Sledding and snowball fights are nice. But there’s another winter sport I’m smitten with: I love to ice skate alone.
I do it every winter. When temperatures begin to drop, I pull my skates out of storage, head to the shop for sharpening and take to the ice.
Figure-skating pairs routines — such as Jamie Sale and David Pelletier’s nearly perfect free skate at the 2002 Olympics — may leave the impression that skating is best done in duos. But I’ve never felt there’s a need to have a partner before hitting the rink.
In fact, I prefer to skate without a mate. Skating solo gives me time to clear my mind and focus in on simple things; the ice’s clean white surface almost demands it.
When the blade of my skate first meets the ice, I take things slowly. Shifting my weight from side to side with swift glides, I gain momentum. With each passing step, I take more air into my lungs and the laced-up white leather boots and their sleek blades begin to feel like extensions of my body.
While skating alone, it’s easy to take stock of my balance of body and mind. When I get into a groove, I’ll start taking risks — skating in arabesque, turning into slow spins. Completing each move gives me the confidence to risk a little more. The moment I feel the slightest bit off-center, instinct takes over and my body gently corrects itself.
This quick-time adjustment isn’t dissimilar from the instincts that keep me from stumbling in daily life, in the way I might try to salvage a flailing negotiation or recover after saying something that hurts a loved one.
I miss these metaphoric moments when skating with others because I end up focusing most of my attention on them — helping them with their skating footwork or engaging in conversation. Skating with a friend or lover can also physically slow me down. It’s harder to weave in and out of fellow skaters and gain good speed when there are two of us.
On a recent weekend, I fell on the ice for the first time since 2011. It happened while I was advising my friend and co-skater Allison on a romantic dilemma. Being rapt in conversation, an activity I usually relish, left me with a bruised knee and dented pride.
I also find comfort in ice skating’s consistency. In this fast-moving world, skating hasn’t changed much. Early ice skating dates back thousands of years, with the first skates consisting of sharpened animal bones strapped onto the skater’s existing footwear. Since the permanent blade-on-boot skate was invented in the 1860s, the design has remained much the same.
At the center of the rink I often skate amid little girls trying out spins, pushing each other for speed, reveling in their independence. They are daring and nearly never fall. By now I’ve learned the agony of injury and skate with more thought, but years ago my best friend Jacki and I were those fearless youngsters. Fifteen years from now, it could be our daughters out there on the ice.
I always find it satisfying to see these strangers’ stories develop as they cruise or bumble along.
The teens arrive in groups and descend on the ice, emanating a sense of invincibility. They speed through the crowds, showing off their speed and agility, a freeness of spirit that will likely dull with age.
Couples of all sorts cycle onto and off the ice. The mismatched pairs — one partner mocks the other’s imbalance — are lovely for the single skater to see. How wonderful it is to not be with that jerk! The sweet duos, however, skating hand-in-hand, strides synced, give me something to strive for.
Holding fast to the railing there’s usually an older gentleman who’s not at all sure of his footing. He sticks to the edge of the rink, determined to make it through a long string of laps. At some moments he appears to be enjoying the challenge, at others he looks like a scrooge on assignment. Either way it’s good to have him in the mix, reminding me of the value of patience and fortitude.
That wobbly fellow may get to a point where he glides along swimmingly. I love seeing older couples who’ve been circling on their own, join up to takes a slow lap together, one helping the other conquer their fear of leaving the rail. Or the little girls welcoming new friends into their pack and discovering the magic of the fresh ice at rink’s center.
Adding a skating companion or two can be fine. But there’s something sweet about being surrounded by others, zooming or lumbering by, yet gliding along in your own zone.