February 15, 2007

Olympic Ice Dancer Balances Skating, School

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Life is full of sudden changes for junior Jamie Silverstein. One minute she was a normal student at Cornell, the next one she was standing on the podium at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships with a shot at Olympic triumph in sight.

At the age of 15, Silverstein had already made a name for herself in competitive ice dancing after she and former partner Justin Pekarek won the 1999 junior world championships. In 2003, she left all that behind to pursue an Ivy League education.

Less than two years ago, Silverstein was still a normal student in the fall of 2004, but the call of the ice soon lured her back. It has been one year since she competed in the Winter Olympics, the culmination of a her rocket-like rise through the ranks of elite ice dancing.

She had decided to return to competitive skating as a sophomore, having left Cornell before the beginning of the spring semester of 2005. She almost immediately acquired a partner when she was approached by 2005 Four Continents Championship bronze medalist Ryan O’Meara.

The newly formed ice dancing duo was a serious contender from the start. By January 2006, they finished in third place at the U.S. Championships — good enough to qualify to compete in Torino the next month. No one was more surprised at their success than Silverstein herself.

“I literally thought I would take one semester off. I wouldn’t find a partner but at least I would know that I had finished that chapter,” she said. “Then just serendipity happened and Ryan broke up with his partner and we started skating and it was fun and it worked so we kept up.”

Silverstein and O’Meara ended up in sixteenth place in the Games and marched in the Opening Ceremonies, but the real drama began after Torino for them.

When you’ve just represented your country in the Winter Olympics, what do you do next? Silverstein kept revisiting this question, struggling with the decision whether to continue competing.

The Olympics would be the last time Silverstein and O’Meara competed together. On March 10, they gave away their spot on the U.S. team for the World Championships — announcing their retirement almost two months later after a short, intense run.

“Our season had been so crazy,” she said. “We just got together that season. Actually making it [to the Olympics], it was something we had talked about and it was definitely like a dream, but actually making it … I think by the end we were done. We were on empty.”

And then, as quickly as the moment had come, it was over. When Spokane, Washington hosted the U.S. Figure Skating Championships four weeks ago, Silverstein was back in Ithaca, keeping up with the results through the Internet and periodically missing competition.

“Last year, we trained, we did it and then I wasn’t sure if I had four more years in me, so now I’m here for this year, and we’ll see if I go back,” she said.

Returning to competition, however, seems less and less likely to Silverstein as the sport heads in a direction that is increasingly new and disturbing to the more artistically-inclined Cornellian.

“They’re trying to have more accountability with the sport, but what I love is the dance and all the emotional elements,” Silverstein said. “So they have this new scoring system, and I’m sure eventually it won’t be a problem, but in the interim [skating is] becoming very standardized and that was really sad and disheartening for me because I love the creativity aspect and the fact that you could really put yourself out there, but now everyone is putting themselves out there in the same way.”

As any observer of figure skating knows, the sport recently underwent a dramatic scoring system revamp in the wake of a judging scandal at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games. The International Skating Union threw out the old 6.0 scale in 2004 in favor of a points-based system meant to be more objective. Silverstein chose to compete in spite of this innovation but felt shackled by the new system.

“The great thing for me with skating and what I take solace in is the more emotional, creative side as opposed to having to have a perfect edge to get a level 4,” Silverstein said. “That was no fun. But I understand it and I respect it if we’re looking at it in the athletic sense.”

Her partner O’Meara is now working as an ice dance director in Scottsdale, Arizona. In the wake of their difficult departure from figure skating, they don’t talk often.

“It was hard because I think he really wanted to keep going,” Silverstein said. “This is going to sound horrible. I don’t know if I have the dream to be an Olympic champion. I was so kind of floored to go there. [But] it’s a life. Being an athlete is a life, and there are other elements I want to explore in my life.”

These diverse interests led to her acceptance into the College Scholar Program. Her research idea, as listed on the program’s web site, is titled “Catharsis across Culture and Context.” But the topic is still largely undefined, according to Silverstein.

“Part of the idea I’ve been toying with is trying to create an ice theater company, changing the frame of it and really focusing on the art and the emotionality of it. It would be quite an undertaking, so I don’t know if I’m just going to theorize about it as my project or actually do it. I have a little bit of time,” she said.

Of course, not many people know how much longer Silverstein will remain in Ithaca.

“I get emails from Class of ’07, I get emails from Class of ’08, I get emails from Class of ’09,” she said. “I don’t think anybody knows what I am.”

Fortunately, she’s not in a hurry to finish her time at Cornell. She’s taking a seminar aimed at first-years and is looking forward to living with fellow Olympian Matt Savoie next year, a sort of Torino Athletic Village reunion.

“Everything that you were supposed to have done your firstyear, I haven’t done. I just made my Cornelltrak account like two days ago,” Silverstein said. “I’m not ready to be in the real world.”

In the meantime, she enjoys aiding current freshmen in a different type of transition. After being a resident advisor in her sophomore year, Silverstein wanted to come back to the program when she returned to campus this year.

Junior Libby Boymel, an active member of the Cornell Figure Skating Club, met Silverstein at R.A. training in the fall. Boymel is sure that lessons Silverstein learned on the ice, especially as an ice dancer, can be seen in her performance as an R.A.

“Training with a partner, you learn interaction with people, and that’s a skill that’s really valued as an R.A.,” Boymel said. “You have to be there for your residents no matter what, sometimes put them ahead [of yourself].”

When she left Cornell to skate, the petite but bubbly Silverstein left some big shoes to fill on North Campus.

“[Silverstein’s] previous R.A. director always raved about how good she was and [about] all the new programs she put on,” Boymel said.

This October, Silverstein and her residence hall hosted a “Halloween on Ice” party at Lynah Rink. Though she is considering getting involved with the Cornell Figure Skating Club, she doesn’t make it to the rink that often. other than for group events like this party.

“It’s hard for me [to skate] because it’s very hard for me to do it casually, but I love it,” Silverstein said. “It feels like home every time I get [to the rink].”

She actually dances more nowadays, and she is even planning to go to Rome this summer for a program sponsored by the Department of Theatre, Film and Dance.

“Dance was always kind of like a supplement for skating, what we did at the end of the day when we were tired,” Silverstein said. “They must have hated us, our teachers, because we weren’t focused at all. I have a lot of respect for [dance].”

Now a junior, “give or take a semester,” Silverstein has at least a year to ponder over her College Scholar project and future plans. She’s especially conflicted about what to do after graduation. As with her research, Silverstein has difficulty narrowing down her options.

With a solid background in nutrition from her years as an athlete, the self-described “yoga bunny” is interested in the field of wellness, including the potential of movement therapy, art therapy and less explored methods to promote the “catharsis” which she is currently studying. During vacation, Silverstein taught yoga and other fitness classes at home in Michigan. She is also interested in creative writing and hopes to eventually write a memoir.

“Perhaps [I’ll work] for a studio or [open] up a studio if I don’t get some fantastic wellness journalism job or have my own ice theater. I don’t know what else,” she said. “Clearly I have no clue.”

Skating will still be a part of her life in the coming years, whether it is by practicing with the Cornell Figure Skating Club or choreographing for her friend Matt Savoie.

“I don’t know how yet, and this is what I’m anxious about, but I’ll have it in my life,” she said.

Decisions rule Silverstein’s existence. Though she doesn’t like to use the word regret, she believes that she might have competed at Worlds or handled her retirement differently if she had the chance to do it all over.

“I’ve gone back and forth more than once. I always want to put it in a box and be done with it, and that’s not really how life works, but it’s hard because I don’t feel like a college student; but I also am not a skater right now either,” Silverstein said. “I’m waiting to have some new identity.”