Stressed, Stretched and Skating on Thin Ice

In Japan on Saturday, millions watched Kimmie Meissner spin, twirl and jump through the World Figure Skating Championships, oohing, ahhing and gasping on cue.

But no one saw the weight of the world resting on the 17-year-old's shoulders.

While Meissner is all smiles in the spotlight, she's part of a sport that is fraught with stress, especially for women. Female figure skaters can flit across the ice as if weightless, but some say they face more pressures than any other class of athlete.

Christine Brennan, a USA Today sports columnist who has covered professional figure skating for years and wrote "Inside Edge," a 1997 book about the hidden side of skating, believes that the nature of the sport sets young women up for stress. Pounding the ice day after day, for hours at a time, takes a toll on athletes' petite frames.

"Take Tara Lipinski. We love the visual of Tara winning the Olympic gold medal in 1998, she was 15, leaping for joy," Brennan said. "We don't want to know that before she turned 20 she had the hip surgery of a 75-year-old woman and can no longer skate."

Striving to hang onto lithe pre-pubescent bodies is also no small feat.

"Puberty tends to be the enemy in women's figure skating," Brennan said. "When the hips and thighs come, the triple jumps go."

13 Going on 30

Caroline Silby once dreamt of Olympic glory. But the pressure of the sport, combined with her failure to make the Olympic team in 1984, forced her to curb her career.

"Adjusting to doing jumps when you have hips and breasts is a whole different kind of adjustment than male athletes have. Not to mention the whole hormonal changes that go along with that," she said. "It was like, enough already. And many athletes, as certainly I did, get to a point where you just don't want to do it anymore."

Silby went on to become a sports psychologist, a specialist essential for figure skaters who want to excel on the ice while staying sane. She's had parents ask her to work with athletes as young as seven-years-old.

"They focus on a lot of things, what their parents are thinking, what their coaches are thinking, who they're going to compete against, what their score is going to be -- all these external things that aren't under their control," she said about her figure skating clients, some of whom have made it to the Olympics. "You have to say, we can't make those things disappear but there are certain qualities of yourself that you can control."

Silby pointed out that teenage figure skaters are tasked with the ability to handle slip ups and setbacks with smiles and spirit -- qualities most adults can't master.

"These kids on a pretty regular basis have to learn how to manage their frustration," she said. "They have to become very resilient people at very young ages."

Shelling Out for Sequins and Skates

There's also the financial burden of figure skating. Coaches, rink time and skimpy sequined dresses don't come cheap. Many families relocate or take up two residences to ensure their budding Olympian gets the best training.

"If you're growing up in an Iowa cornfield, you can play basketball. You can play for your high school," Brennan said. "But figure skating, the odds are your family's going to be moving."

For those trying to go pro, costs can add up to $75,000 a year. Families of some of the world's most famous skaters struggled before their daughters rose through the ranks.

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