As human beings we hate to admit our mistakes, but in this case, I'll make an exception. The first time I saw Olympic champion Evan Lysacek skate, he was a teenager. It was clear that his jumps were good -- excellent even -- but figure skating is a sport that requires a melding of athletic prowess and artistic interpretation, and aside from the jumps, Mr. Lysacek was just a bundle of flailing arms. This was no champion in the making, I was sure.
It took him one short year to prove me completely and gloriously wrong, and he's never looked back.
Last year, I had the honor of being at the Staples Center in Los Angeles when he won the World Figure Skating Championships. I sat in a section of the arena I fondly called "Little Canada" because it seemed that I was the only non-Canadian there. Throughout the week, I'd made it clear that the men's event would be something special, and that Evan Lysacek was my skater. It was as if I were somehow responsible for the success I'd projected onto him, as if I had personally helped him grow from a jumper to a skater who had it all -- the spins, the footwork, an intensity that drew even the disinterested observer under his spell.
As Mr. Lysacek finished his long program, my Canadian friends wept with joy at his performance, even though his victory denied the gold medal to their own rising star. His skating, his emotional reaction, and the audience's response drove home an important point that had been evident in the many media interviews he'd given, in his trademark humble manner. Evan Lysacek was more than a one-dimensional sports performer appearing on a stage. He was a real person.
Of course, I'd always known that athletes were real people. On an intellectual level, we all know that, but it's masked behind the television coverage. It wasn't until I worked at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Baltimore in 1989 that I saw the evidence myself.
Serving up soup and moral support in the competitors lounge at a practice rink, I observed a side of sports that the average spectator misses. A young Kristi Yamaguchi had won the pairs competition the prior night, and yet her mother sat on a bench with me, talking about how important it was that she not fall behind in her homework, that Kristi was no different than the other two children in the family, and her skating didn't excuse her from attending school and focusing sufficient energy on her academics, even if she was knocking on the door of potential Olympic glory.
At first it seemed preposterous, almost silly. This was a girl who would appear on television and endear herself to an entire nation. And yet, I was a mother myself. Did I want my kids to emulate the cocky skater whose ego took control of a media interview until his coach intervened, warning "be careful -- ice can be very slippery," or to idolize the Kristi Yamaguchis of the world, whose family values required that she be well rounded and respectful?
"She's so cute," I said to Carol Yamaguchi. "Especially when she's sleeping," Kristi's mother replied.
That is real. Every mother can relate to it. Even when the child has just achieved stardom, to her mom, she's still a little girl.
This Olympics, I fell in love with a commercial. A little boy sits poised to take flight at the ski jump. A small girl in a glittering tutu takes center ice. Helmet partially masking his freckled face, a child slips his mouthguard between his teeth, ready to defend his team's goal. A youngster gives a press conference, answering a reporter's questions into a microphone. My first thought was, "future Olympians?" But then the words flitted across the screen. "To their Moms, they'll always be kids." These were current Olympians viewed through the eyes of their mothers.
I knew the feeling. After all, how could my son Danny have become a father in the past year, when I was sure he was still 10 years old? And yet, he was a professional musician, and a man who taught other people's children to play music.
He'd recently shared with me a story about a trumpet lesson for a young child. The mother watched Danny warm up before the lesson. "Guess what she said?" he asked, grinning. "Wow, you're talented?" Nope. "We're so lucky to have you for a teacher?" Nope. I ran out of guesses. Danny said, barely able to speak because he was laughing so hard: "I'm twenty-six years old, and she said, 'Your mother must be so proud.'"
I laughed too, but I view the world differently as I've grown older. My children are now adults, and, hard as it sometimes may be to remember, they are no longer my little boys; they've set forth to make their mark on the world, as performing artists and as human beings. It's more than their artistic talent that makes me proud.
And so, Evan Lysacek took the ice at the Olympics as the world champion, but not the favorite to win Olympic gold. The reigning Olympic Champion, Yevgeny Plushenko, had come out of retirement to defend his title. Suddenly the back story usurped the competition. Accusations of unworthiness and intimidation eroded the notion of the Olympics serving as a means of bringing countries together in peace.
Mr. Plushenko said that the quadruple jump was a necessary qualification for an Olympic title, because it represented the Olympic motto, "higher, stronger, faster," and without the quad, the competition was a farce. Mr. Lysacek, who had abandoned the quad due to a lingering injury resulting from a fractured foot, refused to participate in the mud-slinging.
As promised, Mr. Plushenko delivered the quad in each program. Mr. Lysacek countered with his superior execution, difficulty, intensity and artistry -- and edged Mr. Plushenko for the gold medal on the merit of his technical score, not his artistic component score. He delivered with his athleticism, laying his jumps -- and his soul -- on the ice, and with his words, a humble champion speaking well of those who criticized him, always mentioning that it was an honor to represent his country, his family, his coach.
Evan Lysacek, your mother must be so proud.
Lauren Eisenberg Davis is coordinator of the Maryland Writers Association Creative Nonfiction group. Her works have appeared in both literary and technical publications, and her essay "Fear to Freedom" was reviewed in The Baltimore Sun as part of the anthology "New Lines from the Old Line State." Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.