The older we get, and the longer we follow figure skating, the more we think of the sequins and chiffon and stage-quality hair and makeup as little more than sparkly diversions from the sweat, scrapes, and hard-earned bruises of the athlete in question. We know it’s a tough sport that requires supreme athletic skill, benefits from amazing grace, and thrives on steel-belted nerves in competition. What we don’t know are the desperate lengths some will go to—when no one is looking—in order to find a modicum of peace in ice skating’s perpetually shuddering world.
Well, we know of a few. We know about Jamie Silverstein, a U.S. ice dancer and 2006 Olympian whose battle with anorexia and bulimia kept her out of the sport for quite a while. We know about Akiko Suzuki, Japan’s current World Bronze Medalist, who might never have reached such heights in the sport had her own eating disorder issues handicapped her chances in skating for more than a few years.
And, recently, we were reminded of Jennifer Kirk. She and Suzuki are only a little more than 6 months apart in age, and both were ravaged by eating disorders in the early part of the 2000s. But the path to recovery is not the same for everyone. We knew this well enough when Kirk wrote about herself—and countless, nameless others—in this 2009 article.
Now, thanks in part to a conversation she started on her blog May 29—one that delves even deeper into the darkness that crept into Kirk’s life both before and after she left the sport—we know there’s still so much more to talk about. Whether an athlete (or anyone, really) turns to binge eating, starvation, binge drinking or self-injury—all of which Kirk apparently engaged in— it’s a highly complex exercise in self-destruction, typically with bushels of symptoms that few, if any, can detect.
To be sure, the subject as it relates to figure skating has been visited before. Little Girls in Pretty Boxes by Joan Ryan, first published in 1995, was one of the first to shine a bright light on it for both skaters and gymnasts.
And Kathryn Bertine’s All the Sundays Yet to Come, released in 2003, is a harrowing (yet somehow delightfully wry as well) journey into the drastic measures the author took in order to maintain a post-competitive career in skating. I happen to be 2/3 through my copy right now, so it’s fresh in my mind (and highly recommended, by the way).
Sometimes it takes an easily identified name and face to really click—if not with the subjects itself, with the parents and coaches who enjoyed Kirk’s skating. And in this day and age of social media and all its pros and cons, there’s no better time to use Facebook and You Tube (she has her own channel there now too, look for it!) not just for GOOD, but for EDUCATION and for POSITIVE COMMUNICATION. Jenny Kirk’s opening some big, important doors these days... whether you’re a skater, coach, official, or fan; whether you’ve suffered through similar problems or none of them, her words are crucial. Please take them to heart, and share them with others.
Having lost a childhood friend to anorexia myself, I can’t help but believe that the “unrealized dream” that Kirk speaks of is something of a misnomer. She left her Olympic dream behind, yes, but in its wake, she could be doing something much bigger-- she could well be saving lives by sharing her own. As “realized” dreams go, we all know it doesn't get much better than that.