Saturday, June 1, 2013

Stranger in a Strange Land

So, there we were. After a four hour drive from the mountains, and several missed turns (this was pre-GPS), I finally pulled into the nearly full parking lot and circled, looking for a place to land. The car was packed with bags, skates,costumes and one very antsy 4 1/2 year old. We had arrived. 

It was our very first competition - Funtastics basic skills at South Suburban Ice Arena.  What struck me as we unloaded the trunk was ALL the people! Lots and lots (and lots) of little girls running around outside in their skates, hair done to perfection, heavily beaded dresses glittering in the sun. Parents either chasing after them; parents sitting at tables or in the grass eating; parents primping their prodigies; powdering, patting and pampering. Some skaters strutted around displaying large blue, red, yellow or white ribbons (there were no medals). Several girls sat uncontrollably sobbing in their mother's arms as coaches talked in hushed tones and in a language that was absolutely foreign to me.

Attempting to enter the building, I had the distinct feeling of being a salmon swimming upstream. I knew there was a purpose to all this, but it was a battle as a never-ending sea of makeup, crystals and hairspray cascaded out the double doors. We had been instructed by our coach to go to the registration table, sign in and then look for her. She said something about being in the "North rink" with some of our other club skaters. I wasn't quite sure what that meant, but like lemmings to the cliff, we went with the flow.

I am an observer of people. I always have been. I think it is because I come from a family of actors who always talked about watching body language and little scenes as they played out before you in order to learn about "human nature." At this point, my skater had found home club friends and was careening through the facility with impressive, tadpole-like speed, seemingly unaffected by all the chaos around him. I found a small, unoccupied six inches of space where I could simply observe for a moment before having to jump into my very first fray. 

It's strange to me that I remember these things, but the first skater that caught my attention was a young girl who looked a bit older (that being a relative term at this competition). Her blonde hair was done in ringlets; she was dressed in a sparkly dress that was piled with layers and layers of petticoats. She reminded me of a miniature pageant participant. Makeup, eyeliner, lipstick, hairspray keeping her locks immaculately locked in place. Her skates were perfectly white; not a mark on them. Her mother was following her around with a skating bag, hair brush in hand. She looked more like a bodyguard than a parent. People would walk up and say hello. She would engage in conversation but always with one eye on her little princess. 

I focused for a moment on the coaches. 

We came from Aspen. People have their own perceptions of Aspen, but what they don't know if they haven't lived there is that the working families of this mighty ski town are just that. No glitz and glamour; just people trying to survive and give their kids a good life. Very few members of our club had a lot of money or lived in large homes. Most were like everyone else. Our coaches were down to earth, young and former skaters themselves. They came to this basic skills competition dressed as professionals, but certainly not overdressed, unlike some of the people who were now parading before my tiny little corner reviewing stand. There were full-length mink coats in here. Not just a few, but probably more than I had seen in years. For an instant, I found myself thinking, "Is this what we need to do? I'm in jeans and tennis shoes." I'm feeling slightly inadequate and grossly under-dressed. 

Snapping me back to whatever reality seemed to be at the time, was our coach who had managed to corral my tadpole and was herding him to me for a quick change and the lengthy process of applying - and tying - skates and guards. It was nearly showtime.

Some of the rest of this is a blur. 

I had a video camera with me that I borrowed from another parent. These were the days of having small cassettes in the camera. I remember going through the swinging doors and into an ice box. I'm not sure if it was actually that cold or if it was my first experience of competition nerves. Either way, I was shaking. I nestled in the stands with other club moms. I turned on the camera and waited...and waited...and waited as group after group of mostly girls did their performances to no music. They dutifully did their skills, trying to imitate their coaches who were standing at the boards doing every move like little teleprompters. It was more entertaining to watch them than some of the kids. 

Finally, I heard my tadpole's name announced. I pulled the video camera to my eye and pressed the button. The camera recorded for about 10 seconds and then stopped. Dead. 
I missed most of skater's first 60 second performance while I frantically attempted to get new batteries in the camera. When I looked up, there he was, kneeling on the ice with his hands above his head and a huge smile on his face. Club parents were cheering; his coach was motioning him to get off the ice, but there he sat for what seemed like forever. 
It was a first, strange moment in this frozen and foreign land. Little did I know all those years ago, that these small vignettes, these little comedies and dramas, would play out for years and years to come. 

My tadpole came home with a blue ribbon. He was the only boy to compete at that level. I remember waiting for nearly an hour to find out his results and then it took another 30 minutes for him to gather up his award before we joined the outflow and moved back into the sunshine. Outside, I saw the sparkly girl. Her mascara was running down her little, frustrated face as tears flowed freely. She was flailing a red ribbon around like a rag doll as her mother tried to console her. "You should have won. You know you should have won. You were better than those other girls. The judges were wrong!" 

We packed up the car and headed back to the mountains, our ribbon in hand and in tact. My nerves? Not so much. I left knowing more than when I arrived, but I left with more questions than answers. How do you maneuver through this strange world? How are you expected to behave? How do you find your way and is this all worthwhile? 

I looked at my tadpole. He was asleep in the backseat with a smile on his face, holding his ribbon. 


  1. My darling skater nor any local skaters will never achieve the levels your skater has (Yes my DD just loves watching him everytime he take the ice), but your memory of a basic skills competition is so clear. As we encourage more skaters/families from our little club to take part in the basic competitions I remind them it is fun, a personal journey and not a race. With this our last 6 months have been a joy!

  2. Replies
    1. Love this and love reading about the journey you and your family have encompassed over the past years.

  3. Again I am struck that at 4 years old, your youngest knew what he wanted to do and has persisted till now through many challenges and strange situations.

  4. Wow - this could very well have been the competition we were last at. Congrats on all of your families success.