Trigger warning: anxiety, panic attacks, suicide attempt
I was 11 years old when you came into my world through the chunky old TV in my parents’ living room. You had just turned 22, and you were skating in the Olympics in front of a home crowd. You were vibrant, strong, beautiful. Your red lipstick perfectly matched the fabric of your simple yet striking dress. Your dark hair was slicked back into a ponytail that bounced sassily as you flew across the ice. Your eyes seemed to contain all the joy in the world as you landed that throw triple salchow, waved your hand playfully, and swung your fist through the air as you realized you had achieved your dream. Every soul in that arena was cheering, Russian flags were waving everywhere, and history was made. You came in as underdogs and walked away with the Olympic silver medal. In that moment, I fell in love with figure skating. We were both young, energetic, and full of hope for the bright future ahead of us.
I was 12 years old, nearly 13, when I sat in the fourth row of the Milwaukee Panther Arena and watched you skate. I saw you taking the ice for the warm-up and started screaming to my mom, “Look, there’s Ksenia and Fedor!” You were performing to “The Unknown Known” – a program that would soon help you claim the Grand Prix Final title. You were wearing one of the most unique skating costumes I’d ever seen, a dark gray dress wrapped in a black ribbon. You’d traded in your ponytail for a sleek pixie cut, and you looked like you’d stepped out of the Matrix. You landed the first triple toe loop-triple toe loop-double toe loop combination in the history of pair skating, less than fifty feet from where I was sitting. You didn’t win a medal there, but your performance was my favorite of the whole event. To this day, I still wish I had thrown flowers on the ice for you. From that moment on, I guess you became my idol. I wanted to be that confident, that strong, that beautiful. I looked at you like other girls look at Taylor Swift or Selena Gomez – an amazing young woman in pop culture who has achieved a lot and inspires other girls to do the same. We were both growing up, changing, trying new things and seeing what worked.
I was 14 years old when you taught me perseverance. Everyone has bad days, and yours happened in the short program at Worlds. You were sitting in 13th place – I was devastated for you and thought all was lost. But the next day, you skated a strong free skate, won a small medal for the segment, and finished 5th overall. You and Fedor had both suffered severe injuries in the past year, but you were still pushing forward. It was a greater victory than any World title.
My online friend from Russia stopped you at Worlds after the free skate and asked you to sign a calendar for me. You signed “Stolbova” on one side, then tried to spell my name in English and got it (mostly) correct: “Isablel”. I logged into Twitter to check my messages and there it was – the most wonderful gift someone could’ve given me. I treasured that autograph every single day and looked at it whenever I needed cheering up. We were both getting older, dealing with new challenges, fighting to come back stronger.
I was 15 when I commented on your Instagram post. You had just skated two strong performances at NHK Trophy. I stayed up until 2:00 AM to watch your free skate; it was my birthday. I knew you were very busy, but I wanted to let you know how happy your skating made me. I never imagined you would respond. Five days later, I logged into Instagram and screamed when I saw the single kiss emoji you’d left under my comment. It was the smallest interaction, but it meant so much to me.
Life was getting complicated for me – my parents’ marriage was crumbling, I had been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, and I was afraid I would lose everything if I came out as bisexual. I struggled with frequent panic attacks; I could be watching a movie or folding laundry and suddenly I would feel so anxious, I thought I was going to die. When they got really bad, I would watch your programs. No matter how horrible I felt, I couldn’t help laughing when I saw you and Fedor running around the ice in bandages and pushing each other out of chairs, as you did in that iconic gala program at 2017 Europeans. I opened up a bit to you in another Instagram comment a few weeks later, telling you how you inspired me to be a stronger person, and you replied with another kiss emoji. I felt like someone truly understood my struggles, even if yours weren’t the same as mine.
I was also 15 when I watched the world try to break you. I spent one week in shock, trying to understand how the International Olympic Committee could simply pick and choose who was “invited” to their competition, as if it was a society party. I screamed about it on social media, I ranted to my friends, I tried to get people to sign a petition, but there was nothing you or I could do about it. On the night of the pairs’ free skate in PyeongChang, I cried through the entire final group of the event. There were some happy tears for Savchenko/Massot and Duhamel/Radford, sad tears for Tarasova/Morozov, and a mixture of emotions for Sui/Han, but underneath it all, my heart was broken for you. Four years ago, I had fallen in love with figure skating because of you, and now you weren’t there to celebrate what was considered the biggest event of all.
I wasn’t just broken because of the Olympics. My personal life was quickly spiraling out of control, and I had no idea how to fix it. I talked to doctors and therapists, but no one could help me. I was going insane. My whole life felt like one endless panic attack. My mom kept telling me things would get better, but I didn’t believe her. My mind was like a cage, and I wanted to break free.
I was also 15 when I stood at the edge of a second-story window in my parents’ bedroom on a cold morning in early spring and thought about jumping out. I pressed my forehead against the glass and stared at that terrifying drop, wondering how it would feel to fall. It was such a tempting idea to just die and kill all the demons in my head with me. My thoughts scared me, and I stumbled back, away from the window. I couldn’t do it.
Some sliver of reason – fear, probably – came into my mind. I knew that I needed to calm down before I did something stupid. So I grabbed my dad’s computer, opened YouTube, and tried to type with my shaking hands: “stolbova klimov”.
I watched your free skate from the Olympics. I started crying until everything looked blurry and the stripes of Fedor’s suit were swimming around. It was early in the morning and I didn’t want to wake my mom up, so I was watching it on mute. But every element felt like a little dose of strength for me. Triple twist. Throw triple flip. Triple toe-double toe-double toe. On and on it went until that glorious throw triple salchow, the hand flap, and the fist pump of victory.
Your performance saved my life.
You had recently written an Instagram post thanking everyone for their support, and you said, “Injuries and setbacks are only temporary, and I will continue to fight for sport.” From that day on, I took it as my motto: setbacks are only temporary, and I will continue to fight. No matter what happened, I was not leaving this world until God said it was my time to go.
I was also 15 when I went to the salon and asked them to cut my hair like yours so that every time I looked in the mirror, I was reminded of your fighting spirit. You had been through hell and didn’t let it break you, and I was going to do the same. Every day, I reminded myself that if you could do it, I could do it. And I promised myself I would live to see you skate again.
I was also 15 when I watched you end your longtime partnership with Fedor and take a leap of faith into the unknown. You paired up with Andrei Novoselov, a Russian-born French skater with few international medals, and you didn’t even know if he could be released to compete. You left your life in Moscow behind and moved to the city of Perm for a chance to start over again. It was a long shot, but you had unfinished business.
I had just turned 17 when I watched your short program at Rostelecom Cup, my eyes filling with tears as you smiled up at the crowd through my screen. Your hair was longer again, pulled into a sleek bun. You were wearing the pale pink dress you used to wear at galas. Your makeup was simpler, lighter, but the joy in your face was brighter than a thousand spotlights, and you looked more beautiful than ever. You didn’t win a medal for it, but you had proved to yourself that you could come back against all odds. You didn’t let hard times take away your love for the sport.
I wasn’t anxiety-free yet. I still had hard days and moments when my issues started creeping back in to bother me. But I had made it this far, and every day, I was getting a little bit better. We had both seen the dark side, and it was the pain that made this moment so sweet.
Exactly six years ago today, you came into my life with that epic performance and stole my heart. I am not that naïve, carefree, awe-struck 11-year-old anymore, and you are not that girl from Sochi anymore. Our struggles have shaped us into who we are today. Your skating and strength of character left a massive impact on my life. I can honestly say I would not be alive today if it wasn’t for you. In a world that felt too dark and intimidating to handle, your courage was the flicker of light that helped me get through each day.
When I saw the news of your retirement this morning, I was overcome with so many emotions. Part of my heart is breaking because I will miss you so much. But most of all, I am happy for you. So much of your career was interrupted by injuries and unfairness, and now that pain is finally over. I hope you will never lose your love of skating and remember all the great things you’ve accomplished. At the end of the day, I just wish you all the happiness in the world, and I selfishly hope I can see you skate in a few shows once in a while. As you said, it’s not “goodbye”. It’s “see you”.
So tonight, I will watch the video that started it all: “Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov Win Silver with Pairs Free Skate”. I will probably cry because I’ll never see that magic on competitive ice again. But I will also cry from happiness because I know you’re doing what’s best for you. I love many skaters, and I continue to discover new teams that captivate me with their performances, but no skater has touched my life quite as deeply as you have.
I really hope this post doesn’t seem creepy or weird. I just fell in love with your skating and found you
I don’t know how to express the amount of gratitude I have for you, so I’m going to borrow some lyrics from the musical Wicked because they describe the feelings I can’t explain in my own words.
“It well may be that we will never meet again in this lifetime,
so let me say before we part:
So much of me is made of what I learned from you
You’ll be with me like a handprint on my heart.”
This is where our paths take us in different directions. You are embarking on a new adventure: a life without competitive skating. I am looking forward to my high school graduation next year, college, and the rest of my life ahead of me – which I owe to you. You once said, “You can’t find a future while living in the past.” So here’s a toast to our futures, wherever they may lead.