I was six years old when I laced on a pair of skates and took my first steps on the ice. I have vague memories of that day. All I do remember was that I clung onto the boards, all the while watching my brother in the corner of my eye effortlessly skating across the ice--one time around, then two times around, again and again. But I was still only meters away from the rink doors, cautiously taking small steps along the perimeter of the rink.
A lot has changed in ten years.
No longer do I need to cling onto the boards. But getting to this point has not been easy. Saying that I've been through a lot is an understatement at best--it's been one hell of a journey.
My early days of skating were marked by tagging along with my older brother. He started skating first, but not long after my first time on the ice, my mom signed us up for skating lessons at the local ice rink. I was enrolled in the lowest level, Snowball, while my brother was enrolled two levels above me in Beginner 2. While we both gradually moved up in the skating school achievement ladder, skating still was just a fun after-school activity we both did--hardly dreaming to become a competitive skater one day.
We only went to the rink for the classes twice a week and 'practiced' during the given thirty minutes of ice time after our lessons. It was not until my brother was noticed by his group teacher, who noted his potential and how he could quickly improve with some private lessons. My parents reluctantly agreed, and we began to skate more often. Instead of wandering off or practicing on my own during my brother's lessons, I would stay in close proximity to him, close enough to see what he was up to and to hear what his coach was telling him to do. And then, I would attempt to imitate whatever my brother was doing. This continued on for some time, until the coach noticed my "yearning to skate" and my parents again reluctantly agreed to have private coaching for both of their sons.
Thanks to the private coaching we received outside of group classes, we quickly began to ascend through the skating school, adding another ribbon and certificate into our ever-growing collection as we passed each level. I also began testing in the USFSA category, starting at pre-preliminary 1, and then got my first program (to Puttin' on the Ritz), and began competing at small, local competitions. Along the way, my brother's interest in figure skating began to diminish, and he eventually quit altogether. But I stuck with the sport, and it was something I looked forward to daily. I then spent more and more time at the rink, especially during the summer when I would basically "live" at the rink. My mom would drop me off in the morning, and I would stay until late-afternoon, skating up to six hours a day. I put more and more time and effort into skating, working harder, taking more lessons.
But many sacrifices had to be made. All the free time I had, I would spend it at the rink. Playdates, sleepovers, family vacations--I had very few of them. Financially, it hasn't been easy for my family either. Skating is an expensive sport--coaching fees, competition fees, traveling fees, costume fees, ice time fees, and new skates add up to thousands and thousands of dollars a year at the expense of my parents' paychecks--but my family has been supportive the whole way through, which I can't thank them enough for.
Junior nationals, 2008
I qualified to my first national championships in the Juvenile level after placing 2nd at Regionals. I didn't know what to expect when I arrived in Salt Lake City, but I had trained hard and was well prepared. I was still only ten years old, and I was in awe watching others effortlessly land double axels and triples. Then came the day for the qualifying round, and I surprised myself by placing first in one of the two groups. I dismissed my early victory as a stroke of good luck: I had skated my best when others faltered.
Final round came two days later. I had to once again perform at my personal best in order to place in the top ten. The final result came by surprise--I ended up in first place. I had absolutely no expectations coming in to this competition, and never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would end up standing at the top of the podium during the awards ceremony. Initially, I didn't even believe I ended up in first. There must have been one other skater who did better than me, I thought. I even asked my coach to get my protocol and the printed final results to confirm my victory. I looked up to the very top of the list, and there my name was right next to the number one. I still couldn't believe it; I was in utter shock.
The awards ceremony came right after my event. After receiving flowers, my medal, and a glass trophy, I remember thinking, This must be how all those Olympic champions on TV feel like when they receive their gold medal and a bouquet of flowers and wave to the audience and the millions of people watching from around the world. That was the moment that my dreams of becoming an Olympian began. I dreamed of the day that the American national anthem would be playing, and an Olympic gold would be hanging around my neck.
My (more than) fair share of double axels
After I came back home, I was instantly back into training. I was really motivated after the event to improve my skills and expand my jumping arsenal. First off, I was determined to get a double axel. But days, months, and even a year passed by with no luck. By the time the Junior National Championships in 2009 came, I still had yet to land a clean one. One whole year and still no double axel. I ended up in seventh that year in the Intermediate level--disappointing to say the least.
When I got back home, I was even more determined to get that jump. Fall after fall, mistake after mistake, miss after miss, I felt devastated and frustrated and angry at myself. I knew and believed that I was fully capable of doing it, but attempt after attempt, my will was slowly diminishing. Even others--my coach, my parents--began losing faith in me. If I don't get this jump by the end of this season, I will quit, I swore to myself. But deep down, I knew I would never be able to give up this sport. I've lived and breathed skating for almost half my life, and I knew I could not give up that easily. I am stronger than that, I forced myself to believe.
All that only pushed me to work harder and gave me even more motivation to prove them wrong. Then, on a summer afternoon, I landed my first double axel.
Triples, triples, triples and 'big boy' nationals
After finally getting a double axel, triples were much, much easier to master. Within less than a year, I had a consistent triple salchow, toe and loop. Then came time for my first sectional championships in the Novice division, the 2011 Pacific Coasts.
A week before the even, I caught a cold, and was feeling ill-prepared to compete. I had lost some precious training time and my stamina was running low. I managed to get through a short program with two triples, but popped a double axel at the end of my program and was in fourth place going into the free skate. Only the top four make it to Nationals, and I was cutting it close. Then came the day for the long program. Feeling uneasy that day, I made numerous mistakes throughout the program and ended up finishing fifth overall. That meant I did not qualify for nationals. I was devastated. I had came to Sectionals, only to end up as the first alternate.
A week and a half before 2011 Nationals began, I got a phone call from USFSA saying that a skater, who ended up in the top four at sectionals, was injured and withdrew. Since I was first alternate, that meant I was going to compete in his spot; I would be going to my first 'big boy' nationals. My mom frantically booked hotel and flight reservations while I was training my programs once again. I had little time to prepare, but I came to nationals excited and nervous.
The moment I stepped into the main arena, I was immediately wowed by how enormous the rink and arena looked. I would be skating on the same ice as the elite senior skaters, the same ice that is broadcasted on TV every year. Skating on arena ice was completely new to me: the lights were brighter, the ceilings were much higher, and there were seats surrounding the entire rink, up to the very, very top. This was all very exciting--I couldn't believe I actually belonged here as a competitor. I was in awe, and it was an honor to compete at the 'real' nationals. I had little expectations coming in--I was ill-prepared, and my main goal was to learn from this experience as much as possible.
In the short, I botched a triple loop attempt and ended up in ninth. In the free skate, I landed three triples, but fell twice. Overall, I ended up in ninth place. The results to me didn't matter. I did my best under the conditions I was in, and since my job was done, I had a whole week to relax and enjoy watching the juniors and seniors compete for the national titles.
I watched Ryan Bradley win his national title, and Alissa Czisny win hers. Watching the competitors warm up, get on the ice, the rare standing ovations, experiencing the vibe in the arena live, in person--it was all a magical experience. Next year, I hoped, I would rightfully earn a spot at nationals, for real this time. I was more motivated than ever before.
San Jose, here I come
2012 Nationals would be in San Jose, California--a mere hour drive from my hometown and training town--and I knew I had to work harder than I ever had if I wanted to qualify and skate my best at the championships.
By the time sectionals came, this time I was well-prepared. After the short program, I was in second place. However, the next day, I dropped down to third. Why? I had attempted a triple-triple combination, and someone realized that it was an 'illegal' element in the Novice Men short program. I had lost nine or so points, but luckily, I was still in qualifying position. With no time or energy to be weighed down with this 'controversy' as to whether or not the scores could be changed after they were posted officially, I went into the free skate knowing as long as I did my job, I would have no trouble making it to nationals.
I landed six triples and ended up in second place overall. Nationals was just two months away.
I worked harder than ever before, so that when the most important time came I vowed to have absolutely no regrets. I trained six days a week, mornings and afternoons--and I was exhausted by the end of the week, but I pushed on. I wanted to be on the podium this time so badly, and for this season, I had more expectations and pressure to skate well than ever before. Nationals was just outside my hometown, my training town. My parents would be watching, my family would be watching, my friends would be watching, my school and my community would be watching. The pressure was slowly building up.
When I stepped onto the arena ice for the first time, I instantly knew what I had to do: to go out there and to skate like I have been skating in practice. That's it. I hoped that my hard work was going to pay off. And it did, sort of. I skated a clean short, the best I've skated the program all year, and was in second place. By the time the free skate came, I was a nervous wreak and broke down from the pressure I felt. I popped the first three triples, but went on to land three other ones. It was barely enough to hang on to the podium--I ended up in fourth place overall. Backstage, I cried. I was devastated once again. How could I have missed three jumps in a row? I knew I could have done better, much better. I just wanted to go back out on the ice and erase what had just happened, but I couldn't.
Injury and hiatus
One month after nationals, I started working on triple axels. And then, I sprained my right ankle on an attempt. I thought I would quickly recover from the sprain, but the pain never went away.
A few months later, I got it checked by a doctor and was put into a cast and crutches. A whole summer went by, and all I could do was sit at home. It was a tough period to get through. I watched others skate, but I myself couldn't. I wanted to get back onto the ice, but I was stuck at home all day long. I didn't know what to make of it. Then, after I got the cast removed, the pain still lingered.
I gave up skating altogether after I tried getting back onto the ice, with little success. I tried to remove myself from everything skating as much as I could and distracted myself with school and other stuff. I tried hard not to think that I would never be able to jump and skate again. I went to several doctors but there was no treatment for my injury available, except surgery. And that was it. I was at a loss, not knowing what to do next. My whole life since I was five, for nine years, was surrounded by this sport. Every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year my mind was thinking about skating, skating, skating.
I tried my best not to think about it.
Recovery (kind of) and comeback
I went back to Hong Kong for more than a month this summer to get traditional Chinese treatment, like acupuncture, cupping and tui-na. My ankle felt better after the treatment, but it still was not 100% pain-free.
I slowly started getting back onto the ice, and though I still felt some pain, I started jumping and gradually got my strength back. I started doing triples again. My muscle memory, surprisingly, was still intact. Most importantly, my self-confidence, self-belief, slowly started building up again--I was back on the ice once again.
I'm planning to return to the competitive scene, after a year hiatus. It's been one exhausting and extensive journey to one day be able to realize my Olympic dreams. But dreams, essentially, are still just dreams. I'm not sure how it's going to turn out, but nonetheless, I'm optimistic and hopeful as new challenges and a new season await. Hopefully, this is just the introduction, the start, and the beginning of my skating story.