Olivia Gibbons sits by the windows of the function room upstairs at the Skating Club of Boston, halfheartedly nibbling the turkey sandwich her mother made for her. She sits by herself, watching other skaters train on the ice below and listening to the muffled music of Ravel and Bizet. With her pixie-like face and light-brown hair pulled into a ponytail, she looks like any 11-year-old girl. Except that her demeanor is that of a self-assured adult. “I love to compete,” she says, studying the other skaters. “I like to show people what I can do. When you're talented and you have a gift, you like to show people what you have.”
What Gibbons has is a command of almost every double jump and an intense, competitive spirit — a drive much larger than her 4-foot-4 frame would suggest. She is among some 600 kids and teens who figure skate competitively in and around Boston, one of America's top training grounds for skaters. A decade ago, she would have been among the youngest, but, increasingly, skaters her age are the norm. The demographics of the sport have changed since 1990 with the elimination of compulsory figures — the practice of tracing intricate patterns and figure eights — from competitions. Because the mastery of figures took many years to learn, what was once a sport of young adults is now dominated by pre-adolescents. Suddenly, 15- and 16-year-olds are winning the Olympics. And with figure skating becoming a jump-fest of triples and quadruples, skaters are racing against their own biological clocks to compete before age — and gravity — get the better of them.
The parents of such young skaters are often the ones for whom Olympic glory is most appealing. The result can be an unhealthy loss of perspective. Increasingly, they homeschool their kids to give them more time at the rink, which means young skaters develop a sense of their self-worth almost entirely from how well they perform for judges. Many families are also choosing to move their kids long distances for the sake of better coaching, sometimes even separating their families to do so. Olivia Gibbons's mother, for example, changed jobs and moved with Olivia away from her son and husband. Along with such psychological and social sacrifices are the physical costs of serious elite training, including stress fractures and eating disorders. Simply put, the promise of competitive figure skating — that unlikely chance at Olympic glory — is often outweighed by the rigors of reality.
At the Skating Club of Boston, light filters through the clouded windows that have hung above the rink since it opened on New Year's Day of 1939. The high, arched ceiling is draped with banners commemorating the many national, world, and Olympic champions of the club's past and present.
It's 11:30 on a Thursday morning. A dozen skaters jump and spin, their blades scraping as they curve around the ends of the rink. A few older skaters practice simple moves for their own enjoyment, but at this late-morning hour, the ice is filled mostly with 13-, 14-, and 15-year-old kids who have already completed their schoolwork for the day at home.
Ross Miner, an outgoing, sandy-blond 13-year-old who recently finished eighth in the men's intermediate level at the U.S. junior championships, has been home-schooled since he moved to Boston from Vermont a year and a half ago. That gives him time to be at the rink for about five hours every day. “It's a little easy,” he says of his homeschooling. “There's not much work to it.” Miner played hockey and was in the jazz band at a Catholic school before moving to Boston, although he says he has better friends now at the rink. “Everyone is doing the same thing,” he says of his fellow skaters. “It's nice to skate here because everyone knows [skating]. At school, everyone [did] something different.”
Even kids who aren't homeschooled can feel the isolation of a life devoted to skating. Emily Dodson, a shy 12-year-old, attends public school full-time in Lexington and first started skating when her family moved here from Atlanta six years ago. But for Dodson, the demands of skating interfere with her social life. “A lot of my friends have free time to have friends over and to do art classes and afterschool activities,” she says, “but I just have to go right to the rink to skate.”
Going to the rink is what Olivia Gibbons says she likes most about her days. Gibbons, who moved this month to Boston from Shaker Heights, Ohio, to train, is eager for the change from public to home school. “I'm kind of looking forward to it,” she says, “because it will give me more time to skate.” Although she knows she'll be at the rink for many more hours once she's homeschooled, she doesn't mind. “You get used to it,” she says. “Every time we pull into the parking lot of the rink, I always think, 'Okay, I'm going to my second home.'”
Olivia's mother, Sandy, on the other hand, isn't thrilled about the idea of homeschooling. “My major concern about permanent homeschooling is the loss of social interaction with her peers,” she says. But she says the optimum training times for Olivia are during hours when she would normally be in school, and she wants to give her daughter every opportunity to pursue her goals.
It's not the only hard choice the Gibbons family has had to make. When Olivia and her mother moved to Boston, her father and older brother stayed in Ohio. The family will try to reunite in Boston, but not until Olivia's brother graduates from high school next year. Olivia's older sister also skated competitively and also trained in Boston. “It was hard to really know her when she was living here and I was in Ohio because it's 12 hours away,” Olivia says.
For Victoria Devins, a sophomore at Boston College and former U.S. national champion in ice-dancing at the novice level, the realization of all she'd sacrificed for skating struck her after her freshman year at college — the last year she competed. Originally from Skaneateles, New York, Devins trained in Boston through high school, living with the family of her best friend. “I went home for the summer for the first time in five years, and it made me realize how much I missed being away from home,” she says. “Doing that for five years almost made you feel like it was normal, but when I finally went home, it made me realize that I really was missing out on a lot.”
Still, for Gibbons, moving away from home is a necessary component of success. “I think it's important to go wherever for skating,” she says. “Because it's important to go where you think you'll be successful.”
The psychological effects of getting all your self-esteem in one place, apart from teachers, classmates, and even parents, can be severe. “Because [these skaters] are so young, their thinking is very different from an older skater,” says Sandra Dupcak, a former skater herself and now a licensed psychologist who works with a number of figure skaters. Older skaters, she says, “have more ability to look into the future and weigh consequences and behavior, and they can see that a judge's opinion is just that — an opinion. It's not the word of God. A young skater won't understand that.”
There are physical effects, too. Far removed from her career-defining performance in the 1994 Olympics, Stoneham native Nancy Kerrigan sees the effects of skating on today's younger competitors as just as damaging physically as psychologically. “To put your body through that kind of pounding and abuse before it fully develops isn't healthy,” she says. Kerrigan has experienced serious injuries from skating, and not just that famous smack on her knee. Working to improve her layback spin when she was younger, she broke two bones in her spine and now doesn't go a day without back pain.
But the most serious problem among young skaters may be the one that those involved in the sport will admit to the least.
The subculture of eating disorders has been prevalent in figure skating for years, and with the increasing emphasis on triple and quadruple jumps, the obsession to be as light as a feather has never been greater. “When you're constantly lifted by your partner, like in ice-dancing, you can't help but be extremely conscious of your weight,” says Devins. “Most of the time, skaters put the pressure on themselves, but there are definitely cases where coaches and even judges put pressure on you to have 'the look.'”
Many coaches would rather believe that when a skater loses the ability to jump and rotate at the rate necessary to complete so many triple jumps, they quit. But given the other sacrifices being made by skaters and their families, it's not difficult to believe that they might just stop eating. “You can lose control if you're feeling stressed,” Kerrigan says. “Or when you're young and you see all the other little girls, or you're a little older and your body is changing and you don't want it to.”
Kerrigan herself admits that she had an eating problem during her competitive skating days, though she says it was due mostly to stress following the injury she suffered at the hands of a pipe-wielding attacker in 1994, after which her weight fell sharply. She says she has seen firsthand the dangers of that lifestyle. “I know a girl who, because a coach was always on her case telling her that she needed to lose weight, was throwing up and doing things to please that coach,” she says.
The extreme competitive nature of the sport doesn't only affect the skaters. Sandra Dupcak says she's tried to teach parents how to deal with the pressures, though not entirely successfully. Dupcak has tried to meet with parents in groups but says “they've never gotten off the ground in several different rinks, primarily because the parents don't want to sit in a room with other competitive parents and talk about where they're struggling. They don't want to be vulnerable.”
Ellen Dodson admits that she and her husband do feel pressure, especially from the expenses they face to keep their daughter skating. “We feel fortunate that this is something we're able to do,” she says, “but we're definitely making tradeoffs. You could think of [the cost] as a new luxury car each year, a summer home, college tuition — something on that level.”
Dodson has reduced her work hours to support her daughter's skating schedule and says that what begins as a fun activity for a second-grader can subtly evolve into a lifestyle choice. Even so, she says she wouldn't change her decision. She only wishes she could've known just what she was getting her family into. “I tell everyone I know not to let their daughters ever put on a pair of figure skates,” she says.
Competitive figure skating does have its advantages. It can certainly instill self-confidence, time-management skills, and the ability to deal with failure. But such benefits come only when the skater — along with his or her parents — can maintain a healthy perspective.
More than a decade after his silver-medal performance at the Olympics, Paul Wylie thinks back fondly on his decision to train in Boston while attending Harvard. “My goal while I was [at Harvard] was to just have skating be a sport I did instead of encompassing my entire life,” he says. “That's a good challenge to take on as a skater, because otherwise, things do get out of perspective.”
When Wylie felt himself getting too caught up in the competition, he'd throw on a baseball hat and a pair of hockey skates and go to the Tuesday night public skating session at the Skating Club of Boston.
“You see these people who have been skating those Tuesday nights for 30 years,” he says. “And these people truly enjoyed just skating. That's the one thing I see missing today among skaters in the rink: They aren't having fun with what they're doing. They don't love skating. And that's the part that no one can take away from you.”