“In order to truly make a difficult choice, you have to be OK with being different…”
Parekh on a long term career in competitive figure skating.
And that’s what made her different.
The young trailblazer has changed the face of success by traveling all over the world for training and making her mark as the first Indian American to represent India in figure skating.
Ami was born on January 10, 1988 in New Jersey and raised primarily by her mother Asha, former nuclear medicine technologist turned caretaker. Her father Harshad, a former doctor in New York, would often visit her. Ami comes from a Gujarati family; her mother’s side is from Mumbai while her father’s side is from Gujarat. Ami went to school until 5th grade; she and her younger brother, Amar Mehta, were homeschooled until college.
Ami and her mother
Ami was 7 when she first skated. After spending her first two hours zooming around the rink, she fell on her chin and was shipped to the ER to get stitches.
But that didn’t stop Ami, who was filled with alacrity to skate. Two years later, she skated again, this time more serious about figure skating.
She managed both her studies, which she was doing well, and her zeal for the sport. Yet it was not the “easiest choice” especially as she approached her teenage years having to constantly move. Another challenge was the expenses-Ami and her family had to make do with the money they had.
“I couldn’t get the newest toys or nicest clothes that other kids wanted…but I didn’t mind it-I really liked skating,” she said, considering these challenges also as blessings.
Once her brother and her started skating, they ended up traveling a lot and living in different places such as Maryland, New Jersey, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Delaware and New York. They worked with different coaches in the East Coast starting with former Canadian Ice Dance Champion Gilles Vanasse and spin master Bobbe Shire.
Ami Parekh and her brother Amar Mehta
“I don’t think I would have met all these people from all walks of life if I didn’t make this [career] choice…it helped make me who I am and [understand] people more.”
Ami with Olympic Figure Skater of France, Surya Bonaly
Ami worked hard everyday to keep up with the demands of skating by working on vertical leap, rotational strength, sprinting stamina and long-term endurance.
“The funniest thing ever was that I was never athletic in gym class at school prior to becoming a skater. Once I started skating, my motivation and fitness changed tremendously.”
She also had to be mentally prepared for everything. She spoke about the “mental toughness” she had to have because of hardships at home while growing up. She strove to improve by constantly self-reflecting, talking to herself through “bad practices.”
“Bad practice was unacceptable. In figure skating especially, it is too easy to create bad habits and even more difficult to undo them.”
At age 11, she competed in the North Atlantic Regional Figure Skating Championships but placed in the bottom in the first round, failing to qualify for the next rounds of the competition. She went back home and trained harder.
The hard work paid off as she won the final round in the same competition when she was 12. This was just the beginning of the string of victories she would soon face. She won Regionals and placed 7th in the final round that same year at the US Figure Skating Junior Nationals, which was held in Colorado.
Around that time, one of her Maryland coaches, Don Laws, told Ami that India was looking for a “representative” at the International Skating Union (ISU) Championships. Thus, the young skater went to India to train, coming back to Delaware for a few months every year for more training (from age 14 to 19). She would often train in small recreational places, some which were only 20 feet long. At times the rinks were not even open because it was expensive to keep them running in the hotter parts of India.
“We would obviously follow the ice…we went to the mountains to skate because of the natural ice. It was beautiful but crazy.”
Nevertheless, living in Calcutta, Delhi and Shimla gave Ami an excellent cultural experience; she even stayed at Kashmir at one point. During her time in India, Ami did more than just skate. She did meditation and yoga, learned Hindustani music, played the harmonium and took dance lessons. Additionally, Ami and Amar taught fitness and skating camps for kids who didn’t have coaches or the resources to skate. They both continued to perform Bollywood and Indian classical-themed routines for entertainment and to help bring more people to the rinks. Ami and Amar were invited to schools and organizations in the different cities.
Ami and Amar with children at school in Dehradun
Her mother would also help her design the costumes, and sometimes they got Ami’s costumes from India. Ami started experimenting with Indian jewelry, brainstorming her own costume-ideas and music in her performances, distinguishing herself and tracing her cultural identity on the rink. She even started doing more of her own choreography for her competition performances.
“I had to be more independent-I couldn’t have my coaches all the time with all the traveling unfortunately…I started taking more charge of my training as I got older.”
Ami worked with US National and Olympic coaches Audrey Weisiger and Nick Perna in Fairfax, VA; Valentyn Nikolayev in Richmond, VA; and Jeff Digregorio and Scott Gregory at the University of Delaware in between her trips to India.
When she was 18, Ami did her first international competition, representing India in the ISU Junior Grand Prix in Norway. At age 19, she became the first Indian figure skater to compete at a Senior ISU Championships by competing at the Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in February 2007. Her short program music was a Bollywood Mix containing music from the Hindi film “Taal”; her long program music was from the ballet La Bayadere.
Ami taking off for a jump
At this point in time, Ami faced a much greater battle than training and competition. A new chronic back injury starting in January continued to cause a lot of pain for the ambitious skater, who was planning to compete in Japan for the Senior World Figure Skating Championships in March. Ami tried to prepare for the competition with physical therapy and rest. She eventually took a back injection the week before the World Championships. Because she missed many days of training, her performance was not reflective of her true potential.
After the competition, Ami went to rehab for her back injury, and it took her several years to meet her pre-injury status
“You have to skate everyday or at least five to six days a week, otherwise you lose skills quickly. Figure skating is different from other sports in that the muscles in the legs decondition easily without training on the ice for long periods of time…And then it’s very hard to come back [when you take time off].”
During a five-year hiatus (2007-2011) from competitive skating, a lot happened for Ami. She coached part-time, took her SATs, completed her final high school year and applied to colleges while living with her father in New York.
Aside from the awe she had for her father when she watched him practice medicine, Ami’s back injury and her constant exposure to fellow skaters and their injuries inspired Ami towards a career in medicine. She went to Wesleyan University at age 20 where she studied Neuroscience & Behavior, Chemistry and Dance for two years. It was here that Ami was introduced to and exposed to South Indian music and dance*; she learned Bharatanatyam from Professor Hari Krishnan.
*She continued to study both classical art forms even after transferring to UPenn.
She skated on-and-off in her free time. She performed a classical Indian Bharatanatyam dance to “Devi Neeye Thunai” by the Priya Sisters on ice for a local cultural ice show in Minnesota in 2009. In 2010, Ami transferred to the University of Pennsylvania because her last team of coaches had been based in Delaware. She began working with Olympic coach Karl Kurtz. Ami also wanted to partner and skate with her brother*, who was in Delaware as well (unfortunately things did not materialize).
*Her brother Amar is also a skater and certified coach. He competed in the Junior Single Men’s figure skating level and then switched tracks into ice dancing, which he was extremely talented in. Due to a shoulder injury, he had to stop skating. Amar is currently studying medicine at St. George’s University in the Caribbean. In October 2016, he published his first novel, “Dispossession,” part of the “The Line of Leera” trilogy.
Ami and Amar practicing a lift
At the University of Pennsylvania, Ami majored in Biological Bases of Behavior and minored in South Asian studies while completing the pre-med requirements. Ami’s back also improved tremendously, and she was back at the rink to train for competitions.
Ami had packed schedule from 2010-2011. Around December 2010, Ami taught a camp; competed in Indian Nationals and performed a Bollywood piece for a chief guest in Shimla, India, while raising Rs. 2 Lakhs for the rink. In January 2011 in Dehradun, India, Ami also performed in both the opening and closing ceremonies of the First South Asian Winter Games in between renowned Sufi singer Kailash Kher’s live performances. A few months later, Ami was invited again to run a skating camp and perform for the chief guest and school children of Uttarkhand in March 2011 (she performed to “Kaisi Paheli Zindagani” from the movie Parineeta).
Ami and Amar playing ice hockey with some members of the new Indian National Team
During her senior year of college in 2012, Ami went to the International Classic in Utah, USA; the International Challenge Cup in The Hague, Netherlands, in February; and to Nice, France, for the Senior World Figure Skating Championship in March. Her long program music was the same from 2007: La Bayadere ballet. Her short program music was the flamenco song, “Nyah,” from the movie Mission Impossible 2.
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Ami with her mom, dad, and Amar at her college graduation
She did not go to medical school immediately after graduating University of Pennsylvania with honors. She followed her family, who had relocated to Chicago, and worked with Olympic coaches Oleg Vassiliev and Kori Ade. Ami found harmony working with nationally & internationally renowned coaches Jeremy Allen and Denise Myers.
“Jeremy helped me channel and synthesize my diverse and unusual training background to bring out my best technical skill.”
However, it was expensive to pay for skating as she was completely on her own this time. To fund her passion and continue her career growth, she worked part-time at three jobs: one) as a receptionist at a threading salon; two) as a figure skating coach; and three) as a receptionist at a primary care sports medicine office. Simultaneously, she trained in skating and studied for the MCATs while living with her mother.
In 2013, Ami represented India at the Golden Spin of Zagreb in Croatia and at the US International Classic in Salt Lake City, Utah, with “Nyah” (from Mission Impossible 2) as her short program and Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu as her long program. She competed again at the Senior ISU Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in February 2013 in Osaka, Japan; yet her back pain flared up again terribly the week of the competition for the first time since 2007. She competed and then spent February through September of that year rehabilitating her back, doing the best she could with the intermittent ice training.
In September 2013, Ami competed for a spot to represent India in the upcoming 2014 Winter Olympics at the Olympic Qualifiers at in Oberstdorf, Germany, but was unable to give her best performance, missing the chance by thirty-four points.
This did not deter Ami from finishing the competitive season. With a new short program “Raga Jazz Style” by Shankar Jaikishan and long program remaining as Chopin’s Fantasie Impromptu, Ami bounced back the rest of the season, doing quite well at the Denkova-Staviski Cup in Sofia, Bulgaria, and at the NRW Trophy in Dortmund, Germany, both in November.
She competed at the 2014 Four Continents Figure Skating Championships in Taipei, Taiwan, and finished her season by placing 5th at the International Challenge Cup in The Hague, Netherlands, in March 2014 – a competition she had placed 20th two years prior.
However after a biking accident in the Netherlands, she suffered a concussion and all her training had to be put on hold. Ami was honored as a VIP Guest and presented with an Award of Excellence in Figure Skating at FIA’s 33rd Annual India Day Parade in New York City.
Ami and Vidya Balan at the India Day Parade
During her six-month recovery from the concussion, Ami slowly started to come back by coaching several students for their first regional figure skating championships and continuing with her part-time jobs. She performed in several local shows in Chicago; her biggest show was the American Ice Theatre where she performed a jazz solo to Michael Buble’s “Feelin Good,” a group piece to The Piano Guys’ “A Thousand Years” and a duo to Adele’s “Daydreamer” alongside other international and Olympic skaters including Jason Brown.
In September 2014, Ami started medical school at Midwestern University and continued to teach skating to children on the weekends. After taking the USA national board exams in her second year of school, Ami went on to complete rotations at different hospitals to explore different aspects of medicine during her third and fourth years.
In January 2016, BBC Asian Network interviewed her after her “Bharatanatyam-On-Ice” performance video from the 2010 closing ceremony at the First South Asian Winter Games went viral on social media.
In August 2016, Ami was appointed as the Director of Skating at the First Goal Foundation, a non-profit foundation with three youth ice skating programs for underserved kids in Chicago at two rinks: the McFetridge Sports Center and the Morgan Park Ice Arena. Ami created the curriculum, recruited coaches and helped with fundraising and equipment especially for the Learn-To-Skate Chicago youth program, which she co-founded, and the Go Figure youth program, which she founded.
Ami posing with some of the Learn-to-Skate Chicago children
Parekh is currently applying for residency, teaching skating on the weekends and performing at local shows. Some of her local Chicago performances include “Disney Princess Medley” and Celine Dion’s “Holy Night” in 2014, a repeat performance of Michael Buble’s “Feelin Good” in 2015, John Legend’s “All of Me” in 2016 and Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” in 2017.
Ami doing a Russian split at an ice show. Photo credit: Kirsten Stickney.
Figure skating continues to run in her family; Ami’s young nephew, whom she coaches, has recently won his first US Regional Figure Skating Championships.
Ami and her students before their first Regionals
Ami will be getting married in a few weeks and is graduating medical school in May 2018.
When she’s not on the ice, in hospitals or in her medical books, Ami loves to spend time with family and friends; travel; meet new people; dance; read biographies, mysteries and historical fiction mysteries; work out at the gym; watch Bollywood and Hollywood films; hike; camp; and play other sports such as tennis, basketball and swimming.
“I have many favorite figure skaters, as everyone has their own special qualities to admire, but if I had to pick one, it would be Michelle Kwan for her charisma, athleticism, passion, determination and sportsmanship,” Ami said when asked who her aspirations were.
*Pictures and information provided by Ami Parekh