VANCOUVER – There is something exhilerating about watching the best people in the world do what they do, even when it is the simplest of skills in their arsenal, moves so instinctive they would never emphasize them, let alone feature them in highlight reels.
Indeed, perhaps it is that instinctive fluency – what makes a skater glide across the ice and a skier coast through a turn, for example – that makes these moments so moving. Because they are perfect, and still so unattainable by mere mortals.
I felt that sensation most keenly not while watching the men perform quadruple jumps in their chase for figure skating gold or ice skating pairs toss their partners airborn at 90-degree angles.
Rather, it struck me far from the flashbulbs and flag-waving crowds, on an ice rink with few other observers, when a French couple took the ice for a practice routine.
There, with no sequins or bows, in plain form-fitting black bodysuits, performing only for themselves, as it were, I saw skating magic.
Grace, trust, confidence from the first slide across the ice, a delicate classical piece carrying them along through their spins and twists and twirls. It was a privilege to see a world-class performance in such solitude, in a pure form unscrutinized by cameras and judges.
I was doubly lucky, it turned out, because no one had seen this routine before – Isabelle Delobel and Olivier Schoenfelder, the oldest couple to take the ice, hadn’t competed since 2008 because of her shoulder injury and pregnancy, which might have helped limit them to 6th place Monday night.
At the end of their practice routine, as they easily bent their bodies backwards towards each other in unison at the knee, creating the effect of lying down while floating across the ice, I turned to one of the few other spectators in the rink and asked whether that was as hard as I imagined.
“Yes,” was the reply.
There it was, making the impossible seem easy. Of course, there have been many betrayals of how difficult these feats are, how much athletes are pushing themselves to the brink of their sports and their endurance. Most of the men attempting the quad crashed to the ground. Snowboarders flipping upside-down through the air landed on their backsides rather than their boards. Bobsleds careening around corners at 100-plus-miles-per-hour have sashed into the guardrails.
But on the practice ice far from the medal chase, Delobel and Schoenfelder showed no sign of imperfection.
Of course, to achieve Olympic glory means to perform flawlessly under public pressure. But watching the effortless beauty of the aging French pair prepare for what is understood their final competitive skate I witnessed an Olympic triumph.