The first time Alex Johnson put on a pair of ice skates was in his own backyard. His dad flooded the back of their Minnetonka home when Alex was five.
Alex could have taken to the ice with a puck and stick, and it would have been the quintessential Minnesota story. But instead, the story went more like this.
"Me and my sister would go out back and just skate and make up programs to random songs," remembers Alex. "We would just go and have fun, and I guess that kind of got me caught."
Now 17, Alex is skating more intensely than ever. He's one of nine figure skaters Minnesota is sending to the national championships in St. Paul. The last time the Twin Cities hosted the event, Alex was in diapers.
Alex eventually wants to go to the Olympics. And attend college. And become an engineer. But first, he needs to tell himself that he can achieve the holy grail of his short program: the triple-flip, triple-toe-loop.
Alex's longtime coach, Joan Orvis, is a short, spunky woman in size four ice skates. Rinkside at Braemar Arena in Edina, she watches like a mother bird as her star student struggles to complete the jump. Again and again, Alex falls.
But when Orvis tells her student to stop trying, he defies her. "Just one more time," he pleads. This time, he nails it.
"That was perfect, absolutely perfect. That was as good as Midwesterns, Bulgaria. That was awesome," said Orvis.
"Now I just need to do it every time," Alex tells her. "Ok, I'll do one more."
Most Minnesota fans will be watching standouts like Rohene Ward of Minneapolis and Eliot Halverson of St. Paul. They're competing in the men's senior division, one level above Alex.
Orvis said any male skater who has made it this far in the state of hockey deserves heaps of respect.
A few years ago, Alex's love for graceful footwork made him a laughingstock for bullies.
"A lot of people have been shocked that I'm a figure skater, and I have had some trouble with it. They've said a lot of mean things to me," said Alex. "It's not a big deal -- well, it is --but I just have gotten over it."
Alex's coach said boys in Minnesota have a harder time being figure skaters than on the East or West Coast.
"Most boys -- and I teach a lot of boys -- quit by the time they're 12 because of the pressure from their classmates, that being a figure skater is not cool," said Orvis. "So they crush."
Male or female, elite skaters have sacrificed a lot to get where they are. A lean 5'8", Molly Oberstar of Duluth looks equal parts ballerina and athlete. Her ponytail swings as she spins on the ice at Pleasant Arena in St. Paul.
This is a rebuilding year for Oberstar. Injuries kept her off the ice for much of last season, and she didn't qualify for nationals. Because she wasn't skating well, she wasn't enjoying it. She knew she needed to make a change while time was still on her side.
"Nineteen isn't that old, but in the skating world, you're not super young anymore," said Oberstar.
So she left her home skating club in Duluth for St. Paul, where she could train alongside Eliot Halverson and other elite skaters. Oberstar lives in Duluth on the weekends but heads to St. Paul with her mother so she can train here four days a week.
The entire year's payoff comes next week.
"It's super exciting. I don't think lots of people realize what a big deal it is, that it's here, it's super unusual," said Oberstar. "So many people that I know are coming. All my family members. Lots of friends are coming. It's just going to be more enjoyable to skate here than at other nationals because you're performing for people you know."
Alex Johnson agrees. These days, most of the kids who teased him in middle school have matured. He said they realize he's done something with his life. And if they see Alex nail the triple-flip, triple-toe on national TV next week, maybe they'll finally understand why he chose this sport.
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