Kiss and Cry Alternatives

January 15, 2010

The 2010 U.S. Championships are underway in Spokane, Washington and the Olympics are right around the corner. In the next six weeks, the sport of skating will reach its graceful tentacles into the minds of millions. During this time, we insiders may be called upon to answer some difficult questions, such as: What’s up with this judging system? And: Why did beautiful so-and-so get beat by that robot who fell twice? Or, one of my favorites: Is there actually such a thing as a “Kiss and Cry” area? Is that what you guys really call it?

Yes, as a matter of fact, this is where skaters and their coaches anxiously await their scores then react to them. This rinkside nook is usually decorated with black or royal blue carpeting and a few fake plants. The term Kiss and Cry apparently originated in Finland in the late 1970’s and was bandied about while they were setting up the rink for the 1983 Worlds. Believe it or not, Kiss and Cry is now an official term utilized by the International Skating Union.

I have mixed feelings about this term. As someone who grew up in the sport and has now made it my profession, I naturally want skating to be taken seriously. After all, we know this is a challenging, rigorous, and sometimes dangerous sport and this terminology makes it sound like fluff.

Then again, as someone who grew up in the sport and has now made it my profession, the term also seems…well, fitting and quite funny. After all, what everyone loves about skating is the human drama – witnessing the reactions afterwards is a big part of the show. Who can forget tiny Tara Lipinski leaping around like a baby kangaroo? Or the shock and awe of Sarah Hughes? I myself cried when the elegant Alyssa Czisny and her coach Julianna Berlin found out she won last year. When a synchro team discovers that they have won, the ensuing jumps for joy in the Kiss and Cry register on the richter scale; conversely, bad news can raise water levels for miles around.

Because the Olympics are looming, the emotions in the Kiss and Cry at Nationals this year will surely be amplified. True, some skaters won’t reveal much (they’ll hold it together until the camera moves onto someone else) and others will let it all hang out.

I’ve been wondering recently if there could be other names for this area and started to do some brainstorming. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far…

• The Hug and Sob

• The Smooch and Sweat (FYI, research has shown that Botox injections can calm down the sweat glands.)

• The Huff and Puff (This moment proves that you either just put in the extra effort, or that you probably should have done a few more run-throughs.)

• The Tears and Tiramisu (Submitted by my husband who I think is onto something: if the scores aren’t good, there should be complimentary tiramisu…)

• The Celebration/Devastation Zone (Doesn’t really roll off the tongue…)

• The Sit Tight-n-Smile (How much of your personality has been dampened by a media trainer?)

• The Squint and Try to See Your Scores (It may be time to get contact lenses.)

• The Land of High Fives and Regrets (I think this will be the title of my novel.)

• The Put Your Guards on Before You Ruin Your Blades Area (Sure, you can be a good girl or boy and put them back on right by the door, but isn’t it easier to do so while sitting down?)

• Gateway to the Rest of Your Life (After all, there’s always next year, or college, or coaching, or just some good old fashioned rest and recuperation… It seems like those previous four-ish minutes were the most important of your life, but there’s a whole world out there, and fortunately most of those experiences won’t be caught on camera…)

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Well, I’m not sure I’ve come up with anything better than “Kiss and Cry” but perhaps you have suggestions? Please click on “comments” below.

Thanks for reading and good luck to all the skaters in Spokane!

If you receive the Professional Skater Magazine, check out my highly-informative article regarding the Olympics on page 11 of this month’s 25th Anniversary issue. 🙂

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Focus: Preparing for the big event will require boatloads of planning, some obsessing and lots of mental visualization. You may find that you therefore have less time for other pursuits, such as blogging about your sport.

The Dress: Sure, the skating is important (i.e. an entire year’s worth of training culminating in one performance) and so is the fact that you’re getting married (i.e. committing to someone very very special for the rest of your life) but these are such minor details compared to How You Look. Whole hours, days, weeks and months can be consumed while considering the silhouette, decorative elements, and shade of the costume. For example, there are evidently 1 million different versions of white. And the fittings! These can comprise a second job.

Sportsmanship: Due to thousands of different variables (rain, acne, stomach flu, dull blades, sore ankle, ruts in the ice), things don’t always work out as planned. But nobody wants to root for a brat and nobody really wants to catch Bridezilla’s bouquet.

Balance and Coordination: In both realms, it is ideal to not trip, fall, or injure yourself or your partner. Then again, this could increase entertainment value.

Entering and Exiting with Style: Locker room equals Dressing Room. Ice equals Aisle. Kiss and Cry equals Receiving Line.

Nerves: Sure, beauty sleep is nice and it results in optimal energy levels for training, but it’s not completely necessary. Is it?

Flowers: In both cases, this element is fleeting. If you skate well, they might be thrown on the ice, handed to you over the barriers, or awarded to you after climbing the podium. If they make it back to your hotel room, you can try to balance them in one of the water glasses or maybe even the ice bucket in order to enjoy them for the few waking hours before your flight leaves in the morning. When planning a wedding, you will somehow get caught up in the wild misperception that the success of the entire event hinges on the exact mathematical ratio of calla lilies to dahlias to chrysanthemums. Or will it be gerber daisies to roses to poppies? Or maybe zinnias, to alliums to…    

Music: The better the music, the better the party, the louder the ovation, the bigger the smiles, the higher the scores, the funkier the boogie-ing. In other words, there probably shouldn’t be any ice dance music played during the reception, despite any and all threats or promises to do so. (Brace yourself for the Dutch Waltz!)  

Getting in shape: Hours of cross-training and conscientious dieting will result in exhaustion, malnutrition, irritability and very little perceptible change in your physical dimensions.  

Choreography: In skating, a program should tell a story filled with drama, emotion, and excitement. A bride and groom’s first dance should bring the audience to tears…of laughter? Perhaps lifts should be avoided if the dress is poofy, the shoes are slippery and/or if the lifter has never participated in this activity? Nah, might as well go for it!

Vacation: That week off after Nationals was always such a beautiful thing. This time? Honeymoon: palm trees, waterfalls…and no homework or exams to make-up. 

Cake: Okay, well I suppose this is more of a difference between a wedding and a competition rather than a similarity. But really, there should be more cake in skating, don’t you think? Judges, skaters, coaches, parents: let them eat cake! Or maybe smoosh it in each others’ faces…?

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Thanks for reading!

I’ll be back in the fall…that is unless I decide to stay in Hawaii and teach skating lessons on ice rinks composed of daiquiris. 🙂

 

In the mean time, here is some other stuff I’ve been up to:

 “Bridezilla Phobia” for DIY Bride. Click here, then click on the article title to read it…

“Downturn Trends in Decorative Throw Pillows” for Yankee Potroast. Click here.

More adventures from the Upper East Side Informer. Click here.

Julianne and Alissa, November 2008

Julianne and Alissa, November 2008

I don’t know which was more sweet – Alissa Czisny’s dreamy, flawless Short Program at this year’s Nationals or her and coach Julianne Berlin’s emotional reactions upon finding out that she’d won the title after the Long Program. I just re-watched both and cried for the second time.

It’s easy to get mesmerized by Czisny’s soft interpretation of The Swan in the Short and, in turn, hypnotized by her Long Program to Doctor Zhivago. She is the epitome of grace and elegance. In addition to her famously competent spins and her excellent jumps, there is a quietness to her knees and an effortlessness to her turns. She is, in my opinion, a skater’s skater. 

Besides, amid a sea of little girls, she is a woman. At 22, of course she is a baby in the grand scheme of things, but she is 5-7 years older than her closest American competitors. To me, the longevity of Czisny’s career is a victory in and of itself in the same way it was for Michelle Kwan.

With all the injuries these girls withstand in this era of infinite triple jumps, all the travel, and all the pressure, it’s becoming more and more difficult to get to the top and to stay there. Czisny’s been competing and succeeding internationally, at either the Junior or Senior level for about eight years. She’s had her share of ups and downs, she’s persevered. And there she was in Cleveland, shyly weeping in the Kiss and Cry, what seemed to be tears of relief and joy when she realized she’d won. And her longtime coach right at her side, was equally moved. Uh oh, my eyes are welling up again…

Czisny has been training with Julianne Berlin for 12 years, since Czisny was 10 years old, a fact that I think makes this story all the more heartwarming. Czisny has, by her own admission, struggled with nerves (who hasn’t in this sport?) and, while watching, I couldn’t help wondering how Berlin has helped her through this along the way. I contacted Julianne after Nationals and she was kind enough to answer all kinds of questions about that winning moment, team teaching with Linda Leaver and Brian Boitano, and their strategy as they lead up to Worlds at the end of this month.

Berlin lives in Huntington Woods, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, and coaches at the Detroit Skating Club. She has been coaching for 26 years, since she was a student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She has been married for 13 years and has two boys, ages 10 and 12.

Jocelyn Jane Cox: So what was Alissa like, growing up?

Julianne Berlin: The main thing I remember about Alissa is that she has always been so neat, so on-time and so organized. She is very precise, from her hair, to her skating dresses. We are very similar in that way. Also, ever since she was little, whenever I first walk into the rink, she has always given me the cutest smile. Even if I’m not working with her that day, she’ll look up from what she’s doing with a smile that seems to say, “I’m so happy you’re here.” She takes a moment to make that connection.

JJC: What do you admire most about Alissa?

JB: I admire her dedication, her discipline and her determination to never give up. Whenever she hasn’t done as well as she wanted at a competition, she has tried to learn from it. She has a good attitude and keeps working hard. Even now, if she finishes everything she has to do, and there are eight minutes left in the session, I have to force her to get off early. She does go on vacation once a year but she is so driven that I have to encourage her to pamper herself, like to just go get a massage, or get her nails done.

JJC: What has it been like to watch her develop as a skater and a person?

Alissa and Julianne at her first International in Slovenia where she won, in 2001

Alissa and Julianne at her first International, Triglav Trophy, in Slovenia where she won, in 2001.

JB: Being with her for so long, it’s almost like watching your own child. I know everying thing about her– her highs and her lows. I would move the moon for this girl. She has always been lovely and well brought-up — kind, respectful, and polite, almost as if she’s from the 1950’s. She has the manner of a soft-spoken princess, not a diva at all.

Alissa is very capable. I have always known that she was very talented, but she was kind of a late bloomer. Over the years, she has always given more than 100 percent, so she deserves everything she’s gotten. It think her story is kind of like the American Dream.

JJC: Tell us what’s different about this year. What changes have you made?

JB: Well, working with Linda Leaver and Brian Boitano has been really positive. In 2007, when she was third at Nationals, we were talking to Linda and Brian at an alumni breakfast. We all really hit it off, so I suggested that Alissa go out and work with them. I feel like the luckiest coach in the world to be working with Linda. I feel like she’s mentoring me and that all of my up and coming students will benefit from what I’m learning from her. Even though she’s out in California, we are team teaching, and we really see things eye to eye. Brian is a great influence on Alissa – they are more like friends, talking about what it’s like to compete, etc.

The fact that we’re working together is almost eerie: I remember watching Linda Leaver with Brian Boitano at either the Olympics or at Worlds one year and noticing the bond that they had. To this day, they are like family to each other. I wanted that with my students, too. They have both had a really positive effect on Alissa.

The other difference is that we got Alissa out of her hinge boots and into Jacksons. Alissa has always been in tune with her equipment, her body and her balance, and things just weren’t working. She originally started in the hinge boot in 2004 because she had fluid on her ankle, and they did help correct that and also helped to make her ankles stronger, but, at a certain point, I don’t think they helped with her overall technique and her progress. In the last few months, she has been feeling really good in her skates – the sharpening, the mounting, the fit.

The other thing is that we started training earlier this year, in June. She has competed every month since then. In 2007, she did the Champions on Ice tour. This was kind of a setback for the following season, because she didn’t get to start training early enough.

JJC: So it seems like you’re a fan of team coaching. Tell me how this has worked for you.

JB: I have always known that was something I had to do because of my two boys. My own kids would always come first, and if something happened, I wanted my students to be with coaches who were also knowledgeable and who they were comfortable with.

When I first started assistant coaching in Detroit, both Alissa and her twin sister Amber, (who was also a great national competitor) were both working with Diana Ronayne. I was young and pregnant and helping out. Then, Diana moved to the Broadmoor. After that, we worked for a long time with Theresa McKendry.

I think that the more you can expose your skaters to good people, the better they can be. Alissa has worked with lots of different coaches and choreographers such as David Wilson, Yuka Sato, Lori Nichol and others. She has worked with ballet teachers, trainers and psychologists. Through this, I gain a lot, and my other students are going to get better as well. I am her manager, I am in charge, but I pick who I think would be helpful to her. Right now, we have assembled a perfect, customized team for her. I didn’t realize until recently that Linda Leaver did the same thing with Brian Boitano.

I used to have other coaches travel with my students to competitions. At a certain point, I noticed that I needed to travel with Alissa to provide a sense of stability. I am someone she can trust, and count on. I am always there for her, unconditionally, whether she’s in 9th place or 1st place, it doesn’t matter.

JJC: What were you thinking while she was skating the Short Program at Nationals?

JB: Well, of course I practically have a heart attack every time she skates! I’m always wanting her to show the world what she can do, and what she shows me every day in practice. During the short, she did that. Whether or not she lands all of her triples or not, I think she’s the most beautiful skater in the world. There is something special about her. She’s got a lot of heart and you can almost feel the struggle. No matter what she gets at Nationals, she always gets called to do a lot of shows. She is a feminine skater, a woman, and I think that really showed.

JJC: What about when she was skating the Long?

JB: I was beside myself – there was so much pressure. I couldn’t stand by the boards, I was walking around, pacing. She had two errors. She’s human.

JJC: What about when you found out that she won?

JB: I thought she really deserved it. It was her time. I am glad that she was so far ahead in the short.

JJC: What advice would you give to coaches to help skaters persevere through disappointments?

JB: I treat every event as a learning experience. We keep strategizing and we keep developing goals. I always try to find the positives, first. For example, maybe you didn’t land the triple lutz but you did do a great combination.

And again, I think keeping skaters inspired comes back to variety. Bringing different people to the table keeps things fresh. And, Alissa still has fun working with her sister Amber, once per week on spins. They have always done that together.

Keeping the skater healthy is also obviously important, so we do a lot of off-ice training, and incorporate rest and recovery.

JJC: What is your mentality and Alissa’s mentality as you now get ready for Worlds?

JB: She is clearly at her best. She has been struggling with performance anxiety for a long time but we are getting cleaner and the nature of the mistakes has changed. Competing at Four Continents was a really fast turnaround, but we felt it was important because that’s the rink where the Olympics will be.

Leading up to Worlds, we are continuing to improve her consistency. In the long, we are considering adding one more triple in order to give her more of a buffer.

JJC: Thank you so much, Julianne. All the best to Alissa and to you.

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Did you see Alissa’s performance at Nationals? Were you also touched by it? Click on comment, below…

Thanks to everyone who commented last week.

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So I got an e-mail yesterday from US Figure Skating that has gotten my wheels turning and my fingers tapping on this trusty laptop.

It was an advertisement for a company called K12, “the nation’s leading online learning provider for students in grades K-12.” My initial reaction was surprise and, admittedly, even a little disgust. By sending this out to the membership, is US Figure Skating basically endorsing not going to school?

I don’t know whether this went out to the entire membership or just coaches or just adults. (Did you get this e-mail as well?) It concerns me that this online schooling seed is being so directly planted in the minds of skaters, coaches, and parents by our umbrella organization. Of course, many competitive skaters and other athletes are already not going to school – and by going to school I mean passing through the front doors of actual buildings containing classrooms, blackboards, lockers, cafeterias, and gyms – but is this something to actively promote?

Home schooling, mail-order schooling, and now online schooling have been prevalent in our sport for years. Many skaters have gotten excellent educations and gone on to be productive citizens through these methods. Doing this has allowed to them to train more, and, for some (though not necessarily all) this has helped them achieve more success as athletes than they may have, otherwise. Conversely, many other athletes and non-athletes across the country have gotten mediocre educations within both public and private school systems. Many schools are under-funded, teachers are underpaid, and some students slip through the cracks. Some parents contend that, whether they become skating champions or not, their children are better off not being in classrooms. Many parents would argue the exact opposite. In the end, no matter where students obtain their educations, it’s a matter of what they make of it. (This is true of what rink they skate at as well.)

As a coach and former competitor, I recognize that skating success can be correlated, to a large degree, to the amount of time spent on the ice. And my visits to Nationals and Junior Nationals over the last several years have underscored the fact that full-time high school students who are squeezing in their skating in the wee hours of the morning or on crowded after-school freestyle sessions have difficultly keeping up with athletes who aren’t going to school.

I don’t know exactly how many National-level competitors still go to school but I’d be interested in those statistics. (Anyone?) My sense is that the scales are gradually tipping to more unconventional schooling. Maybe instead of Should skaters go to school, I should be asking, rather: Can skaters still go to school? Is it even feasible these days to move up the ranks while attending school? Which skaters at the top right now still go to school? (College doesn’t count since the in-class commitment is considerably smaller.)

I understand that alternative schooling is an appropriate choice for some, I just have a hard time accepting that US Figure Skating would endorse this so directly. I believe that there is value in actually attending school for many reasons. First, there is all that socialization: how to get along with other people, how to accept the differences in others, and how to navigate a multitude of social intricacies such as where to sit, who to befriend, how to work on group projects, when to stand your ground and when to go with the flow. Some might argue that you can pick up these skills in an ice rink and that’s true, to a degree. (And let’s face it, skating is an education in and of itself.) But ice rinks can also be very insular – everyone is working so hard on such specific things and with so much focus that there is very little room for the outside world. That isn’t inherently bad, I just think it’s important for kids to get exposure to other things, elsewhere.

In its advertisement, K12 claims that it “gets kids thinking big…Every subject is delivered online, with hands-on experiments, plus books and support from expert teachers.” Call me old fashioned, but there’s definitely more to learning and to growing up than what can be derived from a book, or a computer screen, or a series of personalized e-mails, or on the ice, for that matter. (And I write this as someone who has derived a whole lot from each of these things.) Being in school, day-in and day-out opens students up to all kinds of distractions to filter, frustrations  to hurdle…and also inspirations to ponder.

Let’s not gloss over the academic aspect. Getting into good colleges is becoming increasingly competitive (admittedly not everyone’s goal). K12 may very well provide excellent educational material. But just like skating on sessions with other good skaters is motivating, it’s motivating to be around other good students, and challenged by them, as opposed to working in isolation.

Granted, schools could and should be more flexible with students who are pursuing outside activities. With the help of coaches, parents of skaters can try to help their school districts to think outside the box when it comes to scheduling accommodations, such as waving study halls and gym class, so that skaters can go in late, or leave early, or duck out during the lunch hour if possible. I have written several letters to school administrators to help justify schedule tweaks. Parents seem to have varying degrees of success with this, here in New York State. I wonder if US Figure Skating and the governing bodies of other elite non-school sports could work together to foster more compensations within the educational system (i.e. educate the educators) so that athletes don’t feel like they have no choice but to seek other schooling options?

In my high school years, while I was a National competitor, I was fortunate to be able to attend my public school in Delaware for only half a day from about 7:40 in the morning until about 12:30. Like many other kids at the University of Delaware program in those years, I did not go to lunch, I had very few study halls, I did not have art class, or any other electives, and I did not go to gym class.

I realize this was not exactly a typical high school experience. I did, however, have a full-load of academic courses and somehow managed to participate in a bunch of clubs like the yearbook and literary magazine. I went to the prom in an extremely poofy pink dress. I learned a lot from participating in skating but also through observing my teachers and making connections with kids with different interests. I started to figure out who I was and what my opinions were beyond the realm of skating. This opened my eyes and got me thinking about what I might want to do after I was done competing. It was due to the direct encouragement of teachers that I started to think I might want to become a writer. Of course, I also became a skating coach and I am happy about this. I have tried a lot of other things, so coaching is something I feel I’ve chosen rather than something I’m doing by default. There is a sense of freedom in that.

Would I have gone further in my skating if I had switched to another method of schooling? Quite possibly. Or maybe being even more dedicated to this sport than I already was would have turned me off of it all together. We’ve all seen kids overdose on skating. We’ve seen what it has done to their bodies and their families. And when things don’t go well, the result is much more devastating for a skater when skating has become his or her only source of self-identity.

I know that everyone is different and circumstances vary, that people have all kinds of geographical and logistical constraints in their training. I realize that once you’re on the Grand Prix circuit and even Junior Grand Prix circuit it’s especially difficult to juggle traditional school hours. I am not chastising elite competitors who have made this decision. What breaks my heart is when I see young skaters who have yet to prove themselves as athletes taken out of school in order to pursue a dream that may or may not come true. I wonder how much online schooling really increases the chances…

I fear that US Figure Skating’s sponsorship connection with a company like K12 could encourage the wrong families to make this decision, prematurely. I fear that it makes not going to school seem like the skating norm.

Elite competitive skating is something you can only do when you’re young, so I understand that families feel compelled to do everything they can to seize that opportunity. But proms and homecomings and high school graduations only come around once in a lifetime as well.

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I am sure there are lots of disparate opinions on this topic: please provide your own thoughts by clicking on “comment” below.

And, yes, I have been silent for the last few weeks – I have been in the process of moving. Have you heard that moving is widely considered to be one of the top five most stressful events in life? This is definitely true, even when you’re moving for very very good reasons. Anyway, this move is an upgrade in many senses, and in no small part due some excellent garbage pickin’ I did in Manhattan. Read more by clicking here.

In the last month, I have amassed lots of ideas and research for more CSOM installments, most excitingly, a great interview with National Gold Medalist Alissa Czisny’s coach, Julianne Berlin. I plan to run this quite soon.

Monkey see, Monkey skate

January 21, 2009

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The staff of Current Skate of Mind has noticed that a particularly entertaining skating video is currently in hot circulation around the internet. (The nature, tenor and texture of this video fits the CSOM credo perfectly i.e. “laughter is the best sports medicine.”) Perhaps you have not seen it yet? Of course you are busy watching as much Nationals footage on icenetwork as humanly possible, but we highly recommend you tear yourself away for a few moments to see some extremely impressive skills. We are not Technical Specialists, but it’s pretty obvious that these skaters would do very well under the IJS system (press on the black arrow in left bottom corner to play):  

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For those of you noticing this week’s lack of punctuality (i.e. it’s not Tuesday, scandalous indeed), we must inform you that due to several thousand other projects on deck, new installments will now be posted on a completely random basis. Just keeping you on your toe…picks.    

Synchroland

February 26, 2008

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I’m not a synchronized skater. The closest I ever came was participating in a few wobbly kick-lines and terrifying pinwheels in club ice shows when I was a little kid. You could argue that the intricacy of freedances or the footwork of pair skating has some similarities, and I coach a lot of synchro skaters individually on their ice dance and moves in the field, so I’ve developed a loose understanding of the discipline over the years. But I’ve never been to a synchronized competition…that is, until this weekend. I was in Providence for the 2008 Synchro Nationals and it was quite an adventure. 

It was almost like visiting another country.

I discovered that we all breathe the same air and the landscape is comparable but the language is somewhat different and the customs are quite foreign. It helped that I had a wise and intrepid travel buddy and that I knew a lot of the locals. I was also fortunate that my passport a.k.a. press credential granted me access to one of the most interesting and exclusive regions: backstage.

Like any stereotypical tourist, I had my camera in hand and I was often unfolding my map (schedule) and gazing around with confusion. Fortunately, the locals were extremely friendly and eager to share their culture with me. And, despite the fact that all of the tribes are separately vying to scale a beautiful mountain called The Podium, this country is not in a state of complete mayhem. Frankly, I was struck by what an organized and sophisticated civilization it is.    

One of the first things I noticed is that the synchronized schedule is incredibly specific. Of course it needs to be, because there is a limited amount of territory in which to fit all those skaters. The timetable doesn’t just tell you what time each event starts, it includes: Enter Dress Room, Leave Dress Room, Wait at Rink Side, Enter Competition Rink, Leave Rink, Photo, and Leave Dress Room, all down to the minute. From what I could tell, it ran pretty close to the published times.  

I also immediately noticed that there were a lot of pre-competition rituals including off-ice warm-ups that looked almost exactly like aerobics classes or yoga classes or military exercises. I was surrounded by cheerleading-style cheers, stereos cranking out specific songs, and groups of girls belting out lyrics. I gathered that many are beholden to quirky yet powerful superstitions. I witnessed lots of inspirational pow-wows and noted that the tribal leaders (coaches) were obviously well-versed in motivational speaking.

But all of these traditions are trifles compared to the more complicated and mystifying things I observed out on the ice. Once the skaters stepped onto the rink, they effectively became clones of one another. Of course this was true as far as hair, make-up, and dresses, but it was also (mostly) true of the skating. Because for most of the events I was sitting far up in the stands (where there was also a perch for my beloved laptop), I couldn’t really see individual faces. Therefore, my attempts at following specific skaters through the program were at times futile. If I lost track of a particular skater, it was often difficult to find her again.

So, from my aerial view, I mainly watched the teams as a whole and was impressed by the different shapes they managed to form while moving in unison. The way the best groups constantly shifted and changed direction with their skirts swirling reminded me of a kaleidoscope. 

One of my favorite elements was what I came to affectionately refer to as “Snakey Spirals” where two or three lines of linked skaters did triple change-of-edge spirals (i.e. inside-outside-inside) parallel to one another. I also liked the “Nomadic Circle” (again, my term), which traveled from one end of the ice to the other while spinning and maintaining its shape. And related, but even more spectacular, was the “Donut” (once again, my term) where a small circle spun along inside a bigger one, also while traveling. I couldn’t help but marvel at yet another popular trick where lines of skaters rotated beside one another, timed so that they barely missed hitting each other, the effect of which was like a row of revolving doors.

I think that one of the craziest aspects of Synchroland are the Intersections (and that one is a real term). Elsewhere, we’ve become accustomed to waiting our turn at four-way stops, but in synchronized skating everyone apparently has the green light and is supposed to cross through the intersections at the same time! We’re talking about 16-20 athletes aiming toward each other with all kinds of turns and footwork steps and managing (for the most part) to pass by each other without crashing! It is a miracle that there are not more collisions.

Speaking of which, there are occasional lapses that do result in disaster. And sometimes, because everyone is in such close proximity and moving so quickly, these unfortunately lead to pile-ups, literally. As a spectator, all you can do is wince, contribute to the collective “whoa” then applaud with encouragement as the fallen ones attempt to catch up with the rest of the group and re-attach themselves without tripping anyone else in the process. Re-establishing order after catastrophes like these is obviously one of the biggest challenges.

But, by far, the most painful moments for me occurred just after the teams took the ice. They would skate in an interesting and sometimes convoluted manner out to their starting poses and then, to my chagrin, anywhere from 2-4 skaters would turn around and skate back off the ice as if banished from the performance. I logically know that teams need to have a few extra skaters just in case someone gets hurt or sick on game day and I realize that this custom is clearly accounted for in each team’s by-laws, but ouch. It’s not like these skaters are half-citizens or anything, but it broke my heart a little each time to see the alternates all dressed up with nowhere to skate, watching from the sidelines.

What became evident as the competition progressed was that, just because you are granted citizenship to this unique country, it doesn’t mean you will immediately thrive. One team of skaters, comprised of freestylers and pair skaters, immigrated to the highest echelon of Synchroland only in October. Though they enthusiastically tried to learn the language and the laws, they were understandably still struggling. Nonetheless, they provided quite a bit of entertainment (earning a standing ovation for their freeskate) and demonstrated the fact that synchronized skating is definitely not an easy undertaking. Surely, with time and further exposure to the customs, they will gradually get the hang of it.

If you have never experienced the splendors of Synchroland yourself, I highly recommend it. I feel certain that, like me, you will find it to be enjoyable and stimulating. Thank you to all of those who warmly embraced me during my trip. And thanks also to my excellent tour guide/ sherpa/ “pencil sharpener” for making my stay both productive and pleasant.

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To read the articles I wrote on this topic for icenetwork, visit:

Getting Pumped in Providence: http://web.icenetwork.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20080223&content_id=44483&vkey=ice_news

Glamour on Ice at Synchro Championships: http://web.icenetwork.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20080223&content_id=44560&vkey=ice_news

There’s a New Team on the Scene: http://web.icenetwork.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20080224&content_id=44694&vkey=ice_news

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 Well, the figure skaters have left St. Paul. They’ve flown back to their respective hometowns and (unless they’re competing again right away) are hopefully still taking some much-deserved time off. At the Xcel Center, already the cowboys have ridden through for the “World’s Toughest Rodeo” this weekend – apparently the ice surface was simply covered with flooring and lots of dirt. But now that’s already been cleared away as well to get ready for a concert and three Minnesota Wilds hockey games this week.

But the memories of the 2008 National Championships still linger. At least for me, anyway. Lots of journalists are wondering if figure skating is still compelling, now that we have the confusing (and perhaps homogenizing) new judging system and now that we have such tiny jumping beans for champions. I happen to think that, yes, perhaps even because we seem to be in a new era, skating is as compelling and as intriguing as ever…it’s just a matter of who and what you pay attention to.

I, quite frankly, can’t wait to see what’s going to happen in the next couple of years, in the lead-up to the 2010 Vancouver Games. Along the way, surely there will be triumphs, disappointments, scandals (both real and contrived), injuries, retirements, and lots of hard work on the part of skaters, coaches, officials and, media personnel. Hopefully, there will also be some fun.

I had a blast tracking this year’s competition, so much so that I have decided to create my own set of awards. If I could present these in person, they wouldn’t be in the form of trophies, or certificates, or medals. I think, instead, I would give out…snowballs, conveniently constructed from Zamboni shavings. After all, snow, like success, is fleeting and, fortunately so are foibles.

These snowballs could obviously never sit on a shelf. But before they melt away, the recipients could throw them at each other. Or at the media. Or at me.

So without further delay…

MOST ENTERTAINING INTERACTION WITH THE JUDGES:

Winner: Ryan Bradley. For his Short Program set to the music from The Godfather. When the music started, he looked toward the judging table and made a serious yet playful “Capiche?” gesture with his right hand. The audience tittered. Just before his mammoth Triple Axel, he coolly blew the judges a kiss. Throughout the rest of his program, his arm movements were more abstract yet in character, mob-like, somehow.  Later, for the Long Program, he channeled Charlie Chaplin, including a cane-twirling penguin strut aimed, again, right at the judges.

MOST DEXTERITY:

Winner: Maia Shibutani. For seamlessly opening and closing a decorative fan while performing to Japanese folk music with her brother, Alex, in the Junior Original Dance. I can imagine that if handed this prop to maneuver while also skating, most of us would probably manage to drop it, even if it were attached to our wrists. And I’m sure that, for me, it would probably get stuck closed, or open, or in my hair, or costume, and, Lucille Ball-style, I’d have to stop and ask the referee to assist with my technical difficulties. But this 13 year-old expertly flourished the fan at all the right moments so that it seemed to be an extension of her arm and nicely accentuated both the music and the choreography. 

Runners-Up: Ben Agosto and Tanith Belbin. For passing a hat back and forth in their Hoedown Original Dance set to the music of Cotton-Eyed Joe.

RECIPIENT OF MOST POST-PERFORMANCE KISSES (IN PUBLIC VIEW)

Winner: Rena Inoue. Total kisses received: Six (total does not reflect kisses out of public view). Delivered by partner (and now fiancé), John Baldwin, after Senior Short Program. This included three while still on the ice (1. on hand, 2. on both hands 3. on top of head) and continued in the Kiss and Cry where she received three more, woodpecker-style to the side of her head. After the Long Program, she would go on to receive a mere five Post-Performance Kisses (in Public View,) though one was of extended length and could therefore possibly be counted as two.

MOST SYNCHRONIZED PAIR SPIN:

Winners: Inoue and Baldwin. For their Short Program side by side spin. Four separate positions, all of which matched. Several rotations. Same exact timing. Synchronized exit. No easy feat.    

STRANGEST CHOICE OF ADJECTIVE:

Winner: Dick Button. For giddily remarking that there was something “sexual” about Meryl Davis and Charlie White’s Eleanor Rigby Freedance. This performance was many things, including “fantastic,” “intricate,” “powerful” and the list goes on, but it was not particularly sexual. It seemed Dick Button just wanted to use that word. 

MOST TALENT UNDER ONE ROOF:

Winner: The Gilles Family of Colorado Springs, Colorado. Todd Gilles, 21, earned 6th place in Senior Dance with new partner Jane Summersett, which renders them 2nd  alternates for Worlds and first alternates for Four Continents. Alexe Gilles, 16, won the Gold Medal in Junior Ladies. She is the first alternate for both Four Continents and also Junior Worlds. Piper Gilles, 16, won the Silver Medal in Junior Dance with her partner Tim McKernon. They are first alternates for Junior Worlds. There are also two other kids in this family and a coterie of pets: can you even imagine the schedule over at their house?

INFINITE TWIZZLE:

Winner: Evan Lysacek, Senior Men. At the end of his Short Program circular step sequence. I counted 46 turns but it was very blurred, so it might have been 47. He and the Tazmanian Devil should definitely have a twizzle-off.

BEST DRESS:

Kimberly Navarro, Senior Dance. For the black and white polka-dotted dress she wore for the Yankee Polka with partner Brent Bommentre. I already have a soft spot for NavBom and a predilection for polka-dots…combine the two and this compulsory dance was very much worth watching.    

FALL MOST LIKELY TO MAKE THE VIEWERS (AND SKATER) WINCE:

Winner: Michael Villarreal, Senior Men. For the fall on his first Triple Axel in his Long Program. It was one of those falls where every part of his body seemed to slam into the ice. It was kind of a stop, drop, and roll made all the more difficult to witness (and probably experience) due to the fact that he had at least four minutes and several more jump passes to go. He gets substantial extra credit for not only quickly peeling himself up and continuing but for immediately landing a great Triple Lutz, Double Loop, Double Toe. After a fall like that, some of us might still be down one the ice, whimpering.

MOST UNUSUAL FALL:

Winners: Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig, Senior Pair. For their triple twist in the Long Program. On the landing, she was a bit forward and he missed catching her hips. He managed to somehow keep her from falling, but in the process of trying to get her balance, she looked to be groping in the dark with her arms and knocked his feet out from under him…needless to say, it’s not usually the guy who falls in these situations. I know from experience that four skates and eight limbs in such close proximity can result in some wacky falls, but this was an original. Once again, kudos on the recovery.   

WORST SCHEDULING: 

Winner: Senior Ladies Long Program, Placements 11-20. The event was broken into to two parts on Saturday, 8:45 AM and 7:50 PM, so those who didn’t place in the top 10 in the Short were banished from prime time. Instead of skating in front of a packed, frenzied crowd during the marquee event, they got the breakfast shift, in fact, the earliest start-time of any event in the competition. These skaters have still achieved so much and no one can take that away from them, but as far as fanfare, as far as buzz, as far as skating in front of a packed house with the cameras rolling and the commentators at-the-ready, just in case, they might as well have been in Junior, or Novice for that matter.

Molly Oberstar is a Minnesota skater who was essentially skating in front of a hometown audience for her first time in Senior Ladies at Nationals. She happened to skate last in the Short Program on Thursday night. She skated clean and the crowd went wild. She got 11th place, just missing the cut-off. Angie Lien, her fellow competitor and club member, (both from Duluth FSC), was competing in her last Nationals. I asked her about this situation. She thought it was “a little silly that the Senior Ladies had to be split up this year because of the TV contract with NBC.” Though she still had a great experience and appreciated “those who got up early to cheer us on”, she of course noticed that the “audience was much smaller than on Saturday night.”

Furthermore…we all know it’s difficult to “jump the warm-up”, in other words, place higher than the warm-up group you’re in for the Long Program (and of course the new system is supposed to make this more possible), but what are the chances of moving up after nine hours have passed? This amount of time makes it seem like two separate events. I realize that 20 Long Programs takes a long time and that the group was this large because there were several byes for international competitions. I appreciate that ice dance shared the limelight on Saturday night. And I realize all of this has a lot to do with TV scheduling, but I think that, for these skaters, it’s demoralizing. An insult.

CRAZIEST COINCIDENCE

Winner: Senior Men, the infamous 244.77 tie between Lysacek and Weir. For those of you who think “something fishy is going on” with the judging of skating, even with this new system, you may be right, but this is not your evidence. Of course the scores were probably inflated and we can debate the validity of them into the next millennium, but it would have taken at least several hours if not days for the Technical Specialists and Judges to get together and rig those scores so that they’d come out exactly the same for the sake of more media attention. That was an instance of pure, freakish happenstance. It was also quite entertaining, especially after all the rivalry hoopla created by (or at least significantly fostered by) NBC.

BIGGEST GRIN:

Winner: Rachael Flatt, Senior Ladies. After finishing a clean Short Program. Grin nicely decorated with tinsel and lip gloss.

Runner up: Rachael Flatt, Senior Ladies. Upon cleanly landing a Triple Flip, Double Toe, Double Loop combo at the end of her Long Program, her seventh and last triple pass. Grin coincided with a wide-eyed look of pure joy.  

Second Runner up: Rachael Flatt, Senior Ladies. Upon receiving her scores for both programs. Grins accompanied by endearing giggles. 

And they’re saying it isn’t fun to watch such young girls win. Granted, it may not be as “sexual” to borrow Dick Button’s word, but, after all, aren’t babies used all the time as marketing tools? Cute sells! In fact, one of the best Superbowl commercials this Sunday featured an infant buying stocks at his computer. My only concern is that if we get to the point where our champions are so young that they’re still breastfeeding, is that going to be considered an unfair advantage? Better revise the controlled substance list, soon

                                                                 

   

I ♥ icenetwork

January 29, 2008

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Let me explain, up front, that I don’t have television. What I mean by this is that I don’t have any television stations: I have a TV and a DVD player, on which I watch my fair share of movies, but no cable service, no TiVo, nor whatever newfangled technology they’ve come out with in the last ten minutes.

I “went off TV” cold-turkey about nine years ago when I realized that watching it was in direct conflict with my writing aspirations. Basically, to be a writer you have to do an inordinate amount of reading and an equal amount of writing. You have to go out into the world and have experiences that you can write about and sometimes you need to just sit on your couch and think. Watching TV doesn’t help much. I suppose other people have the ability to turn off the TV or rarely turn it on in the first place, but I know myself and I am not one of them, so it’s just better to not have the temptation.

Yes, I’ve missed out on a lot: American Idol, Survivor, Desperate Housewives, the visual images of countless world events (I do listen to the radio, but of course it’s not quite the same), and that particular comfort of coming home at the end of the day and decompressing in front of the boob tube. What I’ve also missed is just about every skating event that has been broadcast from around the universe in the last decade. (Excluding the few events I’ve attended and the fewer events I’ve invited myself over to your house to watch, thanks by the way.)

So you can imagine I was pretty intrigued when icenetwork re-launched/re-invented itself in August and announced they’d be offering on-demand broadcasts and archived footage for many marquee events this season. I subscribed and have been sporadically taking advantage of this service for the last few months, but it wasn’t until this past week, during the coverage of the U.S. Nationals in St. Paul, that I fully appreciated how remarkable this is.

Specifically, I came home on Thursday night after work and caught the majority of the Championship Girls (not a typo) Short Program event, live. I tuned in just as Caroline Zhang was taking her bow, and for the next few hours experienced the strange sensation of being in two places at once: simultaneously at home and at the Xcel Center.

The icenetwork coverage is relatively barebones and straightforward, perhaps not as “slick” or “produced” as other broadcasts, but precisely because of this, watching it online is a lot like being there. Have been at Nationals for the previous three years, and watching many events from the stands, I can say that there are some ways in which the icenetwork experience is arguably even better than being there…and I’m only chewing on a few sour grapes. Seriously, such a small percentage of coaches (and skaters and fans) get to partake in the Big Party so it’s great that icenetwork is sharing the love.

What’s not so great about sitting in the stands is that period of time after each skater, while the Technical Panel is reviewing the video. These are basically like a bunch of intermissions, and they can seem infinite. Sure, you can inspect your fingernails, cross and uncross your legs, engage in some chitchat, and crane your neck, squinting to see if the Kiss and Cry is living up to its name. From home, however, it’s the possibilities that are infinite. During the IJS Intermissions, you can:

  1. Watch the icenetwork replays, which usually include three elements from each skater, either in celebration of a performance triumph or in closer examination of a foible.
  2. Watch (and hear) the skaters and coaches kiss and cry from close range and wonder if they realize how close (and how effective) the microphones are.
  3. Analyze the Double-handed Wave: a friend of mine noticed that the Kiss and Cry tends to bring this out in many of the younger skaters. This waving technique involves extremely loose wrists wobbled at about shoulder-level. I’ve been practicing mine and I think I’m getting the hang of it. I wonder if this is part of the new media training. 
  4. Stretch. Watching any of these events will inevitably make you realize how inflexible you’ve become.
  5. Warm up some of that homemade soup and rejoice in the fact that it is not a concession-stand hot dog or a serving of over-baked ziti from the coach’s hospitality room. The only catch is that you’ll have to wash the dishes, but there’s time enough for this as well.
  6. Check the icenetwork results from events you missed or even peek at the archived footage, including press conference clips.
  7. Peruse the icenetwork message boards, which include comments that range from extremely insightful to incredibly…numb-skulled. In the middle of the spectrum, there are many comments that will confirm what you are also thinking, which nicely replaces the chitchat you would have participated in in the stands.

After you engage in all of these activities and return to the live broadcast, the Technical Panel will probably still be involved in deliberations, in order to insure that the judging of our sport is more fair. So from there, you can tackle some domestic projects, some billing, or that chocolate bar you’ve been trying to avoid. What I’m saying is that watching icenetwork can be quite productive.

(For the record, I do think the job of the Technical Specialists is a challenging one and I certainly wouldn’t want them to rush through their task on my account. Truthfully, the video replay really is, hands-down, the best part of the new system.)

Most importantly, and this is the key, this year on icenetwork you could actually watch the short programs, including all the skaters, and you could do so from anywhere in the country. You could even watch compulsory dances and novice and junior events (and you still can, at your leisure.) The subscription fee is nominal, but even if you didn’t want to make that commitment, you could still see backstage photos, read articles including skater and coach quotes, and just generally keep tabs on the whole Championships. All of this is nothing short of momentous and a vast improvement over what was available previously through USFS, which was really not much at all.

It’s also pretty exciting from a skater’s perspective. Far-flung fathers, sisters, grandparents, teachers, and friends can see these performances even if they can’t make the trip. And skaters themselves can log on from the competition, for that matter. This is something I would have valued when I was competing; the videotapes we ordered for our own cringing and for our family’s viewing always seemed to take forever to arrive in the mail.

Two days after Girl’s Short, I was glad to watch their Long Programs at a friend’s house where the TV was about 45 times the size of my computer screen. The NBC broadcast was well-composed, the camera-work was sophisticated, and the picture quality was crystal clear. It was an exciting and extremely weird event but it all seemed very far away; I was quite aware that I wasn’t there. When I got home, I logged on to icenetwork to see what had been posted so far. 

All of this has definitely taken precious time away from my writing. On the other hand, I’ve noticed, over the course of the last few paragraphs, that it has also given me something to write about.

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Yes, you are wise to have on your bias-detector: I have written articles for icenetwork and will do so again. I assure you, however, that I was not asked to write this and that all of the above sentiments come straight from my ♥  .