Timothy Rawles, February 2020 Issue.
Ice skater Karina Manta is a 23-year-old Arizona LGBTQ role model even though she probably doesn’t embrace that title to its fullest yet.
Who can blame her, she has been busy traveling the world, first as a competitive skater for Team USA, then recently as a performer in Cirque de Soleil’s AXEL. She still struggles with the word retirement even though she walked away from the competitive world last year.
Over the phone Karina’s voice is filled with such positive energy you can’t help but get caught up in the momentum. She’s honest and talks about everything from her life as a skater to being a queer sports star. Karina also has one of those grins you don’t have to see in order to know it’s there.
Even though she was born in Olympia Washington, she is earnest when she says her hometown is Chandler Arizona. At the age of four she moved there and a year later she went to a friend’s birthday party at the Polar Ice rink where her interest in skating began.
Her mother was supportive but wanted Karina to practice rollerblading in order to perfect her balance. She used her cul-de-sac to train for an entire summer before her mother finally agreed to ice skating lessons. Her love of rhinestones and Swarovski crystals was born, “I liked the sparkly dresses,” she laughs.
“My brothers played soccer,” Karina explains. “I come more from a soccer family and I tried soccer for one season and I was pretty good, but my parents asked me why I didn’t want to keep doing it after that season and I was like ‘I don’t like the outfits.’ It was all about the fashion when I was into it with the sports.”
When she started her figure skating career she was partnered with Jonathan Thompson but has been working with Joseph Johnson since 2013.
At 16 she moved to Colorado to train but remembers what it was like growing up in Chandler. People would tease her about ice skating in the desert but to her, that was a perk since Arizona temperatures can get well into the triple digits in the summer.
In 2018, while still in college, Karina came out publicly which makes her the first Team USA female figure skater to do so. She explains that she identifies mostly as bisexual but likes the term queer too.
“It’s one of those things where I’ve gotten more,” she pauses to find the right words, “like I think at first I was kind of touchy about it. And I think when you’re realizing these things about yourself it’s hard to pick and choose. I think labels are important especially when you’re figuring out who you are and how you belong and you need words for yourself and that’s really important. But I like bi, I like queer—those are my two favorites.”
Karina says she didn’t know any queer women in skating until she came out, then they started approaching her, “I think it was just sort of this ‘invisible’ community that I didn’t really know about. I felt sort of lonely for a while and nervous about it just because it wasn’t something I had seen before which can be pretty scary.”
Although it’s changing, Arizona is a conservative state, to a young queer woman not having role models can deter you from admitting your feelings or at least stop you from living as your authentic self. I asked her if where she grew up had any bearing on staying in the closet.
“It’s a good question because I didn’t meet — as far as I know, I’m sure I met lesbians — but I didn’t meet like any out lesbians or queer women in any capacity until I moved to Colorado Springs,” Karina said of her experience, adding that she met one of her best friends there who happened to have two moms. “And it was like they were the first out lesbians in a relationship that I met in my entire life. It seems so weird now, but like I was almost 17 years old and I think the world’s changed a lot even in the past five years which is beautiful. In Chandler, I mean when I was in high school, I remember marriage equality being like a huge debate topic. In my high school, I maybe knew two — I went to Hamilton High School — I knew maybe like two or three students who were out. And I don’t think any of them were women.”
Cirque de Soleil embraces their performers no matter how they identify so the only thing Karina has to worry about now is the demanding but ultimately gratifying routines that she and Joseph must accomplish in every performance. Although both are entertaining, the competitive world is a little different than the one for Cirque.
She says some might think it’s an easier transition; it’ll be more relaxed physically. But it’s pretty intense. And their numbers are pretty challenging, it’s not like they stop skating cold turkey. They just push themselves in different ways.
“It’s nice to not have the pressure, you know, when you’re competing to have maybe five chances in a year to show off what you have been working on, and in Cirque we have maybe a minimum of more than five shows a week. That’s a lot of fun to get to perform more often. That’s one of the best parts of being an athlete and being a performer and an artist. It’s also an opportunity to have that moment with the crowd and show off what you’ve done so it’s really cool that I get the opportunity to do that every day.”
Part of that cool factor is learning a completely different trick or “element” as they call them, to incorporate into a performance.
“Something really cool about Cirque is we have a number that is a flight number so a lot of the paired girls are in harnesses and we get to work in flight,” she says. “We have some elements where the boys will throw us into the air, we get to fly. That is an incredible thing to be able to do on the ice that we would have never got to try out.”
As for competitive sports, Karina isn’t sure if she will return once her contract is up at Cirque. That means she will be touring with the company for two years. She’s not counting her eggs before they hatch. “I mean we really don’t know where we’re going to be in five years. We kind of just take it one step at a time. And who knows? Maybe we’ll come back; it’s really too hard to say. We’ll say I’m competitively retired, but that just hard to say because I’m 23.”
AXEL will be heading to Prescott Valley, Arizona this March and Tucson in April. For Karina, it’s a homecoming, but she’s not the same person she was when she left. She’s come out publicly in a historic move and has a part in one of the most successful circus companies in the world.
Although she probably hasn’t fully realized she is an inspiration to the LGBTQ community, she’s getting there.
“I got so excited to hear about your interview even,” she says. “It’s so nice to sort of be a part of that community in Arizona and help grow that space. It was muted when I was younger and I’m sure it was there it just that I wasn’t tuned into it yet.”
Whether it’s at an ice rink in Chandler, or in a cul-de-sac on one of the hottest days in July, or even the Tucson Arena, Karina is coming home. Maybe a little different than when she left but that’s not what matters.
“Arizona always feels like home,” she says. “I grew up there and like I said so many people that I’m close with live there. My brother lives there. A lot of my best friends live there and it will be nice to come back and kind of be.”