Leah Adams: She stumbled on her career after attending skating championships
Portrait 2011 — Volume 2: Hot Right Now
Only when Leah Adams begrudgingly attended the 1996 U.S. Figure Skating National Championships was she introduced to the sport that would change her life.
Adams hadn’t even made it to her seat before the sight of the athletic skaters gliding across the ice dressed in full costume left her speechless. It was an unexpected reaction because she was not even a fan.
She is now.
As you might expect from uninterested-person-turned-avid-fan, Adams has autographed photographs of iconic figure skaters at home. What you might not expect, however, is that the autographs from Peggy Fleming, Brian Boitano, Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen are on photos that Adams took of the athletes.
For the past 15 years, Adams, a Grand Junction resident since 2005, has photographed dozens of the world’s top skaters, having attended, among numerous professional exhibitions, 16 consecutive national championships and three straight Winter Olympics with premium seats she purchased with her own money.
Although Adams has gained enough notoriety to be issued free credentials for many events, Adams, 56, prefers to pay for premium seats to have better access and unobstructed views of the skaters as a freelance photographer.
Adams sometimes gives away the photos she takes to the skaters’ families. Sometimes, she sells the pictures through http://www.figureskatersonline.com. Occasionally a skating magazine wants to purchase a picture.
She posts all her photos at leahadams.zenfolio.com.
Whatever the reason people seek out Adams’ figure skating pictures, nearly all profits she recoups from sales she typically gives back to up-and-coming figure skaters trying to pay their way through the expensive sport without endorsements.
Jim Adams, Leah’s husband of 35 years, joked that the couple’s 2010 taxes estimated her profit last year to be $80.
To better understand how Adams became so fixated on the sport, it helps to understand how the passion began.
It was Jan. 14, 1996, at an ice rink in San Jose, Calif., where she and her husband lived for more than 25 years before moving to Grand Junction. It was Adams’ birthday, and a girlfriend bought tickets to the U.S. Figure Skating Championships even though Adams “didn’t care to go.”
Well, she went, and, at the urging of her husband, took her camera.
“I can remember, truly, the moment there was a shift in my life,” Adams said. “I hadn’t even taken my seat, and on the ice the seniors pairs were practicing in full costume with all those sequins, beads and chiffon ... I went ‘Oh my gosh, this is so beautiful.’ There was music. They were healthy. Their costumes were so gorgeous.”
When Adams finally walked down to her seat in the second row at center ice, she gasped.
“You could see their eyelashes — that’s how close I was,” Adams said.
She grabbed her camera and clicked away, taking photographs of the pairs and men’s competitions. That night she processed the film and showed her husband the photos. He has been a landscape and architectural photographer for nearly 30 years and taught her most of what she knew about photography at the time.
He told her they were good.
The next day Adams returned to the same San Jose rink and brought along her photographs. Once she got to her seat, she saw skater Dan Hollander, the eventual bronze medalist at the championships, sitting in the bleachers. She gave him a photo she had taken the previous day.
“He said, ‘Cool. Sit down,’ ” Adams said.
They talked and, after Hollander’s free skate, Adams went down to the boards to throw a small stuffed animal on the ice, as is customary in figure skating. He skated over to give Adams a hug.
“From there I started giving photos to other skaters,” she said.
Adams slowly developed a reputation as a top-notch photographer and sincere person who easily befriended skaters, as well as their families and agents. In 1997 she bought a camera and lenses better equipped to capture sports images. In 2003 she went digital.
In 2006 she sat in the fifth row to soak up the entire figure skating experience of the Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy. She attended practices and competitions, which cost her nearly $1,000. To cut costs, Adams stayed in a convent for $40, and it was only 15 minutes from the rink.
“Taxi drivers treat you really well when you say you are going to the convent,” Adams said.
She took as many pictures as possible. Adams watched Evgeni Plushenko win the men’s competition. She saw Sasha Cohen capture silver. The most poignant moment of her Olympic life, however, perhaps of her entire 15-year photography career, came after the pairs competition.
Immediately following the medal ceremony, Russian champions Tatiana Totmianina and Maxim Marinin “literally skated over to me to show me their medals,” Adams said. “I was verklempt.”
Prior to the Olympics, Adams spent months photographing Totmianina and Marinin off the ice while they were living in Chicago training for Torino. The pair simply wanted photos of their lives away from skating, and Adams obliged.
When it came time to head to Italy, Adams went with the hope that her friends would do well.
“They had given me unlimited access to their lives, and then they won,” Adams said.
Some five years since that unforgettable day in Italy, Adams is still photographing figure skating, having recently returned from the 2011 U.S. Figure Skating National Championships in Greensboro, N.C.
Her close friend and next-door neighbor Joanie Post has tagged along with Adams to several exhibitions to see her friend’s love of figure skating up close, including a 2010 Stars on Ice show in Denver.
“Seeing figure skating in person is so different than on TV,” Post said.
Adams’ love of figure skating is so deep than when Post found a 1930s-era Olympic pin among her deceased mother’s possessions, Post asked her family if she could give the pin to Adams.
It is one of dozens of Olympic pins Adams has collected, and it remains one of her most prized.
When Adams isn’t busy taking pictures at competitions, she takes photographs for clients in Grand Junction. In addition, she and her husband take professional real estate photos locally for
Adams admits it is a blessed life with a husband she has loved since high school and a semi-retirement in western Colorado where she can easily fly to anywhere in the world and where Jim Adams can easily access the scenery he wants to photograph. Although she picked up figure skating photography before she retired from Pacific Bell telephone company after 30 years, the decades spent accumulating vacation and salary from a job “I loved, loved, loved” have enabled her to travel the world in pursuit of a true passion.
“Everybody needs a passion,” Jim Adams said recently as he nibbled on a homemade blueberry muffin inside the couple’s Redlands home. “She found (hers) quite by accident.”