I stepped onto the ice, my legs shaking so badly I wobbled a little. I couldn’t look at the panel of judges seated beside the rink; I couldn’t even look at my husband watching from the sidelines. For a second, terror struck: not just that I’d fall and fail in some spectacular fashion, but that I’d forget how to skate entirely.
The air was cold and clean, laced with the sharp scent of fresh-cut ice. I took a deep breath and pushed forward. I focused on making each extension, each stroke, every movement strong and graceful. I moved into my edges, my crossovers, the waltz eight. With each element, my breath loosened a little. I took refuge in the routines I’d been practicing for so long—six years, but my whole life, too.
I felt the momentum carry me. Circling back to the beginning line, I gained speed and folded forward into a spiral, my arms soaring out at my sides, my left foot high in the air. At the center line, I switched feet and pushed into another spiral. I forgot about my nerves, about the test, about the judges. It felt like flying—like I was soaring above the rink and everyone in it.
This was how figure skating was meant to feel.
I finished with a flourish. I knew I had passed without even seeing the judges’ scores. I joined my fellow skaters, towering awkwardly above all of them. There were no other adults being judged today; at twenty-eight, I was old enough to be the mother of most of my skating compatriots. But I didn’t care. I’d just completed my pre-bronze moves in the field.
For most figure skaters, that would only be the beginning—the first step, measuring basic skating skills, one must take to compete in US figure skating. For me, it was the culmination of a dream it had taken a lifetime to build.
In 1998, I was twelve years old, watching breathlessly as the Olympic torch erupted in flame and the TV cameras panned over the snowy mountains in Nagano, Japan. I felt like the whole world was opening up before me, a world far from the narrow confines of my life.
I’d invited my best friends over for a rare slumber party to watch the Opening Ceremonies. We burrowed into sleeping bags sprawled on the floor of my living room, the warmest place in my family’s drafty old farmhouse. As we watched the Parade of Nations on the big box television, all of us felt like we were part of something grand, something historic.
When Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski marched across the screen, my breath caught in my throat, like I was there with them, hearing the roar of the cheering crowd. I’d loved figure skating for as long as I could remember. I thrilled at how grace and athleticism blended seamlessly in every move. I envied the preternatural poise of figure skaters and the guts it took to perform before the entire world. Michelle and Tara weren’t much older than me, but here they were, on the world’s largest stage. That night, I watched the pageantry with my friends, feeling like any other preteen girl, giggling and dreaming long into the night. Two weeks later, I watched as Michelle and Tara took the podium, draped in silver and gold—proof that girls could be Olympians.
But, I already knew, only some girls. Girls with perfect smiles, girls who knew what to wear and how to speak properly. Graceful girls, pretty girls. Girls with money.
Not a girl like me.
I had crooked teeth and frizzy brown braids and knobby knees poking out of the holes in my hand-me-down jeans. I was painfully shy and deeply conscious of the truths of my family’s circumstances: how difficult it was to make the rent each month on the century-old farmhouse; how unusual our big family was, even compared to other homeschoolers; how few of my peers worked as hard as my siblings and I did, but still we never seemed to have enough. Most of my time was spent taking care of my sisters and brothers, the youngest of whom had just turned one, as well as my six-month-old niece. My days revolved around tummy time and diapers and teething rings. When I wasn’t mothering, I spent several days a week working for my father at his shop fixing and selling used tires.
Skating lessons weren’t just impossible; they were several realms away from possible. Lessons and equipment and outfits and travel—I couldn't even begin to calculate how much it would cost. The nearest rink was hours away; even if we could afford it, who would watch my brothers and sisters? Tara and Michelle might as well have existed in a different world. I knew it didn’t matter how long I stared at the screen, how desperately I dreamed of slipping into their lives. I could never be like them.
Yet in every secret, stolen moment I could find, I still dreamed of the impossible: taking to the ice myself. I created my own little routines. If somehow the chance fell into my lap, my body would be as ready as I could make it. I leapt and spun in our backyard, pretending the grass was a frozen expanse of ice. I lifted my little brothers and sisters in the air, and they would soar like pairs skaters; I held them by the wrists and spun them around until we were dizzy. I laced up my roller skates or clipped into Rollerblades and rolled across the choppy asphalt of our country road. I did spirals on my bicycle, pumping the pedals to build up speed, setting one foot on the seat, and sending the other leg high into the air behind me.
My older brothers and sisters, usually so quick to sniff out earnestness in an endless hunt for ammunition in the sibling wars, didn’t tease me for my pretend-skating or my daydreaming. They seemed to know how much it meant to me, and their silence was an encouragement of its own kind. We all, I suspect, had things we desperately wanted that felt impossible—hopes hidden away where we could keep them safe.
Whenever skating came on TV, I settled in to watch—knees out in lotus position, still stretching for my big break—and lost myself in the glitter of the sequins and the drama of the free skate, the grace and beauty that made my heart ache. I didn’t just want to skate; I wanted to have the kind of life where there was nothing standing between me and a dream like that. I nestled my dreams deep inside, where they would be safe. And I waited.
A decade later, in March 2008, I began working at my first real job. I’d had many jobs through the years—in pizza, sub, and coffee shops; in retail stores and hotels; cleaning vacation homes and telemarketing credit cards and, of course, selling tires for my dad. It was how I’d survived. But this job included benefits, a pay scale for regular raises, paid time off. This job was my first step toward a career in publishing. It didn’t pay much—just enough to cover my rent, student loans, and other bills, and still have a little left at the end of the month. That small amount was a brand-new luxury for me.
For the first time, I had the chance to pursue not only what I needed, but also what I wanted. I began going on adventures, as I thought of them, with my new coworkers and their friends. We went rock climbing and hiking, visited museums and tasted new beers. One night we scored cheap tickets to watch the Capitals play hockey, and I marveled at the athletes’ footwork and speed. When one of my new friends mentioned that the Caps practiced at a skating rink not far from my apartment, it was like a door had been thrown open in what I’d thought was a solid wall.
There was a rink nearby—of course there was a rink nearby. And, I soon learned, they offered group lessons for adults. I’d skated a few times before, group outings where we all giggled our way across the ice, slipping like Bambi. Nothing real, though; nothing serious. I thought I’d missed my chance when I left adolescence, but now I had the means to take real lessons. Maybe it wasn’t too late—maybe the paths I’d long thought closed off were still there, waiting for me.
I still wasn’t used to spending money on myself. The price tag took my breath away: Ten group lessons would cost $140. But I signed up anyway, and felt a wave of joy wash over me. I now had the means to pursue a hobby with no practical use, simply because I knew it would bring me pleasure. It was a sign, to me if to no one else, that perhaps I had finally made it.
All the same, when I stepped on the ice in my rented skates, I expected to be terrible, to realize once and for all I was never going to be a skater. My dream had always been safe in its impossibility. That was how I could hold onto for it so long; it was untouched by the grind of childcare and the grime of tires—by reality. Skating existed in that other world, far from my real life; I worried that bringing it down to my level would cheapen or ruin it. I’ve never had much faith in myself or my body. I expected to be clumsy and off-balance and impatient with the frustratingly slow lessons.
But I wasn’t terrible. In fact, I had a feel for the ice, an intuition for balancing and gliding, an instinct sharpened by years of watching from distant sidelines. It was as if I’d belonged there all along, and I’d finally arrived. The ice had been waiting for me as long as I had waited for it.
Each skating lesson flew by. I learned swizzles and crossovers, backwards stroking and edges. Even as I reveled in my new passion, I found myself bursting to prove I belonged. I still didn’t look like most of the other skaters. I’ve never been particularly athletic, and my curves often seemed out of place among the rail-thin instructors and young students. When I skated alongside kids, I felt like a condor next to a row of ducklings.
There were other adults in my group classes—usually parents who wanted to keep up with their fast-skating kids. But as I moved up the ranks, the others dropped out until only a few of us remained. We rarely talked about anything except skating; they were driven, I suspected, by similarly hard-to-explain dreams.
Passion takes persistence. It takes hard work, and grit, and determination. But it also takes resources. I paid $45 for my first pair of skates, a used set I had found on eBay. When they arrived, I tore open the box like a kid at Christmas. I loved those skates like nothing else I had ever possessed. They were a symbol of my dedication to my dream—that I was willing to spend money to achieve it.
And spend I did. I paid for the next level of group lessons, then the next. I bought extra practice sessions. I hired the cheapest coach I could find—still an exorbitant expense—and then another, more experienced, more expensive coach. I bought better skates, though I could never part with that first pair. I learned how to spin and I learned how to jump. I was terrified and thrilled, and alive in an entirely new way.
Simply knowing how to skate, though, was not what I’d dreamed of all those years. I still thought of Michelle and Tara, the way they had leapt and spun their way to the medal platform. The desire to compete still burned inside me.
It took years of training, carefully scheduled around work and other demands, but passing the pre-bronze certification finally satisfied that deep yearning. I had felt judged all my life for being poor, for being homeschooled, for being part of such a complicated family—all things I couldn’t change. Now I had been judged on my terms, on a field—or rink—of my choosing. Flying across the ice in my final spiral, I finally felt free. Every time I’ve left the rink for a length of time—to travel for work, to take a medical leave during pregnancy—I’ve always returned to that same joyful feeling: the world spreading wide before me as I perch on the edge of something great, just waiting for the dream to unfold.