Ice Network

O'Neill brings figure skating writing into mainstream

New York-based journalist, author dishes on debut novel, state of the sport
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Brooklyn-based journalist and author Tracy O'Neill puts the sport of figure skating under a microscope in her writing. -courtesy of Tracy O'Neill

Growing up in the 10,000-person town of Amherst, New Hampshire, writer Tracy O'Neill had a stack of VHS tapes, each video labeled with the figure skating competition contained on it. She was an expert on the control panel. 

"I was a big-time fan," O'Neill, 29, told icenetwork. "I would record everything, and I would sit there with my finger on the record or stop button for when the commercials came. I had really good technique on that, I'm not going to lie."

In the past year, O'Neill, who began skating when she was 9, has re-immersed herself in the figure skating world, writing feature articles on the sport that have appeared in Rolling Stone and The New Yorker, and in June releasing her debut novel, a figure skating-themed book titled The Hopeful.

"When I was writing this book, I thought a lot about different moments from when I was skating," explained O'Neill, who left the ice at age 16 due to an injury. "When I was growing up was when Michelle Kwan and Tara Lipinski were competing against each other, so it was this really special time. I was just heaving watching Michelle's 'Lyra Angelica.'"

The Hopeful, however, is not a book solely about skating, O'Neill cautioned.

"It's a book about an ex-skater," she said.

Alivopro Doyle, who goes by "Ali," is a skater with Olympic hopes when an injury ends her career and leads her to a painkiller addiction. The plot is as dramatic and twist-turning as most figure skating competitions themselves.

"The book is about the strength of the human will in the face of reality," said O'Neill, who lives in Brooklyn. "It's about what happens when that person doesn't have the thing anymore that has been the primary force in their lives."

It's a reality that many skaters face, whether at 16 (like O'Neill) or in the mid-20s, after competing at the highest of levels. Drew Meekins, now a coach at the Broadmoor Skating Club, is one of the skaters that O'Neill grew up alongside at the Colonial Figure Skating Club, outside Boston.

"Tracy's artistry on the ice, and her style and spunky personality off of it, were both indicative of her creative flair and passion," said Meekins, who is also an icenetwork contributor. "These qualities are evident in her writing as well, so I'm not surprised she pursued something like writing and is excelling at it."

As figure skating has become more of a niche sport in the last decade, O'Neill said selling her stories to mainstream publications outside of an Olympic year -- as well as getting a publisher to sign on for The Hopeful -- was challenging.

"When her agent initially pitched this, I thought, 'Oh…skating;' I wasn't very excited about it," said Robert Lasner, editor in chief of Ig Publishing, the book's publisher. "It's about skating obviously, but it's about so much more. The skating is the jumping-off point for the family drama. It's this amazing portrayal about being obsessed with something. It didn't matter that I wasn't a fan of skating."

But skating itself needs fans, O'Neill said, and it needs to continue to attempt to modernize.

"There's still too much of skating to a Broadway musical from the 1980s," said O'Neill, who wrote about the addition of music with lyrics for a Rolling Stone piece in January. "I don't think a lot of people want to see 14-year-old girls skating to 'My Fair Lady.' … I think it's going to depend more on skaters and coaches to pony up a little courage and try to skate to music that's a little more interesting and hasn't been used a million times."

Meekins is encouraged by the style of O'Neill's writing in her magazine and online pieces.

"Seeing skating written about in an interesting and engaging way -- geared toward this generation -- is wonderful, and is something I've always hoped for," he said.

O'Neill's articles have taken on trends in the sport, and where it's headed next: She took an in-depth look at the training system for U.S. women compared to that of Russia, and in June wrote about the Freezer Aerial Figure Skating Challenge, imagining figure skating as more of an X-Games type of competition.

"[The] Challenge offers an attractive alternative, high on muscle and low on chiffon," she wrote for The New Yorker. "Stripped of its artistic components, the premise goes, figure skating might reclaim its athletic credibility."

But, O'Neill said, credibility still remains in the sport today. She cherishes skaters like Gracie Gold, Elena Radionova and Adam Rippon, whom she believes have both the artistic ability and physical prowess to be great in the sport. She's a fan of the international judging system as well.

"I'm one of the people that loves the new -- well, not new anymore -- judging system," she said. "I think it's highly specific and, in theory, there's a rationale that people can look at later. For a big skating nerd, you can look at how many points each skater got for each element, and that's fun. I love that."

O'Neill has a love for learning -- and teaching, too. She instructs creative writing at the City College of New York, and in August began a PhD program in communications at Columbia.

"When you're writing fiction, similar to skating, you're trying to balance the technical challenges with artistry," O'Neill said. "The technical challenges might be that you're trying to get from point A to point B in a space, and you want to do that as beautifully as possible.

"I see writing and skating as parallel," she continued. "You need to practice your writing, too. It's not just like it just pops out."

Lasner, the publisher, sees a star on the rise -- one that uses a keyboard and a broad vocabulary instead of skates and triple-triple combinations.

"It's amazing what she could do next," he said. "This is a fully formed, developed and emotional novel. For someone who is not yet 30 to have written it, I really look forward to seeing what she's going to do next."