Tonya Harding and Yuzuru Hanyu: A Love Story?

An icy kind of love...

Before last Thursday night, I didn’t know Yuzuru Hanyu existed. Less than 24 hours later, I wanted Yuzuru Hanyu to fall to the ice. Hard. I didn’t want to see him injured, mind you. But I certainly didn’t want him to win.

Everything about him annoyed me, his seemingly effortless quadruple jumps, the throngs of ‘Winnie the Pooh’ stuffed toys that littered the ice after his performances. When it comes to the Men’s Figure Skating Olympic competition, I wasn’t ‘all-in’ on anyone. I was ‘all-out’ on Hanyu.

This isn’t a veiled revelation of my hard and fast belief in American exceptionalism – the US hasn’t had a good Olympics, and I don’t mind. I think it’s good for us to remember that sometimes, the United States finishes 5th or worse. My longing for Hanyu to fall was more visceral.

Let’s put it this way. I’m not a Philadelphia Eagles fan, and I’m not a New England Patriots fan. When people asked me who I wanted to win Super Bowl LII, I’d say, “the Green Bay Packers.” I started watching the game as indifferent as possible, with perhaps a slight leaning toward New England out of loyalty to my friend’s father. As the game carried on, though, I was amazed (and, to be honest, alarmed) by how badly I wanted Tom Brady to lose. At the end of it I almost felt vindicated, such was my joy that Nick Foles had come out on top.

In exactly the opposite fashion, I felt robbed of something as Hanyu stayed on his elegant, spirited feet for the duration of his free skate and donned his second gold medal.

Now, five days later, I’m wondering – why did I care so much? And, why am I still thinking about it?

***

I went to see ‘I, Tonya’ the other night with a friend. This was BH – before Hanyu.

It’s a rowdy, sad story. In watching, I remembered a pre-teen Eric watching the Harding / Kerrigan debacle unfold on ABC Nightly News. I remember the red-cheeked Harding, golden-bladed skate propped up on the judge’s table, tears of panic streaming down her face as she complained of a broken lace. I remembered Harding’s downfall and ultimate seat in the halls of true American outcasts. I remembered the name Jeff Gillooly.

The film revealed as such, but more. A young Tonya skating through her mother’s second-hand smoke. A slightly older Tonya hunting with her father and wearing the fruits of the labor – a handmade rabbit-fur coat. That same father leaving her behind. A daughter, knife stuck in her arm after a nasty argument. A wife, beaten, bruised, manipulated. Bad judgment, made mistakes on and off the ice.

Sadly, she’s not the first person to endure these kinds of hardships. Whatever of the film is true (and, I suspect much of it is true to some degree), Tonya Harding deserved a better life.

And yet, in the face of tremendous adversity, Tonya Harding remains singular for one reason. The triple axel.

It’s the only figure skating jump that takes off from a forward-facing position and, after three and a half rotations, lands smoothly in reverse on the opposite foot. Tonya Harding is the first American woman to land it in competition, back in 1991. To date, only seven women have ever landed it in any competition.

When I got home after the movie, I laid in my bed and watched her 1991 routine three times in a row. Each time, my heart prepared for a fall, and each time, it leaped just as she did.

***

It’s wrong to presume that Yuzuru Hanyu’s life has been easy; every life has trials, Olympic-sized or otherwise. Unquestionably, he has put thousands and thousands of hours into his craft. We didn’t see any of that. To the world watching, he made everything on that ice look easy. He is a master, and I was lucky to see his virtuosity come alive.

Which makes my reaction to him all the more problematic. Either I want to knock him down to my level, or I resent his talent. I want him to fall because he’s at the top of his game, and I’m bumbling along. He swims in a sea of Pooh dolls, thrown at him in utter delight of his gift. I swim in a sea of shade, thrown at me because I’m a school administrator. At the end of the day, I’m probably jealous that he does things I wish I could do; my Olympic daydreams persist in spite of my aging and creaky 35-year-old frame.

Wrapped in the cinematic experience, though, the triple axel that Tonya Harding landed in 1991 felt more like a miracle than an athletic feat. It was a statement of defiance for someone who, by little fault of her own, had never been taken seriously and had never felt the support she deserved. It happened before Nancy, before the broken lace, before her subsequent trial and removal from figure skating, before her boxing career, before the movie. I love that she landed it.

Beauty can be revealed both the ease of mastery and in the brilliant struggle. Both. Which is why, tonight, I’ll be watching even more figure skating.

-//-

The cover image, from Flickr user Dustin Gaffke, can be found here.

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