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Florence in Words

Olympics skating at Sochi 2014

Gracie Gold
Yes, I have been watching the Olympics, and not only my favorite ice-skating stars. Some of the skiing has also caught my attention, the slopes terrifying, even from my couch. I continue to admire the resilience of skiers who are not put off even by a seemingly bone-breaking fall, and go on the slopes again. Other aspects of the games seem both frightening and still more impenetrable to me—variations playing on the edges of danger, and sometimes, as in the narrow speedway for one or two hurling bodies, the skill capable of winning gold seems totally impenetrable to the (ignorant) observer. From time to time, I watch and wonder especially when ice skating is not on.

Men’s skating proved the most shocking event, and not only because the Russian star, Evgeni Plushenko, who had led easily with at the beginning of the games, could not, in his second short program, move for the pain he felt. He left the ice, and then sent a formal notice of “retirement.” His first short program, in my view, was one of the most beautiful performances I have ever seen. It made the question—“Is figure skating an art or a sport?” irrelevant. Who could have known that, even then, his body was in pain. He seemed perfection. But what made the evening of his retirement still more shocking was that the three excellent skaters who followed him onto the ice, seemingly unnerved by the opening for gold of Plushenko’s departure, all fell—uncharacteristically—on their first jump. The first skater fell so hard that his body banged into a wall and lay inert for more than a few seconds. Then he rose, wobbled a bit, and finished his program—along with many other jumps—amazingly well. Well, I thought, his was a reaction to the Russian star. But the two who followed him—I wish I had notes before me—also fell on their first jumps, and then continued.

As I watched the ice-dancing, I thought about the skills of the Americans, and admired the Canadians and the others. It’s a far different skill or sport or art from the ice-skating single performances with their death-defying jumps that used to be simple axels and now require four twists or at least three in the air before coming down with elegance—and popping up again for at least one more jump, if not two. Ice-dancing requires two people to move in harmony not only clasped to each other, but, with far more difficulty, separately, “side-by-side.” I can’t help wondering how couples learn to do this beautifully. Do they count? Have they watched themselves filmed? How many hundreds of repetitions does it take to work out one minute of such complex movement? Viewed from my couch, the skaters seem relaxed, the movements easy. This evening, there were no falls, only perfection. And the two Americans, still in their teens, who have been dancing together since they were children, are they not perfection to watch?

I think back to the first night of ice-skating, when I watched the women’s short program and saw the American Gracie Gold for the first time in Sochi. Her performance was perfection. She is 19 and at her first Olympics. From where has she acquired not only the perfection of performance, but the poise, even seemingly comfortable poise? And then, the Russian fifteen-year old, Yulia Lipnitskaya, appeared for the first time, slight, short, hair tightly braided to her skull, a seemingly fragile figure. The jumps were birdlike, graceful, but what was unmatchable were her spins, so rapid and agile as to become a blur even on the screen. And one could only think: at fifteen? How could that be? (More to come.)

And for me, the question: why do I enjoy, even “love,” ice skating when I have never worn a pair of skates. Even when I roller-skated, I never “danced.” Is it like the ballet, like diving, sports or arts that demand grace of movement, even perfection, none of which I have ever had? Is it totally inexplicable? A pleasure not in my own body, no, not at all in my own body. But a pleasure in my being? What does that mean? What is being? Does it all go back to the idea of beauty, and the associated idea of pleasure in beauty?

I am thinking back to the first night of ice-skating I watched, the women’s short program, when the young American whose name is “Gold” skated for the first time with a perfection perhaps no one could have predicted, since it was never clear that she should be at the Olympics on the U.S. team to begin with. But that night in Sochi, she was perfection, and of course, forever that performance will be viewable whatever .
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