LIFE LESSONS FROM WATCHING COMPETITIVE FIGURE SKATING

LIFE LESSONS FROM WATCHING COMPETITIVE FIGURE SKATING
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If you've seen me in the past year or so, I have probably mentioned that I've 'gotten really into competitive figure skating' with the sort of enthusiasm usually reserved for news of engagements or firstborn children. I would have once felt embarrassed about being such a fangirl but you know, it's kind of liberating to just shamelessly flaunt your enthusiasm. 

Having never really possessed an athletic bone in my body, I never expected to find myself a sports fan - not for tennis, not for figure skating. But, somehow, I'm here and I think it's because there's something very symbolic about sport and the way it takes the messiness of life and distills it into a clear-cut story: a clear goal, a way to achieve them using universal values: hard work, perseverance, talent, inspiration, teamwork, and the clean drama of wins and losses to measure how well you did. It's almost pure in its simplicity, in a way that life definitely isn't.

But the reason I'm writing what is essentially a love letter to the sport is because I found myself repeatedly moved, not merely by the rare lightning-strike 'perfect' performances I was able to witness, but by watching skaters struggle, fail and, inexplicably, impossibly, fight their way back up again, setback after setback.

There were straight up triumphs and small triumphs within heartbreak, all the more bittersweet - Wakaba's twitter post after just missing out on an Olympic spot, Satoko overcoming her hip fracture, to Mirai's comeback, to Adam Rippon's entire existence, to Boyang's comeback 4CC win after spraining both ankles (there was a lot of ugly sobbing), to Yuzuru, about to make his comeback on the Olympic stage, putting everything on the line - and the skaters who don't quite reach the heights of the most elite, struggling all the same with injuries, disappointments, but carrying on with what they do out of love for the sport.  

A little more than a year after diving headfirst into the figure skating fandom and a day before the start of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics' figure skating events, I wanted to share the things I've learnt from a year of following competitive figure skating. The skaters have inspired me, motivated me to keep going and truly taught me a lot. 

I'm also starting with a playlist of my favourite 'must-watch' performances, because I'm getting someone who knows nothing interested in this (thank me later).

A continually updated playlist of some of my personal favourite programs from currently competing skaters and other 'greats' of the past, including recommendations from other fans. Starting with Yuzuru Hanyu's free skate 'Seimei' at the 2015 Grand Prix Final which was the performance that dragged me down the rabbit hole to start with.

Lesson 1: You are not prepared

We're pretty sure that the reason why this Olympic season has been massively cursed is because there were certain fans complaining that mens figure skating is too predictable. This is a sport where your fortunes can change or reverse - for good or bad - with one jump. Who needs drugs when you're emotionally invested in figure skating? The only thing you can do is prepare for the worst and hope against hope for the best. 

Lesson 2: The hardest thing to do is to make things look effortless

Figure skaters are launching themselves in the air at top speed, rotating 3 or 4 times less than a second, landing with force can be seven times one's body weight on knife blades, on a frictionless surface. And that's just the singles skaters. The amount of athleticism and skill it takes to do something like figure skating is often - and predictably - underrated because they're in sequins and pretty dresses. It's also not just the jumps - if you've ever tried to skate backwards (/cough me), you'll appreciate how much of an awkward, stumbling, slow-moving disaster you become even if you can skate forwards reasonably well. So I suppose the lesson is not to underestimate just how many falls, injuries and grinding it takes to make something look easy. And that figure skating is one of the hardest sports in the world.  

Lesson 3: Enjoy the process

Trying to understand how FS is scored or works as a sport - identifying jumps, steps, spins and how a program is put together - is an ordeal in itself, and gets even more intense when you're starting to memorise skaters' programs and know when they screw up (even if it doesn't look like they did). However, the more I learn about it, the more fascinating it is to watch, the more I'm just blown away by how much skill it takes. It takes a lot of effort to get into, but - like most things that take effort - it’s really worth it. Through being overly invested in Team Japan and Team China, I managed to recover quite a bit of my Japanese through translating, albeit my vocabulary is now full of useless sports terminology. It's amazing what things come around full circle when you least expect. 

If you’re a masochist, here’s a straightforward guide to scoring.   

Lesson 4: Support in an abundance mindset 

The life of a figure skater is cruel and short already - most are retired by their mid-20s, with only a few exceptions, and you will have your heart broken at some point by a favourite who just falls short or gets underscored on their performance. To be able to wholeheartedly support and cheer others to do their best is the healthiest mindset to have - one that many skaters demonstrate because they often train with their direct competitors - and a sign of being secure in yourself. In contrast to opponent-style sports, figure skating is all about being alone on the ice and conquering yourself, and there’s something thrilling and inspiring in watching that, whether or not a particular skater is your favourite. In fact, I've been moved to tears so many times by skaters I didn't really feel anything for in the past (and then you end up adding them to your ever-growing list of 'skaters I'd protect with my life').  

Lesson 5: The community makes the experience

The Olympics experience for me will be getting up at 2AM in Europe to watch a livestream (probably Russian or Chinese) while yelling with fans all over the world on Twitter who you know are suffering with you in solidarity and screaming in triumph, all at the same time; I did the same for most of the competitions this season. You get used to converting timezones, to digging through international websites, hashtags and social media for news. Figure skating fans - like most fans I'm sure - are dramatic, hilarious, dedicated, terrible and amazing thrice over.

We're also all a bit sleep deprived. 

Lesson 6: Face failure, bet big  

I've always have a tendency to hedge my bets, reluctant to throw my support behind something unless I think it has a chance (or certainty) of succeeding. But in the black-and-white world of sports and especially in figure skating, someone can win or fail in literally in the blink of an eye. So sometimes it's about being brave enough to have faith in someone, say it out loud and risk being wrong, but support them anyway and/or deal with the aftermath so you'll do better next time. You can't gain anything if you never put yourself on the line. 

Mao Asada's 2014 Sochi Free Skate. Mao went in as reigning Olympic Silver medallist from Vancouver 2010 as a podium favourite but was in 16th place after a disastrous short program. This was her free skate the following day, which received the 3rd highest score. While she ultimately finished in 6th, this was one of the highlight performances of the Sochi Olympics and one of the performances that will always stay with me the most. Mao retired in 2016.

Yuna Kim's record-breaking, gold medal-winning Free Skate at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. She would go on to win a silver at the Sochi 2014 Olympics. She retired in 2014, having never finished off the podium her entire career. This was the first figure skating performance I ever watched, back in 2011, and I often returned to just watch this program on Youtube over the years but I didn't 'properly' get into the sport until 2016. 

Sparknotes: the figure skating edition

  • There are four disciplines in figure skating: ladies and mens singles, pairs and ice dance. Singles skaters do jumps, pairs do jumps, lifts and throws, ice dance do lifts and are judged more on how well they - you guessed it - 'dance' on the ice, aka. their skating skills
     
  • Falling during a program is quite normal in figure skating, especially in the mens competition due to the difficulty of their jump elements
     
  • An excellent pain-free guide to how scoring works
     
  • The main reason why someone's score could be lower than you expect even if they don't fall is because they either pop a jump (ie. complete a jump with less than the planned number of rotations) which usually results in a huge loss of points, they get low PCS or they get edge/underrotation calls, which again drastically decrease the value of the jump they completed, even if they manage to stay on their feet. 
     
  • A guide to the key men, ladies (Pt 2), pairs and ice dance skaters in the current field (most on the list qualified to represent their countries at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics 2018 with some exceptions as every country can only qualify a maximum of 3 skaters, meaning countries with deep fields had to leave a lot of their skaters behind /sob). 
     
  • If you really want to go down the rabbit hole.
     
  • I haven't watched I, Tonya yet but there were a few hilarious problems with the skating in the movie (taking off for one jump, then cutting to the takeoff of a different jump) and mixed responses from the FS community about the glorification of Harding's story. It's dark comedy with an unreliable narrator storyline, it's about as representative as Suits is to the law. But I'll definitely watch it at some point : P
   Yuzuru Hanyu , reigning mens singles Olympic Champion, World Champion and world record holder. Suffered injury during the NHK Trophy in November 2017 and will be making his comeback at the Olympics. Painting based on his 2016 World Championship exhibition performance,   Requiem of Heaven and Earth  , dedicated to the victims of the 2011 Japan Earthquake and Tsunami disaster -- Yuzuru was also a victim of the disaster himself. At the time of the skate in Boston, he was  hiding a lisfranc ligament injury  and won silver. He said later that he skated the performance not knowing if he would be able to skate competitively again. 

Yuzuru Hanyu, reigning mens singles Olympic Champion, World Champion and world record holder. Suffered injury during the NHK Trophy in November 2017 and will be making his comeback at the Olympics. Painting based on his 2016 World Championship exhibition performance, Requiem of Heaven and Earth, dedicated to the victims of the 2011 Japan Earthquake and Tsunami disaster -- Yuzuru was also a victim of the disaster himself. At the time of the skate in Boston, he was hiding a lisfranc ligament injury and won silver. He said later that he skated the performance not knowing if he would be able to skate competitively again.