In the wild spectacle of elite sports, stars ascend quickly, shine brightly and fall down in an instance if they are not able to win big during the narrow window when their physical abilities are at their peak. Media and fans, hungry for thrill and eternally seeking new favorites to replace yesterday’s heroes, usually do not put much thought into this endless cycle. It is either a story of continuous undefeated success that sticks in the minds of the viewers, or a tale of defeating impossible odds to raise to the top. It is no wonder why these stories of overcoming adversity receive high coverage during the Olympics, with the emergence of the concept of athletes making miraculous comebacks to fulfill their “Olympic dream”.
And figure skating, like all sports, is a straightforward, simple and extremely cruel game: the most capable rise to the top, the less talented or misfortunate ones are easily replaceable both by their federations and in the eyes of the audience. Unfortunately, little attention do we pay to the fact that for every Yuna Kim, Yuzuru Hanuy or Evgeni Plushenko who garner and inspire countless dedicated fans with their astonishing abilities and competitive drive to beat all odds, there are thousands of equally amazing figure skaters who come painfully short of achieving their immense potential. A few of them live in the collective memory of the community as a cautionary tale for the dangers of the sport; the overwhelming majority end up a mere sporting statistic.
Ilia Klimkin is arguably one of the most talented figure skaters to ever come out of Russia – and probably one of the biggest wasted talents from there, and that says a lot for a country that prides itself as being one of the leading powers in the sport. He was almost up there with Evgeni Plushenko and Alexei Yagudin in terms of raw talent and artistry, but unlike the other two, he lives in the minds of figure skating aficionados today as a collection of a few faint fragmented memories. Yet, I am still to find a story which more beautifully illustrates the hypocrisy, unfairness and ultimate meaningless of elite sports on all sides, like the career of this largely forgotten skater does .
Competing in a discipline so dependent on visually pleasing aesthetics where graceful skaters effortlessly flow and fly together across the ice under enchanting rhythms, Jamie Silverstein and Justin Pekarek looked like they were poised to break through. Hailed as potential future world champions by Paul Duchesnay, among others, the young ice dance team swept audiences off their seats during their incredibly short career.
Back in 1999 – 2000, they were on the track of sporting success – equipped with superb skating skills, versatility, musicality and passion in their skating uncharacteristic for their tender age, Jamie and Justin made their senior debut following a very successful junior season. Fans and commentators alike were excited about the bright future prospects of the exceptionally talented and promising team. Little did they know, however, about the inner turmoil faced by Jamie at the time, and that the debut season would also be their last together…
On paper, Yuri Ovchinnikov’s career doesn’t look too bad but he is barely remembered today. Being one of the emerging talents from the Soviet Union in singles skating during the late 60s and 70s, he won a bronze medal at the European championship in 1975, and made the top 10 of the world four times, often getting overshadowed results-wise by other soviet skaters including Sergei Chetverukhin (1972 Olympic silver medalist), Sergei Volkov (1975 world champion) and Vladimir Kovalev (1976 Olympic silver medalist and two-time world champion).
What sports records omit from the picture was that Yuri was far ahead of his time, being born in an era when his talents were just not rewarded the same way they would have been at a later time – with his infinite passion and energy on the ice, innovative choreography, musicality and lyrical expressiveness, and huge jumps which left spectators gasping in awe, he was considered a “king of the free skate”.
Coming from a figure skating powerhouse that had been known at the time to produce multiple technically proficient jumpers, Yukina Ota stood out. Her balletic grace on ice and sophisticated musicality set her out as a prominent artist on ice in the mid 00s. One word that comes to my mind when observing her competitive performances, is poetry – her superb, light flow across the ice and the excellence of her carriage are so hypnotizing that you easily forget you are watching an athlete compete. The beauty of her skating and the intricacy of her choreography are so mesmerizing that she hardly even needs any jumps to draw the viewer in.
Yukina made her senior debut at Skate Canada grand prix in 2003 following a triumphant junior season in which she won every competition she entered into – from Junior Grand Prix to Junior Worlds in 2003. Following her grand prix assignments Yukina gained further momentum with a win at the Four Continents Championship. Poised to break through as a major contender at the time, Yukina experienced injury setbacks in 2004 which forced her on a year long hiatus. She was unfortunately not able to regain her shape in the following years, and decided to end her amateur career on her 22nd birthday in 2008.
In this post, I would like to talk a little bit about Yebin Mok. Yebin was a very promising Korean-American skater from the early 00s who competed against some of the absolute greats of ladies skating of all time including Michelle Kwan, Sasha Cohen and Sarah Hughes. Sadly, her career was tragically cut short by injuries and personal struggles.
An incredibly talented young woman pursuing the conventional dream of sporting success and glory, she had her life consumed and derailed by the very sport she had devoted herself entirely to. However, the rediscovered passion for the beauty and joy of figure skating following her retirement allowed her to take ownership back and be happy once again.