National Commentary

Johnny’s World: The Ice

jworldSeventeen years ago, it was freezing. Seventeen years ago, they were all snowed in by a terrible blizzard. Seventeen years ago, in Amish country Pennsylvania, if there was a blizzard you weren’t getting out of your house for at least a week because the land was forgotten by snow plows and salt trucks. Seventeen years ago, a sunny day came along where the ice that covered a bleak cornfield glistened in the late afternoon sun. Seventeen years ago, my feet were covered for the first time by leather and steel. Seventeen years ago, I took my first step onto the ice, in the most unlikely of circumstances, yet dressed head to toe in dreams.

For 17 years I have watched as my family and those closest to me have sacrificed, prayed, and applauded my journey. As a young person, I was able to connect on a very real level with my mother as I watched her see things that a girl from Oxford, Pennsylvania wouldn’t normally ever have the chance to see. I watched her eyes light up the first time she saw Red Square. I got to see the way her mouth puckered when she tasted her first French crêpe. I watched her glasses fog up when we ascended the Great Wall of China and we shared a disconcerting walk late at night through a tunnel in Banská Bystrica, Slovakia. My mom hugged me through fences, cried with me over good and bad, and – audible maybe only to me – screamed every time I took the ice. Until now, I’d never told her I could hear her because I didn’t want her to stop. I had the incredible gift of showing my mother the world, and I worked hard to give her a son she could be proud of.

My brother and father watched from the sidelines for a long time as my mom and I jetted around the world. They attended funerals we couldn’t, enjoyed ski vacations while mama and I were in Norway, and raised the dogs we all got as a family just so I could chase a dream that was so unfathomable to everyone but us. Figure skating stole a lot of my childhood, and it also robbed me of much of the joy in helping to raise my little brother. My father has had health issues that I could never truly understand, as I was never around enough to console him or help him around the house. Though I grew up loving the men in my family, and having them love me, we never got to know each other as grown-ups.

In Vancouver at my second Olympic Games, after having been present to see my first Olympics in Torino, my father and brother cheered me on, cursing the judges for not doing enough for me. My little brother couldn’t even stay in the building because he so proud of me, and so hurt for me. In a weird way, figure skating showed me what true love is.

In my coaches I found a different love, a different inspiration. In addition to raising me in some ways off the ice – teaching me to drive or teaching me to make a proper Russian dinner – my coaches taught me about self-confidence, about believing in myself. They taught me that hard work and dedication to a gift, that for some is God-given and for others comes only from hard work, will only end in pride. Throughout my career I have broken my coaches’ hearts more than anyone else in my life with failures and growing pains, and possibly by never quite knowing how to say thank you for giving me the world. One coach taught me until I was a young man and the other helped me in the later stages of both our competitive careers, and their knowledge and dedication to my growth is something you find so you rarely when both your successes are hinged together in some cosmic way. Not only was I lucky enough to find that working relationship twice, I was able to find it twice and laced with love.

It is surreal writing about my career as if it had happened to someone else and to actually write the words: I am retiring from competitive figure skating.

I have cried my way through writing this entire column not because I am sad, or because I’ll miss training or falling or being so nervous I think my head will explode, or starving or the glory of victory or the agony of defeat. I cry because of the memories that have shaped my life. I am sad about those moments awaiting scores that will catapult me to my first national title and finally believing in myself, or navigating a foreign airport with my mom and aunt. I will miss traveling the world with a crazy group of skaters, coaches, judges, fans, and the like, who all want to see a good, clean fight, a worthy champion and to stop for a moment to appreciate the power of the moments you create together. Although not always a fan of the figure skating world, they are my high school peers, my college frat brothers, my friends, supporters and confidants and I will miss them.

At 29, it is odd to explain to the average Joe that I am retiring. While my retirement surely isn’t a shock to the skating world, I have been able to become a sort of face for my sport to people who rarely watch it, and I always quickly follow up the statement of “I’m retiring from competition” with the truth that I will continue to skate and perform as long as my body will allow me and that I pass my presence in the competitive ranks on to some genius upstart, the youth that keeps the Olympics and sports alive. While I am not old, part of being a champion is knowing when your time is up.

Seventeen years have passed since I first set foot on the ice. I have fallen thousands of times, rotated millions of rotations, and been called everything from a “national treasure” to “a disgrace.” I have lived enough to fill many lifetimes and been afforded more opportunities than even the greatest businessmen and celebrities. I’ve won and lost and through it all I have never lost sight of who I am or what I want from this world –which I believe to be the greatest achievement in my young life. Seventeen years ago, it’s hard to say exactly how, but I knew my life would have some magic, and I have figure skating to thank for that. I wish for everyone in this world to have even one moment of finding their bliss and chasing after it at all costs and I pray that you are lucky enough to even have two of those moments, because they are fleeting and sometimes unappreciated.

I started this story 17 years ago on a frozen cornfield and while my story is far from over, this chapter is. I will never stop searching for my spot in the stars, I will never forget the places I’ve been or the people I’ve met. I will never forget where I’ve come from. It will be a long time until I wake up in the morning not imagining that I’m late for practice, and in addition to never forgetting the sheer magic of giving my heart and soul to the world, I will never forget the smell of the air, the glint of the sun on the slippery surface, or the feelings I had 17 years ago on that cornfield.

Thank you for the memories.

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