With a tall coffee cup in her hand and a stack of textbooks tucked under her arm, Christine Zukowski looks like any other Temple student as she meanders down Liacouras Walk. Her 5-foot-1-inch frame makes for a short gait, but there is a certain gracefulness to her walk and a confidence in her smile.
She seems older than the rest of her freshman class, mature beyond her years and for good reason.
A quick search of her name on YouTube is all the explanation one needs – and that is exactly how Zukowski’s college friends discovered their fellow classmate was also an elite figure skater.
“My friends look me up on YouTube and they’re like, ‘Why didn’t you tell us you were that good?’” Zukowski laughed, seemingly bashful about her level of fame.
Zukowski started skating at the age of 5, and by 7 years old she was already entering competitions. Her family, which includes her parents and two siblings, decided to move from Warminster, Pa., to Newark, Del., when she was 8, so that she could train at the University of Delaware.
At 14, an age when most teenagers are focused on grades, video games and the opposite sex, Zukowski was landing triples and winning the U.S. Ladies Novice Championship. Her high school experience was tailored to fit her training schedule, as she was homeschooled her first two years before enrolling in a school with a large population of elite figure skaters. The school’s schedule permitted students time for training.
“They actually let us out at 12 p.m. so that we could train,” Zukowski said. “I skated four 40-minute sessions, and then I would work out and do ballet, and then I’d get home around 6 and start my homework.”
She ran through her former schedule nonchalantly, as if it was normal for a teenager to spend upwards of six hours in preparation for elite competitions.
The traveling that Zukowski has enjoyed through skating is quite extensive for someone of her age – enough to make a person want to rush to his or her local skating rink and immediately begin lessons. Her craft has taken her to Italy, Croatia, Andorra, France and China. When speaking about her trip to Paris, Zukowski visibly lit up at the thought of visiting the Eiffel Tower.
“I didn’t have much time to look around, though,” she said.
There was always more skating to be done.
By the end of her junior year of high school, there was no doubt that Zukowski’s star was rising in the figure skating community. She had already won the U.S. Novice Championships and came in second at the Junior Championships and third in the Junior World Championships.
In a sport that leaves room at the top for only the greatest competitors, Zukowski was poised to break into the upper echelon of figure skating. Unfortunately for Zukowski, her health had other plans.
It started when she was 16, and at first she assumed that the pain was simply caused by something out of alignment in her back. After countless doctor’s appointments and endless testing, it was discovered that she had a herniated disk and a stress fracture in her back.
“I tried to push through, but I couldn’t take the pain anymore,” Zukowski said.
Her bubbly personality dimmed for a moment as she remembered the particularly difficult time in her life.
While most teenagers were making the decision as to what college they would be attending, Zukowski was faced with a life-altering decision of her own.
“I just remember calling my mom when I was at the rink and telling her that I couldn’t take the pain anymore,” she said.
With that call, Zukowski’s figure skating career ended.
Now a freshman BTMM major at Temple, Zukowski has started a new chapter of her life.
Even her family bleeds Cherry and White. Her father works in sports management at Temple, and her younger sister has already considered attending the university when she graduates high school in 2010.
Zukowski wants to work in sports broadcasting in the future.
It is tough not to notice the tinge of nostalgia when Zukowski speaks of her skating past.
“I do miss it,” she said. “When I made a coaching change to Priscilla Hill, I really saw a big improvement training with her. That’s what makes me a little upset because I feel like I could’ve gotten even better, but then my back started hurting.”
Zukowski is happy and genuinely thankful for the lessons the unforgiving world of figure skating taught her. She loves living on Temple’s campus, and since moving in, she has already gotten involved in student organizations. After all, it is not in her nature to sit still.
“I really think skating allowed me to grow up faster than other people,” she said. “I’m just really thankful that I got to do what I got to do.”
Danielle Harvey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.