I don’t remember the moment I fell in love with figure skating, but I’m positive it wasn’t the moment I first stepped on the ice.

My mom and one of her friends decided to sign all of the kids up for group lessons at the local community rink because it was cheap, fun and, maybe, a good skill to have for potential dates later in life. Armed with a ladybug helmet, I took my first steps toward what I was certain would be Olympic fame. In my five-year-old mind, I knew that I wouldn’t be Michelle Kwan on my very first day, but I expected at least basic proficiency. I was royally pissed when I face-planted after my first step on the ice. I decided right then and there that I was done with this stupid sport, if only I could get back up. Fortunately, one of the instructors scooped me up and hand-delivered me to my class before I could make my escape. It was somewhere around then that my love affair with ice skating began.

Flash forward a few years later, and things have gotten serious between skating and me. Group classes have been replaced with private lessons from several different coaches, all attempting to teach me the different disciplines of skating: freestyle, ice dance, field moves and synchro. Synchro — short for synchronized skating — meant more ice time, more coaches and more pretty dresses, as well as the opportunity to eventually travel the world with the U.S. flag embroidered on my jacket. What had started out as a fun hobby had taken over my life — and I couldn’t have been any happier.

Skating was no longer cheap and my mom would regularly ask me if I was sure, absolutely sure, that this was what I wanted to do. Skating also wasn’t making me into a well-rounded person, but rather a one-dimensional one because I had completely thrown myself into it. And just to throw the romantic notions out the window, I hadn’t been ice skating on a date. Skating shouldn’t have been any fun at all. What was fun about getting up ungodly early to hang out in the one place that was colder than it was outside? There was nothing amusing about falling and slamming into the boards so hard that you still have scar tissue to this very day, or having to respond “Sorry, I can’t, I have skating,” to every invitation that was ever extended to you. Was it enjoyable to spend six hours a day learning choreography so difficult it made your head spin, only to have your coach yell and threaten to replace you when you didn’t do it right?

In a word: yes.

While the grueling practices and challenging moments themselves weren’t fun, it was all part of the bigger picture. Skating allowed me the chance to perform. I’ve got a big personality, and I loved being the center of attention. I was always a nervous wreck leading up to competitions, but there was something about putting on the makeup (copious amounts of glitter and red lipstick) that relaxed me. In the locker room my teammates and I would play “booty jams” to get pumped up, and once we were dressed in our costumes it was time to visualize our performance and get serious again.

Once I took the ice, everything melted away and it was just me and the music. No matter the competition, whether I was with my team or flying solo, time always used to feel like it was speeding by at twice or three times the speed it was. My heart would pound and my body would be on autopilot, knowing exactly what to do after hours of rigorous training. In those moments, I felt like I could fly, like anything was possible. Even when our music took on a serious tone, I always had a big smile plastered on my face because I was doing exactly what I loved to do.

The program would come to an end and I would gasp for air — beaming at the realization of another successful skate. You’re supposed to be professional and stand still until someone gives the count to release you, but I would always smile knowingly at my family in the crowd, even as a collegiate athlete.

Years have gone by, and I’ll never forget my first Synchronized Skating Championship — hitting the final pose in our long program at the Spring Cup in Milan, Italy, or the feeling of my first collegiate medal hanging from my neck as a member of the University’s team my freshman year. Each moment, though they all seemed monumental at the time, was part of larger picture that will never fully fade away; my life as a competitive skater. No matter what, those memories will never leave, and if I try hard enough, I can still recreate those pre-competition jitters in my stomach and legs like it was yesterday. Some of my happiest moments come from those years when I was missing school, surviving on four hours of sleep a night and skating was truly my whole life.

What skating really gave me, from that very first day until the day I hung up my skates, was my identity. When people asked what I did, I said competitive figure skating. When they asked who I was, it was the name of the team I was on. While I’ve found ways to fill the gaps in my schedule, there’s no club or meeting that will ever compare to a packed stadium or getting a standing ovation from hundreds of people. People tell me that I’ll find something else I’ll love just as much, but I’m not so sure. I died a little bit inside the first time I told someone that “I used to skate,” but I’m accepting the reality of my first grown-up decision.

In truth, my love affair with figure skating never really ended, and I don’t think it ever fully will. It taught me how to push myself to the absolute limit. My story is about a little girl who fell head over heels in love with figure skating, which engrained me with experiences that shaped who I am today, and will help me become the woman I hope to be 15 years from now.

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