In every competition, there are winners, there are runner-ups, there are the ecstatic bronze medalists and then there is the fourth place finisher. Fourth place. It isn't easy being the odd man out. Yet, Tonia Kwiatkowski made a career of it.
Tonia Kwiatkowski climbed the ranks of US Figure Skating with Nancy Kerrigan and Kristi Yamaguchi. They went on to Olympic podiums and professional careers, yet Tonia kept plugging away at the Winterhurst Figure Skating Club, chasing her Olympic dream.
Life is cruel. You can work and work and work, and sometimes you just don't get that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. And sometimes you just don't recognize when you've reached it.
See, Tonia Kwiatkowski was a good skater but she was never a 'great' skater. This is similar to how Rachael Flatt will never be a 'great' skater. Tonia Kwiatkowski never gave up, but she often gave in to the nerves of competition. At her best, Tonia Kwiatkowski competed at three World Championships. Luckily for her, injuries, utter meltdowns and sheer good fortune got her to the top 10 in the World.
Not every skater is going to be a World Champion. After failing to qualify for the short program at the 1993 Worlds and finishing fifth in a Kerriganless field at the 1994 Nationals, it became painfully obvious that the youngins had passed her by. Always the masochist, Tonia kept going. And going. And going.
There comes a point in time when you need to recognize that it is time to move on. If you can't recognize it yourself, pay attention to the television commentators.
The following dialogue only took place fifteen to twenty times on ABC Sports:
Dick: This is her 29th appearance at the National Championships and she has always been a fine competitor. You have to respect the conservative hard work she has put in over the years.
Peggy: Tonia is always so nicely put together for competition. Her costumes and hair are always quite lovely.
When the commentators are listing the number of times you've competed, your college diploma and appear focused on your costumes instead of what you're doing on the ice, it is time to hang it up. One former ladies medalist texted me about Kimmie Meissner the other day. "Someone needs to be honest with Kimmie and tell her to save her money. Do you think she really loves it THAT much? It is like she has Amber Corwin syndrome." Tonia also suffered from that affliction.
The 1995-1996 season was the apex of Tonia's never-ending career. It was the crescendo, the little accent mark on a half note. When you're forever stuck in the 5.1-5.7 range, the judges are telling you something. A 5.6 on a good day means something isn't right.
Could it be your music choices? Hunchback of Notre Dame at 27? John Tesh? All of your coach's 40 year-old music cuts? The pumping crossovers? The axel you'd pop where you'd put all of your weight on one hip and then take off? The beads weighing down your costumes? The open backs showing off the shoulders of a line backer?
When Uncle Dick refers to your lutz technique as "interesting" on television, it is a red flag. It is also a red flag when Peggy says "she knows this program like the back of her hand." That means that you've been doing that program longer than Hollie Vise did her floor routine to the Mask.
Oh Tonia, it is like you never got out of Cleveland, or if you did, it was only to go to another ice rink. Sadly, looking at you and your beloved coach in the Kiss and Cry, I began to see you wearing her hair bows and sweaters with dogs, cats, pumpkins and pom-poms on them.
When you have the skate of your life, make it to Worlds, do well and finish in eighth place, it may be time to 'go out on top.' Honey child, you could compete in Ice Wars! All that professional prize money was there for the taking.
No, no. Tonia waited two years too long. When she finally emerged as a professional, she was immediately relegated to ESPN competitions and the occasional guest appear in Nancy Kerrigan's "Halloween On Ice."
When you do the same thing every year and you don't seem to be climbing the pyramid of success, something is off.
The 1997 Nationals were a giant wake-up call to everyone that the sport was shifting. Sadly, Tonia didn't get the memo. Campbell's Soup did and they decided to put Tara, Michelle and Nicole on the soup cans. In many ways, they picked the Olympic Team for the USFSA. The 1998 Nationals were unnecessary. It didn't take a genius to rank that top four. Sadly for Tonia, she could work day and night on her edge jumps and get a glitzed out dress for Madame Butterfly, but we never thought she had a chance in hell of making the team unless Jana and Joyce actually weren't able to get Nicole Bobek to focus for two solid weeks of training.
It is amazing, Nicole could fall on her ass for nine months, yet you never doubted that she was going to pull it out and make it to Nagano. And we all marveled at her. Poor Tonia.
As Peggy aptly put it, "It isn't over til it's over," before Tonia took center ice at Nationals, but did anyone believe the original Paula Abdul? Even Tonia knew it was over the minute Nicole finished her long program in Philadelphia. Hell, it was over by the middle of the first practice session. Watching Tonia try year after year, there became a fine line between respecting her work ethic and pitying her. And I mean pitying. Skating to a Disney soundtrack at 27 years of age. Ouch.
Sadly, her short-lived pro career only reached new levels of "just no!"
Tonia barely had a pro career, and yet I recall her 'signature program.'
Yes, Tonia 'Conservative' Kwiatkowski was Marilyn Monroe. Wig and all. And it wasn't just for Halloween On Ice. Because when I think of french twists, hair bows and scrunchies on a college graduate, I dream of making her over into Marilyn.
Sadly, I don't think Tonia boned any Kennedys that night.
And then there was Black Cat.
I believe Tonia was actually defeated by Roz Sumners and Liz Manley in ESPN professional competitions. Other skaters were able to refuse to skate with Tonya Harding (the woman who made them all rich), yet Tonia didn't have a choice. For her, it was off to 'Elvis On Ice,' the tour starring the least artistic skater ever.
Did you ever have that guilty feeling overcome you watching Tonia and knowing that it just wasn't going to happen? Let's say something positive. Her spins were nice.
Why didn't Tonia even venture a few hundred miles north? She would've been the most successful Canadian ladies skater ever.
This post is dedicated to Alex Forrest and lovers of scrunchies everywhere.