Rosalynn Sumners grew up in Edmonds. Nowadays she skates once a year, and she’s found joy. “The last double axel I did was the week before I turned 41,” she says. “I would be so scared now to even do a single axel.”
A week ago, Rosalynn Sumners, who grew up in Edmonds, put on a tape of her long program from the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, one of only a very few times she has watched it.
The pain of finishing just one-tenth of a point behind Katarina Witt for the gold medal, something Sumners and the rest of the skating world thought she would win, has long since dissipated.
“I look at this little girl out there, and now I am so removed,” she said. “I watched it, and there were things that I forgot. And I can’t believe I did all that.”
What she has never forgotten was the pressure she felt that day. She didn’t want to enter the rink that day, the pressure of being the favorite overwhelming. And while she didn’t crumble under the pressure, she cracked a little. A planned triple jump became a double, a planned double became a single.
- Cody Pickett | How the most prolific passer in UW history came to lead a high-school girls basketball team to a national ranking
- Debbie Armstrong | 34 years after striking gold, an Olympic ski racer is learning how to cope with a traumatic brain injury
- Johnny and Eddie O'Brien | The 5-foot-9 dual-sport twins who took this city by storm six decades ago
“The pressure was so exhausting,” she said. “I was done a half-minute too soon. My body was behind my brain.”
For a long time, Sumners felt like she had let people down. But now at 53, she says she could not be more content. She is retired and having the time of her life. Long gone is the feeling that she has to prove anything to herself or anyone else.
“I don’t have to work and I realize how blessed and lucky I am,” said Sumners, who spends the winters in Palm Desert, Calif., and the summers in Kirkland. “I was at the golf course with my dog the other day, and I was thinking there is not a place I would rather be. What a good space I am in. I don’t know what I do, but I am so happy.”
She and husband Bob Kain just got back from a three-week trip to Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. It was not a coincidence that she got back in time to watch the women’s figure skating in this Olympics, which ends with Thursday’s long program. Sumners will be watching.
And if she can’t relate to what the new stars can do on the ice (“I can do those things in my dreams”), she can relate to how they must be feeling.
Sumners lived a life unlike other kids. She wanted to be a champion, and she was driven. She left regular school after the eighth grade, training hours a day while becoming one of the great skaters in American history.
She won three straight national titles from 1982-84 and was the world champion in 1983. And in the Olympics, she was the only skater in the field for whom a silver medal could have been considered a disappointment.
“You don’t want to go into anything as the favorite,” she said. “The first thing I thought of was, someone in Seattle is going to pick up the paper and say, ‘After all that, she lost the gold.’ I felt like I let everyone down.”
It took about four years for the disappointment to finally fade.
She watched other athletes not succeed in pressure situations, and it made her feel better. And when Witt repeated as champion four years later, it also made Sumners feel better. Her loss had come to one of the sport’s greatest champions, and the two later became close friends when touring together.
There was one other big thing that helped.
“Seeing what happened in the (civil) war in Sarajevo also helped put everything post-Olympics in perspective,” she said of the decadelong war that began in 1984. “I think of the people in those countries and what they went through every time I look at my medal.”
Sumners knew she was done after the Olympics. She had nothing left to give.
So she spent two trying years touring with Disney on Ice, but said she made lifelong friends and grew up along the way.
Needing a job, she found one with figure-skating star Scott Hamilton, who was starting the Stars on Ice tour along with Kain. Years earlier, Kain had unsuccessfully tried to sign Sumners while working for sports marketing firm IMG, a company in which he became co-CEO.
Sumners said Hamilton “saved my life.” She was the first skater to sign with the tour and watched it grow from performing in five cities in 1987-88 “to 65 arenas when I finished in 1998-99.”
Sumners, who also competed professionally and spent time as a commentator, stayed one extra year than she planned with Stars on Ice.
“Tara Lipinski wasn’t going to do it if I didn’t do it,” Sumners said of the 1998 Olympic gold medalist. “Tara was young and scared and bonded with me.”
Sumners married Kain in 2004 and a few years later opened a pair of businesses in Kirkland, one specializing in home decor and custom furniture, and another specializing in clothing and other items for infants and small children.
Residence: Kirkland and Palm Desert. Grew up in Edmonds.
Figure skating highlights: 1984 Olympic silver medalist; three-time national champion 1982-84; world champion in 1983. Inducted into the US Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 2001.
Did you know? She was born in Palo Alto, Calif., and moved to the Seattle area when she was 5. … Took up skating when she was 7.
But if Sumners was unlucky to launch them during the recession, which led to their demise, she even has a positive outlook on that experience, when she felt she still had something to prove to herself.
Not anymore. Not even in her new sport, tennis, which she plays for cardiovascular conditioning.
“I am not competitive in anything anymore,” she said.
But Sumners, who has a street named for her in Edmonds, remains active, She is on the board of directors of the Bellevue-based Escape to Peace, which has a mission to aid victims of sex trafficking.
As far as skating goes, Sumners gets on the rink just one time a year, for a friend’s ice show in Aspen, Colo.
“It’s not for fun. I can’t do anything,” she said. “If you were to watch me, you would think, ‘She could still skate.’ But the last double axel I did was the week before I turned 41. I would be so scared now to even do a single axel.”
So when she finishes her “little ditty” each year, she leaves her skates in Aspen, happy and content in her new life, and more than content with her place in history.
“I look at it now, and it’s, ‘Wow, I did that,’ ” she said of her Olympic experience. “Many of the personal decisions I have made in my life were affected by winning the silver rather than gold — and in positive ways. I felt like I had something to prove and would never say no to anything. That’s why I was still skating at 40. I never wanted to say no.”