Under the Radar
October 26, 2005
You may not have heard yet about 22 year-old Rohene Ward, and that's understandable – he's had a tendency to skate under the mainstream radar. His highest ever finish at US Nationals was 14th, but rankings can be deceiving. One has only to see Rohene skate at just a practice session to be amazed by his almost unheard-of-in-a-men's skater flexibility coupled with a rare ability to rotate and land triple jumps in either direction. To make it to the top of the podium – at Nationals or all the way to Torino– a man needs a quad to be considered a deserving champion. Rohene Ward has that quad. US men's competitors should be wary if Ward again makes it to Nationals this Olympic season, because this time he finally has determination to go along with his considerable talent.
Kathleen: I couldn't help but notice at the Campbell's International event recently how thin many of the skaters are, and that doesn't just mean the ladies. What's your regimen and what's your take on what seems an unhealthy diet obsession for some competitors?
Rohene: I've never given a thought to what I eat. I eat everything and anything from junk food to healthy, although I don't have as much of a craving for junk as I did when I was younger. I certainly don't limit myself to anything based on calories or carbs, and I don't have a regimen about what I eat because I'm really not concerned. I don't plan out my meals, so if I'm really, really hungry I'll make a stop (laughs) at the Wendy's drive-through because it's not like I'm counting my breads points throughout the day.
Kathleen: That's refreshing to hear because as a total food junkie, I always thought the greatest aspect of being a top athlete would be the fringe benefit of getting to eat as much as you want due to the tremendous amount of calories you're burning off.
Rohene: Exactly – that's how it works for me. Between skating and working out, it makes it so that I don't have to think about gaining weight. Personally, I thought I looked too skinny before. I'd look at people at the gym, and then look at myself in the mirror, and my arms were like skinny little bird wings. My legs were normal, but not my upper body, so I started lifting weights. Initially I did tons of reps to get muscle definition, but this year I began lifting more to actually gain weight and have now put on about seven pounds. I think the weight addition looks better. It's funny, because I remember being in the locker room in Atlanta at 2004 Nationals and everybody saying how they were at 150 pounds and obsessing about losing weight. I was sitting there thinking, "Wow, that's not me." It's strange, because some of them have eating disorders and it was very surprising more than anything to see this happening with men.
Kathleen: Brian Joubert once told me he had to stop lifting weights almost as soon as he started because of the rapid development to his upper body, which was making it harder to rotate.
Rohene: With guys like Brian Joubert or Alexei Yagudin I can understand - they're naturally a bit bulkier, so that I can see. But take someone like Johnny Weir or Evan Lysacek - they're naturally slim, so they don't need to be concerned. I don't know what Johnny's regimen is, but I know that Evan runs. This morning I had French toast covered in syrup and strawberries and bananas, with eggs on the side. If I feel like it, I'll have pizza right before I skate, becauseif I don't have something in my system when I take the ice I feel much worse. I've never once gone into a competition day and thought, "Oh no! What have I done! Look at how much I've eaten – I won't be able to jump now." I figure if I shove down cheeseburgers on the way to practice sessions at home (laughing), why change the routine? Definitely, I am not a nutritionist but the other day I did have a salad I made at a whole foods grocery store. Of course, on the side I had a roast beef with mayo sandwich.
Kathleen: So what's your plan? You've got enormous talent – you're basically the Sasha Cohen of men's skating when it comes to flexibility. You have this unique ability to triple-jump in either direction plus you have the quad. On top of those skills, you have speed, deep edges and your own sense of style. When are we going to see you make the national team?
Rohene: I want to go to the Olympics as the reigning national champion, I'm not looking to be second or third. At this point, I'm not looking for anything but the top and I'm not big on 'almost' making it. There's nothing wrong with being second or third but this year I believe I have an advantage. I've already landed my quad at every competition in both the short and long program. Evan (Lysacek) has put one out there, Johnny (Weir) hasn't, and Michael (Weiss) does them inconsistently, so Scott Smith and I are the lone guys landing them right now. Even Timmy hasn't landed one in a while.
Kathleen: You obviously don't look like the typical USFS poster-boy champion, and somehow I get the idea you didn't exactly live a privileged childhood. What can you tell me about your heritage and how you ended up getting into figure skating?
Rohene: I grew up in basically the ghetto of North Minneapolis. My father was black and my mom Puerto Rican. They met in Minnesota, where I was born, and I still live and train here. My parents never married and they split up a long time ago. I have five brothers and sisters, so spoiled (laughs) doesn't even enter into my category! My mom wisely put me in a summer program every year when I was a child and one year when I was about seven years old, we took a field trip to an ice rink. A coach that was on-hand told the camp counselor that I should take lessons and I've been skating ever since.
Kathleen: You're from Minnesota so surely you had to have at least considered hockey?
Rohene: I started out playing hockey too in the beginning, but then my mom said, "I'm not going to pay for all of this (laughs) if you're always off doing twirls in the corner!" So I played on my little hockey team for one year, and I liked it but I wanted to be the one making all of the goals, all of the time – I didn't want to rotate positions. I certainly never wanted to be the goalie (laughs) because I wanted to be the star at center ice all of the time.
Kathleen: Tell us a little about your coaching situation.
Rohene: My coach, and I've been with her since I was about ten years old, is Page Lipe. But Gailene Norwood, who has been like the grandmother I never had, has been my benefactor since I was a child. She really took me under her wing, guided me, coached me – and is still there for me now. Eventually I outgrew her technically and that's when she asked Page (Lipe) to take over the training. Gailene (Norwood) paid for everything – travel, hotels, costumes - and just totally took me in and provided all of things that I couldn't get on my own.
Kathleen: So you grew up with out a lot of financial resources, as part of a big family with no father present, and in an area of the country where it's much more popular for boys to be hockey players rather than figure skaters. Did you ever think of giving up?
Rohene: Never. I never thought of giving up. I have what could be called a complete love of skating. For years I never even had that childhood dream of 'winning the Olympics,' instead it was just more of a way to get out of 'the hood', out of the ghetto. Skating brought me into a different world – a wonderful world. My mom bought my first pair of skates from the Salvation Army and they were about five sizes too large. They were made out of cheap vinyl. My ankles wobbled all over the place, but I refused to rent skates because it really meant a lot for me to have my own skates. I just had this attitude that I could overcome anything.
Kathleen: The area you grew up in has a lot of criminal gang activity, and you didn't have the protective cocoon of an urban private school. Were you pressured to join a gang or did other teenagers hassle you for skating?
Rohene: My high school and my neighborhood did have a lot of gangs. Now that I'm older and my features are more defined, people can easily recognize that I'm something 'beyond Caucasian,' but they're not sure exactly what. Growing up, most people just assumed I was a mix of black and white, and oddly I was never hassled because of that. In terms of joining a gang, by the third grade I was skating everyday so I didn't get pressured as I was always gone, always catching a bus (laughs) to get to the rink. It certainly wasn't on my mind and during the summers when I had more time to be out running with the neighborhood, there was no pressure on me – everybody knew I was a skater and they thought it was cool.
Kathleen: What's it going to take to get to Nationals this season?
Rohene: Midwest Sectionals is in November, in Denver. It depends on who qualifies from some other regions, like the Southwestern Region, to determine who I'll compete against. There's a lot of talent out there - Ryan Bradley, Ryan Jahnke, Parker Pennington, Jeremy Abbott– a bunch of good guys. I'll have to score in the top four to skate at Nationals, and there are three slots from that event to go to the Olympics.
Kathleen: One can see from the practice session how good you are, in fact I don't think 'amazing' would be over-selling it. What's the problem, why aren't you a famous champion yet in the US?
Rohene: My highest rank at Nationals was 14th, and I skated like crap. For one year I skated for Puerto Rico to increase my chances of making it to international events, but there were many problems beyond my control with that arrangement, and I decided to move on and again try and compete for the US team. With the Puerto Rico thing, I had to take two years total off from ISU competitions so I lost substantial time. The main reason I even tried skating for Puerto Rico was so I could get on the Grand Prix circuit, skate at Worlds, and then hopefully the Olympics.
Kathleen: You are one-half Puerto Rican, did any good come out of that deal?
Rohene: Yes, especially in my personal life. My mom hadn't spoken to her dad in 40 years. To be able to represent Puerto Rico, I actually had to prove my Puerto Rican bloodline. I searched very hard to find the man that was my grandfather, and just the search was an experience. All we had was his name and the year he was born, but we found him and were able to reunite he and my mom. Since then she has visited him twice and she's happier than she's ever been, and that was a very positive outcome. We always knew we were Puerto Rican, but my mom never had any contact and now it turns out we have a huge family down there.
Kathleen: Have you competed at any international events?
Rohene: Yes, I've done the Vienna Cup, Triglav Trophy and was slated to compete on the junior Grand Prix circuit (which was cancelled for US competitors after the 9-11 terrorist attacks). At Triglav, I came in first in the short program and second in the long. In Vienna my results weren't as good but I was honored by being invited to skate in the exhibition as normally only the top three skaters from each event make the exhibition, but they said they really liked my style.
Kathleen: How did you become so flexible?
Rohene: I only did gymnastics as a very young child, around age five, so it was really nothing to speak of. But I did take tap dancing, tumbling, African dance and jazz for many years. When I got older I also did hip-hop and dance has been an everyday part of my life. As a teenager I started ballet to help my skating and that was when the real flexibility came. I was taking lessons intensely for almost five years which meant classes almost every day, plus going to extra group and private classes. Now I try to do seasonal things. For instance, last Fall I didn't lift weights so I danced instead, and then in the Spring I did kick boxing and weights.
Kathleen: Kick boxing is a great workout – what do you think of it?
Rohene: I really like kick boxing for actual defensive fighting and also as a tough aerobic and anaerobic sport. It teaches you to focus your energy and improves balance and core strength. It also forces you to learn how to breathe and move properly at the same time because you're constantly moving around. Its been good training for competitions on the ice because it helps me focus on one particular thing at a time instead of being distracted by all that's going on around me. I'm also more comfortable now in my own skin and feel I can defend myself if I have to.
Kathleen: Your skating displays so many unique elements, is there any one thing that you consider a 'signature' move?
Rohene: I do certain things in exhibitions and shows that I don't do in competition, but there isn't one distinct thing that I consider my signature. For instance, most skaters jump left – counter-clockwise – and I can go either direction on the triple salchow, triple toe and triple lutz. I attribute that ability to early training under the ISI (a recreational organization separate from the USFS) skating program in which to pass different levels you had to jump singles and even doubles in both directions. For fun, I started doing every move in both directions. Eventually I went up through all the levels doing moves, jumps, and spins in either direction just for my own satisfaction and because it was fun.
Kathleen: This season is the main event – the XX Olympiad. Are you going to be able to keep it together and not only get to Torino, but also show the world what Rohene Ward is capable of?
Rohene: Yes. My mindset is now completely changed. For the longest time I didn't believe in my ability. I heard about it from others, but you need to believe it for yourself. It took a really long time to even accept my ability, and I had some reservations about what happens to your life when you become a champion. You lose your privacy – was I ready to accept that? But things have changed, I've matured, and now I'm ready. I believe I went through a fairly tumultuous life for a reason, and that all of it has led me up to this moment. Persistence is key. People keep saying, 'Rohene, you need to do it now – before you get old!' But I say, "Heck no, I'm 22 years old, my body is actually getting stronger and better, and right now I don't think anything can stop me from what I want to do." Finally, I'm ready to accept the responsibilities that come with the gift of talent. Ultimately I believe that the gift comes from God, and that it was my fate to become a figure skater. Some people say it's their destiny to be a champion, and I don't know about that, but I do know that it was God's way to send me on that first field trip to the ice arena – to get the pieces into place.