Figure skating is perhaps the least understood sport. The average layperson refers to every movement a skater completes as a “triple Axel” and forgets about the sport for four years at a time. Yet skating is, for some, an all-encompassing passion. A global sport, skating provides a lens through which one can explore some of the past century’s major historical phenomena (the AIDS crisis, the Cold War) and cultural trends (the cult of the sports commentator). The literature around figure skating is like the sport itself—entertaining, utterly human, flush with both absurdity and beauty. Here are the vital nonfiction skating books for any figure-skating syllabus.
Toller Cranston, author of Zero Tolerance, did not, as his book’s subtitle states, revolutionize figure skating. But you’ve got to give props to a guy who presents himself, on the cover of his memoir, as a shirtless, fuchsia-tinted, and crucified figure skater. Such boldness (and dramatic self-presentation) was exactly the quality that made Cranston both a six-time Canadian national champion—and also the object of head-shaking dismay on the international competition circuit. Cranston eventually wrote another book, When Hell Freezes Over: Should I Bring My Skates?, and gave up skating to paint in Mexico.
Wordplay and figure skating might not seem like natural companions, but the two are inextricable when it comes to Dick Button. Known for his signature combination of antiquated slang and made-up jargon, Button is an Olympic champion, the first American to land a triple jump, a Harvard graduate, and a long-time skating commentator. His shining moment of glory in the aughts was when he screamed “What a gladiatress!” in reference to a young Tara Lipinski. Now, that is some linguistic tomfoolery.
When it comes to figure skating, sometimes what you really want is just to see the fleeting moments of contortionism frozen. Enter choreographer Sandra Bezic, whose Rolodex looks a lot like a Who’s Who of famous figure skaters, and whose personal stories about working with the world’s best only take up about a quarter of the total page space in her book. The glossy action shots are incredible, particularly one multi-exposure photograph of Brian Boitano performing his signature “Tano Lutz” while wearing a bright-red jumpsuit. Best of all, however, is the shot capturing a manic look of glee on Viktor Petrenko’s face as he lands a jump at the 1992 Olympics.
No one deserves to be named an honorary figure skater more than Christine Brennan. The veteran sportswriter gained unparalleled access to many of the sport’s icons, and in this book she reports on everything from the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan shitshow to the way in which the AIDS crisis ravaged the sport to the lives of skating has-beens. Brennan writes of figure skating with both dry wit and respect, and she’s interested in skaters’ lives both on and off the ice. As it turns out, there is more crossover than one might think. “While figure skating has been made out to be a fantasy world of pretty dresses and caked-on makeup,” she observes, “it turns out to be the sport that most closely mirrors real life. Strangers—judges—make decisions about a skater based on appearance, gossip, and on what they did in the past. Skaters might not realize it until later, but, in this sport, they are getting a fine introduction to the rest of their lives.”
If you’ve ever wanted to know “What Would Brian Boitano Do?” look no further than this combination memoir, coffee table book, and primer. Not only does Boitano include copies of personal thank-you notes, costume sketches, and photographs of some pretty amazing 1980s athletic wear, he explains skating slang like “take out the flowers,” an expression meaning to crash into the boards of the rink. The book dedicates an entire section to Brian’s skating tour scrapbook and profiles of his skating friends. Why? Because that’s what Brian Boitano would do!
In 1995, at the age of twenty-eight, two-time Olympic champion Sergei Grinkov died of a massive heart attack. His wife and skating partner Ekaterina Gordeeva wrote this book as a tribute to their life together. Gordeeva’s memoir spans their fourteen-year relationship, but it also paints a rare portrait of life in 1980s Soviet Russia, federation-issued caviar and all.
Actually, you probably can’t. What you can do, however, is read what is probably the best worst self-help book ever written. You will wonder if the book is a parody and realize with astonishment that it is not. With its charming advice about how sometimes you just have to starve yourself, you will finally be able to understand, in a lightheaded daze, why figure skaters are often insane. Keep this book away from children.
Tracy O’Neill is a writer living in Brooklyn. In 2012 she was awarded the NYC Emerging Writers Fellowship by the Center for fiction, and she currently teaches at the City College of New York.