An athlete’s mom watches her youngest child skate into adulthood
Speed-skating fans see an aspiring Olympian flying around the short track, but I see the determination that has brought her here.
Eyes aim straight.
The yellow school bus whisks my youngest child away, and she does not look back. The morning kerfuffle over, I take a deep breath. It’s important to have a plan — some distraction from this daily reminder that my kids are growing up. My first step is whisking milk for coffee into bubbling froth.
Knees bend. Hips tuck.
The milk is as white as the ice to which my baby, now 17, has grown addicted. At some point I blinked, and she became a short-track speed skater. Her passion ignited when she was just 2 and desperate to follow her older siblings onto the ice. Strapping blades onto her tiny boots, I skated backward, pulling her forward, delighting in the joy flooding her face. When we discovered the Bay State Speedskating Club, she insisted I skate with her. Yet eventually she let go of my hands, took off across the frozen white water, and never looked back.
Blades press ice. Right foot crosses left.
The ice is as white as the milk I fed her as a baby, when she seemed so fiercely attached to me that I worried she would never get past her separation anxiety. It was frozen milk — vanilla ice cream — that first got through to her when it was time to wean. Her suspicious scowl at the approaching spoonful transformed into a broad grin as she discovered that there was more to love beyond what she already knew.
Freeze for the starting gunshot. Crack!
Some people think I am nuts to let my little girl pursue speed skating — a sport in which, as Olympian Apolo Ohno said, “Anything can happen.” Short track challenges you to harness centrifugal force as you carve ovals in frozen white water on thin blades 16 to 18 inches long. Rounding the ice at more than 30 miles per hour, you need sharp edges, a strong core, and poise at acute angles.
Feel the speed. Smell the sweat.
I’ve tried to swaddle my baby in the equivalent of bubble wrap, from helmet to neck guard to cut-proof Kevlar bodysuit — protective gear unique to this sport. Still, one false step could mean trouble. It’s hard to fight physics, and centrifugal force could slam her into the wall of the rink, like surging whitewater against the rocks. I’ve seen EMTs carry skaters to the ambulance lurking outside during meets. I’ve driven skaters to the ER after wipeouts during warm-ups. Still, there is no place my child would rather be than in a rink, on ice as white as vanilla ice cream.
Skate fast. Stay low. Oh, no … spinning out of control … mats on wall.
I’ve been lucky so far. Every time I’ve seen my daughter fall, I’ve seen her pick herself up. Occasionally, at the end of a race, I also see her catch my eye for one quick second. The experience forces her fully into the moment, then releases her with exhilaration and clarity, like a family’s journey through the adolescent years.
Spot a chance to pass.
Time does not freeze like milk or water. My teenager is a force of will. Motherhood is a force of nature. It’s hard to fight physics, and forces shift as we travel downriver. Flexibility can make the difference between shattering bones and breathing in fresh air.
Gather nerve around the curve.
I felt the forces shift when my daughter started lapping me on the ice. That accelerated as she bonded with skaters her own age. They compete at high-stakes meets, pushing for new speeds, then leave their sharp edges on the ice and giggle over dinner together. I enjoy the sidelines, glad for our strong core and for poise at acute angles. Every time we fall, we must pick ourselves back up — long after the school bus passes by, after the milk finishes frothing, after one passion flows into another.
Olympic short-track speed skating begins February 10 in PyeongChang. Jean Letai is a writer and recreational speed skater in Medfield and the mother of three, including Julie Letai, a Junior World Cup Team member who competed in the 2018 Olympic Trials. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter@BostonGlobeMag.