He was 7, 8, maybe, a skinny boy in Baltimore with dishwater blond hair brushing shaggy against his collar, and he was in love with Peggy.
Peggy, with the spread-eagle, double-axel combo, with the lush, dark hair and diamond blue eyes. She’d won gold in the 1968 Olympics a few years before (in that high-necked chartreuse thing sewn by her mother), and now, in the early 1970s, she was on tour with the Ice Capades. She came to Baltimore. She was a vision. Mickey Bolek waited until after her performance, and he gave her a rose.
That was when he knew. That was when he knew he was destined to become an ice skater.
But he didn’t.
He became a hairdresser.
Who are we kidding. Childhood fantasies cannot keep pace with the realities of adulthood, the unsettling realizations of one’s own physical limitations, the acceptance of practical career paths, fixed-rate mortgages, respectable leisure activities, weak ankles.
Bolek got married. He opened up his own salon, Michael Anthony, on Capitol Hill. He had a son. He turned 38, 39. He acquired the gentlest of paunches — barely a slope — and a Hip Dad haircut — layered, streaked, as blond as the blond of his childhood.
Then he became an ice skater.
On Friday, Bolek, who is now 46 and who could not so much as manage a toe pick seven years ago, will compete nationally for the first time in the 2012 U.S. Adult Figure Skating Championships.
“I’ll say he’s enthusiastic,” says his coach, Barbara Walker. “He wants to learn. What else can I say? Of all my students, he has the most fun.”
“Be cheesier,” she barks to Bolek, as he slides past her at the Kettler Capitals Iceplex, which is on the top floor of the Ballston Common Mall. It is Monday morning, a few hours before he will get on a plane for Chicago and the championships.
Be cheesier. How much cheesier can he be? He considered wearing a Richard Simmons costume for his Light Entertainment Skate. He ultimately didn’t. He’s sticking with black pants, sparkly top. He glides past Walker and winks. He glides past again and shimmies. He prepares for a jump. It’s a little jump — no double-axels here — but both of his feet leave the ground, and both of them land again, slicing through the ice, and Bolek is smiling as only the truly fulfilled can, smiling with the audacity of a middle-aged man on skates.
* * *
In figure skating, the people who are going to be famous get the sense that they’re going to be famous a long time before they become famous. A sport for lithe, light bodies, skating is best learned as a child, before cellulite. The proteges go to the Olympics.
Everyone else goes to the U.S. Adult Figure Skating Championships.
This is one of the biggest competitions in the country for people who are probably never going to be famous — this year it has 485 adult skaters — but who cannot help but love Peggy Fleming.
“And Denise Biellmann. She’s the one they named the Biellmann Spin after, that one where they’re spinning . . . and it looks like a teardrop. When I first saw her do it, I was just insane.”
On a recent Friday afternoon, Bolek applied caramel highlights to the head of a svelte client on his second-floor Eastern Market salon and talked about the greatest influences on his passion.
He loves Denise. Loves Nicole Bobek, the former U.S. champion, with whom he is nearly a name twin. He sent Nicole an e-mail the other day, asking what to do about his nerves. “She said — ” He pauses, to remember exactly what she said. “She said, ‘Embrace them, don’t ignore them,’ ” he shares. He follows lots of ice skaters on Facebook.
Before there was Facebook, he had to follow them on television. He had to highlight their schedules in his TV Guide, then e-mail the schedules to his friends, alerting them as to when he would not be answering his phone. One day, a client asked him why he’d never taken lessons. Bolek found an adult learn-to-skate. It was mostly women. He told himself that he’d just take lessons until he could skate backward. But once he learned to skate backward, he wanted to learn crossovers. And once he learned crossovers —
“He wanted to take some lessons,” says Bolek’s husband, Toby Susse. “Some lessons turned into him needing to get good skates, which turned into him needing more lessons, which turned into him needing even better skates.”
He did pairs ice dancing for a while, because that was easier on the joints. But his partner moved away, which is why he’s been acquiring new skills as a solo skater.
“I have two jumps and one spin,” Bolek says at the hair salon. “I have a waltz jump, and I have a salchow. I had a toe loop. I had a toe loop before I hurt my ankle.”
The svelte client remembers when he hurt his ankle, playing soccer with his 6-year-old, Daniel. It seems like that was just yesterday, when Bolek was worrying about physical therapy and how quickly he could get back on the ice.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a time,” she says, “when he was not talking about skating.”
Bolek solemnly attaches another square of foil to the woman’s hair.
“I love this sport,” he says. “I love it beyond belief.”
* * *
Who is this man, this buoyant, happy specimen gyrating his hips to Right Said Fred on the ice? Whence comes this courage, this spectacular, bold decision to be too sexy for his car, his cat, his hat?
Back to the ice rink on Monday, where it smells like cold, where the “Nutcracker Suite” plays on a loop. The Zamboni combs the ice — a hypnotic shushing that leaves the rink polished and clean — and then Bolek enters the rink with a few other members of the Washington Figure Skating Club who will also be going to the national competition.
“I’ve been competing since I was 9,” says one, a ballerina type who has gone to the adult nationals four times.
“I’ve been competing since I was 47,” says another, a whip-thin man with a craggy face who has also been four times, and who is entered at the “Silver” level. Bolek is a “Bronze” — a description of skill sets meaning that he can do, for example, single jumps but not doubles.
The oldest skater here today is Elaine Evans, 72. She won’t be competing; she just skates recreationally. “As long as you’re willing to pay for those gorgeous young Russians,” you can buy happiness, she says. She gazes at her gorgeous Russian ice dancing coach/partner. “Best investment I ever made.”
Bolek cues up the music to run his two programs. The first is an instrumental piece, Egyptian in flavor. His second is “I’m Too Sexy.” Bolek takes what one might consider a literal approach to interpreting these lyrics. He mimics driving a car, tipping a hat — he does a wonderful kitty imitation, clawing through the air with both hands, being the cat he is too sexy for.
He finishes the routine, panting slightly, skating over to Walker.
“You had a nice spin down there.”
“Not the last one!”
“No. The one before. The last one, you rushed into it. . . . And let’s try that salchow again.”
Bolek isn’t bringing Walker to the competition with him — it’s expensive to fund a coach’s travel and accommodations. Susse, Bolek’s husband, can’t come either, because they don’t want to take their son out of school. Susse’s mother is coming, though. The in-laws have bonded over their shared love of the sport; they can talk and talk and talk about it.
This is his last chance to receive guidance before his big day.
Eat a light breakfast, the Russian coach instructs. A banana. Maybe some nuts. Breathe before each element. Bring his arms tighter to his body on his spins. Smile.
Will he win? Does it matter?
“If I’m really feeling the music, it goes too fast anyway,” Bolek says.
Here on the ice, the hairdresser is home, accompanied by the sounds of a 1992 one-hit wonder and the swelling pride of a dream deferred, then realized.