example, we agonize over what pictures look best for the homepage. It’s really a thoughtful process.
JJC: How would you characterize the icenetwork fanbase?
LP: Die hard fans, casual fans, and the curious. We have lots of international fans.
JJC: So what are the differences, or any similarities, between skaters and race car drivers?
LP: It’s difficult to find any similarities! The divide is so great. Let’s just say there is no Kiss and Cry in NASCAR.
I have been busy moving (and thanks to all this caffeine…) shaking. To see the piece I wrote about one of my favorite Upper East Side coffee shops, click here.
January 21, 2009
The staff of Current Skate of Mind has noticed that a particularly entertaining skating video is currently in hot circulation around the internet. (The nature, tenor and texture of this video fits the CSOM credo perfectly i.e. ”laughter is the best sports medicine.”) Perhaps you have not seen it yet? Of course you are busy watching as much Nationals footage on icenetwork as humanly possible, but we highly recommend you tear yourself away for a few moments to see some extremely impressive skills. We are not Technical Specialists, but it’s pretty obvious that these skaters would do very well under the IJS system (press on the black arrow in left bottom corner to play):
For those of you noticing this week’s lack of punctuality (i.e. it’s not Tuesday, scandalous indeed), we must inform you that due to several thousand other projects on deck, new installments will now be posted on a completely random basis. Just keeping you on your toe…picks.
January 13, 2009
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.
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.
January 6, 2009
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…
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.
December 24, 2008
(Every once in a while, there comes a time,
When all you can do is, um… rhyme?)
So, here goes:
A little breathless, a little dazed,
Utterly ecstatic and still amazed.
He got down on bended knee,
Opened a tiny gray box with glee.
Rockefeller Rink, snowflakes fell,
Applause from the crowd began to swell.
The tree sparkled and so did the ring,
Of course my heart started to sing.
Yes, I said, drinking happiness, as if from a cup.
He grinned and grinned…then asked if I could help him up.
Thank you to friends and family for your well-wishes. And thank you, Rob, for a night, a dream-like scenario, a brief yet infinite moment I will never forget.
December 16, 2008
Well, you know how much I heart writing this blog, but I’ve gotten caught up in a few thousand other things this week. Like painting ornaments, baking Scottish shortbread cookies (my grandmother’s recipe), and being just generally elf-y.
Above is an example of the ornaments I painted last year. Would you like to purchase one? They are one of a kind, and only $999.99!
Amid all the gift wrapping (and okay, also some rapping), I did this week, I managed to fit in just a bit of writing for other equally wonderful sites…
To read my article for icenetwork about Ann Patrice McDonough and Jonathon Hunt performing with the Rockettes in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, click here.
To read my piece for the Upper East Informer about the joy of gift-giving (especially gifts under $15), click here.
And tune in to Current Skate of Mind next week. Charlie Brown and the Peanuts Gang turn out to be accomplished skaters. Unfortunately, we all know that this sport is all about how you skate on the day of the performance…Good grief.
Finally, here are three holiday jokes that are sure to secure your popularity with kids and adults:
What do santa’s helpers learn in school? The elf-abet.
Why does Santa have three gardens? So he can hoe, hoe, hoe.
How do sheep in Mexico say Merry X-mas? Fleece Navidad.
(Oh, and the way you are shaking your head at me right now? Be careful not to sprain your neck.)
What is your elf-quotient? I’m probably 112 out of 100. Click on “comment” below.
December 9, 2008
I’m finding that there are millions of different ways to explain skating techniques and millions of ways to try and verbally convince skaters to change their positions and habits. For example, I think I’ve come up with at least 45,000 ways of describing appropriate skating posture, involving eagles, giraffes, trees, prairie dogs, toboggans, starfish, pita bread (bad) versus a slice of bread (good), walls, arrows, guards at Buckingham Palace, and the list goes on…
I’ve even managed to plug good old Starbucks in the posture discussion. I’ll say something to my student like: “Don’t you stand straight and look up in order to place your order of… <Depending on the season, I insert hot chocolate or frappaccino, here, both of which are more advisable and kid-friendly than the Double Tall 74-Shot latte I’m currently drinking>?” I continue: “Don’t you look up at the sign while you’re walking toward the barista? If you can walk without looking at the floor, then you can skate without looking at the ice. That’s all we’re asking for, here.”
Still, despite all the various tricks I pull out of my (wool) hat, I can’t always get my messages across. Sometimes, I’m downright stumped. I’ll scratch my head and wonder how on earth I can get such and such skater to straighten her free leg. I mean, she knows what “straight” is, she knows what I mean by “locked”…she even knows she should be emulating spaghetti noodles before they go into the pot rather than afterwards. And, she can straighten her leg while standing at the boards. Then, out on the ice: Bent! Loose! Limp as a cooked noodle!
Well, I asked the universe for a solution and it recently came to me: Champion Cords invented by coach Sheila Thelan. These are basically bungee type cords that attach skaters’ hands to their feet. These cords create tension and resistance that help the skaters to be more aware of their limbs and torso. Thelan, of Minnesota, got the idea in 2003 while teaching a student who was struggling with her axel. She wanted to tie the skater’s left hand and left foot together so that she would move as a unit. She found some bungee cord in the rink and did just that. The results were immediate.
The cords are easily attached to the laces with a hook, then looped around the bottom of the skate and hooked again to keep it secure. Champion Cords offers a few different types of hooks, including the Triple Hook and the S-Hook. I have tried both and have found the S hook to be a little easier to work with, once your hands are cold. On the other end of the cord, there is a loop that just fits around the wrist like a bracelet.
Before trying them out on my students, I took them for a test run, myself. It was a strange sensation for the first few strokes, to be connected to these strings. Though there was no Gepetto in the rafters, I felt like a marionette. After stroking around for a while and doing a few basic exercises, I started to notice a few things. For one, my arms were getting quite tired: it was taking a surprising amount of strength to hold them up. (Oh the gym, the gym, that dreaded and oft-avoided destination.) I could imagine that this challenge would also benefit my students. Second, I noted that I was stretching my limbs and my neck a bit longer than usual. Aha! I felt like the “starfish on skates” I’m always blabbering about. Finally, I experienced a heightened awareness of how I was positioning my body and, as a result, an overall sense of deliberateness. It was a very cool feeling.
I was even inspired to try a spiral, something I haven’t dared to attempt in public for several years. I’m not going to say that the cords helped me get my leg to Sasha or Nancy elevation, or anything, but the tension created a sense of security and a bit more balance. I think I looked pretty decent, for such a long hiatus. (The plexiglass wouldn’t lie, would it? )
In fact, these are all the things I noticed in my students when I proceeded to rig them up with cords for stroking, for pulls, for spirals, etc. Suddenly, shoulders were back, arms were straight, and legs were lifted higher. At first, they giggled and skated a bit hesitantly, just like I did. And, by the way, almost every single one of them commented (unprompted by me, I swear) that they felt like a marionette or a puppet. I could see that they were experiencing that increased awareness in their limbs and shoulders. Then, when I took the cords off, this awareness seemed to stick. I’m not saying the lesson is miraculously long-lasting, or anything, but we’re aiming for muscle-memory, here, and these cords are an extremely helpful tool. They’re like flashcards in the game of memorization.
Since I teach mostly moves and dance, this is what I have used them for, so far. But each set of cords purchased on the Champion Cords website comes with an instructional DVD featuring skaters wearing the cords (either on just one side of the body or both) for jumps and spins. I can imagine that the tension of these cords would help to create similar awareness and alignment for these as well. The DVD also demonstrates an alternative way to use the cords to assist with posture: looping the cords around both wrists so that it’s behind the shoulder blades. This helps skaters feel that line and horizontal stretch.
Anyway, I’ll keep using this new contraption. I’m interested to see what results I can get from here (though I’ll probably also keep racking my brain for new analogies.) The kids have enjoyed using them, so it’s a nice breath of fresh air in my teaching regimen.
I recommend these for you or your skaters. They are endorsed by the PSA and lots of coaches: Frank Carroll, Audrey Weisiger and Paul Wylie have used and applauded them. ‘Tis the season of gift giving and I for one am swinging toward the more practical rather than the frivolous end of the spectrum. These are a great pick. Click here to learn more and to purchase.
What about you? Have you tried Champion Cords? Are you an actual marionette by trade, birth, or profession? If so, remember that imitation is the best form of flattery. Finally, if you are the one person in the world who looks down at his feet when ordering at Starbucks, and you’re planning to poke a hole in that brilliant posture analogy of mine, please don’t click on Comment below. All others: you are very welcome to do so.
December 2, 2008
Let the holiday shopping begin! If you’re like me, you’re starting to make your lists, check them twice, and you’re noticing that everyone’s been both naughty and nice. No matter what, everyone deserves that perfect gift…and in my book, books are always an excellent choice: they expand the mind and you can always squeeze another one on the shelf (okay, or on that pile of books that has overflowed onto the floor and is now serving as a nice plant stand…)
Anyway, I recently picked up Kurt Browning’s children’s book, A is for Axel: An Ice Skating Alphabet at Skater’s Landing for my nephew. It was published by Sleeping Bear Press a few years ago. What’s great about this book is that it’s interesting and informative for children of many ages (and also adults.) The illustrations, by Melanie Rose, are beautiful and the text takes readers through the alphabet from Axel to Zamboni. For every letter, there are corresponding poems, such as:
C is for Coaches, who teach you so much. They’ll give your skating their personal touch. From singles to doubles then triples you grow, with coaches beside you sharing all they know.
And: An amazing thing about skating is the ability to Glide. Just get up some good speed, and then enjoy the ride. But if you want to try it, you should take this advice. Take off your guards or you will hit the ice.
In addition to the pictures and the poems, each letter includes a more sophisticated explanation of the topic for experienced readers. These paragraphs include some technical information and historical tidbits.
I was curious what prompted Kurt Browning to become the author of a children’s book. He is a four-time World Champion, four-time Canadian National Champion, three-time Olympian and has had a prolific professional career since then. What I’ve always admired about Browning is that, in addition to his expert jumping (he was the first person to land a quad in competition), his footwork and skating quality are fantastic. Besides, he has lots of charisma: his performances are fun and his personality always shines through. So I am of course thrilled that he took the time to answer the following questions about A is for Axel for Current Skate of Mind…
Jocelyn Jane Cox: How did this project come about?
Kurt Browning: I picked up the phone one day and on the other end of the line was an offer to write this style of book about skating. I loved the idea and like writing and poems, especially silly and fun ones, and so I jumped (pun intended) at the chance. How they got the idea to ask me to write it, I am not sure.
J.J.C.: Will there be a follow-up?
K.B.: I have had some thoughts in the past and have some notes written down somewhere, but I have seen versions of my idea since and so I don’t know if I will pursue it. Maybe I will write a private one for my second son? There will be a follow up book about dance and I am helping my wife Sonia with it. Sonia is a principal dancer with the National Ballet of Canada. Working together on this project has been a good experience for us. It has been fun having a common goal.
J.J.C.: What was the writing process like?
K.B.: I loved the process! I had a big time frame to work with and I almost only worked on it while on the road so this book was written in hotel rooms or parks or the hotel lobby. Actually, some of it was written in Spain while on vacation. With so much time, I had the option of leaving it alone and coming back to it weeks later and this meant seeing it from a different angle. A few times, I changed the whole thinking behind a letter. Sleeping Bear Press told me to think of it as a puzzle and to put the pieces together and I liked this way of thinking. The poems always came first and this was both the most fun and the hardest part of the process. I asked my fellow skaters for help, but nine times out of ten all they came up with was silly stuff or worse. Steven Cousins did help me with what the letter Q should be…for some reason, I had not come up with “the quad” yet!?
J.J.C.: One of the things I like about the book is the depiction of a lot of male skaters. Do you have any advice for boys and young men who are just taking up the sport or starting to get more involved in it?
K.B.: I tell young men in skating that if they have the guts to stand in center ice alone and move to music while trying to jump and spin while everyone is watching, then, boy, everything else in life just got a little bit easier.
J.J.C.: What do your children think of the book?
K.B.: My oldest boy had already learned his alphabet and so he did not really use the book in that way. I expect him to take a different interest in it when he starts reading more on his own. Of course, he likes his page. Melanie Rose was sweet enough to include him on the L page (laces).
J.J.C.: What projects (on or off ice) are you currently working on?
K.B.: I have some secret stuff waiting to spring out there in the world…you will have to wait.
Thanks so much to Kurt for this.
Put this book on your list for the little (and not so little) skaters, and even non-skaters in your life. Order it at Powell’s, here:
And if you have already picked up “A is for Axel,” leave your thoughts by clicking on comment below…