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‘What I want back is what I was’: The truth about my time on the ice

“What I want back is what I was”

I came across this Sylvia Plath quote and wondered how she managed to put the thoughts of the last five years of my life into one short sentence of just eight words.

Now, I’d like to stress, I like who I am. I’m proud of who I am, and I’m proud of most of my actions to date. But I’ve learned, unfortunately, that you can be proud of who you are, while still wishing for a different you…

I’ll start from the beginning.

I was almost 10-years-old and as happy as a 10-year-old could be. It was a weekday afternoon on Spring break. I found myself with my brother and dad, lost in the middle of Boca Raton, Florida, trying to find an ice skating rink.

My dad had promised me he’d take me skating and he finally decided he couldn’t get away with postponing it any longer.

Why did I want to go ice skating so badly? I honestly don’t even remember.

I walked into this rink in the middle of what felt like nowhere and looked around for something I would recognize. I skated a few times back in New York and was dying to prove to my dad that I knew something about the sport.

I walked into the rink and was told that we were too late to skate. “The session is ending in a few minutes” we were told, something I was relieved to hear. Somehow that didn’t stop my dad from pulling me inside and trying to teach me something I didn’t know that morning — something he still does almost every day.

We walked towards the ice and looked around. It looked like a regular public session: A few people were skating, some families, some couples, and a few amateur figure skaters working on their skills.

Then, from the corner of my eye, I saw the woman that was about to change my life.

Nataliya who was coaching a skater, did something that day and still does for probably over 20+ hours a week. She was just doing her job, probably not paying much attention to her steps, but I was falling in love.

My dad looked at me and said: “If you ever want to learn to skate, it’s going to be with her.”

Nataliya was beautiful. She was confident and athletic, yet graceful and delicate. She was elegant and refined in every way. She was everything that I had never learned how to be, and everything I now wanted in my life.

I pretended that I wasn’t interested in a lesson with her, mostly because I could see how tough she was on her students that day and it petrified me. I had never experienced anything close to athletic training, especially not on that level.

I took two lessons with Nataliya that week and we headed back to New York.

Suddenly my life seemed out of place. My school, our apartment, my grandmother’s house, everything that once felt like home, no longer did.

I had found my real home on the ice, and I was as confused as ever.

My parents believed in me, probably more than I even realized. My mother once told me to always follow my heart and since then it seems like she never doubted that was exactly what I was always doing.

That summer we headed back to Florida, and I headed back to Nataliya. I was introduced to her husband, Sasha. They often worked together with their more advanced students and I was ecstatic that I was now considered worthy of a lesson with him. His students did the kinds of jumps and spins I had only seen on TV and I knew that my goal that summer was to prove to him that I could fit in.

I’ll always remember his face when I showed him the axel I had taught myself using YouTube videos. Suddenly anything I had ever done until that point didn’t matter anymore. I had made Sasha proud of me, and that feeling was one I would remember forever.

Six months later my parents gave up their lives for their 11-year-old daughter’s Olympic dream.

My family picked up and moved to Florida when Nataliya told me that I had a place there as one of her skaters. My brother and I changed our lives completely, we became home-schooled and gave up everything we ever knew.

My mom left her home, her parents, and put her career as a concert pianist on hold so that I could have my shot at turning this dream into a reality. My dad flew back and forth between NY and FL, sometimes two or three times a week. And in the first two years of us living in Florida, my dad only missed one weekend. The amount of financial sacrifice alone is one I will never be able to pay back.

Nobody else believed in me… nobody.

My friends thought I was stupid and my family berated my parents multiple times a day with phone calls criticizing their choice to support me, which is something I will never forget.

Still, it didn’t matter. I believed in me, my parents and brother believed in me, and most incredible to me, Nataliya and Sasha believed in me. Another thing I will never forget.

Nataliya and Sasha became my favorite people. Their screaming would give me nightmares and sometimes the nerves I had before lessons caused me to vomit regularly, but I was not phased. Nobody had ever believed in me at this level and with something so special, I vowed to myself that I would never disappoint them.

And then my bad luck kicked in…

I was progressing faster than many other skaters I had met. I found myself spending every free second working on something related to skating. I played my program music everywhere I went, I did axels through the mall, I watched what seemed like every video related to skating available to me online and took notes on each one. I changed my diet, I changed my sleep schedule, I spent hours in the gym working out or practicing my jumps. This was my life at 12 and I loved every second of it.

But the worst part of sports, which we often never hear about, was just waiting to begin. Between 12 and 15-years-old I injured everything I could.

I broke toes, I broke the growth bone in my foot, I cracked my femur and competed with that injury (one of my proudest accomplishments to this day), I took a skate to the head requiring multiple stitches, which was followed by a fall and awful concussion, my tailbone has been fractured more times than I can count…the list goes on and on.

Somehow after each injury, and sometimes even during, I felt unstoppable. My little teenage self was quite tough, the kind of tough I fear and that I lost a long time ago. It was the kind of tough I find myself having to beg myself to try and recreate every day.

Eventually though, one of my injuries got the best of me.

One afternoon, on my second trip to the rink that day, I was trying to show off my abilities during an ‘off-ice’ class, where we practice jumps on the floor. We were doing double axels — a jump where you take off from your left foot, rotate two and a half times in the air and land on your right foot. This was a jump I had done thousands of times, both on and off the ice, yet this was the jump that would change my life.

I landed on the side of my right foot. I don’t know if the floor was wet or I was simply unfocused, but all I remember was hearing a pop and thinking, “I need to sit down.”

I walked over to the bench and took a seat, totally unaware of what I had just done. I thought to myself “you rolled your ankle, wait three minutes and go do it again.” But I couldn’t.

My ankle was a shade of blue and green that I had never seen before. The swelling and discoloration was instant. It looked like I had taken a magic marker and simply went to town.

The hospital wrapped my foot and told me nothing, scheduling an MRI for the following day. I was convinced I would be competing in a few weeks and started planning out my practice schedule for once I could train again.

That wasn’t the case. I was told my ankle was “pretty messed up.” No, that was not the medical term the doctor used, but it’s probably the best way to describe what I had done.

I tore two ligaments and three tendons, bruised every bone in my foot and had a significant partial tear in my Achilles tendon. Every doctor I saw told me to give up, and some days I really wish that was what I had done.

Seven years later, here I am.

I’m on the ice. Almost every day. Something I could not be happier about. I love skating more than I’ve ever loved anything, and not skating hurts me in a way I have yet to figure out how to put into words.

My injury healed as best it could (for a year or so, I actually managed to train properly), but the scars that it has left, both physically and emotionally, have haunted me for what feels like forever.

Some days I wonder what actually hurts me more, skating or not skating?

I remember two years ago on my 21st birthday I swore to myself that I would do my double axel. The jump that causes terrifying flashbacks every time I step into it. It was also the jump that would make me finally love myself on my birthday, an incredibly unhealthy thought that I had convinced myself to believe in.

That entire session was a blur, and after two hours on the ice, I found myself sitting in a bathroom stall, crying to my brother on the phone, and slicing at parts of my arm with an old screw I had found on the bathroom floor. I still remember that as one of my lowest moments, scarily enough I now realize, I created that moment for myself.

I spent last year skating every day with one of my coaches, Emanuele Ancorini.

My goal started out with, “let’s try and get all of my double jumps back and begin working again on some triples.” And when that didn’t work, my goal turned into, “please no crying today.”

I spent every session in tears. My lessons turned into therapy sessions and my goal of jumping turned into a goal of just getting myself to show up. If someone asks me to tell you how I feel about Emanuele as a coach, I’ll tell you he saved my life.

Almost every day I found myself in tears, staring at the ice, hoping for something to get better. It never did. But because of Emanuele, it didn’t get worse. And that is something I will always be grateful for.

Mr. Hongyun Liu, my current coach, is another savior of mine. Some days his smile and calm demeanor are the best parts of my session and day.

I wish I could eloquently explain exactly what is happening to me, but I can’t seem to find the words. Sometimes I wonder if I even really know.

My pain is tolerable on most days, some days I can’t bend my ankle at all and it forces me to cancel skating sessions. Other days I can skate but cannot jump. And on some very rare occasions, I feel physically able to conquer the sport, even if that feeling only lasts for an hour or so.

My previous injuries haunt me only a few times a year, and my ankle seems to be getting (very slowly but surely) stronger with each passing day. At the same time, I was diagnosed with a bad case of TMJ last year which sometimes causes such headaches and dizziness, that on some days skating is the last thing I can imagine doing.

And yet, I am confident if I could just get over my anger and sadness with myself, I could get over all of these physical ailments as well. But how?

I used to think I was simply an anxious person. I always panicked a little bit more than my friends before a competition, or even when asked out on a date by someone I liked. But I never realized just how dangerous my thoughts would eventually become.

Some days I drive up to the rink and I feel a sinking feeling in my gut, a feeling that last year would have made me go home, and a feeling that I now am proud to say I fight almost every day.

I wish I could explain why the ice brings out all of these emotions inside of me. Honestly, I just wish I knew for myself.

I know one thing for sure: I’m humiliated.

I’m humiliated for myself, for my parents, for Nataliya and Sasha, for Emanuele, and for Mr. Liu.

Sometimes I think maybe it’s a good thing that fewer people believed in me. Because now I have fewer people to disappoint.

I’m not a confident person — I’m an insecure pessimist. Not a great combination for someone who wants to be a professional athlete. And yet, I always thought I would make it. Maybe I thought I loved figure skating so much, I simply had no options but to be great. Maybe I thought God would reward me with some kind of success after putting me through every injury imaginable. Too bad that’s not how God works.

Some days I feel like I’m in a better place and then a familiar face walks into the rink, “someone who may remember me from when I was good,” I think to myself, and my entire day goes out the window.

When I tell anyone about the injuries that I have been through I get told how brave and tough I am. Something that I also believed before this became my new normal. What I’m doing now is harder than anything I could have ever imagined doing for this sport when I was 12.

I try every day to go back to who I was. I try to find what it is that will help me escape these demons that seem to follow me and steal the most precious thing in my life.

And although it seems like every day is another day in hell, I like to remind myself that the recovery from anything is more important than the destination. Even if it seems like that destination is getting further and further away.

Every demon that I can try and control was created inside of my own imagination and just by finally understanding that I may begin to find the power it takes to destroy those very demons.

Something I need to do if I ever plan on skating freely again. But more importantly, something I need to do if I ever plan on living freely again. At this point, I feel as though I have been through it all.

I’ve broken or torn what feels like everything that makes up my body. I regularly skate with excruciating pain. The thoughts that consume my head would normally scare me into staying home, but I fight them as best I can every single day. On some days I share the ice with people who have bullied me for thinking I still have a chance in this sport, other days I share the ice with people who regularly sexually harass me. Some days, it’s both.

This sport that started out as one lesson with a beautiful skater, turned into the best thing in my life. Every happy memory I have from my adolescent years takes me back to the ice. I don’t think anything can or ever will impact me the way that skating has.

I found myself on the ice and ten years later I lost myself on the ice.

But perhaps I had to get this lost in order to discover where I am going next.

Mr. Liu, I love you more than you know. Your belief in me the last few years is the ONLY thing that gets me up every morning, thank you. Emanuele, you saved me, I don’t know any person or coach that would have stood by me and held me up as you did, thank you. Nataliya and Sasha, you changed my life forever, thanks to you I experienced the happiest years of my life, thank you.

Mommy, Daddy, Gabe, Darren, I love you. Thank you.

What I want back is what I was, what I need now is to see what I can be.