Network of Support for Deaf and Hard of Hearing

Here is the seventh entry in my Storytelling Portrait Series this year! I will be highlighting children and teenagers who live with significant medical conditions, and telling their stories.

The Story

Heike has been dreaming of the Olympics for nearly her whole life. At the age of 3, she watched the television in awe as Gracie Gold competed in Sochi. She turned to her mother with stars in her eyes, vowing, “I want to be a skater someday!” She would have to wait another year to be old enough to begin lessons through a local Parks & Rec program, but she has been on the ice ever since.

It was there on the ice that things took a frightening turn last winter. Heike was taking off for a jump and heard an ominous “pop” in her ankle. She iced & elevated (skaters are no strangers to injuries), but when the pain was still unbearable the next morning, she knew something was really wrong. She went for an X-ray, and then an MRI that would reveal osteochondritis dissecans in her ankle. A lack of bloodflow to the joint was causing a small segment of bone to soften inside, and eventually die and separate from the larger bone. The condition has troubled her on and off all year.

Finally, Heike found the “specialist of all specialists”: a doctor who focuses on helping young female athletes get back on the ice after injuries. More MRIs. The bottom line – if Heike stopped skating today, she would probably never notice the injury again, and it would heal on its own. But if she continues pursuing her dream, there is no telling what may happen. It might never get worse, and she could just continue taping it up and making do. Or the dying bone and cartilage might crack and finally break loose, drifting into the ankle joint and making it difficult for Heike to even walk.

When I heard Heike’s story, all I could think of was, “Wow, what a Sword of Damocles to have hanging over you at the age of 10.” I knew immediately what I wanted to do for her portrait!

Behind the Scenes

Being a martial artist married to a man who enjoys collecting weapons means that I actually had a selection of swords to choose from for this shoot! I chose this one for its blade shape, although I later used Photoshop to increase the size and add a hand-guard.

My husband helped tie the sword to hang safely from the ceiling during the session, and he also made a smaller frayed piece that I photographed separately and Photoshopped in. Under no circumstances was I going to hang a sword over anyone with frayed rope!

Since I was creating this portrait for a contest, everything had to be photographed in real life (no digital creations), so I actually printed and cut out a physical set of paper Olympic rings. Then I photographed them and shifted to Photoshop to make them look like shadows.

Heike’s mother is actually Sarah Henry Suemnig, of QueenMomMe fame! She sews Heike’s costumes herself, and this was her amazing “Firebird” creation. You should see the crystals sparkle! Suemnig also did Heike’s hair and makeup, as she usually does for skating competitions.

Suemnig shared this story about taking Heike to see the US Figure Skating Championships, a couple years into her Parks & Rec lessons:

“We watched as (again) Gracie Gold skated the most beautiful program (The Firebird) and won the night. Everyone was on their feet cheering! It was the most exciting thing I’ve ever seen in ice! We weren’t even out of the parking ramp on our way home when Heike fell asleep. But before she closed her eyes, she said, “It’s my dream to be all alone on the ice in a sparkly dress with millions of people cheering for me…” And first thing the next day I figured out how to sign her up for private lessons.”

I don’t know how Heike’s story will turn out. I hope all of this is just color for a future NBC spotlight on Team USA’s newest gold medal skater someday! For now, Heike continues to train hard and dream.