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It Ain't Over: Two Decades Later Paula Shuman Rekindled Her Childhood Dream

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First Posted: 06/06/2012 9:06 am Updated: 06/18/2012 7:09 pm

One of the reasons I started my website, is that I wanted a place for women to come together and dream. Women should know that they don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing them -- that there is always time to start a new dream. And sometimes an old dream can be brought back to life. This week's story is about a woman who put her dreams to rest for decades before skating back into the spotlight where she belongs. – Marlo, MarloThomas.com

By Lori Weiss

From the time Paula Shuman was four years old, she knew exactly who she wanted to be. It all came to her in an instant. The instant she heard the swooshing sound of skates on ice, and saw a blur of beautiful women swirling onto an Atlantic City stage in ballroom dresses.

“My parents had taken my older sister and me to see the Ice Capades,” Paula remembered, “and I was mesmerized. So much so, that I remember my mother saying, ‘Sweetheart, the people who are skating don’t know you like what they’re doing unless you clap.’ But I just couldn’t take my eyes off the stage.”

Despite her young age, Paula had already tried a few spins of her own -- out in the backyard of her West Hartford, Connecticut home. Each winter, as the temperature dropped, a gully that ran through the neighborhood, would freeze up and create a path of ice.

“After seeing that show, I knew I had to get to work!” she laughed. “At the time I only had starter skates -- the kind with the double blades. But my sister had the grown-up kind, single blades that allowed you to glide, the way the dancers did on stage.

“I was just in kindergarten, so I’d come home at noon, and after lunch I’d sneak into her closet and slip on her skates. I’d stuff a couple pairs of socks inside, to make sure they fit snugly, and then I’d bundle up in a snowsuit and hustle out the door. I had to get outside and into the deep snow before my mother could see what I was doing!”

Paula would spend the entire afternoon trying to recreate what she’d seen on stage. There were areas of the gully that narrowed to only six inches of ice that other kids saw as obstacles, but for Paula, they provided the perfect platform for her to practice skating on one foot.

“I always wondered why my mother would call me in after just a few hours,” Paula said with a smile, “but eventually I realized she was watching the entire time. She wanted to get me back inside before the school bus pulled up and my sister saw what I was doing!”

As the years passed, Paula began to outgrow the frozen gully -- but not her dream of one day performing in Atlantic City. She begged her mother for skating lessons, but there simply wasn’t money to spare. And with her eye on her daughter’s future, her mother would gently ask, "Honey, where do you think that training is going to take you?”

As Paula graduated from high school, she took her mother’s words to heart. She enrolled in classes at the local hospital and began studying to become a radiographer -- putting her dreams of becoming a professional skater on ice.

“I still skated for fun, just not in the backyard anymore,” she said. “I’d go to the ice rink the way other people would go to the gym. But then one day a coach noticed how comfortable I was on skates and offered to work with me.”

With a little practice, it wasn’t long before Paula was teaching other students. It was supposed to be a part-time job -- just something to do until she graduated from the hospital’s X-Ray program. But all of that changed when the Ice Capades came to town. And they were auditioning.

“The job market was tight,” Paula recalled, “and I couldn’t find a position in radiology, so I thought, 'why not?' And there I was -- up on stage skating for JoJo Starbuck and Ken Shelley. They were Olympic champions. It was like a dream come true.”

Paula aced the audition and got an offer -- with one small caveat: she had to take off 20 pounds, in spite of the fact that she was already a size five. She’d also have to cover her own costs on the road. Somehow it didn’t seem like the glamorous life she’d always imagined. So she hung up her skates for what she thought would be the very last time -- opting for a more secure situation as an X-ray technician. Until 23 years later, when it all came circling back.

“For years I’d have dreams that I was on the ice,” Paula said with a hint of sadness. “But I’d boxed up my polyester skating skirts and I was busy working and raising a family. Until one day I was in the operating room, preparing to X-ray a patient’s gall bladder, and I overheard a nurse talking about skating.”

As it turned out, her colleague was taking lessons at the very same place where Paula once taught: “We started to talk and when I told her I used to skate, she suggested that I come by. But I just wasn’t sure; it had been so many years. Then one day I ran into her and she started flapping her arms and clucking like a chicken. She was bringing me a message from an old friend who still skated at the rink. He was calling me a coward, and I’m way too competitive to just shake that off!”

So more than two decades later, Paula laced up her skates. And that old friend, who playfully coaxed her back not only greeted her with open arms, but offered to become her coach.

“I spent a lot of time on the ice,” she admitted, “sitting on the ice. Every time I tried to skate the way I used to, I’d fall down. You know what they say about learning to ride a bike again -- that it all comes right back? Well, it’s nothing like that. I had bruises on my body the size of dinner plates, all over my hips and my butt. It took three weeks for them to go away! But I still loved that feeling of gliding across the ice.”

Paula loved it so much that she began skating several times a week, eventually sharpening her skills enough to compete in national ice dancing events. She trained with world-renowned figure skating athletes Melissa Gregory and Denis Petukhov, and even learned to do the kinds of lifts and spins she first witnessed on that Atlantic City stage.

“The girls at the rink say I’m the only one on the East Coast doing death spirals at my age,” she said with delight. But I can’t say this has always been easy, physically or emotionally. There were a few times I wanted to throw in the towel and others where I thought I should be saving all the money I’m spending on training and competitions. But this is a part of my soul and it’s about what you do with your life.”

And this past April, at the age of 59, Paula did something spectacular. She and her coach Garrett Brockert took first-place, for the second consecutive year, in the Southern Connecticut Skating Club’s Pro Am competition.

“When they put that medal around my neck, it wouldn’t have mattered to me if it was made of tin foil. It was a moment like nothing else in my life; a moment of pure accomplishment.

“It’s the most wonderful feeling ever,” she said, “to have a dream and to be accomplishing it.”

Loading Slideshow...
  • Two-Time Gold Medalist

    Last April, at the age of 59, Paula Shuman and her coach, Garret Brockert, took first place at the Southern Connecticut Skating Club Open. This year's win marks Paula's second consecutive win in the pro-amateur event, proving it's never too late to achieve your dream.

  • Never Too Late

    It had been more than two decades since Paula had last been on the ice, but with a little push from an old friend, she finally returned to her dream of competing. Here, she is in 2009 with one of her partners, Michael, competing in Darien, Connecticut.

  • The Long Road To Success

    She may not have been a champion skater when she returned to the ice in 1995, but she never gave up. In fact, Paula claims she spent a great deal of time sitting on the ice when she first started training again. Today, some of the girls in her local ice rink think she's one of the only women her age doing "death spirals".

  • Motivation To Continue

    It was the feeling of gliding across the ice, something that used to come so naturally to her, that kept Paula pushing through her insecurities and doubts about her dream. Here she is in Darien, Connecticut where she and her partner placed 1st in 2009.

  • Back In Action

    Paula first returned to her dream of skating professionally in 1995. That same year she and her then partner placed 3rd at the Adult Nationals competition. Here, Paula and her partner pose for a photo with their medals.

  • Star Athletes

    Since she's come back to skating, Paula has trained with world-renowned figure skating athletes such as Melissa Gregory and Denis Petuckhov. Here, Paula poses with Olympic champion figure skater, Oksana Baiul from Ukraine.

  • Returning to Her Dream

    It was only after her two children had gone off to college, leaving Paula with an empty nest, that she returned to competing in 1995.

  • Starting Off Slow

    Paula started off slow, practicing several times a week and sharpening her skills in preparation for competing in national ice dancing events.

  • Paula & Family

    At twenty years old Paula realized that her dream of becoming a professional ice dancer wasn't going to be financially attainable, and so she hung-up her skates for good. For twenty-three years she stayed busy working and raising her family. Here she is with her son and daughter on vacation in Disney World in 1988.

  • College Graduation

    After high school, Paula enrolled in radiology classes at the local hospital. Heeding her mother's warning that skating wasn't going to take her very far, Paula put her dream on hold. Here she is graduating from radiology school at age twenty.

  • At A Turning Point

    When she finished high school, Paula opted to take the more secure path of training for a career as an X-ray technician, rather than pursue her dream of becoming a professional ice dancer. Here, at eighteen, Paula poses for her high school graduation picture. After high school Paula enrolled in radiology classes.

  • Atlantic City

    From the moment she saw the Ice Capades in Atlantic City, Paula knew that ice dancing was exactly what she wanted to do when she grew up. Here, Paula (right) poses with her sister on the boardwalk in Atlantic City in 1956.

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