Guo: Half a second of magic

by Clara Guo | 2/8/17 2:10am

I tie my left skate before my right, tightening and retightening my laces until the calluses on the outside of my pinkies turn red with aggravation. I zip up my green Dartmouth team jacket and walk toward the rink. My warm up begins in six minutes.

The announcer calls five names, and I step on ice, skating around once before warming up my single then double jumps. My feet already hurt — a numb, prickling sensation originates in my arch and spreads outward. I do my easiest jump, the axel, last, terrified that my ankle will pop on the takeoff and render me incapable of bearing my own weight.

There are two skaters before me. Just enough time to retie my skates and take a sip of water. I try to tune out the echoing cheers of other schools, focusing on a program I have competed countless times before.

It is finally my turn. I take off the guards that protect my blades and breathe. In. Out. The announcer calls my name followed by my school, and I skate down the middle of the ice, presenting to the judges with both arms raised above my smiling face.

I skate in small circles around my starting position, calming the nerves that cause my stomach to somersault. I place one foot behind the other, placing my arms in a relaxed First Position.

“The Holiday” soundtrack begins to play.

My first jump is a double flip. When consistently landed, it’s my favorite element. When inconsistently landed, I sport bruises along my entire left side, unfortunately positioned to maximize pain while I am seated.

I step forward. Pause. Count.

One. Step on right foot.

Two. Mohawk backward onto left foot. Focus on my right arm — extend it backward. Focus on my left — raise it upward.

Three. Tap my right toe pick directly behind me. Keep my head forward. Be careful of left arm; avoid premature rotation. Stay in. Expect to land. Stay vertical.

Always stay vertical.

There is something magical about skating, a trust in your own body and mental fortitude that surely must be characteristic of all sports.

You must trust that when you take off, your body will land in one piece, safe, uninjured. When you fall (because, inevitably, you will fall), you must trust that you will stand up, dust the snow off your side, your elbows, your back, your hips, stretch your knotted muscles, clean the bloody cuts, massage the bruised bones and do it again. Over and over until the pain fades and only a dull ache remains. You must believe that, soon, you will land the jump. Because if you do not believe in future success, then you fall for nothing.

You must trust in your body’s knowledge over that of your mind. You must dampen your thoughts and loosen control so that muscle memory dominates without the confounding factor of anxiety.

But you must also remember to take your time, to not rush the follow-through on the takeoff, to keep your arms in while rotating. You must control your body to physically prepare for landing and hold your center of gravity in the middle of your tightened core.

If you mentally prepare for a fall, you will fall.

If you fall many times in a row, you must spend many breaths convincing yourself you can and will land it.

Sometimes, landing one jump is not enough. Sometimes, you must prepare for an immediate second after the first — a combination or a sequence. You must think, “one at a time” until, less than half a second after the first takeoff, you land and must prepare for another; you must, again, think, “one at a time,” except your mind has already jumped ahead of your body, and you have been thinking of the second “one a time” since before turning backward for the first double.

You hope that your hours of practice every week for months prove enough to skate a clean three and a half-minute program without falls. You hope that your exhaustion doesn’t show through your smile. You hope your shaky legs don’t result in a silly, preventable fall during your footwork sequence.

You push because you know that in three and a half minutes, you can collapse. You’ll be able to breathe, take off your skates, massage your feet, change into sweatpants and remove the makeup caked in layers on your face. You know that you’ll bow with either pride or disappointment. You hope — you’ve trained — for the former.

Less than half a second after the takeoff of my double flip, I land.

Hold the landing. Steady.

One jump completed.

Six more half-a-seconds of magic remaining.