As many of you know, figure skating is one of my favorite sports. Earlier in my life, it was gymnastics. I participated in these sports for fun, enjoying both the physical challenge of a technical sport and its expressive/artistic component. For me it’s about the process and the challenge, as I’ve never had any illusion that I would excel. I might like the idea of being an Olympic athlete, and at the same time, I know it’s not for me.
I watched a bit of the Olympics Saturday morning, a recap of the women’s 3000m speed skating. The Dutch are perennial world powers in their national sport, and true to their tradition, all three medals went to Dutch skaters. The lone US entrant, Carlijn Schoutens, finished 22nd. Her name sounded Dutch to me, and indeed it is. Schoutens was born in New Jersey to Dutch parents and grew up in the Netherlands. She was a junior level competitor there and realized that if she wanted to compete on the world stage, she had a better chance if she competed as an American. She took a leave of absence from medical school and moved to the US to train and compete. Her strategy worked, and now she is at the Olympic games, entered in both the 3000m and 5000m races.
I’ve seen this many times over the years, but this is the first time that I’ve been aware of someone coming to the US to increase their chances of being an international competitor. In figure skating and gymnastics, it often goes the other way, with “second tier” elite athletes competing for their familial countries of origin. Things get even more complex in the skating events of pairs and ice dance. Finding a good partner can be very difficult. Skaters move for a partnership, and in both pairs and ice dance, there are skaters from all over the world competing for other countries, with many couples of “mixed” national origins.
I find the story of pairs skaters Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot interesting. Savchenko, now 34, is Ukrainian by birth, and represented Ukraine in the 2002 Olympics with Stanislav Morozov. That partnership ended, and she then paired with a German, Robin Szolkowy. They skated together for many years, Savchenko became a German citizen, and they competed in the 2006, 2010 and 2014 games, winning a bronze medal twice. Szolkowy retired after the 2014 games, and Savchenko again went in search of a partner. This time, she found Massot, a 29-year-old Frenchman, who has competed internationally for France.
The two skate well together and after prolonged negotiations, each wanting to skate for their own country, their partnership is working well. Massot finally was released by the French federation, a complicated process which included the payment of 30,000! Euros and he was granted German citizenship late last fall. Now they are in Pyeong Chang, she at her 5th Olympics, he at his first. They are legitimate medal contenders, having won the Grand Prix Final in December, and finishing second at last year’s World Championships.
All these moves, negotiations, changes of countries, coaches, etc. And that’s in addition to the great physical and mental effort of actually doing the skating. It’s a lot of work and an enormous commitment to one’s dream. While I have used athletics to illustrate this, I recognize that to varying degrees, a quest of some sort is part of the human journey. Many of us, often in less spectacular fashion, sacrifice and make difficult choices in the pursuit of something that matters deeply to us, whether family, sport or career. Sometimes its a vocation, sometimes an avocation, but often the journey is considerably more involved than we imagined at the beginning.
There is a saying that all great journeys begin with a single step. I doubt Aliona Savchenko imagined the journey she was embarking upon when she told her father she wanted to skate as a little girl. I suspect in many cases, we take a step without any inkling of where we will end up, or that this choice or decision will have a major impact on our lives.
For me, I recognize a significant step taken when I was a bored 12 year old recovering from flu. I was no longer acutely ill, but not yet well enough to return to school. I still recall climbing up to hunt through the book shelves flanking the fireplace in our living room. I found a book, Medicine for Mountaineering (my father was in mountain rescue). I read it cover to cover, and by the time I finished, I knew that I would become a doctor. Fifty years later, I am still on that journey as my relationship with health and healing continues to evolve. An unanticipated side effect of the flu!
What’s your story? Where have you found taking a step or an idea led to something far beyond your initial imagining?