Friday, October 17, 2008


Jessica Liu, class of 2009, wrote this essay for Ms. Alsup's Senior Writing Seminar. From time to time we'll post essays, fiction and other writing by students. All students are invited to submit their work to a teacher to be forwarded to Life and Times. Click "read more" to see the complete essay.

Have you ever watched figure skaters on TV? Is it not amazing how they cut so swiftly across the rink on those thin metal blades? Is it not incredible the way they fly into the air and become mere colored blurs in suspension? And how marvelous is it that when they come down again, the ice catches them like a cushion as they glide away effortlessly? It must be so liberating to be a figure skater, to command such inhuman movement with such grace and ease. This was my conviction as a child. This was my delusion.

As a young skater struggling to stay on my feet, tripping over my first crossovers, crashing my first half-revolution jumps, I would always look towards the older skaters spinning freely in arabesque and convince myself that my clumsy labors would someday be worth it. I thought, there must come a time in a skater’s career when innate grace simply transcends physicality and beauty of motion inevitably manifests. Indeed, the evidence was right before me: in the girl whose tiny ankles somehow sprang her high into the air, or the girl whose ponytail came undone from the sheer speed of her beautiful rotations. Surely for them it was easy. After all, they weren’t falling over their feet or flailing their arms wildly anymore. They must have discovered some magic ability within themselves that suddenly made everything feasible, a secret I myself was bound to uncover one day. …What a pathetically naive thought. Nevertheless, for years I endured the lackluster pains of training with this hope that it would all become effortless in due time.

Eventually there came the day when I suddenly realized that I was one of those older skaters I had I always admired. That awkward spin that was straining my back and killing my thighs was the exact same move that had so stunned me with its elegance years before. Those jumps that had seemed impossible when I was a child, I had already mastered a few months ago. In fact, not only had I reached the level of my idols of old, but I had surpassed many of them. Thus came the dread epiphany: figure skating was a lie. I had been bewitched by an illusion of beauty, had reached my goals only to realize the impossibility of their fulfillment. There I stood, at the point where young skaters looked up to me for inspiration, and the truth was, it still hurt.

Everything still hurt, and I realized then that it would always hurt. Sure, I could lap the rink in seconds, and it’s all very well to feel my hair whip out behind me, except that the air against which I throw myself so forcefully is, well, cold. Out on the ice, ears freeze instantly; eyes water and blur. Each bitter breath is painfully drawn through the mouth, for trying to take in icy air through the nose stings. Cold muscles ache and take twice as long to warm. Staying hydrated is synonymous with “brain freeze.” And forget not that the figure skater’s armor against cold consists of thin spandex and tights. Where is the ease and grace now? Really, what kind of deranged person would voluntarily revisit this hellish icebox day after day? What kind of rewards could one possibly receive to make such a senseless ordeal worthwhile?

Whatever they were, I found them not. Was I supposed to be filled with enormous satisfaction and pride when I landed my first double-salchow? Perhaps I did, for an instant. However, that one success was the accumulation of countless failures. I shudder to think of the number of bruises I have acquired over the years from figure skating alone. Whole winters have gone by without a single day of unmarred legs. I am not so vain to despair over a large purple-green blemish (or five), but when it hurts to even sit down, then the situation starts to seem ridiculous. Indeed it is proof that skating can never get easier, for the harder the jump, the harder the fall.

And what happens in the lucky event of a successful landing? We cheer, we smile, we grit our teeth, and we jump again. Chances are, we’ll fall on the next one. In figure skating, it is a rough, uneven road to mastery, by the end of which the particular move has been executed so many times that it is completely deprived of any novelty. Indeed, there was hardly any novelty to begin with. Just about every trick has been tried before and will be tried again, so that every “new” move is really only an imitation something old. There is no creativity, no spontaneity. Programs to music may suggest an art form, but whatever expressive elements initially existed are lost through endless repetitions and broken by the technicality of the sport. Picture again that figure skater on TV, programmed to glide about with her arms outstretched in the most aesthetically pleasing angles possible. Why then, does she suddenly drop them before the jump? One, the necessary concentration at that moment is such that there is no room to bother with extraneous gestures. Two, she needs momentum from her arms to propel herself higher into the air, thus having them low before takeoff is essential. The concentration and physical requirements for the execution of a jump effectively inhibit any artistic expression within the move itself, a trend which is repeated throughout the many technical facets of the sport. Overall, the creative outlet in figure skating is depressingly small.

But what about that unfaltering smile some skaters have that seems like silent evidence of their love and passion for their sport? That too, is a lie. That smile is put on at the beginning of the program for the benefit of the judges and literally freezes to the face. I insist upon this in all seriousness. Many times I have stepped off the ice in competition, unable to stop smiling, not out of happiness, but because I can’t move my face. Frozen lips also add the extra benefit of restricting certain vowel sounds, so that speech on ice often degenerates to incoherent blabbering. However, the extremity of the figure skater that suffers the most by far is the foot. Those white, delicate-looking boots are really just like a second layer of skin. Stiff, leather skin. It is true that they provide fantastic ankle support. But they also fail at insulation, blister mercilessly, and apply pressure in just the wrong spots so that my feet after skating are numb, red, and over the years have become misshapen with bone spurs.

O, what suffering! How painful! How pointless! And in the end, what was my gain from those many years I spent on the ice? Insight into the true nature of something deceptively beautiful, one might say. My response to that: Return to me the illusion; I’ll return to you my pain!