In 1988, I was 10, and training as a rhythmic gymnast, the sport where young girls dance with hoops, ribbons and balls. I was vying for a spot on the Canadian National team, and one day, I hoped, for a place at the Olympics. The sport was my life: I trained for three hours every day after school, and for four hours on Saturdays. For two of those weekend hours I was alone with my coach, practicing complicated tricks with my apparatus, and contortion-like backbends. I dreaded these solo sessions, but they were the consequence of being the kid in the club who might actually make it.
One unseasonably warm Saturday morning, in the middle of practice in December 1987, I sat alongside my coach and a few other gymnasts on the cement steps of a local church in Montreal to watch the Olympic torch make its way out west, to Calgary.
I secretly hoped that the whole brigade had gotten held up in some eastern township, which might delay the torch’s arrival for as long as possible: It was marvelous being out of that gym for even a few minutes.
Eventually, a few runners came by, one of them holding the torch. They passed us in only a few strides, but we continued to wave and cheer, even as they got swallowed up by a curve in the road up ahead. The whole thing was surprisingly un-thrilling, but the message was clear: Watching the torch go by was worth 30 minutes of lost practice time because, one day, if we worked hard enough, we might be Olympians.
When the Olympics began in February 1988, I watched with a fanaticism that bordered on pathological (I did the same with gymnastics at the summer Games). I sat on the carpet, inches from the TV, transfixed by every figure skating event, but Brian Orser—one half of the famed “Battle of the Brians”—was my favorite, and along with the rest of the country, I wanted him to win gold bad.
With the (rather absurd) Sochi Olympics in full swing, I YouTubed his performance from Calgary and watched the old Canadian champion glide onto the ice in his red one-piece costume. “Representing Canada—représentent le Canada…” blossomed through the minuscule speakers on my computer, as did an immense roar from the hometown crowd that muffled Orser’s name. I was instantly jerked back to 1988.
To my surprise, I remembered every detail of the program—how the jumps coincided with the rise and fall of the music; how my body would sway with his as he flew with wild abandon across the rink, his arms wide. And perhaps most shockingly, I remembered the precise angle at which the camera had caught the only jump he had flubbed—the triple flip. The mistake looked like nothing more than someone tripping on a crack in the sidewalk, but it had cost him the gold medal.
And as I had when I replayed the VHS tape a thousand times in the subsequent years (I had a dozen shoeboxes full of meticulously labeled skating and gymnastics competition tapes, stacked alongside the VCR), I hoped against hope that he would land that jump faultlessly, just like a seasoned reader still inexplicably prays that Juliet will wake up before Romeo poisons himself.
What I saw in Orser’s performance this time, however, was nothing like what I had seen at 10, but I am, of course, watching it from a different vantage point: I never made the national team, nor did I travel to the Olympics.
Now I have to leap over the deep void that separates me from these superhuman beings to muster the faintest understanding of what their lives must be like. I am awed by their level-headedness in the face of incomprehensible pressure, and their astonishing ability to overcome repeated public defeat. At 10, I didn’t understand that like Buddhist monks, half of an athlete’s job is to tame that nefarious beast, the mind.
Watching Orser slough off the weight of his country’s cruel expectations, I felt what had escaped me in 1988: that the human heart is fragile and miraculous, that our courage is vast, and that Olympic sport is a metaphor for our shaky, risky lives.
At 10, what I identified with most was how streamlined I knew their existences to be. When the skaters hit the ice, their blades slicing the cold, slick gloss of the empty rink, I knew that their days and nights had been shed of all excess baggage—friends, vacations, after-school activities—and had been distilled to this one vital moment.
All they did, with their full commitment, was skate. Replaying clips from Orser’s performance, I bristled under the colossal pressure I now know he had been under. But slipping back into the bones of the 10-year-old who had been mesmerized by his gorgeous blend of artistry and athleticism, and his whole-hearted commitment to his sport, I longed for a time when my path had been stark, undiluted, and perfectly laid-out.