Since childhood, Tom Alan Baranowski has concentrated on one goal: the Sochi Olympics. His figure skating partner, Erika Tsukino, is as talented and dedicated as he is, and their coach, Erika’s father and Tom Alan’s surrogate father—who moved the family back to Japan to live and train—sees bright things in their future.
But when practicing a rarely performed throw—the quadruple flip—leaves Erika seriously injured, Tom Alan is sent off to train separately. His new training partner is Milo Fisher, and meeting the openly gay British ice dancing champion brings back feelings Tom Alan buried when he promised Erika’s father he’d make her his bride after the Olympics.
As Tom Alan falls head over toe pick for Milo, he realizes that if he follows his heart, he could lose the only true family he has ever known. He fears breaking his vow will hurt Erika, and that her parents, whom he holds dear, will never forgive him—and neither will the legion of Japanese fans who claim him as their own. Now going for the gold might not be his greatest desire or the skate to true happiness.
The XV Olympic Winter Games
The pairs long program
THE final pairs team soared across the ice. The feathered hem on Kyoko Maki’s shimmery silver-gray skirt fluttered in the breeze as her partner, Nobuo Tsukino, took her tiny left hand in his right one and offered an extra, affectionate squeeze before letting go. They skated toward one corner, where Nobuo firmly took his partner’s small waist in both hands, lifted her lovingly, and tossed her a good twelve feet forward, almost as high as the short wall encompassing the ice. Kyoko spun in the air three times and then landed on one foot on the outside edge of her blade. The arch in her back on the landing was beautiful and strong. It was a perfect throw triple flip.
Next, Nobuo stroked toward her to catch up to where she had settled. He wrapped an arm around her middle again and this time spun her on her toe into a gorgeous layback. Refrains of “Bells of Moscow,” aka Rachmaninoff’s “Prelude in C-sharp Minor,” built to a frenzy of piano keys hit hard, creating harsh, dissonant chords before fading in volume and harshness into its slow, sober, peaceful last several measures. The haunting tune was barely audible in the stands by then, drowned out by the roar of the excited crowd. Even over the airwaves it was hard to hear by the time the duo prepared themselves for their final move.
Kyoko bent forward in a Charlotte spiral position, her head touching her knee, her free leg up, making her body a vertical straight line. Nobuo threw his head back, wrapped both of his arms around her, and laid her extended leg upon his shoulder. The two began to spin, slowly at first, then faster and faster until they blurred into one. When they stopped precisely on the music’s final beat, coming together in a passionate embrace, the applause grew even more robust and every person in the audience leapt to their feet. “Maki and Tsukino,” as the commentators referred to them, took in deep, cold breaths and bowed to their fans. One smiling, one in tears, they fell into a clinch once more, allowing the final moments of their Olympic triumph to sink in.
When Nobuo finally released his partner, instead of taking her hand to exit the ice, he dropped to one knee, right in the center of the five multicolor rings. “Kekkon shite kureru?”—“Let us share one name,” he added also in Japanese. And as he searched Kyoko’s stunned expression for an answer, his vision blurred with tears of his own. “Make the rest of my dreams come true. Be my partner forever.”
Their first dream, the one on which they had focused every minute of their lives since preadolescence, was now out of their hands. They had performed the program perfectly, climaxing—before their combination spin—with a throw jump no one else in pairs skating would repeat successfully for decades. Their technical score, as expected, was a row of 6.0s, but their artistic score, not as high as the Russian team’s, kept them off the top of the podium. Still, when Kyoko Maki agreed to become his bride, right there in front of thousands of screaming fans, Nobuo Tsukino couldn’t imagine feeling any more like a winner.
St John, New Brunswick, Canada
The ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating—Skate Canada
Practice ice, ten hours before the pairs free skate
“SHIT! No, Tom Alan! No!” Nobuo Tsukino bellowed. “Chigau! You must throw her harder. Higher!” It was twenty-five years later, and Nobuo Tsukino was now a father and a coach.
“You must throw her more gracefully,” Kyoko Tsukino chimed in. “And your landing, Erika,” she said to her daughter, “it is not as elegant as it should be.”
A new decade, a new millennium, another Olympics, and a new pair—not representing Japan, but America. Kyoko Tsukino seemed more determined than ever not to let poor artistic marks keep her and Nobuo’s protégés off the top step in Russia, as they had kept her and Nobuo off the top step in Canada.
“I’m trying,” Tom Alan complained, answering his coach in Tsukino’s native language. “I am!” Though about as un-Japanese as a boy could get, Thomas “Tom Alan” Baranowski, the sandy-haired, blue-eyed, American-born child of an Italian-American mother and a Polish-American father, spoke Japanese almost fluently and understood every critique and curse word in either tongue. Next he turned to Kyoko-san, his head choreographer, and in softer English with all signs of petulance gone, he said, “I’m sorry.” He knew his partner’s landing was his fault, not hers. It was hard to look elegant when you were lurching forward, struggling with all you’ve got because some huge, six-six goon of a guy who was supposed to throw you as if he was releasing a delicate dove, chucked you like a dude hurling logs in a lumberjack contest. “I… I didn’t throw her right.”
“Hey, at least I fucking stood up,” Erika offered, skidding to a stop next to him. “That’s better than an ass-landing.”
Tom Alan’s nineteen-year-old partner had her mother’s doll-like Japanese features but with a mouth that sometimes belied it all. She liked to curse—maybe to shock people, maybe because as an athlete she was allowed no other vices. It was definitely a form of rebellion. When she spoke Japanese, she used words and phrases normally reserved for males, and when she spoke English, said words no Japanese woman ever would. She knew a lot of words; she was smart—gifted, even—but her favorite words were definitely blue.
Tom Alan first laid eyes on Nobuo and Kyoko Tsukino in 2002, back when he was twelve, back when he was Tommy. The pair had relocated to America right after the ’88 Olympics for a couple of reasons: one professional, one very personal. They’d made a home in Salt Lake City, Utah, but traveled back to Japan quite often. Ice skating was huge back in the late eighties, and Maki and Tsukino, fresh off their Calgary victory, prospered as Tsukino and Tsukino with shows such as Stars on Ice and Champions on Ice. They worked beside such legends as Boitano, Witt, Yamaguchi, and eventually Kwan and Cohen. Their only child, Erika, born in 1994, traveled the globe alongside them. She was a US citizen, but the Japanese people, because of their love for Nobuo and Kyoko, thought of Erika as their own. Now they thought of Tom Alan the same way.
When the Winter Games came to Salt Lake City, the Tsukinos celebrated by setting up a free skating day at the rink they owned and operated. Tommy Baranowski—disheveled, shy, and gangly—was among the throng of kids who wandered in. It was his first time on ice. He wore loaner skates a few sizes too big—not too different from bowling alley rental shoes—which didn’t help his coordination one bit. There was nothing athletic or artistic about him that day, but there was a joy in his movement, and a determination—every time he fell he got right back up—that could not be denied.
Mr. Tsukino spent the next hour instructing Tommy in very basic skills, and was pleasantly surprised at how well the ragamuffin boy picked them up. He even had him skate beside his then eight-year-old daughter, who had literally learned to skate as she’d learned to walk. Tsukino was pleased—shocked, actually—at how Tommy, with no previous experience, managed to almost keep up.
Not-so-little Tommy was the last skater on the ice that day. Truthfully, he would have liked to stay all day. “Just a little while longer,” he asked, his eyes sad.
“I’m sorry, Tommy. It’s time to go,” Kyoko-san said with a warm, friendly smile.
But Mr. Tsukino passed on his business card as he gently shooed him out the door. “Keep skating, young man,” he said. “And keep in touch.”
A month after that, Tommy was living with the Tsukinos. He became Tom Alan and started skating every day. When Nobuo and Kyoko returned to Japan permanently in 2008—out of familial duty because Kyoko’s father had died and her mother supposedly needed to be cared for—Tom Alan went along as a part of their family. The Tsukinos became more than coaches to him; they were just like parents—with a twist. They saw themselves more like in-laws. Tom Alan would eventually call Nobuo Tsukino Papa, but Erika was never expected to be like his sister. They were raised under one roof, yes, first in Utah, then in Japan. But they were raised separately, not as siblings at all, but as something else.
In no time at all, Erika and Tom Alan became magic on the ice. They took prejuvenile, juvenile, and novice medals over several years, peaking with World Junior Figure Skating Championships gold in 2011—a bittersweet victory, because of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan just days later. That fall, when they moved up into the senior ranks, it was a bit like starting over, but they were right on target to make the 2014 Sochi team.
AS THEY listened to their coaches’ critique, Tom Alan dropped to one knee in front of Erika to tighten the laces on his boot. Nobuo Tsukino stopped what he was saying. Tom Alan caught him staring. His papa had a look… and Tom Alan knew he’d been taken back to 1988, to the day he proposed to Kyoko-san.
Nobuo Tsukino had high hopes for Erika and Tom Alan, on the ice and off. They would follow in his and Kyoko’s footsteps and skate under the Olympic rings, and then, just as with him and his young bride, the pair would marry and become a family. He would officially have the son he had always wanted, and his daughter would have a stellar, caring, and wonderful spouse. Nobuo had spoken of this with Tom Alan many times in recent years. “She is a special girl, Tom Alan. I see how she looks at you. You would do well to fall in love with her, as she obviously has with you. Especially since,” Tsukino often added, “no other woman would have you.”
The last part was always said with a smile, though the first part, Tom Alan knew, was as much a wish for his father, his sensei, as seeing his team wear gold at the Games. If Nobuo had his way, shortly after the Olympic torch was extinguished at the end of the 2013-2014 figure skating season, Erika Tsukino, at the age of twenty, would become Mrs. Thomas Alan Baranowski.
Tom Alan was rather noncommittal about marriage and almost everything else—everything except his skating. Though they spent more time in Japan of late than in the US, he and Erika still competed for the States. She considered herself mostly American but would have dual citizenship if Japan allowed it. Tom Alan, conversely, though he loved Japan and his Japanese family, felt 100 percent American. Nobuo Tsukino never even suggested he try to feel differently. Not about that, anyway.
“It’s an improvement over this morning.” Erika beamed, speaking of the jump attempt. “Blades over butt,” she said, patting Tom Alan’s as she offered him a smile.
Tom Alan returned it—the smile, not the pat—grudgingly at first, but then he offered a sincere smile: blinding, charming, dorky. He couldn’t help himself. He adored his partner in sport and in life with all his heart. Yes, he loved her. There was no doubt about that either.
Kyoko smiled as well; she couldn’t seem to help it either. Nobuo, however, was not moved. His face remained stoic and pensive.
Junior rank and senior rank—it was a whole new ball game on the international level. American pairs skating had lacked any notoriety for far too long. Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner were household names in their day. In 2013, however, even die-hard skating fans would have a problem naming three current US pairs teams, partly because no team seemed to stay together very long anymore. Tom Alan and Erika had the advantage of time, at least. A lengthy familiarity with one another had translated to comfort and a sixth sense that served them well. Still, an Olympic berth was not guaranteed. Their 2012–2013 showing had been less than stellar. Fourth at US Nationals meant their season had ended in January—no trip to Worlds. If they were going to make a name for themselves before Sochi, it was going to have to come during the 2013 Grand Prix season—the six fall events hosted in six different countries capped off by the prestigious Grand Prix Finals, where the top scorers at each compete against each other. Tom Alan and Erika were at their last of back-to-back assignments for the series, Skate Canada. They sat in fourth place, out of six teams, after the short program. For a definite spot in the finals, they knew they had to move up at least two positions.
Skate America, one week prior, had gone remarkably well. Though the field was not chock-full of champions—the Russians, the Germans, and the Chinese, all top in the world, were not there—Tom Alan and Erika still earned their gold medal mostly on their technical scores. They usually scored quite respectably on spins, footwork, and particularly jumps. Their throw jump, the throw quadruple flip, was one no other team on the planet was attempting. It was their ticket to notoriety and, hopefully, Russia.
The quadruple flip seemed inconceivable. Single skaters weren’t even doing quad flips. Yet Nobuo Tsukino was determined that his pair would be the first to land one at an Olympic Games. “It is easier because you are being thrown,” he told Erika.
Bullshit—Tom Alan could almost see the thought on Erika’s face. Mouthy, yes, but not stupid; she would never say it to her coach out loud.
It made sense in theory—throw jumps should be easy—but not in reality. If it was that simple, all pairs would be doing triple axel throws or quad throws by now. They weren’t. There was a special, precise timing required, and a trust, a bond.
The trick had an overall success rate of around 40 percent for Tom Alan and Erika. Not bad. That fall day in late October, however, twenty-four hours before they were planning to perform it as part of their “Bells of Moscow” free skate as a tribute to Maki and Tsukino, the success rate lingered somewhere around 5 percent. Really bad.
“Fucking shit!” Nobuo exclaimed in English—mostly because there weren’t many real curse words in Japanese—as the pair tried and failed at the quadruple flip again.
Erika agreed. The word “fuck” flew from her mouth as well, as she landed on her ass.
The jump had been iffy during morning practice at 2013 Skate America. The rate of success before that, though, had been right around that less-than-half range, as usual, so the pair and their coach had decided to try it in their free skate.
As they finished their footwork section, the Detroit, Michigan crowd had been on the edge of their seats. The most knowledgeable ones could tell by the setup, by the way Tom Alan positioned Erika and the speed they had developed, that they were putting in the throw quadruple flip.
“They’re gonna do it!” the announcer squealed. And the crowd, the crowd went wild—screeching, stomping, cheering. As Erika tore through the air, did four revolutions, then came down, every single person there, spectators, commentators and reporters, had gotten to their feet. Erika had too—both of them, though, not just one.
Fuck! Tom Alan knew she had thought it.
“Fuck!” Nobuo had said it out loud.
They received a small deduction, but they got huge points for finishing the rotation.
Now, as they became known as “the quad flip kids,” the pressure was really on to do it even better in Canada. If they got another gold, they’d be off to Japan—surrogate home ice—for that year’s Grand Prix Final. The international judges would be paying close attention to them after that, which would bode well for Sochi.
“It is a must that we improve our second marks,” Kyoko stressed. “We cannot depend only on tricks. Especially when those tricks are not dependable.”
Tom Alan raised the hem of his T-shirt to swipe the sweat off his face, baring his six-pack gut and a hint of golden pubic fur before hiking his sweatpants up where they belonged. “I’ll try, Kyoko-san,” he said. Though he would never have called Nobuo Tsukino by only his first name, Kyoko-san had given him permission, on the very first day they met, for him to do so with her.
“The program lacked passion and beauty” was a common complaint regarding Tom Alan and Erika’s free skates throughout the start of their senior career. Their program elements score—which more or less represented what used to be the “artistry” score, awarded for choreography, transitions, positions, execution, and interpretation—often sucked. Erika was passionate and beautiful on and off the ice. Therefore, Tom Alan figured, the sucky marks were on him. At Skate America, even though they won the event, their second marks were still rather low. They were lower than the second- and third-place teams for sure. Figure skating scoring was confusing—even to those in the sport.
Tom Alan was more than a foot taller than Erika. It was unusual for a pairs team to have that much of a height difference. It made the throws and lifts a bit easier, but it was definitely a factor in the less than stellar artistry the team was accused of putting out. Erika was balletic, lyrical, and refined. Tom Alan—not so much.
As their coaches bickered in Japanese, Erika and Tom Alan fidgeted with sleeves, boot ties, and a wispy treasure trail—Tom Alan did that, not Erika, though she did watch him do it. A monitor in the practice arena showing the dance teams’ practice session caught Tom Alan’s eye. Jennifer Brand and Milo Fisher, champions in Great Britain and contenders for Grand Prix and Olympic medals, were floating—practically floating across the ice. Tom Alan was transfixed by Brand’s grace, but also by Fisher’s. The short Brit with the crazy head of wild, curly hair was sheer fluid movement. He was stunning, magical, and sexy as….
“Yes, Sensei.” Startled back to reality, Tom Alan listened to instructions from Tsukino as a group of sports reporters from different nations stood behind the boards watching the practice session. They all took notes. Some took bets on whether or not the throw quad would be successful by showtime. “Take it from the step sequence leading into the throw,” Nobuo Tsukino ordered.
“Let them have a break,” Kyoko suggested. “Work off-ice on their positions.” She gave a beautiful, sweeping arm movement as an example. “The jump—we can get back to the jump later on.”
Ignoring his wife’s idea, Nobuo keyed the music to the spot just prior to the steps. “You will do the goddamned throw!” He clapped twice, hard, his signal for his team to move quickly.
Erika adjusted her panties, yanking them from unwanted places, snapping the leg elastic as they settled into their rightful place. Tom Alan gave his face one more swipe and then followed Erika’s example. In order to do something as challenging as a throw quad, everything had to feel just right, including the way his UnderGear rubbed against his—under gear. He pulled, tugged, smoothed, and squatted, fiddling with his genitals like baseball players do in front of crowds. He wondered what his component scores would be if he did it during actual competition, like they did.
Nobuo Tsukino hit Play. The music filled the rink. Tom Alan’s and Erika’s sharp blades carved intricate patterns in the ice as they performed their level-three steps. Nobuo, knowing level-four footwork was necessary for Olympic gold, looked for places to inch up the difficulty.
“Reach for her now!” Tsukino ordered. “Good. Turn her.”
Tom Alan did as instructed.
“Throw her as hard as you can.”
Tom Alan always felt a bit like an oafish giant next to his precious, tiny Erika. He felt as if everything they lacked, every medal they’d ever lost, had been his fault and his alone. He tried to be more graceful. He tried to move as he’d just seen Milo Fisher move.
His mind was wandering. That wasn’t good. He needed to concentrate. A throw quad——any throw jump—wasn’t simply about heaving a girl like a football. It was intricate and complex. If he threw her too early, before she was ready, she would at best underrotate, land on two feet, or pop the jump. If he threw her too hard, she could overrotate and not be able to control the landing.
“Hard!” Nobuo hollered, just as Tom Alan turned Erika.
As she was about to tap her toe pick into the rock-hard surface for liftoff, the coach repeated his command even louder: “Zenryoku!” in Japanese—“full force!”
Tom Alan heeded the command. He threw Erika with such might she soared farther than she ever had before.
It felt wrong from the start.
Her air position was slightly off. She was leaning forward—slightly—then more. Her landing would be problematic.
Tom Alan cringed. Skaters got used to falls. They practiced for them and learned how to bounce right back up, barely missing a beat of their music. This fall was different—Erika hadn’t had time to prepare. The jump was so out of control, the brief time she twirled high in the air, seconds really, was not enough to consider everything she needed to consider in order to land on her feet, or even her derriere.
Erika crashed to the ice on her side with a resounding thud. Her head hit next. The pain must have been delayed, but only for a matter of moments before her brain caught up with the concept of her skull connecting with rock-hard ice, and Erika cried out.
The fall sent a wave of panic through Tom Alan.
Photographers clicked countless images, their flashes disorienting. Reporters, gathered spectators, and other skaters awaiting their practice time murmured in shock. It was bad, really bad. Erika called for Tom Alan, not her coaches, not her parents.
“Kiki!” he answered her. Feeling totally responsible, regretful, and worried, Tom Alan rushed to his injured partner’s side.