The Skaters Assemble Backstage

She is hipless and chestless, and looks closer to 13 than her 28 years. She wears a size 0. She’s no different from the other girls. Not one hits the 105-pound mark. (“You can’t rotate three times in the air unless you’re thin,” Miller explained earlier. “Narrow hips, thin, slightly bowed legs: That’s a gift from God.”)

The capacity crowd of 8,500 take their seats. The ice is swept clean. The lights dim. The skaters assemble backstage in their costumes.

And then it’s show time

After a rousing preamble by Hamilton via offstage microphone, the show proper begins, and all the stars enter one by one to the sounds of their illustrious biographies. A man whoops for Gordeeva and is battered with disapproving glares. Ice shows are no place for horn-dog hooting. Lipinski and Hamilton skate out last, to deafening applause.

Most of the male skaters don’t smile. They get to look stern and hungry, their costumes like scaled-down Ricky Martin clubwear. The women are expected to smile, and they do, every second they are on the ice (save for the heart-wrenching classical numbers), until they whisk behind the exit curtain, where they rush to change for the next number.

The show lasts two hours, with a brief intermission. The women’s numbers are divided into what could be called “virgin skates,” where the women look ethereal and pure and spin along to ballads and Beethoven, and “tart skates,” where they wear exaggerated bikinis–or in Lipinski’s case, an American-flag bustier and leather hot pants–and strut about to rock `n’ roll. In one number, half the girls skate wearing feather boas, and the boy skaters swoon or court accordingly. The audience responds with manic applause and polite chuckling.

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Wear Costumes Instead of Gear

And while other athletes may mock skaters’ accomplishments, considering them less sportswomen than show ponies, those in the “skating community” (the term comes up often, as does the phrase we’re one big, happy family) seem immune or oblivious to the criticism, perhaps because figure skating has always existed in its own peerless sporting bubble.

You wear costumes instead of gear

You are expected to excel technically and aerobically, but, also to charm. Where other female athletes need only ski faster, jump farther or score more goals, figure skaters must seduce, which means looking good. The last female contender who wasn’t attractive was Tonya Harding, and look what happened to her.

As a result of these uncommon criteria, figure skating draws uncommon women. Women who don’t crack under the pressure of excelling both in lutzes and lip lining. Gifted athletes who not only win gold medals but possess enough charisma to carry a marketing campaign.

Take Lipinski. The youngest Olympic, world and national figure skating champion in history, Lipinski turned pro at 15 and cashed in, signing gigs with DKNY, Mattel, Snapple and Campbell’s Soup. “I love touring,” she says. “I love being in hotels. Everyone on the tour is my best friend. Pressure is the Olympics. Touring is enjoying your rewards.” Continue reading “Wear Costumes Instead of Gear”

Figure Skating

“After the 1994-95 season, the attitude was, get in, get cash, get out,” says Mark Lund, publisher of International Figure Skating magazine. The sport had “unnatural popularity…. I don’t foresee those kind of ratings ever again, unless someone gets shot on the ice.”

Champions on Ice

Thus the manic must-see swirl of publicity has ebbed into a low-grade appreciation for watching what often amounts to pretty girls making pretty twirls. Most of the fans are women, and it is largely their stubborn affection that supports a clump of traveling shows, themed specials and the big guns of the ice spectacles: Champions on Ice, featuring Oksana Baiul and Michelle Kwan; and Target Stars on Ice, featuring Lipinski, Chen, Gordeeva and Yamaguchi.

Unlike most sports, figure skating lives and dies by its personalities. These women are not just athletes; they are celebrities who triple-toe-loop. They must cross the boundary between hero and star. And for better or worse, the future of figure skating sits precariously atop their well-turned shoulders.

Stars started small. It’s the brainchild of Scott Hamilton, the 1984 Olympic champion and skating icon best known for his puckish backflips and effervescent commentary–not to mention his highly publicized battle against testicular cancer. In 1985, the short, balding skater was let go from the Ice Capades for being “commercially unappealing.” Stars began the next year, with a handful of skaters driving all night to low-paying gigs. Then came Nancy and Tonya, and Hamilton and his stars became very appealing and very rich.

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The International Skating Center

Figure skaters aren’t just athletes. They’re celebrities who triple-to-loop.

Allison Glock goes backstage with America’s ice queens

The International Skating Center in Simsbury, Connecticut, teems with skaters hopping along in covered blades, the plastic thwapping on the carpeting like flip-flops. The rinks are cast in garish light and kept predictably cold. The scene is desolate: concrete benches and blaring rehearsal music, “Bridge over Troubled Water,” playing over and over for what seems like hours.

The only beauty to be found is on the ice, where a few of the world’s best-known figure skaters are warming up, preparing for this year’s Target Stars on Ice tour. Kristi Yamaguchi kicks her heels up to her hamstrings. A pairs team has a spat. Tara Lipinski shimmies in the corner. They all glide betwixt and between in a gorgeous, unfathomable flow. Even at its most pared down, figure skating remains exquisite to watch.

Yamaguchi exudes grace and whimsy. She floats. Lipinski is funkier, all hips and shoulders. Ekaterina “Katia” Gordeeva skates darkly, with stiff perfection, while Lu Chen, an Olympic medalist from China, moves with contrived sass, an attempt to fit in with her new American gang.

Outside the rink, groupies wait with disposable cameras in hand. They are all women, and they linger for hours. Most long to see Lipinski, a teenager invariably described as cute.

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