Photographer: Puii Duangtip @Puiionsunnyside
Illustrator: Kailee Vanderwoerd
CW: Mentions of ED
Born and raised in Iceland, Julia Gretarsdottir has always been bright, ambitious, and extremely goal-driven, even from a young age. While most people don’t begin seriously contemplating possible career paths until their teenage years, Julia’s journey toward her dreams started early—when she discovered figure skating at age four.
Her sister was the one who had initially been enrolled into the sport. As Julia watched her sister on the ice, she realized it was something she wanted to do, too: “I watched [her] skate, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I want to be like her. I want to do that.’” Fuelled by this newfound motivation, Julia joined figure skating. She continued in it with determination, moving to Vancouver when she was 16 to pursue it professionally and going on to become a five-time national medalist within her career.
She tells me her training journey from the beginning: “[When I first] got on the ice, my whole thing was, I want to be fast,” she says, smiling. “I just wanted to go, go, go. I didn’t even care what the exercise was; I just wanted to be first across the ice. So, I’d skate, skate, skate, [and then go] ‘Okay, I’m far enough ahead—I can now do the exercise.’ I just kept getting better and better, and it was just a lot of fun.”
Julia recalls other memorable stories as well, like the time she broke a nail while abroad for a competition and had to get it fixed at a random salon, only for it to be five shades off its original colour. She also tells me about how she used to habitually tie her skates before she got on the ice. Once, the lace had dug so tightly into her pinky that, as she pulled it up, it tore off all the skin around the finger.
I wince immediately at that for her sake, but she laughs as she recounts jogging up to the paramedics and asking for a band-aid before she had to hit the ice in 30 seconds. The paramedics took one look, gasped, and then swathed her finger in bandages, much to Julia’s dismay and amusement: “It [was] super eyesore. It’s so funny. It, like, stung, too, so it was like a stinging band-aid that was super thick. I was like, you couldn’t have just given me one little band-aid.”
With all the lighter moments also came challenges. Julia notes that anxiety, particularly jumping anxiety, was what she struggled with the most. This was likely due to her fear of falling and getting injured.
And that’s understandable: figure skating isn’t an easy sport. It’s a form of art that demands poise, precision, agility, strength, endurance, while posing the very real risk of injury every time you leap into the air. There’s no simple way to learn or perfect a jump in figure skating, either—you just have to jump. It’s scary, even for seasoned skaters, because you’re forced to be vulnerable. As you’re soaring and spinning inches above the ice, the only person you can trust to land cleanly in that moment is yourself.
“It requires a lot of hard work,” Julia says when I ask her about the experiences behind her achievements. She shares that when her anxiety was at its highest, she would even cut meals. “I used to use food as a punishment for performing badly. I used to not let myself eat because I didn’t deserve it. This, combined with [how] I never really enjoyed food, resulted in me thinking it was okay not to eat dinner. Of course, this wasn’t a healthy habit, and I needed some assistance to get over it and to realize that food is fuel. Now, after going vegetarian, I’m enjoying food.”
Certainly, as incredible of an accomplishment it is to be a five-time medalist, looking at that highlight alone doesn’t tell the whole story. After all, the stunning grace and beauty of a figure skater often belie the arduous challenges they’ve had to face behind the scenes, where every elegant move takes years of dedication. What the audience gets to see in the end is the result of all the time, energy, and effort a figure skater has put into their rigorous training and performance.
Yet, as much as it can be a gruelling sport, figure skating can spark inspiration. For Julia, no matter how difficult training could be, competing was always her favourite thing. She thrived in the spotlight: “It didn’t matter if I had a shit practice, or a terrible training day, or a terrible month—as soon as I was on the ice and it was just me, my pretty dress, and my music came on, and everybody’s watching me…everything else just went away. It was like I gained an extra cape of armour. It was just my time to shine. [And because of that], skating never seemed like work. It just seemed like fun, and it was always fun. It was hard work, but it was always fun. That’s why I stayed in it. I loved it.”
I ask Julia if she’s comfortable sharing the strategies that helped her brave her anxiety and fear of jumping. She tells me she had several methods, which she kept in what she called her “little hat.” The idea behind it was that, just like a magician, she could pull “tricks” out of her hat, with each technique designed to work in a different situation. If one didn’t work, all she needed to do was pull out another trick.
What initially helped was getting distracted. Julia tells me how she would either sing or have her coaches talk about anything, such as describing how to drive a car. But what ultimately helped her was this: “I started thinking of pink fluffy unicorns…and it worked, like, magically.”
There were two unicorns in particular that stayed close to Julia while she skated: Lola, a bigger-sized plush that would sit on the boards and watch her as a mini spectator, and Bruce, a TY keychain that Julia kept with her and jumped with her. For anything off the ice, what helped Julia the most whenever she felt anxious was to think realistically and talk herself through her list of immediate worries.
While it might be easy to tell yourself to get back up after a stumble, it doesn’t make the reality of getting hurt any less scary. The repetitive falling eventually took a toll on Julia’s body, impairing her ability to perform jumps and thrusting her into a seemingly endless loop of physiotherapy and appointments with various specialists.
But she didn’t give up—she wanted to continue. She wanted to push on and switch to ice dancing because there was more she needed to do, even if she couldn’t jump anymore. She still wanted to skate; she still wanted to compete. Her dreams and goals were so deeply embedded in this sport she’s loved for years. But COVID hampered her opportunities to find a partner for ice dancing, and the delay eventually became intolerable.
Then, she found nursing.
“[When] COVID hit…that sort of shut [everything] down, and it just kept dragging on and on and on, and I couldn’t anymore,” Julia says. “I was getting to a spot where it wasn’t enjoyable anymore, and I was okay letting go because I had my [plan for pursuing] nursing at this point. I was okay trading that dream for this dream…[and] closing this chapter [so] I can now move on and help future skaters achieve their goals, but I can still go reach my other goal.”
Having graduated from Capilano University in 2020 with a Diploma in Kinesiology, Julia had been considering several career routes before deciding on nursing. These included becoming a figure skating coach, a personal trainer, a teacher, a respiratory therapist, a paramedic—anything that involved helping people. What ultimately made her choose the Bachelor of Science in Nursing program at BCIT over every other possibility was the eye-opening experience of shadowing an ER (emergency room) nurse: “Seeing what they were doing and observing from the background…it just seemed something like, ‘Oh, yeah, I can do this. This is something I want to do. This is interesting.’”
Julia’s current dream is to become an ER nurse at the Royal Columbian Hospital. When asked why specifically the emergency department, she says that she works well under pressure and in high-intensity situations, so it’s the perfect environment for her. She also reasons that, as someone who easily connects with people and is afraid to grow attached, working in the ER will force her to learn new ways to build relationships, such as forming short-term ones with patients. Julia’s goal to become a nurse arises from, above all, her passion for providing support to others: “I just want to try and help as many people as I can, and when they’re having their worst days, I can help them.”
Now able to jump again after four years, Julia still occasionally goes skating with her friends. She’s a team leader on the Vancouver Canucks Ice Team as well. And, as always, she has no shortage of memorable stories from there, sharing how she once got struck by Zdeno Chara’s stick, and the time snow flew everywhere from her shovel when Brock Boeser jumped out in front of her. She also gets to chat with the paramedics who hang out in the tunnel with them, and even met one who used to work as an ER nurse at Royal Columbian.
Aside from skating and nursing, Julia reveals she’s into CrossFit right now and has been trying to get into dirt biking since both her boyfriend and her dad are into it. She also currently hosts a seminar where she coaches others how to set and achieve their goals, using a personalized method she created that integrates Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and SMART criteria: “It’s more individualized, but it sort of has th[ose] idea[s] behind it. Now, I’m teaching other people how to [make goals] and how to achieve their dreams because that’s always been a big passion of mine.”
At the end of our chat, I ask her what aspect of the nursing program captivates her the most:
“I’m super excited to wear scrubs for the rest of my life,” Julia says, beaming. “I don’t know if you’ve ever tried on scrubs, but they’re the most comfortable thing in the world. I’m just excited to be on campus and learn all the different skills.”
Julia’s journey to her dreams may have started when she was four, but now at 27, her story is far from over.