Stash Serafin was born in 1953, two months premature and weighing less than three pounds. His lungs had collapsed, and his chances for survival were slim.

Doctors at Chestnut Hill Hospital put him in an incubator filled with pure oxygen. It saved his life, but he suffered the fate of thousands of other premature infants at the time.

The oxygen burned his eyes, blinding him for life.

But on a Saturday night in 1968, blindness did not stop the teenager from finding his life's passion: figure skating.

"Couple weeks before Easter," Serafin recalled. "The air smelled so much like spring. My brother and I were sitting down for a steak dinner with family and friends. My mom made apple pie. My mom's friend's daughter had a crush on a guy at the Melody Brook Ice Skating Rink in Colmar, so we went."

The rink is long gone, but what happened there changed his life.

"We trotted around the ice," he said. "I walked around like I owned the place. I went back for lessons. The club members were doing their fancy-schmancy stuff. I couldn't do anything by imitation because I couldn't see. But I could copy by sound.

"I discovered I had good balance. I started with basic skating and moved on to toe loops and double jumps. People said, 'How can you get that if you can't see?' I don't know."

Now 62, Serafin has spent decades demonstrating graceful glides, spins, and jumps at amateur and professional exhibitions across the region and beyond - as a coach, a competitor, and an inspiration.

In a 2007 memoir, A Skating Life: My Story, the Olympian Dorothy Hamill said she was "moved to tears by Stash's courageous performance" at a show in Wilmington in the 1970s.

"He didn't let his blindness stop him from expressing his passion on the ice," Hamill wrote, adding that Serafin stirred her to teach ice skating to children from the Los Angeles School for the Blind.

Competitively, Serafin won an artistic solo gold medal for his figure skating routine at the 2014 Gay Games 9 in Cleveland, interpreting his own musical composition, "I Don't See You But I Sense You."

He has coached sighted skaters for decades - he can hear what they're doing on ice - and while he won't be competing, he is looking forward to getting together with former students and fellow coaches this weekend at the U.S. Figure Skating Eastern Adult Sectionals at his home rink, the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society in Ardmore.

One day there last week, Serafin warmly greeted his ice dancing coach, Michelle Marvin, whom he has known for 20 years, and his edges-and-jumps coach, Tommy Kaine, a friend since both were teens at the Skating Club of Wilmington.

The coaches use tangible objects - an orange slice, lines etched into wood, a bendable rubber stick - so Serafin can feel with his fingers the semicircles and curves he has never seen, then try to duplicate the shapes on ice.

He practiced ice dancing turns with Marvin, then paired up with Kaine, face to face at close range, moving slowly and purposefully in a tight circle at the center of the rink, working on the precise curves and straight lines that are the bedrock of Serafin's solo routines.

They skated in sunlight streaming through the windows and reflecting off the ice, flooding the arena with an otherworldly glow.

Serafin and Kaine engaged in sometimes-heated discussions about technique, oblivious to a pair of young ice dancers swirling around them, and a gray-haired figure skater gliding by, practicing her swan-like finale.

The two men moved within their own small circle - Serafin's key to a lifetime of skating blind.

"In the middle of the vortex is the eye of the storm. There's a stillness and a quiet in there. The eye of the storm is the real metaphor of my life," he said. "If you can't see, you might as well do the things your mom taught you in the little circle."

The little circle has been Serafin's safe haven since his childhood on a four-acre farm in Blue Bell.

"It all started with a little circle my mom would do on the front lawn," he said. "She would put acorns in her pockets. She'd say, 'Catch me if you can,' and start running. I would hear the acorns rattle and I would chase her. She'd start with a small circle around me, then make it bigger and bigger. Eventually, her circle became the whole front lawn.

"I must have incorporated that when I started skating," he said. "I would work in a little tiny area and never leave that area until I felt comfortable about where I was."

Looking back over a half-century to his childhood, he still draws strength from it to navigate through his blindness.

"The thing my family did was, they just assumed I was going to be a regular kid, so they . . . let me do whatever I could do," he said. "I learned to climb trees. I don't know how. I just did.

"We had chickens, geese, guinea hens, and turkeys, and our neighbor had a couple of cows, so we'd go milk the cows. I could catch lightning bugs with the other kids, even though I couldn't see. I put them in the little jars with leaves. I didn't know how I caught the bugs and got them into the jars. Somehow, I could feel it."

As an adult, Serafin lived with his mom, Kathryn Lawryk Serafin, and his life partner, Wayne Isaacs, for 30 years in Willow Grove. His mother died in 2012, his partner in 2014.

Far from drowning in sadness, Serafin, skating within his circle and within himself, exudes joy.

"For Stash, skating means the world," Marvin said. "There's no 'woe is me' about not being sighted. He has no fear. He's moving through a clear space. . . . Skating for him is freedom."

Serafin agreed. "The best thing about life for me," he said, "is where I can feel the blade and the friction and the flow and all, and it's like, 'Wow!' "

He is training with Marvin and Kaine for the 2018 Gay Games 10 in Paris.

"Paris!" Serafin exclaimed, putting so much oomph into the word he really didn't have to add, "It's like, 'Wow!' "

dgeringer@phillynews.com

610-313-8109

@DanGeringer