By David Barron
Katy Taylor was 16 as she watched the ladies figure skating competition at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin from her home in Houston, visualizing the leap from alternate to Olympian she felt was sure to come in four short years.
It didn’t happen. Life intervened.
A year after being the 2006 Olympic alternate, Taylor fell to the ice four times in four minutes at the national championships in Spokane, Wash. She suffered a stress fracture in her right foot. Her parents were divorced. She stopped training. She developed an eating disorder.
She went to college. She gave birth to a daughter. She put her skates away for four years. Along the way, she convinced herself she had let her country down, had failed her family and coaches, that she bore the scarlet “A” of alternate, never an Olympian.
While greeting an old friend this week, Taylor said, “This turned out different than you expected, didn’t it?”
It did. And it didn’t. After enduring and discarding years of regret and self-doubt, Taylor, 28, is still skating, coaching at her Willowbrook Aerodrome home rink, joined by daughter Autumn, 5 1/2, who darts around the ice for fun while her mother works with students.
A label from her career that once stung is now an accomplishment to cherish.
“That word ‘alternate’ really offended me, but now I take it with pride,” she said. “It’s hard to raise an Olympian. Now, I want to raise good human beings and help them learn what this sport can teach you and find whatever potential they have.”
Twelve years after her career peak, when she won the 2006 International Skating Union’s Four Continents championship and was fourth at the 2006 Olympic trials, Taylor remains, along with former U.S. junior champion Andrea Gardiner, among the few skaters of distinction to have spent their competitive years training in Houston.
Taylor opted for what she hoped would be a normal home life by staying and training at home unlike others, including 1998 gold medalist Tara Lipinski, 2010 pairs skater Amanda Evora and two-time Canadian ice dancer Kaitlyn Weaver, who opted to go to training centers in other states. But even normal life as a competitive athlete, she discovered, includes considerable ups and downs.
“Until I was 16, I thought that if you work hard, things will work out as you want them to work out,” she said.
For a while, they did. She was third behind future Olympic skaters Miki Ando of Japan and future Olympian Kimmie Meissner at the 2004 world junior championships and third at the 2005 International Skating Union’s Junior Grand Prix championship.
A year later, in her senior debut, she was fourth at nationals and was selected as one of two Olympic team alternates. While Emily Hughes replaced the injured Michelle Kwan, Taylor’s presence was not required in Turin, where Sasha Cohen earned a silver medal, the last by a U.S. women in Olympic singles competition.
Taylor’s future looked bright for 2007, where Kwan’s retirement and Cohen’s sabbatical opened the door for a new generation. Taylor, however, finished last at two ISU Grand Prix appearances before a third-place finish in an event in Germany. She rallied at the 2007 nationals with one of her best performances in the short program but crumbled in the long program to finish eighth.
“I felt nothing,” she said. “I wasn’t disappointed. I wasn’t frustrated. I was embarrassed. I felt I let my country down. It was humiliating to fall on live TV four times in four minutes, and I remember coming off the ice thinking ‘I am never going to do this again.’ ”
And she didn’t. Burnout had set in. She decided a month later to stop training and returned to public school, graduating from Mayde Creek High School, and after flirting in 2009 with pairs skating put her skates away for good in 2010.
Retirement, however, was of no comfort. Her parents, Keith and Tammy Taylor, had divorced after 25 years of marriage, and Taylor fell victim to an eating disorder in what she recalls as a blind effort to control at least one element of a life spiraling into uncertainty.
“I had a career at 16 and worked so hard to make my dreams come true. No one could have put in more dedication and effort,” she said. “But no one knew how to help me get past my struggles. It’s no one’s fault. We just didn’t have the right combination.”
Counseling helped conquer the eating disorder. She began classes at the University of Houston, shuttling through majors before deciding on political science, but that path was delayed when she became pregnant with her daughter.
While the college degree went on hold, Tammy Taylor believes motherhood saved her daughter.
“Katy says Autumn is her little hero,” Tammy Taylor said. “I always said that Autumn saved us, and that is what a hero does.”
Taylor dabbled in coaching a year before her daughter was born in 2012 and afterward focused on finishing her degree at UH. She worked in the local office of U.S. Rep. John Culberson and considered other business opportunities, but skating drew her back.
She began full-time coaching in 2016 and, two years into her new career, doesn’t have a day off. She coaches students, assists other coaches, helps hockey players develop skating skills and assists with skating therapy lessons for special needs children.
“I can teach my students technically,” said longtime Houston coach Peggy Pennington. “But Katy brings feelings that she recalls from being a competitive skater so recently.”
Coach Taylor Gilmore recalls being in awe of Taylor’s talent when both were young skaters. Now she enlists Taylor to help her students with jumping technique.
“It’s hard to walk away from a sport you spent so much time with, and it’s even harder to come back and love it the way she loves it now,” Gilmore said. “It’s kind of incredible.”
Taylor said she has emerged from seven years of depression with the help of her parents, who remain on good terms, and of her fellow coaches, her students and her daughter.
Sometimes, she said, Autumn does some teaching on her own.
“She didn’t want to get off the ice a few days ago and started fussing with me, so I had to sit her down,” Taylor said. “She said, ‘Mom, I’m sorry. The feeling I had when I was skating was so happy that I didn’t want to get off.’
“That was me when I was little, and it was cool to hear in a 5-year-old’s language what I struggled to understand, that just sliding across the ice made me happy.”
Autumn takes skating lessons, but not from her mother. With Katy, she said, Autumn “just wants to hold hands and skate around. I don’t want to push anything on her, so we keep it lighthearted.”
Tuesday night, she and Autumn camped in front of the TV for the ladies’ figure skating short program from Pyeongchang.
“I couldn’t watch the Olympics in 2010,” Taylor said. “I watched a little in 2014, but with regret. This year, I’m watching, and I’m loving it. There isn’t a part of me that says ‘Oh, man, I want to be out there.’
“I have my closure, and now my skating is what I can give back to the sport, what I can give back to these kids, how I can help them reach their goals.”