He spoke in a thick russian accent, rolling his “r”s and squashing his “O”s like bugs on a windshield wiper, so that “loops” became “lupes”, the “flips” became “fleeps”, and “arabesque” became a mass of tongue rolling and lost syllables.
He used to stand there, a leg jutted out, a look of disgust on his face. The mindwashing fluorescent white lights bounced off the sharp edges of his toe pick as we whirled, jumped, and twirled around him in our nylon training outfits like puppets on a string. With a flick of his pinky finger, he could have us doing splits on the ice, and with a crisp command on his tongue, hop around the rink like bunnies.
It was as if he disliked any sort of fun on his precious ice. Any sign of frolicking, chasing, and even playful competitiveness was met with a sour look of pure disapproval, the frown lines etching deep canyons in the hollows of his face. Maybe it’s the brutally cold and long russian winters, I thought one day as I watched him scold a group of young kids across the rink for stabbing their toepicks repeatedly into the ice. When his gaze suddenly turned on to me, I sprang hurriedly into action, performing a clumsy flip and landing terribly on the wrong foot.
But, regardless of how terrified we were of his deep-set eyes and straight lined mouth, we were proud to be his twirling puppets. When we got off the ice after our two hour practices, parents, children, and other coaches stopped to watch our silent and very sore procession. Whispers of “Vascili’s students” spread across the changing area like wildfire in August and widened pupils of awe and jealousy followed us as we sank down onto benches, exhausted, and unlaced our skates.
Now, many years later, in an ice rink thousands of miles away from where I started, with a scuffed pair of red and grey skates on my feet, the gunshots of pucks and clattering sticks in the air, the musty salty smell of sweaty gear wrapped around my frame, I thought about all the axels I’ve done, the crunch of my toepick on the pristine ice, the pearly white swirls from countless spins.