Saturday, January 10, 2009

With an Instructor’s Hand, a Miracle on Ice

A trip to a rink for figure skating lessons in pursuit of exercise ends with a graceful note.

I just had to share this charming little story that appeared in the New York times Yesterday!

With an Instructor’s Hand, a Miracle on Ice by Harry Hurt III

My figure skating instructor, Betsy Berry, led me onto the outdoor rink at the Buckskill Winter Club in East Hampton, N.Y., hoping to work a sort of modern miracle. I wished us both luck. It was a lucent late afternoon amid the most misbegotten period of time since the Great Depression, and I kept ruminating on a passage in “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by the Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez.

In the first chapter of the novel, a giant gypsy opens a mysterious pirate chest to reveal “an enormous, transparent block with infinite internal needles in which the light of the sunset was broken up into colored stars.” One of the novel’s untraveled, semi-ignorant protagonists declares that it must be “the largest diamond in the world.”

“No,” the giant gypsy replies. “It’s ice.”

I slogged across the ice at the Buckskill club buoyed only by my awkwardly outstretched arms and Betsy’s unflagging optimism. Fifty-odd skaters bundled in winter coats and caps careened counterclockwise around the increasingly chunked-up surface of the rink, most of them demonstrating little or no reliable control.

The helter-skelter scene underscored the midlife insanity of my executive pursuit. I was a 57-year-old novice. Apart from a few tips offered by high school classmates in Connecticut, I had had no previous instruction, and I had not set skates on ice in four decades. But after just two hours of lessons from Betsy, I was going to try a relatively advanced — and for me, potentially calamitous — maneuver called a “three turn.”

“I always tell my students to pretend they’re about to jump off a thousand-foot-high cliff,” Betsy said as we made a couple of warm-up laps. “You’ve got to get everything together, your feet, your posture and especially your mind. You’ve got to see yourself taking the leap you’re about to make.”

Betsy’s advice had a metaphorical relevance to my personal financial predicament, which made my blood run colder than the freezing air temperature. I tried to regain composure by silently reviewing my figure skating due diligence, but the facts just stoked my anxiety with unsettling images.

Skating traces its origins to Switzerland, Scandinavia and the Netherlands, where the earliest skates were made of animal leg bones and skaters propelled themselves with poles. The Dutch invented wood skates with iron runners in the 14th century, and later, as depicted in paintings by Pieter Breugel, double-edged metal blades that provided enough thrust and traction to make poles unnecessary. They also popularized skating as a sport that was open to all social classes and appropriate for romantic encounters.

Dick Button gained international acclaim for United States figure skating by winning gold medals in the men’s singles at the 1948 and 1952 Olympics. But over the last four decades, the most celebrated and most drama-prone American figure skaters have been women like Peggy Fleming, Dorothy Hamill, Michelle Kwan, Sarah Hughes, Nancy Kerrigan and the infamous Tonya Harding, whose former husband conspired in an attack on Ms. Kerrigan during the 1994 United States Figure Skating Championships. (A month later, Ms. Kerrigan nevertheless went on to win an Olympic silver medal.)

Membership in United States Figure Skating, the sport’s national governing body, based in Colorado Springs, has been growing steadily for more than 15 years. In the 1992-93 season, the association had 109,721 members. By the 2007-8 season, membership had soared to 178,500. According to the association’s media guide, 78 percent of the members are women or girls, and 68 percent are 18 or younger. In nonstatistical terms, competitive figure skating is dominated by young girls, primarily those with the body types of ballet dancers.

But I discovered that noncompetitive figure skating is a recreational activity that can offer enjoyment and healthful benefits even to a 6-foot-2, 200-pound geezer like me. Figure skating is great exercise for your cardiovascular system, your legs and your torso, and with the exception of the inevitable falls, it is relatively low impact. Likewise, figure skating is not nearly as rough as amateur ice hockey, though it may be at least, if not more, mentally demanding.

Compared with other nonteam sports like golf, fly fishing, skiing and snowboarding, recreational skating is fairly inexpensive. A pair of top-quality skates can cost around $200. At the Buckskill Winter Club, adult passes, which allow you to skate for up to five hours, are just $12 on weekdays and $18 on weekends and holidays; skate rentals are $5. Group lessons start at $23 an hour; private lessons start at $40 an hour.

Betsy Berry, the head coach at the Buckskill club, is a 56-year-old mother of two grown children who comes from a noble tradition of figure skating instructors. Born in New York City and brought up in Pennsylvania and Connecticut, she began skating at age 9. Her mentors were the British champion Graham Sharp and Gustav Lussi, who coached Mr. Button and Ms. Hamill. Although Betsy chose not to compete, she became a professional coach at age 16 to earn some pocket money while she prepared for a career as a fashion model.

In our first two lessons at the Buckskill club, Betsy tried to teach me the fundamentals of skate position and posture, but it all seemed hopelessly contradictory. I was supposed to bend my knees and “sit into” my skates. At the same time, I was to straighten my back by pretending that someone was pulling a string out of the top of my head. Instead of starting with the blades parallel to each other like a pair of skis, I was supposed open them in a “V,” and then push forward in a herringbone pattern. And I was never, ever supposed to look down at the ice.

“If you look down, you’ll lose your balance,” Betsy warned. “Pick a spot way out in front of you and go for it.”

Thanks to Betsy, I survived those first two lessons without a fall. My dubious success and my self-destructive ego inspired me to devote Lesson 3 to trying the “three turn,” a deceptively simple but supremely daunting maneuver that typically takes a novice at least a month of training sessions to learn.

As the name suggests, a three turn makes a pattern on the ice that resembles the number three. It is the building block for almost all the major figure skating routines, including spins, jumps and triple axels. It begins with a forward left turn followed by a brief glide that sets up a reverse twist that flows into the trickiest, most treacherous part of the maneuver — a series of backward crossover steps that require you to keep switching the positions of your outside skate and your inside skate while looking over your shoulder.

I made my first try at the three turn while the ice was still choppy and teeming with other skaters. I got through the forward turn, the glide and the reverse twist without losing my balance or my gamely feigned cool. But my leg muscles instinctively cramped with fear in my first attempted backward crossover step. I fell down hard.

By the time I scrambled upright, the Buckskill club staff was clearing the rink to make way for the Zamboni machine. While we huddled inside the clubhouse, Betsy kept insisting that I ought to give the three turn one more try. “You almost had it,” she said. “You were just going too fast.”

Even so, I was inclined to quit until Betsy took me by the hand and escorted me back outside. The Zamboni had just laid down a sheet of fresh ice, clean, smooth and hard. The rink sparkled like a diamond in the setting sun. I let go of Betsy’s hand and skated in miraculous solitude through a figure three punctuated by three quick, crisp backward crossover steps that seemed to lead, like an ellipsis, into an uncharted century. ...

read more | digg story

No comments: