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Illustration by Erick M. Ramos

When the world fell into a pandemic coma, I found myself in a mental slump. To get out of the house, I decided to teach myself how to skate again even though it had been more than 30 years since I had been on the ice. Little did I know, I would also be teaching myself how to lace up for the challenges I’d soon face in life, too.

I dug out my old figure skates. Rusty blades and soiled leather frowned back at me. So I ordered a new pair of skates and found a place to get them sharpened.

I assumed it would be easy to pick up from where I had left off. In Toronto, during the pandemic, we had to reserve ice time. Armed and ready, I was awake before the online reservation system opened to secure spots at my neighbourhood rink. I even convinced my millennial son to join me for my first go.

My daughter, a nurse, reminded me not to get injured, “the last thing you want is to be hospitalized with staffing shortages and long waiting times.” My husband told me I was “mad” and could get a concussion. “You are too old to take chances and risk getting hurt!”

He had a point. Recently, I had nursed myself back to health from a frozen shoulder injury and was secretly terrified of going back on another road trip of physio and painkillers. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea after all.

Taking this into consideration, I ordered knee pads, a bum pad, elbow pads, wrist guards and a helmet.

And so, looking like a nonsensical skating superhero, I laced up my new skates and clomped my way to the edge of the rink.

Gripped with fear, I estimated there was a five-centimetre drop down from the walking ledge to the ice trail and nothing nearby to grab onto in order to keep my balance. My son was already circling around but skated over to offer his arm for support.

Shakily, I climbed down, one skate at a time and wobbled when both feet landed on the ice.

“Can I hang onto you for the first few minutes?” I asked my son nervously. I took baby steps but I had forgotten how to glide. Tempted to see how far I could go, I let go of my son’s arm.

“You look like the Tin Man. Try bending your knees,” he suggested.

“I’m too afraid of falling!”

“Maybe you could get me one of those?” I asked, pointing to the plastic skating aids that preschoolers around me were holding onto as they confidently sped by me.

I greedily grabbed the pusher my son found and then slumped over the handle. It was not adult-sized, nor was it helping. I let go of it and went back to doing the penguin walk.

Painstakingly, I began to do slow laps, shuffling along with my skates and staying close to the rink boards.

“Try to bend like Pokey or Gumby. You are moving like a popsicle stick. Loosen up,” suggested my son.

I laughed but poise evaded me.

I avoided falling on my first attempt but as I walked home silently with my son, I wondered whether I should quit. Fear had held me back and I hadn’t given it my all.

“You used to skate so well, what happened?” asked my son.

“Life got in the way,” I mumbled.

But I did not cancel my future reserved ice times. I began to go to the rink three to four times a week. I went when the rink was not too busy.

I began to get better balance and ventured further away from the boards. I had my share of tumbles but I would crawl back to the side of the rink and I pulled myself up by holding onto the ledges.

After a while, I noticed my jeans started feeling looser and my butt was getting tighter. And then I didn’t care if I looked hapless because I no longer felt hopeless.

The following winter, I signed up for adult learn-to-skate lessons at an indoor arena.

Proudly, I showed off my new skills. While the others toddled, I spun around and practised quick starts and stops on the newly Zambonied ice.

Midway through the pandemic, I adopted a rescue mutt whose owner died of COVID. As I walked this 70-pound canine four times a day in addition to my skating regime, my new companion Kitso became my personal trainer, too.

I continued to skate through all the latest variants COVID variants. And as I walked Kitso, he helped me to develop the strength to lift my own body weight whenever I fell on the ice without having to lean on something. My fitness and mental health improved so much that when bad news came, I could cope with it better.

Last summer, after skipping my yearly routine mammogram, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. As I waited for pathology results and a surgery date, my elderly mother died suddenly. My life felt like an out-of-control ball in a pinball machine and my resilience and courage was put to the test.

Skating has helped me get through the grieving and healing process.

Lacing up for what’s ahead and gliding on each glistening, freshly Zambonied sheet of ice has made me brave.

These days, when I meet adult skater newbies who ask me for advice I know just what to tell them. Don’t look down: You can lose control of your balance and direction. Instead, remember to keep your head up and look straight ahead in the direction you want to go.

Maija Clarke lives in Toronto.