Winter Sports, Mental Toughness, Orthopedics
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Overcoming Physical Obstacles: The Journey of an Adult Skater
The Impact of Physical Health on Performance
“I don’t know if my knee is going to hold up through this. I might fail.”
That’s the thought that drifted halfway through my Adult Silver Moves In The Field (MITF or “Moves”) test.
It was a sunny Saturday in March of 2021. Little did I know it was the beginning of a two-year string of physical hiccups that would block my ability to go to competition.
The Role of MITF in Figure Skating
My last competition was Adult Nationals in 2019. Thanks – or rather, no thanks – to the COVID-19 pandemic, all of us adult skaters pretty much lost the opportunity to practice and compete in 2020. I was hopeful for 2021 but suddenly the outlook grew cloudy.
My right knee was buckling when I bent it too deeply, which in skating is impossible to avoid. Especially in MITF.
Let me quickly explain MITF. It’s called figure skating for a reason. Skaters used to have to learn a number of compulsory figure 8 patterns known as school figures. Figures were eliminated from the competition after 1990 because it was too confusing to the television-viewing public when a skater who performed a brilliant freestyle program didn’t win… because someone who was brilliant at the figures, which was worth 60% of the overall score, did so well that even someone else’s superior free skate couldn’t knock them off the podium.
However, the figure skating powers that were agreed to the discipline and muscle control skaters attained from doing figures should be preserved in another way, so MITF was created. Simply put, it’s the patterns from the figures taken out of the 8 and spread across the ice, making it easier to execute.
The Diagnosis and Road to Recovery
Back to my test. My knee was buckling on three turns. I compensated as best I could. The judges allowed me a reskate on one of the elements and I willed my knee to cooperate. Still, it was generous of them to award me a pass. They easily could have failed me.
Off to the sports medicine doctor, I went and he sent me to physical therapy. The diagnosis was a surprise - weak glutes, not the knee. Eight weeks in with no improvement and the PT said, I think you need an MRI, you probably have a labral tear in your hip and that’s why you can’t get any stronger. He was correct. Then came more physical therapy over the summer of 2021 and finally the knee stopped buckling.
The Unforeseen Foot Injury
Now it’s September 2021 and out of the clear blue, the outsides of my feet started hurting when I put on my skates. I ignored it at first but two weeks after the pain started, I laced up and tried to stand up and crumpled back down to the bench with a cry of agony. Removing the skates off hurt so much that I almost passed out. My coach was instantly at my side and examined my feet. I think you’re going to need surgery, he said. I pooh-poohed him. No, I just have hard calluses I need to shave down, I responded.
But again, off to the doctor I went, this time the podiatrist. I was whisked into X-Ray and to my surprise, it only took minutes for them to develop and view the film. Bunionettes on both feet, the one on the right literally sharp as a pin. Yup, Coach Joe was right, the surgical center was calling my name.
I went in just before Thanksgiving 2021. I chose to have both feet done at the same time to avoid losing six months off the ice by doing one first, waiting for healing, and then the other and healing. I couldn’t walk at all, had to use a wheelchair for almost three months, and was completely dependent on my husband to care for me. He put a mattress on the floor of the bedroom and guard rails on the toilet and that enabled me to do one and one thing only for myself – thanks to the carpet, I could crawl on all fours to the bathroom and hoist myself onto the toilet.
One time he wheeled me into the living room and then went into his office to take a meeting. I needed the bathroom and couldn’t wait for the meeting to finish so he could wheel me there. I tried to crawl again on all fours but the hardwood floor was so excruciating on my knees I wound up having to drag myself on my belly to the bathroom. I’ve never in my life felt so helpless and humiliated.
Back on the Ice and The Challenge of Osteoarthritis
Once I healed up and could skate again. I overdid it and landed back in PT and had to start all over. The summer of 2022 passed this way. I started jumping again in October. Oh, the joy of being airborne! But by Thanksgiving, my LEFT knee started buckling. In December I went for an MRI and was unexpectedly told I had the beginnings of osteoarthritis.
Facing the Nationals 2023
I missed Nationals in 2021 and 2022 so was gunning hard for Nationals in 2023, which would be held where I live: Salt Lake City. Nationals rotate among the three regions: Eastern, Midwestern and Pacific Coast. Steiner Center has two rinks, is located downtown and there’s a major airport nearby, which makes it an ideal facility, so Nationals hits Salt Lake about every 4-5 years.
I was eager to at long last take and pass my Adult Silver Free Skate test so I could move up from Bronze and I had until February 1, 2023, to do it, but the time unable to jump piled up and in early January I was forced to give up on taking the test and settled for signing up to compete Bronze Ladies IV at Sectionals in Las Vegas in March and Nationals in April in Salt Lake.
The competition event rates have gone up significantly in the past few years and there’s no refund for any reason, including withdrawal for injury. As I filled out the entry forms, I sat back and considered my options. Angels and devils perched on my shoulders and faced off.
You don’t have to do this, said the angels. You are not obligated. No one will think the worse of you if you decided to not do these competitions. You need to take care of your body. You don’t want to fall and get hurt even more. That’s a lot of money to spend when you don’t know if you can be there.
The devils hissed back – since when were you a quitter? Since when did you back down when the going got tough? You sit this one out, it’s going to be years before the competition comes here again. You’ve got zero travel costs. You love your program music. You have a beautiful dress. Finish filling out the damn form and click submit already! You are a figure skater. Act like one.
I took the middle ground. True, there was no shame in not going after all I’d been through. (The angels cheered and the devils groaned.) However. A large, however. I was only OK to withdraw after trying absolutely everything possible to compete. That meant taking a gamble and signing up without knowing for certain if I could skate on the day. (The angels and devils declared a truce and disappeared.)
I took my first cortisone shot to the knee in February 2023. Glory be, I was jumping like I did in my prime. I love jumping. I love the feeling of flying and the satisfying little thud of the blade meeting the ice. And my coach is Olympian Jozef Sabovcik – nicknamed Jumping Joe for his spectacular jumps. So I was grooving along, certain I was bound for Las Vegas to take a shot at the gold when… my knee buckled. Five days before the competition.
Could I have made a beeline for the doctor’s office for another shot? Well… yes and no. Yes, it was certainly possible to get another shot. But you cannot have too many cortisone shots in a short space of time, it can cause permanent damage. Plus, if I took a shot to get to Sectionals, I might not be able to have another one to get to Nationals. In the end, I called off Sectionals to preserve my ability to skate Nationals.
I had another shot several weeks later, 10 days before the competition. Again, I thought I would be OK, but this time the shot’s effects lasted only half the time it lasted before.
Would I take one more? Three shots inside of eight weeks = NO BUENO. I went over the pros and cons extensively and in partnership with my doctor, I made the decision. One more shot on Monday. I’d have to be willing to step on the ice on Wednesday without knowing for sure if my knee would hold up or if I’d go sit in the bleachers and cheer for my fellow competitors. And the price to pay would be taking the summer off to get treatment and heal completely before contemplating a jump again. With the knowledge that I may be done jumping after this competition and would switch to ice dance and artistic programs that don’t require jumps.
Practice on Monday – good, but that was to be expected, I’d just had the shot. I went to the rink Tuesday morning for my final practice, praying my knee would hold. I took off on a simple waltz jump and was rewarded with a solid landing. I ran all my other jumps and ran my program three times. Knee held.
The Big Day
Wednesday. Competition day. I woke up, dressed, did my hair and make-up, and drove to the rink. I’d done all I could do. I’d step out on the warm-up prior to the event and try the jumps and I’d know my fate.
“Would the following ladies please take the ice for the five-minute warm-up…” we heard over the loudspeaker at 11:00 am. I took off my skate guards and joined the others in stroking around and running elements of our programs.
Waltz – thud. Salchow – thud. Toe loop – thud. Flip – thud.
I – AM – DOING – THIS. YESSSSSSS.
Alrighty then. My only job out there is to smile like a 1000-watt lightbulb and enjoy myself. I don’t care if I get a medal or not, I don’t care where I place. I’m HERE. That’s all that matters. This is my shining moment. Make the most of it.
I was skating to the Whitney Houston/Kygo version of Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love.” I was pretending that my close personal friends Whitney, Kygo, and Steve were in the audience with my friends who had so kindly come to cheer for me. I’m gonna do your song proud, you three.
And I did. My name was called and I glided out like I owned the ice and took my starting pose. The music started and I put my body, heart, and soul into every move I made. Never stopped smiling. Loved every minute. The music ended, I flung my hands in the air and the audience cheered. I floated to the door to my coach on Cloud 10.
That was great, he said. But you forgot your final spin. I was having so much fun, I forgot!! We laughed. Oh well, there goes the gold, I joked. So what? It was my best competition ever.
Flash forward to sitting with my friends. For the first time, the results were not posted on a wall, but online. The third time I checked it appeared the results were there. It was hard to see without my reading glasses, which I neglected to bring along. I squinted… is that MY name on top of the list? Am I seeing things?
OMG you guys, I said to my friends. I think I won. They all let out a squeal. I handed my phone to one of them. Read this, I said, I’m not sure.
After two years of this, that, and the other plus a missed spin, I was taking home the gold medal.
My other reward… the inner gold medal. For the rest of my life, I know my incredible strength, and for a number of reasons I am at a point in my life where I sorely needed a reminder of my power. I created irrefutable, irrevocable evidence I’m unstoppable when I put my mind to something, and I know that no matter what the outcome, my attitude, the work I’m willing to put in, the refusal to accept defeat and always find a win make me a champion.
It was the greatest day of my life and it would have been with or without the gold medal around my neck. There’s no sweeter win.