Interview with Emmy Ma (June 2017)

16-year-old Emmy Ma made a splash at this year’s U.S. Nationals, where she won the short program in the Junior ladies event with a lovely performance. Facing a field of mostly younger rivals, Emmy’s skating stood out for her musicality, skating skills, and maturity. Although she faltered a bit in the long program, Emmy captured the Junior ladies pewter medal at Nationals. One month later, she won her first-ever international competition, the Junior ladies event at Challenge Cup in the Netherlands. 

It was a great season for Emmy; and a bit unexpected, as it was the first time she had qualified for U.S. Nationals in 4 years. Emmy’s career had a promising start in the Juvenile/Intermediate ranks (including a U.S. Nationals Intermediate bronze medal in 2013). However, she ran into obstacles in her Novice years, suffering several injuries that stalled her progress. At times, it was difficult to keep up her motivation for the sport–which made last year’s success all the sweeter. Now, heading into the 2017-18 season, Emmy will compete in Seniors nationally, and hopes for a coveted assignment to a Junior Grand Prix event.

Emmy Ma at 2017 U.S. Nationals  (Jay Adeff)

Emmy spent her early years in Long Island, New York, but now lives in Newton, Massachusetts, with her mother. (Sadly, she lost her father to cancer when she was 8.) In addition to figure skating, Emmy is an accomplished violinist. She is a member of the New England Conservatory’s Youth Philharmonic Orchestra, and will take part in their summer tour to Norway this June/July. She is a student at Newton North High School.

Emmy recently took some time to speak with me at her training rink in Revere, Massachusetts, where she works with coaches Mark Mitchell and Peter Johansson. Sweet, modest, and soft-spoken, Emmy Ma is as appealing and lovely in person as she is on the ice. We talked about her early years in skating, her struggle to get back to Nationals, her unexpected success last season, her programs for next year, and more.

Q: Emmy, how old were you when you started skating?

Emmy: I think I was 6 years old. I got into it kind of differently than most other people. My [older] sister and my [older] brother had both skated before me. But my sister was done with it after a month. She quit. My dad had just bought her new skates, and he said, “I don’t want to give these skates to anyone [else], so I think you’re going to start skating.” And then I started skating.

Q: Did you like it right away?

Emmy: No. As soon as I started taking private lessons, though, my parents thought that I could be something. And I started to like it, so that was the most important part for me.

Q: Once you started liking it, what were your favorite parts of skating?

Emmy: I liked being able to actually skate and not holding onto the wall and being afraid I’m going to fall. (Laughs) Just being able to do stuff. And watching it on TV was cool, too. I hadn’t really known about skating before I started. Then I started watching it, and I was like, “Oh, I want to do that.”

Q: Where did you skate, when you started?

Emmy: I grew up in Manhasset, on Long Island, NY. I skated at a local rink in Port Washington. I did the Basic Skills program there with a couple of my friends. Then I moved to Syosset and trained with 2 coaches. And then I moved to Ice House in New Jersey, to skate with Steven Rice.

Q: You first competed at North Atlantic Regionals in 2011, when you were just 9, right? Was that a bit scary?

Emmy: I was so nervous, yes! But I was kind of overly confident when I went into it. I was like, “Oh, I’ll easily get into the final round.” But I got 5th in the qualifying round. In any other group, I would have made it to 4th [or higher], because of my score. But I didn’t make it, because my group was hard. So that was totally a bummer. But the next year [2012], I trained really hard. And I made it to Junior Nationals [in Juvenile]. But I got sick at Junior Nationals, so that was kind of a bust.

Q: Oh no!

Emmy: It’s okay, it was just Juvenile. (Laughs)

Q: At that age, did you feel like you were “serious” about skating?

Emmy: Definitely, at that time … My dream was totally the Olympics: “I’m going to make it there.” I feel like now, I have a little bit more of a balance between my school and my skating. I also play the violin, as well. So [those] are three big parts of my life. At that time, I was really focused on skating. I was really intense about it.

Q: You had a lot of early success in your career. In 2013, you went back to U.S. Nationals and won bronze in Intermediate when you were just turning 12.

Emmy: Yes. That was the season I moved to Ice House to train. So, I think just the change in coaches helped me get that extra step. Even though I didn’t have double Axel or triple jumps like my competitors did, I felt like I improved a lot with my skating skills that year.

Emmy during her Juvenile/Intermediate years

Q: What did it feel like to go to Nationals at that age and have that experience?

Emmy: It was so crazy!! Because I didn’t have the jumps that my competitors did, I wasn’t really expecting much. But I was obviously stoked to have won third! Yeah, it was a really good experience. The seasons after that weren’t so successful. But I think that pushed me, last season, to do what I did.

Q: After 2013 Nationals, you competed in Novice for three seasons. What were those three years like? What was going on in your skating at that point?

Emmy: So, after that first year I didn’t make it [to Nationals] in Novice [2014], I moved here. And I was doing pretty well. I had gotten my double Axel, my triple jumps. Then I found out I needed surgery in my wrist. It was hurting for a while. I thought it was a sprain, and didn’t go check it out. It ended up being broken. So I needed a hip graft, from my hip to my wrist. And that put me off for the season. Well, I made it to Sectionals [2015], but the injury was hard. It was hard for me to get back. And then the year after that [2016], I also had injury issues. So it wasn’t as successful as I wanted it to be. Injuries set me back in Novice, I think.

Q: A hip graft–that sounds painful.

Emmy: Yes. And then I had tendinitis in my ankle, which was bad.

Q: Was your wrist break a multiple fracture?

Emmy: No, I think it was just that I had left it for so long without doing anything. And I kept falling on it. It just built up after a while.

Q: What happened when you finally got the diagnosis?

Emmy: I was so upset—my mom was so upset! I was surprised that I had [been] able to skate, actually. I did Regionals that year. And Sectionals. But it is what it is. If something hurts now, I go immediately to the hospital to check it out, just in case anything’s wrong.

Q: So, after being in Novice for 3 years, and competing and not making it to Nationals— Did you ever get discouraged during that period of time, and question skating?

Emmy: Yes, definitely. Because I had moved from New York to Boston just solely to pursue my skating career and train with Mark and Peter. And I felt unsure what I was supposed to do—should I focus on my studies, do something else? I didn’t know. Because skating wasn’t going in the path that I had expected it to. And I think, during that time, I was not sure if I wanted to continue or not. This past season, I was like, “Okay, one more year, I’ll just see how things go.” And during [last] summer, I tore my LCL in my knee. I was like, “Oh my gosh. Not again.” But I got through that. I rested for 2 months, without jumping. And Mark and Peter really helped me to stay confident in myself. And I think, just being confident in the things that I can do really helped me to be successful last season. This season …. Well, I just sprained my ankle. I was like, “Again? Really?” But this year, I feel like, even though this happened, I know the steps that I need to take to get back and go slowly, so I can stay healthy for the rest of the season. I’m happy it happened now, [rather] than in October.

Q: It’s great that you were able to regain your confidence, after all your injuries.

Emmy: Yes. Last year, I was really lucky. I thought I was going to [need] surgery. But it didn’t hurt, for some reason. I tore my LCL [lateral collateral ligament], but it didn’t hurt at all. And I was able to train well for the qualifying competitions.

Q: Did it heal on its own, so that you didn’t need surgery?

Emmy: Yes. I got really lucky. But I’m not complaining—I’m happy with how last season went.

A program from Emmy’s early days

Q: You mentioned that you moved up from New York to Boston for skating. What is it like, working with Mark and Peter?

Emmy: Moving here [to the rink in Revere] is really nice because I can come in at any time and skate the sessions that I need to. It’s easy to just come here and get on a session. Because we do group lessons here–kind of. Not [exactly] like group lessons. But Mark and Peter kind of watch everyone at the same time.

Note: When I visited the Revere practice rink, Mitchell and Johansson were coaching a group of 8 to 10 skaters on the ice. Each skater practiced individually. The coaches would spend several minutes with one skater, than move on to another skater, and so on.

Emmy: I really love that [group setup], because I feel like it gets everyone really motivated to do good things.

Q: Does it feel like you’re competing with each other, or more like you’re cheering each other on?

Emmy: I think it’s more like a friendly support system. If someone is skating well, we cheer for them. It’s nice. I love the environment here, it’s really friendly and supportive. It’s great.

Q: What are Mark and Peter’s coaching styles? What roles do each of them play, respectively, in your skating?

Emmy: I think Peter is more focused on the jump side of things. Mark does the tweaking in the choreography, after the choreographer is done doing the program. He adjusts things. Like, if the rules change for footwork, he adjusts that stuff. We train programs a lot here. And we’ve been trying to incorporate different kinds of skating. We do patch on Wednesdays, which is really cool.

Q: Figures?

Emmy: Yes, figures! And we’re all bad at it. But we’re working on it. We heard that Mie Hamada’s group in Japan–they do figures for hours a day. [Note: Mie Hamada is coach to Satoko Miyahara, Marin Honda, and many other Japanese skaters.] So I think it’s cool that we do that. And we also do interpretive class. Like, Mark puts on random music, and we have to skate to it. And sometimes we do this flashback exercise, where he picks out random skaters from [the past], and we try to do things that they did. Like Janet Lynn. So yeah, there’s a lot of different things that help keep us engaged with our training. And I think it’s good.

Q: Having that variety is nice. It’s good to look back on some of the skating greats, and try to see what can you take from them.

Emmy: Yes. When we first started doing it, we were literally clueless about people who made the skating world what it was. I think it’s good to know about the history, and how things came to be.

Q: How do you like living in Boston, as opposed to Long Island?

Emmy: So different from New York. But I feel like I’ve grown to love Boston a lot. I feel like it’s a really good environment here. My school is great, the rink here is great. I just really like living here.

Q: You mentioned that you play violin. Do you play in your school orchestra, or do competitions?

Emmy: I did competitions, a while ago. Now I play at the New England Conservatory, in the Youth Philharmonic Orchestra. We’re going on tour this summer, actually, to Norway [June 23-July 2].

Q:  Is it hard finding the time to fit in violin and skating?

Emmy: At this point, I’m kind of used to it. Coming here, finding time to practice [skating], and then practicing violin, and doing homework.

Q:  Last season, you moved up to Junior level. And you had a great season—very successful. You won Regionals and were 2nd at Sectionals. Then at Nationals, you won the short program and placed 4th overall in Juniors. So how was it to finally be back at Nationals, after such a long time away?

Emmy: So crazy, so exciting! Again, I wasn’t expecting to do so well. Because I knew all of my competitors were really awesome. I competed with a lot of them over the summer, and in previous seasons. So, I again wasn’t expecting much. I just wanted to go out there and do–I know it sounds cliched–but do what I was capable of doing. Because I had been on an upward trend since Regionals. So, I was happy to do what I did. So exciting to be at Nationals! The environment is amazing. Also, being in Juniors, I was able to skate in the big rink. So that was cool, too.

Note:  Below is Emmy’s winning short program from 2017 U.S. Nationals.


Q:  Did you get to watch any other events while you were there?

Emmy:  Oh, yes. Watching the senior events was really cool. And really great to learn [from].

Q:  Did you go to Boston Worlds in 2016?

Emmy: Yes. Worlds in Boston was also really exciting! That was so fun. I keep saying they need to bring it back!

Q:  After Nationals this year, you got your first international assignment to Challenge Cup, where you won the Junior ladies event. What was it like competing at your first international event?

Emmy: Again, so fun. I had never traveled to Europe before, so I was excited to go and see different things. I think the training, leading up to it, was the hardest part for me. Because everyone else [at the rink] was done for the season. I was the only one training programs, so it was kind of hard to motivate myself. But I was really lucky and privileged to have the experience to go and represent the United States at a competition internationally. So, that was so fun and, again, a great experience. The rink was really cool, too. There were 2 different rinks. One was a speed-skating rink. And then there’s a practice rink in the middle of the speed-skating track. I’d never seen [anything like] it before.

Q:  Did you get your Team USA jacket?

Emmy: Yes, I did! And the vest. I love it.

Q:  Did you get to hear the anthem and see the flag at the medal ceremony? Did they do a medal ceremony for your division?

Emmy: I think they only did the flags for Seniors. But we did have a medal ceremony, and it was cool. And we also won the team event, sort of. All of our scores combined had us win a team trophy. Which was great, for Team USA!

Q:  Did you travel elsewhere during your trip?

Emmy: Yes, I went and walked around in Amsterdam. The public transportation there is really nice—clean and fast. The city was really nice. And the French fries were good. (Laughs)

Emmy off the ice

Q:  So, looking back on it, what do you think helped make the difference for you last season in overcoming your struggles from Novice? Was it the confidence-building that you mentioned?

Emmy: Definitely. I had always been able to do the jumps—the triple jumps—since I came to Boston. But the previous seasons, in Novice, really held me back. The biggest thing was knowing that I was capable of doing good programs, good jumps, and putting it all together when it really mattered. So I think the extra practice helped. I did different practices–like I did sections of my program over and over again. I would do extra, specific things to just help me build my confidence. And I really think that was the biggest part last year. And this year. And in seasons to come. Just making sure that there’s no self-doubt. And, when I’m in competition, doing things like I do in practice. Some people are able to just go out and do it, even if they’re not having good practices. But I need everything to be good.

Q:  Let’s talk about your plans for next season. You’re going to compete in Seniors nationally, right?

Emmy: Yes.

Q:  And what about internationally?

Emmy: Internationally, my goal is to get a Junior Grand Prix assignment, hopefully. We’ll see!

Q:  In terms of getting those JGP spots, is it determined by your club competition results over the summer?

Emmy: I think it’s kind of a mixture. Previous season’s [results], club competitions leading up to it. I’m not exactly sure.

Q:  In terms of club competitions, when will you start your season?

Emmy: I think I’m going to compete at Glacier Falls Summer Classic [7/27-7/30 in Anaheim, CA]. Also, I may do Cranberry Open [8/9-8/12 in Kingston, MA] and Boston Open [9/21-9/24 in Boston, MA].

Q:  Glacier Falls is at the end of July? So hopefully by then, your ankle sprain will be better?

Emmy: Yes. I’ll be back in it.

Q:  So you can practice now, but can’t jump?

Emmy: Yes. I can’t jump. But I’m just happy to be back on the ice.

Q:  Obviously, the level of skating for Junior ladies on the Junior Grand Prix is so high right now. The competition last year was incredible. Do you follow it?

Emmy: Yes. (Smiles) Those Japanese and Russian skaters–pretty crazy!

Q:  Do you feel ready for it?

Emmy: Hopefully, I will get an assignment. And even though I might not have a consistent triple/triple [combination] yet like other skaters who are competing internationally, I do feel like I have a strong basis in my skating skills and my spins. Getting good GOE has helped me to be successful in my skating career. Combine that with the triple/triples I’m working on, and I’m hoping to be successful and have a good season again this year.

Q:  Are triple/triples one of the main things you’re working on, technically?

Emmy: Yes. And also getting my jumps more consistent. At Nationals [in] my long program– the jumps were kind of questionable. So I’m really working hard on getting those fully around. And making sure that the panel won’t have to review any of the jumps.

Q:  What do you think is the key to getting full rotation and not getting underrotation calls?

Emmy: I think just getting the height. Not just height, but the rotation speed and everything, combined. I feel like I hold back sometimes, when I’m not feeling confident. When you know you can do the jump, it’s easy to just go with it and nail it. When you’re holding back and you’re not confident, it’s easy to not jump as high, or rotate as quickly, or be as tight in the air. And so I think that’s also a big factor in getting the jumps around.

Q:  Looking at it from the outside, it seems like dealing with underrotation issues must be one of the toughest things as a ladies skater.

Emmy: Yeah, it is. It’s just kind of frustrating. Because you’re like, “I thought that was good!” Ashley Wagner also struggles with that sometimes. [But] I feel like we’re all working to do good, big, nice, fast jumps cleanly.

Q:  Is that something that Peter works on with you?

Emmy: Yes. The technique is Peter’s forte.

Q:  You had some of the harder triples (Lutz, flip, loop) in your programs last season, but not the easier triples (Salchow, toe loop). Will you incorporate some triple Salchows/toe loops in your programs this year?

Emmy: Yes. I can do the triple Salchow well, but I didn’t put it in my program [last year]. I’m not sure why, actually—it just worked out that way. The one jump that I have to work on is the [triple] toe loop. It’s getting there.

Q:  Triple toe loop is usually considered one of the “easier” jumps. But some skaters, like Mao Asada, have struggled with it at times.

Emmy: Everyone has their jump, right? (Laughs)

Q:  Is it the entrance to the jump that feels weird?

Emmy: I don’t know. It just feels foreign to me! But I was working on it a lot over the winter. I’m hoping to get it. I will. It’s just going to take some time. Everyone else can do it! I just never really learned how to, because I was doing the other [triple] jumps. It’s weird, because I got my double Axel last. First I got my triple Lutz, triple flip, and triple loop. And then my double Axel and triple Salchow came at the same time. Now, I’ve been working on jump [combos] with a triple loop after it. And also with the triple toe loop.

Q:  You have such beautiful spins—really gorgeous. How have you gone about developing your spins and achieving the positions you do?

Emmy: I feel like I’m very flexible. So, a lot of the difficult positions, I’m able to do more easily. Or I can experiment with a lot of different positions. And, because I was lacking in the jumps in my earlier skating career—like in Intermediate—I really focused on my skating and my spins and really polished those, so that I could get good GOE. It helps.

Q:  I think it’s actually really important right now. Because all the Russian ladies, especially, have amazing spins. So you have to compete with that.

Emmy: You need everything–the full package–to be successful, I think, now. And have a lot of jumps, too.

Q:  So, can you tell me about your programs for this season? Have you chosen the music and choreographed them yet?

Emmy: Yes. I’m working on the choreography, because I can’t jump now [due to her ankle sprain]. I’m keeping my long program to Phantom of the Opera, and just extending that into a senior program. We chose to keep the long program because, if I do get assigned to a Junior Grand Prix event, then it’ll be easier to just switch it into a junior program, and then go back to senior. My new short program is to a cover of George Michael’s “One More Try,” sung by Brenna Whitaker. I really like it.

Q:  Sounds cool.

Emmy: I feel like it’s a different style of program than I’ve done in the past. Not just pretty, ballet-type music. Mark chose it so I could branch out and try a different style of music. I really like the program; I’m excited to skate it.

Q:  Will you have the same jump layout in both programs this year?

Emmy:  For right now, while I’m getting back into jumping, I think I might keep the jump layout about the same. But as the season progresses, I think I might add more difficult combinations. We’ll see how things go.

Q:  Who choreographed the programs for you?

Emmy:  Jamie Isley choreographed both programs. She does a lot of people’s programs here. Adam Blake [coach at Skating Club of Boston] also works with the kids here. He choreographed my show program this year. It was really fun working with him.

Q:  The Rihanna program to “Love on the Brain,” where you use a shirt as a prop? That was inventive. [Note: See my review of Ice Chips 2017 for more on this program.]

Emmy: Yes, lots of practice went into that.

Emmy skating her Rihanna show program at 2017 Ice Chips  (Marni Tyson Gallagher)

Q:  I also loved your gala program from last year, to “Empire State of Mind.” That was beautiful.

Emmy: Hmm. When did I do that ….

Q:  It was from the Challenge Cup exhibition–I saw it on YouTube.

Emmy: Okay! You know what’s funny? I had that music as a show program from a couple years back. [Then at Challenge Cup], they said, “You need to do an original show program [for the exhibition]. And I was like, “Oh, gosh, I don’t have a show program.” So I looked through my email, found that old show music, and just improv’d it.

Q:  You did great! I would not have guessed that was an improv program.

Emmy: We do interpretive here, so … (Laughs)

Q:  I was going to say–your interpretive class …

Emmy: Yeah, we were joking about that: “Improv-Came-in-Handy Night.”

Note:  Here is Emmy’s improvised show program from Challenge Cup.

Q:  When it comes to selecting programs, do you usually help pick out your own music? What kind of music do you like skating to?

Emmy: I feel like I’m really comfortable doing softer music-type programs. Because I used to do ballet a lot. I actually started with ballet, and then started skating. When I was little, I wanted to be a ballerina. So I’ve done a lot of that kind of music. And I’ve never really done anything outside of that box. So this year, my short program will be a little different.

Q:  It’s good to try different stuff.

Emmy: Right. Mark listens to music all the time. So when it comes to choosing music for the new season, he usually gives us a playlist of things to listen to. And then if we like anything, we say, “I might like this.” We can also give him ideas, and he’ll look at that genre. It’s really a group process. I like that I have some say in what I want to skate to. I think that’s really important– liking what you skate to.

Q:  You mentioned that you did ballet as a child. Is that something that you’ve continued to do?

Emmy: Not really. When we moved here, I didn’t really have much time to do that, because of all the other things I was doing. I think over the summer, we’re going to be doing a dance class here.

Q:  You’ve always had a lot of musicality in your skating, even when you were little. Do you think that comes from your ballet background, or your exposure to music through the violin?

Emmy: I think everything that I do kind of connects to each other. I use my violin background and my ballet background to help me skate and use music well. Also, my skating helps me with my violin. I think it’s cool how everything works together.

Q:  How long have you been playing violin?

Emmy:  Since I was maybe 3. Since I can remember, I’ve been playing the violin.

Q:  Who were some of your favorite skaters when you were growing up? Who inspired you?

Emmy: I think the two biggest skaters that I really followed, when I was little, and now, were Mao Asada and Yuna Kim. I’m so upset that Mao retired. Because even last season, when she wasn’t placing as [high] as we had expected her to, her skating skills and everything–the way she skates to the music–was just so nice to watch. I love watching her. And Carolina Kostner also—beautiful skater. I loved her short program from last year—it was kind of modern, different. And she’s so, like, long and cool. (Laughs)

Q:  Right. The last few years, competing in Juniors, you’ve been a little taller than some of the other girls.

Emmy: This year I was on practice ice at Nationals, and I said, “Oh my gosh, everyone is so tiny, I’m like the biggest one here!” The year before that, in Juniors, Emily Chan won, and she was the oldest one there. This year, Kaitlin Nguyen won, and she was so young. It felt kind of awkward being the tallest one on the ice–but also kind of nice.

Q: It’s funny how skating works that way. I think the advantage is, there’s a maturity in your skating that some of the younger girls don’t have.

Emmy: Thank you. It all comes with experience. If you do it for long enough, it becomes natural.

Q:  Among current top senior ladies, is there anyone you particularly admire, aside from Carolina?

Emmy: I’m not sure if this counts, but Marin Honda. She’s mostly done junior competitions, but she’s going senior next year. I think she’s such a graceful, beautiful skater. She’s so nice to watch. I really like her.

Q:  So what are you like off the ice? What are your hobbies?

Emmy: I really like baking. I usually do that with my sister, when she’s home. I love listening to music. I hadn’t gone to a concert before this year, but I’ve been going more now. I have more time, because of my ankle. I like drawing in my free time. And I do violin, so that’s also a big part of my life. I do 3 hours of orchestra on Saturday at the New England Conservatory. So that’s a chunk of time. I try to practice violin whenever I can. If I have time after I finish my homework, that’s what I try to do.

Q:  You’re 16, are you going to be a senior this year in school? Are you thinking about college?

Emmy:  Yes, I’m going to be a senior. There are a lot of schools I’m looking at here [in Boston], and in New York as well. I’m still not sure if I want to take a gap year or not; there’s a lot of different factors that go into that. Still deciding.

Q:  What subjects do you like in school?

Emmy: I think it depends on the teacher. Any subject is fun to me, as long as the teacher makes it engaging. I like science—but then I also like English. Never history, though. (Smiles)

Q:  What kind of role has your mom played in your skating career?

Emmy:  She’s strict, but in a way that is supportive. I feel like that’s another reason why I’ve been able to come so far. I feel like, without her, I’d be super-lazy. She’s a force–but a good one.

Q:  Does she get involved in helping to pick your programs?

Emmy:  She used to, but leaves it to Mark and Peter now.

Q:  When you start college, do you plan to continue with violin and/or skating?

Emmy: Both, possibly. Because I’ve been doing it for so long–why stop, right? I’m not sure if I want to continue skating while I’m in college. But again, I’m just thinking about the gap year, skating, and college–we’ll see how everything works out.

Q:  Well, I wish you the best this season and hope everything goes well!

Emmy: Thank you!


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2 thoughts on “Interview with Emmy Ma (June 2017)

  1. Pingback: Figure Skating Articles for Thursday, June 22, 2017 | BLAZING BLADES II

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