Published Dec. 30, 2001
Copyright by The Colorado Springs Gazette
Photos by Mark Reis
The quest for Olympic gold isn’t a solitary pursuit – it’s a dream that has to be shared
By Bill Vogrin
BENSENVILLE, Ill. – Jon Nuss laced up his skates and stepped onto the ice for the most important performance of his career. Gliding backward around the rink, he pivoted on his left toe and exploded into a triple jump.
The odds of landing it were against him. Triple jumps, in which the skater makes three revolutions in the air, are so difficult they separate top figure skaters from the rest. Before Jon took the ice, the audience at the 2002 U.S. Junior Figure Skating finals Dec. 15 had seen several skaters try triples and miss.
But Jon had nothing to lose. A disappointing performance the night before put a medal out of his reach. Yet, if he landed the triple cleanly – on his right skate, arms outstretched, left leg extended – the 14-year-old could still win something just as important in figure skating – a reputation as a jumper and a clutch performer.
But much more was riding on this jump than bragging rights.
Hanging with Jon during the split second he spun over the ice were the hopes of the two people who had given up so much to support his dream of some day reaching the Olympics.
Charlie and Jackie Nuss had nearly gone broke paying the skating bills for Jon, as well as for his sister and brother, who skate competitively. They drained their retirement account and asked strangers for money. Charlie lives more than 1,000 miles from his family so he can make the kind of salary needed to pay for coaches, ice time and equipment.
In February, the eyes of the world will be on the elite cadre of figure skaters who will compete for Olympic medals in Salt Lake City. What spectators won’t see are the emotional, physical and financial sacrifices skaters and their families endure, the kind of sacrifices made by the Nusses.
“A lot of people, they don’t understand what we’re doing at all,” Charlie said. “But the kids have a chance to go somewhere and do something I never had. I’m doing my part.”
In a moment Jon and his parents, who anxiously watched his attempt at a triple, would know whether all the sacrifice was worth it.
Immediately labeled the ‘star’
Jon looks like a figure skater – lean, strong, graceful – and he works hard at the sport. But he’s uncomfortable with what he calls “this figure skating world stuff.”
His bedroom has no posters of skating legends like Todd Eldredge or Scott Hamilton. Instead, he has a vast library of World Wrestling Federation videotapes and games and often imitates dangerous moves – smashing aluminum cookie sheets and folding chairs – in the backyard wrestling ring he helped build with his buddy and fellow skater Ryan Bradley.
Unlike many skaters who stay in their tights and tops between workouts, Jon often runs around the ice rink in jeans and practices in a white T-shirt. He grudgingly takes ballet classes, which are considered a key to performing the musical interpretations judges demand. He typically leaves the rink after his performance; most skaters stick around to see what the competition does.
“I like to go out and do it,” he said of skating. “But I don’t like to watch it.”
Yet he is a star pupil in the frosty school at the Colorado Springs World Arena Ice Hall.
Five days a week, year-round, he and other members of the Broadmoor Skating Club “study” the sport, which involves as much falling as skating.
His mother, Jackie, 49, usually can be found shivering in her winter coat, perched on the back of an arena seat, quietly watching. His brother, Travis, 22, often skates by, working on his ice dance moves. Jon spends much of the day side-by-side with sister Kristin, 11, as they practice their lifts, jumps and spins for pairs competition.
It’s been that way since the start of the family’s skating odyssey in 1994 when Nancy Kerrigan’s silver medal performance in the Olympics inspired Kristin, then 3, to take to the ice.
“I loved watching her skate and really wanted to take lessons,” Kristin said. So Jackie took her to the public rink in their hometown of Zion, Ill., north of Chicago.
After a brief try at hockey, Jon joined his sister in figure skating lessons and Travis followed about a year later.
All the kids had skating talent, but from the beginning, Jon has worn the star label that comes when coaches identify a child with “potential.”
‘In the door’ coaches
“Jon was ‘the skater,'” said Nancy Thiemann, Jon’s first ice skating coach in Zion.
“He was a very good jumper. A very good spinner. He wasn’t afraid to be graceful. And he was gutsy. He’d try anything. He had such great potential. I still believe he definitely could go to the Olympics.”
But talent isn’t the only thing a figure skater needs to advance through the ranks. It’s generally thought skaters benefit, or are downgraded, in part based on the stature of their coach. At the rink, it’s called the “in the door factor” or who is at their side when they take the ice.
No coach at the public rink in Zion carried “in the door” weight. So Charlie started looking for a place the family could move for training and where he could earn enough to support them.
So, in 1998, the Nusses sold their home in Zion and moved to Colorado Springs like many skating families before them.
The reason: the Broadmoor Skating Club, known throughout the skating world as an elite training center. In its 63-year history, the club has produced, among other legends, 1968 Olympic champion Peggy Fleming and brothers Hayes and Dick Jenkins, who skated to gold in earlier games. Like the Nusses, the Jenkins brothers and Fleming relocated to train with “in the door” coaches.
One such coach is Tom Zakrajsek, a top men’s skater in the 1980s who left St. Joseph, Mo., in 1996 to take a staff position with the club. Ultimately, three families followed him, including Jon’s pal Ryan Bradley, whose father, a doctor, sold his practice to make the move. Zakrajsek coaches Jon.
“My dad thinks I’m brainwashing people,” Zakrajsek said. “He can’t believe people move their families to work with me. Day in and day out, it doesn’t cross my mind the magnitude of that decision and the responsibility of that.”
But Charlie rejects any suggestions of brainwashing. To him, pursuing skating was a logical decision made by loving parents who have gifted children and want them to achieve their dreams.
“I never had dreams,” said Charlie, who turned 48 today. “Growing up, I knew about the Olympics. But I never even would have dreamed about it. That was something other kids did. Well, my kids have a chance to go somewhere and do something I never had.”
“I do it for the look on their faces when they compete and do well,” Charlie said later.
“Once they started down the road and were doing so well, I didn’t want to tell them no.”
A human demolition derby
There are probably times when Jon wishes his dad had said no.
He’s at the World Arena Ice Hall five days a week from 8 to 11 every morning and again from 1 to 6 every afternoon – and sometimes Saturdays. Jon and Kristin are home-schooled, often studying in the family van in the parking lot between practices.
Figure skating is a sport of trial and error – and the errors can hurt. There aren’t many ways to land painlessly on ice.
Skaters must endure long days of back pain, headaches, sprains, cuts, even broken bones.
Consider Kristin, who dislocated her shoulder at Thanksgiving, then re-injured it the day before the Junior Nationals. An ambulance whisked her to a hospital emergency room – an ugly lump over her right shoulder blade obvious through her skating costume. Still, she insisted on skating her pairs routine with Jon the next day, only to fall repeatedly and dislocate her shoulder again. She skated off in tears, holding her arm at her side.
And there has been plenty of pain for Jon, who was limping noticeably the day in November when he first landed a triple toe loop – one of five jumps he must master – because he had crashed so hard trying.
But that’s what practice is about. It takes 300 to 500 attempts before the average figure skater learns a jump and another 200 to 300 attempts to master it. Practice sessions resemble a human demolition derby – skaters jumping, falling, jumping again, falling again.
Just a slight deviation in technique caused by a growth spurt, mental distraction or indigestion can cause a skater’s jumps to “disappear” for weeks until the mystery is solved.
All of that – the pain, the practice, the frustration – can be demoralizing and break a skater’s spirit.
Jon thought about quitting last December when he fell at the nationals in Denver and smacked his head. Although he popped up and finished his routine, dark thoughts clouded his mind.
“I didn’t tell anyone, but I wanted to quit,” Jon said. “I was really discouraged.”
It wasn’t the first time.
“Jon wanted to quit the first week we got here,” in 1998, his mom said. “It was a Monday, and Jon walked off the ice and said he was quitting. He was very adamant. It wasn’t fun anymore.”
Jackie shakes her head and laughs nervously at the memory.
“It was scary, especially because he’s the one we moved here for the most.”
The move proved to be more than she and Charlie ever expected.
Counting the missed moments
Skating parents are a dedicated lot, watching practices for hours on end, spending thousands of dollars on lessons, inspiring and pushing their kids to excel. Some parents live apart for the sake of the kids’ skating.
When the family pulled up roots, Charlie stayed behind. He’s a nuclear safety expert and recently had taken a job at a power plant in Michigan that paid well enough to support the skating, barely.
It costs upward of $5,000 a month – or $60,000 a year – to keep Jon, Kristin and Travis on skates.
Jon, for example, gets a 20-minute lesson each day from Zakrajsek, at a rate of $75 an hour. He also takes daily lessons from specialists in jumps, spinning, pairs and ballet. His parents must pay for the ice time, at $6.25 per 45 minutes. It translates to more than $500 a week just for Jon.
Then there are the skates – about $1,000 a pair – and costumes that can run into the thousands of dollars. The Nusses pay their own way to competitions and bring along their coaches, too.
Last December, Charlie got laid off from his job in Michigan. He moved to the Springs and looked for work near home.
After a few months, he took a job at Rocky Flats, the former nuclear weapons plant northwest of Denver.
But he wasn’t making enough to cover the bills. So he started dipping into retirement funds and investments.
“We spent our life’s savings,” Charlie said. “It’s all gone. We drained it. I had no choice.”
Things were so bad, Charlie sent a desperate e-mail to hundreds of Springs-area people, including the news media, seeking sponsors for his kids or simply donations.
“Without sponsors, this week will likely be their last week of skating,” Charlie wrote in an e-mail dated June 1. “My income no longer covers basic living expenses and the skating expenses and I have depleted my reserves, including stocks and retirement funds.”
No sponsors stepped forward. Luckily, Charlie got rehired at the nuclear power plan in Michigan, where he rents a room in a house that’s being renovated. He calls regularly and tries to attend the kids’ competitions, like the recent one in Chicago.
But there are many missed moments.
He missed his 30th wedding anniversary Nov. 20, then Thanksgiving two days later, Kristin’s 11th birthday three days after that and Travis’ birthday Dec. 14.
“That’s the thing that really bugs me,” Charlie said.
“Not being able to be with my family. I never thought it would get like this. I never thought I’d leave my family. But I had to get a job that paid for skating.”
It bugs Jon and the others, too.
“I miss my dad,” Jon said. “I talk to him about every other day. If I wasn’t skating, we’d still be living with my dad. We wouldn’t have had to move from Chicago. We’d only be paying for one house and we’d have really big TVs and lots of expensive stuff. Great stuff.”
Climbing a steep ladder
Charlie and Jackie – and most of other skating parents – talk about letting their children pursue their dreams, of giving them a wholesome environment they believe is unavailable in public schools and other motives for skating.
The main thing that drives Jon and most of the other Broadmoor skaters is Olympic gold.
“I definitely want to go to the Olympics, probably 2010, although I’m secretly shooting for 2006,” Jon said. “That’s why I’m doing this.”
But to reach the Olympics, much less win gold, Jon will have to overcome long odds.
It’s extremely rare a Tara Lipinski comes along at 15 and rockets through the skating world to win the Olympics, as she did in 1998. More common is the experience of a Michelle Kwan, 21, or Todd Eldredge, 30, who labor for years in hopes of winning gold.
Jon will have to emerge from a pack of about 250 boys nationwide who share his aspirations. That means climbing the ranks of the U.S. Figure Skating Association, which has two divisions, senior and junior. Olympic hopefuls must reach the top of the senior division, then medal at the national championships in an Olympic year to win one of just three spots on the team.
Jon is still in the junior division and hopes to crack into novice, the lowest level of the senior division, this year.
So there’s a long climb ahead of him if he stays in the sport. If his family can continue to afford it. If he avoids a serious injury. If his maturing body doesn’t betray him. If he can maintain his desire through years of practice.
Most skaters don’t make it. Most give up and get on with their lives. Some go into coaching. Some turn professional and take the Disney on Ice route.
The huge odds, long, painful hours of practice, financial strains and personal sacrifices and separations lead critics to second-guess the skating families’ choices and decisions.
“I realize a lot of people probably don’t understand why we do this,” Jackie said. “But this is what you have to do if your kids skate. It’s not like high school football where there’s a team at every school and in every town.”
Sports psychologists debate the wisdom of parents putting so much emphasis on a child’s athletic success. They say parents must walk a fine line between nurturing talent and imposing their own dreams on their children.
“We know from studying elite athletes that any elite athlete gets there due to parental support … the sacrifice of time and money,” said Dan Gould of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.
“But we’re seeing parents who want a kid to achieve so bad they’ll do everything, make big investments in them. And it’s hard to stop. They get trapped in a lifestyle.”
Even skating families can be critical. Their comments reveal a major schism in the skating community – those like Charlie and Jackie Nuss who relocate and home-school their children vs. those who insist their family remain intact and their children attend school.
“This is not a normal lifestyle,” said Terry Vise, who spends hours every day watching her daughters, Brittany, 14, and Tiffany, 15, practice their skating. “Let’s face it. There’s a lot more to life than skating.”
She is especially critical of those who give up their family lives to skate.
“I would never separate from my husband for skating,” she said. “I’d never follow a coach somewhere.”
Even the Nusses second-guess themselves.
“To be honest, we didn’t know we were getting into all this,” Jackie said. “It just kind of grows so quickly. It’s very time-consuming and very expensive. I wouldn’t recommend anyone start skating.”
Charlie agrees, even after reeling off the benefits of skating.
“It’s been rough,” he said.
“I never thought it would get like this. I never thought I’d leave my family. If I’d known it, I might not have gotten into it.”
Spinning, spinning, spinning
As he spun through the 51-degree air at the Edge Ice Arena in Bensenville, Jon Nuss wasn’t thinking about the Olympics or the money his family has spent on him or the hours of practice.
His mind was on holding his arms tucked in, turning three times in the blink of an eye and remaining upright when he landed so he could go into his next jump.
“I just did it,” Jon said, matter-of-factly recalling the moment he landed. “Just like in practice.”
In the stands, Jackie and Charlie erupted in applause as he cleanly landed the triple. Many of the 300 or so spectators gasped.
And it was all they talked about immediately afterward.
It didn’t matter Jon stumbled on an easy move or fell on an easier jump. He landed the triple, as well as a few difficult double axel combinations.
He had the buzz.
And the judges rewarded him, vaulting him from 12th to seventh in the standings and restoring everyone’s faith in Jon’s talent. The other two skaters who landed triples that night were similarly rewarded.
“People walking out of the arena tonight are going to remember the three skaters who medaled and the three who landed triples,” said Nancy Thiemann, Jon’s first coach, who came to the nationals to watch her former student.
“They get all the glory. The triple made him stand out. People will remember him.”
The jump salvaged an otherwise disappointing week for the Nusses.
“That one jump made the whole trip worthwhile,” Jackie said.
“I’m just so happy.”
More importantly, it restored Jon’s confidence.
“It makes me want to keep skating.”