Story from Feb. 9, 2010
In discussing the all-consuming nature of being a competitive figure skater, Chad Conley mentions a Facebook group he belongs to: "Sorry I Can't, I Have Skating."
The title sums up Conley's life from when he started skating in Alberta, Canada, at age 5 to when he finally called it quits in 2003 at age 26 after an aborted comeback. He only got his driver's license in January, and is studying social work at the University of Calgary with plans to go to graduate school.
As the Winter Olympics in Vancouver near, Conley, 31, is excited about the figure skating competition. He never realized his Olympic dreams, though he was a Canadian junior nationals silver medalist in 1994. Lax training, injuries and too much partying detoured him. When he hit rock bottom, he decided to turn his life around. It was too late for his skating career, but not for being able to make a difference in his career path.
Conley was raised Didsbury, Alberta, a small Mennonite farming community, the youngest of four children. His life through his teens was skating, and he excelled at the Canadian national level. In addition to the junior nationals silver, he won the junior event at the Canadian Winter Games in 1995, and placed at various senior-level events. But drug and alcohol abuse threatened to derail his life.
All this time, Conley was also wrestling with his sexual orientation. "At the time, I hated the fact that I was gay," he said, though he was aware of his orientation since he was 15. He tried dating girls, to no avail, and threw himself into skating.
Though Conley estimates that 50% of the skaters he trained and competed with were gay, it was an issue that never came up and he never slept with a fellow skater. In fact, he did not publicly come out until he gave a short interview to a Canadian gay magazine in 2002.
Conley's constant companions in the years when he was 17 to 22 were alcohol and drugs. Having moved to Vancouver, he partied day and night.
"When I hit 18, I started to drink," he said. "I got bored with being at the arena all the time and wound up partying during the week and on weekends. You could find me in every gay club in Vancouver."
He got so drunk at his mother's 50th birthday party in 1997 that he told her and the partygoers that he was gay. "It kind of wrecked the birthday party," Conley said. When asked for his mom's reaction, he couldn't specifically remember, saying, "When I drank, I drank a lot, so I'm not always clear on the details."
His grades suffered and he was kicked out of the University of British Columbia for poor performance. "I was never there," he said. "It's hard to go to class at 9 a.m. when the party is still going on."
At the same time as he was partying, he was trying to stay competitive on the ice. Conley admits that "my priorities were all wrong. The talent was there, but the work ethic was not." In addition, he was lonely from being away from home and was still struggling with his sexuality.
Competitively, the bottom came in 1998 when Conley tore his ACL. The Olympics that year were out and he realized that by the time of his next chance at the 2002 Games, he would be 23, AARP territory for elite skaters. He never skated at an elite level again, and hung up his skates for good after trying to come back in 2003 after a 3 ½-year layoff.
Conley decided to try sobriety in early 2000. A turning point came when he showed up so drunk as a spectator at the 2000 Canadian championships that rumors started that he had an eating disorder. He entered rehab and stay sober for nine months before relapsing. Attending the World championships in Vancouver in 2001, he was so over-the-top smashed, "that there was a bit of a scene. I was asked to leave the event." A well-known skater took him aside and said, "You're going to end up f---ing dead or with f---ing nothing."
Conley entered rehab again and he has stayed sober since 2001. "When I got clean and sober, my life got more comfortable," Conley said. Single, he moved to Calgary in 2007 and will be actively pursuing a graduate degree in addictions counseling.
While Conley's life has stabilized and he is in a good place, it has not been without his challenges. He described 2008 as a "horrible year." His best friend committed suicide, while another friend was sent to jail after being found guilty of manslaughter. And on Jan. 12, 2010, Linda Braukmann, his former coach, died.
Through everything, Conley has managed to stay connected to skating. He is well plugged in to the skating scene, exchanging gossip and tidbits with those in the sport. "I am now choreographing programs for friends, as well as doing my courses to be a technical specialist for the new scoring system," he said.
He is writing a men's Olympics skating preview for Outsports, and if you ask him about the new scoring system make sure you have plenty of time to listen. He is in Vancouver and will be sending Outsports updates on the skating competition. With Conley, the dream of being an Olympics skater may have passed, but his passion for the sport is as strong as ever.
Chad Conley can be reached via e-mail.