National Commentary

Johnny’s World: Dog and Pony Show

jworldThis week, Boston hosts the 2014 United States Figure Skating Championships. In an Olympic year, the event serves as the moment when the United States Figure Skating Federation selects representatives for the Olympic Games. The event is lovingly referred to as “Nationals.”

The big events are obviously the competitions to decide the team for Sochi and the ones shown on NBC this weekend, but few outside the skating world realize that we also crown a national champion in four additional levels of skating which have to do with skills and tests passed, not age.

This column is titled “Dog and Pony Show” because from the outside, Nationals seem more like a Christopher Guest film than an actual sporting event. I’ve made reference to “Best in Show” before in my scribblings, but I want to delve into the realness that is Nationals.

In a world where everyone says they don’t date within their profession or keep in contact with childhood dreams and acquaintances, we all feel comfortable and obligated to see people who “get us.” Thus every person who has ever ice skated competitively bounces around the idea and often acts upon a trip to Nationals, to soak up some “old times” and nostalgia. In addition to all of us old-timers, every young skater has parents, coaches, choreographers, and loved ones who rally around their village’s child to support them on the big stage.

So for a solid week you get people who have been planning their hotel lobby outfits and exfoliating regularly, on the off chance they run into an ex of some sort, all in an enclosed space to relish a world that few understand and so many are curious about. We are the foot soldiers of our sport and we get a high school reunion, every year.

Nationals are really all about the skaters and their prowess. It is one of the hardest competitions I’d ever experienced. You aren’t representing the USA anymore; you’re representing your training base or home city – and going cannibal against your own, so to speak.

It is a pressure cooker of emotions. Longtime feuds are played out. You are often subjected to performing for people who thought all year “why him and not me?” as you were competing globally and they were relegated to local events. You have the opportunity to make those closest to you cry with emotion. For a young skater, you compete in the same event as the heroes you watch on TV (Hello Michelle Kwan!). For the veterans, Nationals is either a casual day at work or a day when you get your livelihood and status chucked down the drain.

While I have very fond memories of my times at Nationals – medals, boys, making people proud – I will be forever haunted by an equal number of bad memories.

I was watching one of the early events for a non-Olympic level and wondering why people do this to themselves. Why do the parents toil, sacrifice, and watch helplessly as their kid falls down? Why do the judges volunteer to take time away from their day jobs to judge us? How is it possible for some of these coaches in their 80’s to spend five or six days a week training runny-nosed divas and divos to jump and twizzle on ice while freezing their gray hairs off? Why?

Because it’s glorious.

There is no greater feeling than being accepted, just as you are. When people have a common interest – whether it be figure skating, Dungeons and Dragons, or those weird yellow “Despicable Me” creatures – the bonds go deeper than those shared by alumni or co-workers. Past and current skaters unite for one week a year because they were drawn to the sport, for whatever reason. They all gave up a big chunk of their hearts to the sport and its community.

The current skaters and champions have been in the family longer than they’ve probably realized, but will one day appreciate it as we all do. The skaters compete for medals and to deliver performances that leave their audiences breathless. They skate to reach the pinnacle of what the human body can accomplish and share the exuberance of youth with the world – or at least the select few who will watch them. They compete and we support them to represent this country on the world’s greatest stage, at the Olympics.

We compete, no matter good or bad, to show our parents and teams that their sacrifices weren’t for naught. We compete to accomplish dreams we created as kids. We will grow into adults who support the next generation.

Aside from the similarities the figure-skating world has to any mocked amusement or leisure activity, our sport is family. Yes we have spray-tan drama, rivalries, knee bashings, love triangles, politics, and fashion disasters, but all the more to love and be amused by. We deserve respect. I say we, but respecting the funny little ice cube I’ve come from has been a long journey for yours truly. I often rolled my eyes at this world and just wanted to do my own thing while utilizing the passion, energy, and expertise from the community without thanks. Better late than never. …

I hope that every mother can feel what it feels like to have her child succeed. I wish that every person has his or her chance in the sun. I hope they feel good about themselves and build their confidence and determination.

I hope that no matter how adverse you are to certain things in the world, you try to get educated and at least understand your aversion.

I hope that everyone has a rival that they vanquish, and I wish everyone peace when a snapshot of a life starts to fade while you’re opening up to a new one.

All those things I learned from the world of figure skating, and I hope that you will support such a wonderful education.

***

I wish luck to all the athletes in this world who will compete for or have already won a place in the Olympics. It is a gift. Make us marvel.

I don’t make a habit of writing about the figure skating world – because it is outrageous and incomprehensible at times – but given the sporting lives and careers at stake this week in Boston, I felt it pertinent. Support the best and the worst, because they all deserve it.

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