For Devin Wang, another year brings closure after tragedy
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- A gifted athlete retired last week. Few took notice. Her sport doesn't get much attention, and she is not one to shine a spotlight on herself.
Devin Wang stood beaming in front of me after her last elite competition. "At one point, I actually couldn't hear the music because the fans were cheering so loudly," she said. "It was unreal. It really just takes your breath away to see and feel that support."
She and the Haydenettes, the U.S. synchronized skating national champions, had just come off the ice to a raucous ovation at the Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs after their free skate at the world championships. Their program, set to a medley of Prince's music, was spirited and -- to an uneducated eye like mine -- almost flawless.
One skater tumbled during a unison spiral sequence late in the four-and-a-half-minute program. She scrambled back up and wove herself back into the choreography. The incident passed in a blink.
From above, where I sat, I couldn't tell who had fallen in the moment. It was Devin. It happens. She has been at the core of that team for years and she knew the whole of her career was what counted. And she has been through worse.
Devin was one of many first responders who helped save lives after two bombs exploded along the finishing stretch of the 2013 Boston Marathon. She was 20 at the time, a Boston University junior studying to be an athletic trainer, just a week removed from a world bronze medal won with her teammates just a couple of miles away at Agganis Arena.
I was locked down in a hotel work room in the hours following the bombings, swamped by waves of personal sorrow and professional frustration. I felt inadequate watching the suffering so close by, and unable to do what I was trained to do -- document the event.
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An iconic photo captured Devin pushing the wheelchair carrying Jeff Bauman, his lower legs blown off, with the cowboy-hat-wearing Carlos Arredondo alongside them. She wasn't publicly identified as the image spread virally around the world. Post-traumatic stress hit her hard and, for a while, she didn't want to be found.
In the ensuing weeks, I reported a story about the athletic trainers at the finish line, a generally unheralded group who travel to Boston from all over the country to volunteer their time. Many of them come from university settings and bring students with them. On April 15, 2013, they worked alongside public safety and medical personnel to save critically injured race spectators. The blasts killed three at the scene. More than 100 people were evacuated to area hospitals, including Bauman, who was among the first to be transported. All of them lived.
After the story ran, Brian FitzGerald, who coordinated the athletic trainers' operation at the race for more than 30 years, called to thank me. "I have a student I want you to meet," he said. "But she's not ready yet."
Devin and I sat down together for the first time that summer. She entrusted me with her story. Being a world-class synchronized skater was an integral part of it. Her discipline, reflexes and focus had all come into play that day in April. She reacted with purpose but without overthinking, the way the best athletes do under pressure.
My research took me to the Haydenettes' home rink in Lexington, Massachusetts, to see them train. I've covered Olympic figure skating for more than 20 years, but the non-Olympic event of synchro, where 16 skaters execute coordinated, often tightly spaced simultaneous movements, was new to me.
It looked like cotton candy from a distance. Up close, it looked hard, and my brief exposure convinced me it was probably much harder than it looked. I told Devin I would find a way to see her compete sometime. I felt privileged to have earned her confidence. Showing up seemed like a very small, professional way to thank her.
A year went by. I wrote about how the attack had altered my relationship with some extended family members. I embedded with the athletic trainers at the 2014 marathon and watched them save runners from perilous dehydration. I had a photo taken with Devin and her fellow BU athletic training alums, who had returned undeterred, like so many.
Another year passed. Devin and I stayed in touch. She talked about graduate school and career options, but she kept skating. In 2016, she and Bauman crossed paths again in a sweetly serendipitous, unscripted moment at the finish line.
I probed Devin sometimes about why she stayed in a sport that demanded so many hours, for no money and no recognition. She answered with a mild defiance I have come to know well while covering the most driven athletes.
Why not? She still had the chops.
The Haydenettes kept winning national championships and earned another world bronze last year, but it seemed I always had a scheduling conflict. The rubber hit the road this year. Devin told me this season was it for her. What better way to go out, with the world championships in the United States? She wisely boxed herself into her own decision by inviting 25 friends from both coasts to come and see her finale. They lined up along the boards and hollered as if they were at a hockey game.
Devin has occasionally used her athletic training skills to look after her teammates, guiding them through rehab exercises and taping the odd ankle. The weeks leading up to worlds stressed the Haydenettes in unusual ways. Twice, Devin found herself stanching a teammate's bleeding on the ice after mishaps where they were slashed by errant skate blades badly enough to need stitches.
"You need to react immediately, and both times when there was blood, she stepped in,'' said the Haydenettes' coach, Saga Krantz. "She shares her knowledge and time and kindness and never asks for anything back.''
I asked how she would remember Devin as a skater. Krantz paused, momentarily choked up. She listed Devin's attributes: Her elegance, flair and precision, her calm and confidence in her teammates when they hoist and bear her aloft in moves that can be risky if they aren't done right. "She's fearless,'' the coach said. "She's one of a kind in her life experience and the way she handles things.''
The Haydenettes finished fourth at worlds last weekend, behind teams from Russia, Finland and Canada. Devin is moving on, to a sports science and medicine internship with U.S. Figure Skating. She is taking a break this week and will spend Marathon Monday in her hometown in California.
This is the end of a story cycle for me, and the beginning of a new one for Devin. There are many adjectives for what she did at the marathon, but the most fitting of all may be the word we reserve for athletes: clutch. She ran toward danger and emerged with a patient in desperate need. She fell into a dark place afterward and picked herself back up. That's fortunate, because she will turn 25 this week and she has a lot to offer.
What would I have done if I'd been on the finish line on Boylston Street after the bombs went off? Would I have been able to function as a journalist? Would I have frozen?
I'll never be able to answer those questions, but I know what Devin did. I got to see it through her eyes, feel empathy and inspiration, and put it out there for the world. All these years later, I've realized that is more than enough.