An insightful memoir from a figure skating champion about her life as a bisexual professional athlete, perfect for readers of Fierce by Aly Raisman and Forward by Abby Wambach.
Karina Manta has had a busy few years: Not only did she capture the hearts of many with her fan-favorite performance at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, she also became the first female figure skater on Team USA to come out as queer. Her Modern Love essay "I Can't Hate My Body if I Love Hers" was published in the New York Times, and then she joined the circus--Cirque du Soleil's on-ice show, AXEL.
Karina's memoir covers these experiences and much more. Attending a high school with 4,000 students, you'd expect to know more than two openly gay students, but Karina didn't meet an out-lesbian until she was nearly seventeen--let alone any other kind of queer woman. But this isn't just a story about her queerness. It's also a story about her struggle with body image in a sport that prizes delicate femininity. It's a story about panic attacks, and first crushes, and all the crushes that followed, and it's a story about growing up, feeling different than everybody around her and then realizing that everyone else felt different too.
An Excerpt fromOn Top of Glass
The Very Beginning
March 20, 1996. Sometime around one or two in the morning.
My story starts at a hospital in Olympia, Washington, on a day that I don’t remember. I imagine the hospital was like any other: cold, white-walled, punctuated by the sharp smell of cleaning supplies. I imagine my parents were taken to a stark room, detailed with pink balloons. Maybe my mother’s hair was pulled back into a ponytail. Maybe my father tried to crack a few jokes to ease the tension.
From the stories, I know that the doctor almost didn’t arrive on time. My older brother’s delivery took hours of painful coercion. My mom swears she broke her tailbone during the whole process. But I arrived quickly--eager to experience my first bittersweet breath. I arrived so quickly, in fact, that my grandfather, who was a surgeon, almost had to deliver me right on the spot. But luckily, my mother’s actual doctor made it just in time to catch my squirming body as I made my grand entrance into the world.
I imagine I screamed. It must have felt good to test the capacity of my tiny lungs.
The staff members at this particular hospital were accustomed to birthing plump, pale babies with slippery bare skin. I’ve been told that most of the babies in the neighboring bassinets came out bald as can be. That explains everyone’s surprise when I arrived: small, writhing, and . . . fuzzy. My body was covered in dark, wispy hair. I had a crown of black curls atop my head to match. I’m told it’s fairly common for babies born a little premature to find themselves covered in hair, but I must have been an exceptional case (I can probably thank my father for that--I have his especially dark hair).
“Wow . . . look at all that hair!” a nurse exclaimed. I imagine her tone suggested more than surprise--maybe even the tiniest, slightest shade of judgment.
My father immediately took offense and decided he and the nurse were bitter enemies. How dare they make fun of my daughter? he thought. He probably even grumbled out loud.
I imagine I screamed again. This time with a purpose.
The point is this: My body has been an issue my entire life--starting from my very first seconds in the world.
After my abrupt arrival, my parents gave me a name: Ana Karina Manta.
My first name was a gift from my paternal grandmother, Ana Maria. My middle name was passed down from my mother, Karin. My last name--as you might have already assumed--came from my father.
Inside the hospital, my parents whispered my name with soft, cooing voices. The vowel sounds carried the consonants like they were riding the gentle swish of a rocking chair. I was so small, and my thoughts were too fresh and young to be considered typical thoughts--but if I had known what music was, I probably would have thought my name sounded something like music.
My legs would have kicked in response.
As my tiny body grew, the power of my lungs seemed to dissipate.
I was a quiet child. Quieter than most. I was the kind of toddler who constantly hid behind the reliable barrier of my mother’s leg.
Some of my earliest memories are from preschool--I can picture the modest classroom and the rust-colored playground--but inside these memories, there are no sentences. No words.
My parents enrolled me in a Spanish-immersion preschool because they wanted me to learn the language that my dad grew up speaking (my father was born in Uruguay, a small country in South America that borders Argentina and Brazil), but my mouth rejected language--English and Spanish alike--so I mostly said nothing. I became an observer. I held my stories very close to my chest. I played alone in a corner of the playground, tightly clutching the plastic hand of a Barbie doll.
I am pretty sure my thoughts might never have found a way out had my mom not picked me up from preschool one dreary afternoon and driven me to a dance class at a local rec center. My older brother, Luis, immediately ran to the center of the gymnasium floor to join a circle of other children. Several young women arrived, pushing strollers and carrying diaper bags. The teacher stood up front, wearing primary colors and an exaggerated smile.
I imagine I hid behind my mother’s body at first. I can only assume the other children looked on incredulously.
But then everyone began singing songs, and I noticed a waking in my bones--an irrepressible kind of joy. The instructor elicited sweet, rainy sounds from a tambourine, and I worked my way into the circle of other children. I danced. From the stories, I know that I didn’t hold back. My usual timidity morphed into something new.
Although language often failed me, movement did not. While dancing, I didn’t seem to need sentences or words. While dancing, my body was not the problem anymore. It was the answer.
When I turned four, my family moved to Chandler, Arizona.
There were five of us by then: me, my parents, Luis, and my younger brother, Marques. We’d been living in the Pacific Northwest, so my dad jumped at the opportunity to take a job somewhere with a little more sunshine, and Arizona seemed like the perfect place.
Winters in Chandler were hot. Truly hot. The kind of warmth that called for the rumble of air conditioners at noon; the kind of warmth that craved ice water when none could be found frozen atop all the backyard pools; the kind of warmth that smelled of sunscreen tucked into the pores of every kid who grew up in the state (a smell that I swear stays on Arizona children forever--even after they grow up and scatter across the globe).
In elementary school, the elusive “snow day” was not an event of anxious anticipation but instead a mythology. The kids who moved to my hometown from northeastern states whispered legends of early mornings spent listening to the local news. I remember a singular moment during kindergarten when the classroom thermometer dropped below the infamous freezing point of thirty-two degrees. I watched the windows until the bell rang in hopes that the one solitary but mighty cloud in the sky that day would bring us all a few flakes.
Around the same time, I was invited to a birthday party at a local ice rink. I was five years old. I wore a purple zip-up hoodie because, like most desert-raised children, I didn’t own any heavier coats.
I was still a reserved child. Parties made me nervous, and this party was no exception. My shyness didn’t mix well with the sugar rush of other children unwrapping presents and sucking the helium from balloons, so I kept to myself.
As the other kids raced to grab skates, I hung near the back of the line. When I got ahold of a pair--probably small enough to slip onto a doll’s feet--my mom helped me tie the laces tight against my ankles.
By the time I made it onto the ice, its glassy surface was dusted with a layer of snow that had been kicked up by the other skaters. The powder was rich, bright. The color of whole milk. I had never seen anything like it. I watched my feet skitter along, struggling for stability in a new, frictionless world.
An older girl spun in the middle of the rink, where an area had been blocked off with cones for the real skaters to practice. A boy in hockey skates maneuvered around the cones and then attempted to jump over them in a death-defying stunt. He nearly toppled into the spinning girl, but she didn’t even notice. She just kept spinning. It was magic. It was almost as if her movement had created a new kind of weather--something that the rest of us could watch but couldn’t feel.
My mom clutched my shoulders; she kept my balance steady while I teetered across the ice. I was not very graceful, but I imagined I could be. Movement on the ice somehow made sense. Wobbling around the rink gave me that same kind of joy I’d felt at my very first dance class, but with more speed, more freedom, and more cold wind against my face.
The other partygoers eventually tired of skating. They unlaced their boots, ran off to play arcade games. But I didn’t mind being left alone. I stayed on the ice as long as I could. I only exited the rink when the Zamboni honked, telling us all that it was time to go home.
When I took off the skates, my feet were aching and swollen. I inspected the damage: a pair of blisters kissed the area just above my arches. I poked at the bubbles. I was tempted to see how much pressure they could withstand before they burst. The blisters stung, but while I was on the ice, I had barely noticed. This was probably a sign: Even at five years old, I loved with an intensity that was blinding and dangerous.
After the birthday party, I begged my parents to sign me up for lessons. They were understandably wary: I had been pretty terrible at skating. My mom’s arms throbbed from the hours of holding me up. She didn’t want to turn one exhausting afternoon into a weekly habit. Plus, she had already enrolled me in ballet classes, and gymnastics classes, and a season of soccer, during which I insisted on wearing my dainty pink ballet shoes while I ran around the field. (I was the family anomaly--the only sibling who was not a die-hard soccer fan from birth.)
Despite my parents’ hesitation, I remained persistent. I kept begging for skating lessons throughout the springtime.
By summer, they struck a deal with me: If I spent a few weeks practicing on a pair of Rollerblades, they would sign me up for some actual lessons.
The following days of summer passed with unwavering consistency.
I woke up late in the mornings. My mom sliced oranges and grapefruits from the trees in our backyard, and my brothers and I ate them at breakfast--dumping sugar over their tart wedges, pouring too much milk into our cereal bowls. Then we raced outside. The summer air smelled like citrus and cows--in those days, my hometown was still half made up of farmland. It was the kind of summer that suburban kids wait for all school year.
While my brothers scraped their knees on scooters and careened their bikes off the edge of the sidewalk, I practiced rollerblading around our cul-de-sac. I stayed outside for hours, baking under the sun until my skin pickled. I tried to twirl like the spinning girl at the rink. Mostly, I fell. But I kept practicing. Within a matter of days, I grew bolder--making a ramp of our driveway, racing my brothers on their respective sets of wheels. I was hooked.
My parents kept their promise. After a couple of weeks, they signed me up for skating lessons.
In the midst of a desert summer, I took to the ice--a quiet, cold little girl who had found an unexpected home.
The “hobby” stuck, probably longer than anyone expected it to. I spent a short lifetime circling one rink after another. I spent years chasing a storybook version of winter. I fell in love with a peculiar and extravagant sport.
The sport was not always kind. Sometimes my body felt more like a problem than a solution. Sometimes my vision was clouded by rhinestones and hair spray. Sometimes I wondered why I stayed--but skating gave me a means of expression that I spent my whole life struggling to grasp.
Because of skating, I finally learned to fish my own stories out from beneath the ice.
Here they are.
Tiny Heart Attacks
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States.
I’m pretty scared of death, so naturally, I am afraid of a lot of things that could cause death: snakebites, pharmaceutical side effects, plane crashes, undiagnosed STIs. But mostly, I am afraid of heart disease because it is the leading cause of death.
The fear started in elementary school PE.
My PE teacher was like most elementary school PE teachers: She had a loud voice, and she wore an array of colorful T-shirts that she had acquired by participating in local benefit 5K runs. She was wearing one of those T-shirts when she called the class together for an announcement.
“This month, we are going to be preparing for Jump Rope for Heart,” she explained. “On Valentine’s Day, everyone will take part in a jump-rope-a-thon, and we’ll raise money for the American Heart Association.”
Initially, I was on board with the idea. I loved jumping rope--I could even double-Dutch pretty well. As with figure skating, I was usually able to shake my shyness if I was given an opportunity to show off my athletic skills.
I sat attentively, crisscross applesauce, near the front of the huddle of kids. The gym smelled like Elmer’s glue. I fidgeted with a stray staple that had landed on the floor while my teacher passed out flyers full of prizes that would be awarded to those who raised enough money. (Even as kids, we all knew the students with the richest relatives would win most of the prizes, but we let ourselves imagine, flipping through the prize catalog as if we had a chance.)
“We’re also going to talk about heart health,” my PE teacher continued. “Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States.”
This is where the discussion began to go downhill. The words leading cause of death caught my attention. I was not prepared to die anytime soon, so I had to be aware of anything that might threaten my thriving young existence.
“Does anybody know the warning signs of a heart attack?”
Nobody raised a hand. We were a group of young public school kids who had little experience regarding medical matters. My teacher proceeded to rattle off symptoms: feeling light-headed, having chest pain, breaking into a cold sweat, gasping for breath.
I paused. The symptoms repeated themselves in my brain: light-headed, chest pain, sweat. As my teacher spoke, I noticed a sickening wave passing over my body. An alarming cool sweat crept into my palms. My head started to spin. My lungs forgot their purpose. The phrase leading cause of death rumbled around my skull. My brain was so new, and it was especially susceptible to bad habits. I let my thoughts cascade down a trail of what-if questions: What if I die of a heart attack? What if I’m experiencing a tiny heart attack right now? What if thinking about heart attacks can actually give me a heart attack?