“My Skating Life: Fifty Plus Years of Skating” by JoAnn Schneider Farris

Black and White photo of Joann Schneider Farris and her partner, Rich Griffin.

I first came into contact with Joann Schneider Farris when she wrote this story about me for About.com, which has now seemed to change to Thought Company. At the time she contacted me–I think it was about 2006 or 2007–I was about as far away from skating as I could be and up to my eyeballs in being a single mother of twin toddlers. Also, I got her confused with someone else. A middle school kid had contacted me because she was doing a story on disabled athletes. She had also contacted Eve Chalom, a Deaf skater (and much, much, much more successful than I ever was) so I answered her questions but kind of felt like an imposter. I was not in Eve Chalom’s league at all. Anyway, I think I got her and Joann mixed up, and so I really wasn’t aware that Joann was going to write an article about me to be put on the internet.

But I am going to try an find out how to contact her and thank her now, because that article has come up in my life several times and has helped me out! I think it has come up twice in job interviews, when the employer had obviously done a search on me.

“So, you are a figure skater?”

“Oh, (laugh) in a past life. Just recreationally.”

“Tell me about that experience.”

“Okay…”

It was a fun and more relaxed way to bring up disability and how to work out problems. Legally, employers cannot ask about your disability in the interview process, but you know if they don’t, there are just so many unanswered questions in the air it becomes a massive elephant in the room. Then you have to try to answer the questions you think they have without acting too obvious about it.  The figure skating article allowed me to talk about what it is like to be a Deafblind skater, how people reacted to me, misconceptions I had to dispel, different ways I got around and worked with my disability, etc. Along with just the usual stuff people like to hear in interviews like working towards goals, working with others, being well-rounded, etc. (I think I got both jobs!)

The article also helped me just this past April when I was rink shopping and buying new skates. People really don’t know how to take a middle aged woman who walks in to their rink or pro shop with a guide dog and says she wants to skate. “I can skate. I’ve skated before. Look me up, you’ll see…” I think my experience at Valley has been helped by that article (though its still a work in progress.)

I had seen Joann’s name around and about figure skating over the years, but when I was looking up the Dorothy Hamill book (Similarly called “A Skating Life” which I wrote about here) Joann’s My Skating Life also came up. I bought it off Kindle and read it on the train to the rink with voiceover. I only read it while on my hour long trip back and forth to the rink, so it took me weeks to read it. It became a little tradition. I would get up and be reluctant to go, but I knew if I could just get dressed and get to the train station, Joann would be with me the rest of the way! Then all was good and I was motivated to go. It made the long ride enjoyable.

The book is very long and detailed and really focus’s on skating and just skating. There is a lot of detail of places, names, competitions, etc. that I will not remember exactly right here, but it really does take you on a 50 year skating journey from the 60s to now. It could be roughly divided into four parts: her amateur career growing up, her coaching career, her children’s competitive career, and her journalism career after her kids were mostly grown. I am going to write a few impressions about each section.

Childhood/Amateur Career

This was probably my favorite part of the book because her childhood was very different than my own. It was her father’s love of skating who got her and her two siblings into skating. It did not sound like a “skate parent nightmare” type scenario. I believe her sister quit after a few years because it wasn’t her thing. But the stories of her father sharing his love for the sport with his children were quite sweet.

One lesson I had to learn as an adult that was really difficult as a child was that its ok to just try things or go as far as you can with them even if you aren’t going to be great at it and even if it doesn’t directly hold any monetary/career value for you. I was told the day I started skating that I was never going to be good enough to be an Olympian.  And although this was very likely true, so what? Everything seemed so all or nothing in my family. You concentrated on school, you did your housework. Anything else was completely trivialized. It seemed that Joann’s family (her father was a doctor at a university) had way more money than mine did, and I know that my family simply never could have pulled off what hers did, but even so, it would have been nice to know that its ok to like skating, or singing, or music or dancing or art or anything and just do it for the love of doing it as you are able. It doesn’t all have to be monetized and utilized in some way that will advance your career. (And even so, skating did end up advancing my career a bit!) Its ok to do something even if it is going to take a ton of work, even if you will never be the best at it. It can help and motivate you in a lot of other ways and bring value to your life. This, I did not learn until adulthood and I think I missed many opportunities because of it. Even though Joann’s family was much more serious than just “doing it for fun” I think they had this spirit in mind.

Which leads to my next thought: Oh, my GOD is it hard to get to Nationals of any level! These people worked their asses off and went chasing down many hours of ice all over the LA area everyday, and still only made it to Nationals once (and then not senior level, IIRC). There was driving around to three or four different rinks, there was skating at midnight to 4:00am, there was traveling to camps, there were high level coaches and still…the people who make it to nationals are few and far between. Her brother did make it quite a few times, but so much of this is just talent, luck, and timing.

Her family went on ice skating vacations. They would go to camps in skating meccas like Squaw Valley, Lake Placid or Colorado Springs. The descriptions of these places were fun to read. And Juli McKinstry’s, my first skating coach’s–name came up again. Apparently Juli’s mother pretty much had a skaters boarding house in Squaw Valley and those kids were known as McKinstry Kids. Joann was a McKinstry kid. And here again, it was nice to read about regular people (not the superstars) of skating. The difference in abilities and effort between McKinstry and Dorothy Hamill was probably minimal (she had beat Dorothy and come in second behind her on a few occasions), but look at the differences their lives took. It shows how even when you do not become a skating superstar, you (and your family) can still greatly impact the sport.

It was fun to hear about all of these rinks in LA that they drove to when they were chasing down the ice, especially the Paramount Ice Rink where the first zamboni was invented. The descriptions of the pipe organ and the big ice and everything made you feel like a part of the culture there. All the driving made me feel like my hour long commute to ice is not so unreasonable.

Her descriptions of the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs led me to watching the 1978 movie Ice Castles again (it was filmed at the Broadmoor).  I haven’t seen it in decades. The funny thing about that movie was when I saw it as a kid, the fact that the main character went blind went completely over my head. I thought she had to start over again because her coach was mad at her because she did something wrong. I totally missed the fact that she couldn’t see and that THIS was the problem, because I couldn’t see either and I missed the parts (or misunderstood) the parts where they showed her seeing blurry. To me, that was like, so what? It wasn’t until years later when people started calling me Lexie that I had it explained to me and got it.

Coaching Days

It was fun to see how she developed into a coach and how versatile she became. One of my favorite images was when she talked about being very pregnant and skating around on hockey skates at a PSA conference to test for her Hockey Coach certification. She could pretty much teach it all. I liked how she seemed to teach her adults and Learn to Skate group classes with the same amount of enjoyment as her private, better skaters. I sometimes felt like I was wasting my coaches time (or they thought that) because I was never going to be elite and great. But she got into, again, just the joy of people skating at whatever level. She branched off into roller and inline skating and coaching as well. I’ve only inline skated once, it is similar to ice skating and I could skate ok. I also now totally want to try sled dogs, which are a type of ski boot that has a very short ski-type sole on the bottom that skaters are supposed to transition easily with. Skis seem so cumbersome, but I felt like Id like to just jump in and try these. I bring this up because I had never heard of them before reading this book (also need to look up Pic Skates!) Joann did anything that glided as an adult. Roller, ice, ski, sled, scooter. You name it, if it glides and balances on your legs, she was on it.

She worked for several Ice Capades Chalets, and it was interesting to see that sort of corporate philosophy in action. When I skated at Clackamas Town Center, it was an Ice Chalet (previously owned by Ice Capades, then owned by Dorothy Hamill when she owned Ice Capades, and then somehow was just an Ice Chalet, which was a chain). A lot of what she said about how Ice Capades Chalets worked was similar to my Ice Chalet. The emphasis on ISI and Learn to Skate, the uniformed jackets the coaches wore, the low level competitions, the setting up your month long calendar for freestyle sessions and then getting tickets for lessons was all stuff I was familiar with.

As was the precariousness of the ice. It seems like rinks open and rinks close but its hard for them to stay around. Ice Chalet is gone. Mountain View Ice Arena is going soon, Lloyd is barely a rink anymore, and Winterhawks remains but probably largely due to the hockey team. For such a big metro area as Portland is, there is a scarcity (or ice famine as she called it) of ice. It seems like this is happening everywhere, all the time. (Except, she later explains, Canada, where 8 sheet rinks were common. So Jealous!)

Third Generation Skaters

What is interesting about her kids is that they just seemed to organically become ice skaters because they just grew up on the ice with her as she coached. My son Naim has taken a lesson or two and is ok on the ice, but he doesn’t have a strong passion for it. My other two kids show no interest. I wanted to give them the experiences that I missed out on. It didn’t have to be ice skating, it could have been another sport or music or art or something. So, I try to expose them to different things over the years, but nothing really sticks. Its an interesting concept to figure out how much to push (and how much you logistically can push.) Naim wanted to do soccer, but I just couldn’t handle the transportation to all the games. But if I worked on the ice like she did, if it was right in front of them, would they have taken to it? (or something else?) Like many kids, my kids are into electronics and screens. But then, we work with electronics and screens professionally, its what is in front of them. Is that why? I don’t think she pushed her kids into skating, its what they breathed in that family. Her 3 generations of family (Her father, her brother and herself and her children) supposedly have earned the most Gold Medals of any family in the USFS. (Gold Medals as defined as testing at the top/senior level, not gold medals won in competitions.) I have a blind friend whose father was an auto mechanic  and now he is an auto mechanic even though he can’t drive a car. Its funny what influence you have as a parent that you don’t even think about. We teach adaptive technology and ALL of our kids use voiceover and other adaptive technology even thought they don’t really need to. They just naturally fit it into their lives.

Also interesting is that she homeschool’s her kids and so do I. It sort of came naturally to me, as it seemed to her. As a skater, I imagine she saw many different types of schooling and she saw the advantage of flexibility of homeschooling (as did I). It does become a lifestyle, more than just a “thing you do” or an education choice. It does give a lot of opportunity for pursuing interests on a greater level. It was fun to see her kids move through the skating ranks.

And I haven’t mentioned ice dancing, which is featured thought out the book as she was an ice dancer and so was her dad and kids. I didn’t really even know what ice dancing was as a kid until the 80s when I was fascinated with Natalia Bestemianova and Andre Bukin, it wasn’t so much an idolization as a total “can’t look away” awe of them. WHAT are they DOING? I never thought ice dancing was for me until I was an adult and I actually tried it. It is hard and it is fun! Its mentally and physically challenging. I also found it something that I could really work to improve, especially now when jumps are out of the question.  Its interesting that when I was a kid I knew of no other kid who ice danced. But Joann did and so did her kids. I think it is becoming more popular as the US does well in it and people like the Shibutani’s have popularized it to a younger generation. I also wonder if more parents would rather have their kids do ice dance because it is not so harmful for your body as jumping. It really is sort of the soul of figure skating (after figures, I suppose.)

Journalism

A tragedy in the family brought her coaching career to a slow stop. Although after some time, they were able to recover from the tragedy, I empathized with how caregiving a disabled family member can change everything and wear you down. I have also had to figure out how I could make ends meet by finding work at home and flexible hours. I was a caregiver for a quadriplegic for 22 years. One of the main reasons I can skate now is that I am no longer the primary caregiver of my family member (although we are still in contact and I sometimes do small things on his behalf). Skating to me still feels like a luxury that I struggle to be able to justify, but for her family, it was such an integral part of their whole family’s life that it would be quite an adjustment to give it up.

Her about.com gig was pretty sweet. I think she is a very knowledgeable and thorough writer, but not so much the best writer as a craft. (I wished I could have put her book through an editor. Its not necessary to tell us every time you mention USFS that it used to be called USFSA. Only the first time is necessary. And after you say that getting a (testing) gold medal is like earning a Ph.D. in figure skating, it is unnecessary to say it ten more times. And she also really likes to use “quotes” when they are not needed. Does something feel “normal” or does it feel normal? I think you meant that it feels normal without a bit of irony there, so its really ok to say that without quotes.  But we all have our writing quirks. God knows I am in desperate need of editing, myself.)

In any case, it was fun to read about her trip to the Vancouver Olympics. Around that time (2010), we were really close to moving there and had a job lined up and almost had a place to live. We took a few trips there and I poured over maps and learned all the public transportation lines. When we went, it was after the Olympics, so it wasn’t quite the madhouse she describes, but still it was fun to read about all the places I had gone and to be like “I’ve eaten fast food in that mall! I’ve gotten off at that sky train stop!)

Overall, this book is probably a skater’s skater book. Its probably a little too tedious for the average reader to sink into. But if you want to learn more about how  most skaters live, not just the famous ones, this is a good book.  I really enjoyed reading about a person whose life has revolved around skating even though she is not a superstar and has not won a ton of medals. This is the reality for 99% of the skating community. And it is a natural community that I have found pieces of throughout my life. People like Joann are greatly responsible for holding it together so well. The book has a lot of fun links (the Kindle version, at least) so you can actually click and link to the exact program or concept or person she is talking about (many of her About.com articles are linked.)

Skating is a joyful activity that has a lot of positive by-products such as physical fitness, creative outlet, musical enjoyment, perseverance, courage, friendship, community, etc. If there is anyone who has taken her love for the sport far beyond what anyone might have thought it could be (and do it without a bunch of gold medals) it is Joann. She has really taken advantage of everything it could offer her and her family and taken it as far as anyone could go. I can only strive for that kind of enthusiasm and perseverance that she has.

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