Note from Intern Anita Ballesteros: In Jane Shiau’s guest blog post this week, she shares her personal humorous and uplifting account of finding a sense of belonging in America through Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon. This short piece resonates with the challenge of feeling welcome in today’s multicultural environment.
A WRITER FINDS HOPE IN OLYMPIC SKATING
I know almost nothing about figure skating. That I know anything at all is due to Hamilton, with which I am currently obsessed, and a skater named Jason Brown. An innocent web search for Brown’s Nationals routine in January, skated to “The Room Where It Happens” from that musical’s soundtrack, then flung me down the rabbit hole of other competitors.
Only eighteen-year-old Nathan Chen initially stood out to me. Chen placed first at Nationals, but I was not yet watching the sport for the sport, if you will. Rather, have you seen him? Has anyone ever looked so sleek on ice? Why isn’t Vera Wang dressing everyone in the world, or at least me? The people forced to accompany my sweat-suited self to the supermarket thank her.
Beyond the Vera Wang factor, however, Chen’s appearance still held meaning for me. As the undisputed American skating champion and one of the strongest international contenders going into the Olympics, Chen was practically a shoo-in to bring the gold medal home. Surely my fellow Asian-American claiming worldwide victory would Make America Great Again—and this time for the rest of us, right? Because so far, America Winning seemed to have mostly translated into People Like Me Losing.
I missed Chen’s debut in Pyeongchang during the team event. (Note to past self: a team event for Olympic figure skating exists.) News articles summarized his performance with words like “disaster” and “shocking.” Chen apparently went directly to the practice rink from that performance, and my heart broke a little in solidarity. Even though Chen’s work ethic is one of many, many reasons he’s at the Olympics and I’m not, part of me wished he had taken a few hours to stomp around and scream. Failure hurts, especially for teenagers, and even more for teenagers with a worldwide live audience.
Chen’s next Olympic appearance came in the men’s short program. I dutifully watched an hour of the NBC primetime show, naively thinking it would air every competitor’s short program, but I only saw skiing (don’t ask me what kind; I didn’t have time to learn the new sport’s lingo). Cranky from a bad cold, I went to bed early and awoke to the devastating news that Chen had “bombed” again. In interviews afterward, he sounded lost, unable to grasp why previously unfelt pressure and expectation now weighed down his jumps.
Thanks to a Twitter tip from commentator Johnny Weir, I felt confident going into the free skate program that night. At the designated time, I clicked on “Hockey and More: Live Now,” rather than the more obviously-named “NBC Primetime (Standard): Live Now” on the NBC Sports Network app on my TV. Audience, please do not attempt this type of advanced maneuver without sufficient practice. Remember, I had failed at watching the Olympics for several days now.
Chen, the first U.S. representative to compete in the free skate, landed several quads during his group practice. Despite the perfect landings, he didn’t look happy, but I didn’t care. I just wanted him to get his performance mojo back because I feared for his mental status. Other than his grim expression, he looked glorious, with the severe black lines of his costume interrupted only by a white collar reminiscent of a martial artist’s uniform. Make no mistake: tonight he fought not to medal but to regain and redeem himself. And he did, with a historic and successful five clean quads during his performance.
“Thank goodness that’s over,” I said to my boyfriend. He, being white, didn’t have quite the same investment I’d had. “I’m not sure I could have held my breath any longer to keep that airplane up.”
Now that the heavy lifting was done, I relaxed enough to watch the remaining competitors. Vincent Zhou, the next American to appear, had surfaced in my awareness after the short program when he briefly became my better option for non-white American glory. We Asians aren’t known for emotion, but Zhou’s elation at the conclusion of his performance—pumping his fists in the air before sinking to both knees sobbing—made me wink back my own tears, a distinctly preferable action to witnessing Chen’s buttoned-up misery.
So far the performances I’d watched could be summarized, in my own uneducated words, as: skate, skate, tricky jump, skate skate, please don’t fall down, repeat. I didn’t mind this kind of skating, because I didn’t have any other experience. Then Adam Rippon, the last to compete for the U.S., came on.
Anyone who’s watched even a few Olympic minutes this year knows Adam, and we’re all on a first-name basis with him. I knew he couldn’t land a quad and therefore was unlikely to medal due to modern scoring rules. (How far my knowledge had come in a few short days.) At a decade older than Chen, Adam was clearly thrilled to be at his first (and likely last as a competitor) Olympics.
Of all the American performers, Adam and I have the least in common. He: gay, white, male, figure skater. I: None of the above. But he still had me at hello, or in Adam’s case, at his first birdlike head twitch.
In Adam’s skating, I saw a story about falling, failing, and breaking down, only to rise again to joyously spin up and out to greet the world. I don’t have the skating knowledge or language to properly explain how he communicated so much or why it mesmerized me. It was a combination of his music and choreography, certainly, but maybe it was also in his arms, which were wide open throughout and beckoned the audience to join him. Maybe it was in his body, tensing up only as much as necessary to land his jumps, and otherwise flowing through the rink and somehow expanding into the space without ever crowding the rest of us out. Maybe it was simply his awareness of the audience, that we existed and mattered.
There are skaters far more technically skilled than Adam, and there certainly had been no shortage of emoting on ice during the competition, but no other skater told a story that I read so clearly. In less than five minutes, Adam somehow gave me hope.
I’m not anyone important, and I know almost nothing about figure skating. But Adam Rippon’s skating reminded me that I belong, I am welcome, I am someone. We all are.
Photo courtesy WHardcastle
Jane Shiau received her MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University. Born and raised in Massachusetts, she recently moved to just outside of Portland, Maine with her dog, Fergus, who lives on Instagram as @mcfergiemac. Her writing has previously appeared in The Boston Globe.