How to land on your butt and still set a world record.
If you love figure skating, and you have watched many competitions over many years, you will have learned to tell a skater’s best, from their average, from those skates where they transcend themselves and their sport.
As the person who knows best what I am capable of as a wheechair pole dancer, I declare my performance at the Spanish National Pole Sport Championships average.
Part of how you learn to differentiate is from the announcers. They tell you what tricks are coming and the level of difficulty involved. The effect of an incredible skater is that they make it look effortless which means, unless you have done it yourself, you need someone to tell you exactly how much effort it takes. It is also the goal of a performer to hide, not just any struggle, but also any mistakes. The judges can still see them, but it counts if you appear unfazed.
The announcers tell you when a twist was over rotated or that extra toe touch will cost the skater points. They prepare you for good or bad or ‘Russian’ scores. They educate you as you’re watching, so you know that you are not just watching a pretty dance on ice, there is a lot more going on. It would be hard to truly appreciate the skill, artistry and athleticism involved without the information you get from the announcers.
Parapole has no such announcers. And there is so much more going on than a pretty dance on a pole with a wheelchair. So I shall announce for myself! Let us all appreciate parapole more deeply!
Points are based on you doing what you say you’re gonna do and then how well you do it. You fill out a sheet with your routine marked out and the judges have that in front of them as they watch your performance. Competitors basically pick their own possible top score by choreographing routines with a level of complexity they choose. You can game a score based on stacking your routine according to your strengths. At the moment, this is difficult to take advantage of in parapole because we’re still using the repertoire of standard tricks. In time, I’m hoping to contribute to a new repertoire of wheelchair-pole specific tricks informed by the different mechanics involved in having less leg function than the pole sport athletes. For now, we game the points by relying on my performance quality and massive upper body strength.
In my routine for the Spanish National Pole Sport Championships, I was slipping on the bar in the beginning. That’s a reduction in points. It also means that the placement of my hands is more desperate than deliberate. I don’t have my feet or legs to help me move up or stay on the pole. Only my hands. If they are slipping it takes MORE grip strength to stay in place, and I have less options for movements. This made the entire first sequence uncontrolled and sloppy. It also meant that some of my preliminary tricks were incomplete or left out entirely.
To get full points for each trick you have to hold the final position for a certain amount of seconds. My split didn’t last for very long before it succumbed to slipping. Lost points.
Just like in figure skating, it’s often better to attempt a more difficult trick and fail at it than it is to perfectly execute an easier trick. Many skaters have won gold medals after falling on their butt because of this judging system! And that’s what we’re looking at with my routine. For example. During the first sequence on the bar, there is a moment, after the split, where my legs are extended and I’m not moving much. I am thinking. The handspring is next.
The handspring is a move in which I invert, hook my right leg, push my entire body away from the pole and then extend my legs. My legs don’t want to straighten on a good day, but while slipping? If I don’t even try it, I get negative the amount of points the trick is worth and it's one of my highest scoring tricks. But if I do try it, I will have to abort and that will be sloppy. The problem is that it’s dangerous. I can’t bail safely by landing on my legs. The only option is to move my body back to the pole, which I might not have time to do if I start to slip head first to the ground. I decide not to try the trick, to keep the routine as smooth as I can. I can’t loose, I’m the only one in the category. I’m guaranteed the gold. I’d like to get maximum points. But in the moment, in the *feel* of it. The points were less important. What I could control was what I conveyed as I danced. And not falling on my head. I slide down to my chair, gather myself, give in to the music. Keep going. Lost points for not doing it at all. But, there are points for confidence. An elite athlete stays in command of a performance even when it is falling apart.
In contrast, I invented a variation of the 360 in which, instead of one hand on the floor and one hand on the pole, I have one hand on my wheelchair - which moves. In ideal circumstances, I rotate around my shoulder and end up in the exact spot I started. Legs extended and parallel to the ground. Guys, it’s so impressive. It’s the triple axel of wheelchair pole dancing. Remember when Brian Boitano nailed the triple axel for the first time ever during a competition? That was going to be me at Nationals. But it wasn’t. During the rotation the hand on the pole slips and I land on the floor on my back and have to sit up and make it work.
If I’d had announcers, they would have built an immense anticipation for you all while I set up for the 360 and shared in the disappointment when it failed to be spectacular. Which, would have just built up the anticipation even MORE for the next time I attempt the wheelchair 360 during the world championships in July. I want that massive anticipation for you all. Sitting on the edge of your seats hoping I nail it. Feeling like it’s you up there dancing for the world. Setting the bar for yourself so high, excellence is nearly unreachable. But you are unrelenting as you strive for it anyway. The magic of athletics is how spectator and athlete can share the highs and lows. But it only works if you truly know what’s going on.
Athletics and competition is psychologically and emotionally complex. You want to win, AND you want to do well. And those are not always the same thing. I broke a world record with this performance. I’m proud of that. But I’m disappointed with the performance itself. Any gold medal winning figure skater who fell on their butt probably feels the same way.
The performance was average. Even choreographically. Head up during those rotations! Shoulders back when sitting up in wheelchair. What is that aborted reach for my chair at the end? Average. And that’s ok. Being a competitive pole dancer in a wheelchair doesn’t automatically make every performance amazing. I am a skilled, talented and strong athlete and performer. But I don’t always nail it. I am comparing my performance to myself. To what I have done previously. To the vision in my head of how it could be. To what I can ineffably feel is possible. That’s what striving is. That's what an athlete does. That's how you fall on your butt and still set a world record.
I hope you enjoyed my parapole tutorial. Stoke your anticipation for the upcoming world championships where I, your spanish national champion, world record breaker, subcampeona del mundo, will compete in July for the world wheelchair parapole gold medal. Let us all hope I will not slip during my first sequence and that I will nail that wheelchair 360.