Ex-skater O'Neill says sport's discipline helped prepare her for writing
There were no short cuts, no days off. If Tracy O'Neill wanted to compete at figure skating's highest levels, she had to get up every morning, go to the rink and practice.
O'Neill, who appears Feb. 25 at the East End Book Exchange to promote her novel “The Hopeful” (Ig Publishing), thinks the discipline of the sport prepared her for a writing life.
“It's sort of comforting having a way of organizing your day,” O'Neill says. “I would say that I'm probably naturally a little bit obsessive.”
In addition to fiction, O'Neill has penned mini-biographies for a magazine targeting middle-school students; worked as managing editor at a blog; and written book reviews and nonfiction for The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Bookforum, Rolling Stone and Grantland. She's profiled Olympic gold-medal diver Greg Louganis, U.S. Women's National soccer team forward Abby Wambach, and Lauren Groff, the author “Fates & Furies,” a National Book Award finalist.
“The primary objective is to show what it feels like to be that person,” O'Neill says. “As individuals, none of us go around thinking, ‘I am strictly a football player' or ‘I am strictly a lawyer.' We have these vagaries throughout the day, throughout our lives.”
“The Hopeful,” a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree and long-listed for the Flaherty-Dunnan Prize, goes deep into the world of figure skating. Alivopro “Ali” Doyle, the adopted daughter of a childless couple from New Hampshire, shows great promise as a figure skater. But after an injury puts her skating career in peril, Ali suffers more than just physical wounds. The book is framed around the young skater's sessions with a psychotherapist.
One of the elements O'Neill explores is how the devotion necessary to be a successful ice skater can turn into obsession that often affects the parents more than the young athletes.
“When I think about the way my story deviates from the novel, I was really lucky in the sense I didn't have obsessive parents,” O'Neill says. “In the book, I wanted there to be this sort of contagion around this obsessive behavior. At a certain point, the character isn't entirely sure if it's completely her own obsession anymore. It's like she's a slave to the desires of her father, a person who has also had a lost dream.”
Perhaps the greatest pressure in ice skating comes from having no teammates. Winning at the highest levels can lead to Olympic medals and endorsements. But losing can be devastating.
O'Neill points to the recent Super Bowl and how Carolina Panthers' quarterback Cam Newton was critiqued after the loss.
“But (Newton) does have a community,” she says. “The team offers that, and there are these benefits that in some way can counter-weight the poor performance. In figure skating, there really isn't. At the top echelons of the sports, the women have two-and-a-half minutes for their short program, four minutes for their long program. So essentially they have six minutes that they've trained for their entire lives. If they're lucky enough to get to the Olympics, that might be their one shot: Six minutes of their entire lives.”
O'Neill gave up the world of competitive skating around the time she became a teenager. Her skating career ended not because of an injury or lack of talent, but because she succumbed to another type of pressure: adolescence.
“By the end, I didn't have that single-minded devotion,” O'Neill says, “which is to say, I went through puberty and started to be interested in having a social life, a boyfriend and any sort of life outside (ice skating). I was aware I was missing out on normal things.”
Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.