Interview with Amy Vecchio: “It’s extremely important for skaters to work with sports nutritionists” (Part 1)

Amy Vecchio has lived a lifetime in figure skating. She’s been a fixture on the Boston, MA, skating scene for over 40 years. In that time, she’s seen the sport inside and out: as competitor, professional skater, longtime coach, adult ice dancer, skating show director, and theatre-on-ice coach. Amy has competed at New England Regionals; skated as a professional with Disney on Ice; coached skaters at U.S. Regionals, Sectionals, and Nationals; and taken theatre on ice teams to Nations Cup. Amy is also my own skating coach! Recently, Amy sat down with me for a candid discussion about her life’s work in skating and what she’s learned in her years in the sport.

Amy-on-her-own

Amy Vecchio

In part 1 of our interview, Amy talks about her competitive skating career, her experience with Disney on Ice, her struggles with an eating disorder, and the importance of nutritional guidance for figure skaters.

Q: Amy, I wanted to interview you because you’ve been in skating for such a long time and have been part of so many different aspects of it. Let’s start off with your competitive career. So, when did you get into skating?

A: I grew up in Lynn, Massachusetts. In the wintertime, the city used to flood the Lynn Commons and my mother used to take me there, [starting] when I was 2. In my backyard, we had a little brook that froze over in the wintertime, and I’d skate there… I remember working on backward crossovers [at] about 4-5 years old, and just picking it up pretty quickly. My brother played hockey at the North Shore Sports Center in Lynn. One day, he said to my mother, “There’s a girls’ figure skating program on Saturday mornings, you should sign Amy up for it.” I was 7 years old. My first day, I got my first badge. And I was hooked, from that first badge. I didn’t want to do anything else. I looked forward to Saturday mornings: My favorite day of the week.

My first coach was Faith Paterson. She was from England. She was an ice dancer–a very creative, eccentric woman. She taught me how to create my own programs. She made up my first show program, my first competition program. And after that, she said, “You’re on your own, figure it out.” Now, in today’s world, that seems almost crazy, to tell a 9-year-old kid, “You’re on your own, go choreograph your own programs!” But in hindsight, it’s probably the best thing that ever happened, because that’s how I learned to choreograph. Having Faith say, “Yes, you can do it–go ahead and do it,” made it seem like I was capable of it and gave me confidence to make up my own programs. So I did. I picked out my own music, I choreographed my own programs, and it gave me this freedom….

Amy-Reading

Amy at practice

I think skaters today could use a little bit more of that, just having some time on the ice when they can play and create their own programs. Everything [now] seems to be very rigid, as far as their schedules, and I just wish in general the kids had more time to play. Because that helped me a lot.

I started competing. I did a lot of USFSA competitions and ISI. I competed in both. I liked ISI, because there was no pressure, we went out there, we had fun, there was a team element to it. We had a lot of great kids in the club. We really tried to get the trophy at the competitions– if you came in 1st place, you got 5 points for your team; 2nd place, you got 4 points; and so on. It was more about trying to get the trophy for the team than [an] individual, pressure-filled situation.

But I did compete USFSA. I did pretty well. I won competitions—Boston Open, Lake Placid. I did well in New Englands [Regionals]. But [at some of my] my earlier New Englands, I wasn’t so good at figures, so that held me back.

Q: Were you generally more of a figures skater, or more freestyle?

A: At that point in my life, when I was still young–working on preliminary, first, second figures tests– like most kids, I preferred free skating. But [with] the figures, you didn’t really have a choice in the matter. You had to do it, so I did. We all did. It wasn’t probably until I got to my fourth figure test that I really started to understand [figures], and they started to come together. I liked free skating, initially. That’s what I enjoyed doing the most… The figures, it was a little bit later in my career, maybe in my mid-teens, when I really started appreciating the figures and getting good at them.

I ended up leaving Faith Paterson because I’d had her from a young age, and I just wanted a change and a little bit more of a challenge. But to this day, I have to say–Faith had a great impact on my skating and my life. She was a great role model, someone I really admired. She was a lady; she was just a wonderful, kind, warm person. She had a backyard rink in Nahant; we used to skate there in the wintertime.

My next coach, Mike Masionis, was a great technician. Mike was great at figures, great at jumps, and he was great at strategy, putting together a plan for the year. He taught me a lot about how to work and how to win. How to have a goal, and figure out the steps to get to it. He was the first person in my life who said, “This is how you get to where you want to be.” That had a big impact on me. It was with Mike that my figures really started improving and my jumps really improved. I had to relearn a lot of technique, but he was the one who said to me, “You’re capable of this,” and gave me a lot of confidence. I owe Mike a great deal.

Q: And where were you training at that point?

We trained all over the North Shore. [Note: The area just north of Boston.] We went anywhere that there was ice. Mike was just a great coach. He still coaches today. I still call Mike. Any kind of question I have, I’m on the phone, going: “Mike—I need help….” He’s been a great influence. If there’s any regret about my singles skating, it’s that I wish I had met Mike a little earlier and been a little bit more goal-oriented earlier. Because I think that would have made a difference. Mike taught me a lot about being a coach, and being a role model. The first question he asked me was, “What are your goals?” I think that was the first time anyone in my life had said [that] to me.

Q: I remember you asked me that during our first lesson.

A: Right. I asked you about your goals, because it’s important to know what somebody wants to do. Because everybody’s goals are different. And I remember just looking at Mike. “Hmmm … What are my goals? Gee, I want to go to the Olympics … but that’s not going to happen, you know? So why am I doing this 5 or 6 days a week?”

I feel that it’s important to find someone who can work with you, work with your goals, and know them and identify them and get on that path as quickly as you can. Not everybody is going to go to the Olympics. But everybody can be the best skater they can be, if they are in the right hands. And that doesn’t necessarily mean the best coach technically. Just whomever is the best coach for you. Who’s going to work best [with you], who you think is going to take you where you need to be. There is no perfect coach, there is no perfect plan. Still, to this day, a lot of people don’t know where the best place is for them to train. Or maybe they can’t afford it. You do the best you can. But if you can identify your goals, and who is best capable of helping you get you there– and you work well with that person and there’s mutual respect–then you’re on your way, you’re in good hands.

I guess what I’m getting to is: If I knew then, what I know now. I think that what [skating] parents should do is try to educate themselves. I see kids [who maybe aren’t] necessarily the most talented skater, but they’re put on the right path, and they’re put in the right direction, with the right coach, and they end up with great results. They’re not always necessarily the most talented kid, but they have opportunities sometimes that other kids don’t have.

I don’t have any regrets. But if [my early years in skating] had been done differently, things could have been different.

Q: I agree about getting on that right path. Because just in my limited experience, I can see already that skating is not like this thing that’s run in a very organized way, like a football team in high school. There’s not that structure. Everything is very loosely structured–coaches, where they work, etc. So even though there’s now more information available for parents online, so much of it is still up to you.

A: Yes. You’re a free agent. It’s up to you. A lot of parents come into rinks, and they just assume that they’re going to be put on the right path. And that’s not necessarily the case. There are some coaches that are very aggressive, and sometimes those are the ones that aren’t always the best coaches. But in terms of recruitment, they’ll see a kid who’s very talented, and they’re all over that kid. And four or five years move by before the parent realizes: I wish I had done things differently.

Parents need to do their homework when they come into the rink. As soon as they realize, “My kid has some talent, he/she really wants to do this,” you have to educate yourself. Whether it’s skating, or anything. Parents do that now, with colleges. They check out colleges. They check out even preschools—who are the teachers, what degrees do they have, this and that. But they come into a rink, and they take from anybody. And they just assume that it’s the right person. Sometimes they stay with the coach longer than they should. So there’s still a lot of gray areas … You just have to be careful. Ask a lot of questions, go online, read, go to the rink, talk to other parents, talk to coaches, just do your homework when you’re looking for a club and looking for a coach.

Q: I agree that parents need to do research and stay involved and stay aware of what’s going on. So … getting back to you and Mike. You trained with Mike from about the age of 12/13 to when?

A: Until I was like 16 or 17.

Q: And what was the highest level of competitive results that you guys got to?

A: We got to novice together. And then I continued competing at the junior level. I didn’t end up passing my 8th figure test [out of 9 total figures tests] or my senior free skating [test]–which is a regret. By the time I was 18, there was a little bit of feeling like– “I want to do something else. I need to figure out what else I’m going to do. I want to skate–skating’s always going to be a part of my life. Am I going to go on to a skating show? Am I going to go to college?”

You start to realize you’re not going to go to the Olympics. I put a lot of pressure on myself, and I was really, really hard on myself growing up, particularly in skating and competing. By the time I was 18, I went through a little bit of a burnout phase. I didn’t want to compete any more. I was done. And I didn’t know if I’d go back to it eventually … but at that point in my life, I knew I didn’t want to be competitive any longer.

So, I auditioned for Ice Capades, and I auditioned for Disney on Ice. I got accepted into both. Disney called first, so I went with Disney. I skated with them from 1985-1987.

Disney-on-ice-kickline

Amy performs in the kick line with Disney on Ice (11th from right)

It was a great experience, as far as being able to travel. A good learning experience. All of those questions that you have when you watch the show get answered: How do they put the show together? How does this happen? How do they choreograph it all? Who does it? How many hours of rehearsals? What are the logistics of getting a show from one city to the next?

It’s a great experience. You can take it for granted, after you’ve done a few hundred shows. But I used to make it a point just to look out at the audience and say: “This is pretty cool. I’m pretty lucky to be here.” Especially [when we performed] at the old Boston Garden. There was this one part of the finale, where I had this long, beautiful dress that was designed by Bob Mackie. It was mink and fox, and it [trailed] on the ground, it was beautiful. I got to stand right in the front row every night—it was a showgirl number. And every single night, especially in Boston, I’d look out at the audience and say, “I’m really lucky to be here, to be able to do this.” Especially in your hometown.

Amy-and -Chris-Tunney

Amy and Chris Tunney in a Disney on Ice number

So there were some great moments with the show. And some not-so-great moments. It was really hard, back then, to keep your weight where they wanted you to keep it. That was tough for me, because I wasn’t a naturally tiny person. So—I struggled. I struggled in a big way, trying to keep my weight down. And in the end, that’s why I didn’t stay [as long as] I would have maybe liked to. Because I just couldn’t keep my weight where they wanted it, without taking some drastic measures. Which I did, at times. Some of us really developed some unhealthy habits to be able to stay in the show. Looking back, it was unfortunate. [Long pause.]

At that time, a normal weight [for me, at 5’7″] … A good, healthy weight for me–that I could jump at and be strong and get through a program and do double-doubles—was 135-140. That was a really good weight. But Disney wanted my weight to be considerably lower than that. At that weight, I was cold all the time and had all the signs of just not being healthy.

I’ve heard that Disney’s not so strict any longer on girls’ weights, and I hope that’s true. I don’t know if, now, they [Disney] have nutritionists they work with. I think it’s a good thing if skaters work with sports nutritionists, whether [or not] they’re competitive skaters. I know they do at the elite level.

But I think even sometimes when the girls reach puberty, they start panicking about putting on that skating dress. Whether you’re a national competitor or a world competitor, skating in an ice show, or you’re just competing in a local competition…. Putting on a skating dress can put so much stress on girls. Because they don’t know what a healthy weight is for them. They just think thinner is better. And not necessarily.

When I got very thin, and lost a lot of weight, I lost, at the same time, a lot of strength and muscle. And I couldn’t jump the way I used to, and couldn’t get through my program. I knew this. But it’s a catch-22. Everyone’s telling you, “You look great,” but you know that it’s not working for you.

So yes, I did develop an eating disorder. Took a long time to get over that. I don’t keep it a secret. I’ll talk to people, I’ll talk to my students, and I’ll talk to the parents. If I even think that [a student] is making too many comments about their weight, or if I see them struggling, or if I see they’re losing weight, I will immediately go to the parents and say: “You need to address this. Immediately. Because this is the time to do it, before the habits become ingrained.” It’s a learn-from-your-mistakes thing. I try to make sure that my kids are on a good path as far as nutrition. I don’t tell them to lose weight.

There’s a sports nutritionist–her name is Nancy Clark, she’s from Brookline, MA. She has some great books. If I see students struggling, I’ll tell them: “Get Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook and read it.” And that’s for girls who just need some guidance. For the ones who show all the signs of maybe developing an eating disorder … I will be much more serious with the parent, whether it’s my student or not. I’ll say, “You need to do something. Because this is what happened to me, and you don’t want this to happen to your child.”

Eating disorders can develop quickly in figure skaters, gymnasts, ballet dancers. But I think any girl is susceptible to it, with all of the magazines and the television shows and the reality shows. Everything’s telling them: You’re not good enough.

So, I think the first step is educating. Teaching them about nutrition, teaching them how to be healthy. I try to tell my students: “You’re better off being strong. You’re better off being really, really strong. Don’t worry about those last 10 pounds, because it’s irrelevant. You’re really not going to jump any better. You might look better, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to jump any better.” Some girls, they lose the weight, they lose the strength. And then it’s over. You can’t push a girl down that path if it’s not the way her body is meant to be.

My eating disorder went on for much longer than it should have. Part of the reason was because I hid it. My mother wasn’t aware of it.

Q: And you were touring at the time, right?

A: Yes, I was touring, and I was also a late teenager when it developed. There wasn’t a lot of information about it in the early 1980s. People knew what anorexia was–[but] it wasn’t something that my mother was looking for. She just thought, “Oh, Amy’s losing weight.” But when I came home from Disney on Ice, it was clear that I wasn’t healthy.

It’s a tough subject to talk about. You want to bring it out, you want to make people aware of it, so it doesn’t stay in the dark. But I don’t think there’s been a whole lot of talk about eating disorders lately in figure skating. Some people have come out. I know Jenny Kirk has come out and said she struggled with being bulimic. I’m not ashamed of it.

Q: I think it’s talked about to some extent, but probably not as much as it needs to be. The Skating Lesson did an interview with Tanith Belbin & Ben Agosto … Tanith said in the interview that she struggled with disordered eating for “the better part of 10 years” while skating. So she stated that, but you don’t really hear too much more. And you don’t tend to hear about it until someone’s come out the other side.

A: Exactly. I never mentioned it to anybody–which is part of the reason it [went] on so long. It started when I was 17. And I really didn’t get better until I was 35. So it went on for almost 18 years, which was ridiculous. There’s no reason it should have gone on that long.

I did get better when I was 29, and I did okay for a couple years, and then I relapsed. And it was a few more years before I finally got better. With that, I learned how easy it is to relapse—whether it’s alcohol, drugs, eating disorders. It’s extraordinarily easy to relapse. And so, when I recovered the next time, I worked with some doctors and developed some strategies on how, if I’m going through a tough period in my life, to make sure that that doesn’t happen again. Because it’s just like any other kind of addiction. You don’t just get over it, and it’s over. This is going to be for the rest of your life. You’ve got to be careful.

Q: So never really “normal” again?

A: Normal? Yes. The same? Probably not. It’s something that changes your life, and you need to constantly educate yourself and stay on top of it, in terms of taking steps to avoid relapse.

I think it’s important to say I don’t blame the skating. There are certain personalities that are attracted to the sport of figure skating. They tend to be perfectionist types, they tend to be hard on themselves, they tend to be goal-oriented. And these are the girls that are more likely to go down that path. Because, just like you try to get that double Axel, you try to get that number down on that scale. Some of it is self-esteem—there’s a lot of psychological issues—but there are definitely personality types that are more likely to develop an eating disorder.

So I don’t want to blame the sport of figure skating. But I do think that parents and coaches of figure skaters need to educate themselves and be aware of it. And learn how to, particularly with girls, get the point across that you want to eat the right foods.

Food is not the enemy. That’s one of my mantras. Food is not the enemy. Food is your ally. It’s something that’s going to help you. It took me a long time to say, “If I eat this, this is going to help me to get through this program. If I eat this, it’ll help me do whatever.” It’s not like: “I’m going to avoid this, I’m going to avoid that, I’m not going to do this, that is awful, this is bad, I can’t eat this, I’ve got to do something if I eat that.” No. You’ve got to turn that thinking around. And say: “Food is the best thing that can happen in my life to help me to be a better skater.”

I think coaches need to understand this, too. It is irresponsible to say to a skater: “Oh, lose some weight.” Because kids don’t know. Even teenagers. They can’t go to Whole Foods on their own. They’re dependent on what’s being served at school, at home. They don’t know. There are nearly nonexistent nutritional programs at schools. They’re being told, “You have to look this way,” but they’re not being told how to eat properly and how to use food to help them be a better skater.

Eating disorders can ruin your whole life. It’s something that has to be caught early. So, if you are a coach, don’t be irresponsible, don’t tell your student to lose weight. If you’re a skater, ask questions, seek guidance from somebody you can trust, whether it’s a coach, a teacher, somebody like that. Don’t let it go on for a long time. And if you’re a parent, don’t think you did something wrong. It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s like this perfect storm that comes together. You can’t look at one thing and say, “This is the reason.” There are so many reasons. And the skater needs help, guidance, education, to make sure that this doesn’t continue for decades.

Q: So, one more question on this subject. Is it possible to skate at an elite level or high level and have a relatively “normal” diet? What’s the kind of diet that you need in order to achieve at that level, but still be healthy?

A: I think every [person’s] body is different. And I don’t think there’s any ideal diet. I think this is why it’s extremely important for skaters to work with sports nutritionists. I can’t stress enough the importance of working with somebody who’s really knowledgeable. Who can take you and say: “This is your body type, okay? This is your body type. You need X amount of calories to perform at your greatest potential. If you’re skating 20 hours a week, and you’re doing ballet, and you’re 5’7”, you need this amount of calories. You can’t survive on 1200 calories a day. You might need to eat 3000 calories a day.”

That’s what girls need to know. You can’t put out your best product and survive on 1200 or 1400 calories a day, in most cases. You’re not going to improve.… And that’s pretty much what happened to me at 17. That was part of the reason I lost my desire. I came to the rink, I was cold, I just didn’t want to do it any more. You don’t just lose weight, you lose strength. You lose your desire to even go out there. Things that were important to you before aren’t important any more. All you want to do is be thinner and thinner and thinner. And you’re thinking that, “If I weigh X amount, then I’ll get the double Axel, and I’ll get this.” It just totally backfires on you.

So I think [it’s key to] work with a sports nutritionist who can look at you and really be honest and say: “No, you’re not going to be a size 4. Ever. Ever. Forget that. It’s not going to happen for you. You have to worry about what works for you.” And really get these girls to understand that if you want to be a great athlete, you need to do what’s best for your particular body type. Not everyone’s going to be an ice dancer. Not everyone’s going to be tiny enough to be a pairs skater. There’s some realities that you have to accept. But I think that anyone who skates and trains hard can do a double Axel…. Food is important. It’s every bit as important as how many hours you skate, who you take from, anything.

[Sometimes] you really have to say, when kids come off the ice: “It’s okay. We’re going to love you, no matter what. No one’s going to feel any differently about you.”

Kids need to hear that. Because sometimes before a competition or a test, they start making excuses: “I don’t feel good, my skates don’t fit right, I’m sick …” And it’s because they’re afraid. And when you get to the bottom of it, the fear is: “Is anyone going to be mad at me? Are you still going to want to work with me, are you still going to want to teach me, are you still going to love me?” Some kids really need to hear that, no matter what happens, it’s going to be okay. That takes some of the pressure off. Of course, you want to try and do the best you can and progress. But there is no perfect. It’s an unattainable goal that can backfire on you, and can turn into something worse than you ever imagined.

It’s a subject that’s close to my heart. People don’t know about an eating disorder until after it’s already over. Once you’re in it, you don’t want people to take it away from you! So [parents and coaches need] to get there before that happens. Because unfortunately, with an eating disorder, there’s a glamor stage where you’re losing weight, and you look good. You put on those jeans at the mall, and you’re like, “Yes!” But then you can lose the enamel on your teeth, and if you’re on diet pills you can have heart problems, and your hair can fall out. By the time it backfires on you, you’re so ingrained in these behaviors, that you don’t know how to shut if off. Very quickly, you go from this glamor phase to this nightmare phase.

So I think if any coach sees it, and knows the signs, it’s got to be addressed immediately. You cannot let it continue. It’s one of the best things you can do as a coach. To be able to identify the problem and intervene as soon as possible.

**********************

In Part 2 of this interview, which will appear tomorrow, Amy talks about her coaching career, how ice dance has reinvigorated her own love of skating, how the loss of figures has affected the sport, her experiences with theatre on ice, and her thoughts on the current state of U.S. singles skating.

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