Robert Samuels is a reporter on The Washington Post’s Local staff. He’ll be blogging for The Post about figure skating during the Sochi Olympics at washingtonpost.com/olympics.
Sometimes, I wonder what it would be like to be a football fan. No one questions your blackness; no one assumes you’re gay. Maybe I’d still have all my original teeth.
But no, Mrs. Stern, my second-grade teacher, told her class about figure skating. I remember staring at the Newsweek article she tacked on the bulletin board and thinking the woman featured in the piece was the most beautiful I’d ever seen. Kristi Yamaguchi: my first celebrity crush and the reason I will forever be a dude who loves figure skating.
You know the voice in your head that tells you what’s right and wrong? Mine sounds like Dick Button, the former figure skater and longtime skating TV analyst. It helps me justify waking up at 4 a.m. to watch live-streams of competitions. It doesn’t matter if the commentators are speaking Russian or Japanese. I’ve learned all the jumps and rules, so I don’t need their play-by-play. Sometimes, I get so mad at my favorite skaters for falling down or doubling a triple jump that I throw things at my television screen.
I’ve stopped keeping track of the times I’ve confessed to a woman on a date that I like skating. Her response is usually something like, “You mean hockey, right?” Oy, here we go.
None of this makes sense. In my 29 years, I’ve never skated competitively. I can count the number of times I’ve been on the ice on two hands. “Robbie,” my father would say, “you realize none of these skaters look like you?” We were black Jamaican Americans living in the Bronx, after all. We should be following bobsled teams.
Figure skating fans like me get no respect — until the Olympics. Suddenly all that knowledge I’ve accrued becomes conversational gold. It’s my quadrennial opportunity to prove that my sport is worthy, my chance to find fellow fans. This is my Super Bowl.
Back in second grade, Mrs. Stern told us to watch the Olympics in Albertville, France, for extra credit. Even before Yamaguchi won the gold medal — becoming the first American woman to do so since Dorothy Hamill in 1976 — I was hooked.
I admired the mental toughness required to do impossible moves on cold blocks of ice, while wearing skates with blades a quarter-inch wide, during a competition in which everyone expects the athletes to fall. Such drama!
I was amazed at gold medalist Viktor Petrenko’s stratospheric jumps and wanted to be like Christopher Bowman , a reputed ladies’ man who skated to the “1812 Overture.” (I had to find a new role model, though. He soon faded into obscurity and in 2008 died after a drug overdose.)
I used my allowance to buy a Disney Adventures magazine with Yamaguchi on the cover, and I studied the diagram on how to do a Lutz jump, then bought more books to learn the others. I studied the encyclopedia and memorized most of the gold medalists from previous Olympics.
I learned the word “treacherous” because that’s how Button would describe the moment when a woman prepared for her double Axel, a jump he was the first to complete in competition nearly a halfcentury before.
I learned the word “effeminate” because that’s what my older brother called Brian Boitano’s performances. I just didn’t see it as that different from the professional wrestling my brother and I watched together: “Macho Man” Randy Savage wore spandex; so did Brian Boitano. Macho Man’s signature move involved jumping with one hand higher than the other; so did Brian Boitano’s. For an extra advantage, Macho Man used a folding chair to win. So did Brian Boitano.
But the moment I had to most vehemently defend my love of skating was the night I watched Nancy Kerrigan cry on television. No, not after that incident. It was a year before, at the 1993 World Championships. After a disastrous long program, in which she missed her triple Lutz and a triple Salchow, she dropped from first place to fifth. To this day, I can’t bear to watch it.
“I just want to die,” she whimpered.
I did, too.
“She worked so hard!” I cried.
My family was confused but mostly amused by the melodrama — on-screen and before them.
“Nancy Kerrigan was fifth,’’ they sang, taunting me. “After four, we don’t care anymore!”
I was inconsolable. My mother pulled me to the bathroom. “You can’t make them get to you,” she told me. Liking this sport is ridiculous, so you’re a little different for liking it, she explained. But you’re allowed to like what you like. It’s okay to be strange, but you also have to be strong.
Emboldened, I tried to laugh when they sang the song. But I kept watching, and my family eventually came around. In a sign of negritude, my father declared allegiance to the European champion, a black French skater named Surya Bonaly. But he could never get her name right. “She just looks like her name should be Lisa,” he said.
My older sister, Janice, convinced me that we should choreograph a pairs program, sliding in our socks on the kitchen floor. It was set to Ludwig Minkus’s “Don Quixote,” a classical piece I would hum because my favorite pairs team, Russians Natalia Mishkutenok and Artur Dmitriev, would skate to it. Our big move was the throw Salchow. But, in a twist rarely done in skating, Janice would throw me.
“For the last time, no skating in the house!” my mother said, minutes before Janice threw me. I completed the rotation. But I fell flat on my face and broke three front teeth.
That moment hurt, but it helped my sister decide on her career. She is now a dentist.
Everybody has their hobbies. Some collect bottle caps; others collect stamps. Some people like anime; many are obsessed with food. Many interests are subject to derision and defy rational explanation.
So why do we hold onto them? Ulrick Vieux, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, says people keep hobbies “because their love is based on a relationship they have with someone else — a teacher, a parent, family member — and incorporating what those people taught them is a way of keeping them in your life.”
His explanation makes sense to me. I learned to be proud and confident because people can sometimes be mean, even if it’s your family singing about Nancy Kerrigan. I clung to skating through high school because it helped me subvert the negative stereotypes that come with being a black man. It helped me show that I wasn’t like others who looked like me.
Then, it helped me find community in college, when I discovered that other people loved skating almost as much as I did. My favorite moments at Northwestern University involve hugging, jumping and crying when Michelle Kwan won her eighth of nine national titles.
And in a strange twist of fate, Kwan — the most decorated athlete in my sport and now a senior adviser on public policy at the State Department — was at a birthday party I attended in Washington. I was surprised by, and admired, how normal she was. We ate cake and talked about Rihanna.
One day, I snuck out of the newsroom to listen to her give a presentation at a conference downstairs. She spoke about how she most treasured the moments of being a champion, not the medals. In fact, she didn’t even have them displayed in her home.
She talked about how her dad always reinforced that skating was a “hobby” and not her whole life, prompting her desire to go into diplomacy.
When she told this tale, I felt a little bad for my family. If Michelle cast these competitions as a smaller part of her bigger life, did I ever have the right to make watching her compete such a big part of mine?
I called my parents to ask what they thought about my skating obsession.
“At first I thought you were taking it too far,” my mother said. “But it was so funny!”
“Quite frankly, I wanted to see if Lisa would ever actually win,” my dad chimed in.
Still can’t get the name right.
“And let’s not forget,” Dad said, starting to sing. “Nancy Kerrigan . . . was fifth.”