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Columns

Mentors on Ice, and in Life

By William Y. Yao
William Y. Yao '22, a former Crimson Technology Chair, is an Applied Math concentrator in Kirkland House. His column "A Memoir Of Our Own" appears on alternate Tuesdays.

Imagine a two-year-old decked out in knee pads, elbow pads, palm pads, a striped ski mask, and an oversized bike helmet. All that on top of the suffocating bulkiness of snow pants and a puffy jacket. Oh, and a pair of really tight, blister-inducing shoes with blades attached to the soles. That was me when my mom taught me how to skate.

I learned to ice skate long before I learned to ride a bike. I can do both now, but the adage “it’s like riding a bike” sometimes subconsciously translates to “it’s like skating” in my mind. Something that I’ll never forget how to do, no matter how long it’s been.

Recently, while visiting Portland, Ore., I had the chance to skate. The rink was a tiny oval smack in the middle of a shopping mall, surrounded by Forever 21, Cinnabon, and some other mall favorites. Nonetheless, it was my first time on ice in well over a year and I was thrilled. I try to skate a few times every winter, but Covid-19 closures had kept me away.

Later that day, while browsing the shelves of Portland’s famed Powell’s Books, I stumbled upon the vibrant blue and red cover of “Beautiful On The Outside,” a memoir by former Olympic figure skater Adam Rippon. From his writing emerges a witty, formative, and unapologetically authentic story of the glamorous and grueling sides of a career in figure skating. A few glossy pages in the middle are filled with photographs of the characters in his story. Family, coaches, competitors, friends, foes. The attention he grants each of them prompted me to think of the people who have defined and composed my journey; those who’ve helped form the most salient images of my own life. In particular, my mentors.

“Mentor” is a pretty difficult term to define in the first place. Teacher is too formal; advisor feels too stuffy. Mentorship isn’t only about teaching skills or giving advice — it isn’t even just about guidance. In sport, you may find a mentor in a coach, or you may not. As essential as good mentors are, there is no predetermined path to finding one.

The kind of mentor I’m thinking of understands, in some meaningful way, your experiences, your emotions, your story. They are someone who shares parts of their story with you. Perhaps you’ve found mentors in classmates, siblings, or professors. Think back to the things they’ve told you. I’d bet some of the stories really resonate.

At figure skating competitions, the “kiss and cry” is what they call the area skaters go immediately after performing to await scores from the judges. The name comes from the kisses that ensue after receiving good scores and the tears that flow after bad ones. In the “kiss and cry,” the skater will most often be accompanied by their coach. It’s in moments like these, moments when you have somebody with you to celebrate the good and to help lighten the weight of the bad, that a good mentor really shines.

Mentorship finds a way to travel through generations. Rippon’s memoir chronicles the journey towards his own Olympic dream to him becoming a mentor for a new generation of Olympic hopefuls. I’ve slowly come to a better understanding of the role a mentor plays over the course of my time at Harvard; perhaps because lately, in the most modest of capacities, I’ve been able to play the role myself for others. I don’t have any wisdom, really, to give out, but I do find myself sharing stories from my earlier college years to the occasional listener. I’ve accumulated a few of these stories that I sometimes think might benefit someone who’s just starting their journey here.

Campus life is so full of this mentorship, story sharing. Navigating Harvard can be so overwhelming, but the mentors I’ve found through clubs, classes, and just chance meetings have been so invaluable. Mentorship can be little things that you sometimes don’t even realize.

If we all wrote down these stories we have, we’d each end up with a memoir of our own. But for now, let’s keep sharing them with each other. Don’t hesitate to discover mentors in the most unlikely of places. Learn from their stories; this sharing is essential to the vitality of our community. Like riding a bike (or skating), some of these stories will stick, and become part of yours — become part of you.

When my mom brought a two-year-old me to the ice rink, she wasn’t just teaching me how to skate. Once upon a time, long before I was born, she was a competitive skater. She was sharing that part of her story with me.

William Y. Yao '22, a former Crimson Technology Chair, is an Applied Math concentrator in Kirkland House. His column "A Memoir Of Our Own" appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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