There is a story my mom likes to tell from when I was 6 years old. I was starting the first grade, and with my school work ramping up, it was clear that I needed to prioritize my numerous extracurricular activities. After some thought, I told my mom that I could play my violin at Carnegie Hall anytime, and people ride at the Olympics when they are “old” (I was 6, and anyone over the age of 45 seemed ancient), but figure skating is a young person’s sport. If I was going to skate at the Olympics, I needed to do that first. Ambition was never something I lacked as a child.
Skating was my first love and passion, but horses are in my DNA.
The first time I sat on a horse I was 6 weeks old. I participated in my first horse show at 20 months. By the time my third birthday rolled around, I was posting the trot. At 4, I was jumping fences from the canter. (My pony was an absolute saint.) My parents, especially my mom, Pinky Han, look back and question their sanity, but at the time, my early start in riding seemed quite logical. You see, my dad, Anthony Han, was the young rider reserve champion of Australia, and my mom was a rider and had groomed for Tad Coffin and other members of the U.S. Equestrian Team. I literally grew up in the barn, spending more time on ponies than on my own feet because it was an easier way to keep track of me. I loved it, and my story might be quite different if my parents hadn’t made the mistake of introducing me to figure skating.
I am not sure what exactly inspired my love of figure skating, but from my first step on the ice, I knew it was what I wanted to do. The feeling of a long, running edge on a clean sheet of ice; a soaring triple lutz; a perfectly centered scratch spin. The ice pulled me in, but I was easy, willing prey.
In the years after my 6-year-old revelation that I had to check Olympic figure skater off the to-do list first, more and more of my time was devoted to training to become the best skater I could be. Riding and my beloved pony, Fatboy, took a bit of a backseat, but I did my best to make sure I at least got out to the barn each night to help my dad put the horses away. The week before I left to compete in Sochi (Russia), I was bundled up in barn clothes mucking stalls—quite a different look from the one I would sport a few weeks later as I skated out onto center ice, making my Olympic debut. Summers, however, were the best because I could fit in all of my training for skating and still have time to ride. Those days were magic.
Summer is off season for figure skating, and my training sessions were long and intense, leaving me physically and emotionally drained. The time I spent in the barn each evening was my escape, my chance to refill my spirit to tackle the next day. Fatboy didn’t care that I had fallen three times during my program run-through or only held my sit spin for seven rotations instead of eight; he just wanted love, attention and peppermints—LOTS of peppermints. He never judged me for crying out my frustration into his mane, and he would patiently listen as I recounted my triumphs as I picked out his hooves.
My final competition with Fatboy was an elementary level horse trial in June of 2008. Both of my parents had been involved in eventing, and I desperately wanted to participate in the sport that had played such a large role in their lives. I was 12, and my skating schedule was really starting to intensify. It was now or never if I wanted to event.
Despite that being the end of my competitive riding career, I still rode whenever I could. I spent time cultivating new skills, improving my ability to see and ride distances, and I even managed to jump over 3 feet with Fatboy the 12.2-hand wonder pony. (I told my mom afterward that I didn’t realize how high the fence was, but let’s be real, I knew.) I rode not because I was working toward any particular goal (by then I had come to the realization that Fatboy and I were not destined to make the Olympic team), but just for the simple pleasure of doing something I enjoyed, something that was an intrinsic part of my identity.
My competitive skating career came to an end in the spring of 2019. A desire to finally finish my undergraduate degree was my primary source of motivation, but an Achilles tendon rupture made it clear it was time for me to begin the next chapter of my life. After undergoing surgery to repair my Achilles, I found myself back on the ice, at both my surgeon and physical therapist’s request. They believed skating would help me increase my range of motion and improve my balance after spending months non-weight bearing in a boot. While I enjoyed returning to the ice, after regaining most of my basic skating skills, I found myself lacking motivation. I still loved skating, but I didn’t know why I should bother working if there was no goal I was working towards.
Over the years skating has become a part of me, just like horses have always been. I couldn’t imagine my life without either. Since returning to the ice after my surgery I’ve slowly come to the same realization about skating that my pre-teen self had about riding. I may no longer have goals or Olympic aspirations in either sport, but that doesn’t take away from the love and enjoyment I have for both. As I embark on this next phase of life, exploring the world outside of ice rinks and barns, it’s comforting to know that wherever I go, I’ll always have a saddle and skates to get me through.
Brooklee Han competed internationally for Australia in figure skating for nine seasons, including trips to three World Championships, seven Four Continents Championships and the 2014 Winter Olympics. In May she will graduate from Southern Methodist University (Texas), where she is studying German, journalism and European studies. Fatboy the wonder pony is currently living his best life being spoiled by Keith, Lynda and Kaylee Angstadt and everyone else at Bradford Equestrian Center in Bradford, Massachusetts.