Disney Stock – Ex-Disney skater back in the rink for annual club show after near-deadly knife attack
A few minutes into a recent rehearsal for the upcoming annual Lincoln Center Skate Club ice show, co-producer and performer Emma Baxter struck a victorious dance pose to lead and direct her young, gliding cast — arms flexed confidently like a champion bodybuilder while adding a fierce expression.
Just a moment before, as the Broadway tune “When I Grow Up” blared over the Hamilton Community Center and Ice Arena speakers, a somewhat telling lyric surfaced: “I will be strong enough to carry all the heavy things … .”
The 35-year-old Columbus resident and former Disney on Ice skater is proving herself strong enough indeed.
The heavy things?
That would include the trauma of a violent, random assault and knife attack that nearly killed her in the skating arena parking lot in the early morning darkness of Oct. 23, just when she arrived for work as a skating coach. It left her with stab wounds to her head, face, neck and chest. Two skull fractures. A brain hemorrhage. A punctured right lung. An originally serious right eye injury. Nerve damage from severe punches that has left the left side of her face numb.
And there are the recurring nightmares. Fear of the dark. A skittishness foreign to her previous, self-assured confidence. An occasional mental fogginess and forgetfulness. And a sometimes inexplicable, easily tripped anger that snaps without much warning — a common element of many patients shortly after severe head injuries.
But it also has given her a gratitude that has provided her a new psychological footing on the ice and off.
“I am so grateful just to be alive,” she said, relaxing in the meeting room at the rink where she has skated since age 2.
Her sense of humor has survived relatively unscathed. She remembers every chilling detail of the seven-minute, horrifying experience, including one thought that filled her with a womanly dread as emergency medical technicians began cutting away her True Religion jeans and UGG boots to tend to her wounds.
“I didn’t shave my legs (that morning),” she said with a deep laugh.
A few minutes into 30-year-old suspected assailant Ryan T. Halligan’s first court date on attempted murder and other charges a few months ago, Emma Baxter’s determination to demonstrate emotional muscle and fight back once again against her alleged attacker dropped a thought into her still-scarred head as she watched him on a court video monitor: “I want him to KNOW that I am here.”
She eventually wants to look him in the eye again, to tell him she will be strong enough to refuse to allow him to take her life in any form, emotionally or physically.
“What I will say when I am actually in front of his face — well, it will just come out when it’s time,” she said. “I don’t want to give him the power to ruin my life. That would make him a stronger person than me, which he is not. And I won’t let people in general upset me. I refuse to allow anyone’s negative energy to come on me.
“I think that kindness seems to be the solution to almost any problem.”
In keeping with that, she hugged her assailant’s mother before leaving the Bartholomew County Courthouse after that hearing. Halligan’s trial is currently set for September in Bartholomew Superior Court 1.
Emma returned to the rink Feb. 21, feeling slightly emotionally uneasy, even though counseling helps.
“I can’t afford to waste any time,” she said. “I am self-employed. I had to go back to work.”
Plus, she felt some responsibility and nudging to return because of the upcoming ice show that formed so many of her childhood and young adult memories. So she got a wig that looks very much like her regular, long brown locks to cover her super short cut that she adopted after so much blood matted her own hair after the attack.
“Such short hair can be pretty hard to manage,” she said, still looking as if she stepped off a magazine cover. “I wake up looking like a bird.”
Up close, one can see few clear, physical signs of all she suffered, save for a light, knife scar on her right check where the blade cut her completely through, and another on her neck.
“That’s (hidden) because of makeup,” she said.
Makeup or not, she is emotionally hiding nothing. And someday soon, she said she will purposely revisit the audio recording that she said the Columbus Police Department has of her 911 call for help, made from her Mini Cooper vehicle. Her assailant, believed to be under the influence of drugs, crashed his stolen Ford Fusion into hers before opening her car door and punching and choking her to the point that she thought she literally would die from asphyxiation. When she couldn’t breathe at one point as she was being strangled on the parking lot pavement, the faces of eight of her young friends who died prematurely appeared in her mind’s eye.
“I feel like they were there to help me,” she said.
She never had a chance to hang up the phone before her assailant’s attack began.
So she has been told that the call audio includes Halligan’s repeated threats to kill her. She already had phoned her mom, skating coach Katie Baxter a moment before, telling her parent that a man in the lot had approached her car for a cigarette and she was very concerned about him.
“I was absolutely so terrified when she called,” her mom said of speeding to the rink. When she arrived, emergency medical personnel already had loaded her daughter into an ambulance after Columbus Police officer Frank Dickman rescued Emma, who was bleeding profusely on the parking lot pavement.
She was quickly airlifted to IU Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. She still remembers asking the ambulance staff to “knock me out” with medicine to escape from the pain. But she never lost consciousness.
Husband Jose Miguel Valbuena Ruiz de Vinaspre, known as Txemi (pronounced “Chemmi”), whom she met while a skating coach in Spain, has seen her endurance during their eight years together.
“She is the strongest woman I’ve ever met,” said the man whom she praises for his kindness, patience and care. “I admire Emma incredibly so. Do I worry about her? Yes. She has physically and mentally gone through the unimaginable and sometimes I can see her being a little overwhelmed … .”
She acknowledged that she spent a good while after the incident at home with post-traumatic lengthy bursts of crying without warning.
Yet, clearly, the Emma Strong T-shirts that skate club parents sold later to help with her medical bills echoed what they knew about the coach.
Yet, to see her on the ice with some of the youngest skaters is to witness a gentleness that Baxter acknowledged has taken something of a new turn. She is extra affirming, encouraging, grinning and bending down to their eye level and speaking in controlled tones.
“I am much more relaxed now with them,” she said, adding that many skaters her age grew up with yelling coaches. “I tell them, ‘You just be you.’”
She is also funny, even amid practice. Just the other day, during rehearsal, when she spotted one of her group-lesson student youngsters on the exterior of the rink, she nearly speed-skated to that area and suddenly executed an abrupt, flawless side turn and stop that sent ice spraying toward the smiling and initially unsuspecting onlooker while she chuckled.
Katie Elkins, friends with Baxter since they were young skaters at the rink and now a skating parent and also still a show performer, watched the proceedings with a smile and admiration.
“I’m absolutely amazed, and so proud of her,” Elkins said. “But, honestly, it doesn’t surprise me. Emma has a real mental toughness. It’s just part of her attitude.”
A few minutes before the ice show will begin on April 23, Emma Baxter will attach her skate blade guards and flex her newfound inner strength to warmly reach out to others. She will venture into the 800-seat stands expected to be partially full with a COVID-19 limit of 250 people. And she will greet attendees with an overflowing gratitude.
Last fall, young skaters and their families from Columbus to Spain, sent her video clips extending love, prayers and warm wishes. They also asked her to please come back to the local rink and their sessions when she was ready. And now, she also is teaching hockey, partly as a thank you to young hockey players who went door to door and raised money to help cover her medical costs.
Yet, even with all her expertise, she acknowledged that she is concerned about the adult number she will perform with Elkins and others in the show.
“It’s been a hard one for me,” she said. “I sometimes still don’t feel like I am myself — on the ice or anywhere. I get antsy, which is weird, because that never has been my personality.”
Actually, such hesitation is common among patients who have sustained brain injuries, according to medical experts.
“I think it has been so good that she is talking about this, and hasn’t shut it away,” her mother said.
“I am excited to talk about it simply because I am alive to tell it,” Baxter said. “I’m like ‘Ask me any question.’”
She is willing to share her story with groups, if it can help and motivate others, but is unsure how to begin that.
“It would be so cool to be able to help someone else,” she said.
She is overwhelmed by the cards, flowers, phone calls, and financial donations worldwide, and even from even strangers, that poured in since the incident.
“It seemed like Christmas every day,” she said, beaming. “The gifts from people just kept rolling in. That began to heal me pretty quickly, just to feel all that love.”
Baxter herself has been a heartfelt giver. Years ago, when she performed as Belle or Cinderella with Disney, she sometimes put on her costume after show hours and visited terminally ill youngsters in hospitals as part of the kids’ last wishes.
“Sometimes, I had to leave the room to hide my tears,” she said.
Emma Baxter wants to hide nothing anymore. That’s part of the reason she said she wanted to share her story.
She very nearly died. But today, with a new perspective and a firm resolve amid her challenges, she figures she is aiming to be more alive than ever.
“I am,” she said, “just the type of person who wants to live in the now.”
About Emma Baxter
Current role: Co-producer with mom Katie Baxter of the Lincoln Center Skate Club’s annual ice show “Musicals and Movies” slated April 23 to 25 at Hamilton Center Ice Arena. She also is performing in one number in the show.
Parents: Katie Baxter of Columbus and Geary Baxter of Colorado, both professional skaters, as was Emma’s grandfather.
Husband: Jose Miguel Valbuena Ruiz de Vinaspre, nicknamed Txemi (pronounced Chemmi), whom she met while teaching and coaching skaters in Spain. They were married in June 2019.
Skating since: Age 2.
Professional background: Includes a stint with Disney on Ice.
To contact Baxter for speaking and more: [email protected]
About the show
What: Nonprofit Lincoln Center Skate Club’s annual ice show with this year’s title “Musicals ‘n’ Movies,” that was canceled last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic. About 80 skaters of all ages will participate.
When: 7 p.m. April 23; 3 and 7 p.m. April 24; and 2 p.m. April 25.
Where: Hamilton Community Center and Ice Arena, 2501 Lincoln Park Drive in Columbus.
Admission: Ages 2 and younger, free; general admission, $10.