Call of the Ice

Young figure skaters may be 90-pound competitive machines or miniature divas who revel in rinkside attention. What drives a girl to live for the sport, and how much does an Olympian outlook count?

By Carlin Flora, published on September 1, 2006 - last reviewed on April 10, 2017

Davia* was dreaming about ice. it was two weeks before the International Skating Institute's annual competition, and Davia, 11 years old, had dozed off at the kitchen table. In her mind, she was executing the perfect axel. She'd catapulted off one foot and was aloft, her body twisting and arcing. She pushed through the turns, hoisted her left knee up and landed on the precarious outside edge of her right blade, arms winging back, torso thrust forward until—smack!—she banged her head on the table and awoke to the kitchen's harsh light.

Jumps and spins figure prominently in Davia's dreams, and when she's not dreaming, chances are she's at the rink—working out, listening carefully to the soundtracks for her routines or studying ballet, all in the hopes of enhancing her grace on the ice and winning the competitions.

Davia skips into the Sky Rink at Manhattan's Chelsea Piers, her parents and grandparents in tow. She spots her coach Marnie Halasa, a beautiful, brassy woman of 39, and races over to say hello. "I did my makeup myself," she chirps, flashing a smile that reveals metal braces. She's painted her lips hot pink to match her sparkly dress. Her friend Olive Numeroff—9 years old, reed-thin and impish—sidles up in a sleek black custom-made one-piece with wing-shaped cutouts across her shoulders. After some cajoling, Olive has agreed to skate to her mother's favorite song, the Beatles' "Blackbird." Her mother, father and aunt also sport a lot of sophisticated black clothing. Olive's doe eyes shine under blue eye shadow and layers of mascara as she looks expectantly at her coach. "I hope I'm not creating little JonBenet Ramseys here," Halasa jokes. "At least they have the athleticism and the skills to back it up."

Most people assume that parents are the engines driving their daughters' desire to perform, powered by the big financial payoffs that young athletes can reap. But skating captivates young girls for many reasons besides their parents' wishes. In the case of Davia and Olive, their mothers, while supportive, are frankly a little baffled by their daughters' dedication to the sport. Each girl practices an hour and a half six mornings a week with the help of Halasa and two other coaches. Their mothers, meanwhile, find themselves secretly wishing their kids weren't so keen on getting up every morning at 4:30.

Young athletes—in fact children in general—are less concerned than adults with the ramifications of their actions. Kids are built to blindly leap in and fall down, and only gradually become aware of the concept of consequences. They also have a more acute sense of fun than adults. All of which may account for their willingness to pour time into an activity such as figure skating—repeatedly putting themselves on the line in competitions in a way that would leave most adults drained. Psychologists who study achievement have focused on two broad motivating forces: mastery, the drive to improve at an activity for its own sake, and performance, a desire for the rewards and applause that come with success. But along with these two basic drives, each child also brings her own quirks, passions and learning style to the sport. The ice can be a place to bask in the spotlight, a channel for expressing a feisty spirit or even a springboard that catapults a girl above her circumstances.

Many things can inspire a child to take up skating: a casual outing to the local rink, an older sister who's taking lessons, a glossy photo spread of the world's reigning ice queen. Halasa took up the sport three decades ago when she was 10—elderly by skating standards—after watching Dorothy Hamill on TV. Within a week, she was skating every day. She loved the beauty, theatricality and difficulty of the moves, the camaraderie of the rink's clan of regulars, the music, the costumes.

Olive got a much earlier jump on the sport. When she was 5, she announced she wanted to take up ice hockey. Her mother, Susan Numeroff, informed her that she'd have to first tackle the basics of figure skating. After her debut performance, a feisty disco-on-ice routine that Halasa choreographed to Rose Royce's "Car Wash," Olive forgot all about pucks and sticks.

And while Olive's mastery of the sport continues to impress her coaches, her path has been bumpy. "We've had a lot of failures this year," Susan explains a few weeks before the competition at the cavernous French restaurant she and her husband own. She was only 8 when she "got her axel"—a rite of passage that means she learned how to do one-and-a-half revolutions. But skaters commonly "lose" the axel temporarily, which she did. And in a noncompetitive showcase at the Sky Rink the previous week, Olive chickened out on trying the jump at all. This frustrated her mother, who knew exactly how hard she had been working. "Progress in skating is fast at first, and then it plateaus," explains Halasa. But over the spring, Olive showed the most improvement of Halasa's 40 students.

Olive insists that while she is excited about the competition, she would prefer not to win, because if she does she will be pitted against the winners of six other small groups for a runoff. She raises her eyebrows in panic at the possibility. "I don't want to skate against older kids," she says.

Off the ice, Olive is sprightly, delighted to chat about her talking parrots or the potter's wheel in her apartment. But during practices she rarely smiles, and between exercises she holds herself very still. Wary of commands, she sometimes resists Halasa's suggestions. But it's not out of plain defiance. "She wants to be prepared before she tries something," Halasa says. "She doesn't want to fall."

"I'm a perfectionist," Olive explains. "If I write the letter a and it has a squiggly line at the end, I have to erase it and redo it." And she'd rather skate alone than for a crowd. "I skate better when nobody's watching. If someone's watching I get worried that I have to be amazing."

"People don't realize how self-critical kids are," says Richard Ginsburg, director of the Sports Psychology program at Massachusetts General Hospital and co-author of the guide for parents Whose Game Is It, Anyway? But when adults compensate with lavish compliments, Olive grows suspicious. "There's a difference between soft praise and accurate praise," says Ginsburg. "Saying, 'Everything is wonderful,' doesn't teach a kid anything. You need to balance accurate praise with constructive criticism." He recommends that coaches maintain a five-to-one ratio of positive to negative comments.

"When I'm making different mistakes, I stop and think, 'I didn't swing my arms back,' or whatever it was," says Olive. "But I get really mad at myself if I can't figure out what I'm messing up." Olive's method typifies the mastery approach, says Amanda Durik, assistant professor of psychology at Northern Illinois University. She's breaking down a task and refining its components. She understands that failure is a part of learning. But if she can't figure out how to improve, she feels frustrated.

Whereas a focus on winning can produce anxiety, an emphasis on skills, preparation and enjoyment boosts self-esteem, says Ronald Smith, a sports psychologist and director of the clinical psychology program at the University of Washington. He promotes the mastery mindset by teaching coaches how to emphasize positive over negative feedback and individual improvement over competition with others. In a recent study, Little League dropout rates plummeted after coaches learned the method. Olive herself is naturally inclined to learn new tricks, and doesn't much care to beat out other kids. And yet she can't escape the reality of competitions, where her analytical approach to the sport doesn't guarantee wins.

Girls who stick with skating through adolescence become known for it around school. Competitions are a time to live up to that public image—and to their sense of themselves as skaters first and foremost. Tatyana Rosalia, 14, the skater with whom Halasa has worked the longest, arrives to rehearsal sleepy from a late-night math study session but rosy-cheeked, with her brown curls pulled into a tight ponytail.

Tatyana says the worst accusation a coach can lay on her is that she doesn't care. She doesn't want Halasa to be mad at her, and she worries about disappointing her parents and herself. When she does well, she attributes her success to hard work. When she falls, she doesn't blame her nerves or the Fates, but wonders if she didn't practice enough. She replays her mistakes in her mind, thinking, "If only I had crossed my arms tighter, I could have gotten the jump." She's tough on herself off the ice too. She finished second in her ninth grade class and sinks into a blue mood if she gets anything less than a 90 on a test.

"More face energy!" Halasa yells as Tatyana runs through her routine. "If you touch the judges emotionally, they will give you the benefit of the doubt technically," she explains. Tatyana circles back and begins again. For the second time that day, she falls during her camel spin and flashes sad green eyes Halasa's way.

Though she's critical of herself, Tatyana doesn't respond well to harsh criticism from others. If someone yells at her, she shuts down. "You have to tell her how great she is, and then she'll give you 100 percent," says Tatyana's mother. While coaching young divers, Ginsburg concluded that girls need to be enjoying themselves and getting along well with everyone before they can do their best. If a boy flopped in the water, Ginsburg could yell, "What are you doing?" It would register as affectionate concern and push him to try harder. "I couldn't say that to the girls, though. They would cry or get sulky."

Parents feel that their children's performances reflect on them, says Ginsburg, and sidelines are emotional zones. The ideal parent knows her child's personality and is aware of how motivational styles change as she grows older. An adolescent reads her coaches' and parents' reactions more accurately and is more affected by failure than a younger child, who may be more interested in ice cream than in winning. And a "good" skating mom recognizes that her own history of achievement colors her perceptions of her child's triumphs and struggles.

All skating parents sacrifice time with spouses and friends to accommodate their children's early-bird schedules, but few are as dogged as Tatyana's mother. An emigree from Russia who arrived in the U.S. when she was 19, Tanya spent years rising at 3:00 a.m. to accompany Tatyana on the two-hour subway ride from their apartment in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, to the Sky Rink in Chelsea. Tatyana's father, a onetime driver of a Mister Softee truck, now shuttles Tatyana to practice in the family's recently acquired car. He likes to remind her, "I'm the one who got you into this. And don't you do bad, or I'll stop driving you!" Sometimes he jokes, "So, are you getting better or worse?" Both comments stimulate Tatyana's teenage eye-roll reflex.

Tatyana, a tenderhearted girl with a tendency to cry, suffers from asthma and must monitor her breathing during practices. When she was 11, she grew four inches and could no longer nail the jumps she had spent years perfecting. She pushed through it and adjusted her movements to her new proportions. Then she broke her leg and set herself back again. Meanwhile, her mother suffers from pulmonary disease and was hospitalized 14 times last year. The family's tight financial situation is even worse now that her mother's employers have begun docking her pay when she's sick. Tatyana receives a scholarship from Chelsea Piers—a half-hour lesson with Halasa normally costs $45—but her family must cover equipment and costumes. The costs are offset by a tantalizing prospect, however. "With skating, I'll be able to get into a good school," Tatyana says. "I'm going for Princeton because they have a rink and a synchronized skating team."

A few months back, Tatyana's sterling technique impressed the judges at her intermediate freestyle test, which a skater must pass to compete at higher levels. She was so nervous that she banished her mother to an outside hallway. She passed the test, and the triumphant glow lasted for about three weeks, during which her attitude, if not her training regimen, relaxed. Now that she's had a break, she has to get her program together for the June showdown. "I've never won this competition," she says. "I want to win."

"Davia is my little showgirl," Halasa declares during a session the week before the competition. "I love that I don't have to do much to bring that out." Davia concurs. "If I were skating alone and nobody was watching, what would be the point of skating?" she says. "I mean, you're doing it for yourself and for fun, but you definitely want to show people what you can do."

Davia is fluid on the ice. Her neck is long and her posture assured. Though she's not yet as fast and powerful as the older children, there's no girlish gawkiness to her movement. She is immersed in the rich instrumental theme from Cinema Paradiso accompanying her. "We didn't know whether she could maturely interpret this piece of music, but she can," Halasa says. "She has very nice, expressive arms."

"Davia wants to be a star," says her mother, Cathy, who is a part-time insurance consultant. "I tell her, 'Go for it! You're already a star!'"

Davia toggles between wanting to master movements and needing to bask in glory—behind the showgirl smile is a workhorse mentality. During spring break in fourth grade, Davia spent three hours at the rink every day.

"It seems to me that wanting to provide a good experience for other people could be an intrinsic motivation," says psychologist Amanda Durik. "Like a singer who wants to give a great show, it's an essential part of the activity."

Two years ago, the Davia's family hired a personal trainer to come to their home three times a week to strengthen Davia's core muscles and increase her flexibility, which is not naturally stellar. "Davia is very coachable," says the trainer, Sheryl Dluginski. "She's unusual in her dedication, even compared to other kids who skate."

With a few exceptions, the younger a child is, the less anxious she is about competing. Most young kids, explains Ginsburg, simply can't grasp the implications of losing. A child lives in the moment, whereas an adult may be plagued with flashbacks of past mishaps or bleak thoughts about going home from yet another competition without a medal.

Kids who do grow anxious are less equipped than adults to calm themselves down, says Amy Baltzell, a sports psychologist and former Olympic rower. Athletes can calm the butterflies by talking to themselves, she says. "You need to say something like, 'Here come the nerves. That's good. I need them—they're going to keep me alert.' " With their vivid imaginations, children can benefit even more than grown-ups from routinely visualizing ideal versions of their performances, a process experts believe strengthens motor memory and primes muscles to do the right thing.

On the evening of Olive and Davia's competition, the rink is packed with spectators sipping hot chocolate in an effort to defrost. Skaters tromp around in their blades waiting for the designated minute and a half they'll have to show their stuff. As Olive's moment nears, her father focuses his camera lens. Her mother descends the bleacher steps to stand by the rink. (A week ago, Olive confessed that though she wouldn't dare tell them, she doesn't like it when her parents watch: "I feel like they're on top of me.") Olive propels herself out on her stick legs and assumes her starting position in front of the four judges. The soothing chords of "Blackbird" ring out and she pushes off slowly. She makes a few fluttery skips across the ice on the points of her blades and then spins like a wobbly top. She flaps her arms about delicately and keeps her expression thoughtful, looking every bit the melancholy character of the song.

She pushes off, soars up, and in the blink of an eye lands on both feet—a perfect axel. Her mother visibly relaxes. "God, I'm so glad she got that," she says. Olive holds her final pose and then practically runs off the ice to the excited swarm of family members and Halasa. Her aunt hands her a bouquet of purple flowers. What was she thinking as she nailed that jump? "Nothing!" she says, beaming.

Ten minutes later, Davia stands at the edge of the ice and breathes deeply as she watches the first girl in her group swirl around to a romantic ballad. Then she's on. She stands poised in front of the judges, waiting for her name to be announced. The music starts with a jolt. The judges had forgotten to call her name, a slip in the protocol that throws Davia off. She scrambles into the routine a crucial two seconds too late. Her nervousness injects little shock waves into her normally smooth moves. She's a bit off beat, struggling to maintain her concentration, instead of floating effortlessly through the violins' melody.

She never falls, but she never settles into herself either. Afterward, she sits down next to her mother, who puts her arm around her. "They didn't call my name," Davia says quietly, explaining her hesitancy.

A few minutes later, a child serving as a runner between judges and officials reports, in a panicked whisper, that Davia has been disqualified for doing a double salchow, a move too advanced for her skill level, according to the girl. Davia escapes to the bathroom and sobs for 10 full minutes. Halasa marches off to the judges' corner to investigate, confirming that the report is wrong—all moves are permissible in an artistic routine and Davia was never considered for disqualification. Davia comes out and accepts second place in her group.

Olive's fear comes to pass—she wins her initial set and must skate her routine again, along with the winners from the other small groups. On a high, she reenters the rink and performs the routine with a touch more excitement but the same gentle delivery. A few minutes later, she stands on a podium in the lobby, where she is awarded third place in the runoff, having beaten 13 skaters. Constant smiling seems to have worn a new dimple in her cheek. Davia, quite calm and content considering the emotional roller coaster she's endured, chats with Olive before saying goodbye. They'll see each other Monday at 5:50 a.m., when they start preparing for the U.S. Figure Skating Association's regional championships in September.

On the day of her competition, Tatyana, sporting a red outfit that her mother bought online and embellished with sequins, is nervous and excited. After Halasa gives her a post-warm-up tip for her camel spin, Tatyana slips on a satin jacket with "Italia" stitched across the front, a nod to her Italian father, who isn't there and doesn't like to watch her compete but who bought his daughter's first pair of figure skates at the Salvation Army for three dollars when she was 3 years old.

Though Tatyana is dying to beat her friend Laura, who's first on the roster, she nevertheless cheers her on. Finally it's Tatyana's turn. Streisand's defiant lyrics and brass band back-up transform the rink into a musical-theater stage. Tatyana whirls around with strength and pizzazz, her chin lifted in a haughty pose. She shakes her shoulders and looks coyly toward the crowd. But as she crosses one foot in back of the other, executing a basic move, the pick of her blade snags on the ice. She flies into the air, lands hard on her hip and skids for several slow seconds across the ice.

Tatyana quickly picks herself up, turns around, skates up some momentum and lands a double salchow—a jump with two full rotations. She ends with a tornadolike spin, her head thrown back, face to the ceiling. Off the ice, her friends encircle and console her. "Tatyana!" Halasa cries out. "Are you okay? I can't believe you landed that double salchow!" Tatyana's hands are chafed, but she cheerfully shrugs off the fall. "It was still fun," she insists.

The judges find the routine impressive in spite of the blunder, and Tatyana gets first place in her group. For the runoff she lines up with seven other girls, two of whom are older than she. Her hip is throbbing. Her arms are still blotchy and red. "She's not complaining now," Tatyana's mother says. "But later she'll be crying and showing me her bruises."

This time around, however, Tatyana, cheeks rosy, is sufficiently warmed up when she glides to the middle of the arena. She morphs back into her diva persona. When she hones in on the moment she fell, the audience sucks in a collective breath. She sails past. When she cinches the double salchow, the crowd cheers even louder than before.

Tatyana elbows through the mob in the lobby just as they're set to announce the results of the runoff. Over the din of onlookers reuniting with skaters comes a judge's voice: "First place goes to Tatyana Rosalia!" She gasps and hugs her mother. "I can't believe it!" she screams.

Just then she spots her friend—a tall, slim girl, slumped in the corner sobbing, disappointed with her own performance. As soon as the medal is draped around Tatyana's neck, she runs over and puts her arms around the girl. She knows just how she feels.

*Name has been changed