“I can’t believe you missed my birthday! You didn’t show up at Dairy Queen for our birthday blizzards that we’ve had for the past seven years. No card. Not even a call. How could you forget your best friend?” Jamie ran toward the bathroom trying to conceal her tears, leaving Alexa standing dumbfounded at her locker.
During first period calculus, the teacher rambled on about derivatives and limits, but Alexa replayed the scene by her locker over and over. How could she have let it go this far? Skating used to be a relief for her, a way to calm her nerves and forget about everything else. How did she get so obsessed that nothing else, not even her best friend, mattered?
Alexa had been figure skating since she was eight years old and until recently, everything had been fine. It had been difficult to balance school, friends, family and skating but she had embraced the challenge. During the past year something inside Alexa had snapped. This was a crucial year in her skating. She would be graduating from high school this spring and hoped to be accepted to a prestigious skating academy where she could train for the Olympics. Alexa would need to place first or second in the regional competition to be considered for acceptance. From there she would have to interview with judges and coaches who would assess her potential.
The stress of this process had worn Alexa down. The divisional competition had taken place in early November and she had placed second. A silver medal finish was adequate for most, but it devastated Alexa. If she could only place second at divisional, there was no way she would place in the top two at regionals. She would be up against forty-nine other skaters at a level close to her own. It was not enough just to a skate well, she had to be at her absolute best and the competition was only a month away. The next few weeks Alexa lived at the rink. She was there when the doors opened at 5am to skate for two hours before school. After school Alexa rushed to the studio for ballet class. Although she was never particularly fond of the art form, her coach insisted that it would help make her routines more fluid. From there Alexa made a quick stop at home to grab a light dinner and change before she had to be back at the rink. She worked with her coach, perfecting her triple toe loop and double axle. Landing a triple axle would greatly increase her technical score but it was a big risk. If she fell her score would be severely penalized. After working on jumps and spins, Alexa ran through her program about ten times and then did a cool down exercise. Her legs felt like Jell-O as she unlaced her skates. Her bare feet were covered in blisters and bruises. She was used to the pain, but her feet had been increasingly sore lately. Skaters are known for forcing their bodies beyond physical limitations and Alexa was a prime example.
Back home, Alexa grabbed a bag of popcorn and headed up to her room. It was now 9:00pm and she had not even cracked open her homework. She turned on all the lights and cranked up the music in a desperate attempt to keep herself awake as she studied. The next three hours were spent trying to grasp the concepts of calculus, physics and Spanish. Every night was different, but Alexa usually collapsed on her bed at about midnight. She was unconscious minutes after her head hit the pillow. This was Alexa’s favorite part of the day but it was also the shortest. She would be awake again in four and a half hours.
This rigorous schedule was to blame for Alexa’s unstable mental state. As the regional competition grew closer Alexa’s family and friends began to worry about her. She had brushed them off for weeks until she finally realized she had gone too far. Missing Jamie’s birthday was something she could never undo. She had made a huge mistake and now she had to find a way to rectify the situation. The competition was still two days away so she would have to get through that first and then she could return to her normal life.
The big day finally arrived and Alexa was a bundle of nerves and butterflies. She slipped into her royal blue skating dress and pinned her hair tightly in back of her head. The dress had been made perfectly to her specifications. She had chosen the fabric and color carefully to accent the routine. She looked perfect, and now she had to skate flawlessly. During her warm up Alexa glanced into the stands. There she saw Jamie sitting wrapped in a blanket holding a sign that read, “You can do it Alexa.” She tried to conceal her tears and concentrate on her program, but knowing that Jamie was there and being supportive of her after all she had done was breaking her heart.
“Our next skater will be Alexa Williams. She is coached by Gloria Smith and will be skating to music from the Titanic,” the announcer said as the arena grew silent.
Alexa skated to the center and took her starting pose. The music started softly and then increased in volume. “I can do this,” Alexa told herself. “The rest of the footwork is a piece of cake. I just have two more jumps and then I’ll be on that podium.”
She knew that she had skated flawlessly so far. She was the essence of grace and fluidity and she had nailed all her maneuvers. Alexa turned the corner in preparation for her double axle and just then she caught Jamie’s face. Smiling from ear to ear and holding the sign proudly over her head. Alexa tried to focus on her skating as she took off for the jump but she didn’t have enough momentum. After one and a half turns in the air Alexa came crashing to the ice leaving the audience gasping in shock. She quickly got to her feet and finished the last twenty seconds of her routine. One thing that is drilled into a skaters head is that you can never stop, no matter what happens you must always finish the routine. The music stopped and Alexa stood in the center of the rink, tears streaming down her face, bowing before her audience.
The next skater was announced and Alexa skated off the ice as fast as she could without looking awkward; presentation was everything in figure skating. She approached the waiting area where her coach and mother were standing. Alexa grabbed her warm-ups and walked away, ignoring her mother’s hugs and her coach’s reminder to stretch before her muscles tightened up. She searched franticly for an empty room in the crowded arena. A dark room filled with trophies was Alexa’s haven. She crouched down in the corner and began sobbing.
“What happened? I had everything under control? Why is everything falling apart? Alexa rambled on and on to herself. “I’ve been doing double axles for over a year, I can usually pull off my triples, there was no reason I should have fallen. There go my Olympic dreams. Now what am I going to do?”
Alexa unlaced her skates and took them off. She began to massage her cramped and sore feet and was overcome by a second batch of tears. This time from the pain of her ankles and feet that were swollen and purple. When she couldn’t cry anymore, Alexa searched for the light switch and looked around the trophy room. She was surrounded by beautiful women wearing medals around their necks and enormous smiles on their faces. These pictures were pleasing to most people. They would say things like “She looks so happy, it must have been a lucky day for her” and “What a beautiful sport figure skating is, all the girls are so petite and graceful.” Alexa did not get the same pleasure out of these photos. She knew that each of these skaters has sacrificed a “normal life” to spend countless hours practicing jumps, spins and footwork sequences. Only a skater would know that their fellow athlete’s bodies are chiseled to perfection from being pushed past their physical limitations for years; a skater’s body is anything but petite.
Alexa gathered her composure and began to walk around the rink to stretch out her legs and clear her mind. She passed the crowded snack stand where a grumpy college student was serving nachos and soft drinks. Then she came to a rink where a hockey game was going on. Hockey always seemed like a waste of ice time and unnecessarily violent to Alexa, so she didn’t stay to watch. She continued to walk around the deserted halls of the arena until she came to another rink where a couple was practicing their routine. Alexa could tell from their costumes and the style of music that they were ice dancers. She sat down on the bench and watched them for a while. Alexa was captivated by the grace and fluidity of their routine. The music stopped in mid stanza and the skaters glided to a stop. Alexa waited in anticipation for their coach to come onto the ice and point out all the mistakes that they had made. This was a situation she was all too familiar with. Alexa was right, the coach did skate out to meet his students but he didn’t criticize them. They just seemed to be talking, and then the girl started to laugh. Alexa stared in disbelief. She hadn’t laughed while skating since she was probably about eight years old. She occasionally shared a smile with Gloria over a well executed jump but they never laughed during practice.
Alexa had almost forgotten that skating used to be fun. There was a point where she had been as happy as the girl she was watching, but that had been many years ago. Alexa had grown up at a rink but she didn’t know much about ice dancing. As she continued to watch the couple their enthusiasm for the sport was evident. None of their movements looked forced or stiff and the smiles on their faces weren’t strained or fake. When the couple finally skated off the rink, Alexa realized she had been watching them for over half an hour. There wasn’t much else to do at the rink and she still wasn’t ready to be around people, so Alexa walked out into the parking lot and found her car. Inside she sprawled out in the backseat and started thinking about her skating, her life and her future.
She knew that skating had become an obsession for her and that she had to get her life straightened out. The scores had not been announced yet, but she was sure that her fall ruined the chances of placing first or second in the competition. This meant that the Olympic training school was out of the question. Alexa had no other plans for her future.
Jamie walked up to Alexa’s car and knocked on the window, startling Alexa and pulling her out of her trance. “Your mom and Gloria have been looking everywhere for you. They thought that you might have gone for a walk, but I know you better than that. I figured you would just want to curl up and hide for a while.” Jamie looked at Alexa’s tear streaked face, “It looks like I was right.”
“I don’t know what has been going on with me. I have completely lost control, all for this stupid competition and then I choked.”
“Alexa, look at me. Your closest contender fell on her double too. The judges were so impressed with the rest of your routine. You placed second.”
Alexa threw open the car door and pulled her best friend onto the seat beside her. She babbled on about how this meant that she could apply for the training school and how she would have to start practicing her routine and preparing for the interview process. Jamie watched her best friend with a blank look on her face, but tried to be as supportive as she could. Alexa caught her friend’s forlorn eyes and realized she had made yet another mistake. Not ten minutes ago she had realized that her skating had become an obsession and now she was talking about making the problem even worse.
Alexa paused. “Actually, I don’t think I’ll apply. There are some other things I need to focus on right now.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me. This school is all you’ve talked about for the past two years. I can’t imagine you doing anything else.” Jamie said with eyes wide.
“That’s the problem. Skating is all I’ve thought, lived and breathed for the last year but especially lately. I realized while I was watching a couple skate earlier that it’s not even fun for me anymore. So what’s the point? I have put my life on hold for a while and I miss the normal high school stuff that I see you and everyone else doing. I know I can never change it, but Jamie, I am so sorry that I missed your birthday. I like to skate but I want to have a life too.”
The two friends sat in Alexa’s car for almost an hour crying, hugging, laughing, and doing what they had missed out on the past few months. Jamie filled Alexa in on her plans to attend the University of Minnesota next fall and what a nightmare the application had been. Their conversation was interrupted when Alexa’s coach, Gloria, knocked on the window. Alexa shot Jamie a nervous look and rolled down the window.
“Congratulations. You placed second, but we have a lot more work do before your audition and interview. You got lucky today, but if you fall before the board you’ll never be accepted.” Gloria was a no-nonsense woman. She wanted Alexa to succeed and sometimes pushed her a little too hard.
“I’m not going to apply. I need to get some other things in my life straightened out.” Alexa played with the zipper on her jacket, giving Jamie a desperate “save me” look.
“You’re just going to throw all this away? Everything we’ve been working toward for years just so you can have slumber parties and gossip with your little friends. Do you think that Sasha Cowen or Michelle Kwan would be where they are today if they wanted a normal life?” Gloria crossed her arms on top of the car and leaned in the window toward Alexa.
“I don’t want to stop skating entirely,” Alexa stammered but she was quickly interrupted.
“You think that you can just practice when you feel like it? You know you’ll never get anywhere thinking like that.”
“Please let me finish. I don’t want to stop skating entirely, but I can’t handle the stress right now. I want to be able to relate to my friends and their lives. I was watching a couple ice dancing earlier. Their program was beautiful, but they were laughing and having fun while doing it. I used to love to skate and I miss that. Maybe I could give it a try.”
“Ice dancing? That’s your great plan? It’s for skaters who can’t take the pressure of figure skating. A cheap knock-off of the real sport in my opinion.”
“Oh” Alexa sunk back in her seat trying to muster up some confidence. She had always been too scared to confront Gloria about her skating, or anything else for that matter. Gloria was just so assertive that it was hard to disagree with her. “Well, I want to try it. I need to get my life back but I can’t imagine not skating at all. Ice dancing looks like fun and it wouldn’t be as time consuming or draining,” Alexa said with a quivering voice.
“Do what you want, but don’t come running to me when you come to your senses and realize that you have the Olympic dream within reach and you just threw it all away.” Gloria stormed away.
Alexa turned to see Jamie, sitting on the seat beside her with a huge grin plastered across her face. Jamie leaned over to hug her friend as Alexa let out a huge sign of relief. She had faced Gloria, now everything else was within reach.