I lined up beside the others. I crouched, positioned my skates, and waited for the whistle. The others came from out of town. They looked cold and uncomfortable in tight stretch nylon suits with matching gloves and hoods. I knew they’d trip on those impractical skates: black lace-ups with extended, smooth-tipped blades. They’d never grip the ice.
I’d been figure skating on Lake Champlain in upstate New York since I was a toddler, and by the time I was twelve, I was a marvel on ice. I could skate both forward and backward. I could make almost perfect, though wide, figure eights. I could even skate on one leg without falling down. And I liked speed. I skated faster and farther than all of my friends, so I entered the Winter Carnival Speed Skating Competition.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was way out of my league.
The whistle blew. I shoved off. The others sailed past me. Elongated blades swooshed and clinked, spewing sprays of shaved ice. Lithe, slender bodies swayed in hypnotic rhythm. I was stunned.
So calm, so fluid, competing with each other at a pace I didn’t expect. The heat of shame stung my cheeks and ears. Long legs drifted effortlessly ahead of me in seamless, congruent strides. Arms swung left, then right, then left again, in parallel formations. Wiry torsos leaned forward and a bit to the side as they banked around the track.
Hindered by thick wool snow pants, I chugged along with as much oomph as I could muster, my chunky legs trying to gain speed and make headway. I was desperate to prove I was good.
Chin leading, arms akimbo, I pushed my metal blades in an acceleration of flying frenzy. My short legs lunged faster and faster, faster and faster, bouncing on ice patches, tripping on the tips of my skates.
For each one of the racers’ smooth, effortless glides, my feet made three, maybe four, awkward thrusts. The muscles in my thighs stung. My throat ached from shallow, rapid breaths of raw, frigid air. Ice shavings pitted my face and stung my eyes.
Arms flailing, heart pounding, I hurtled forward, the pain in my legs growing almost unbearable. Frost clung to my eyelashes; my fingers felt sticky with sweat inside my mittens. The others elegantly and effortlessly sliced through space with confident complacency - in no particular hurry, expending no particular energy.
I began sprinting wildly on the serrated tips of my blades. Dagger points formed mini-craters as the metal teeth dug into the ice. Chunks of frozen shards flew every which way.
I bounced and bolted in a state of hysterical panic. I was the Carnival Clown entertaining the crowd with idiotic gyrations and wild, toe-dancing jigs while the real race glided along in regal splendor.
Embarrassed tears clouded my vision. I wanted it over. Just don’t fall! Finally, in a desperate lurch, I pitched headlong across the finish line and collapsed into a snow pile.
There I sprawled, limp and exhausted. I began to sob. How would I face my friends? I’d forever and always be known as Stumble-Bum-on-Ice.
A distant voice startled me. “And Third Place goes to Ellie Volckmann!”
With reclaimed dignity I stood proudly to receive my Bronze Medal at the Annual Westport Winter Carnival Ice Skating Championship.
The sheer force of my determined twelve-year-old spirit and grit had plummeted me across the finish line ahead of four out-of-town, trained racers who looked abashed and bewildered in their skinny nylon suits and silly skates.
I wore that ribbon around my neck all day long and into the next week.