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Drugs

Figure Skating Ruins Lives

To many Americans, figure skaters are real-life Disney princesses, but many skaters' lives are filled with financial failure, abusive parents, and drug issues.

by Mitchell Sunderland
Feb 21 2014, 3:30pm

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Last night, during the Olympics' figure-skating event, Cosmopolitan asked readers to tweet pictures from their childhood skating careers. Girls posted pictures of kids in ballet tutus and top hats, with captions like, “My Britney Spears 'Stronger' routine from 2001 #CosmOlympics.”  The tweets presented figure skaters as real-life Disney princesses, but most figure skaters have more in common with Lindsay Lohan than Princess Anna from Frozen.

Although the media tend to present Tonya Harding as the sport’s only bad girl, People magazine is filled with stories about tragic figure skaters' battles with addiction, depression, and financial issues. Authorities arrested Michelle Kwan’s archrival Nicole Bobek for her involvement in a meth ring in 2009, Oksana Baiul drunkenly crashed her car into a tree three years after she won the Olympic gold medal, and icon Dorothy Hamill entered a deep depression when she nearly went bankrupt in the 90s after purchasing the Ice Capades ice-skating tour.

Many skaters have battled addiction while touring professionally. Tai Babilonia, of the famed “Tai and Randy” skating duo, told Life After 50 that she turned to drinking while touring. As her drinking increased, she became erratic and unpredictable. In 1988, she abruptly dropped out of a tour she was headlining. Later that year, she overdosed on sleeping pills and alcohol. Miraculously, she survived, but not all skaters have been as lucky as Tai. According to the Los Angeles Times, after the svelte world medalist Christopher Bowman finished touring, he battled addiction and weight issues, eventually ballooning to 300 pounds. Although he made decent money touring, he struggled to find work after he quit skating, and he eventually ran through his entire life savings. At age 40, he was found dead in a Budget Inn hotel room in West Los Angeles. 

Life after skating is just as grim for athletes who never make it to the Olympics. Figure skating lacks the stigmas of beauty pageants and child acting, but the sport fosters mothers as vicious as dance moms and leaves skaters with little financial opportunities when their ice years end. Only a few skaters compete at the Olympics, but hundreds quit high school to train, making their only professional options after skating—if they fail to win the gold medals that can lead to endorsement deals—coaching, judging, and Disney on Ice.

Annika Danielson figure-skating during her teen years

Nobody knows this better than failed figure skater Annika Danielson. As a successful young skater, Annika looked like a possible Olympic candidate. Her parents noticed her talent and sacrificed thousands of dollars so Annika could leave their native Michigan to practice with legendary coach Gene Heffron in Rockford, Illinois. Yet when Annika hit puberty, grew curves, and was no longer fit to skate, she was forced to quit and return home, where she became depressed, started drinking, and ended up in rehab.

It's been six years now since Annika hung up her skates, and during that time she has lived in limbo—attempting college, bouncing around jobs, and partying in Miami. “Unfortunately, there is nothing I can truly see myself wanting to do for the rest of my life,” Annika told me. “I’ve done modeling; I’ve been a personal assistant for a club owner out here; I've dated rich guys—just done different things. I’ve dabbled in everything. At the end of the day, the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do best [was skate].”

Annika’s only hope is the same thing that ruined her figure-skating career—her big butt. Last year, after men started calling her and her friends “whootys” (white girls with big booties), Annika and her girlfriends formed a video-vixen-like group to profit off their rear ends. Last week, as Gracie Gold competed in Sochi and attempted to avoid becoming another skater without a future, I sat down with Annika to discuss abusive figure-skating moms, depression, and how she hopes her big booty can save her life.

Since Annika quit skating, she has found solace in Florida's party scene. 

VICE: How did you get involved with skating?
Annika Danielson: It was back when Katarina Witt and Michelle Kwan first came out. I remember watching them skate, and I just fell in love with them. I wanted to do it so much, so my parents brought me to the local ice rink, and I started taking small, little classes, and I loved it. I excelled really fast, but I am from a small community, so they realized I would have to commute every day, and they wanted me to train with better coaches. They sent me to go live with a family down in Rockford, Illinois, so I could train all day, every day, with one of the best coaches in the world, Gene Heffron.

How expensive were the coaches and the traveling?
Choreography for my programs, when I needed a choreographer, was like $75 or $80 every 15 minutes. My parents sacrificed a ton.

Because your parents sacrificed so much, did you feel guilty when you lost competitions?
Looking back, I feel a lot worse about things than I did at the time. As great an experience as it was, I don’t think the money ever came back to them or to me.

When did you quit skating?
I was about 20. By the time I was 16, things were not really going as needed, so I moved back home with my parents and started training at the local rink. My parents would buy [skating time] for me in the morning, when it was cheaper—I think it was a couple hundred dollars—so I could train by myself. I graduated high school early because I was going so hard, and I transferred to college early, and I moved down to Chicago. I thought I’d give it one more chance, but your body peaks by the time you’re 14. You hit a growth spurt, and it gets harder. It’s a sport for young, skinny girls.

When girls’ bodies started to change, would they go to radical measures to stay thin?
I remember when I was down skating in Rockford with Gene, one of the girls, who was about a year older than me, had really, really big breasts. She had D's, and at that age, her mom took her and got them completely removed because it’s such a problem [to have big breasts when you’re figure-skating]. She never went on to the Olympics. I guess it was for nothing, but that was her dream, and you have to sacrifice [for what] you want.

Do you think this pressure is what has led many skaters to drink and become depressed?
The pressure is crazy. The people who I was living with in Rockford had two little girls who also trained a lot. They were a lot younger than me, and they were really good for their age, and their mom was crazy. [Those girls] didn’t want to do it. I was there because I wanted to, but they didn't want to do it. They were in third grade. What third grader wants to go to the rink at 5 AM?

Do you keep up with anyone you figure-skated with as a child?
I don’t. I know one of the boys I figure skated with when I was younger is doing Disney on Ice, and he absolutely hates it. It’s such a competitive world—you’re kind of like frenemies. You can’t get too close. Girls would put coins in your skates. No one wants you to succeed except your coach.

How did this affect you?
When I was going into my senior year of high school, my parents actually put me in an alcohol rehabilitation program. I showed up to school drunk and had some problems with that. I live in the party world now.  It’s fun—it prevents you from having to figure out what you have to do for the rest of your life.

How do you plan to profit off partying?
All my friends, for some reason, are very pretty girls with big butts. So whooty is [a term for] a white girl with a big booty, so a couple of my other girlfriends and me, when we go out we would joke, like, “Oh, hey, whooty! How are you, whooty?”  At the clubs, they’d start shouting, “Whooty!” at us in the microphone, and it took off. Now we’re in the branding process trying to get the name out.

Do you think your life would have turned out differently if you had succeeded as a skater?
Skating doesn’t set you up for the rest of your life even if you do end up in the Olympics. I see [gold medalist] Tara Lipinski at parties out here. I was in love with her [as a kid], and now I see her out in Los Angeles partying, and she’s a train wreck now. You peak so young, and it leaves you with nothing unless you want to be a coach. I looked into Disney on Ice, but you get paid $30,000 a year, and that’s like not even what you spend. I don’t know where the payoff comes except for the self-satisfaction.

@mitchsunderland

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