Gone from the sport too soon: Jamie Silverstein

Jamie Silverstein and Justin Pekarek skating at the 1998 Junior Worlds. Photo credit: J. Barry Mittan

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…

Childhood and early career

Jamie Silverstein was born on December 23rd 1983 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She started skating at the age of 3 prompted by her mother, a figure skating fan herself who could not persuade her sons to take up the sport. Following her parents’ divorce when she was 11, she moved to live with her mother in Michigan.

Jamie and Justing at 1997 US Junior Nationals. Photo credit: J. Barry Mittan

Jamie and Justin were paired for the first time in 1995 and started training under the patronage of Igor Spilband and Marina Zoueva. Success came quick for the young couple as they won their first novice US Nationals in 1995.


Jamie and Justing at 1997 US Junior Nationals. Photo credit: J. Barry Mittan

Following their transition to Juniors next year, they finished third at the US Nationals and gradually climbed their way up to the top. The following year, a second place at US Junior Nationals followed as well as a participation at junior worlds where they finished 10th.

A shooting star never seen before

Justin and Jamie’s most successful season came in 1998/1999 when they almost unanimously swept gold in every competition among juniors they entered into, including winning the World Junior title in 1999. Aged only 15 and 17, they stood out among the junior ice dancing teams with superb technical skills: their masterful edge control and powerful, yet smooth flow across the ice sparked admiration.  Additionally they also distinguished themselves with a sophisticated and mature approach to their programs, something uncharacteristic for ice dancers this young. The perfect blend of technical ability and the unison they had while floating together on ice complemented their star quality – the couple had a passion for performing and easily drew the audience with their grace and energy.

The following season the team debuted among seniors and was gaining momentum in an instance. They won their first international competition in 1999 – the Nebelhorn Trophy. They finished in a very decent 5th place on their first Grand Prix event that year, Skate America. Two weeks later, a fourth place at Sparkassen Cup followed.

Moreover, the couple also did astonishingly well at their first US Senior Nationals; continuing to improve their skating, they  finished 2nd, proving they could be a force to reckon with in the near future. The quick success guaranteed them a spot on the Worlds team and a participation at the Four Continents Championship that year. There, they captured the bronze medal.

In their first appearance at Worlds, the couple finished 12th, a very good finish for a team this young  in their first season. Jamie and Justin were praised both by fans and commentators for their abilities and hailed as the future of US ice dancing, with World and Olympic medals in the predictions. The prospects of the talented couple were bright and with a potentially long career that lay ahead of them, the world seemed like their oyster.

Sadly, the fairytale that was ahead of them stopped as soon as it began. Little idea did the skating community had about the turmoil and problems the young team was experiencing at the time.

Gone too early from the sport

Jamie and Justin at 2000 US Nationals. Photo credit:
Tom Theobald UPI


Jamie, a charming girl by nature, was starting to look thinner and more fragile physically, and it was difficult for her sequined costumes to hide her ever shrinking frame. The stress that the early divorce of her parents had brought in her life and, as quoted in a NYT article in 2006, the disappointment that she could not live the idealized family life shown on made-for-TV movies, made her feel invisible and helpless, always striving to find ways to make others happy; she discovered a comforting outlet in finding ways to gain control over her life, one of them being her eating habits. Figure skating, a sport where a very specific idealized body aesthetic plays large influence on judgement and results, seemed to be further fuelling her eating disorder.

By the end of 2000, figure skating had gotten too overwhelming for Jamie, who felt that the sport was fuelling her struggles beyond control. Despite her team’s efforts to support and encourage her, she decided to quit competitive skating for good in 2001, after having being diagnosed with anorexia and bulimia.

Jamie went on to study in Cornell University, from where she would graduate in 2008. Justin, on the other hand, continued skating with another partner, Hillary Gibbons, with whom he had very limited success. Following his retirement, Pekarek skated together with Gibbon in ice shows, became a successful coach for young skaters (up until his coaching retirement in 2008) and finally settled for a career in real estate.

Spending years on the sideline, Jamie spent a long time struggling with eating disorders. The trouble brought by competitive skating forced her to avoid the sport and ice rinks all together for those years.

Luckily, she was able to find help and learn healthy ways to cope with her disorder and the turmoil in her life. Slowly but securely, things worked out for Jamie and she managed to restore the confidence and happiness in her life she so direly hoped for years earlier. Wishing to help young women struggling with low confidence and  self-image not fall victims to the vicious cycle of eating disorder, she was involved in speaking engagements at student associations and sororities during her university years.

Finally, in late 2004, after finding a pair of her old rusty skates in the trunk of her car, a sparkle for the glorious past and a glimpse of hope appeared. After spending years away from the sport in fear, Jamie had realized that figure skating was not so scary after all. She decided to give the sport one last try, calling her old coach Igor Spillband who gladly agreed to take her back into his care.

Since Justin Pekarek had retired from skating by then, Spilband managed to arrange another partner for Jamie – young skater Ryan O’Meara who had had several partners before, and limited international experience. The newly formed team began training in April 2005, with the 2006 Olympics as the ultimate goal.

A quiet but triumphant return

The young team met surprising success by finishing a respectable 5th at Skate America 2005 and securing an Olympic spot at the 2006 US Nationals where they finished 3rd. A sixth place finish at 2006 Four Continents allowed them to further establish themselves and gain momentum before their big moment at the Olympics.

At Torino, the team finished 16th but considering Jamie’s prolonged absence from the ice and the major turmoil she had faced earlier, this can be considered a victory and a step in overcoming major adversity. Gracefully sliding across the ice, retaining her smile and the charisma that had shot her to skating stardom earlier, Jamie was more than happy and humbled to be a part of the large spectacle of sporting glory.  Ryan O’Meara was no less proud of the achievement and described his partner as an amazing person, being happy to have helped her reach the highest step in her career.


Jamie Silverstein and Ryan O’Meara during the 2006 Olympics Compulsory Dance.

The silver medal at the competition went to the US team of Tanith Belbin and Benjamin Agosto who had started their senior career following the unexpected retirement of Silverstein and Pekarek. Slowly but steadily the young couple climbed through the world rankings in the absence of their rivals with the silver medal at the 2006 Olympics being the peak of their lengthy skating career. Benjamin Agosto didn’t spare his compliments for Jamie and Justin after the Original Dance, citing them as a major inspiration:

“We really looked up to Jamie and Justin, because they paved the way for us as the up-and-coming U.S. team,” Agosto said. “It’s an unbelievable accomplishment for Jamie to come back.”

Aftermath

Jamie Silverstein and Ryan O’Meara skating in the free dance, 2006 Olympics.

Shortly after the Olympics, Jamie and Ryan chose to take an extended leave from competitive skating. Ryan became involved in coaching and interior design while Jamie returned to Cornell university and graduated in 2008. She did not return to skating after, preferring to remain active in different activities. Jamie became a yoga instructor, having established her own studio in 2012. In addition she has also been active in blogging and educating and spreading awareness about the dangers of eating disorders.

Sources used for this article:

Jamie Silverstein’s Wikipedia article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jamie_Silverstein

ESPN Article: http://www.espn.com/olympics/columns/story?id=2201044

Article on Jamie’s comeback and her new partnership: https://web.archive.org/web/20120405141842/http://www.skatetoday.com/2005/10/10/painful-breakups-lead-to-new-beginnings-for-silverstein-and-omeara/

Another article on Jamie’s comback: https://web.archive.org/web/20081206043404/http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/06049/657468.stm

Article on hiatus announcement post-olympics 2006: https://web.archive.org/web/20060630181545/http://usfsa.org/Story.asp?id=34308&type=news

LA Times article from 2006:https://web.archive.org/web/20121108040139/http://articles.latimes.com/2006/feb/17/sports/sp-olyicedance17

Jamie after figure skating (2012): https://web.archive.org/web/20120620105023/http://web.icenetwork.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20120612&content_id=33171736&vkey=ice_news

Jamie and Ryan’s official website (now defunct): https://web.archive.org/web/20060622161303/http://www.figureskatersonline.com:80/silverstein-omeara/jamie.html



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