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Figure skating wants ice princesses. Amber Glenn said, ‘Screw it.’

Figure skating wants ice princesses. Amber Glenn said, ‘Screw it.’

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

In a sport where women strive for music box grace, Amber Glenn, America’s current female figure skating champion, charges the ice in a flash of arms, legs and black rhinestone-covered pants. Above her, the arena speakers thump to the pounding beat of “Heads Will Roll,” a song by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs with a chorus that goes:

Dance, dance till you’re dead!

A few years ago, Glenn was miserable. She felt trapped in a life of unspoken expectations, seeking the approval of coaches and judges. That’s when she made a decision. She says she told herself: “Screw it, I’m not going to try and conform.”

She stopped attempting to make herself the idealized version of a figure skater and started telling people about her depression, her eating disorder, her ADHD and the eight months she spent away from the sport to take control of her life. Then she came out as bisexual and pansexual, and when confronted for clarity, she said to call her queer, hoping that would suffice.

Now at 24, an age when most female skaters’ careers have ended, Glenn is having what feels like a big moment. In January, she won the U.S. figure skating championships, and everywhere she skates, fans cheer loudly and wave Pride flags. Wednesday night in Montreal, she will compete for just the second time at the world championships.

A younger Glenn would have been terrified to skate to a song referencing decapitations or to wear pants on the ice. Saying “screw it” gave her the freedom to be different, to be outrageous, to be whatever she wanted.

“I wish I knew what I know now and could tell my younger self and give myself that grace that I am trying to give myself now,” she said on a recent Zoom call from Colorado Springs, where she trains.

There are times she wants to run into the past and “save myself,” until she realizes her discovery came from overcoming the “extreme standard” she and others had set, one that was impossible to meet. Now, when people tell her, as she says some have, that she looks like “an excited puppy” on the ice and that she should “chill out,” she doesn’t listen.

That’s the beauty of “screw it.”

NO AMERICAN WOMAN HAS WON an Olympic figure skating gold medal since 2002, nor a world championship since 2006. Glenn has been told she can be the next, but her performances remain marred by infuriating stumbles. Even her win at nationals happened only because she tumbled fewer times than the skater ahead of her.

She wants to see this moment in her career as “a grand, big time,” but first she needs to find a way to stop living inside her head.

“My mind is what got me here, but it’s also my greatest adversary,” she says.

In practice she hits every jump, sailing through her performances, looking every bit like the best skater on the planet. And yet, when she gets into the competitions, her thoughts stray.

Short programs, lasting less than three minutes, of which only about 1 minute 40 seconds involve jumps, are easy. But getting through a free skate, with so many more jumps and spins and turns, is something else. That extra minute is just too long.

She’ll burst into the arena’s glare feeling the music, whispering the words that are supposed to keep her focused, landing jumps until the point at which she must think about her footwork. Then she’ll notice how the edges of her skate touch the ice. And something inside her will snap.

“Almost like I get woken up from a dream,” she says.

And she will think: “Oh, my God, I’m performing in front of thousands — what is happening?”

And her rhythm will be gone, her performance ruined.

That’s what happened at January’s U.S. championships, where she went from landing a triple axel, one of skating’s hardest jumps, early in her program to later staring at the ice on her hands and knees, wondering why everything had fallen apart yet again.

Back in 2019, a doctor diagnosed her with ADHD, and now she understands that’s what breaks the spell in the middle of her skates. Other skaters tell her to “hit a reset button” when she loses focus, but for her, it feels more like a complete reboot. And you can’t reboot your mind in the middle of a competition. For years, people have told her to try harder, to focus, to concentrate, to stop being so mentally lazy.

On the Zoom call, she scrunches her face, grits her teeth and clenches her fists.

“Can’t you see I’m tryyyyyyyying?” she almost shouts.

“It’s just soooooo hard,” she adds.

Much of her training now with coaches Damon Allen and Tammy Gambill is spent searching for ways to keep the ADHD from creeping into her long programs. It’s part of why she moved to Colorado after missing the 2022 Beijing Olympics. She needed to try something new to find a way to have two perfect programs on back-to-back days the way she knows she can.

“This is my mountain to climb,” she says. “And I’m trying to get to that summit. Step by step, competition by competition, we’re trying to get there.”

WHEN GLENN FELL IN LOVE WITH SKATING, circling the mall rink near her family’s suburban Dallas home, she exuded so much joy, the people who ran the rink put her picture on the side of the bus they used for special events.

“I was having the time of my life out there,” she says.

Then one day, when she was about 12, a skating judge told her to “tone down” the smile, and some of the joy left her.

By then she had sacrificed her childhood to figure skating. Her family was middle class, her father a policeman, and there wasn’t endless money. To save time for skating, she and her younger sister, Brooke, were home-schooled until Brooke lamented the lack of a social life and begged her parents to let her go to school.

Amber stayed home, committed to skating. Many of her friends were really Brooke’s friends who included her in their group. Once, Brooke took Amber and Jimmy Ma, another top skater training in the area, to her high school homecoming dance. It was the first time Amber had been inside a public school.

“Her whole life was figure skating, figure skating, figure skating,” Brooke says.

The isolation was stifling. Amber had reached the level of stars such as Olympians Gracie Gold and Ashley Wagner yet was too young to talk with them. She sat by herself in the locker room, not knowing what to say. It was awkward and lonely.

Coaches applauded her powerful jumps but kept asking for “more artistry.” Why couldn’t she be more delicate? More elegant? “More like an ice princess,” she says she thought.

But she didn’t feel like an ice princess. She was 16 and anxious and depressed, struggling with an eating disorder and unsure how to be whatever it was the skating people wanted.

She was admitted to a mental health facility, where for more than a week she didn’t even look out a window. But her first senior skating event was 10 days later in Canada, and if she didn’t go, her season would be over. So, she left the facility and headed to Canada with a bottle of antidepressants and a warning that the medicine might make her depression worse.

She barely remembers the event, other than it was a disaster and she finished sixth. When she returned to Texas, her psychiatrist told her to step back from skating, so she spent the next eight months studying, doing homework and little else. For a time after she started skating again, she felt better, but then she got worse. She felt anxious, frustrated and lost.

“I was trying to be this person that I wasn’t,” she says. “I was trying to come off as like the perfect girlfriend or the perfect skater or the perfect example, rather than just being who I am.”

That’s when she said: “Screw it, I’m going to be who I am. If they don’t like it, then they don’t like it. I’m going to enjoy what I do. And if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. I’m going to do it the way I want to do.” ‘

IN 2019, GLENN STARTED SKATING to a cover of the Papa Roach song “Scars,” which she hears as being about someone working to help others to the detriment of themself. She related to that. Her skating got better. She finished fifth at nationals in 2020 and second the next year. She got the ADHD diagnosis. For the first time, a lot of things were making sense.

And then she decided to come out.

Since her midteens, Glenn had been wondering about her sexual identity. She thought she might be bisexual, yet she was fighting through anxiety and an eating disorder and had not learned she had ADHD. Too many other things were circling in her mind.

As she got older, she secretly went on dates with women, confiding in Brooke, who after one of those dates asked too loudly, “Did you kiss her?” not realizing their mother was in the next room. Instead of being angry or distraught, her parents were supportive. Soon, Glenn’s mother was bringing home Pride flags and signs that she saw in stores.

Particularly helpful was Timothy LeDuc, a skater who trained at the same rink and gave Glenn words for the emotions flying through her head. Late in 2019, she told a Dallas LGBT magazine that she was bisexual. It was supposed to be a small admission buried in a bigger story on LeDuc, who in 2022 would become the first nonbinary figure skater to compete at an Olympics. She didn’t expect many people would notice.

But it was big news. Stories were everywhere. She was terrified. What had she done?

“Oh, my God, my grandma’s going to see this, and I haven’t told her,” she says she thought. “My Catholic grandmother!”

And what about her parents’ co-workers? What would they say?

“Holy cow, this is happening!” she said to herself.

Then she went to nationals and saw a Pride flag in the stands and almost broke down before her skate. For the first time, she felt like herself.

But being herself meant explaining who she was, and she wasn’t sure what to say. Bisexual didn’t seem quite right, so she said she was pansexual, that she was attracted to people regardless of their gender identity or sexuality, but then some accused her of being “bi-phobic.” That made her feel worse. Where did she fit?

“I was like, well, since I’m not bi, pan, whatever, am I enough?” she says. “Am I in the community? Am I enough to be in this community? Because what if one day I settle down and I end up settling down with a man? That doesn’t invalidate my queerness. I have feelings for both genders or someone who doesn’t identify with either.

“I started to find myself trying to stick myself into a certain box,” she continued. “And I was like: ‘Uh-uh, nope, nope, none of that, nooooooone of that. That’s the whole reason I came out.’”

On Zoom, she throws up her arms.

“Call me whatever you want,” she says. “I’m just not on the straight and narrow. I’m just bendy, and that’s fine.”

AFTER THE GOLD MEDAL CEREMONY at the U.S. championships in Columbus, Ohio, several fans raced to the boards lining the ice and called her name while clutching homemade signs and rainbow flags. One handed her a Progress Pride flag, the one she likes the most because of its celebration of the diversity of the LGBTQ+ community.

She took the flag, held it above her head and skated a lap around the ice with it around her shoulders.

“When I came out originally, I was terrified,” she said that night. “And I was scared it would affect, like, my scores or something, but I didn’t care.”

“Everything came with time,” she says on Zoom. “It first was understanding and taking care of my own career and my own skating, and it was then facing head-on, like, my mental health, and then it was coming to terms with myself and my identity and my self-image. It took me years just to get to acceptance.”

She never thought she still would be skating at 24. She always imagined making the Olympics by 18 or 19 and retiring. But something kept her coming back, kept her fighting her mind. Whenever the 2026 Olympics come up, she shakes her head. Those are too far away, she says, she has been through too much and come too far.

All she wants to do now is be the skater she always wanted to become, flying onto the ice while the arena speaker blares:

As she begs her own brain to please stay out of her way.

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