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Skater Karina Manta on Coming Out, Mental Health in On Top of Glass

Skater Karina Manta on Coming Out, Mental Health in On Top of Glass

Karina Manta

The American ice dancer captures a turning point in figure skating with her new memoir.

Ice dancer Karina Manta's book On Top of Glass: My Stories as a Queer Girl in Figure Skating begins with an image that, thanks largely to her, no woman in skating will experience again: searching the internet for queer role models and coming up empty.

"My initial search [for lesbian figure skater] didn't conjure any names," she writes. "I altered my search: bisexual female figure skaters. Still nothing. I revised again: gay female figure skaters. Google offered me a list of men."

Manta, now 25, came out as bisexual in November 2018, posting a YouTube video of a spoken-word poem with her girlfriend Aleena a few weeks before her first performance at Skate America. She was only the second female figure skater at the international level to come out, after Japan's Fumie Suguri in 2014; and she was the first to do so while still competing.

Since then, two more female skaters have joined the list: U.S. silver medalist Amber Glenn in December 2019, and Canadian ice dancer Kaitlyn Weaver in 2021.

"Having a community now, I can't even express how much it means to me," she told The Advocate. "There's something about all of us growing up in a space where we didn't know a lot of queer skaters, and queer women who are skaters. We instantly had this shared experience and could understand each other in a lot of ways because of that."

Manta's poetic memoir follows her career from when she first fell in love with skating at age five, to her last competition with dance partner Joe Johnson at the 2019 U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Detroit, and their recent move to Cirque du Soleil after retirement. She captures both the freedom and confidence that figure skating provided for a shy, anxious girl, and the challenges that can be especially hard for queer women: the risk of eating disorders, the constant pressure to look petite and feminine, even a command to "walk more like a lady" at competitions.

The topic of eating disorders was challenging for Manta, who had body image issues for many years. At one point in the book, she urges people to stop reading if her experience is triggering to them. "It's tough to talk about, one because of stigma, but also because you don't want to make anybody else's situation harder," she said. "The litmus test I used for myself while writing was, I'm going to try to think back to my teenage self and only say things that would have helped me."

She also delves into her struggle with anxiety and panic attacks, which takes on new significance this year after gymnast Simone Biles and tennis star Naomi Osaka withdrew from major competitions for the sake of their mental health. She writes about how difficult it can be for athletes to speak up about health problems, even in the face of physical pain and injury.

"I've been really inspired by Simone and Naomi, and their ability to draw boundaries for themselves. For young athletes, that can mean the world to them, seeing that you can say no and do what's best for yourself. It meant so much to me as an adult to see other athletes saying, 'I can take a step back.'"

Manta's coming-out journey is at the heart of On Top of Glass, full of awkward first dates and crushes on celebrities like Selena Gomez and Kristen Stewart, leading to the moment when she cuts her hair short and learns to love who she sees in the mirror.

But while her story is reason for optimism in the world of figure skating, she said there's still a long way to go in terms of accepting LGBTQ+ athletes.

"Just yesterday, there was a piece that came out [where] a judge was talking about a team that are among the top-ranked in the world and said they couldn't convey romantic feelings as well as other teams because the male skater is gay," she said. "There are still judges that feel like anything vaguely queer or not heteronormative is a disadvantage in the sport.

"You sometimes get the defense of 'that's their artistic opinion,' but people don't critique that, and see that wanting to see that love story and only that love story on the ice is damaging to queer athletes, and sibling teams. Which is not to say that queer athletes can't portray a love story. They can do that just as well as straight teams, because it's all acting. It's all performance."

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