If dog years are something like seven human years, then athlete years must be something like 63 years per average human year. Two-and-a-half years away from competitive figure skating, a sport I've been training in since age 12, felt like an eternity when I took the ice for my first competition last weekend in Finland, my first since completing the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. I couldn't get over how quickly my body and brain had forgotten the sensations of being nervous, excited and terrified, being judged down to my toepicks.
Since deciding to return to competition last winter, the prospect of actually competing didn't become real until I got off the airplane in Helsinki and made my way back to the pressure cooker that is international competition. The skaters have somehow gotten younger since I've been away, they've also become more skilled and, in some cases, sparklier. The judges and coaches have gotten older, but in the "fine wine" sort of way. Aside from the natural progression of time, everything in figure skating is status quo; the way things are done is the way they have always been done. Today, there is official practice, tomorrow is the short program, and a mere 24 hours later is the long program. Every nap is predestined, every step you take is to better your performance, every calorie you take in could make or break your chances.
For me, this competition wasn't about winning or losing. It wasn't about the judges. I simply wanted to skate and make good on the promise I made to my fans on that chilly day in February when I said I would be back and on the road to the Sochi Olympics in 2014. I worked hard all summer with my coaching team. I lost the weight of two-and-a-half years worth of chicken fingers and Chablis. I reinvigorated my lungs and taught them what a marathon of a long program feels like again and, most important, I prepared music and costumes that inspire me.
My nerves were unrelenting as I stood in the middle of the arena, waiting for my music to start and to be thrown to the wolves. The fans in the building had come from Japan, Russia, all over Europe and America to see my comeback debut. With every jump, I felt more confident; with every exhausted thump of my aging heart, I could feel proud. This was it. I was competing again. A mistake here and there peppered my return to the ice, but I made a huge step that not many critics in my sport believed in. Skaters have always toyed with the media and fans about coming back, saying they would but never really doing it. I proved I could.
I didn't win, I didn't even medal, but what I did was worth its price in gold. I had defeated myself in this war of sport versus freedom. I conquered my fears and can't wait to be back out there in less than a month. Slowly but surely is what wins the race, and I can only look forward in this comeback. I can only forget what I've done in the past and start fresh, every day. The road to the Olympics is a long, treacherous one, but if you believe in yourself and surround yourself with love, you can do anything.