By Gina Capellazzi, Team FSO website administrator
Header photo by Leah Adams; photos courtesy of Sean Rabbitt unless otherwise noted.
Sean Rabbitt announced on his social media platforms Nov. 13 that he has decided to step away from competitive skating. Following his announcement, Rabbitt took a trip down memory lane with Figure Skaters Online’s website administrator Gina Capellazzi, where they talked about the highlights and the lowlights of his competitive career and what the 30-year-old has planned for the next chapter in his skating career.
Figure Skaters Online (FSO): So you made the hard decision to step away from competitive ice. Let’s go back to the beginning! Do you remember the first time you stepped on the ice? If so, what was it like and did you ever think you still be skating all these years later?
Sean Rabbitt: I don’t remember the first time I was on the ice, but I do have vivid memories of my early years on the ice. My brother and I started in group classes and went through the levels together before he went into karate and I stayed skating. One of my most vivid memories is actually when my first coach, Wendy Burge, was teaching my group class. We were learning something like 3-turns and instead of me paying attention to learning a 3-turn, I was staring across the ice at the jump and spin class and trying to copy what they were doing. It is so funny that I not only remember this, but that was also the reason my coach, Wendy, asked my mom if she could teach me! Wendy and I were together for 11 years, and because of her eye, I am here today. I had no idea I would be skating all these years. I never expected skating would become what it means to me today. Skating is not just my hobby or my job, it is my passion, my lifestyle.
FSO: What is your favorite thing about skating and what is one thing you don’t like about the sport?
Rabbitt: My favorite thing about skating is not one person is alike. You could have the same coach and the same choreographer and be taught everything exactly the same, but the way each skater will jump or skate will be completely different. There might be like qualities due to the same teachings, but everyone will be different. I think that is so cool! I also love that anyone can skate at any age. Kids, adults, competitive or recreational. That leads me to answer part two. I don’t like the stigma of age in our sport. If there is one thing I have done as a skater, it is accomplish everything in my later years, my back half of my 20’s. Yes I say this all the time in every interview, but I think the stigma of age is killing our sport, and throwing aside so many skaters that could be! When you’re young, you need to be good, but by a certain age if you don’t have it, you should move on. That to me is what I hate. It is the wrong mentality. Myself, Carolina Kostner, Daisuke Takahashi, Joelle Forte, Katie McBeath, all have found some of our greatest success in our later years. Mirai Nagasu got her triple axel in her 20’s. I think our bodies are good young, yes, but then those that aren’t good young could be good when they are older if they allow themselves the time to mature mentally and physically! It takes work, yes, but I think the secret to still being competitive at 30 is I learned my triples at 18 and my body was ready for them. I hate the age stigma, and I hope I have inspired many to pursue their dream no matter their age! Let’s change it!
FSO: So what was your favorite program that you skated and why was it your favorite?
Rabbitt: Ohhhh..the tough questions here! I have so many I like. I have a big part in the creative process and one thing I have to have is a connection to the music. So can I name a few?
“Concerto in F” free skate (2015) — It was my first international season and that program was so different for my style and brought me success.
Samson and Delilah (2014-2016): I’d never seen a guy skate to it so it was my goal to make it masculine and cool!
Mambo free skate (2017): THIS program, I am still asked to do it at shows to this day. It was TIRING, but so fun to skate!
East of Eden short program: One of my most successful short programs for multiple seasons, this program was a replacement before the season started. I was set to skate to Miss Saigon, another piece whose male role was never represented in skating. But as much as I loved that music, it didn’t click. So I asked my coach if I could skate to East of Eden. Tammy [Gambill] felt with so many big names having skated memorable performances to it, it might be a tough one to pull off. She finally agreed to let me do it and she said I had to make her cry if I was going to skate to it. Well, I know at least one of us cried when it brought me to my personal best short program score and placement at 2019 Nationals, and just under that this past 2020 Nationals.
FSO: What has been some of your favorite costumes?
Rabbitt: I love this year’s costumes: the grey for my East of Eden short program and my free skate to “Espana Cani”. Also, my 2011 Michael Jackson costume in all pleather and white Michael Jackson glove. We can’t forget my sweater vest from 2013 to “One Mint Julep” either.
FSO: Did you ever have a program that you just didn’t like, but continued to skate it anyways?
Rabbitt: I usually like my programs, but, yes, there is one that stands out! When I skated to “Tequila” in 2017-2018 season. That program was fun, iconic, and something different, but half way through the season, I had a hangover from too much Tequila (jokes everyone, jokes). By that, I mean, I had heard it too many times and was so sick of it. I came back from competing it internationally, came into the rink and told Tammy I couldn’t skate to it anymore. If I heard Tequila one more time, I’d probably need some tequila, which I had plenty from my amazing fans. Shoutout to the adult skating community, who gave me mini tequilas as gifts after competition.
FSO: What was your least favorite costume?
Rabbitt: My least favorite costume would be my original Samson and Delilah costume, or original Mambo costume. Both of those went to one competition and then that was that. Otherwise, I have had really great costumes; some better than others, but almost all I liked because I had a hand in the creative process and was lucky to have great seamstresses.
FSO: When you look back on your career, what will you remember most? What was in your eyes your “gold medal performance”? What are you most proud of?
Rabbitt: I am proud that I stuck it out, I persevered and made it past everyone’s expectations. A little background for those that only know me in my nationals/Team USA years. I started skating at 3 and competing at age 7. I did compete one year at juvenile and aged out, so I had to go to intermediate where I spent three years. My first year, I wasn’t even kind of ready. My second year, I was middle of the pack and my third year, I made it to what was then Junior Nationals. I was 15 with a double Axel, but very awkward and gangly. Then I grew, I made it to sectionals in novice in 2007 with no triples. Then after that, when everyone was landing their triples, I was still at a double Axel. I moved up to junior in 2008 to stay with my friends and ended up last at regionals. During all this, people told me to go to pairs (which I was doing too) or ice dance, or quit all together and stop wasting my parents’ money. But my parents felt this was an education and could take me further.
The 2008-2009 season, I finally was squeaking out some triples. In 2010, at age 19, I qualified for my first nationals in juniors with my triples. That I thought would be my only nationals and I wanted to soak in the experience, which I told this to Mark Ladwig (2010 Olympian) and he told me I was wrong. Wow, I was so wrong!
That was the start of my journey, but it would take me another five years to become a competitive skater at senior nationals. Finally in 2015, at age 25, I was named to Team USA and sent to my first international. People, including a former coach, told me I couldn’t, I wouldn’t and I should just move on. I proved them all wrong! Again, I happened to tell Mark before that international that I was going to enjoy every moment and learn because it would be my only time I’d get to represent Team USA. Again, I was so wrong! Another five years has gone by and I have been representing Team USA internationally and I have claimed several top 10 spots at nationals with my highest being a 7th place finish in the short program (8th overall) at the 2019 Championships and right behind that score and placing 8th in short and 9th overall in 2020.
So I think my 2019 short program or 2017 free skate, which both got me personal best scores and placements, would definitely be my gold medal performances. I will remember the struggle and sadness as I watched competitors surpass me and people put me down, but shining brighter than them, I will remember the courage and power I received from those that believed in me and encouraged me to go on because I loved to skate.
One more thing I’d like to add as a gold medal moment. I remember telling my coach, Mingzhu Li, going into my first nationals when she asked what my goal was, she thought I would say a score or placement, but I said ‘I want to skate and command the audience and have everyone cheer for me like the way they do when Michelle Kwan takes the ice.’ Most would have laughed since I was a nothing, but she didn’t, she said since, “I started teaching you, I knew how much you love to skate and that right there tells me that. You can do it.”
It didn’t happen that time, but all these years later, when I step onto a warm-up or step on as the other skater leaves and the crowd starts going nuts or the numerous standing ovations I have received….I remember that young skater telling Mingzhu Li that. As it happens in present day, Tammy Gambill tells me, “they are here for you, so skate for them.” That right there is another gold medal moment.
FSO: If you had a chance to go back and do your career over again, what would you have done differently?
Rabbitt: I think that’s hard to say. There are so many things I would have done differently, but in the end, we can’t change that, right? So I try not to think of what I could have done differently. When I do think about it, I wish I could have switched to my coach, Tammy Gambill, sooner than I did, but again, would I be who I am now? So honestly, I don’t know what I would change. I try not to dwell on the past, on what could be, but instead look at the present with what I have and to think about the future and what it can become!
FSO: Was there a moment in your career that you just rather forget?
If so, what was it and why? Any embarrassing moments?
Rabbitt: I used to want to forget the skater I mentioned above, the one from 2006-2010, but it is because of that skater I feel I am the skater I am today. I have the ability to understand the difficulties and struggles skaters go through mentally due to the physical issues of growing, and the mentality you have seeing your friends surpass you. I used to want to forget that skater. When I got “good”, people used to say, ‘remember how terrible you were with your cheated jumps?’ I used to be so embarrassed of him. But now, I am proud of him, I am proud of that skater now! No shame, only pride and happy to talk about that period of my skating. I hope more people can relate to this.
FSO: Announcing that you are stepping away from competitive skating, does not mean you are done skating, but still, how do you want to be remembered in this sport?
Rabbitt: Yes, my skates won’t be hung up for a while! But I hope that I can be remembered as a legend in this sport. Maybe that sounds cliche or cheesy, but this sport means so much to me. It has given me so much. I hope that people will know me as the skater that skated for the real reasons; not for points or trophies, but for sheer enjoyment, because I never forgot what it feels like to love what I do. I want people to remember me as a skater who could light up a crowd (and still plan to do so) and embraced every experience as an opportunity to learn and shine. Down the road, I hope to be remembered as a legend in this sport, as a skater, a competitor, a showman, a coach, a leader and an inspiration.
FSO: Skating is mostly a single-person sport (except for pairs, dance and synchro), but it really does take a team behind the scenes to be successful. Who was beneficial to you throughout your career and how did they help you keep skating for so long?
Rabbitt: It takes a village! After skating for so many years and doing that while coaching the last 12 years, I really see both sides of the equation. First and foremost — my family. My whole family has been behind me every step of the way, especially my mom, dad and brother. My brother growing up had to put up with a lot and he selflessly sacrificed a lot so I could skate and rarely did he ever complain. These days, he is such a superstar (manager at Michelle Kwan’s East West Ice Palace) and everyone in the skating world knows him. If they don’t, he will introduce himself as Sean Rabbitt’s brother and make sure they know who I am, which then they learn who he is. He is such a big supporter and I am so grateful to him. My nephew and sister-in-law are also big fans. My nephew and brother even came to watch Nationals in 2018.
My parents worked hard. They sacrificed so much as well, every spare penny, every waking hour. My dad worked early mornings and late nights. He spent weekends working with the video company Hurd Video at every competition to have a little extra money to pay for one more lesson. I was very ungrateful as a teen. We didn’t have a lot and I got three lessons per week and skated publics till I was junior. That was it. Now I see how hard they worked just to get that one extra hour so I could do a freestyle, how much they drove me and made sure they never missed a competition, no matter how much it cost them. I am so so grateful for them. To this day, they are my number 1 supporters.
Another big line of support is my club, Glacier Falls Figure Skating Club. I have been with them from the start and they have been there for me every step of the way. One of my favorite memories will always be competing at Glacier Falls Summer Classic in Anaheim, Calif. every year. The entire club would stop what they were doing to come into the rink and cheer me on. They have helped my family financially when times were tough, making sure we could always go to the events I worked so hard to qualify for. In return, I always do my best to try and volunteer and attend all club functions, and be a leader to the skaters in my club.
My coaches, all of them, from my head coaches Wendy Burge, Mingzhu Li, Peter Oppegard and Tammy Gambill. I am so grateful. The many coaches that helped those head coaches; to name a few: Kristi Fiedler-Ritoch, Lia Trovati, John Nichols, Galina Barinova, Junichi Takemura, Karen Kwan and my trainer, Tyrone Bennett, and so many more. They all have taught me so many amazing things and given me the tools to succeed.
Lastly, the help and support of U.S. Figure Skating, John Wilson Blades and Riedell Skates.
FSO: What do you want to say to your fans for their support throughout the years?
Rabbitt: My fans are the reason I skate. They are the fuel to my fire. I love all of them. I take the time everyday to try to answer every message I receive from them on social media. It takes time, but it is so worth it. I love connecting with them and building real relationships with them. I think it is so important. When I see them sitting front row at a competition and they are there cheering for me and I recognize them, that makes me want to skate so much better for them.
My Japanese fans are a whole other level. For starters, my super fan, Koharu, who has create my official Japanese Fan Club and taken the lead with that for almost ten years. She comes to my various events, organizes support and gift ideas to and from other Japanese fans to me. She organizes fan meetings when I go to Japan. I mean she is amazing! My Japanese fans really make this fun for me because although I have fans everywhere, I would say a large percentage of my fans are in Japan and they treat me like a celebrity when I am there. Being spotted on the street or in a cafe by them or when they come to nationals just to cheer me on, it is like, ‘wow!’
But it is so cool because all my fans are just so special to me and even though I am not competing anymore, I hope to continue to grow that fan base and create these amazing relationships with them. My fans again are the reason I skate. I love them so much and I am so thankful for them!
FSO: What advice do you give to new skaters as they approach the beginning of their competitive careers?
Rabbitt: When you’re ready to quit, take a step back and evaluate. I would like to say I have wanted to retire from competing a grand total of four times in my career as a competitor. But seriously, when the going gets rough, get tough. Fight it out. Take a step back and breath, even take some time away to see if you’re really ready for a break. Sometimes, that’s all you need is some space to breath and think. Then re-strategize, try something new or different and in the end, don’t quit. Remember why you started to skate and fell in love with it in the first place! We all start and continue with the sport for one common reason and that is because we love it. Remember that, forever! Even my coach, Tammy, reminds me of that all the time. You skate because you love it! So I hope skaters young and old remember why they love it too.
FSO: I’m sure many skaters, especially your students look up to you, but who did you look up to during your competitive career?
Rabbitt: Growing up, I looked up to Daisuke Takahashi, Carolina Kostner, Evan Lysacek, Ryan Bradley, one of my best friends, Richard Dornbush, and then some other classic skaters, Joelle Forte, for defying the odds in age; Stephanie Rosenthal for her amazing performance quality. There are many many more skaters that I look up to. The list goes on!!!
FSO: So what’s next for Sean Rabbitt? I know that is a bit hard to answer right now, given the current situation with COVID-19, but what are your plans for the future?
Rabbitt: It’s a good question that many think is hard to answer due to COVID, but actually right now, nothing really is going to change at all! I have already been coaching the last 12 years and I was balancing that with full time training. So like I said in my social media post about leaving competition, I am only stepping away from competition, not from skating all together! (DON’T PANIC PEOPLE!). So since not much in my day-to-day life will change, since I still plan to skate, what will change is I plan to just keep adding more skaters to my coaching schedule and lessen the amount I skate, instead of three hours a day five-to-six days a week, I am only going to do 1 hour two to three-times per week. I plan to stay in shape and be ready to skate in shows and events when COVID dies down and all the different spring shows and charity events are happening. I would love to be invited to one of the big Japanese skating shows! I also plan to do seminars and choreography with skaters around the world like I was doing pre-COVID.
Since adding students isn’t an overnight thing, with the extra free time right now, I would love to just discover whatever else there is in life. I have only ever known skating and this is definitely my opportunity to find a different hobby outside the rink. I love working out and recently got my trainer’s certification during the four month lockdown so maybe I’ll spend a little more time in the gym and add a few pounds of muscle to my frame, or maybe take up a new sport altogether. I would love to write a book about my journey (anyone know how to write a book?), or who knows maybe I’ll end up in Japan one day? Honestly, I have no idea what is next.
So see, not much will be changing in my day to day life other than skating less and replacing that time with skaters as they come to me. I will still be skating and performing. Skating is my hobby, IT’S WHAT I LOVE TO DO!
I want to take Figure Skaters Online for taking the time to talk with me, thank you to my fans and everyone for reading! It’s going to sound selfish, but I hope to not be forgotten by you all and I hope to stay in the skating realm and continue to inspire many for a long, long time!