73: Coach

73: Coach

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Dad


When you teach your son, you teach your son’s son.

~The Talmud

“Go Steffie!” The cheer, followed by a deep, throaty cough, buoyed me somehow. Skating around the rink in my sassy red rhinestone-embellished competition dress, I tried to stay focused on my warm-up routine. Forget the other skaters. It’s just me out here. Do a toe loop and get the feel of the ice.

Cool air rushed through my lungs as I stepped into a simple scratch spin.

Dizzy but exhilarated, I barely remembered to hold my pose. Skating judges were known to get an early glimpse of the competition by viewing practice sessions. Could that smiling gentleman with the clipboard be making a few notations already?

“Welcome to the Tri-State Figure Skating Championship,” the announcer boomed. “Skaters in Juvenile Ladies have three minutes remaining in the warm-up.”

Twelve-year-old skating pixies twirled, their perfectly French-braided hair flying as they tried to fulfill the demands of overbearing coaches.

“Do the Lutz again,” a bejeweled lady in a full-length mink barked over the hockey boards at her protégé. “And this time, don’t forget to breathe.”

“Of course you can skate first and still get the gold,” another instructor assured her medal-hungry student.

Gliding over to the boards, I looked up at my coach for this event: my father. Standing at the boards, Dad wore his best brown tweed sport coat — the one with a coordinated rust-colored silk hankie peeking from the outer pocket. Dad smelled of his ever-present warm cherry wood tobacco and a dab or two of the Old Spice cologne I had bought him for Christmas. This dapper gentleman could easily have passed as a revered skating coach. Little did the other skaters know that Dad was a regular guy with a steady job at a chemical plant, a wife and two daughters, and a simple home in suburban Cleveland.

Sure, he had skated a time or two with my older sister, but Dad’s real passion was Cleveland Browns football, not figure skating. So why was he here, in Michigan, acting as my coach at Tri-States? And why did I feel so at home and comfortable, without my usual racing heart and head full of negative thoughts?

Quickly, I ran through my two-minute routine, getting a feel for the slick, freshly Zamboni-clean ice.

“Go Stef!” I heard my mom and sister shout from their seats high atop the metal bleachers. But it was Dad who stood nearest, a solid rock of support, his very presence somehow softening my usually stiff, jittery leg muscles. Axel, Axel, Axel. I repeated the jump, amazed at how effortless the landings seemed. Even my usually nauseous, queasy stomach was under control. When the announcer called, “Skaters, please leave the ice,” I knew I was ready.

“You’ll skate third,” Dad said, handing me my pink skate guards. “You looked good out there!”

With a pile of fifth and sixth place consolation ribbons sitting at home, I knew I was no Dorothy Hamill. My jumps were often “cheated” or two-footed, which didn’t bode well with figure skating judges. But I still loved to skate. Nothing compared to the soaring feeling of stroking around the ice, cool air flying in my face. Nothing compared to my program music — “Ave Maria” — a spiritual piece that filled my heart to bursting. And I knew that no coach in the world compared to Dad. He would love me no matter what — win or lose. Unlike my “real” coach, who couldn’t rearrange her travel plans to accommodate a Juvenile skater, Dad stood by me. Despite the chilly arena air, I felt oddly warm inside.

“The next skater, representing the Euclid Blade and Edge Club — Stefanie Sper!”

“Go get ’em,” Dad called out, giving me a quick kiss on the cheek.

On the ice, a magical feeling took over. Joy flew through my veins as I stepped into a sit spin. Smiling widely, I picked up speed for my first jump, a backward-entrance Lutz. After picking my toe into the ice, my body was supposed to whirl one revolution in the air before landing again on the same thin steel blade. To my surprise, my toe went into the ice, but my body refused to lift.

“Oops.” Though he stood at the opposite end of the arena, I could almost hear Dad’s voice pulling me forward: “You can do it. Just turn around and keep going.” I knew I had to nail my next move, a spread eagle, followed by an Axel-loop combination.

“Yeah, Stef!” Dad’s voice called out as I whirled past the hockey boards, preparing for my most difficult jump. Adrenaline, a father’s support, and sheer determination worked together as I jumped, this time lifting into the air and returning for a clean landing.

A flip jump, some footwork, and soon it was time for my final scratch spin. Though my program had been far from perfect, I lifted my arms in victory, feeling like an Olympian. On a high from the inspiring music, the invigorating arena air, and freedom from my coach’s scrutiny, I hurried into Dad’s waiting arms.

“Great job, honey,” he reassured me.

“Yeah, but I messed up the Lutz.”

“You’ll always be number one in my book,” he smiled.

A half hour later, as the final competition results were thumb-tacked to the hallway bulletin board, Dad quickly lifted two big fingers in the air. Second place! I was a silver medalist! Jumping up and down, I gestured wildly into the stands at my mother and sister, holding up two fingers on each hand.

“Wow, fourth place! Good job,” Mom exclaimed as she made her way down from the bleachers.

“No! I got second! I got second!” I screamed. “The silver!”

As I stood on the podium and bent forward to receive my glistening silver medal, I tried to take it all in: my sister proudly taking flash photos, Mom quietly smiling, and Dad beaming in the wonder of the moment.

It was, in fact, a small miracle. I was no athlete, and never again would earn a medal in ladies figure skating. Perhaps my success that day was a fluke. But my heart tells me that something else was at play — a father’s steadying presence, a comforting calm in the often slippery world of figure skating.

My favorite coach is no longer by my side. Cherry tobacco aromas, once warm and nurturing, now seem bittersweet. Emphysema, a steady, silent criminal, robbed Dad of breath, life, and the chance to know my own daughters. But as my two little girls skate around our neighborhood ice rink, I can still hear Dad’s voice echoed in my own words:

“That’s the way! Good job! Keep your arms out for balance!”

As my daughters tumble onto the hard, unforgiving surface, I hurry to their side.

“It’s okay,” I say, dusting ice shavings off their knees. “Let’s take a break and try again later.”

Skating glory, after all, is short-lived. But a parent’s love and support? That legacy can last forever.

~Stefanie Wass

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