By land, by ice, by air, by stretcher. By guiding hand and by spinning blade. In hospital gown or skating pants, Sarah Fuller is a fighter. Born with a congenital heart defect, to a father she never knew, and a mother that would become her angel, she has fought, and clawed, and almost died (multiple times), and smiled, and begun again, and faced setbacks, and most of all, skated to the height of American figure skating – the U.S. National team.
To say that things haven’t come easy for Sarah, would be a kick to the pants of whatever defines “easy.” Not only has she not had it easy, she’s had it damn near impossible. Time and again the odds have been stacked, bolted down, and reinforced against her, and time after time she has flipped those odds on their ugly heads.
Sarah was born with a body worth keeping the receipt for, to bring right back to whatever crooked bastard sold it to you. Count with me: Supra Valvular Aortic Stenosis, Peripheral Pulmanic Stenosis, Mild Coarctctation of the Aortic Arch, and Diffusely Narrow Arteries throughout her body. She has had, to her count, 16 surgeries in her lifetime – she is 22 years old. For those, like me, who are poorly versed in the workings of the human heart, here’s the long and short of it – everything leading to the heart, the plumbing through which the lifeblood flows, for her, is too small. We aren’t talking sting-to-straw small, we’re talking angel-hair to garden hose. And in case you missed the “congenital” part, that’s correct, this is an in-the-blood thing. Just as it was passed on to her from her father, it can be passed directly to the kids she hopes to have in the future; a sinister glitch in the human condition, a black-sheep gene with teeth and terrible intentions. Sarah is a case-study, on what can go terribly wrong with the human heart.
Though her body has done its best time and again to fail her, the heart, the poetic one that exists more in the mind than in the ribcage, is strong. Throw away your images now of a withering, bed-bound little girl. Dispel your ideas of pale, atrophied arms and legs held vertical only by bony, failing joints. She is as bad as they come, an elite athlete, and a kind-hearted friend. A warrior both on the ice and over a text.
For the layman, like myself, figure skating is 1994, an ex-husband, a metal pipe, and an ESPN headline that’s revisited from time to time. It’s Will Ferrell in Blades of Glory, it’s background noise during a trip to the mall. For those involved however, it is the ultimate in sport mixed with art, equal parts hellfire and rosewater, strenuous craftsmanship to the highest degree. It is hard on the knees, and on the back, and on the self-esteem, and simple mistakes mean a date with unforgiving, and quite literally “cold, hard” ice. Under the makeup, and the coordinated outfits, bumps and bruises until retirement do you part.
Like most Olympic sports, it starts young. For the ones who are seriously invested, the peak is fast and often brutal; somewhere between 15 and 20, a skater will, be they successful or disappointed, learn that there will be life beyond the ice, and it will be very different. Like it’s more conventional counterparts the sport is riddled with delusional parents, expensive training, and big-money schemes eager to capitalize on the overzealous nature of its participants. Sarah, having pushed through into her early-20s has witnessed it all and now carries the scars and insights of a wily veteran, somebody who knows the tricks of the trade, and has chosen to pass her love of it on to the next generation.
Here is her typical week: Monday through Thursday she is in Tampa training and coaching each day; she has a full-time slate of 25 students varying in age that she is responsible for the on-ice development of. After Thursday, she flies north and splits her time Friday to Sunday training with her U.S. National Synchronized Figure Skating team, before it’s back on another flight to come back home to Florida just in time for work on Monday morning. It’s a grueling week, but to be on the team, she needs both the training and the money. This, the price of a dream.
I ask Sarah what her biggest insecurities and fears are. Her simple answer is her scars, the ones that pull around her abdomen as a painful reminder of what has been, and what will continue to challenge her for the rest of her life. The more complex answer, as is the case in most arenas where image is paramount, is her body shape. Sarah is just about 5’4, slim, toned, and strong, but still considered un-ideal for the eyes of judges and skating fanatics. She doesn’t fit the traditional mold of ice-cutting mannequin that people in the sport are used to, a conflict that battles within her constantly, and that she fights through as she has every other that’s come her way.
As our time runs thin, I ask Sarah what she would tell the 8-year-old version of herself, the one that fought so bravely for her life, the one that got her to where she is today. She tells me that she would tell that little girl (and the little girls she coaches today) to focus on the moment, live in it now, and to love yourself in doing so. She understands that it isn’t about the pain, or about the perseverance, but about showing up again and again and again. It’s heart that defines Sarah Fuller, not the one in her chest that doesn’t quite hold up to market-value, but the one that drives her on, and on, and on.