All your burning questions about A.J., writing, and ice skating in one place (with answers, even).

First Things First

Why sassinsf?

Short answer: Because AJSass.com was already taken.

It was also unavailable on Gmail so I had to get creative. I was living in San Francisco at the time I first wanted to make a website. The city had an accepting, quirky vibe, and I felt like I was fitting in for the first time in my life. ‘Sass in SF’ seemed like a good compromise.

About A.J.

Is Sass your real last name?

Yep! I got teased about it as a kid, but I like to think I’ve grown into it.

People often ask if I’m as ‘sassy’ as my name suggestions. My standard answer: “Only in writing.”

What are your preferred pronouns?

He/him or gender neutral (they/their/them).

What’s your gender identity?

Masculine-leaning non-binary. I present as male to the outside world but it doesn’t fully describe how I identify.

Where are you from?

All over. I was born in Wisconsin, raised in the Midwest (Minnesota and U.P., Michigan, mostly, with a few-year stint in Nebraska). I spent my early teen years in Georgia, finished off high school and college in Minnesota, then headed West to California for grad school. I’ve been ping-ponging my way from Sacramento to San Jose and everywhere in between for the past decade.


What is your skating background?

I feel very much like an adult skater, although I started when I was younger. As a kid, I adored the Ice Capades and eventually pestered my parents enough to have them sign me up for beginning classes. Being autistic, my gross motor skills weren’t the best, and I learned at a rate slower than a turtle drenched in molasses.

But I loved it, and I stuck with it. Sometimes it felt like the one constant when my family kept moving around (writing was the other). I wasn’t great at making friends in new schools, but skating never changed no matter where my family ended up.

A decade ago, most teenagers used to pass their Senior Moves and Free Skate tests by the time they graduated high school and would stop skating at that point since there weren’t many college skating programs (this has since changed, thankfully). I wasn’t close to being done with my tests, so I kept going. I passed my Senior Moves in the Field during my first year of grad school and my Senior Free Skate almost a decade later, in 2017 at the age of 33. This was years after I assumed I was done testing, and I can’t remember a time when I worked harder to achieve a goal in this sport. I’ll have that achievement on my record forever, which I’m pretty proud of. I’m also working through my ice dance tests (send help in the form of proper posture).

In 2017, I also took on a new role as a figure skating test and showcase competition judge. Giving back to a sport that’s offered me so much is fulfilling. I also like to think I’m good on the empathy side of things; I know how scary taking a test in front of judges can be.

I’m confused about what level Ana is at. You said she won Nationals but she’s only 12?

This question relates to my Middle Grade novel, ANA ON THE EDGE.

It’s hard to write realistic fiction in a sport as complex as skating. Inevitably, some details get skipped. I’ll try to explain it here, though.

There are eight levels in singles skating, as follows:

  1. Pre-Preliminary
  2. Preliminary
  3. Pre-Juvenile
  4. Juvenile
  5. Intermediate
  6. Novice
  7. Junior
  8. Senior

Skaters take two skills tests at each level to move up to the next: one in Moves in the Field (required turns, edges, and spirals on set patterns) and one in Freestyle/Free Skating (spins, jumps, and connecting steps, set to music). Each Moves in the Field test must be passed at a given level before the skater can take the Free Skate test, but you can opt to work up through Moves tests and take lower level Free Skate tests at your leisure (and many ice dancers will pass through Senior Moves but never take Free Skate tests). I imagined Ana passing her Intermediate Free Skate sometime that summer, but she’s working on Senior Moves already because skating skills come naturally to her (unlike her friend, Tamar, who’s been struggling with Intermediate Moves).

Levels 4-8 compete at Nationals via qualifying competitions: Regionals, then Sectionals. When Ana won her title, she was a Juvenile-level skater. While it’s not unheard of for a 12 year old to compete at the Senior level (I believe Michelle Kwan did; probably also Tara Lipinski), it’s much more realistic to see 12 year olds at the Juvenile and Intermediate levels of the sport as they work to develop presentation skills and continue to learn harder jump elements.

Update: Since I initially wrote this, US Figure Skating has changed its competitive pipeline. There are now only Nationals for Junior and Senior level skaters, with top Juvenile, Intermediate, and Novice skaters attending a developmental camp if they qualify out of Sectionals. ANA ON THE EDGE is set in an interim period, between the last year that Nationals was held at the Juvenile level and the following season which implements the new qualifying system.

How does the figure skating world handle transgender athletes?

On a case-by-case basis, as far as I understand it.

I haven’t been able to find much information on the subject, especially at the higher competitive levels of the sport. Here’s an article about opening up pathways for transgender athletes in all sports to qualify for and participate at the Olympics (from 2016).

My transition in the sport was relatively smooth. I simply changed my name and gender marker on my online USFS account before I signed up to take additional tests. I was required to adhere to the mens ice dance pattern steps and the program length and jump requirements set forth for men in Free Skate tests. The only competitions I’ve thus far entered have been Showcase and Synchronized Skating events, both of which mix genders.

I should note that trans men are often invisible when it comes to sports and are more or less allowed to participate alongside cisgender male athletes without issue. Trans women have faced some pushback, although hormone treatments render them effectively equal to cisgender women with respect to strength and muscle mass, as far as I’ve researched. As transgender athletes become more visible within their respective sports and start winning titles and working toward qualifying for the Olympics, I suspect we’ll start seeing more stories about them and have a better idea of how their sport governing bodies plan to handle their participation.

It’s the non-binary, gendequeer, and agender athletes who may struggle to find a place in the sport. Everything in figure skating is gendered, from singles events and dance steps to the color of people’s skate boots and laces. Like Ana, I hope they have a supportive coach, someone who can develop their skating skills and work toward their goals while allowing them to remain true to themselves.