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Olympic silver medalist Paul Wylie answered your toughest questions for the January issue. Here are some questions that he answered exclusively for U.S. Figure Skating Online – click on page 2 to read the questions that are published in SKATING magazine!
Q: How old were you when you first started skating, and how quickly did you advance? How many years of training did it take you to compete in the Olympics? Heather, 12, Fargo, N.D.
A: Age 3 is when I started skating. I advanced VERY slowly. I competed for the first time at age 9 in pre-juvenile boys (Southwestern Regionals). I was 13 before I had my double Axel and 15 before I landed any triples, which frustrated me because there were other boys jumping much sooner than me.
If you count the ages from three (when I started) to 23 (my first Olympics in Calgary), then it was 20, but it's more like 14, since the first six years were not as serious as it became later on.
Q: What is different about men's figure skating now as compared to back when you competed? Amanda Beamish, 13, Bothwell, Ontario, Canada
A: 1) Eligible figure skaters are now truly professional athletes — we were not allowed to earn money for performing, teaching or commercial involvement. Most people didn't think they would become rich through skating, so they skated for the love of it.
2) More competitions. I used to compete 3–4 times per year, and now with pro-ams, Grand Prixs, nationals, Worlds and open events, skaters compete around 10 times a year.
3) Long tours. The longest tour I was on during a competitive year was 30 cities.
4) No compulsory figures. You spend four fewer hours per day on the ice! Rising to the podium does not take years and years of seasoning on the figures.
5) Quads. I think there is more emphasis on jumps than on balanced programs, but technical elements were hugely important when I skated, as well. The bar has been raised quite a bit over the past ten years.
Q: Who encouraged you the most when you had a bad day at the rink? Catherine Tran, 11, Sugar Land, Texas
A: Mom and Dad both did when I was growing up, and even my sisters. Later on, it was sometimes my coach, Mary Scotvold, and sometimes the humor of my college roommate, Rob Soni.
Q: After you won the Olympic silver medal and went on the professional tour, what was your favorite memory during the tour? Garrett K., 12, Watertown, Minn.
A: I'll give you three:
Every night skating the closing number with the amazing cast of Stars on Ice. It was such a combined feeling of accomplishment, camaraderie and joy, and a total privilege to be a part of the cast.
I had two personal best performances: the World Challenge of Champions in 1992 and Skates X2 in West Palm Beach – don't know why, but I was in the zone (and nothing beats that).
Skating in Brazil — [It was the] most amazing crowd, and we had such a blast. It was the only time I was on tour when literally everyone was there for the first time. We were tourists.
Q: Since you went to Colorado Academy as a full-time student and then went on to Harvard, do you think it is better to go to school full-time and work skating into your busy schedule or be home-schooled so that you have more time to skate?
It is my opinion that it is better to go to school than to be home-schooled.
1) An Olympic skater's focus is very narrow and home-schooling, by its very nature, only narrows the world to which you are exposed.
2) It has been said that the sport at the Olympic level becomes 90% mental. How is it that you train your brain? Rigorous and broad-based academics is not only a requirement for college and advancement, it makes you a better skater. I realize that many home-schooling programs are rigorous and broad-based, but this is not guaranteed. Correspondence school is not the same thing — ask any college admissions officer.
3) There is more to going to school than academics. I believe that skaters are already somewhat deprived of "normal" social lives and miss out on important friendships, activities, field trips, and potentially inspiring relationships with teachers and mentors. I drew on many different sources of strength in my career, and it was critical to have many of the voices I heard come from outside of the rink. I do not regret one day I spent at school, in fact I wish I had been more involved, not less.
4) Future endeavors: Schoolwork, even in the Harvard days, enabled me to feel like I was moving in a secure direction for my future, growing with my peers, keeping in step. My skating was enhanced by academics and vice versa, enabling me to write about what I was experiencing in international travel and cultural exchange.
5) Skaters have more time on their hands than we did in the era of compulsory figures. There is no reason for training time to be the reason for a child to not attend school, unless the rink has no ice time during non-school hours – in which case, I would attempt to find a more flexible arrangement with the school and/or the rink. Many coaches pressure their skaters to do home-schooling so that they can have their lessons in the middle of the day. I think parents should weigh the sacrifice they are being asked to make.
Caveat: I want to add to my opinion a large caveat, that both Colorado Academy and Harvard were special places, where my skating and my individuality as a student/athlete/artist was not only understood but celebrated by teachers, administration and fellow classmates. I was in the top five in my class throughout secondary school, and I made honors grades at Harvard through hard work and staying on top of the inevitable make-up work. That being said, both schools were flexible with me: I attended high school for five years, not four, and even Harvard allowed me to finish in five years and three summers (I was often taking 75% load). I found it necessary to communicate directly and up-front with my principal and teachers, and to strive to do everything I could to earn the right to have the leniency for time away for competition. Homework was a priority, and if I did not have my schoolwork done, I didn't go to the rink.
Also, if you have a school where you are being picked on, a school where they will not excuse your absences for competitions or a school where there is not the proper respect of skating as a sport, you may want to ask for a meeting with your principal, your coach and perhaps have a USFSA official write a letter. Dick Button once gave me the advice to ask a USFSA official to write a letter to the school explaining the absences in advance of the skating year. This helps to put it in official context, so they don't feel you're trying to ditch school.
Q: When you were skating and going to school at the same time, how were you able to keep a balance? What advice would you give skaters who want to maintain their skating career but at the same time get a good education? Courtney, 13, Minneapolis, Minn.; Bethany, 14, Wilkesboro
A: See the above. For me, it was about giving each effort its devoted time and concentration. When I was on the rink, I was not focused on school, and vice versa. It's often a matter of time management. Make sure your schedule has a study hall in the morning and don't spend it talking! Get to know your teachers and help them help you. Stay after class when you can, and utilize the off-season to catch up or get ahead – springtime was when I really poured it on.
Give yourself the flexibility you may need (and ask teachers and administration to do so, as well). Making up a whole week's worth of work may take some extra time, and it's going to take the cooperation of the faculty (and even your classmates). I also had wonderful friends in school who took notes for me and helped me to keep up. Be sure to reciprocate whenever possible.
Q: What did it feel like to be the silver medalist at the 1992 Olympics? What did you learn from it? Katie Alary, 13, Thornton, Colo.
A: Amazing! It is almost impossible to have the right perspective on it now, since it was over 10 years ago, but at the time I was overwhelmed with the joy and sheer surprise of winning an Olympic medal. I was not supposed to win anything — in fact, I was one-tenth of a point from not making the Olympic Team at the U.S. Championships. I was counted out by everyone, especially the media. Mike Janofsky of The New York Times called me a "pathetic figure" in the sport and left my name off the roster of athletes in the preview. Six weeks later, it was sweet to prove that I did not choke in the big events. But I was not vindictive — I felt blessed by God for the opportunity and for helping me accomplish it.
I learned that you don't have to accept what everyone else's expectations are for you. I had a lot of work to do between nationals and the Olympics. I learned that God wanted me to enjoy the experience of competing — that I should see doing a triple Axel combination as the ultimate in FUN, not pressure. I learned that you build to new plateaus once a great deal of work is behind you. I learned that sometimes you have to give yourself permission to succeed. In the end, I learned that I could make myself only as prepared as I could, and the rest would have to be God fighting for me. And I think He most enjoys doing that in a situation where everyone has counted you out, even yourself.
Q: How long did it take to achieve your goals, and are you pleased with your accomplishments? Juliana Furman, 12, Garfield Heights; Mikayla Rochelle Carhart, 5, Albany, N.Y.
I began skating at age 3 and retired from performing at 33 (I guess that's 30 years!). From the time I first started competing (age 9) to my first Olympics (23), it was 14 years. This is pretty long, considering the age of most skaters today, and I was 27 when I won my medal (which, at the time, was ancient). I am pleased with my accomplishments because I feel that I rose to the occasion in the most important event of my career, settling the score with myself and others.
I believe my professional career was even more satisfying because I was able to develop my own style and interpret music that I love with freedom from worrying about my world standing. I enjoyed touring with Stars on Ice for the way it challenged me to reinvent myself creatively, and for the camaraderie. Competing was even fun. In a format no longer restricted by eligible rules, I could push myself to compete with Brian Boitano, Scott Hamilton, Viktor Petrenko and Kurt Browning — and this made me strive to further my accomplishments beyond the Olympic medal.
Q: How old were you when you landed your double Axel, and how long did it take to land it? What was your most challenging jump to land? Alyssa Creger, 12, Burbank, Ill.
I was 12, and I can remember it like it was yesterday! I had been falling and falling on the double Axel for about a year. One night I suddenly could visualize the entire jump, take-off, air position, landing – I mean really FEEL it. A few days later I finally landed it, and the whole rink applauded! As for jumps, they were all challenging at different times, but the double Axel took me the most time to get. It was the triple Axel combination that caused me grief in competitions.
Q: What do you think of the new judging system? What would you do to improve it? Candy, 17, Vancouver
I am intrigued by the proposed system, and I went to Holland to participate in a test with the ISU. We will need to have an emphasis on judges education for the new system and very careful weighting of the technical and artistic marks. The computer allows us to do many things, and I look forward how it may help our judges become better and more fair.
As for the interim system, I would make the judges accountable for their marks. I would like to see a more regional division (Asia, North America, Northern Europe, etc.) of the judges, so there are not more judges from one region than another.
Q: I watched a video of you competing at the 1992 Olympics, and you were great! Before your short program, what was going through your mind? Kevin Durkin, 11, Philadelphia, Pa.
In the warm-up I had fallen on the two attempts at my combination. I listened intently to my coach's instructions about my technique, which he calmly delivered. Then I went over that technique in my mind and continued to see it correctly in my mind. I thought about other times in my career when I hadn't once landed the combination in the warm-up (it happened to me at the 1988 U.S. Championships where I made my first Olympic Team). I thought about the repetitions I had under my belt and kept breathing deeply, taking my pulse and trying to relax and keep my heart rate from going out of control. I looked at the color blue in the Olympic rings and thought about the peaceful sky, but mostly I concentrated on my pulse. I was nervous, but I felt that I could do it. I remember the backward edge going into the combination, and the only word was TRUST. I had to trust the training, trust the technique and trust God. And you know, I thought through every step of the program, taking one element at a time, because I knew the short program was the hardest for me.
Q: What advice could you give a young skater like me? Where did you get your confidence to skate in front of millions? Samantha Cassium, 13, Coplay, Pa.
First of all, everyone gets nervous. It's natural, it's good. With nervousness comes adrenaline. You get the confidence to skate in front of millions of people from completing successful repetitions, run-throughs, drilling your technique and having an encouraging and calming coach. You are a unique skater, and you need to find what makes you feel confident. I needed to do back-to-back run-throughs of my long program with all the jumps before I could feel confident — and do many repetitions of jumps. There was a transformation when I completed double the ordinary task.
I also worked with several sports psychologists to help me see myself performing and relaxing, and to better my concentration. You may need to concentrate on your breathing and work through some relaxation techniques. Be sure to practice these because you can learn to help your mind and body regulate your nerves. Most of all, don't worry. All the training and competitions that build up to the big event are helping you prepare.
Q: Do you think you would have gotten any further in your skating had you been home-schooled? Amy, 15, Littleton, Colo.
Absolutely not. For me, it was essential to have the balance of skating life and school life. It was energizing to have the academic and social stimuli, and I know that I would have regretted missing out on either. I did, in fact, have a year when I was not in school — 1985. I became bored and depressed as all my friends went off to college, even though I was training. I found the more one-dimensional my life was, the less well I did.
Q: We don't see you much skating anymore. What are you doing now? Do you still skate? Katy D., San Francisco, Calif.
I am working at the Walt Disney Studios as Director of Marketing and Synergy. I have a very special project right now, working on the Disney Company's corporate spokesperson deal with Michelle Kwan. I am skating every once in a while on my lunch hour for fun, but not performing.