Thursday, 20 February 2014

Getting Up And Saying No (Part 1)


If I were a skater going to the Olympic Games, I would close my eyes, try to tune out the world and that little voice inside my head saying "you can't" and envision having that perfect moment... that Olympic moment. The perfect sixes of Torvill and Dean's "Bolero", the magic of Liz Manley's silver medal winning skate of a lifetime at the Calgary Olympics, the magical moment of Jamie Sale and David Pelletier at the Salt Lake City Games... the moment when everything goes right just when it's supposed to and when it counts the most. The pressure that you would place on yourself would be unreal if that moment was playing on your mind daily for years but the pressure the rest of the world and media would place on you could be downright crippling.

At the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, four time U.S. Champion Jeremy Abbott headed to his second Olympics after having career best performances at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Boston. He certainly had that Olympic dream of a magical moment like every skater, but the unthinkable happened. He had the most horrific of falls in his short program in the men's event and looked destined for a stretcher, not a magical moment. After what seemed like an eternity, he got back up with a grimace of pain on his face and did the unbelievable: he kept going and he NAILED the rest of his program while in pain and bleeding under his costume. It didn't even seem possible. The next day, he took the ice for his free skate when many thought he wouldn't or couldn't and skated a gold medal winning performance if I ever saw one - the only magical skate of the men's free skate in my opinion - and had his redemption. As one fan beautifully wrote to Jeremy, "watching your long program was like watching someone stand up for something that is right even when they know they will lose. It was like watching someone jump in front of a bullet when they know they will die but they know it will protect someone else. It was gallant and dignified and superb."

This "Getting Up And Saying No" article is a two parter that I hope will inspire some meaningful dialogue not only about Jeremy getting up and saying no in Sochi, but also about bullying on social media and its impact. Let's begin this conversation by looking at the courage and redemption that Jeremy showed in Sochi and talking with Jeremy's mother Allison Scott and sister Gwen Abbott Asmussen about how the performances of their son and brother impacted their lives - and about how Jeremy's bravery in the face of injury, doubt and inane criticism inspired something very beautiful.

TALKING TO GWEN

I first spoke to Jeremy's lovely sister Gwen Abbott Asmussen, a former elite athlete in her own right who represented the United States internationally and took her skiing skill to the X-Games:

Q: Let's talk about the short program, where Jeremy had that horrific fall and got up and kept going. I was in tears watching because it was such a raw moment of the fierce determination to get up and go on. As a sister, how hard was it to see him take that fall and not be able to do anything about it and what was going through your head AS he skated that short program and after?

A: It was gut wrenching. My husband and I were watching. Fifteen seconds felt like an eternity. I was crying and just kept saying "no, no, no, no". You know, not even being there, Yuka being helpless, my parents being helpless in the stands... It's an indescribable feeling of helplessness. When he got up, I said to myself, "awesome, yes, prove it to yourself." I just kept bawling because I didn't know what else to do. My brother is in this unreal amount of pain and he's still going. I was like oh my God, is this happening? When he stood up, I thought he was going to go over to the judges and pull out and then he lands a triple/triple. I was like what was that? Oh my God.

Q: Between the short program and the free skate, what kind of discussions did you have with Jeremy?

A: We talked on Facebook and I asked "Are you okay?". He told me, "I am. I'm very badly bruised, but I'm good."

Q: Jeremy went out and skated what was IN MY OPINION the best performance of the men's free skate. What's fundamentally wrong with figure skating right now that in any way, shape or form that performance finished 8th against the rest of the performances skated that night? It doesn't even make any sense from a COMMON SENSE perspective of what we watched.

A: No, but I talked to my Mom and Stepdad a couple hours ago. Four years ago, a similar program won an Olympic gold medal. You know, I think the system does and doesn't need to change. All you have to do - should have to do - is skate brilliantly. I don't think the quad is the winning component. The person's performance alone should speak to what's going on. 

Q: After the competition ended, Jeremy made me smile from ear to ear by silencing his critics with the following statement. Quote unquote "reporters" have passive aggressively and aggressively bullied your brother in their sensationalistic writing for years and I applaud the fact he told them where to go and how to get there... and did so honestly and with conviction. I want to hear what you have to say to Jeremy's critics and doubters.

A: You know, bullying is bullying and it doesn't matter if you do it face to face, in print or behind a keyboard because you're afraid to do it to the person's face. I've watched my brother go through so much: the awful things told to him AND written about him . He takes it in stride and it's amazing to watch. He put down the performance of a lifetime and everything that's said on his fan page is INCREDIBLE but the reporters can still sit there and say these horrible things to make headlines. I was an X Games competitor and I was favored to win when I went and I went there and blew it all. The headlines in all of the ski magazines said "Abbott blows it, Abbott fails". You have to sit there and say that's it... that's what they're going to write. I'd won everything leading up to the X-Games too and the headlines in all the skiing magazines were saying nothing but these horrible things. I decided to quit and walk away, not because of what they said but just because I was done, I'd had enough. My brother didn't and I think that speaks massive volumes to his person.

TALKING WITH ALLISON

A frank discussion with my friend and Jeremy's mother Allison Scott. Grab yourself a cocktail, we're just getting started!

 Q: Your trip from the U.S. to Sochi saw you spending some time in Germany, a country known for its fabulous sausages. While there, you got to take in the scenery, some good food and wine and watched Jeremy's short program from the Team Event in a hotel room. How hard was having to watch on television and what were your thoughts after the Team Event which saw Jeremy become an Olympic Bronze Medallist?

A: I think the team concept is fantastic, and long overdue in a sport of "me, me, me." Jeremy has been fortunate to participate in all the trial events, and though this was a bit different, it is an important addition to figure skating. We actually couldn’t watch on TV because we were in Wiesbaden, Germany. They were not airing anything pre-Olympics; NBC was geo-blocked and the links I was receiving via friends on Facebook and Twitter were questionable, asking for downloads we didn't want to do on our brand new Surface notebook. We could only see heads and blades, and hear commentary. I knew it wasn’t good, but I also knew that, with the team format, earning any points for the team is what’s crucial. Jeremy added points – not as many as he had hoped – but points all the same.

Q: Let's talk about the short program, where Jeremy had that horrific fall and got up and kept going. I was in tears watching because it was such a raw moment of the fierce determination to get up and go on. As a mother, how hard was it to see him take that fall and not be able to do anything about it and what was going through your head AS he skated that short program and after?

A: I can tell you now that it was much worse in person than it was on TV. The sound of that fall reverberated through the Iceberg. Thank God the boards were set for short track speed skating with pads and not actual hockey boards. I was awestruck by the fact that he not only got up, but he had the presence of mind to know how many elements he had missed, what he had to get in and then finish the incredible choreography Robin Cousins set to the program, much of which Jeremy had to improvise until he caught up with the program. The crowd was deafening. People were standing, clapping, waving flags from all kinds of countries and cheering. When it was over, you could see the pain, but also the determination. The most difficult part was after the fact. We knew he was badly hurt; we didn't know how badly, however. There was no open wifi in the building. Texting via data wasn’t working. I was just trying to hold it together but I was getting frustrated by not being able to reach anyone. My husband finally went out, found someone who spoke English (they were few and far between amongst the volunteers), got them to relay a message to medical and finally got a response that Jeremy was being checked by the US Team doctors and PT personnel. He was cut and bleeding from his hip; he was swollen and they were determining the depth of the injury. Some were concerned that it was a deep hip bruise.

I have a story to tell you that I haven’t told anyone: Sitting next to me at the short program was a nice young woman from Kazakhstan. I did not know her. She saw I was distressed and she asked me if she could give me a hug. We both broke down and cried. She gave me a moment I will never forget. Her name was Aizhan, a fashion designer and skating fan. Her English was broken and she was so emotional that it was taking her time to come up with the words to express how she was feeling at that moment. She told me how impressed she was with the fact that Jeremy got up and completed the skate, how strong he must be do to that and how much it showed to her about what it meant to be an Olympian. About a half hour later, Jeremy came up to the stands to see us and tell us personally he was hurt but okay. He was iced on both hips under his sweatpants and he said he was taped from his shoulder to his knee but he was smiling. Aizhan could barely find words to say to him when I introduced them, but Jeremy took a photo with her and then in a great gesture of appreciation for what she had done for me, gave her a hug. In those moments, I had my defining Olympic experience – I thought.

Q: Between the short program and free skate, what kind of discussions did you have with Jeremy and Yuka?

A: We texted Jeremy later, as well as Yuka and Jason, to find out how he was doing. The only question we asked Jeremy was if he was going to withdraw from the free skate. His answer was one word: No. Yuka sent us a longer text later saying that Jeremy was in a lot of pain and he was being evaluated. They would make a determination in the morning but that they were planning on having him skate if he was cleared to do so by the team doctor. What he would do was at question. They would have to see how the early morning practice went. With very little sleep, we got up at 5:30AM to take a bus 40 minutes to Adler from Sochi to watch the 7:30AM practice at Iceberg. It was rough. We could see the pain in  his face as he did single axel, then single jumps for the first pass. He went over to Yuka and Jason who said something to him and he went out and did double axel, followed by a triple toe. The edge jumps were not happening. Every time he tried his face showed the amount of pain he was experiencing. He kept rubbing his hip and leg. When his music came on, he surprised everyone by doing a triple axel and a triple/triple combo. Spins were rough but he did them. We didn't know what to expect. Allen and I returned to the hotel about 9:30 and went to breakfast. I was in tears. A USFS official came over to the table and we talked for a long time about what Jeremy proved to himself and to everyone for getting up and finishing, and about the fact we didn’t know what he was going to be able to complete in the freeskate. The official said to us that, even if he just skated the program with no jumps at all, it would be a victory. About two hours before the free skate, we received another text from Yuka that Jeremy was in a lot of pain. I sent back a text telling her what the official said. Her answer to me was that they would take it one step at a time. I walked into that arena for the freeskate expecting to see a beautifully choreographed and emotional program with no jumps at all. When he started landing jumps in the warm-up, I turned to Allen and said, "We’re going to see something epic, no matter what Jeremy does."

Q: Jeremy went out and skated what was IN MY OPINION the best performance of the men's free skate. What was that moment ABOUT?

A: The NBC announcers had it right. For Jeremy, at that point in time, it wasn't about the points. He had to make changes to his program to minimize the pain. It was about having his personal Olympic moment and skating a clean program. I do have to say, though, that I personally freaked out when he set up for what looked like a quad attempt at the start of the freeskate. I heard myself saying out loud, “Don’t you even THINK about it!” Later on, I thanked Jeremy for not doing the quad and he said to me, "Oh, I thought about it.."

Q: After the competition ended, Jeremy made me smile from ear to ear by silencing his critics with the following statement. Quote unquote "reporters" have passive aggressively and aggressively bullied your son in their sensationalistic writing for years and I applaud the fact he told them where to go and how to get there... and did so honestly and with conviction. I want to hear what you have to say to Jeremy's critics and doubters.

A: I’m not going to address individual comments any more because it keeps a conversation going and bolsters support for people who I think are as "pathetic" and "classless" as the one who called my son that after he stood up for himself and spoke his mind. My only reaction was, "Are those the best adjectives you can come up with when you’re openly confronted with your own lack of sensibility and your impunity is finally questioned by someone you've taken great pleasure in relentlessly attacking for years?

Q: What's next for you?

A: Either Allen or I will go to Japan for Worlds and to see our nearly 25 year adventure in competitive skating to its conclusion with Jeremy. I think Jeremy’s sister and brother are going to join us, too. After that, I’m not sure. My "Life on the Edge of Skating" blog in its present form will come to an end, but I will start another one where I can address some of these things in a much more "gloves off" manner. I hope to do more things like this with you and other bloggers, too. My fondest hope is that we can move from the Lutz corners where we have been viewing competitive skating for all this time to center ice as Jeremy moves into a professional career of doing shows and eventually choreographing for other skaters. My love for skating started when I was 2 and first got on the ice in New York. I don’t expect it will end. I have so many favorite young skaters coming up that I want to “fan girl” over in future years and so many youngsters we want to continue to help as best we can. It’s a lifelong commitment. Now, where did I put my straight jacket...

WHAT REAL PEOPLE ARE SAYING ABOUT JEREMY ABBOTT

Shared below are messages from Jeremy's Facebook fan page and by readers of this blog, indications of what real human beings outside of the 'media' are saying about Jeremy Abbott's courage, grit and determination in Sochi:

"What does Jeremy Abbott's skating mean to me? Everything. He skates with heart, soul and passion. He skates for me and everyone else who was ever bullied. I was a wimp. I took the easy and safer road out of my sport (swimming) - for my sanity and safety. I put up with the verbal taunts and name calling, but after being beat up for the second time (and told by the coaches it was my fault for not standing up for myself) I gave it up. Success in my sport didn't make things better, it made me a larger target. Jeremy has had a target on his back for a long time. The talent, the success, the bravery to be MORE than ordinary. I recognize and admire him for going the distance and always fighting. Journalists who bully sports figures model unacceptable behavior. They make it seem OK to bully. IT is NEVER OK! Never."

"What amazing spirit to have fallen, picked yourself up, and performed with such grace and power!!! I had to fight a battle with a horrible surgery after having a tumour on my pancreas & it's people like you that inspire those that are struggling to get up and fight every day. Bless you!!"

"You are such a great role model for others! I love your never give up attitude and your passion."

"You serve as a role model to never quit and to just pick yourself up and to keep trying. That is the American Spirit. Again, thank you!!!!"

"You made me appreciate the Olympics and take a step back in the frantic lives we live to appreciate your moment. An American moment."

"Thank you 1 million times! I want my daughter to understand life. She is 6 and to me, you are a gold medal winner and so much more. I've watched and shared your short program fall as a huge source of inspiration. You have changed my perspective and given me a renewed reminder on how we (should) live life. So inspired. I respect you so much as a person. Thank you seems insufficient. I will never forget you!"

"I was in awe last night when I was watching your short program skating piece. I know you were in terrible pain when you fell. You did not quit!!! You got up and powered through the pain and skated a wonderful program. I was praying for you and cheered you on. I myself am in terrible pain every day. I was hurt in an industrial accident years ago and I have terrible back injuries and am in a wheelchair. I have to endure rheumatoid arthritis everyday (right now I am having a flare-up). I have an unknown illness (something I contracted from another country... long story... basically in the wrong place at the wrong time). I have beat cancer twice. I am on oxygen because of that strange illness and now have pulmonary fibrosis. I am not a quitter either. I went to college after the accident and powered through till cancer... and then the unknown illness did me in for going to school, but I do what I can... I get out and I enjoy life in little ways... I go to church... I help friends... I enjoy spending time with my grown daughters when they can spare time for me... I do what I can and power through the pain and all the other things I deal with. Jeremy Thank you for giving us a wonderful gift of being able to watch you at the Olympics. I love skating the most and thank you for skating for the USA."

"I'm a recovering addict and was a dancer my whole life; you have inspired me with your determination! So thank you"

"Watching you at the Olympics was, frankly, inspiring! I, my wife and son watched when you fell. To see you get up AND FINISH (beautifully, I might add) was SUCH an amazing teaching moment for all of us. Thank you for not giving up. You're a favourite of ours. Watching you skate is pure joy."

"I just watched your magnificent performance!! after the fall I immediately put myself in your shoes for a moment and then I watched you completing and thought to myself. he is truly a champion. you simply more than an Olympian, what you exhibited is the true extent of human excellence."

"I can't exactly call myself a fan of figure skating, although I have always enjoyed watching it and respect it tremendously. I have to say that your fall the other day caught my attention because it looked so severe. I was completely impressed by your determination to finish, that alone was impressive enough. But, to see you come back with a stellar performance in your long program was one of the most amazing Olympic moments I can recall. It was nothing short of breathtaking, it was beautiful. I’m not ashamed to say that it left me with a tear in my eye, very powerful stuff. You’re inspirational."

"What a fine example of dedication and class you are to young athletes all across the world. As the mother of 3 athletes I hope you know that your display of grit and determination are wonderful examples of why sports are important to our kids and what we all hope our kids are able to carry inside them in situations good and bad throughout their entire lives. Thank you for representing the United States with such class!"

"I just had to pass along how truly inspirational I found your reaction in the short program. Particularly when parallelled with Evgeni Plushenko's decision to withdraw due to injury, it would have been completely understandable had you chosen to leave the ice. However, powering through the program, giving that beautiful music and choreography the attention and treatment they deserved was an awe-inspiring thing to witness. The ability to come back from extreme disappointment and push through to the end is a success all in and of itself, and will serve far better throughout one's life than a piece of metal hardware. It can't be draped around one's neck for others to admire, but it's a personal, private medal. Thank you so much for giving us such a beautiful thing to experience and draw motivation from. Personally speaking, it came at a point in my own life where I needed a reminder that victory shows itself in many ways. Congratulations, and good luck."

"Jeremy, you demonstrated true courage and dignity during your Olympic performance. Your ability to persevere in the face of adversity displays character that few athletes reflect. Your example will inspire many young skaters. In the face of criticism, please use the same grace and dignity to challenge those who don't know what you've accomplished. Well done, sir."

"Jeremy, my children and I rewatched your performance. I wanted them to see what true grit and determination looked like. The mood/meter of Lilies in the Valley parallelled your performance. There was mystery, melancholy, and yet an unwillingness to surrender in the midst of pain and frustration. This inspired me and hopefully will impact my children. I will remember you in these Olympics for the message."

"Congratulations from a family of fans in Oregon! My husband and I were awestruck by your comeback in the short program. So much so that we sat our two little boys down to watch and be inspired by your performance. My kindergartener has been learning about perseverance, and he absolutely beamed when you touched on that in your interview. What an awesome example to America's children."

As you can see in these beautiful, beautiful words of people inspired and moved by Jeremy's performances in Sochi, the normal human response is not to sit there in an armchair and say "at some point, he's just the skater that keeps falling" or that Jeremy defending himself against tabloid style critics like Christine Brennan was "pathetic" or "classless". The only pathetic thing going on are when members of the media or those who think themselves members of the media use their positions to belittle others. Step back for a second. If YOU constantly had to read news reports, tweets and Facebook posts about how awful you were, would you even want to get up out of bed in the morning? Abbott (and other skaters) do. It got so bad after U.S. Nationals that Ashley Wagner had to take time away from social media after being named to the Olympic team and receiving a barrage of hate speech from "fans" of the sport who were upset that U.S. Bronze Medallist Mirai Nagasu wasn't sent instead.

A WORD ON POSITIVITY

In September 2013, I wrote a word on positivity on my blog and I feel under the circumstances sharing an excerpt again is particularly fitting:

"Go on Twitter. Type in the hashtag #SLC2013. At the U.S. International Figure Skating Classic this weekend, U.S. Silver Medallist Gracie Gold tweeted:

"Although it wasn't my best, I was proud of my fight. It will only go up from here. Thanks to all of my supports and haters 😉😘 #SLC2013"

I adore social media. I think it's great. I'm on it all the time. That said, the problem with social media right now is that when you look through the tweets from this event for instance, you're reading MISERABLE things that are being said about very young people. Who cares if they're young? They're MISERABLE things. It actually kind of boils my blood. I don't pretend to be a saint. I'm far from it... believe me. I'll tell you all a little story about a lesson I learned about social media and figure skating. A couple months back I tweeted something about how I was less than enthused about Max Aaron's choice of a "modern version of Carmen" for his free skate. I used the 'word' quadterpretation. Guess who "favorited" that tweet? Max Aaron. I honestly felt terrible. As much as I wasn't thrilled about his choice or how I felt he would pull off a modern "Carmen", I had to step back for a minute and slap myself on the forehead and say "yeah... when you post things publicly on social media, anyone can read them." We all forget sometimes, myself included. What's funny about the whole thing is that Max's musicality and improvement that he showed in Salt Lake City (especially in his short program) kind of made me eat my words. I tweeted so:

"Transitions & musicality in @MaxTAaron's SP at #SLC2013 really proved to me that he has improved a ton PCS this season. Good for him!"

Max "favorited" that tweet as well. Skaters read what fans, bloggers and the media say about them. In this day of social media, they read it every day. Rather than give a talented young skater a complex, make them depressed, bulimic, self-conscious or suicidal, I think we need to try putting being NICE into practice."

We're here to celebrate what we love and constructively criticize what we don't. Let's keep the smarmy, condescending snark to a minimum. No T, no shade! There will always be Negative Nancy's in the world... and the skating community is no different. I'm a firm believer that your words only reflect on you, and it's up to skating fans what they choose to buy into and support. I don't think any skater or choreographer deserves hate. I don't think any human being does. It's just not good for the soul. I'd like to challenge you all to something when it comes to social media. Tweet something nice to a skater, share your favourite skating performance on Facebook. Small things like this bring smiles to peoples faces, and smiles are a hell of a lot better than rolling eyes, frowns or tears. Be nice."

Stay tuned for part 2 of "Getting Up And Saying No", where we'll talk more in depth about bullying and social media as it relates to the figure skating community. You won't want to miss it!

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating and archives hundreds of compelling features and interviews in a searchable format for readers worldwide. Though there never has been nor will there be a charge for access to these resources, you taking the time to 'like' on the blog's Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/SkateGuard would be so very much appreciated. Already 'liking'? Consider sharing this feature for others via social media. It would make all the difference in the blog reaching a wider audience. Have a question or comment regarding anything you have read here or have a suggestion for a topic related to figure skating history you would like to see covered? I'd love to hear from you! Learn the many ways you can reach out at http://skateguard1.blogspot.ca/p/contact.html.

4 comments:

  1. Thank you, Ryan for taking the time to care. We need more caring chroniclers of our sport. That doesn't mean ones who only speak positively, but ones who - without malice - can offer constructive and balanced critique, taking into account that there are REAL PEOPLE behind the words they say or write. There is an old childhood adage: "Sticks and Stones Can Break My Bones but Words Can Never Harm Me." In the world of social media today, flinging sticks and stones in the form of scathing and insensitive barbs, just to gain "hits" and "followers," or in some cases to keep paying jobs by creating controversy, does hurt. The only way past it is to stand up and like Peter Finch's speech in "Network" and say "I'm mad as Hell and I'm not going to take it any more." In the long run, it won't do much good, unless one person with a conscience hears it and thinks twice about carelessly tossing words around the cyber and tabloidl landscape. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WINDtlPXmmE

    ReplyDelete
  2. I am sorry for your son- my issues are with the U.S Fed not requiring more rigorous training before sending a team to the olympics- I am not referring to your son by the way- it seems the U.S never got the memo about fs evolving into a technical sport- they continue to send skaters with great artistry but little technical experience compared to the rest of the skating world-I do not see this changing any time soon0

    ReplyDelete
  3. I remember that fall, it was terrible. I honestly thought that he was going to be injured and unable to get back up, but the sheer determination in which he finished his routine just shows the sheer amount of discipline and drive that resides in the heart of a true athlete. Truly an inspiring moment.

    Alberto Lawrence @ Institute Of Sport

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Crazy to think it has been a couple of years now since those Games! How time flies. I was actually talking about Jeremy Abbott yesterday and his resilience. He just won the gold at the Medal Winners Open in Japan beating two Olympic medallists in the process - super talented guy!

      Delete