Is She the Next Michelle Kwan … or Thomas Edison?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Pooja Kalyan’s well-rounded life off the ice helps her excel on it.
In the search for a star to break an Olympic medal drought for American women’s singles figure skaters that has stretched more than a decade, Pooja Kalyan does not fit the typical mold. First off, she holds two patents for innovative consumer products. And her home might be the last place you’d look for skating talent: Arkansas has just two quality ice rinks and has sent precisely one native to the Winter Olympics (speedskater Kimberly Derrick).
And yet, Kalyan, on the verge of turning 16, is turning heads in the world of figure skating after earning a silver medal in the junior division of the 2018 U.S. Championships.
“Consistency is always one of the biggest indicators of someone’s future success. If she can continue to demonstrate that consistency, I think where she can go in figure skating is absolutely endless,” says Justin Dillon, U.S. Figure Skating’s director of high-performance development. “Others falter because they can’t perform under that spotlight. That’s not something that is difficult for her.”
In order to get there, the high school sophomore will have to put off some of her other pursuits. “We have actually cut back. She stopped doing competitive ballet and violin as well,” says her mother, Suguna, a Michigan-born internist who was raised in India before returning to the United States. “The one thing I tell her is you just have to work hard and if that’s what you truly want to do, then you have to give 110 percent.”
An American woman hasn’t medaled in Olympic singles figure skating since Sasha Cohen captured silver at the 2006 Games in Torino, Italy. That drought is unprecedented.
After Kalyan picked up the sport at age 6 in her hometown of Fayetteville, her training soon took her to Oklahoma, then California, before she began embarking on regular trips to Chicago, which became far more commonplace when her older sister, Kalina, enrolled at the University of Chicago. Kalyan works there under the watchful eye of coach Alexander Ouriashev. The former Ukrainian champion’s students have included national champion and U.S. Olympian Gracie Gold. In Arkansas, Kalyan spends 13 to 14 hours a week on the ice plus four hours of additional training off-ice — and even more when she’s in Chicago.
It wasn’t long before Kalyan became one of the top novice skaters in her region, besting competitors from more prominent skating hubs like California, Colorado and Texas. “Definitely when I say I’m from Arkansas, it comes with sort of a shock,” she says.
That shock subsided when Kalyan established herself in late 2016 at the Golden Bear, a tournament in Zagreb, Croatia, where she placed third in her first international competition. This year in juniors she has earned silver at the U.S. Championships and bronze at the Bavarian Open. Her first senior-level competition was in October in Finland, where she finished ninth.
“Before they may have underestimated me,” Kalyan says. “I feel like now I’m building more of a name for myself as a competitive figure skater. I’m hoping that now they don’t see me as someone who’s not a threat.”
It’s all building toward the 2022 Olympics in Beijing. An American woman hasn’t medaled in Olympic singles figure skating since Sasha Cohen captured silver at the 2006 Games in Torino, Italy. That drought is unprecedented; American women medaled in 11 consecutive Olympics from 1968 through 2006 — including five golds. Since then, Russia and Japan have dominated, with some commentators attributing the U.S. slump in part to a developmental scoring system (since adjusted) that didn’t do enough to reward attempts of risky double and triple axels.
Kalyan is working to incorporate a quadruple toe loop into her routines starting next year, which she’ll need to be considered Olympic caliber. While 2022 seems far off, Kalyan is used to planning ahead. The child of two doctors has already begun weighing the benefits of medical school versus business school. If her dueling businesses are any indication, engineering or design might also be viable options. She designed FreeHand Plate with a classmate, patenting a standard paper plate with perforated slots. When the slots are opened, users can slip their thumb and index finger into them, allowing them to simultaneously hold a plate and a cup or additional item with the same hand. Kalyan also has a provisional patent for ReBind, a bag designed specifically for holding binders. She hopes to donate her companies’ profits to inner-city youth programs. Neither item is available for purchase yet, but the plan is to bring both products to market.
Perhaps owing to her varied interests, Kalyan is known for being unflappable on the ice. That was especially apparent when she enjoyed a series of standout performances following a disappointing ninth-place finish at the 2017 U.S. Challenge Skate, her first junior-level competition.
“Pooja is such a well-rounded individual, it just gives her perspective,” says Dillon. “Sometimes when athletes are too narrow-minded and too focused on one singular goal they have a very difficult time achieving great success in that one goal. I think she’s been able to really have different areas in her life where she’s trying to be successful.”
It could be just the approach a medal-starved Team U.S.A. needs.