Compare/Despair

As a young skater, I was never the highest jumper. I didn’t spin that fast. I wasn’t extremely flexible, and I wasn’t the most dynamic performer. But I was always consistent under pressure. When those competition lights turned on, I knew exactly what was going to happen: I was going to land my jumps when it counted.

I was 14 when I competed in my first Junior Grand Prix event in The Hague, Netherlands. Heading in, I thought winning a medal was probable—and likely necessary if I wanted to qualify for the Junior Grand Prix Final. I had never competed internationally before, though, and really had no idea what to expect.

For the majority of my career up to that point, I’d spent every morning before school studying VHS tapes of my competitors. This was decades before YouTube, so I had my mom buy tapes of every regional, sectional and national event at the end of every season. I’d watch these tapes and verse myself on my competitors’ strengths. I craved insight into what to expect before events and areas I needed to improve.

I didn’t have that luxury heading into this Junior Grand Prix event, however; I couldn’t order VHS tapes from Russian or Japanese Nationals. Instead, I spent the day before the short program sitting alone in the stands, glued to every jump landed and run-through performed by my two dozen plus competitors. Some were doing triple-triples. Most had higher jumps than me. Some had faster spins, and there was one skater trying a triple axel. When I left the rink that afternoon, I was consumed with thoughts about all the areas I believed I had to revamp in my skating over the next 24 hours if I wanted to medal. My competitors’ highlight reels taunted me all night long. I was counting myself out before the event even began. 

By suddenly thinking only of what I had to change about my skating, I inadvertently lost sight of what made me great. I robbed myself of owning my strengths and missed an opportunity to have possibly won the event had I skated clean.

The next day, for the first time in my career, I fell on my short program combination. I was devastated. I was able to get it together for the long—still falling on a key triple lutz—but wound up 4th, off the podium and pissed. Pissed because I didn’t medal but also angry because I had I let my insecurities rob me of what made me great: my consistency. I traded the opportunity to get myself amped up and excited before the short program for thoughts of lack.

The kicker was that my argument against myself was based on a snapshot of my competitors’ abilities. I created a story in my head of what was going to happen at the event based on one day of practice. Before getting on the plane for the Netherlands, I was aware that I needed to work on my speed. I knew I had to improve the height of my jumps, the speed of my spins and my skating skills. But I also knew that I was a clutch competitor who could deliver when it counted. By suddenly thinking only of what I had to change about my skating, I inadvertently lost sight of what made me great. I robbed myself of owning my strengths and missed an opportunity to have possibly won the event had I skated clean.

When I got home I resolved not to watch any practice sessions for the rest of the season. I didn’t listen to the hype after events. I worked hard in practice and focused only on myself. By doing this, I went on to skate clean programs at every international event for the remainder of the season, placing first at my next Junior Grand Prix event and ultimately winning Junior Worlds.

I wish I could say that at 14 I learned enough from this experience to stop negatively comparing myself to others. But that would be complete B.S. That seed of doubt that I planted at that event later blossomed to comparing the shape of my body—and what I believe it lacked—to other skaters and airbrushed actresses and models in magazines.

Unfortunately, I know I’m not alone when it comes to this compare despair; it’s affected each of us at some point in our lives. And for skaters today, this comparison extends beyond watching VHS tapes and practice sessions. On Instagram, we can view a competitor’s highlight reel of their best jumps from practice on our feed at any time; as individuals, we see highlight reels of the lives of strangers, friends and family. At times it can feel impossible to escape.

But it’s important to remember that sometimes that small glimpse into someone’s life is actually a well-crafted, fictitious image that we accept as reality.  Airbrushing is no longer reserved for actresses and models on the covers of magazines. Today, there are apps that can contour your body; smooth your stomach, your skin; and change your hair color, skin color and eye color. Just as I got caught up in thinking that one practice session was indicative of a competitor’s ability to perform under pressure, we can get swept away by a wave of despair based on what is actually another’s heavily filtered, edited and distorted version of reality.

Today, there are apps that can contour your body; smooth your stomach, your skin; and change your hair color, skin color and eye color. Just as I got caught up in thinking that one practice session was indicative of a competitor’s ability to perform under pressure, we can get swept away by wave of despair based on what is actually another’s heavily filtered, edited and distorted version of reality.

What I’ve learned though—both in looking back on my experiences a skater and now as an adult—is that rather be reduced by comparison, we have the ability to admire others while also being mindful that what we’re seeing may not be indicative of the whole story. If we see someone with a killer six pack or a great triple lutz, I think it’s helpful to applaud that. Seeing someone else’s strengths does not indicate a lack within you; in fact, seeing where someone else shines can actually help to push you to become a better version of yourself—but it should never come at the expense of yourself.

The reality is, there will always be someone who is better than you at some area—whether it’s a flatter stomach, thinner thighs, higher jumps or more flexibility—but they will never be you. They don’t have your consistency or your personality or your kindness. They don’t have your double axel or your spiral. They don’t have your hair or your big eyes or your dimples. No one but you has that unique combination of traits that makes up who you are. That is your power; that combination is what makes you great. I've learned you can use what you admire in others to help you become a better version of yourself, but never let a snapshot in time or a fictitious image rob you of what makes you great. Comparison can motivate you, but never let it reduce you.

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