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Flying Camels, Butterflies, and Twizzles

A report from the men's U.S. National Figure Skating Championships.

By From the March 2014 issue

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In early January, I attend my very first professional sports competition. The U.S. National Figure Skating Championships have already been going on for four days; the event sprawls over four disciplines and five age categories. I’m at Boston’s TD Garden to watch the senior men, including the two men we’ll be sending to the Winter Olympics in Sochi.

Sport, like art, uses the limited body to hint at a world without limits. The ball soaring over the stands, the runners churning in their furious personal rhythms, make audiences’ hearts pound because they suggest the transformation of flesh into purpose. Skating is ecstatic—the athletes jump like they’re trying to escape their skins, soar and stretch their limbs impossibly, contort into elbowy whirligigs, all with knives on their feet. The exaggeration of art plus the physical danger of sport.

Every overintellectual fan struggles to describe the beauty of his favorite sport. But that beauty usually emerges as a byproduct—or even a waste product, unacknowledged and not especially wanted—of physical exertion. Skating is different in that beauty is part of the explicit purpose for which these athletes’ bodies are shaped. Beauty is scored, down to the decimal point.

Skating’s relationship to the audience is also somewhat unusual. The competition is choreographed. The spectators only have one thing to look at—no scrum, no puck, no competitor—and they mostly know when the biggest challenges are coming. As Brian Boitano took the ice in Calgary and stood in his opening position, waiting for his music to start, legendary commentator Dick Button mused, “Such a lonely place to be.”

The pressure of the audience’s attention can make it much lonelier. At Nationals, emotion—joy, disappointment, fear, ecstatic release—rippled from the crowd to the skater like shockwaves. The audience’s gazes and gasps can weave themselves into a mantle for a triumphant champ to wear lightly; or they can become a thousand-pound weight of expectation. As the satirical Onion put it, “Thousands of Athletes Who Will Disgrace Countries Eagerly Training for Winter Olympics.”

In the corridor outside the TD Garden rink, skating’s celebrities and swag are out in force. There’s sparkly skatewear on sale, cowbells to ring for your favorite skater, and Dick Button hawking his book. By Saturday there will be a spacious booth offering makeover and hairdo. Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski will be commentating rinkside, in a Joan Crawford fur and leather pants respectively.

Men’s skating gets much less attention in this country than the other three disciplines (ladies’, ice dance, and pairs). It’s my favorite in part because the skaters take on more varied and risky personae. Perhaps because they get less attention, the men experiment more. At Nationals I saw jazzy, louche, commanding, balletic, silly, overserious, joyful, and longing programs; filet mignons and all-American cheeseburgers. What’s technically the same sit spin can become, in the right program, an expression of individuality or of solidarity, a collapse into the self or a preparation to blossom outward. A quad jump can hit like a predator’s attack or like a magician’s flourish, or even like a kiss.

The national competition has two parts, the short and long programs. The skaters go in random order for the short, but for the long program they’re divided into small groups that skate from worst to best based on their short program performances. In other words, the four skaters who placed toward the bottom of the short program will skate first in random order, then a clump of skaters who placed above them, and so on; the top group of skaters goes last. This means that the short program is a bizarre anxiety-attack EKG in which the quality varies wildly from one program to the next, whereas the long program competition follows a fairly steady build of anticipation and accomplishment.

They’ll be scored according to “the new system,” alternately called IJS (International Judging System) and COP (Code of Points), which in 2004 replaced the old 6.0 for reasons too woolly to recount. The new system is supposed to reward more than just big jumps, and to be more specific in what it asks of the skaters. Jumps, spins, and step sequences are assigned a “base value” by technical specialists, then evaluated by the actual judges for quality: Did the jump get high in the air and cover a lot of ground? Did you flow out of the jump landing or come to a standstill? Did your spin positions look artistic or awkward? Then there’s the Program Component Score, which replaced the old “second mark” for artistry. PCS for singles skating includes 30 different criteria, ranging from the straightforward “mastery of one-foot skating” to “style and individuality/personality.” (How bad must it feel to get marked down for personality?) The judges are supposed to chew through all of this within a couple minutes of the close of the skater’s program.

IJS has gotten a bad reputation for promoting baroque, over-curlicued choreography, which the skaters can’t do fast enough to flow and express the music. Frantic feet and flailing arms, in programs which all look the same. But this Nationals proved that skaters and choreographers are adjusting. Individuality, point of view, and musicality are slowly kudzuing around the complex apparatus of the new system.

Skating has its own vocabulary: flying camels, butterflies, twizzles. (My notes for one man say, “Guy, decide if this is a camel or an illusion,” an unexpectedly existential question.) It has its own traditions, like the teddy bears that come sailing down from the stands to reward favored skaters, and the child skaters, the “sweepers,” who go out and gather them—girls in matching red dresses, and tiny moppet boys in tiny moppet tuxes.

The jargon that exemplifies the on-the-nose unsubtlety of skating’s aesthetic is the “kiss and cry”: an area right next to the rink to which skaters stumble, after completing their programs and taking their bows, to cope with whatever just happened on the ice. Their coaches hug them or stoically pat their knees, they gulp water or try to look nonchalant (Keegan Messing did tricks with his yo-yo), and the cameras zoom in on their faces as they await their scores. It’s a harsh ritual, sponsored by Puffs tissues. (A huge logo is right behind the sobbing skaters’ heads.) Skating requires open emotionality combined with the ability to cope with public failure and humiliation.

In one sense skating is unforgiving. If you botch your short program you get a full day to think about it, and then you have to come back and either move up a few places and call that redemption, or fall apart in public for the second time in three days.

But in another sense skating can be gentle. There are so many ways to be a good skater that somebody who can’t or doesn’t want to attain the highest competitive honors can still find an adoring audience at ice shows. Gary Beacom’s competitive performances—he’s a two-time Canadian national silver medalist, and his highest World Championship placement was tenth—are a lurching array of wildly individualist lunging and stroking punctuated by broken, unsuccessful jumps. But his weird, oozy style gained him a passionate following once he left the competitive ranks. Nicole Bobek, who won the U.S. National title and World bronze in 1995 but fell apart at her one Olympics, went from a fizzy little firecracker with sketchy jump entrances to a mature, lyrical artist. If you only know Bobek from her competitive years, check her out on YouTube: Her recent work, influenced by Cirque du Soleil, radiates joy and a wry, sassy gratitude. Skating offers its competitors an afterlife.

And at Nationals virtually every skater does at least one thing that I’ll love and remember. The audience will clap for a fall, but not if the skater “pops” a jump, his legs unbuttoning in the air so that a triple jump becomes an awkward single. Timothy Dolensky takes two falls after a difficult warm-up. His mistakes add poignancy to his beautifully deep spread eagles—that leaning move you may remember from Brian Boitano, where the skater looks like a giant wishbone traveling in huge curves across the ice. It’s a swoony move that, in Dolensky’s performance, feels like a gift of self to the audience. Grant Hochstein has a curvy, soft style—and no fully clean jumps. A fan throws him a hat shaped like a lobster as he gets off the ice. He gamely puts it on, clowning and trying not to cry, as his coach adjusts the thing’s claws and eyestalks. Douglas Razzano appears before us in a spangly, tattered-stormcloud capelet. He does a longing, tragique program, which I desperately want to like—I usually love these yearning, curving programs that sculpt the negative space—but it seems slow, so it plays as self-pitying rather than as a surrender to the music.

Adam Rippon is a magnificent animal, and he glares like one, sailing out onto the ice. At his best Rippon is elegant and ferocious, a skater who shakes the music in his teeth. He was not at his best in Boston. He skates on a gloriously long edge backward, his spine arching and his head thrown back, up into a triple Lutz with both arms over his head (a “Rippon Lutz,” his signature). It’s like watching a wave crash into froth. Unfortunately his other jumps aren’t there for him, as he falls on the triple axel and stumbles out of his combination jump. He’s got a gorgeous layback spin—that music-box pose you usually see ladies doing in the ads—and the crowd claps him through his footwork, but there it is. In the kiss and cry his cupid’s face is flat, angry, with a hangover edge of sullenness: the Sick Bacchus on the phone with his mother. He’s just felt his last Olympic chance slip out of his hands.

As for the people who did what they came here for: Richard Dornbush was the first to get a standing ovation. He’s the 2011 National silver medalist, and he looks like a winner. Confident and playful, he swoops in toward the judges and then darts away. Can’t catch me!

Jeremy Abbott, three-time national champion and famous international head case, hits a quad-triple combination jump, seven revolutions in the blink of an eye, easy and clean. Swish. His program is slinky; he’s a smooth pro with lilting arms. There’s a captivating sleaziness here which really works with Abbott’s perpetual weirdness, his slightly off-center persona. He skates like it’s last call at the Copacabana and if he doesn’t seduce somebody he’s got nowhere to sleep. The judges fall for it and so do we, surging to our feet.

But he’s not the breakout star of Nationals. That’s Jason Brown, whose “Riverdance” freeskate ended up on Buzzfeed and Mashable and your aunt’s Facebook. Brown is a ridiculously effervescent, ponytailed 19 year old, and he grabs the audience and never lets go. His short program is sassy and dominant, and he hits everything, marks every single beat of the music, makes every moment look natural. He doesn’t have a quad, and only just got a reliable triple axel; he’s second to Abbott, but the crowd starts clanging those cowbells and waving flags and I choke up a little as I think, “He’s going to Sochi now.” Every now and then you see a person realize that his moment has come and actually enjoy it while it’s happening.

And then there’s Robert Przepioski. He started skating when he was 14; most of these guys start in elementary school. Just getting here is a victory. He falls, sure. He’s last place in the short and he won’t move up in the long. Skating requires you to defeat your own expectations and the pressures you’ve placed on yourself; Przepioski is glowing as he gets off the ice.

On Sunday almost all of the men skate better. The hissy sound system is especially unkind to lyrical skaters like Scott Dyer, who has lovely long edges, striking body lines, and messy jumps. One sports commentator called the men here “Keystone Kops” for their frequent tumbles to the ice, but skating is not all about one thing. Philip Warren, who goes for some gutsy jumps and falls twice, feels his music—he accents it precisely with changes of edge and direction. He does a great cantilever: like a spread eagle but crouching and leaning backward. Dolensky falls twice, but also has a fun, dramatic, swingy style and a sweet little hand-over-the-head jump; Messing, the yo-yo enthusiast, falls but has immense crowd appeal, a truly heartfelt final spin, and several scary jumps landed with deep knee-bends. Various men land quads and I try to care.

Ross Miner trains in Boston, and his choreography depicts the bombing of the Boston Marathon. I mean he mimes running, and then there are explosive noises and he clutches his head. Before the explosions he focuses upward, like the moving version of a poster with the tagline, ASPIRE! In the tragedy part his movements become jagged and downward-focused; then he recovers with spread eagles and not-great Russian split jumps. There have been stellar ice-dance programs honoring the civil rights movement and the “disappeared” of Latin America, among other topics I would’ve expected to turn tacky. I’m not convinced that this literal-minded program conveys “Boston Strong.” But this crowd loves him.

As the final, highest-ranked group of men warm up, Rippon and Brown look the most stressed. Joshua Farris is a musical, sensitive young skater with some strong jumps in the back half of his program, even though whenever a skater uses “Schindler’s List” I want to cry, “Never again!” Farris is lyrical and almost hypnotic, but can’t quite escape the lugubrious self-seriousness endemic to “Schindler” programs. Last year’s winner Max Aaron has a ton of jumps and great spins, and occasionally even shows a flash of style amid his silly hand movements. I love his saucy jounce of the shoulders at the judges.

Adam Rippon in a Nijinsky-inspired “Afternoon of a Faun”—my heart breaks. Before he starts, people in the audience call out, “You can do this!” “C’mon, Adam!” That’s how he looks. And then everything he doesn’t mess up is breathtaking. Two Rippon Lutzes; the music flows and arches through him. But he pops his first jump, then his second, and it’s over. Dornbush, skating to a Beatles medley, has similar problems—feeling the weight of his success in the short program, as Rippon bore the weight of failure. At the end he looks like he’s trying to shake off a punch to the face. It’s a good program but not a great one, even if he’d skated it clean: too serious to be pure entertainment, but too normal to be art.

Speaking of pure entertainment, here’s Jason Brown! Not all his jumps are pretty, but he’s got speedy spins, musical Michael Flatley footwork, and the “it” quality that sweeps the crowd up in his charisma. Flexibility, strength, control, which is always just about to slip off into wildness, and a high air of hilarity—the standing ovation starts before he’s even done skating. The energy and happiness flow between the stands and the ice; just as each moan from the crowd seemed to make Rippon’s next jump more intimidating, so each whoop lifts Brown up. You think nobody can beat this. Then Abbott goes out there—almost missing his start time, so the crowd has to yell at him to get into position—and hands out a quad and two triple axels, in a flawed but thoughtful program where nothing is rushed, and Abbott’s a four-time national champion and two-time Olympian. It’s a git-’er-done program, sufficient but not blazing. The crowd stands for him and he basks in it. Our Olympic men will be Jeremy Abbott in his last competitive season, and Jason Brown in his first year out of juniors.

Skating amps up our ordinary helplessness. Skaters’ fates are determined by injuries, economics (skating is famously expensive), social conditions (…and famously tough for boys who don’t like being bullied), poor timing of puberty. They have startlingly few chances to prove themselves—Jason Brown will have five competitions this season; Keegan Messing had four. Each competition offers about six minutes in which to justify grueling months. Skaters are dependent on the judges—the intimate relationship between athlete and judge, in a famously subjective sport, gets highlighted before each competition as an announcer introduces the judges and invites us to clap for them—and they’re dependent on their national skating federation.

But my last memory of Boston isn’t of a skater’s helplessness. After the competition we get the Smucker’s Skating Spectacular, where the top-ranked skaters do a program just for the fans. Brown does “U Can’t Touch This,” and of course it’s delightful; Abbott gets emotional about his last Nationals. The last skaters of the night are by far the best hope for American figure skating gold in Sochi: Davis and White.

Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the ice dancers who placed second in the Vancouver Olympics, have a crisp hyper-perfection which should feel cold but doesn’t. Their unison is ridiculous. Before their skate, the very last program of Nationals, we endure a brief interview with them; White comes across as relentlessly normal in interviews, while Davis is a parody of the “I just want to skate my best!” cliché. We are just so honored, etc etc.

But then they begin to move, on blades that barely make a sound. They become one creature. Time seems to flow differently: They’re so fast, and yet they seem to be in slow motion. Even as I watch them flow across the ice, I feel as if I’m revisiting a perfect memory, as if all this happened long ago. They skate like the whiff of a woman’s perfume, lingering after she’s left. And I’m helpless before their beauty. 

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About the Author

Eve Tushnet blogs on the Catholic channel of Patheos.com.