In the enchanting world of figure skating, the rink is a stage where every movement is a delicate dance. As the arena lights shine and the crowd holds its breath, Varsity Blues figure skater Emily Cleghorn can be seen gliding across the ice with poise, her blades slicing through the shimmering surface. But beyond the twirls and jumps, there lies a story of passion, grace, and dedication. 

Currently, in her third year at U of T, Cleghorn is double majoring in criminology and sociolegal studies as well as peace, conflict, and justice studies with a minor in political science — all the while nurturing her affection for skating as the co-captain of the Varsity Blues figure skating team. 

Early beginnings and family influence

For Cleghorn, figure skating has long been a familial tradition and legacy. With her mother as a coach, her grandmother serving as a judge for a short period, and her older sister also being immersed in the sport, skating ran in her blood. “I started skating when I was two years old,” said Cleghorn. “It wasn’t really a choice of mine when I was younger, but I am so happy they put me into it. It’s become quite a lifelong passion of mine.”

Despite initial reluctance, Cleghorn found empowerment through figure skating during her youth when she discovered its capacity to provide solace during challenging times. “Being able to rely on something that was solely under my control was really great,” reflected Cleghorn. 

Former Canadian figure skater Joannie Rochette, who had competed in the 2010 Winter Olympics shortly after her mother’s passing, served as a heartfelt source of inspiration for Cleghorn. “I just love that aspect of being able to see someone that was going through so much and still accomplishing their goals. It was probably the most inspirational thing for me,” Cleghorn said. It reinforced her belief in the resilience and strength that skating could offer, even in the face of adversity.

Figure skating has empowered Cleghorn. BRANDON VANDE CAVEYE/THE VARSITY

From childhood passion to Varsity success

Competitive skating became a significant part of Cleghorn’s life. Despite the difficulties that the COVID-19 pandemic posed on training and competition, joining the Blues figure skating team brought new successes and rewards to her career. 

“I tried out for [the] U of T [team], kind of on a whim, because I knew a few girls that had been on the team in previous years, and [I] was a little unsure on how it would go… but it ended up being a second family for me,” Cleghorn recalled. She emphasized the support and camaraderie among teammates and coaches offering a sanctuary amidst life’s stressors.

With the team, Cleghorn has seen some remarkable achievements. She fondly reminisced about her most memorable achievement in her career — the triumph at her first Ontario University Athletic (OUA) Championship in 2022, where the team secured the gold medal. 

“I’d never competed in Varsity figure skating before and I’d also never competed at a pairs event, so I was completely unknown to what we’re going into,” said Cleghorn. “But the older skaters on the team really supported me all the way through… It made me fall in love with university skating and the team, and I knew from that point on that there was no way I would ever want to not be on the team while I was here.” 

After being six-time OUA Champions, the Blues finished third last year. That result was tough on the team, but Cleghorn and her teammates stood strong, driven by their determination to reclaim the podium as they gear up for the OUA Championships on March 5. 

Katherine Mitchell, Emily Cleghorn, Cassandra Chow and Erin Ng with their silver medals from last year’s OUA Championship. BRANDON VANDE CAVEYE/THE VARSITY

Inhale courage, exhale fear 

For Cleghorn, mental preparation is as crucial as physical training. While she recognized her ability to excel under pressure, mastering this skill presented initial struggles along the way. “I used to get stressed about falling on jumps because I transitioned from free skate to dance over my university career,” Cleghorn said. 

“We came and saw this poster that said, ‘Inhale courage, exhale fear,’ and before every skate, we hold hands with whoever you’re going on the ice with, take one big inhale, and then scream. It really helps release all the tension because you just relax. So it’s become a pre-competition tradition for any event that you do while you’re on the ice,” said Cleghorn. Embracing the “Inhale courage, exhale fear” ritual before performances has allowed her to harness her inner strength to thrive under pressure. 

Cleghorn also emphasized the significance of striking a balance between academics and training while prioritizing a healthy mindset and lifestyle. Currently grappling with a back injury, she stressed the importance of not exceeding one’s limits, advocating for rehabilitation and focused recovery in times of injury to be more balanced and healthy. 

“Planners are the most helpful thing… being able to visualize it really helps you plan out your time,” she added. “There are also a number of Varsity accommodations. I feel like a lot of students are really scared to ask for extra time or help when they’re having trouble battling. And that’s where you get into trouble because you let things go.” 

Glide and shine

Looking ahead into the future, Cleghorn aspires to attend law school at U of T or York University, with a focus on forging a path in international or criminal law. Her experience as a Varsity athlete has instilled in her a strong work ethic and time management skills — qualities that will serve her well in her future endeavours.

Reflecting on her journey from a budding skater in Courtice, Ontario, to the co-captain of the Varsity Blues figure skating team, she encouraged novice skaters to embrace opportunities and seek mentors who foster growth. Whether that means joining a local club or aspiring to Varsity-level competition, she highlighted the importance of diligence and a positive attitude in realizing one’s dreams on the ice.

As she embarks on new paths upon graduation, Cleghorn finds comfort in the tight-knit bonds she’s formed during her time as a Blue. Her enduring friendships and shared experiences within the team have offered her a support system in Toronto, serving as pillars of strength. 

In Cleghorn, we witness the power of perseverance and purpose and see an individual whose passion for figure skating transcends the ice. As she continues to navigate the challenges of university life and pursue her dreams, she serves as an inspiration to all who dare to strive for excellence, both on and off the ice.