But that was Before.
I was too young to know that life can collapse as fast as a skater can lose an edge and tumble to the ice. It hurts to fall, but you get up; you keep skating. You smile for the judges, and you don’t let them see the pain. That’s what winners do.
But sometimes, the hurt is too much, and you can’t get up. You can’t keep skating.
Then you lose.
* * *
The pounding pulse in my ears threatened to drown the announcer’s voice on the loudspeaker. “Please welcome our next skater, representing the Skating Federation of South Africa—Sindiswa Khumalo!”
“You’ll do great, Sindi,” my American coach, Trevor MacDonald, murmured beside me. “Just relax and have fun.”
Relax? Not likely with all those people watching. If they knew the truth, would they still cheer? I shook the tight, beaded braids that covered my head and tried to absorb the calm in Mac’s eyes. Breathe, Sindi. Breathe. Don’t think about home. Forget your parents. Focus.
I pushed away from the gate. My arms spread wide to receive the cascading applause as I skated a broad arc toward center ice. Mac’s voice sounded in my mind. Smile for the judges. Even he didn’t know my secret. I stretched my lips into an expression intended to sparkle.
I searched the stands for my parents although I knew they weren’t there. The friends I had made in a month of training camp cheered enthusiastically from the back rows. Someone whistled and stomped as if this was an American ice hockey game.
Ben. It had to be Ben.
The audience grew quiet as I took my starting pose—spine arched, head back, one arm raised like a graceful branch toward the high curve of rafters. I swallowed hard, but the smile never slipped from my face.
The music started—the theme from Out of Africa. I let it pull me across the ice, flowing in deep edges and vaulting in tight jumps. My spiral sequence went straight into a double-Axel/toe-loop combination jump. The double loop halfway through the program nearly tripped me up, but I bent my knee deep and held onto the landing. I didn’t expect to win—not in my first American competition. After all, this was Lake Placid, where some of the best skaters in the world trained. But I did hope to skate clean. My final combination spin went from position to position, perfect balance, perfect centering, thanks to Mac’s relentless coaching and hours of practice.
I had never skated better in my life.
The music stopped. I froze in my final position, eyes closed to hold back tears. If only my parents were here to see me!
I took my bow, smiling and waving while stuffed animals rained on the ice. I swept up a monkey and a fat hippo on my way to the gate. Little girls in matching blue skating dresses came on to clean up the rest.
Mac hugged me as my father would have. “Perfect! I am so proud of you, Sindi.” That was what my father would have said: I am so proud of you. Only he would have called me “Nyoni”—bird—for the way I flew over the ice.
“Get your skate guards on.” Mac took the stuffed animals from my hand. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”
I held his arm for balance while I wiped the slush from my blades and slid the plastic guards over them. A little girl in blue thrust a large plastic bag toward me.
I frowned at it. “What’s this?”
“Your presents.” She gestured at the ice.
She giggled, and another little girl held out a second bag.
“You’re popular.” Mac handed me my blue warm-up jacket with the Lake Placid logo embroidered on the front. Tomorrow I would go home to South Africa, but I would keep the jacket forever.
“Leave your gifts in the locker room and come on.” He led me out of the arena, down a corridor.
“What about the scores?” I trotted after him as quickly as my blades in their clunky plastic guards allowed. The next skater’s music already played behind us.
“They’ll be posted in the lobby. Don’t worry. It’ll take a few minutes. We have plenty of time.” Mac stopped in front of a room marked “VIP Hospitality” and ushered me in. A buffet table at one end was covered with salads and fruit. The smell of crisp, hot rolls tickled my nose.
“There you are!” A woman set down her glass of white wine and stood. She was as tall as Mac, and the skintight clothes on her long thin body made her seem even taller. Her hair was short and curly and very blond. Diamond earrings sparkled when she shook her head. She came toward me with her hand held out. “You were marvelous, Sindi. Absolutely marvelous!”
I shook her hand politely and glanced at Mac for a clue.
“Sindi, I’d like you to meet Amanda Etherington,” he said. “Amanda, this is Sindi.” He was grinning like this was a special occasion.
“Oh,” I said, suddenly understanding. “The lady who loaned me the dress.” I glanced down at the pink lace and chiffon studded with hundreds of Austrian crystals that my parents never could have afforded. “Thank you very much for letting me use it. I’ll take it off as soon as they have posted the results. But I think …” I glanced at Mac. “I think Mac wanted to have it cleaned first.”
Ms. Etherington waved a long elegant hand. “Forget the dress, darling. It’s yours. It’s perfect on you.”
I stared at her openmouthed before I could muster the presence of mind to say thank you for the amazing gift. A designer dress like this cost hundreds of dollars.
She led me to a chair beside hers. “Now sit down. I want to talk with you.” Everything about the way she moved and dressed said that she was young, but something about her face didn’t fit. A hint of sag? Tightness where there ought to be wrinkles? Under that blond hair color, I was pretty sure there was gray.
Ms. Etherington looked at me. “Mac says you have had a very good summer.”
“Well, I was only here a month, but I learned a lot. Mac is a wonderful teacher.”
“I know. He trains all my skaters. How would you like to stay here and train with him?”
“Stay here? In Lake Placid?” The beads in my hair rattled when I shook my head. “I would love to, but the Federation only sent me for a month. My family can’t afford—”
“Yes, yes, I know. But what if I were to pay your expenses? You could stay in the dorm again or live with a local family. I spoke to Jenni Cameron’s father about the possibility. I believe you girls are friends, aren’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am.” My stomach fluttered with excitement so I could hardly get the words out. Stay in Lake Placid? Train with the best? Jenni Cameron had introduced me to girls who had been coming to Lake Placid summer skating school for years. That had made all the difference between being an exotic stranger from Africa and having friends.
“You could go to school with Jenni. They make special arrangements for the skaters so you’ll have plenty of time to practice. I would pay for your coaching, your costumes, your entrance fees.”
“It’s called a sponsorship,” Mac put in, seeing my confusion. His eyes urged me to say yes.
I looked from him to Ms. Etherington and back, uncertain. “But what would I do in return?”
She laughed, a deep, guttural laugh. “You would work harder than you have ever worked in your fifteen years or I will send you straight back to South Africa.”
“I’m a hard worker!” I said.
“That’s what Mac has told me, and I was certainly impressed with the results today. I suggest that we try the arrangement this season.” She looked at Mac as if for agreement. He nodded. “And then we can re-evaluate.”
So I would be on trial. Coming here for the Federation was pressure enough, but this? What if she found out about my father? Would she still want me?
“I don’t understand. Why would you want to pay my expenses?” My parents had pulled themselves out of poverty before there was any such thing as affirmative action in South Africa. They would not want me to accept charity even though there was nothing I wanted in the world more than to skate and to train here with Mac.
Well, one thing.
Ms. Etherington leaned back in her chair. “Because I love skating, and a competition is always more fun when I have invested in one of the skaters. I think an investment in you could take me a long way. Maybe even to the Olympics.”
The Olympics? I had had dreams, dreams I never even told my parents, dreams that seemed far beyond possibility from my home rink in a shopping mall outside Jozi—Johannesburg. My heart pounded in my chest. This was my chance, my chance to go for the top.
“I’ll need to talk to my parents.”
“Of course you will.” She picked up her glass of wine and sipped. “And you’ll need to change your flight. Mac can make all the arrangements.” She was obviously not used to hearing no.
A timid knock sounded at the door. It opened and Jenni Cameron stuck her head in. “Excuse me.” A mischievous grin lit her face when she glanced at me. “Sindi won. They’re waiting on her for the awards ceremony and pictures.”
“I won?” My mouth fell open.
Ms. Etherington smiled. “Didn’t I say you would be worth the investment?”