Thursday, October 7, 2021

Book 304: Inside Edge

"Nearing the end, Boitano passed by the red hockey circle at center ice, which was a landmark to look for to make sure he was on the right path for the final triple axel. He began to hear strange noises in his lead. Please God, please God. They were getting faster and louder until he could barely stand it. As he launched himself into the air, he hoped that all those years of training would come through for him. Muscle memory, they call it. Only when that tiny blade swooped down, reached for the ice, found it, and held him upright did he know he was okay." 

Dates read: March 19-23, 2019

Rating: 5/10

The first team I remember loving is the Red Wings. They went on their Stanley Cup championship runs when I was like 10-11 years old, which are really the best time to hook a kid. I can still name the Russian Five without thinking twice. I love hockey, it's a great sport. But the second sport I remember loving is figure skating. The drama of the Lipinski/Kwan rivalry got me into it, and I've watched it off and on over the years ever since. The intrigue, the competition...and the skating itself, of course, have kept me interested and invested.

Growing up on a lake, I learned how to skate forwards competently enough, but I never took lessons or figured out anything else. I have never been especially well coordinated, so an activity involving razor-sharp blades attached to the bottom of my feet was probably a wise thing for me to skip out on. But some kids do have their skating dreams come true, and Christine Brennan's Inside Edge chronicles a year (specifically, the 94-95 season) on the figure skating circuit for all parts of the skating world: judges, coaches, and of course the skaters themselves. Everyone invests so much time and money and blood and sweat and tears into a sport where the tiniest slip of a blade can be the difference between that glowing moment in the spotlight or the breakdown backstage.

Though there are multiple perspectives wound into her narrative, Brennan does have several connecting throughlines, following particular skaters through the process of the season. There's precocious youngster Michelle Kwan, already poised and assured at only 15. And also talented-but-uncontrolled Nicole Bobek, who could win it all if she could stop sneaking out at night to hang out with boys. There's Rudy Galindo, toiling away and dreaming of reaching the heights of his one-time pairs partner Kristi Yamaguchi. Jenni Tew is an up-and-comer, dreaming of a spot at Nationals. And there are cameos from Scott Hamilton, Brian Boitano, Katerina Witt, and Torvill and Dean for perspective from more established skaters.

It's been well over two decades since the book was published, years in which Christine Brennan has become a respected voice in coverage of the sport. Back then, however, she was fairly new to it, and that newness does show. The drama feels artificially heightened, there's an almost breathless/scandalized quality to it that reads more like gossip than actual reporting. Despite taking some time with a judge and getting information about the amount of (uncompensated!) time it takes to serve as a judge and the seriousness with which they take their responsibilities, there's a lot of aspersions cast at the judging system as a whole, with veiled and not-so-veiled insinuations that judges collude on the basis of nationality and engage in machinations to game the system in favor of particular skaters, no matter what happens on the ice. This was well before the judging scandal of the Salt Lake City Olympics that changed the entire way scoring works in the sport, so it was interesting to get some background on how the system used to be before I started paying more active attention to it.

But it's hard to not take that information, and all the rest of it, with a grain of salt. The tell-all tone, the obvious favoritism towards particular doesn't make a case for itself to be taken seriously. If you grew up in the Michelle Kwan era, though, and remember these skaters as some of the first ones you watched, it's an interesting read. It's a portrait, albeit a flawed one, of a time and place, and an environment that has changed so fundamentally that it's impossible to compare to the same world as it exists now. But of course, la plus ca change, and right now there are kids strapping on their skates and getting ready for practice, hoping to make it out there on the ice. I'd say this is a solid read for figure-skating fans, especially if you watched during the time chronicled, but there's not much to recommend it otherwise.
One year ago, I was reading: Michael Jackson: The Magic, The Madness, The Whole Story
Two years ago, I was reading: The Overstory

Three years ago, I was reading: The Library Book
Four years ago, I was reading: The Royals
Five years ago, I was reading: Sophie's Choice

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