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Photos by Katharine Schroeder
Photos by Katharine Schroeder

The crowd roars as I take the ice. Tiny American flags billow in frenzied hands. A chant of “DAN-IELLE, DAN-IELLE” ripples through the stands like a sound wave. It’s the moment I have been waiting for. 

The lights dim, the crowd hushes, the music starts. Instinctively, just as I’d practiced a thousand times, I push off my left blade and move gracefully across the ice. I twirl. Jump. Spin. I land my first triple axel with ease and know in that instant that I am headed for Olympic gol–

“Um, Danielle? Ready to start your lesson?”

Right. My lesson. In Greenport. Halfway around the world from Sochi.

(5,223 miles away, to be exact.)

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Olympic dreams aside – for the moment – I concentrate on my half-hour ice skating lesson with 15-year-old Danny Nugent. Danny, a Mattituck native who has been skating since he was 6, is enthusiastic about his part-time instructor job at the Mitchell Park rink. He’s patient and encouraging, calm yet energetic — all the things a fledgling skater needs in a teacher. And when he’s not preparing future Olympians with his lessons or supervising skaters’ safety on the ice, he’s shuttling to The Rinx in Hauppauge to play on a high school hockey team.

On this particular afternoon, we start off with the basics — starting. Danny shows me how to stand with my feet in a V position and push off with one skate to move forward. Once that’s mastered, it’s time to learn how to turn. Danny demonstrates the maneuver, effortlessly sliding his left skate directly in front of his right, leaning on the inside edge of his blades and guiding his body to the left.

“That’s all well and good, Dan,” I feel like saying, “But I’ve only got two days to prepare for the Olympics. Surely we can start on the jumps now? The sit spin, the death spiral?”

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But we’re not quite there yet. I dutifully execute the move, which resembles more of a gradual re-direction than a quick, deliberate turn, and face my instructor with pride. Flapping arms and all, he is happy with my progress.

Next trick: stopping. I already have this one down, I tell Danny – I just fly straight at the boards until they get in my way and prevent me from moving any further. Done. I’m stopped.

It turns out this is not how the pros do it.

Danny performs a rather advanced-looking stop which involves pivoting at the hips and pushing his blades away from his body. When I try, I nearly fall.

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No problem, my instructor insists. We work on a simpler version of the move until I become comfortable with it, then spend the rest of the lesson putting it all together. Starting, turning, stopping, plus a pinch of backwards and one-legged skating thrown in for good measure: with a repertoire like this, I can practically taste my gold medal now. As we part ways, I make a mental note to thank Danny when Bob Costas interviews me.

To a beginner, skating can be the perfect metaphor for life. It manages to be beautiful and scary all at the same time. At its best, skating is poetry in motion; at its worst,  it’s frustrating stumbles and falls. There are moments when nothing you do makes sense or feels right; you’re awkward and clumsy and fumbling in the name of progress. And then, magically, there are other moments of pure grace, when everything clicks and you’re in a groove, gliding along smoothly like you’ve done it all your life.

And if you listen closely enough, you’ll hear that crowd chanting your name, too.

For more information about skating lessons at Mitchell Park, call 631-477-2200 ext. 2. Half-hour instruction, with Danny or any of his friendly colleagues, is $20 per person.

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