When you don’t win

Did you ever compete in the Olympics? • No, I didn't either. Here's the thing, though: I actually trained for them and discovered definitively, by the end of 11 painful years, that I didn't have anywhere near "what it takes." • The sport for which I did not represent the United States in the Olympics was figure skating. In order to make it to the Winter Games as a skater, you have to be ranked first, second or third in your country. Back when I was considerably more nimble and significantly more svelte, I finished in eighth place in the junior pairs competition at the U.S. Championships. That sounds all right in one way, but when you're brought up to feel that gold is precious, this basically feels like dirt.

I can confirm that, despite all the sparkle, figure skating is an extremely difficult sport. I say this mostly because I failed at it. Maybe you once rented skates at an indoor rink and tried to help your child find her balance, though yours was equally precarious. And I've often heard people say they "just don't have strong enough ankles for skating," while others have recounted frightening falls that convinced them never to lace up again. That's fair enough — after all, skating takes place on a slippery surface so feared in other contexts that it's combated with industrial amounts of road salt.

You've certainly watched skating on TV. This might have prompted you to consider how challenging it would be to spin and jump on steel blades about one-eighth of an inch wide. You don't need your own scars from the sport to intuit that this will inevitably lead to injuries. Indeed, when you see a skater, you can assume that some part of her body (likely a limb) is swollen, torn or bruised. What this sport does to the human foot is not fit for these pages (or, I might add, sandals).

When it eventually occurred to me that I was too timid (not to mention too tall) to be a pairs skater, I switched over to ice dance, a supposedly safer pursuit. I loved the crazy costumes and the emphasis on detail rather than velocity. The fact that I got dropped on my head during a lift in practice would have made for the subject of an inspirational television feature if I had made it to the Olympics. There was ample drama — blood, sirens, a scary ride to the ER — but in the end only a few stitches and a broken collarbone. Other athletes, Olympic-caliber athletes, could have come back from that. I, however, reached my limit. I moved into a dorm room and started college.

In sum, to become an Olympic-level figure skater, one has to have talent, composure, burning desire, financial backing, good looks, a compact body type, pain tolerance and a lot of luck. As already indicated, I was lacking in many of these categories. Additionally, I had an aversion to cold.

Maybe I sound bitter. Maybe I am. It's just a little vexing that, every time my skating career comes up, I inevitably get asked about the Olympics. Correct me if I'm wrong, but this doesn't seem to happen with other sports. If someone mentions that he played football, his listeners don't automatically say, "So, did you play in the Super Bowl?" Or baseball: "Were you in the World Series?"

I don't think people ask if I was in the Olympics in order to taunt me or to throw salt in my wounds. Perhaps this is all they can think to say. Maybe it's just a matter of word association: peanut butter/jelly, shark/Jaws, skating/Olympics. Though I know millions love to watch the sport, maybe they really only do so every four years. I can't really hold this against anyone.

The truth is that if I had been in the Olympics, you would quite possibly recognize me. You might have a haircut like mine or have a long-standing crush on me. I'd be proud of this achievement to an annoying degree. I'd surely start most (if not all) of my sentences with, "When I was competing in the Olympics …"

In a nutshell, if I'd been in the Olympics, you'd sure as hell know it. And if I'd actually done well? That medal would still be looped around my neck.

If you're beginning to think I'm living too much in the past, you would most definitely be correct. Please understand that I gave my whole young life to this pursuit. I sacrificed all that is normal — other extracurricular activities, high school parties, friends and thousands of my parents' dollars that could have gone toward my education or even a car. All of this to be Olympic-less.

My sole comfort is that I am not alone in my shortcomings. I am acquainted with many other also-rans (also-skates?). In fact, we are the majority. For every American skater you see on TV, there are thousands ranked below her. And if you were to see these lesser skaters perform, you might mistakenly think that many of them are equally competent or at least in the same so-called ballpark as the vaunted Olympians. They (we), very simply, are not.

You may be wondering what I learned from my competitive experiences. I learned that Olympians are people, too: They're just better and stronger than the rest of us in almost every conceivable way. They do indeed "want it" more, and they don't care how much it hurts.

The only thing I really took away from all my training is a pair of rather shapely calf muscles. Are my calf muscles and I watching the Olympics? You better believe it. Just know that, even as I root my heart out for the stars and stripes, I'm also snacking on a bowl of slightly sour grapes.

Jocelyn Jane Cox is a figure skating coach and freelance writer living in Bronx, N.Y. She blogs about skating on Current Skate of Mind and is working on a memoir about her experiences as a competitor. She wrote this essay for Slate.

When you don’t win 02/24/10 [Last modified: Sunday, February 28, 2010 6:42pm]

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