“It’s not all about the Olympic medals, right?”
Whenever I told my parents that I was going to be an Olympic figure skater, their answer was always the same, and I hated that. I wanted them to tell me that I was in fact “Olympian material,” and that one day I would make my big dream come true. The issue was, though, only a tiny portion of the whole athlete population gets to be superstars, and others — despite their significant sacrifice and commitment — will have to make ends meet with something else down the line.
For more than 10 years, my life was all about skating. I trained seven days a week, often early in the morning before school began, and sometimes so late at night that when I came back home, it was already the next day. Every day, my mother drove me and my twin brother to the ice rink straight from school. We rarely had family dinner around the table because we had meals during breaks between practices or in a car on the way to the ice rink. My dinner was oftentimes just a bowl of salad because I was expected to be in the ideal shape of a female skater. No time to lose, during free time on school days and weekends, I studied hard to keep up with my highly demanding Japanese education.
Despite the hardship, soon the sacrifice paid off and my skating career was on the right track. At the age of 12, I was selected as one of the Japanese national team members in my category and participated in a team camp with some of the best skaters in the world. I got to travel to Europe to compete in international competitions and took lessons overseas.
Success, however, was only momentary, and there quickly came injuries and big slumps. Fractures on my left heel, and then on my back were severe enough to stop me from skating for a few months. For me, who almost never missed a day in my skating life, it was a big transition. Wearing a corset that supported my back, I couldn’t even move my upper body for months.
With a few extra pounds on my body, I completely lost my edge after the break. I was no longer able to do the triple jumps that I used to land with ease, and the speed and energy of my techniques were gone. I tried my hardest to get back on track, but I could not retrieve the time I lost. In the competitions that I used to win, I was far down in rank, and my ego was shattered seeing younger skaters, with extra high-level jumps, scoring far better than myself. When I witnessed my friend landing a triple axel — one of the most difficult jumps for female skaters — I realized that my time was over and decided to call it quits.
For a while after I retired from skating, I pondered over the past 10 years. Watching my former rivals compete on both national and international stages, I felt like a loser. Were all these sacrifices — time, money, family and friends — wastes, if I was no longer able to become a professional skater? Would it have been better if I hadn’t skated at all, so I could have led a normal life like any other person? What did skating give me, if anything?
It took me almost three years to work out the answer. At the end of the day, I do not regret that I devoted a large portion of my life to skating. Although I struggled 80% of the time and had only a few happy moments, I gained many transferable skills from skating. So many that, without skating, I may not be the person I am today. For example, I am strong under pressure — if I could perform alone on the ice with hundreds of audience members staring at me for four minutes, nothing, not even school exams, scares me. Time management skills have enabled me to pursue many things while working effectively. Without my perseverance, I could not have taught myself English, nor could I attend UC Berkeley all the way across the world from my home, Japan. Most of all, skating has given me an identity. Even if I no longer skate competitively, skating is still what defines me and structures me in so many ways that I cannot tell my story without it.
This is what a sport, or anything that you committed part of your life to, does. Medals and fame may be gleaming, but it’s not all about winning, or even being good at it. It’s about continuing, and it’s about the experience. In the process, you find yourself growing as a person. It might sometimes torment you, but it trains you physically and mentally, and eventually it becomes part of you.
I am not too happy to say this, but my parents were right from the start. Of course, I would have appreciated a white lie or some encouragement …
“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the summer semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter @dailycalopinion.