What led me to retire from a successful sports career at 20-years-old
Our favorite pro figure skater turned Parity intern, Emmy Ma.
College student Emmy Ma is 21-years-old and already working toward her second career. In her own words, the award-winning figure skater shares the highs and lows of her mental health experiences as a young figure skater.
When I was three years old, my father held my hand tightly as I teetered behind him in my sister’s too-big hand-me-down ice skates.
At a very young age, my parents allowed me every opportunity to explore where my passions might flourish. I was given lessons in piano, violin, singing, swimming, skiing, tennis, and ballet. It was hard to choose just one because I loved them all. In the end, I chose skating after being inspired by the 2006 Winter Olympic Games.
Not too long after, my teachers and parents saw great potential in me and before I knew it, spinning and jumping on the ice became my priority.
Early love on the ice: Me at age six with my parents.
When I was thirteen, my mother and I uprooted our entire lives to move from Long Island to Boston in search of a more rigorous training environment. It seemed like an ironic twist of fate that this was just about the same time that the puberty “monster” (as many in the skating world called it) crept into my life.
I was unable to showcase my new triple jumps successfully in competition for three seasons as my growing body was plagued with injury after injury. A surmounting pressure from myself and my new coaches overwhelmed me, and I felt as though everything my mom and I had sacrificed and worked so hard for would be for nothing.
Luckily, my routine at the rink set me back on track. Three hours on the ice, two hours of strength and flexibility off the ice, and one hour in between it all to catch up on schoolwork. Five days a week, year-round. I was 13-years-old.
I channeled all of the frustration and pressure I felt into the pursuit of success.
The dictionary defines success as “the accomplishment of an aim or purpose.” In the figure skating world, that definition of accomplishment is twisted with winning.
For years, pre-pubescent girls have stood at the tops of podiums across the international stage. The coaches that pushed them have boasted of their athletes' winning streaks and praised their restraint of food and water, despite suffering from chronic injuries.
What began as a love for sparkling dresses and delicate choreography transformed into an infatuation with checking off the next goal that would uplift me to the podiums.
Land the harder jumps. Top my high score. Snag a spot on Team USA. Get selected to compete at the most competitive events.
For a short while, this “winning mindset” brought me incredible success. I was just 16 when I medaled at my first major National Championship, won my first international competition, and was selected to represent Team USA at the Junior Figure Skating World Championships.
I felt unstoppable. And with every coach and every better competition result, it confirmed that what I was doing was working. Everything made perfect sense, but the mindset that helped me to earn so much success proved to be unsustainable.
My first international gold! Won representing U.S. Figure Skating at the 2017 Challenge Cup in The Hague, Netherlands. | Credit: Martin & Dora
At the end of that season, I felt my consistency slipping. I stumbled through my programs in practice for months leading up to the two most prestigious competitions I had ever participated in. There, I received my lowest scores in years.
While I struggled to stay upright on triple lutzes and double axels, everyone around me was telling me to snap out of it, to stop being so mentally weak, to just skate well again - as if it were that easy. I wasn’t able to do anything but keep my head down because I agreed with them.
The confidence I had built from clean freeskates and praise from judges, my coaches, and fans, was chipping away with each consecutive fall. I blamed myself for my poor performance, begging my brain to continue pushing my body to its limit.
It’s no surprise that somewhere along the way, I began to equate my value with how much success I attained in the figure skating world. Deep down, I knew that I was worth more than points and placements, so I reached out to my coaches for help.
I stepped away from the sport in February 2019 to regain my strength, go to treatment, and begin therapy. But when I returned to the rink that summer, I failed to realize that I had adopted the same exact mindset as before. After all, how was I supposed to believe my personal therapist who told me to “take it easy” when all the other resources, who were referred to me by the top officials in U.S. Figure Skating, only ever told me to adjust my diet and mindset to optimize on-ice performance?
Performing at the 2021 World Championships | Credit: Alamy
Although I had achieved my goal of skating at the Senior World Championships, I didn’t perform my program as flawlessly as I had in practice. After much thought, I recognized that my love for the sport was no longer motivating me.
It wasn’t until I made the decision to retire from competitive skating that I was able to grasp the magnitude of my accomplishments throughout the years, and reclaim what the sport meant to me when I first fell in love with the ice years ago.
Mental health issues among figure skaters are rampant and nothing new, yet have been hardly talked about until recently. Young, impressionable athletes are failed by a lack of education that could protect them from – and perhaps change – the culture that tells them that their worth is defined by the number of medals to their name.
As the year anniversary of my athletic retirement draws near, I’ve had time to reflect on my long journey in figure skating and truly feel compassion for the girl who believed that her best was never enough.
Now, I wake up every day with a deep appreciation for my life, including all the ups and downs that my time as a figure skater led me to. I feel an even stronger excitement for my future.
My lifestyle shift and learned love for myself as a person has allowed me to build closer relationships with family and friends, enjoy more delicious food, work towards my professional goals, and continue to cheer for all the athletes who are still competing.
I have learned that I can lend myself grace and love, even if I am not an athlete any longer.
Some days between my classes, I lace up my skates, text my mom a picture, and glide around the rink. I listen closely to the rip of my blades hugging the ice and savor the dry, cold air sweeping my hair away.
About Emmy Ma
Emmy Ma (she/her) is a third-year student at Boston University studying Advertising with a minor in Psychology. At Parity, she works as a content intern where she helps with social media, marketing, and communications initiatives.
In her free time, she enjoys traveling, watching reality TV, and losing her voice at concerts.