Gracie Gold becomes the new face of America
This weekend the sporting world is all about the Super Bowl — but next week it will all be about the Olympics.
Now that Lindsey Vonn is out of the Olympics, Gracie Gold has become America’s singular glamour athlete heading to Sochi. She is a Sports Illustrated cover subject this week, and NBC is promoting the figure skater as the face of these Games.
The only question is: Can the 18-year-old upstart deliver the way that the veteran Vonn did four years ago in Vancouver?
“I’m packing this weekend suitcases to go to the Olympics — it’s unreal,” Gold said. “To walk in the opening ceremonies, I don’t think my heart could be bigger. The closer we get to Sochi, the more and more I want to be going for a medal. I think it’s a realistic goal, and we’ll see what happens.”
There is a very good chance that U.S. audiences will get to see Gold skate four times at these Games, assuming she is chosen for the team event roster as America’s representative in the ladies’ competition. There was a time when Ashley Wagner was expected to assume that role, but Wagner finished fourth at nationals and immediately changed her program back to an earlier version.
“I remember a couple of years ago, I was watching my role models in the Olympics. And now to be that role model, it’s so wonderful,” Gold said. “You just remember why you do what you do. The passion in your sport is so important.”
Gold is ranked only 10th in the world by icenetwork.com, a long way from favored Mao Asada of Japan. But she can pull off triple-triple combinations, which is a requisite for any legitimate contender.
“I’ve learned that not everything has to be going perfectly for me to do well,” Gold said. “I’m a little better skater than I thought, I should trust myself more, control my nerves.”
Just last year, Gold changed coaches, to Frank Carroll, who mentored Evan Lysacek to the gold medal four years ago and worked with Michelle Kwan for most of her great career.
“Frank is one of the best coaches in the world,” Gold said. “He’s so full of wisdom, had so many champions, it just seemed the logical choice. You want an experienced guide on your journey.”
While other athletes have expressed concern for their own safety and that of their families, the Chicago native sounds unafraid in that regard.
“People already there told us how beautiful the arena is,” Gold said. “At the end of the day, ice is ice, but they said it’s a great arena, so big and open. The picture from the outside looks gorgeous.
“My dad, my mom, my sister, all three of them will come out to support me. We’ll be able to connect in the village. If they have the opportunity to go to the Olympics, they’re going to take it.”
Ashley Wagner: I'm in this to be remembered"
In the final weeks before the Sochi Olympics, while the world’s top figure skaters were polishing their routines, Ashley Wagner was at a southern California ice rink, starting over.
Four years devoted to making the Olympic team after narrowly missing in 2010 resulted in emotionally fraught success: Wagner fell twice at last month’s U.S. championships and finished fourth, making her selection a controversy rather than coronation.
So Wagner took a hard look at herself and made a radical change. She scrapped her long program — the heart of her Sochi playbook, in effect — and started patching together an alternative.
“It’s insane. Absolutely insane,” Wagner said, conceding that champion figure skaters simply don’t overhaul their programs so close to a major event. Sarah Hughes, Shizuka Arakawa, anyone?
But in a sport of theatrical costumes and makeup, in which rigor masquerades as effortlessness, Wagner is as grounded in reality as they come. And she knew as well as the judges that her performance to Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” lacked conviction. Her disconnect with the music and the tragic personae of 14-year-old Juliet was palpable.
So she convinced her coach, choreographer and costume designer to update “Samson and Delilah,” a medal-clinching program she competed in 2012-13 that showcased the power of the Biblical temptress and a fully realized woman to be feared.
“Off the ice, I can be soft and I can be elegant and sweet. But on the ice, that’s not the kind of competitor I am,” said Wagner, 22. “I relate so much better and compete so much better as a stronger character who is a little bit, almost, evil. For me, when I feel like I’m out there tempting everybody into loving my program, that’s when I feel undefeatable.”
It’s a major gamble, rewriting the competitive script on the eve of an Olympics. Elite athletes draw their confidence from repetition — endless repetition that etches particular movements into the muscles’ memory so that when the pressure to perform is greatest, the body can do nothing else.
But Wagner, daughter of an Army officer, who moved seven times before her family settled in northern Virginia when she was 10, is entirely at ease amid flux, accustomed to adapting on the fly. And as a competitor, she’s a fighter to the core — at her best when battling from behind.
“I am in this to be something,” Wagner said the day of her controversial selection to the 2014 U.S. Olympic team. “I’m in this to make a name for myself. I’m in this to be remembered. And I’m so prepared to do whatever I can to get onto that medal podium.”
As music from Camille Saint-Saens’ “Samson and Delilah” filled the East West Ice Palace here last month, Wagner’s coach, Rafael Arutyunyan, skated backward alongside her, barking commands, eyes fixed on the blades of her skating boots. Wagner repeated each element until Arutyunyan was satisfied. And the longer she worked, the more she attacked each passage — every bit the modern-day Delilah, determined to get what she wants.
“The claws are out,” Wagner declared upon launching into an interview after practice ended. “I’m ready to go!”
‘I was viciously competitive’
Eric and Melissa Wagner hopscotched around the country as his Army postings dictated when their children were little. And much of that time, he was out of the country on special assignments, off to Bosnia, Cambodia, Laos, Australia and elsewhere. It was during her solo-parenting stint while in Eagle River, Alaska, that Melissa, a former college rower, offered 5-year-old Ashley a choice between ballet or figure skating.
Refusing to wear pink shoes, Ashley chose skating. And Melissa bought a tiny dance outfit, found a seamstress to sew on enough sequins to make it pass for a figure-skating costume and strapped a helmet on her daughter.
Today, Wagner has two distinct memories of that Learn-to-Skate class: Being so excited to do what all her friends were doing and wanting more than anything to be the best skater of them all.
“From a young age, I was viciously competitive,” she said with a laugh.
She progressed nicely under new teachers in Kansas City, Tacoma, Wash., and Portland, Ore., where she studied under Tonya Harding’s former coach, Dody Teachman, as a third-grader. But it was in Alexandria that Wagner blossomed into a skater of national consequence, working with Shirley Hughes at Mount Vernon Ice Arena.
After six years of impressive results with Hughes, Wagner felt she’d hit a plateau and moved her training base to Wilmington, Del., to work with Priscilla Hill, who had coached Johnny Weir. So Melissa rented an apartment nearby, and she and the two children (Ashley’s younger brother, Austin, followed her as a competitive skater) lived in Delaware during the week and came home to Alexandria on weekends.
All too often, the price of being a world champion in ultra-demanding sports such as women’s gymnastics and figure skating is paid in total immersion and arrested development — not just physically, but emotionally and socially.
That wasn’t the daughter the Wagners reared. Once she turned 18, Ashley believed it was time to find out if she was competing for herself or her parents, so she declared her financial independence. Her figure skating results had improved, and she took over paying for her training, equipment and travel, helped by the New England Skating Fund and a part-time job selling jeans at American Eagle.
For her mother, it was time to let go.
“Some of these kids live inside the rink; I’ve always let my kids live,” said Melissa James, now divorced. “They’re going to grow up. They need to know what’s out there. They need to make mistakes. Yes, I’d like to have a safety net underneath them. But if I didn’t let her go when she was 18, she never would have been where she is today.”
‘I needed to be pushed’
Wagner missed the 2010 Olympics by 4.08 points, paying on a small scale for one fall in her short program at that year’s U.S. championships and on a larger scale for the fact that the United States’ international status had slipped to the point where it had just two Olympic berths. In the aftermath, Wagner thought about quitting and joining her friends headed to college, but the impulse passed in less than 24 hours. Instead, she doubled down on her training and dubbed herself figure skating’s ”Almost Girl,” having spent so much time on the periphery of greatness.
She moved back home and struggled through a miserable 2011 season, plagued by excruciating muscle spasms.
At such crossroads, many elite athletes consult sports psychologists. Wagner followed her father’s advice instead: “Don’t be a wimp.”
And she started looking for a coach who would demand even more.
“I needed to be pushed. I needed to be uncomfortable,” Wagner said. “I definitely wanted somebody who wasn’t going to mother me. I’m such a strong-headed person and so stubborn, I don’t need someone to be sweet to me. I needed someone to say, ‘This is how it’s going to be, and this is how you’re going to do it.’ ”
The search led to the venerable John Nicks, then 82, who had molded such Olympic medalists as Peggy Fleming and Sasha Cohen. Wagner flew to southern California to introduce herself.
“Immediately what I saw was a potential that she hadn’t reached, for whatever reason,” Nicks recalled. “She was extremely athletic, strong and determined. She had a lot of the characteristics that are important for a competitive skater.
“I told her I was not going to be her friend or father or grandfather or great-grandfather. I would be her coach. She seemed to understand and appreciate that.”
Moving from East Coast to southern California upon turning 20 represented a more profound declaration of independence. Her father couldn’t help when Reba, Wagner’s ancient Jeep Grand Cherokee, broke down and died on side of a freeway in Mission Viejo.
But in time, Wagner forged her own life on the West Coast, which consists of visits to a favorite coffee shop and the requisite juice bar, walks on the pier and jogs along the beach and plenty of practice.
She also assembled a surrogate family, which includes an eight-toed cat, Dexter, and best friend Adam Rippon, 24, a fellow skater who plays multiple roles: brother, father, cheerleader, confidante, sounding board and “boyfriend without having to be my boyfriend,” as she puts it.
Under Nicks, Wagner made significant strides in the artistic aspects of her skating and learned to be a more professional competitor. He stressed the importance of winning over audiences, mindful that judges are swayed by standing ovations, regardless of what the rule book says. He also instilled the importance of behaving like a champion each time she stepped onto the ice, including practice, which judges attend to form impressions of skaters.
In short, he helped Wagner re-introduce herself to the sport and re-set her aspirations in judges’ eyes. And her marks reflected his polish, with Wagner winning the U.S. championships in 2012 and defending the title in 2013.
‘It has not been easy’
Just when everything seemed to be falling in place for her Olympic season, with Sochi nine months off, things started going wrong.
Nicks, who had threatened to retire for 20 years, informed Wagner in April he could no longer travel to competitions at age 84, having logged 110,000 air miles the previous season. Her parents’ divorce, though not necessarily a surprise, was finalized in May. She had parted with her longtime choreographer, couldn’t find a piece of performance music that thrilled her, was struggling with costumes and, once again, in need of a coach.
“You imagine your Olympic season, and everything works out perfectly. Dream come true, you know,” Wagner said with a smile. ”It has not been easy.”
At Rippon’s suggestion, she contacted his coach, Arutyunyan, only to get an awkward silence in reply.
“I don’t think I’m much to write home about,” Wagner said, “but he had no idea who I was on the phone. He said ‘Who?’ ”
Born in Tblisi, Georgia, Arutyunyan competed and coached under the former Soviet system before coming to the United States roughly 12 years ago. His expertise is jumping technique, and that’s precisely what Wagner needed to master the high-risk, back-to-back triple-jump combination from which she had shied away.
To have any shot at an Olympic medal, Wagner knew she needed to perform the triple flip-triple toe she’d been practicing. As she bluntly put it, she’s not innately talented enough to overcome with artistic marks what she’d surrender in technical scores without it. I love that Ashley openly admits this.
“She have no other choices,” Arutyunyan conceded, “because it’s the lowest limit for today. You cannot go lower than that.”
Entering last month’s U.S. championships in Boston, Arutyunyan knew she hadn’t had a chance to properly prepare. The rink in Artesia had been too crowded with recreational skaters and lessons over the Christmas break. And Wagner, a left-hander who skates and jumps the opposite direction from right-handed skaters, spent too much of her run-throughs dodging others.
“It’s like a Ferrari on the road with trucks. Doesn’t work,” the coach said.
Wagner was tentative in her normally brassy short program, scaling back her triple-triple to a triple-double but staying upright. The ungainly falls came two nights later, when instead of defending her U.S. title she finished fourth, a stream of mascara following a river of tears down her face.
After the interviews and drug test that followed, she couldn’t bear to walk through the lobby of the event’s official hotel, knowing it would be teeming with agents, sponsors, fellow competitors and former champions. So she hopped a cab from TD Garden to the Residence Inn just across the Charles River, where her mother was staying.
It was nearing 1 a.m., and the desk clerk paid no attention to the young woman with puffy eyes lugging a plastic sack of teddy bears and bouquets into the lobby. Most of the guests had retreated to their rooms; all that remained were Wagner’s mother and brother, waiting by the gas-log fireplace meant to simulate the warmth of home.
She tried explaining the nervous meltdown that threatened to scuttle her Olympic dream: How her legs had turned to lead the moment her name was called, how her mind fogged over when she fell the first time and suddenly, it was as if she was reliving the U.S. championships of 2010.
“I wish I hadn’t done this,” Wagner told them.
And because tough love and truth-telling are family values, Melissa James didn’t tell her daughter it would all work out. Instead, she reminded her that skating wasn’t her life. There was nothing to do but wait.
‘Mentally tough as nails’
At noon the next day, Wagner was named to the Olympic team, her selection unassailable based on U.S. Figure Skating’s criteria, which heavily weighs skaters’ international results over the previous season. By those measures, Wagner crushed all challengers. Still, the decision flummoxed many who watched Mirai Nagasu skate circles around Wagner and finish third a night earlier, only to be left off the Olympic team. And the perceived injustice triggered a social-media uproar.
At the moment when 17 years of effort and ambition were rewarded, Wagner found herself forced to defend her credentials. She fielded journalists’ questions for nearly an hour afterward about what had gone so horribly wrong, why she felt she deserved to represent the United States in Sochi and how she planned to avoid a similar collapse with an Olympic medal at stake.
“I was overwhelmed from the big lights, the big show and everything being at stake at once,” Wagner said. “I’m not that skater that everyone saw last night. I’m a fierce competitor; I’m mentally tough as nails.”
The United States dominated women’s figure skating from 1968 to 2002, winning five of the 10 Olympic gold medals. The last American woman to win an Olympic medal was Cohen, who claimed silver in 2006, and the United States hasn’t medaled in any of the world championships since.
South Korea’s Kim Yu-na and Japan’s Mao Asada, the reigning Olympic gold and silver medalists, set the current standard of grace and technical precision. Each 23, they’re the favorites entering Sochi. Russia’s 15-year-old jumping phenom, Julia Lipnitskaia, is also deemed a medal threat, along with Italy’s elegant Carolina Kostner, 26; and recently crowned U.S. champion Gracie Gold, 18.
Wagner, who has finished among the top five in the past two world championships, will be in the mix, too — not a vulnerable Juliet but a formidable Delilah.
“A lot of figure skating in recent years has been about the porcelain-doll look, but I feel like I’m someone who you can sit down and have a conversation with over coffee,” Wagner said. “I have fought for everything I’ve gotten. It wasn’t like I was an entitled little girl who Mommy and Daddy just paid for everything and treated her like a princess. I had to earn everything I got. And that developed the way that I compete. I’m scrappy.”
“Ashley Wagner?” she replied. “Two-time national champion?”
Polina Edmunds Goes for Gold, Good Grades in Sochi
When Polina Edmunds isn’t performing triple Lutzes in the upcoming Olympic Winter Games, the champion figure skater will be reading about the Cold War and studying gene abnormalities for biology class.
The 15-year-old has asked her teachers at the top-ranked Archbishop Mitty High School in San Jose for all her homework assignments so that she can complete them during the three weeks she’ll be skating in Sochi.
And, if the past is any indication, Polina will return from the Olympics – perhaps with a medal in hand – and turn in her assignments and take her makeup quizzes without fanfare or ever asking for an extension.
“I definitely still have to do schoolwork,” Polina told NBC Bay Area last week. “I don’t know exactly how it’s going to work yet, but I’m probably going to be taking a lot of work with me and checking online when I’m there.”
Polina’s teachers want her to keep up with her studies, but they also realize that traveling to Russia – the birth country of her mother, who also doubles as her skating coach – is a teachable moment in itself.
“I want her to find someone who speaks Spanish, an athlete, a coach or whoever and interview them,” said Leslie Zambo, Polina’s Spanish teacher. “I want her to come up with the questions and talk to the class about her experiences. Her classmates would just love it.”
The skater's U.S. history teacher, Anthony Rojo, is also sending Polina off with readings on World War II and the Cold War, a topic that is sure to be of interest to her as her mother, Nina Edmunds, is a native of Tver, Russia.
Polina’s teachers said they would be lenient if the slight blonde skater with a wide, toothy grin and a quiet confidence needs extra more time to complete her assignments.
But she’s never been late or asked for special favors in the past, including when she juggled her coursework with major competitions in Japan, Belarus and Boston. Each time, she asked for her assignments before she left, checked the school’s online calendar on her iPad, downloaded the work, and taught herself the subject matter, all without a tutor or much of her parents’ help.
“She came back from Boston and I fully anticipated she would ask for an extension on her test,” Rojo said of the teen's recent silver medal performance in 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships. “But she didn’t. She took the exam the next day and got a B. She is very responsible and diligent. She has never used skating as an excuse not to get her work in.”
Zambo added: “She simply has not missed a step. She’s really low-key and has asked for no special favors.”
Polina’s friend, Elliott Picone, 16, of Hollister, said Polina is dedicated and driven – both on the rink, where she has been since she was 20 months old – and off.
“She doesn’t go to a lot of social events,” Elliott said. “And people admire her for it. When she’s not on the rink, she spends a lot of time in the library.”
Elliott said despite the stress of competing on the world stage, Edmunds has never complained.
"Never. Not once," Elliot said. "She chooses the life she’s living. She just has so much drive.”
Another friend, Emma Chew, 15, of Saratoga, said she had no idea Polina was Olympic-bound until earlier this year.
“I thought it was just a hobby,” Emma said. “She’s very humble. She’ll talk about skating if you ask, but she never brags. I really have no idea how she does it.”
Polina is the third Olympian from Archbishop Mitty, a campus ranked in 2009 by Sports Illustrated as having the top athletic program in California and the third best in the country: Volleyball star Kerri Walsh and soccer champion Brandi Chastain also call the school their alma mater. But, unlike Polina, they went to the Olympics after graduating.
“We draw people who are highly competitive,” Principal Tim Brosnan said. “And Polina’s such a nice kid, who handles the pressure well, without letting it go to her head.”
Polina’s mother, Nina Edmunds, studied at the Lesgaft Academy in St. Petersberg, Russia, and ended up marrying Polina’s father, John Edmunds, who was teaching English and business to Russian students in the early 1990s. The Edmunds also have two boys, James, 17, and Daniel, 11, both of whom are ice hockey players – a tribute to their maternal grandfather.
John Edmunds, CFO of Inphi Corp. in Santa Clara, said he tried to impart on all his children that school is important, and after the Olympics, "Polina will need a day job." He gave a lot of credit to his wife, who is "disciplined and organized" and always sets aside time for their daughter to study.
Polina is a regular kid, though Edmunds joked. It's not like his teenage daughter always "jumps right up" to do her homework. Sometimes, he acknowledged, it stacks up a bit.
Still, he said, the homework can often be a helpful diversion for Polina. That was the case in Boston, he said, when she took second place at the nationals and earned a spot on the Olympic team.
"The homework was good for her," her father said. "It kept her distracted from worrying about her skating programs in between events."
Newsweek: The Surprising Truth Behind The Olympics' 'Gayest' Sport
This is a long article, so I cut some stuff out.
...The common assumption that male figure skaters are gay - and the latent and often blatant hostility behind it - is the sport's deep and dirty secret. It colors the attitudes and actions of skaters, coaches, judges, officials and even the fans.
That sniggering stereotype has been prevalent for decades, even though few elite skaters have come out publicly, and only one, Rudy Galindo, came out during his Olympic-eligible career. This closet door is locked tight because skaters - gay and straight - know that so many of the people judging them, from judges to sponsors to TV viewers, want the female skaters to be "pretty ladies," and the men to be, well, men...
...A former competitive figure skater and Olympic-level judge who requested anonymity because s/he is still active in the sport, put it this way: "The average person would think it's one of the most accepting sports in the country, because they watch it on TV and see so many gay men... But the mold that U.S. Figure Skating wants to project does not include it. They're looking for that typical manly, masculine, powerful jumper who can be graceful without being feminine." (Some of the people interviewed for this story didn't want to be named or only spoke on background because they feared retribution.)
William Bridel, 41, is a former national- and international-level skater who later worked as director of athlete development, among other roles, at Skate Canada, that country's figure skating governing body. He was also a judge. When he was 17, he came out to his coach. "The first thing my coach said was, 'It's okay, I already knew.' But there was the caveat that it's okay because you're a very straight gay. There's that connection between gender and sexuality, masculinity and sexuality," says Bridel, who is a professor of sports sociology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
"I remember sitting in meetings at Skate Canada, which I think is very progressive," Bridel explains. "This was 10 years ago. I was listening to people talk about having to get a skater 'man up' before we could send them out on international competitions."
...Sports and sexuality have always been tempestuous bedfellows. There is an assumed and often swaggering heterosexuality that comes with playing certain sports (ice hockey, football), just as there is an effeminacy attached to others (figure skating, gymnastics). Just think of the insults most prevalent in sports - male athletes berate each other by slinging words and phrases associated with femininity. From the elementary school playground to Madison Square Garden, men routinely call each other "sissy," "wuss" and "pussy" or tell each other, "you throw (or run) like a girl." Belittling a female athlete is to call her "butch," "manly" or a "beast."
Compounding that superficial, global "bias" is the very nature of figure skating: It is predicated on making the seemingly impossible look easy - leaping high in the air, landing triple and quadruple jumps, spinning at dizzying speeds, and doing it all with grace and emotion. Yet the subjective, artistic nature of figure skating means that it is often perceived to be a "softer" sport. A more graceful sport. In other words, a sport for girls. When female skaters perform, wearing sparkly, rhinestone-studded costumes, their hair and makeup flawless, that image lines up with our cultural norm of what it means to be female. Generally thin and attractive, and dressed in body-hugging costumes, these women appear suggestive without being overtly sexual. When men don sequins or rhinestones - and spin and twirl and artfully dance to music - what we see does not line up with the cultural definition of manliness.
"You get typecast," says Jennifer Kirk, a former American figure skater who was the world junior champion in 2000 and a three-time U.S. world team member. She is also co-creator of the popular figure skating blog The Skating Lesson. "You are either the athletic skater, which is another word for the straight guy, like Max Aaron and Elvis Stojko, who aren't very artistic. Or you're the artist, like Johnny Weir, and immediately you think, homosexual."
This friction is precisely why figure skating has an identity crisis, and a festering image problem. Not surprisingly, the USFS downplays the importance of skaters' sexual orientation. "I have never heard one of them speak about their orientation, be it straight or gay," Barbara Reichert, a USFS spokeswoman, said in an email. "It's just not an issue with this generation. They genuinely focus on their skating." lol ok.
However, former skaters, former judges, skating insiders and experts suggest otherwise. "I did feel pressured to portray myself as more masculine," says American figure skater Matthew Savoie, 33, who finished seventh in men's singles at the 2006 games in Torino, Italy. He came out as gay after retiring. "There are modes of behavior that are deemed more acceptable than others."
American Doug Mattis won the 1985 national junior men's title, and held his own at top-level international competitions. He came out in 1992. At the 1994 U.S. Open Pro Figure Skating Championships, he emulated Tonya Harding and Peggy Fleming before stripping off his long-sleeved black shirt to finish his artistic program in a shiny sleeveless vest.
"Back in my day, me and my compatriots were actively told to keep [being gay] a secret," says Mattis, who went on to have a successful professional skating and coaching career. "Skating officials said it was in our best interest. The reasons why were never fully defined.... Some posed it as, Skating's reputation has a hard enough time being accepted by the public anyway. We want to increase our marketability, so boys, butch it up."
The stereotypes trap male and female skaters. "We're stuck in the 1950s with these beautiful housewives on ice," Kirk says. "We have to act a certain way. Our hair and makeup have to look a certain way. And the guys have to be regal and dapper. They can't wear too many sparkles. We have to be Ken and Barbie, but the reality is that Ken is dating Ken and Barbie doesn't always want to look like Barbie, or at least act like Barbie..."
...Efforts to protect (and project) the macho reputation of male skaters have been under way for decades, and skating clubs and organizations tried to lure boys by playing up the masculinity of the sport and virility of its athletes. Of course, the irony is obvious today. "Lots of boys sign up for skating because they want to wear sparkly costumes," says Adams. "Then they find out when they get older, 'Let's try to keep the sparkle down, because that's feminine and then they'll think you're gay.' And of course, they're saying that to some boys who are gay."
It is impossible to say exactly how many elite figure skaters are gay, since so few have come out publicly. Former figure skater and judge Jon Jackson wrote in a 2006 piece for The Advocate, "at least seven of the 14 male Olympic figure skating medalists from the past 20 years are known in certain circles to be interested in other men. In fact, in at least five countries the entire men's singles figure skating team is made up of gay men (albeit some 'teams' are exactly one man)." That same year, figure skating expert Lorrie Kim wrote, "Unofficial insider estimates range from 25 percent to nearly 50 percent. But unbelievably, in 2006, Galindo remains the only top-level skater to have come out while Olympic-eligible."
"Everyone in skating understands the legacy that male figure skaters have grown up with," says Kim, who for many years ran Rainbow Ice, a popular website for gay issues in figure skating. "Closeted skaters will police other closeted skaters and try to keep them in the closet because of that shared sense of risk.... This can be puzzling to people who live in the real world, who don't understand how hard it can be."
...The media's treatment of Weir, who somewhat controversially took sixth place at the Vancouver games (fans thought he deserved a higher finish), underscored the unspoken tensions around sexual orientation in men's figure skating. While Evan Lysacek was often portrayed as the athlete, Weir was the artist - "ornate," "unapologetic" and "flamboyant" (code for "gay"). Broadcasters made derogatory comments about Weir's skating and costumes, questioned his gender and wondered if his flamboyant image might damage the sport. In 2010, after representing the U.S. in Vancouver, he was left off of the post-Olympics Stars on Ice skating tour, although he finished first in an online poll asking fans who they wanted to see in the tour. Reports quickly surfaced that he was excluded for being "not family friendly" enough...
Like most top figure skaters, Jennifer Kirk spent her childhood, teenage and young adult years in the competitive skating world. Born in Newton, Mass., she trained with famed coaches Evy and Mary Scotvold at the Skating Club of Boston and, later, Richard Callaghan and Frank Carroll. "Growing up as a young girl in the sport, all my guy friends were gay," she says. "There was a lot of acceptance in the community, but at a higher level, when you go to the nationals, you see people who are really comfortable in your local rink suddenly putting on airs to seem more heterosexual."
Kirk dated skaters who were either "out of the closet or out on the down low," she says. "To see so many of my friends struggle with this issue.... " she trails off. "One friend said, 'I'm wearing my straight clothes today, when we went to a competition.'"
There is a profound difference between being out at one's local skating club - among friends, family and coaches - and being out to the international media. "Many gay skaters are out everywhere but the press or publicly," says Adams. "There are openly gay people in skating, and this wouldn't be news to anybody who's involved in skating... As a sport, the national governing bodies like USFS and Skate Canada, they are still closeted."
Unpacking exactly why figure skating, as an institution, is closeted - and why insiders deny it - is a complicated task. "You have a culture that's almost entirely about very fem girls, and since it's a grassroots sport, the politics reflect whatever neighborhood the rinks are in," says Kim. "That can get extremely conservative - conservative in the way that makes other countries wonder what's in the American water..."
..."With any judged sport, there's some level of subjectivity," says Lindsey Green, an Olympic sports writer whose work has appeared in New York magazine and Deadspin. "The issue with figure skating is the judge/athlete environment and relationship is completely uncontrolled and chaotic... There is no other sport where the judge holds so much power outside of the arena, and the relationship with the athletes and coaches can seemingly affect the overall outcome of the competition. Figure skating judges offer input on costumes, personal life, hair and makeup, music choice. With so much interaction, impartiality becomes increasingly challenging."
While Mattis disagrees, arguing that "a lot of judges and officials in power now are former skaters from my era, so let's just say that there are gay people on both sides of the bang boards at the ice rink," he says the biggest unknown, when it comes to coming out or not, is how marketable one will be. "If you hit it big and become a big star in skating, is Madison Ave. going to want to avoid you if you're an out gay skater? That unknown is what drives most of the fear. Am I hurting my appeal? If I'm an out gay male, does Speed Stick want me in their commercial?"...
Read the full article at the source
Buzzfeed: Why is the world's gayest sport stuck in the closet?
This is a long article, so I cut some stuff out.
When I ask figure skater Jeremy Abbott how athletes should respond to Russia’s anti-gay laws, his eyes widen. “Um,” he says, and stops. He shrugs a little and glances over at the U.S. Figure Skating (USFS) handler who’s standing nearby.
“You don’t have to answer that,” the handler reassures him.
Abbott takes in a breath, glances down. “Yeahhh,” he sighs, almost inaudibly. Then — “I’m going to walk away from that one.”
We’re backstage at the 2014 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, which serve as an unofficial qualifier for the Olympic team, and Abbott’s a favorite. He’s 28 years old, planning to retire at the end of the season and cautious; he was criticized last year for comparing Russia’s laws — which have motivated the rape, torture, and murder of gay men and women — to bad interior design. (“I’m not going to go into somebody’s house and be like, “Um, the way you decorate is hideous.”) A bunch of athletes had been cornered on the topic, and the less media-savvy skaters hadn’t yet mastered the art of expressing compassion while sidestepping responsibility. Abbott just happened to come up with a particularly inept metaphor.
Later, when I pass him in the hallway, he apologizes twice.
To outsiders, men’s figure skating is widely perceived as the Gayest Sport Ever, the butt of endless jokes — consider last weekend’s SNL cold open about the “U.S. Men’s Heterosexual Figure Skating Team.” The direct action group Queer Nation has recently protested figure skaters Brian Boitano and Johnny Weir for not speaking up against Russia’s anti-gay laws. One of the group’s representatives, who asked to not be named, tells me, “Everyone assumes all male skaters are gay. So what? … I have a hard time believing that figure skating is a particularly homophobic sport. I don’t understand this impulse, particularly from figure skaters, to hide their sexuality. You can’t tell me that if Jeremy Abbott came out as gay that it would affect his standing in the skating world.”...
...So what exactly is male figure skating — which has the potential to be a gay haven in the world of sports — so afraid of?
...Across town, the junior men — the second-highest level, eligible for some international competitions but not the Olympics — compete in the short program......Off the ice, a cluster of male skaters in slim-cut jackets keep a running commentary, snapping their fingers and rolling their eyes at one another. “That’s my baby!” they shout. “Who run the world?!” They call the men on the ice “Princess” and “Beyoncé,” as in, “I love you, Beyoncé!” Gracie Gold, soon-to-be-ladies champion, watches nearby, and someone yells to her, “Gracie! They’re not red enough!” Then, to his friend, “her lips.” When one guy wears fingerless gloves and performs to music with the sound of engines in it, they snort with laughter: “What is this, the Cars soundtrack?”
If you’ve heard anyone talk about skating, you’d be forgiven for thinking that there are two kinds of skaters: athletic and artistic. But these are coded butch/femme terms, ones appropriate to an activity that still can’t decide where it falls on the gendered spectrum between art and sport. For male skaters, athletic means manly, muscular, stoic; artistic means elegant, graceful, showing emotion. Athletic means tight T-shirts, fists, and military beats; artistic, flowy shirts and delicate fingers. Athletic seems straight. Artistic seems gay. Never mind that some of the best skaters are both athletic and artistic, by standard definitions: In men’s skating, as in any high school locker room, a drop of femininity will negate any quantity of testosterone. That’s why some skaters are considered artistic even if their technical abilities are higher than their competitors’ — and why others are considered athletic, even if theirs are not. For ladies, of course, the pattern runs in reverse, with athletic reserved for muscular, less-than-ultra-feminine skaters, or, often enough, women of color.
To the outside world, the idea of a butch male skater may seem ludicrous. In a 2010 story for New York magazine called “The Less Flamboyant One,” “athletic” skater Evan Lysacek models a bejeweled snake in Vera Wang’s showroom. But the characterization belies an odd truth. In addition to outwardly policing outfits — say, forbidding men from wearing tights — the world of skating has created its own hierarchy of masculinity, which is subtle to the point of being near-indiscernible from the outside. For instance, twirling is masculine but arm-flapping is not. Sheer sleeves are only dangerously feminine if they come to a point at the wrist. Sequins are fine. Cutouts are not fine. Lunges are more macho than spirals. Fewer feathers are manlier than more feathers. It’s a clever, unspoken system, based on the premise that it’s a lot easier to prove a skater’s manliness by comparing him to another skater than by comparing him to some other kind of athlete.
I’ll note here that without exception, the parents I spoke to at nationals expressed pride and support of their boys’ achievements in the sport. But I noticed something else too. Almost all the parents, including those whose sons were “living the dream” as international competitors, offered a list of other sports their sons participated in: hockey, lacrosse, soccer, martial arts, hockey, gymnastics, running, downhill skiing. Offered proudly, as if amazed by their children’s breadth of achievement, as if compelled to justify their sons as real athletes — not just the most elite skaters in America.
If the skating world is particularly cautious of its reputation at the moment, it may be because the sport as a whole is in trouble....
Some blame the sport’s gay reputation for its drop in popularity, despite the fact that that reputation is nothing new. One senior coach and former Olympian, who requested anonymity, thinks he knows the problem: “No straight man wants to see a man in sequins or crap like that,” he explains. American figure skating, in his opinion, is skewing artistic. “Europe has more masculine-type skating. Even Japan has a little more” — he makes a fist — “power.”
...“In the past we had a couple [top skaters] that were so out, flamboyant … especially [Johnny Weir], he was bad for the sport, really, because for a while he was, you could say, the face of the federation. I’m talking about mainstream America.” He laughs. “I literally know like 50 people who would not turn on the TV and watch it because of that. That’s a problem.” His own top skater, he tells me proudly, is “a true-true guy. The straightest they come.”
The thing about skaters who seem gay, the coach points out, is that they attract a gay audience, whereas straight skaters “attract everybody. Entertaining, fun, man. Women like [them], straight men can look and say, ‘Hey, that’s cool.’ Everybody’s OK.” He smiles. Problem solved.
Others have argued that skating is less gay than it appears. Scott Hamilton, a 1984 Olympic champion who has been criticized as homophobic, explains to me later on the phone that skaters aren’t necessarily gay — they just seem like it. “I think that at times, guys in skating may or may not take on some feminine characteristics because the people they’re with are girls.” He sounds apologetic. “That has happened in the past.”
According to Lorrie Kim at Outsports, “unofficial insider estimates” place the number of gay skaters at roughly 25% to 50%. But, notably, a number of gay men have claimed the percentage is much lower — perhaps because, in being out, they feel alone in their communities...
...Junior skater Chase “Beyoncé” Belmontes has a style some would call artistic. ...When I ask him why skaters won’t talk about Sochi, he nods. “They’re scared that they’re going to say the wrong thing and offend their fan base. The USFS could get involved if they say too much.” And some of the skaters might be worried about their own safety, going from a stereotypically gay sport into a homophobic country. “In the inside world,” Belmontes explains, “everyone loves male skaters. Men's is always the most exciting discipline. To the outside world, they think it’s the epitome of femininity in men. People think if you become a good skater then you lose part of your masculinity forever.”
...Some of skating’s current homophobia stems from the early ’90s, when a number of top skaters died AIDS-related deaths. The media took off with the story, aligning the sport with HIV, and, by extension, the “high-risk group” of gay men. “AIDS Deaths Tear at Figure-Skating World,” announced the New York Times. One story in the Calgary Herald, by Michael Clarkson, was titled “Skating’s Spectre” and claimed that over 40 skaters and coaches had already died; as sociologist Mary Louise Adams points out in her book Artistic Impressions, “It is not entirely clear whether the ‘spectre’ of Clarkson’s title was HIV or gayness itself.” Brian Boitano called the story a “witch-hunt.” Meanwhile, skating officials struggled to distance the sport from the stigma of the disease — “trying to protect their product,” as David Dore, the head of the Canadian Figure Skating Association, described it.
At the same time, skating’s macho side was re-emerging. Skaters like Kurt “Cowboy” Browning and Elvis “The Terminator” Stojko became media and fan favorites, providing visible reassurance of masculinity in a time of crisis. Not that their strategies always worked: As Adams describes it, “In the 1990s, when some skaters tried to mark their masculinity in an aggressive fashion by sporting tight black T-shirts, studded wrist cuffs, and (fake or real) leather trousers, they were simply trading one set of gay signifiers for another.”
Since then, various individuals and groups have tried to make the skating more manly, perhaps most notably in Skate Canada’s planned 2009 “Tough” campaign, which aimed to rebrand the sport by getting skaters to emphasize the difficulty and danger of their stunts — and, in one case, to pose for photos on Harley-Davidsons. After public outcry deemed the campaign homophobic, Skate Canada retracted its efforts, denying that the campaign had ever existed (“…there is no and never has been any ‘tough’ campaign … There is no interest at Skate Canada in making the sport more macho … As for a skater’s personal life, Skate Canada gives no direction”). The conflict highlights one of skating’s emerging challenges: presenting a facade of straightness for a public that increasingly condemns homophobia even more than it condemns homosexuality.
...And in a prejudiced setting, much of skaters’ reluctance to come out stems from a honed sense of self-protection — one of the same reasons that non-skaters may be reluctant to come out. When Doug Mattis turned pro, he was warned that coming out would compromise his financial viability; when Brian Orser was outed by a former lover during a palimony suit, he worried that his career was over. Rudy Galindo was skipped over multiple times for international competitions, once even when he was first alternate and an assigned skater dropped out — he’s claimed that he had to skate twice as well as other skaters to win. Today, when officials advise skaters not to come out, their warning is couched in a rhetoric of concern: If an athlete reveals too much about his personal life, he could be attacked on the internet. (Never mind that skaters could be, and are, attacked for plenty of other things, ranging from the shapes of their bodies to their choice of music and costume.) However it’s framed, the warning keeps them in the closet; when an athlete receives advice from the same officials who make selections for coveted international competitions and events, he’ll probably follow it.
One former medalist, who also requested anonymity, suggests another reason that so few skaters come out: “Most skaters start when they’re younger than 10, and immediately their sexuality is a topic of discussion, even before they’re sexual. Adults would say, ‘You’re such a great skater, but I’d never let my boy figure skate.’ Hockey players look down on us for being faggots. We didn’t know what it meant at all, we just knew our peers thought it was bad, so we didn’t want to deal with it. That becomes an ingrained reluctance to bring it up even as we get older.”
Some of the pressure, he says, comes from girls at the rink, who vastly outnumber the boys and can be outspoken in evaluating their rink mates as potential boyfriends; some of it comes from skaters being homeschooled, often living at home until they’re done competing, so they have fewer points of contact with the outside world. “When you treat an issue one way as a young teen, you do the same when you’re older,” the former medalist explains, especially “in the bubble of figure skating, where everyone is making an issue of sexuality. At this point, gay skaters don’t want their sexual lives to be a topic of conversation because it’s been a topic of conversation since they started skating.” He adds, “One of the reasons I went into [perceived masculine industry] is because I wanted to compete with all the douchebags who had criticized my skating my whole life, and I wanted to beat them at their own game.”
Finally, coming out may be too risky, with too little possible reward. As this former medalist puts it, “You can choose to almost disappoint the audience by confirming if you’re gay, and if you’re not, you can potentially earn some points by being straight. The majority of the audience is female, so if you’re straight it’s in your interest to articulate that, because you can garner more female fans.”
And articulate they do, because straight skaters are often rewarded with not just fans but corporate sponsorships, favorable TV commentary, and an extra boost in competitions. Consider seven-time Canadian and three-time world champion Patrick Chan, who holds the world record for highest points despite a tendency to wobble under pressure, and who has inspired a new word: Chanflation. He’s also publicly straight. A few seasons ago, he even skated a short program about picking up girls in bars, in which he pantomimed elbowing someone, taking a drink, and running on his toes with his arms spread. At one point, he lifted his arms to the side and drooped his head, like a jazzier version of Rudy Galindo’s move, in his 1996 AIDS remembrance exhibition program, where he mimed hanging on a cross. But no: Chan had draped his arms around the shoulders of two invisible females, and in another moment he reeled, punched by a jealous boyfriend. It’s playful! It’s funny! It’s heterosexual! Good thing no one understands the new scoring system, because surely that’s worth half a point. ok but how many women are actually lusting after Chiddy besides the one ONTDer who changed her mind?...
...When Jeremy Abbott and Jason Brown make the Olympic team, with bronze-medalist Max Aaron falling behind, there are murmurs about the wisdom of sending two artistic skaters to represent the U.S. in Sochi. But others are pleased. “The team is pretty darn pro-gay, pretty darn loving of LGBT issues,” says Doug Mattis. “It wouldn’t be surprising to me if after they compete, after they come home, you’ll hear them lend their voice in support of LGBT issues.”
Read the full article at the source.
pic source: 1 2
It's the fierce 2014 European Figure Skating Champion Julia Lipnitskaia!
Also, a good New York Times article on the rise of Russian women's skating.
Less than 4 days to go until the Team competition starts!
cross-posted to ontd_skating.