Friday, March 28, 2014


The 2014 World Figure Skating Championships continue through the weekend and, to celebrate, I've got another excerpt from "Skate Crime: A Figure Skating Mystery," and the story of a skater who got much too tense before a competition... and the coach who came up with a most unique solution to the problem....

Unlike 99 percent of the students who came under Lucian's — or, frankly, any skating coach's — elite tutelage, Gina Gregory possessed something the rest did not. Gina genuinely and completely and unabashedly loved to skate.
She loved it when she stepped onto the ice for the first time at the age of three. She loved it through group lessons and private lessons and reconstructive surgery on her elbow after she broke it trying a Double Axel when she could barely do a single. She was always the first girl at the rink when it opened in the morning and the last one off the ice, even as the Zamboni was rumbling out of the gate to signal an end of session for the night. She was always the one eager to try a trick once more to get it perfect, never complaining about injuries or not having enough time to do other, normal-kid things. Gina Gregory would have been the perfect student.  Except that, like 99 percent of the students who came under any skating coach's elite tutelage, she also had something the rest of them did — a mother keenly interested in her child's progress.
Tina Gregory was the reason Lucian Pryce initially refused to take on Gina. Yes, he saw how talented the girl was. Yes, he saw how teachable she was and how easy to deal with. But her mother was a horror. And Lucian was no fool.
It wasn't until Gina was twelve years old and picked one morning when Lucian was teaching another skater to circle him incessantly and keep doing Double Axel after Double Axel after Double Axel until Lucian was dizzy — even if she wasn't — that he threw up his hands, laughed, and gave in.
For the next decade, he had cause to regret it every day of his life.
Not because of Gina. Gina was exactly what he'd expected. But because of Tina. Because Tina was exactly what he'd expected, too. (When a woman tells you she named her only daughter after herself—G[regory] + [T]ina = Gina — you kind of know what you're in for.)
Tina Gregory wasn't just content to, like the other mothers, sit rinkside every day and coach her daughter from the sidelines — even though she was ostensibly paying Lucian good money to do the same thing. Serious money. Top dollar, as a matter of fact. (Lucian believed customers understood they were getting the best only if they were also paying the most.) No, Tina prided herself on cornering Lucian each and every time he stepped off the ice, so they could have a little confab about Gina's progress and potential. And when Lucian came home at the end of the day, more often than not, the phone would already be ringing, and it would be Tina on the other end, with yet another question or notion. They talked about Gina's programs. They talked about Gina's music. They talked about her costumes and her diet and her ballet lessons that Lucian insisted she take to lose some of the coltish qualities that judges tended to disdain in their international-level skaters. But, most of all, they talked about the fact that Gina thought too much.
The older she got, the more it became a problem.
By the time she turned sixteen, Gina was, even in the opinion of her fiercest (and cattiest) competitors, the World Ladies' champion of the practice ice. Fortunately for her competitors, however, about half the time now, her championship moves remained right there on the practice ice. All because, when it came time for competition, Gina started thinking.
She thought about which girls might be able to outskate her, and she thought about which moves she was most likely to miss. As a result, she missed the moves and the girls she most feared did, in fact, outskate her.
Lucian realized soon enough that Gina's best performances took place when she didn't have time to overthink them. Most girls hated to draw first to skate in the Short Program. Common wisdom held that judges "saved" their marks, meaning that the skater who went first could never hope to score as high as the one who went last, even if their actual performances were identical. Lucian believed "saving" marks to be an actual phenomenon. But he also knew that it was better for Gina, and so he rejoiced when she pulled her arm out of the sorting hat with a single-digit number. Unfortunately, Gina skating so well in the Short Program meant she was usually scheduled to skate in the final group for the Long. And that left more thinking time than anybody felt comfortable with.
Since Lucian couldn't very well (no matter what his own competitors believed) fix the draw to assure Gina going early in the Short, and since he couldn't change the rules to keep her from ending up in the final group for the Long, Lucian went with the factors he thought he still might be able to affect, and banned Tina from attending competitions alongside her child. He'd believed for years that Tina and her never-ending need to discuss every bit of minutia surrounding her daughter's career was what filled Gina's head with the stress and anxiety that then tripped her up. So Lucian gave Tina a choice: Either she stay away from Gina at competition (and that meant far away; not in another room, not in another hotel, but preferably in another state) or Lucian would walk away from coaching her. After several years of having paid top dollar for every lesson, Tina was adequately convinced that Lucian was the best coach available, and so knew enough to back away when faced with such an ultimatum.
Initially, Lucian's gamble worked. Without her mother constantly whispering in her ear, Gina did grow more relaxed about such issues as her program, her music, her costumes, her competition, and her chances. She trusted that she could skate as well when it counted as when it didn't. But, without her mother to take care of the associated details like she always had, Gina replaced her previous performance anxiety with a new list of worries: What if she didn't fill out her entry paperwork correctly, what if her plane wasn't on time, what if her luggage got lost, what if she misplaced her room key, what if she missed the practice bus, what if she misread her schedule, what if, what it, what if... The girl was a twitching bundle of nerves and Lucian was getting sick of it. So he went with yet another Plan B. Lucian always had a Plan B in case things didn't go according to plan. He'd learned it from coaching Toni.
To execute Gina's Plan B, Lucian sent in Chris Kelly.
Chris, at this point, was the undisputed king of the Pryce skating stable. Having won Olympic Gold two years earlier, then followed it up with a World Championship that year and the next, Chris was, at age twenty-two, the best-known name in Men's skating. In addition, having obviously gotten over the death of his wife from a year before, he was the acknowledged catch in the very small pool of male skaters who were successful, good-looking, and most important, straight. And Chris knew it.
He'd gone through at least a half dozen girlfriends since Lauren, including media personalities, heiresses, and fellow skaters. He'd never given eighteen-year-old Gina a second glance. Until he showed up at her hotel room at the World Championship under strict orders from Lucian to "For God's sake, son, get that girl to relax. I don't care how you do it."
Having placed first in the Short Program and then drawn to skate last for the Long in a record field of forty-seven girls, Gina had several hours with nothing to do but think about what could go wrong before she was finally allowed to leave the hotel, catch the appropriate shuttle, arrive at the arena, change into her competition outfit, and do the one thing in the entire process that she still loved to do — skate. Equally unfortunate was the fact that these particular championships were being held in Amsterdam. Which meant they were being shown on Eurosport. Which meant that, at any time, Gina could turn on the TV and watch, live, all the lucky girls who'd already gotten their programs over with.
           Gina, as it had already been established not only by Lucian but also by the U.S. figure skating press corps as well as the fans who liked to discuss such matters in grave detail each time they gathered at yet another championship, did not know how to relax.
          It was up to Chris to show her.
         At first, when he kissed her, Gina had no idea what he was doing. (Well, she had some idea. She wasn't a complete innocent; in fact, she had read a great deal on the subject and fully intended to explore it further once her busy schedule allowed.) When he peeled off her robe, she was, momentarily, utterly befuddled. But that didn't seem to bother Chris much. He apparently had no interest in her actively participating beyond not getting in his way. Which Gina had no intention of doing, in any case. To be honest, she wouldn't have known how. And to be really honest, she was too curious.

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