The ice rink glistens under the lights at the Skating Club of Boston as the sound of blades gliding over the frozen stage announce the arrival of local figure skating sensation Yasmin Siraj. A senior at Brookline High School, Siraj has traveled the world competing in numerous championships and exhibition events. But today, she is prepping for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships that will be held this year at Boston’s TD Garden (Jan. 9-12).
Her coaches, Peter Johansson and Mark Mitchell, look on as Siraj readies her starting pose and waits patiently for her program music to commence. Practice makes perfect, and years of practice will hopefully pay off for Siraj with a trip to Sochi, Russia, for the 2014 Winter Olympics and a chance to medal. As the music plays in the background, onlookers are captivated by Siraj’s visual display of artistry and athleticism, not to mention her gleaming smile at the end of the performance.
In an exclusive Boston Parents Paper interview, Siraj’s gives us an inside look into her world of skating, and what it means to be back in Boston with a chance to make her Olympic dream come true.
What first piqued your interest in ice skating?
I started skating not because I saw the Olympics on TV; I started skating because I saw my sister skating. I was almost 3. And it looked like so much fun. Since then I’ve loved the free feeling that I get when I’m skating. I feel like I can fly through the air. And just how there is endless opportunity with skating and that you can always improve.
How intense is your training schedule?
I’m on the ice for three hours Monday through Friday. I work off the ice with one of my personal trainers for an hour each day. And for an additional hour, I have recovery time. I sit wearing these special pants; air is pumped through them and washes out the toxins that build up after my workout. Then I go through physical therapy and do whatever I need to do to get my body back in shape for the next day. I have two sessions each day warming up my muscles.
My coaches feel strongly that the way to feel comfortable through competition is to just repeat our programs time after time. So we do a full run-through of the program each hour of the session. And we run through parts, fix technique and learn new skills.
What’s the most challenging aspect of figure skating?
You only have four minutes to show everything you’ve worked for year after year, day after day, hour after hour. Trips to the rinks, doctors appointments, injury after injury. You only have four minutes to show everything you’ve learned. I wish it was longer; I wish you had more time.
What is the most rewarding?
I think it’s during those great skates and you’re one with your body, you’re one with your mind and you’re one with the crowd. And you just hear the ribbing of your edges. Everything just clicks into place, and I think that’s the most rewarding part.
What goes through your mind the minutes before you’re set to perform?
In skating you have a six-minute warm-up and then you get off the ice and wait for the other skaters to do their program. When I’m in the back wing I just like to keep myself distracted because I’m such an analytic thinker. I like to evaluate everything I’ve done, which is not a good thing with skating because you have to let go and be in the moment. I like to play games on my iPod – my favorite is backgammon – which just helps distract me. I like to listen to songs that make me feel like I’m soaring; make me feel free and happy and jumpy. And then when I get on the ice again I’m just trying to take some deep breaths and contain myself. I go to my coaches for those last words of encouragement and they say “have fun.” I get into my starting pose, take a deep breath and get back to the feel of practice because once that music starts it’s like practice.
What should one consider before taking lessons?
If you want to become an ice skater you have to be willing to fall. You have to be willing to fall every day, and to almost fall more than you land. And to keep getting up because in skating that’s the only way you learn. At one point I wore three butt pads to keep myself injury-free as I was learning new elements.
You have to be willing to spend hours walking around with knives on the bottom of your feet, trying to do the same jump as basketball players, while spinning as fast as a spinning top, while looking as elegant as a ballerina. You have to be able to juggle everything and you have to make sure that you love it, because if you don’t love it, you’re not going to get anywhere in skating because it shows.
You’re also a competitive pianist. When do you find time?
It’s been really hard to fit it in. I was practicing about 10 p.m. to midnight. And this summer when I was asked by the United States Olympic Committee to register for the Olympics as a possible contender, I had to make some hard decisions for the next six months and decided to put my piano on pause so I could put more time to my training. But I will get back to it once this season finishes. It’s a nice way to unwind after a busy day. Although it takes a lot of focus, it’s really nice because when everyone is asleep in the house, it’s just you in this small room with this beautiful piano and you make music. It just calms me down after a busy day.
Do you feel being a musician gives you an edge over your competitors when it comes to relating to the music?
Many people have told me that it comes through in my skating, my musical background. Actually one year I competed in piano with the same music I skated to. And that was really interesting because I was able to take the same piece and show my emotions and feel the music with my body in one way and with my fingers in another way.
If you weren’t ice skating…
Years ago I did Boston Ballet with the same intensity as I now do figure skating. So if I wasn’t skating I would probably be doing ballet. I’ve also been wanting to do an intensive gymnastics class, so maybe gymnastics, but definitely something with my body.
What does it mean to you to be performing in Boston for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships?
I’ve dreamed of skating in Boston for so many years, and when we found out that Boston was awarded the Olympic qualifying event, it was just a dream come true. To have the support of all my family and friends, to be skating in the TD Garden, and for it to be such an important and such a great competition, there are no words to describe how grateful I am to be competing in Boston. n
Cheryl Crosby is senior editor of Boston Parents Paper.
Figure skaters from the Skating Club of Hingham asked:
What’s your favorite skating costume?
– Anna R., age 6, Scituate
I think it has to be my junior short program. This gorgeous burnt-orange dress. It was inspired by Slumdog Millionaire, the music was from that movie, and I loved all the sparkles on it.
At what age did you first land an axel? And how long did you work on it before you landed it?
– Grace S., age 6, Cohasset
I think when I was 7 and I’ve been skating since a week before I was 3. That long. It didn’t really matter to me when I got my jumps. I don’t really remember because it was more important that I was having fun and learning new things.
What was harder to learn, a double axel or your first triple jump?
– Jada C., age 12, Brockton
I think a double axel is harder because it has the same feel as a triple jump. It’s actually a little trick but double axel, triple toe and triple salchow all rotate the same amount of revolutions even though two are called a triple and one is called a double. Also it’s one of the most awkward jumps because you’re stepping forward and asked to find a way to turn from one way jumping forward. That’s why a triple axel is so hard, it’s basically a quad.
What is your favorite music to skate to?
– Lise T., age 8, Cohasset
That’s a hard one. Well for competitive music I love the music from [the movie] Seven Years in Tibet. I’ve had it for a year but it has so many nuances in it that it still feels new. And then for an exhibition program, it was to Beyoncé’s “I Was Here,” and it was very soulful and the echoes of the music really went well with the skating rink. It just feels likes this endless space.
How much do you train off the ice?
– Sydnie L., age 12, Scituate
One hour off the ice Monday through Friday. And then in addition I do physical therapy. You really need to pay attention to your body because up until a year and a half ago, I was skating just as much as the kids five levels below me because my body wasn’t ready to do that level of training. I was very efficient with my training so that’s how I got to the level I was with the same amount of training time.