Gian-Quen Isaacs remembers her first experience in the rink. She had wanted to train in ice hockey.
But when the trainers watched her glide around the ice rink, they convinced her to pursue figure skating.
Her accidental choice of sport was a stretch for most of her friends and those around her home of Cape Town, which has a Mediterranean climate.
“Anytime I tell a person that I do ice skating, they look at me with this really surprised face: ‘We have that here? That’s a thing we do in South Africa?’,” she said, smiling at the mixed reactions she draws on her passion for figure skating.
“In South Africa, it’s known as a Cinderella sport.”
To pursue a sport while grappling with difficulties in funding and going against the norm was a huge task. But the teenager has kept her skates steady as she navigates the slippery path, with the hope that it will lead her to Beijing 2022.
When seven-year-old Isaacs decided to practise sport, she chose the road less travelled. She didn’t head out to the track where her mother spent most of her teenage years as an athlete, or choose the popular “rugby, cricket, and soccer” path.
Isaacs found her place in the skating rink, possibly as an escape from the tropical heat in Cape Town, South Africa’s second-most populous city.
“I feel like the ice is my home, it’s fantastic,” she told the Olympic Channel, adding that she was happy to be back skating after four months being off the ice due to coronavirus lockdown.
“To get into ice hockey they (trainers) said I needed the ice time for it, so I joined one of their clubs. That’s where they advised me that I had the potential to do well on ice but in figure skating.”
As an only child, her mother and extended family supported her and surrounded her with the encouragement she needed to find her stability and balance in the rink.
“I come from a single parent (household); I got the support – from wanting to do ice hockey, to 'you know what, this is what I want to do',” she recalled, then added giggling, “My mum was quite happy about it since ice hockey seemed a bit brutal.”
Away from home, the only bedazzling thing about her preferred sport was her shimmery outfit that looked fun. For most South Africans her sport was something out of a classic fairy-tale.
“It was quite difficult in the beginning. Whenever we tried to get funding, they said it’s a Cinderella sport and it’s not recognised in our country. Our biggest sport is probably like rugby, soccer, and cricket,” said the 2019 national junior champion.
Isaacs – unbeaten as a novice and junior at home – navigated the obstacles with ease and finesse.
“The (difficulties) drive me to prove to people that you know what, this is what we do and it’s a sport. It’s not just a Cinderella sport.”
She continued, “It’s just as difficult as your soccer or any other sport. The number of falls that we take they would be surprised.”
She has since mastered the elements and more importantly how to shake off the falls on and off the rink, and glide on.
“My mum always used to say, ‘we fall and that’s how we learn’.”
“That’s something that I try to keep with me, instead of focussing on the falls, focussing on how to do it right. I feel like fear just stops you from reaching your potential.”
Besides falling gracefully on ice, one of Africa’s top junior skaters is now more confident on ice and has also learnt how to be gentle on herself.
“One thing that makes me laugh is when I fall on the ice. It makes me laugh so hard because I try to figure out how did I mess that up.”
She continued: “It takes a lot of mental toughness to be able to do that. Many of us go to sports psychologists to help with what we think about instead of focussing on the mistake. Trying to forget about it, focus on the skating instead of the tricks, the turns, and the drops."
Isaacs, who is coached by Megan Allely, has represented her nation on the 2018 and 2019 ISU Junior Grand Prix circuits. But her highlight was winning the ‘Basic Novice’ section at the 2017 Santa Claus Cup in Budapest.
“I have improved a lot compared to when I started my competitions now. I go in a lot calmer, more relaxed into the competitions. I try to constantly be as happy as I can be often because the calmer I am, the better I am on the ice,” she said.
“We don’t get to go overseas as much as the other countries, so we don’t get the exposure. But my favourite was Budapest because I came first. It was unbelievable, a fantastic experience.”
“There are a lot of fantastic skaters in our sport, but I mostly look up to Hanyu. His dedication and passion for the sport are just really inspiring,” she noted.
“I want just to be able to be as free as he is on the ice, move the way he does. That would just be amazing. - Gian-Quen Isaacs on Hanyu
“I am inspired watching him go out there and fight through everything. His determination to do his best is just so amazing to just watch. When I went to Canada, the first time was in 2016 and I have been going since 2017 and 2018, I was able to train in the same rink as he did, which was just fantastic.”
Isaacs also admires the skill and mindset of compatriot Chad Le Clos, who edged out the most decorated Olympian of all time Michael Phelps for the 200m butterfly gold at London 2012.
“Outside the skating world, Chad Le Clos is my idol. He’s always been my favourite. He swam at the Olympics with his idol and that’s something I want to be able to do and when I reach that stage.”
She hopes she can make it to Beijing 2022.
“I think I can make it quite far in the sport. It would be a dream if I can make it to the Olympics which is every athlete’s number one goal. It makes me want to work much harder. I realise if I push myself, I can make it there,” she offered.
“I am targeting 2022. I believe I have the potential to get there and that would be just wow,” she said.
Every day as she trains, she feels a sense of responsibility. That she is trying to chart a unique path to the Olympic Games, which no South African woman of colour has followed before.
Only six of her compatriots, three men and three women have qualified for the Olympics.
“I didn’t realise I could be the seventh figure skater (if I qualify). I feel honoured and inspired. Because when I met some of those Olympians I don’t realise at that time, even with their encouraging words, that my dream is actually possible.
“Hopefully getting to the Olympics will inspire others to never let go of their dreams.”
She hopes to make more history by becoming the first South African to land a quad jump.
South Africa first competed at the 1960 Games and is still the African nation that has sent the highest number of athletes to the Winter Olympics.
“If I can do a quad it would be remarkable as no South African has been able to do a quad. To be able to do that will be like wow, she has come and left a mark. I haven’t tried it yet. I am trying to get the techniques right on a triple before actually attempting it.”