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A Gift from God

Publish Date: Fri 13th Mar 2020

A Gift from God

Francesca Rosaria Nash says that ice skating is the closest you can come to being able to fly. The 12-year-old, who is the granddaughter of Charles Sultana De Maria, a member of Salisbury Circle for the past 25 years, wants to become an international skater and is willing to give it her all to achieve her dream.

Skating has been part of Francesca’s life for so long that she feels most herself when she puts her skates on. Catena spoke to her mother, Fiorella Nash, to find out more.

Catena: Has your daughter always been interested in skating?

Fiorella Nash: Francesca has always wanted to be a skater. She says that when she was about three (it is one of her earliest memories) she was ill in bed and I showed her a film of Torvill and Dean’s famous Bolero. She said she was so mesmerised that she just thought: “I want to do that!” After that, she pestered me constantly to get her skating lessons but there was a long waiting list at the local rink and I wasn’t keen. I took her to the rink once and, when I heaved open the door, I was hit by a blast from the North Pole and just thought: ‘”No way am I spending hours freezing to death at the side of an ice rink. She can do ballet like all the other little girls!”

Francesca did ballet for a year without enthusiasm, constantly asking when she could start skating and eventually I gave in. Shortly before her fifth birthday, she had her first lesson. She was so over-excited that as soon as the coach called the children onto the ice and the other children started gingerly stepping on, she jumped onto the rink, with the coach commenting: “Gosh, she’s brave.” After that, she used to count down the days until her next lesson. When she was six, she was introduced to her beloved coach Kirsty who has now mentored her for six years. Kirsty is moving to Canada next month to spend a year doing further training which will be a big wrench but Francesca is starting with the head coach at the rink and plans to stay in touch with Kirsty while she is away, as she has been such a part of our family’s lives for so long.

Catena: What does being a competitive skater involve? Has Francesca won any competitions. 

FN: There are eight introductory levels to skating called Skate UK, after which skaters can start attending training sessions. There are three more levels – bronze, silver and gold – after which they can start competing in open competitions around the country. They start at beginner level and work their way up through the different categories. Francesca is now skating at basic novice (level four/five) and hopes eventually to qualify for the British Nationals. Her proudest moment was getting on the podium at the Oxford Open two years ago but her immediate aim to is beat her personal best at Skate Southern later this month.

Catena: Is her goal to, one day, skate internationally?

FN:Francesca dreams of representing Malta internationally one day. She is proudly Anglo-Maltese and proudly Catholic.

Catena: Why does she love skating?

FN: I have always known that skating mattered to Francesca but it was when disaster struck early last season that I realised just how much it mattered to her. She had just been placed fourth in a big competition early in the season and was looking forward to a successful year when she came limping off the rink during a training session, complaining of severe pains in her knees. Skaters have an amazing pain threshold, so when a skater says she is in pain, something is very wrong. After weeks of pain and uncertainty, Francesca was told that she had Schlatter’s Disease, a debilitating condition very common among young people doing high impact sports, usually triggered by a growth spurt. She was unable to train for months and fell into a deep depression, missing the rink and petrified that she would have to give up skating. I remember finding her curled up in bed, crying, saying: “Why would God do this to me? I don’t understand why this had to happen.”

After months of physio, Francesca returned to competitive skating, only to relapse a few months later. When a specialist suggested that surgery might be the answer, we prayed for the intercession of Our Lady of Ta’ Pinu (Ta’ Pinu is Malta’s national shrine). During the consultation, it was found that Francesca was suffering from a much more easily treatable condition than was initially believed and she quickly returned to an intensive training programme, under the continuing care of a sports physio. Francesca is hoping to travel to Malta later this year to leave her first ice skates at the shrine of Ta’ Pinu in thanksgiving for her return to competitive skating. 

Catena: What kind of work does your daughter need to put in in order to be a competitive skater?

FN: Francesca is up at 4.15am to train before school. She gets to the rink just after five, does an intensive warm-up session and skates with breaks to stretch off until 8am. The one concession her school makes is to let her come in after registration twice a week so that she can get an extra half hour on the rink. Besides twice-weekly sessions with her coach, she has a lesson every week with a technical specialist who helps her with her jumps, and off ice sessions focusing on flexibility and core strength. She really needs a lot more time with coaches and specialists but skating is a rich man’s sport (it apparently costs around £20,000 a year to train an Olympian). Francesca is very level-headed and always says she doesn’t mind that her skates and outfits are secondhand or budget buys (it is possible to spend hundreds of pounds on competition dresses, and blades alone cost around £180). Also a keen artist, Francesca paints bookmarks to sell at school fayres and plans to get a Saturday job as soon as she is old enough to subsidise her training, but she is praying for a sponsor to help her achieve her dream. Funding would allow her to have more time with coaches and to participate in a greater number of competitions but also to attend skate camps abroad.

Catena: Are there any challenges for young Catholics competing in a secular environment?

FN: In many ways, skating is quite a conservative sport. There are rules against skaters wearing overly revealing competition dresses, for example, and judges will deduct points for costume violations. Skaters also tend to be acutely aware of the dangers of drugs. Francesca has to be in bed by seven in order to be up again at 4.15, which limits the opportunities for misbehaviour. However, competitive sport provokes conversations about what really matters in life. Any young person committed to a sport will dream of winning medals, but we often talk together about the need for perspective in a world where young girls are sometimes pushed to breaking point for the sake of winning. Francesca has been given a gift from God and she feels under a happy obligation to work hard to be the best she can, but never at the expense of her soul.

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