On the Blade

Tony Nelson

After picking himself up off the ice, Rohene Ward skates back to the boards where a fellow figure skater and his coach look on. He just took a hard fall, having lost his balance midair, but now Ward's tense facial expression gives way to a dazzling smile as he jokingly exclaims, "Oh, my Lord! Did you see that? I came down completely horizontal."

In a dash, Ward takes off again and circles the rink as if nothing happened. After all, a fall from grace in figure skating is about as common as an incomplete pass in football, not to mention that Ward had been attempting the quadruple loop, a daring jump that no one has ever landed in the history of figure-skating competition.

For Ward, it's just a relaxed Friday afternoon practice at the Edison Civic Ice Arena in north Minneapolis. With the Zamboni-polished ice gleaming under bright lights, Ward nearly has the rink to himself, and the empty arena echoes with a musical mix ranging from Tchaikovsky to OutKast's hit single "Hey Ya." Even though it's toe-numbing frigid at rink-side, the lithe, powerfully legged Ward wears only a black T-shirt and tights. "One day, I'll land one of those," he says, a line of sweat streaming down his cheek.

Last November, at the Figure Skating Midwestern Sectional Championships in Dallas, Ward did land his first ever four-rotation jump in competition, the quadruple toe loop, which is distinguished from the quad loop by a helpful toe tap on the ice at takeoff. The maneuver earned him a standing ovation and a first-place finish in the short program competition. He took third place overall, qualifying him for the national championships in Atlanta January 9 to 11. (It's worth mentioning that Ward, a member of the Starlight Ice Dance Club in Minneapolis, will again face off against the skater who finished one place ahead of him at sectionals: Ben Miller, Ward's longtime cross-river rival from St. Paul.)

Growing up in north Minneapolis's Hawthorne neighborhood, Ward was taking slapshots long before he attempted a triple axle, playing hockey at age eight. When he began to mimic figure skaters during open-skate sessions at a local rink, a coach noticed his innate talent and offered free lessons. Some 13 years later, Ward has become one of the premier up-and-coming skaters in the nation.

"Everybody has always been talking about me, but now it's on a new level," says Ward, whose flamboyant personal style is matched by his prominent, handsome facial features. He pulls his curly locks back into a bushy ponytail and wears a somewhat scruffy goatee. As an athlete, the 20-year-old skater is known to experience intense, nerve-driven mood swings before big competitions; he says self-pressure has long hindered his performance.

Ward's somewhat mercurial nature led him to get, as he describes it, "way off track" in 2002. Often, professional skaters work the national ice show circuit to maintain their skills and earn extra money. He recalls how, after joining a show in Chicago, he fell into a pattern of excess--shopping for designer clothes and late-night club hopping. (Though his earnings were modest at $375-$600 a week, it was more than Ward, or his family members, had ever made over such a span.) In subsequent competitions, a tired and unfocused Ward performed poorly, failing to qualify for last year's national tournament.

Nevertheless, the figure-skating luminary says the Chicago extravaganza, Soul Spectacular on Ice, was the best show he has ever experienced and that being the youngest in an all-black cast, whose male performers were also all openly homosexual, like Ward, has afforded him new confidence and maturity.

"With skating it has been tough being an African American and being from where I'm from," says Ward, who recalls instances in which opposing coaches made racist remarks about him and other times when fellow skaters refused to give him a ride home for fear of entering his neighborhood. "I started to act totally different from how I would at home. But I had to get used to being in my skin and just being me no matter where I was. You make friends and you make enemies and you just got to deal with it."

In a world that, at its worst, mixes all the backbiting of the fine arts with the furious pressure of athletics, Ward has tried to view his life beyond figure skating. Besides taking up kickboxing to stay fit, he now works part-time as a waiter at Oddfellows restaurant, spending much of his off-ice time at home with his mother, older sister, and young nephew.

Back on the ice, Ward again glides through his short program routine set to the romantic flamenco guitars of the Gypsy Kings. From his flying camel to the triple axle, Ward displays an amazing degree of flexibility and, with several of his jumps, the ambidextrous skater can spin in both directions, a feat unmatched by his competitors. Ward's versatility has served him well in other arenas, too.

"It's two different worlds I'm in here," he says. "But my mom always told me, 'Remember where you came from.' That's something I've been holding on to. Just getting back to the basics."

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