In her performance makeup and glittering costumes, Jamie Silverstein lived the dream of so many little girls, twirling around the ice in the arms of a handsome partner with whom she expected to someday waltz off into a happy sunset.
But beneath her smile and sureness on skates lay a complex web of insecurities. Although she and partner Justin Pekarek had won U.S. ice dance titles at the novice and junior levels and were the 1999 world junior champions, Silverstein felt buffeted by the demands of her sport, her parents’ divorce when she was 11, and demons she couldn’t identify.
“I was a little girl within an adult world around me, and I didn’t know how to say, ‘I need a break,’ ” Silverstein said. “I was looking for someone to rush in and rescue me.”
She can’t pinpoint exactly why she developed the eating disorders, anorexia and, later, bulimia. Perhaps it was a need to be in charge of some aspect of her life.
“There’s the control cliche,” she said, nodding at the suggestion. “But it wasn’t conscious.
“I was 15. It just happened, and when I realized it happened, it had already been a lifestyle and pattern for me.”
Silverstein’s partnership with Pekarek ended when she took a break from the sport and he decided in the interim he didn’t want to continue. Their relationship ended after that, and she walked away from the ice altogether for four years.
“For two years, I cold-turkey quit,” she said.
She laced up her skates on a whim during a break from attending Cornell late in 2004, leading her to a renewed appreciation for what she had left.
Each Olympics triggers a flood of stories about athletes who have overcome daunting odds or conquered insidious diseases, and Silverstein’s journey to the top three at the U.S. championships and an Olympic berth stands out among them for her candor and unflinching honesty.
Silverstein, 22, now skates with Ryan O’Meara in Canton, Mich., also the home rink for U.S. champions Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto. In less than a year, Silverstein and O’Meara have forged a comfortable relationship between themselves and with coaches Igor Shpilband and Marina Zoueva.
And Silverstein has regained her footing, this time traveling a path to Turin and the start of the ice dance competition tonight, when she and O’Meara will skate third.
“It’s a real big personal victory,” she said last week during a news conference. “I’m so blessed to have Igor and Marina and Ryan in my life.”
Asked when she had resolved her eating problems, she smiled.
“ ‘Resolved’ is a weird word,” she said. “I don’t think you’re ever cured. It’s not like you have a little cyst that you can remove. It has shaped who I am.”
Silverstein, a Pittsburgh native, moved to Michigan with her mother after her parents, Robin and Alan, split up. Her father was an obstetrician who suffered a stroke when she was 3, changing his personality.
The Olympic dream was as much her mother’s as hers, she said, feeding into her need to please everyone.
“You don’t want to come home and disappoint your mother because you’d had a bad day,” she said. “You don’t feel safe at home or on the rink.”
She now lists her height as 5 feet 3 and her weight as 103 and looks healthy and fit in a discipline that often features stick-thin women.
She won’t say how low her weight plunged when she hit bottom, in 2001, but said anyone who looked at her had to know something was wrong.
“I also lied through my teeth,” she said. “I was a liar. I didn’t want to say a bad thing, the thing that’s going to make things more complicated.
“It’s something I needed to own up to. You have to help yourself.”
Pekarek helped her too, taking her to a sports psychologist when she got to their training rink for a summer practice session and simply didn’t have the physical or emotional strength to skate.
“I cried in the car,” she said. “I was spent. Really, really spent....
“It took me to go to college to kind of put a cap on things. It’s a part of my life and it’s sad that it happens. It’s part of who I am and how I relate to people. I try to be honest about things.”
Silverstein was equally honest about the sixth-place finish she and O’Meara recorded last month at the Four Continents competition in Colorado Springs, Colo.
“I haven’t experienced needing to be at such a high level in a long time,” she said. “It’s been a learning experience. We will do some fantastic performances for you all.”