My skating debut started casually enough. When I was eight (ancient by today’s standards), my mother signed my sister Liz and me up for group lessons at Playland Ice Casino in Rye, New York. I quickly zipped through the assigned tests, and the teacher suggested to my mother that since I was one of the kids “with potential,” I should take private lessons before school. That meant at six in the morning.
Over the years, I have competed in eight or nine sports: figure skating, women’s ice hockey, tennis, squash, triathlons (running, biking, swimming), crew, and sex—if you consider jockeying for position to be a sport!
My father used to stand behind the fence to coach me (that is, scream at me) during my high school tennis matches, and my mother’s dinnertime refrain was, “Why can’t you be more like Dottie?” Dottie was Dorothy Hamill, 1976 Olympic figure skating champion. We skated at the same rink every morning before school, and when I went into the locker room to warm my frozen hands over the radiator—the only heated place in the arena at six a.m.—Dottie diligently kept tracing her figure-8s.
Competition, which literally means “to seek together,” ran like ice water through my veins. “Seeking together” was never the goal. The goal—and the pathway to my parents’ hearts—was to win. My father was the captain of his Harvard tennis team; my mother, who was raising three children, four years apart, was not happy about seeing her Vassar degree squandered in diapering. (She later went on to earn a Ph.D. in Art History at age 51.) As the oldest of three girls, I was the main repository of my parents’ athletic dreams.
At age 10 I was competing in figure skating and tennis. I loved the feeling of hurling myself into the air, doing multiple rotations, and landing on a one-fourth-inch skating blade. Or later, as an ice dancer with International Holiday on Ice, hearing the arena fill with music as I took my partner’s arms and we skated off into a waltz, tango, paso doble, or quickstep. I loved hearing the thwack when my tennis racket connected with the ball and my father pronounced that I had “the best forehand in the business.”
But the pressure eventually got to me. I quit tennis when I was in college, not to take it up again until I was 35. When I broke my leg at age 13 on a school ski trip, and could no longer land the jumps, I was relieved. No more comparisons to Dottie.
I had always competed in individual sports. But at age 40 I joined the New Canaan Mother Puckers, a women’s ice hockey team that skated at the outdoor rink where I taught figure skating. Learning to skate in hockey skates, and then hold a stick and pass the puck, presented new challenges. Without toe picks on the front of the blade, that first season I ended up on my knees—praying to the hockey gods that I could get up.
I knew I would never be a star, but I loved being part of a team, knowing that the victories could be shared and the defeats wouldn’t fall squarely on my shoulders alone. And, win or lose, at the end of the game my teammates and our opponents would shake hands and then go have lunch.
This was the beginning of my mellowing process. I still set athletic goals for myself. Two years ago, I took the Connecticut Challenge and rode my bicycle 54 miles through hilly Connecticut in 104-degree July heat to raise more than $3,500 for cancer survivors. And for my 60th birthday I will be hiking the Inca Trail in Peru with my two twentysomething children.
Yet sports are now part of a much fuller life than what I had while I was a kid. Now I own a landscape company, teach landscape design and photography at the New York Botanical Garden, judge photography for the Garden Club of America, and travel far and wide. And I always make time for my children, family, and friends.
I know many women who didn’t have the competitive childhood that I did, but who are now discovering their athletic capabilities later in life.
My college pal, Kendra, ran her first marathon at age 50. And my younger sister Sally, who was pretty much overlooked by my parents, since all their competitive juices were focused on Liz and me, has run marathons in her 40s, and also has ridden competitively (steeplechase) as well as gone fox-hunting in England, where she lives. If you scratch the surface, a lot of middle-aged female warriors emerge.
As I approach my 60th birthday, participating in sports means staying active and feeling fit. For a divorced woman living and working alone, spinning class at the gym provides an important social connection. I practice yoga to connect my body and my mind through breathing in quieter, more contemplative ways. I also subscribe to the African proverb “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
After all these decades, I’m still sweating . . . still giving it my all and being the best I can be.
Emily Kelting, a former staff writer at Self magazine, is the author of Little Winners: Inside the World of the Child Sports Star. An award-winning landscape designer, she writes a monthly column for the Association of Professional Landscape Designers’ On Design magazine. She is the owner of Great-Scapes Landscape Services in Fairfield County, Connecticut.