Sister Lift: Confessions Of A Former Pairs Skater

Every four years, Chris Schleicher experiences PTSD. His trigger? The Winter Olympics.

The 27-year-old writer for The Mindy Project (his first episode, "Girl Crush" will air in April) spent 16 years as a competitive pairs figure skater, ascending through the national rankings all the way to 13th at the junior national level, before retiring from the sport in 2008.

Other things that bring back the bad old days of blades, ice, and toe picks? The music of skating—specifically Carmen or Swan Lake, both of which he and his sister skated to.

"Or if velvet is around. If I touch velvet it transports me back to a skating costume and I remember the high stress baked in there," he said.

Schleicher and his sister also skated to Josh Groban's "You Raise Me Up" one season, a program they initially liked until they parsed the meaning of the song's lyrics. "We had this revelation that this was a song about God." He recalled being nervous that people would think they were trying to proselytize on ice. "That was our fear—that people thought we were super Christian skaters trying to spread the word through skating."

"Also, 'You Raise Me Up' was a little on the nose for pairs since we raise each other up."

He was paired up with his sister when he was 11—though he's probably known her longer than that—as is fairly common in the world of pairs skating. This year's U.S. Olympic team features one such sibling duo—the ice dancing team of Maia and Alex Shibutani.

Despite the reputation that sibling pairs have for fighting with one another, Schleicher and his sister got along quite well. "We were eerily in sync in our real lives," he recalled. "We would step out of our bedrooms at the same time dressed in the same colors without having coordinated with each other."

Sister Lift: Confessions Of A Former Pairs SkaterS

On the ice, however, they weren't as flashy as Schleicher would've liked. "In pairs the girl gets to have the pretty dress and the man gets to dress in all black with one flash of the color of her dress," he lamented.

For this reason, he particularly liked the fluorescent striped skating costume he wore for a season. (Pictured.) "Anytime I got to wear something a little outlandish, I really pushed for it. I'm in figure skating—why hold back?"

Skating pants, black or dayglo, were the only kind that fit Schleicher during his competitive days. Skaters, he explained, have disproportionately large butts. "Your butt is the muscle you are using to jump and skate backwards. It's highly overdeveloped." So he had to wear pants that were far too large for his waist. "I was halfway praying that J-Lo would release a line of men's pants."

He also disputes the trope of pairs of taking their disputes out onto the ice. "The thing that they show in movies about pairs skating—that you'll be in a fight and you'll throw her too hard or drop her. You would never ever do that because it's so incredibly dangerous. You get hurt enough times when you're trying to do your best."

Nowadays when they fight, they resurrect old injuries. "It'll be like, 'You sliced open my leg this time or you threw out my shoulder,'" which is so much better than the whole Mom didn't give you a bedtime my older sister occasionally trots out.

Schleicher and his sister retired two years before what would've been their first shot at the Games. (Figure skaters have to turn 16 in the Olympic year in order to be eligible to compete). Perhaps stricken with Stockholm syndrome, he isn't exactly avoiding this year's Olympic competition. In fact, he's watching it completely unaided by alcohol or pharmaceuticals even though it sounds like he could use a Xanax. "I feel very nervous for them," he said. "When they're jumping I feel myself tense up like I can help them somehow help them with it."

When it comes to the Sochi field, Schleicher is a fan of newly minted Russian star Yulia Lipnitskaya. "I just love that teenage fearlessness that she has," he observed, noting that many older skaters look visibly afraid to be at the Games. "Sometimes there are these teenagers that don't get how scary it is to be at the Olympics and just go for it and it is really such a pleasure to watch."

Lipnitskaya's aggressiveness is reminiscent of Tara Lipinski, who won the ladies single title in 1998 when she was just 15 over the favorite, Michelle Kwan. (This is something that many skating fans, including me, haven't fully forgiven Lipinski for.) In 2002, Kwan was again defeated by another confident teen, Sarah Hughes. "Every four years a new person arose to take out Michelle," he lamented.

"If you ever need a good cry, watch Michelle Kwan's 2002 post-bronze exhibition performance to 'Fields of Gold,'" he advised. I second this motion. Do it now.

Still, his favorite for this year's women's competition is defending world and Olympic champion Yuna Kim. (In all of the hubbub over Lipnitskaya, it seems that we've forgotten that Kim exists since Korea didn't have enough skaters to take part in the team competition.) Said Schleicher: "Yuna is going to destroy the field. She descended from an alien planet where they invented skating and she's come to teach us what skating is."

On the men's side, Schleicher has a mix of fear and admiration for a certain endlessly GIF-able four-time medalist. "Yevgeny Plushenko is a Russian cyborg who was assembled to win medals and will rip your head off if he needs to."

Usually, an athlete that has been as injured as Plushenko is the subject of inspirational comeback narratives. But despite undergoing 13 surgeries and returning to the ice with a quad, Plushenko doesn't seem to elicit much sympathy from fans because of his notoriously cocky behavior and entitled sound bites.

"He's like the Six Million Dollar Man. Take off his arm, replace it with a new one," Schleicher said of the fragile Russian. "He'll probably get a medal and on the podium and crumble into a pile of dust. He can finally let go."

The transition from high-level skating to comedy has been mostly seamless for The Mindy Project writer. "I guess you have to have a sense of humor about the whole circus of what you were doing," he said. "'Look at these tight pants I'm wearing. I'm about to throw my sister around in front of a panel of international judges.'"

It doesn't hurt that in his skating life, Schleicher did things that were far scarier than anything comedy can throw at you. "When you get on the ice, they close the door behind you. You hear it click shut and you feel like you're in Gladiator. 'I have to do this. I walked in and now I have to do the program. The only way out is through the end of the program,'" he said.

His writing about skating is actually what got him hired in TV. "I wrote a TV pilot about a brother-sister pairs team, with all of the crazy colorful characters—your scary Russian coach, your stage mom, the privileged girl who gets money thrown at her training and has electrodes taped to her forehead to track her jumps," he said. You know, a documentary.

Schleicher still plans to put his experience to good use. Two of his favorite skating movies are The Cutting Edge and Ice Castles. In the former, a hockey player loses his peripheral vision after getting hit in the head and is no longer allowed to play so he becomes a pairs skater because peripheral vision is apparently unimportant in figure skating. (Schleicher disputes this: Peripheral vision is the only way you can stay in sync on spins and other elements.) In the latter movie, a young skater loses her eyesight and has to learn how to skate blind through her love for another.

"For some reason, losing your eyesight is a common theme in figure skating movies," Schleicher noted. Inspired by these masterworks of cinema, Schleicher hopes to use his hiatus to create a one-man show "where maybe I'm wearing sunglasses because I'm blind, and a cane, and reenact my own Ice Castles," he said.

"I have a killer title: 'Kiss and Cry.'"


Dvora Meyers is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Slate, Tablet and elsewhere. She writes about gymnastics and Judaism at Unorthodox Gymnastics, and she is the author of Heresy on the High Beam: Confessions of an Unbalanced Jewess. She blogs about woman-y stuff over at The Anti-Girlfriend.

Photos courtesy of Chris Schleicher.