As Amber Glenn entered the cryotank on Sept. 8, she had to be optimistic about the coming figure skating season. Glenn, 20, was landing a triple Axel — performed in competition by only four American women in history — on about four out of every five attempts in practice, she estimated.
From her cryotherapy that day, Glenn remembers the hydrogen smoke getting thick. That’s all she remembers.
“I woke up on the floor not being able to open my right eye,” Glenn said. “My first thought was, I can’t compete tomorrow.
“My second thought was, don’t call an ambulance. That’s too dang expensive. So I kept repeating, ‘Don’t call an ambulance.’ They called an ambulance.”
Glenn learned that she passed out in the cryotank, fell through the door, hit her face on a shoe cubby, broke an orbital bone and sustained a concussion.
Her coaches at the Dallas Figure Skating Club, Darlene and Peter Cain, received a phone call and were told she was at the hospital.
“It was shocking,” Peter Cain said. “The first few hours you don’t know the extent of what happened. As her mom started sending us the pictures, we realized it was really significant.”
Incredibly, given the image of her puffed-shut purple eye that she shared on social media, Glenn skated in a virtual competition less than a month later.
On Thursday, she landed two triple Axels in practice at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas ahead of competing at Skate America on Friday night and Saturday. Her short program and free skate are coincidentally set to the songs “Scars” and “Rain, in Your Black Eyes.”
Glenn said later Thursday, and her coaches confirmed Friday, that she so far does not plan to attempt the triple Axel in competition at Skate America.
“We’re trying to get some mileage on it prior to putting it in,” Peter Cain said. “We were hoping to put it in this week, but I don’t think we’re quite ready yet.”
If and when Glenn does try — and, key, land it clean and fully rotated — she will join an exclusive club: Tonya Harding, Kimmie Meissner, Mirai Nagasu and Alysa Liu.
Glenn would be unique from among that group. Meissner and Liu landed a triple Axel as teenagers. Liu, 15, is the two-time reigning national champion but too young for Skate America. Harding and Nagasu were already established senior champion skaters — Nagasu an Olympian and Harding a Skate America winner.
Glenn won the 2014 U.S. junior title. Since, her best finish at senior nationals was fifth last January (with arguably the event’s highlight short program). In between, she lost her love for the sport, taking several months off between 2015 and 2016 and returning to a new rink with new coaches.
“Beforehand, [skating] was something that dictated my life, and something that, If I wasn’t a good skater, I was nothing,” she said. “And that was such a toxic mindset because I know I’m more than that. It took me a long time to really get that through my head.”
With the Cains, she spent the pandemic working on the triple Axel. She learned all of the other, more common triple jumps by age 11. It’s well known in skating that the older you get, the more difficult it is to learn a new jump, particularly one as difficult as the triple Axel.
“I don’t know how long I’ll have in the sport,” she said. “I want to make the most of it now. So that’s just been a mindset since March.”
Fellow veterans and 2022 U.S. Olympic hopefuls Bradie Tennell (22) and Mariah Bell (24) have also been training the triple Axel. Tennell hopes to debut it in competition later this season, but not at Skate America.
All of the teenage Olympic medal favorites from Russia have either a triple Axel or quadruple jump.
“Without this injury, I was knocking out clean short programs with the Axel pretty much daily,” said Glenn, who also worked on a quad toe loop before the concussion. “Then this happened. I couldn’t do it for three weeks.”
At first, Glenn wasn’t allowed to sneeze because it may disrupt the bone setting. She couldn’t drink from straws or so much as jog the first week after the head injury.
“If I were to damage that in any way, it could affect my eyesight permanently,” she said.
As she eased back onto the ice, she could not do jumps, spins or “anything with centrifugal force.” Eventually, she began rotating. Even trying the triple Axel.
“I’ll do some, and then I’ll get dizzy and have to sit down,” she said. “OK, how’s the concussion doing?”
In her first competition back, a virtual one where her program was filmed at her home rink and submitted to be judged, she singled the Axel. By mid-October, Glenn approximated that she was landing half of her triple Axel attempts in practice.
Her coaches believe she will attempt at least one triple Axel at her next competition, a U.S. Championships Series event later this autumn. Glenn is already qualified for nationals in January, so there is more freedom to risk it there.
“Just because of what’s happening internationally, we would like to have it in the repertoire, obviously,” Peter Cain said. “We would like to have two of them in the program at some point.”
NBC Sports researcher Sarah Hughes contributed to this report.
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