The Next Competitor: Chapter One


If Pavarotti can hit that high note, I’m going to land my goddamn quad.

The powerful surge of violins echoes in the frosty arena as I thrust out my arms dramatically, “Nessun Dorma” from the opera Turandot building to its first crescendo, my left leg stroking the ice powerfully as back crossovers take me around the corner of the rink and diagonally across.

Sucking in a deep breath, I visualize my quad Salchow, a.k.a. the jump that will vault me to the top of the Olympic podium in four months. I pull in and up off the back inside edge, arms crossing my chest tightly—one, two, three—


My tangled feet hit the ice, my ass following as I crash down before completing the fourth revolution. Sliding to a dejected stop, I curl my hands into fists. The music dies, and I brave a glance at Mrs. C behind the boards on the other side of the rink.

In AP English senior year, we read a Yeats poem with the line: “A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun.”

Mrs. C in a nutshell.

Beneath the elegant mink winter hat over her silver hair—pulled back into an impossibly tight bun as always—her stare doesn’t falter. Her tailored leather coat hugs her petite frame. Diamonds glint from her earlobes, rings catching the harsh fluorescent light as she claps her hands once with an echoing crack in the frigid air. “Again, Alexander.”

Everyone else calls me Alex, but I guess it’s too friendly for Mrs. C. I don’t bother wiping off the seat of my pants as I haul myself up since they soaked through half an hour ago. I haven’t landed my quad Sal once today, and Mrs. C won’t let me continue my long program until I do.

Her last name is Cheremisinova, but no one can pronounce it properly outside Russia. Her first name, Elena, is easy to say, but she might seriously kill me if I ever dared call her that. They’d find pieces of me buried in the huge snow bank the Zamboni makes behind the arena.

As I skate back to my starting position, “M&M” whiz by hand in hand. Mylene Bouchard and Matt Savelli are the two-time Canadian pairs champions and definitely candidates to end up on a Wheaties box. I’m not sure if Canada even does Wheaties boxes, but M&M are perfect for it: wholesome, hardworking, and very nice.

In short, very Canadian. He’s twenty-four and she’s nineteen, and Mylene has some personality, at least. I suspect Matt might be made entirely of chiseled cardboard. He never seems to get mad, and if he sighs heavily or puts his hands on his hips, that’s his equivalent of throwing a hissy. I have to wonder if he even cares about winning.

As I take my position at center ice for the zillionth time, Matt and Mylene—pronounced “Mee-len” because she’s French Canadian—practice a pairs spin in the corner. They whirl in place, Matt holding her close as Mylene yanks her foot up behind her with both hands, right to the back of her head in a Biellmann.

A lot of skating moves are named after the people who first performed them: Axel, Salchow, Lutz, Ina Bauer. Others just have boring names like loop and flip. The pairs do death spirals, but they aren’t quite as dramatic as they sound.

Mylene is doing the heavy lifting in the spin, but then Matt does the literal lifting as they skate down the rink and he smoothly hoists her overhead, his T-shirt stretching across his muscles…

I apparently shouldn’t have skipped my morning jerk-off session, and I give my head a shake to refocus as the familiar strains of opera fill the air. After the intro of my program, I reel off a quad toe-triple toe combo, then emote through my choreography and circle the rink to build speed for the quad Sal. Up, up—


I bite back a string of curses, Mrs. C’s merciless gaze heavy as the music is silenced. My ass is numb and wet, and I just can’t get the damn jump around today. At this point, I’ll take a two-foot landing if it means staying on my feet.

I skate the long way around the rink, giving myself extra time to shake off the fall, a bruise on my hip smarting. Annie Frechette, one of the top Canadian women skaters, glides out of my path with a sympathetic smile. We all have time each day to play our music and do run-throughs, and the other skaters stay out of our way.

Kenny—really Kenjiro, but only his mother calls him that—Tanaka is at the other end of the rink, listening intently to Mrs. C’s assistant coach, Rick. Kenny’s been a Japanese national silver medalist twice and he trains in Toronto because skaters are rock stars over there and he can’t leave the house in Tokyo without being mobbed by hordes of teenaged girls.

His mother sits in the second of the few rows of bleachers lining one side of the rink, watching silently, as she does every single day without fail.

I don’t bother looking at Mrs. C as I take my spot again. Five more times the scenario repeats itself before I finally get the damn jump around and landed on one foot. There’s scattered applause from the other skaters, coaches, and dedicated parents in the stands, and I know everyone is just happy not to have to listen to the same minute and a half of music over and over again.

The music plays on, and I nail my triple Axel, a jump that has always come easily to me, thank every deity in existence. In the old days—2010, to be exact—you could still win without the quad, but not the Axel.

These days, we need a quad in the short program and at least two in the long—preferably three. Some guys are doing four or five or even trying for six, but the rest of their skating isn’t as polished. God help me if that changes.

Now we need the perfect combination of quads, footwork, spins, and artistry. Every moment of every program has to be jam-packed to rack up the points, and any day now someone will start doing a quad Axel or some crazy shit. The Axel is actually a revolution and a half since it takes off forward, and three and a half is the max anyone is doing.

For now.

Sailing into a flying camel, I catch air before landing on my right foot and spinning, my left leg extended straight behind me at waist level, upper body leaning forward, one arm reaching to the ceiling as the world rushes by in a blur. The music suddenly cuts out, and I jerk up, skidding to a stop.

“Free leg needs to be straighter. You’re lazy.”

I gnaw on my tongue. Spins are one of my best elements, and Mrs. C rarely criticizes them. This day sucks and it’s barely even light out yet. I accept the inevitable as she regards me with cold eyes before issuing the dreaded order.


# # #

On my way to the gym mid-morning, I stop by a wall of windows to peer at the swath of trees surrounding the country club housing the rink. Here in the north part of the city, I can almost imagine we’re miles out into the country. Off to the right, clusters of people in visors and slacks—mostly rich seniors—play on the Valley Club’s golf course, still a vibrant green in the warm late September.

Maybe I should go for a run on the trails instead of the treadmill, but it’s too easy to twist an ankle. No, I have to be smart and stay focused. No unnecessary risks. Definitely not in an Olympic season. I snap a picture of the landscape and Instagram it with a caption about how lucky I am to train in such a beautiful place. Hashtag blessed.

Carrying a pile of textbooks, Mylene approaches, her flip-flops slapping. She wears jeans and a T-shirt proclaiming: I’m not short—I’m just concentrated awesome. At five-one, she’s pretty damn short, but that’s one of the things that make her perfect for pairs. She smiles brightly, which is her default expression and one of the other qualities I imagine make her a great partner. Too bad Matt’s so bland.

Salut!” She stops and eyes my running shoes and workout shorts. “Going to the gym?”

No, I’m going skiing. Even though sarcasm tends to be the first thing to always pop into my head, I’m working on keeping it there, so I bite back the automatic snark. “Yep. What are you learning today?” Mylene’s taking a few classes at the University of Toronto, which frankly boggles my mind in an Olympic season.

“European history.” She doesn’t really say the letter h, so it sounds more like istory.

“So a bunch of white men building castles and oppressing people?”

She laughs. “Yep.”

If I wasn’t gay, I’d totally be into Mylene. Even though she’s tiny, she still has hips and boobs, and her wide smile is killer. The French accent is adorable, and her curly brown hair and green eyes gleam. Her skin is light brown since her mother’s white and her dad African-American. Well, African-Canadian, I guess, but so far I haven’t heard anyone in Canada use that term.

“I don’t know how you can worry about school when the Olympics are coming.”

She shrugs. “It’s nice not to think about skating all the time.”

“Not think about skating all the time? I’m not following.” I exaggerate the furrow of my brow, and she laughs on cue.

Then she gives me a shrewd look. “You know you really should take a break once in a while.”

“I’ll take a break when I win gold in Salzburg. You don’t understand what it’s like to actually be a contender. You’ll be, what? Top ten at most?” I run through the pairs in my head like a TiVo on fast-forward. “Yeah, I think the best you can hope for is seventh, and that’s assuming you land all your jumps and throws. So we’re not really on the same level, you know?”

Holding the textbooks to her chest, Mylene blinks, her warm smile vanished. “We’re aiming for the podium just like you. You’re not the only one here with Olympic dreams.”

Shit. “Oh, of course! I didn’t mean…” She stares and offers no help as I flounder. “You guys are great, don’t get me wrong!”

She laughs, short and sarcastic. “How would anyone ever get you wrong, Alex?” With that, she marches off.

Part of me wants to chase after her and apologize, but I have a workout schedule to keep. Besides, I’m not wrong, damn it. The only way she and Matt will make the podium is if a bunch of teams ahead of them implode. But that doesn’t mean they won’t make it in four more years—pairs are sometimes in their thirties by the time they build as a team and put it all together to win.

So not thinking about skating all the time is fine for her right now. But me? I’m going to be Olympic champion. I’m going to win. I have to win.

The gym—a bright, mirrored room containing several cardio machines, free weights, foam rollers, mats, TRX bands, and a weight machine circuit—is predictably deserted. Weekends are busy with club members, but on weekdays outside of summer we skaters have it mostly to ourselves. Our trainers come in a couple times a week, and I strictly follow my workout instructions.

Before hopping on a treadmill, I go to the mirrors and tug down the collar of my T-shirt. Running my fingers over the spot just below my right collarbone, I imagine the tattoo I’m going to have inked after I win gold in Salzburg. It’ll just be the Olympic rings in black—simple and totally cliché. But I’ve dreamt of this tattoo since I was a kid doing single Axels and I saw a Russian skater on TV with the rings inked on his bicep.

“You’re going to do it. You can do it. You can beat them all.” Staring at my reflection, I nod decisively, then turn to the treadmill and crank up the volume on my iPod.

I have a lot of hip-hop and dance playlists, but sometimes I listen to the songs I’ve skated to in the past. As I run up an imaginary hill, arms and legs pumping, I close my eyes and relive my long program from last season, one of my favorites of my career.

The music is so familiar now it’s practically been imprinted in my DNA. John Williams’s score from an old Spielberg movie called Empire of the Sun soars, driving my pace as I pound the treadmill.

Sweat beads on my forehead as the hill steepens, but I’m a million miles away in my head as the music swells and I perform a textbook triple Axel-single loop-triple Salchow sequence—in the second half of my program too, so ten percent bonus on the score.

In my memory, the crowd cheers so loudly the music is almost drowned out as I move into my footwork sequence. My feet fly across the ice as I weave my way down the rink, changing edges constantly, twisting one way and then the next, staying deep in my knees. My blades carve the ice effortlessly, body and mind in perfect unison, the endless training paying off.

This is the program I skated in Cincinnati seven months earlier when I won my first US national title, and I remember the surge of elation and roar of the crowd as I whirl into my final spin as if it were yesterday.

With a shout of triumph, adrenaline pumping, I thrust up my arms. In the moment of silence before the next song on my playlist, there’s applause that’s most definitely not in my head. I open my eyes to find Matt and Kenny standing by the weight bench, laughing and clapping.

My face flushes hot, sticky embarrassment sparking to anger as I yank out my earbuds, their laughter grating my nerves. I jab at the treadmill screen to stop my workout, then open my mouth to bark out a couple of insults so they’ll feel as awkward and embarrassed as I do.

Kenny approaches. “Are you big winner?”

Looking at his smile, I force my lungs to expand, pressing my lips together. Being mean to him is like kicking a puppy. Even though Kenny’s a medal contender and my competition, he’s so sweet I can’t resent him. Believe me, I’ve tried.

I manage a laugh. Okay, I must have looked ridiculous, cheering for myself on a treadmill. “Yeah, the big winner. That’s me.”

Kenny ducks in a little nod/bow and shakes my hand to mock congratulate me while Matt racks weights on a barbell, smiling. It still irks that Captain Cardboard is laughing at my expense—he doesn’t even know me—but I hop off the treadmill and ignore him and his stupidly perfect smile.

Matt and I have barely said more than a few words to each other in the couple months I’ve been training at the rink, but something about him rubs me the wrong way. He’s so calm and smiley, not to mention annoyingly good looking.

He’s several inches taller than me and more built. Yet he’s still long and lean, and not huge like some of the male pairs skaters. His dark brown hair is full and glossy, his thick eyebrows prominent over hazel eyes.

While we haven’t talked much, one day in the locker room I caught him frowning at me in obvious disapproval while another skater and I gossiped about the worst new costumes of the season. Sorry not sorry, but Tatiana Safina’s yellow, feathered monstrosity makes her look like Big Bird.

Matt’s clearly a total killjoy and goody two-shoes, as my Grandma would say. I’m not really clear on what that means, but I’m going with it. So as hot as he is, I’ll take a hard pass on Matt—not that I’m looking to hook up, or that he’d want me anyway. I suspect he’s gay, since there’s something about the way he doesn’t look at beautiful women around the rink, but I’m sure he’s banging dudes just as buff as he is.

Regardless, I jerk off to sleep most nights and again in the morning, and that’s enough until I win gold.

Kenny says to me, “Busy later?” He pauses, seemingly searching for a word. “Saturday?”

I only moved to Toronto this summer and know no one outside the rink, which is perfect. But Kenny’s so sweet he’s hard to say no to. I groan internally, bracing myself. “Just training. Um, what’s up?”

“My birthday. We go eat and dance. Salsa.”

An excuse automatically cues itself up on my tongue, but looking at his hopeful face, I can’t pull the trigger. “Sounds fun. I can’t stay out late, but I’ll come for a bit.”

With a grin, Kenny does his little nod/bow again. The truth is, he kind of worships me. I’m popular in Japan, and even though Kenny’s a huge star himself now, when we toured over there in early summer, he still stuck to me like glue.

With the language barrier it’s hard to really have deep and meaningful conversations, which makes Kenny the perfect friend. We can just smile and have fun once in a while, and that’s that.

Kenny lowers himself to the weight bench and picks up the barbell as Matt stands just behind his head, spotting. Kenny grunts as he lowers the weight, and I marvel that anyone that small and skinny can reel off quads. For him it seems so easy, and I choke down a dark spike of resentment.

Settling on the rowing machine, I put my earbuds back in and play a workout mix. I quickly find a rhythm that matches the thumping beat, pulling with my arms as I push with my legs, feeling it in my glutes.

When I found out Mrs. C was moving her coaching operation from New Jersey to Toronto, and that Kenny was leaving his coach in Japan for her, I wasn’t sure what to think. But training with him pushes me to be better, and it’s nice to have at least one person around who adores me, since Mrs. C sure doesn’t.

I yank on the rowing cable, regulating my breathing in time with my strokes. Admittedly, I’m not always the easiest person to get along with. I’ve had four coaches since I was fourteen, and I’m twenty now. My last coach was way too motherly and coddling, and the one before that didn’t push me enough either. For all my bitching about Mrs. C, I need her. Warm and fuzzy won’t get me to the top.

In the past year, I won my national title and got the bronze medal at Worlds in March. I’m now one of the men to beat at the Olympics, and I have Mrs. C and her pitiless gaze to thank.

She was the Russian pairs champion a million years ago with her husband, Boris, and they won gold at Worlds a bunch of times and twice at the Olympics. Boris died a couple of years ago, so I never met him. Mrs. C has never mentioned his name once, but it’s not like we sit around and braid each other’s hair and talk about our feelings.

Now if I can only master the quad Sal, I’ll be on my way to the gold medal. Tanner Nielsen can do the toe, the Sal, and posted videos of training the quad Lutz this summer. The smug bastard.

I jerk a towel over my sweaty face, yanking harder on the rowing cable as images of Tanner and his golden hair, sky blue eyes, and perfect, dazzling smile invade my head. He’s the classic all-American jock, and he wouldn’t know true artistry if it bit him in the nuts.

Across the room, Kenny bounds up from the weight bench and smiles at me, flexing his slight biceps as Matt takes his place. I give Kenny a leering wink, and he giggles. He’s not gay, but we joke sometimes that he’s my skating boyfriend. It’s not like he has any competition off the ice anyway.

A lot of people outside skating think we’re all gay, but the majority of the guys are actually straight, even with their sequins and ruffles. Some of us are gay or bi, but every job in the world has LGBT people in it. Skating isn’t really that different.

It even has crappy homophobia too, which I know all too well. I’m not super popular with the people in charge of the United States Figure Skating Federation. To be fair, part of the reason is because I have a tendency to say things to the media that are…controversial. I like to think of myself as honest, but as Mom puts it, I was born without a filter between my brain and mouth.

Sometimes honesty isn’t the best policy, especially now with social media, where one offhand comment gets tweeted and dissected to death.

But regardless of my flaws, homophobia plays a role too. American networks love a champion with a beautiful wife or girlfriend they can show in the stands. If a male skater is married with kids, the commentators usually mention it approximately a zillion times. Things are changing, but not soon enough for me. For the Federation, the sun beams out of Tanner Nielsen’s hetero, muscular ass, and they weren’t too happy when I won the title.

Rowing harder, I revel in the memories of beating Tanner by seven glorious points at Nationals. Sure, he missed two of his jumps and basically handed me the victory on a silver platter, but I still won that gold fair and square.

Tanner is the poster boy for American skating, and advertisers love his perfect hair, square jaw, and beautiful girlfriend—who still reigns as America’s sweetheart after winning gold at the last Olympics.

Lisa Ackles promptly retired at nineteen after her surprise Olympic victory and now spends her time touring with ice shows or doing her bit looking gorgeous and fresh-faced in the audience cheering on Tanner. Her hair is so blond it practically glows, and she’s the spokesperson for American Girl makeup and a whitening toothpaste.

On the other hand, I have plain brown eyes and dirty blond hair I highlight so it isn’t a totally mousy shade. Even though I’m in damn good shape, I don’t ripple with muscles like Tanner.

I glance across the gym to where Matt is pressing the barbell, sweat glistening on his skin like it’s been sprayed there. He and Tanner are definitely cut from the same buff, six-pack-abs cloth.

I’ve always been on the thinner side, although at least I don’t look as if a stiff wind will blow me away like Kenny. I used to have a snaggle tooth I had fixed with veneers that weren’t cheap. Still, my smile isn’t quite as straight and flawless as Tanner’s or Matt’s. At five-seven, I’m not technically short, but I avoid standing next to Tanner without my skates on.

As for a camera-ready girlfriend in the stands, I definitely don’t have one of those. While I don’t wear a rainbow flag pinned to my costume, I’ve never really hidden my sexuality. I knew by the time I was ten that I wanted to kiss boys, not girls.

Granted, I’ve still barely kissed anyone, which is a little embarrassing at my age. But it’s only because training has consumed my life, not because I’m confused.

When I gathered my courage in junior high and told my parents I was going on a date—my first and pretty much last so far—with an ice dancer named Kevin, they just gave me twenty bucks and told me to be home by ten.

There are a few out skaters, like Rudy Galindo, Matty Marcus, Eric Radford, and Adam Rippon. Brian Boitano, but he took decades. They’re all retired, and even though I know it would probably be okay to come out officially, I need every tenth of a point to beat Tanner, and you never know which judges might have prejudices. I’m not giving him any advantage.

So it’s not a secret I’m gay, but I’m not prepared to put myself out there publicly. The girls in Asia love me because I’m the cover boy for Non-Threatening American Male Monthly. I make a good amount of cash over there doing shows, and now that I’m US champion, I made a King Sub sandwich ad in Jersey. It’s not much, but I need it to pay the bills, and I have an agent to try and get me more deals.

I make prize money when I do well at competitions, but skating is hella expensive. There’s ice time, lessons with Mrs. C, costumes and choreographers, trainers and physio, ballet classes, my boots and blades, sharpening, traveling costs for competitions and bringing Mrs. C with me. Never mind rent, food, gas, etc., etc., etc.

The Federation helps with some expenses, but to pay off my parents’ double mortgage—which they took out for my skating—and buy myself another car when my beater Honda Civic throws in the towel, I need endorsements.

Ugh, just thinking about it makes me want to reach for the Tums.

After my daily half-hour stretching routine, I nod to Kenny and Captain Cardboard and make a pit stop in the locker room to change back into my skating clothes.

A ratty old T-shirt and black stretch pants are all I usually wear in practice, although at a competition, my practice gear is new and color-coordinated since the judges are watching. With some judges, every impression counts. It’s not really fair, but welcome to figure skating.

In the club’s lounge, one wall of the sizable room is glass overlooking the rink a story below. On the other side there’s a small café with a few round tables and chairs. I buy a can of Coke, knowing Mrs. C is on the rink. Her face would pinch like she’d just chomped a lemon if she spotted me, but I need the caffeine boost.

Flopping on a soft brown leather couch by the large window, I pull my lunch from my gym bag. As I eat my peanut butter sandwich on enriched white—I can’t stand whole wheat even if it’s better for me—I watch Mrs. C coaching a young Latvian pair, Oksana and Maxim.

Maxim’s twenty and little Oksana’s only sixteen and not even five feet tall yet. Blond Maxim’s a jokester, always with big smiles, but she’s serious and shy, often saying little and watching instead while she winds her dark ringlets around her finger.

They came from Latvia to train with Mrs. C, and they rent rooms in her large house in the northern suburbs of the city. They drive in every morning with her and go home with her every night, and I fully expect them to go batshit within six months. I can’t imagine living with Mrs. C. Her house is probably like a museum where you can’t touch anything or relax, and she gives you that death stare when you take the last banana.

Chantal Penault, M&M and Annie Frechette’s coach, joins Mrs. C and makes a few comments about Oksana and Maxim, motioning to them as they practice a lift. Chantal never got very far as a skater herself, but she’s had a ton of success as a coach. Middle-aged, blond, and plump, she has a warm smile and a sing-songy voice.

Chantal and Mrs. C share opinions about each other’s skaters and offer suggestions, but aside from supportive smiles and a few comments now and then, Chantal doesn’t have anything to do with my training.

Mylene isn’t back yet, but I watch as Matt returns to the rink, gliding around it with powerful strokes, black Lycra clinging to his long legs. He reels off a gorgeous triple Lutz-triple toe-double toe, which I grudgingly admit is impressive for a pairs skater since their side-by-side jumps tend to be easier.

Mylene appears, bending to remove her skate guards before gliding onto the ice. As Matt nears, he extends his hand, and she takes it without even looking. A strange jealousy pulses in me, low and prickly.

It’s stupid, since I’d be a terrible partner. First off, I’m not tall enough, but more importantly, I get so mad at myself when I make mistakes that I’d probably be a complete dick to the poor girl stuck with me.

Still, as I watch M&M circle the rink hand in hand, I can’t help but wish I had a big, strong man to be by my side and catch me when I fall. Obviously not Matt, since he’d probably put me to sleep being so pleasant and bland all day long, but…

Snorting, I take a big bite of my sandwich, the peanut butter sticking to the roof of my mouth. Sure, maybe I want a boyfriend sometimes, but I have zero time for that. Zilch, nada, nope. I have my hands full with my own bullshit, let alone someone else’s.

Soon I’ll be competing on the Grand Prix circuit in my two assigned events, trying to get enough points to make the final in December. The top six skaters or teams overall in each discipline square off at the final, and the momentum from a win there will be vital heading into the Olympics. I have to win. Have to prove I’m the best.

And Jesus, then I have to defend my title at Nationals in January. I can’t be beaten by Tanner. I cannot.

Washing down the sandwich with my forbidden Coke, I try to calm my racing heart. The nails on my left hand dig into my palm, leaving accusatory half-moons. On the ice, Matt and Mylene are still holding hands, stroking around the rink with easy smiles for each other.

I crumple the Coke can, and when I get on the ice, I put on my broad, beaming competition smile and pretend the judges are already watching.

Copyright © Keira Andrews

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