Monday, February 16, 2009
The week in review – final thoughts

It takes me about a week to decompress from a big skating event. While I’m there, it’s madness. I’m always running around between events, trying to divide my time between meeting up with people and sending Michelle photos to edit and upload, forgetting to eat, not sleeping, cramming in some time to sightsee, and generally wearing myself out. I wouldn’t trade the experiences for anything, but when I get home, I need a few days of vacation to recover from my “vacation.”

The madness was heightened for 2009 Four Continents. The first ISU Championship that I’ve covered, there were extra procedures to get used to, and I never felt as comfortable as I do at Skate Canada events. It took me until the last day to find the coffee table in the media room, and having a separate room for press conferences intimidated me, since I never knew when they were scheduled for. At past Canadian events (run by Skate Canada), the press conferences have been held in the front half of the media room, so I usually sit at my computer and work on things until the skaters arrive and people start talking. At this event (and perhaps at all ISU-run events — I’m not sure!), the press conferences were held in an adjacent room, and sometimes, they conflicted with the start of other events on the ice. But I don’t want to sound like a complainer — other changes were very cool. I appreciated the “flash quotes” filed in cubbies in the media room, so I could read what was said in the mixed zone. There were plenty of options for photo positions, and if I’d had a shorter lens, I would have had the choice to stand at ice level. However, since I didn’t rent an extra lens and had only a fixed-length long lens, I chose to shoot from the second level, and had plenty of room up there, behind the judges. And of course, the biggest change was the energy level.

I wrote about the near sellout crowd during the ladies’ free, but the buzz of excitement was present throughout the week. Canadians are so proud of their history in ice sports, and it seems like the whole country is thrilled to have the chance to host the Olympics again. Dedicated fans made the trek to Vancouver from all over North America, and there were also plenty of casual fans from the Vancouver area, especially for the weekend events. All around the city, souvenir shops have displays of Olympic merchandise, banners fly along the major streets, and competition and practice venues are marked with signs in pretty Vancouver Olympic Blue. Four Continents coincided with practice security week in the city, so the volunteers had opportunities to practice at the event. When we pulled into the parking lot on the first day, a nice guy named Barry asked us if we’d be interested in submitting to a volunteer search of our car, in the name of practice security. Well, anything to help the Olympics! (Plus, we were really early since we didn’t get lost — for once.) So we pulled into a tent set up in the parking lot, where we were directed to park our car between some cones, and then we stood off to the side while the volunteers swept detectors around the car and checked the interior. The whole process took about three minutes, and when we left, Barry was waiting to ask for our feedback. We only had one criticism of the process — Michele thought she was supposed to turn into a perpendicular parking space, but they wanted her to do more of a parallel job. So we told him about that but praised the volunteers’ professionalism and the swiftness of the process. However, when we were asked to participate on subsequent days, we respectfully declined. We were usually a little more pressed for time later in the week!

So amidst all of this Olympic excitement, an ISU championship happened.

In dance, a young team having a “breakthrough season,” as described by CBC’s Brenda Irving, won their first ISU championship title, and a young team that has earned veteran status fought through more pain than they admitted to earn a completely respectable silver medal. Meryl Davis & Charlie White may have bested Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir for the title at this event, but both teams proved to be champions, on and off the ice. When questioned about the rivalry, all Virtue could say was how much her rivals, trainingmates, and friends deserved their win. Beyond the spotlight, two teams in their first senior championship events battled for the bronze medal, standing tall against the pressure. Emily Samuelson & Evan Bates and Vanessa Crone & Paul Poirier have what it takes to compete with the best in the world in terms of skill — all they need now is time. Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje and Kim Navarro & Brent Bommentre, both teams who slipped a spot in national rankings this season, were class acts, completing their seasons with poise and strong performances.

In pairs, veterans Qing Pang & Jian Tong were re-crowned, fighting back after last season’s disappointment to earn their fourth Four Continents title in ten appearances at this event. Jessica Dube & Bryce Davison skated their first clean short program of the season, a personal victory, and then in their free skate, made a statement that they do have the passion to skate Carmen and reminded their home crowd that they can’t be counted out yet. Dan Zhang & Hao Zhang had an uncharacteristically rough week, but after such a strong season, they can certainly rebound for next month’s World Championships. Although Meagan Duhamel & Craig Buntin struggled a bit in the free skate, their short program put them on par with the best teams in the world, and Keauna McLaughlin & Rockne Brubaker proved, once again, to be fighters — they never let a performance fall flat, no matter what happens. Caydee Denney & Jeremy Barrett, perhaps the pair with the most to prove, stepped up to the challenge on what will be Olympic ice in a year. Pressure? What pressure?

It is often the singles skaters who face the highest expectations. Canada has such a tradition of legendary men like Toller, Brian, Kurt, Elvis, and after last year, Jeff. Patrick Chan is on his way to being on a first-name basis with the Canadian population, especially since it didn’t even take a flawless performance to vault far past the rest of the field. From time to time, I worry that he’s overhyped, but it’s hard to think that when I see him skate live. Kurt Browning has said twice now that Patrick’s short program might be the best short program he’s ever seen. I keep trying to think of another that I like more, but I keep coming up short. I mean, the kid’s only 17! There has to be something that was more incredible, right? I suppose personal preference is a big part of it, but beyond that, the program is so incredibly well-constructed and he skates it with such conviction that it’s hard for me to find another that’s more fantastic — to me, at least. Although Chan took the top spot easily, this competition was also a victory for Lysacek, who has struggled this season. He got a season’s best in Vancouver, and you can bet that this was a great boost for him heading into Worlds in his adopted hometown. A Japanese battle for bronze between Takahiko Kozuka & Nobunari Oda was incredibly close, and both skaters deserve a lot of credit for doing so well — Kozuka for holding it together, and Oda for fighting after a disappointing short program. Of course, the “other” Canadian guys deserve a mention. For the second competition in a row, Vaughn Chipeur & Jeremy Ten brought down the house with thrilling performances. Chipeur had higher technical content and placed ahead of Ten, just as he did at Canadians, but Ten’s emotion, performing in the Olympic arena in his hometown, was unmatched. I felt so badly for Jeremy last year at Canadians, when the pressure to skate well at home turned out to be too much for him, and to be honest, I was afraid he would fall apart again. However, this free program has been gold for him this year (well, at least Canadian bronze), and even though he’s skated it well all season, I think this performance was most incredible because of the setting. I hope the competition did a lot for the confidence of both Canadian guys heading into their first Worlds next month.

Although I already wrote about the ladies’ event, I think it deserves another mention. I can’t say enough how incredible it was to be at a skating event that was packed to the rafters. I’ve never been to the ladies’ free at U.S. Nationals, never been to Worlds, never went to an event when skating was in its North American heyday in the mid-’90s. The largest crowd I’ve ever been a part of may have been the 2005 Canadian Championships, when Moirs and Mabees accounted for a good chunk of the spectators. I remember sitting in my sweet first-row seats and waving up to my friend and her mom, high above me in about the tenth row of the second level. I don’t think that compared to Four Continents, though. I heard rumours that the ladies’ free was sold out, but a friend of mine got last-minute tickets before the event in Row S. Row S of the second level, mind you, and those were “best available.” I still think that Vancouver 2010 could sell out a larger arena for figure skating, but since hockey got GM Place, I suppose the Pacific Coliseum was the next best thing, and isn’t it already sold out? I know my friend didn’t get tickets! Regardless, the skating events at the Olympics are going to be filled with energy, and I think the ladies’ free will be the most exciting of all, if this event was any indication. And for Kim, Rochette, and Asada, the results may have happened one way at this event, but I think all three ladies showed that they are among the best in the world and they will all be fighting for medals in L.A.

Even though skating popularity has taken a downturn in North America, it’s refreshing to know that it’s alive and well in parts of East Asia. I think some of the skaters are still getting used to it, though. Hyeon-Jung Kim, one of the young Korean ladies, didn’t know what to do with herself when she was cornered by camera-clicking fans on the concourse. I didn’t witness the encounter, but my friends told me that they saw her looking completely shocked before she escaped into a bathroom. The volunteers had their hands full when legions of fans attempted to score better “seats” by standing on the stairways during the ladies’ free. In some sections, the volunteers let them stay, and in others, they had to return to their seats, so it seems like they weren’t anticipating that problem. I was sitting in a media section that was mostly empty, but since much of the arena was set up in the same way that it will be configured for the Olympics, I think they are counting on even more media next year and fewer empty seats. Fans kept migrating from the next section over to sit in the seats behind me and next to me, but the volunteer assigned to my session did a great job making sure that only credentialed people stayed there. Nothing against fans, of course — skating needs them! — but extra people in the media section are just one more thing to think about when you’re shooting an event and you’ve got your camera accessories and your computer all over the floor next to you.

My favourite fan moment comes from the final day. After the gala, I was trying to track down Brett to return his camera (thanks again, Brett!), so I was pacing back and forth on the concourse, going up and down stairs, etc. I speed-walked past the juvenile dance team of Madeline Edwards & Zhao Kai Pang, local Vancouver dancers who performed in the gala, getting interviewed on the concourse, perhaps by local TV. A spotlight was set up, as well as a big boom mike that someone was holding. The amusing part was that about twenty fans had were huddled in front of them, holding their cameras in the air and click-clicking over and over again. Madeline & Zhao just had the most amazed looks on their faces. I’m fairly sure that was the first time something like that had ever happened to them! Skate in the 4CC gala, become instant stars!

Hoyt-2009-0205-4915-775464-PChanOverall, what a week! The gala was a fitting end to the competition, but the festivities seemed dampened by the awkward schedule. Instead of having the gala after the last competitive event and the medal ceremonies, everyone came back to the arena for a couple of hours on Sunday afternoon. It felt more like a separate show than a conclusion to the event. The skaters put on a pretty good show, though, and highlights included seeing Takahiko Kozuka’s personality after his very serious free skate; Evan Bates the Disco King; really cute local kids like the troupe that opened the gala, Nam Nguyen (now novice Canadian champion), and Edwards & Pang (now juvenile Canadian champions); dying another day with Joannie Rochette for about the 85th time (yet I don’t get sick of seeing the program, just of taking the same photos); and Meryl Davis & Charlie White kickin’ it old school by skating a full exhibition program as well as a full encore program, instead of just a reprise of one of their footwork sequences.

I’ve been sitting here for ten minutes, flipping through some of my photos for inspiration, trying to decide on my number one moment of the week. I don’t know why I’m so stubborn about wanting to find something better than Patrick Chan’s short program, but I’m finally going to give the “Best Moment of 4CC” award to Patrick Chan’s short program. If I listed honourable mentions, I’d be here all day, so I’m just going to stick with the one. Thanks to the skaters for giving this competition their best, Vancouver and its volunteers for hosting a great event, Jules & Chele for bringing me sandwiches, Meg & Augie for giving us a couch to sleep on, Hertz for upgrading our economy rental to an SUV, the Days Inn in Bellingham for great service even though we only stayed for 8 hours, and Michelle for editing my photos and blogs and making it her mission to eradicate “there is” from my vocabulary. I miss Vancouver already, but if all goes well…see you next year!

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Monday, February 9, 2009
Seeing more than just the arena

Last year was my first trip to Vancouver, but because there were so many events at Canadians to attend, I hardly had the chance to see any of the city. We took one day to sightsee and sightsaw downtown, but I didn’t make it to any of Vancouver’s beautiful parks or to many of the other attractions on my list. This year, I had some more time, and my friends and I made it a priority to explore some new parts of the next Olympic city.

On Thursday, the events started a bit later, so Jules, Michele, and I made a stop at Queen Elizabeth Park on the way to the arena. We were staying with a friend who lives close to it, and we’d heard that it’s beautiful, especially in the summer. It’s home to the Bloedel Conservatory. Although the flowers aren’t in bloom now, it was still picturesque. Of course, it was picturesque for other people…people who had cameras. Mine had broken the night before, at the ladies short program, so the photos of QEP are courtesy of Jules.

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Friday, we had the whole morning free, so we “ran some errands.” Where? Why, at Metrotown, BC’s largest mall, of course! It’s in Burnaby, which is one of the closest suburbs to the Pacific Coliseum, so we figured we had plenty of time to pick up some shampoo bars at Lush, some CDs at Future Shop, and to grab some caffeinated beverages at Starbucks. And we did have plenty of time, although we had a scare when the GPS in our sweet upgraded SUV rebelled. “Please proceed to the highlighted route” is one of the most maddening phrases in existence when you’re in a mall parking lot and you have no grasp of the cardinal directions, especially when there are medians in the road and you can’t make a left turn ANYWHERE.

139_3796-704728It turned out all right, though. Our unplanned detour (when we missed the entrance ramp to the highway (twice!)) meant that we drove straight past a “Welcome to Vancouver” sign. Photo op!

I think that Saturday was my favourite sightseeing day because we finally got to see Stanley Park in the daylight! Last year, our friend Meg took us to Stanley Park for a planned sunset visit, but a pane of glass dangling from an office building downtown caused a huge traffic lockup, and by the time we made it to the park, it was completely dark and, therefore, less impressive. I’m happy to report that in the daytime, though, the world’s largest urban park does not disappoint.

We saw the totem poles as well as spectacular mountain views looking northward across Burrard Inlet.

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139_3803-798256On Sunday after the gala, Jules and I programmed Granville Island into the GPS. We weren’t sure what to expect there — we only knew that one of our Vancouverite friends had said something about a market and shops, which is good enough for us! I was surprised to find a huge food market, not just a “shopping” market, with all kinds of fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, fish, cheese, chocolate, and plenty more. Next time I go to Vancouver, I’ll have to go there on the first day of my trip so I can stock up on groceries for the week!

Granville Island is also home to a scad of restaurants and boutiques, some featuring skillfully-crafted artwork, and some featuring things like nautical applique sweatshirts. I’ll let you guess which impressed us more. Other highlights on Granville Island (which isn’t actually an island) were a beautiful view of downtown, a docking area for boats, the Granville and Burrard Street bridges from below, and adorable twin girls in little pink coats that made me “awww” about 30 times.

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Hoyt-2009-0207-1995-725596Midwesterners like Jules and I always marvel at seeing the mountains in the distance. I think I half-expect them to fade away overnight, but they never do. As we were driving back to Seattle on Monday to return the car and fly back to the Midwest, Jules wondered aloud if Pacific Northwesterners ever get used to seeing the mountains. I guess they do, but it’s hard for us to imagine!

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Friday, February 6, 2009
Blowing the roof off Pacific Coliseum

I’ve never been to a skating event quite like the ladies’ free last night. Yu-Na and Mao fans showed up in droves and practically blew the roof off the Pacific Coliseum! It added so much to the atmosphere to be in a building with so much energy, and some of the skaters really fed off of the crowd. Joannie Rochette and Yu-Na Kim, in particular, delivered emotional performances, and it’s been a long time since I’d seen Caroline Zhang skate with that big of a smile on her face. Even though Cynthia Phaneuf made a couple of mistakes, her program was another check on her comeback trail. She gets better every time I see her. I’m sure the buzz in the arena only added to the pressure, but there will be even more pressure in this building for some of these skaters next year, so I’d say it was a successful practice run.

Of course, I have to hand it to the dancers for also putting on a great show in the free dance. They brought a lot of energy to the building as well, even with a crowd that was about a third of the size of the crowd for the ladies. I thought that Kim Navarro & Brent Bommentre really hit their performance level perfectly when they kicked off the second flight, and I really enjoyed seeing how that program has grown since Skate Canada. It was so much fun — I wish more people would take those kinds of risks with music!

Hoyt-2009-0206-1412-745742Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje ended their season with an exclamation point. Their free dance here was easily their best performance of the season, and at the end of the program, choreographer David Wilson picked up coach Shae-Lynn Bourne and spun her around behind the boards. I loved seeing all four of them so excited about their program, and it’s a beautiful one, for sure.

The warm-up for the last group seemed really tense. All four teams seemed to know that a lot was on the line, and I started worrying that someone was going to fall apart. Fortunately, no one did! Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir did have some mistakes, but their free dance looked much better overall than it did two weeks ago at the Canadian Championships, and I think they have plenty of time to polish it before Worlds. Emily Samuelson & Evan Bates put together an extremely technically sound program to overtake Vanessa Crone & Paul Poirier’s own extremely technically sound program for the bronze medal in an exciting battle of the “young teams.” (Which is funny to say, considering that the two “veteran” teams fighting for the gold medal are only a few years more experienced.)

And finally, I don’t even know what to say about Meryl Davis & Charlie White, besides that I thought their free dance was flawless. Every tiny detail was polished, the expression was passionate but not over the top, and they looked so secure out there. In the interview that was broadcast to the arena afterwards, they were asked if this has been a breakthrough season for them. I guess they still have one more competitive level to “break through” next month, but I’d have to say that it absolutely has been a breakthrough season.

In the press conference afterwards, Meryl & Charlie were asked about the “friendly rivalry” that they have with Tessa & Scott, and whether it extended off the ice, too. Charlie and Evan admitted that they have quite a competition going for top honors in NHL ’09 (with Scott too), and Charlie said that they were all coming back in another life as hockey players.

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Thursday, February 5, 2009
MFP & Err99

So it’s been a hectic few days for me, and I’m sorry I haven’t done anything in the way of “live from Vancouver” yet. I have all kinds of excuses, but instead I’ll just thank my co-blogger-from-home, Jennifer Wester, for filling in some of the gaps!

Even though she’s covered it, I still have to mention the Finnstep (the Finnstep!!) because I have been looking forward to this day since the dance was announced. Sure, it was fun in Lake Placid, but it’s even better seeing the best teams from the “Four Continents” battle for top honors in this dance. Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir’s Finnstep was just divine. Absolutely the character that I’ve imagined for the dance, and I’m still wondering when they had time to train it to perform it so well. All of the top teams were enjoyable, actually, but it’s clear that it’s a difficult dance. Oh, and I also have to shout out to Kaitlyn Weaver & Andrew Poje (and team) for their end pose — a throwback to Susanna Rahkamo & Petri Kokko’s original program. Rahkamo & Kokko were the first dance team that I really loved, so I definitely picked up on that.

After the Finnstep, things just kept going and going yesterday. I didn’t arrive at my friend’s house to turn in for the night until after midnight, so I’m having trouble remembering everything that happened. I was thrilled to see Jessica Dube & Bryce Davison complete their first clean short program of the season, and even more thrilled to see Joannie Rochette finally have a clean short — her first in something like 3 or 4 years! She’s decided to switch the jumps in her short and while it was great seeing her go for the triple-triple (and get it!), as someone who’s known her since she was “that Canadian girl with potential,” it’s greater to see her pump her fist at the end of her short program.

I was so busy on Wednesday that I didn’t have much time to wander around the rink, but I do have an amusing story. I picked a spot in the second level to shoot from, and I sat down about 5 minutes before the Finnstep started. Not more than two minutes after I sat down, Jennifer Robinson came up the stairs and sat in the row behind me, and Jamie Sale joined her sometime during the first group. I ran downstairs during the flood for a quick break, and when I returned to my seat, David Pelletier was literally sitting in the seat right behind mine. I thought about picking another one, since there were plenty of open seats, but I picked that one because I could see the whole ice without getting any balcony railings in my shots, and because I could kind of see into the kiss & cry, aside from the existence of an ill-placed fake evergreen. I liked my seat. So I sat down, right in front of David. Then during the last group of the Finnstep, Marie-France Dubreuil & Patrice Lauzon appeared and sat down in my row, about three seats down. I felt like I was at a Stars on Ice reunion party. They were all there because they are commentating for CBC at the Olympics next year, and CBC wanted them to “research” and “learn” the new judging system. Never mind that they’re already quite familiar with it — or that Marie-France & Patrice won two world championship medals under the “new” judging system. Ah well. It seemed like they were having a good time, but vacated the seats after the Finnstep, lured away by the food in the IMG suite. Unfortunately, no one asked me if I wanted food from the IMG suite.

I didn’t talk to any of them then, since I felt really awkward intruding on the SOI party, but I did catch up with Marie-France & Patrice today, just as they were leaving. I’d spoken with Marie-France at the Frankie Valli show in Chicago last fall and invited them to join the IDC website family, but I hadn’t heard from them after that. So this afternoon, she apologized profusely and explained that she’d lost my card, but that she had “thought about me…a lot” since then. Awww! So we made plans to discuss the details soon, and keep an eye out for their new site in the near future.

My other big news isn’t as fun. My camera, which was just repaired in November, is apparently out of commission again. I got the dreaded “Err99” just as Joannie Rochette’s short program music began. When that has happened in the past, I just have to pop the battery out and back in, and it’s fine. This time, though…no such luck. I tried everything when we got back to my friend’s house, but I couldn’t find any combination of new batteries, memory cards, or lenses that would revive it. So, I shot off a frantic email to Michelle, even though it was 4 a.m. on the East Coast, and another one to Brett from SkateToday, who lives here in Vancouver. Brett replied quickly and volunteered his backup camera body (which is actually a newer model than my primary body!) so I could continue to shoot the event. Fortunately, my camera is still under warranty from November’s repairs, so I’m taking it right back to the repair shop on Tuesday morning.

I guess that’s all I have to report for now. I’ll start catching up on photos from the non-dance events between men’s short programs, and I’ll try to write again soon!

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Tuesday, February 3, 2009
The first decade in review

2009 marks the tenth anniversary of the inaugural Four Continents Championships, and just as it did ten years ago, Canada is hosting the event.

Canada last hosted in 2004, the fifth anniversary of Four Continents. This year holds particular significance since it is the test event for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver. The host city is required to hold a major international event in the arena at least one year prior to the Games, and 2009 Four Continents clocks in at about 53 weeks before the Games open. As a result, top skaters from all countries are attending, anxious for a chance to test out Olympic ice.

Four Continents has come a long way in ten years. Only a couple of entries attended all of the Four Continents Championships on Canadian soil. China’s Qing Pang & Jian Tong (pairs) and Uzbekistan’s Anastasia Gimazetdinova (ladies) are these distinguished veterans. Pang & Tong were gold medalists in 2004 and fifth in 1999, while Gimazetdinova was 18th in 2004 and eighth in 1999.

Others have participated in all three Canadian Four Continents Championships. Richard Gauthier and Igor Shpilband are among the coaches that have brought skaters to all three events. And this year’s honorary chairs, Megan Wing & Aaron Lowe, finished fifth in 1999 and won the bronze medal in 2004.

Much like ten-year reunions after high school or college, it’s interesting to see what’s happened to the “Four Continents Class of 1999.” Pairs silver medalists Kristy Sargeant & Kris Wirtz married later that year and continue to expand their family. Pairs gold medalists, Xue Shen & Hongbo Zhao, became engaged at the end of their free skate at the 2007 World Championship and have since married. Americans Debbie Koegel & Oleg Fediukov, fifth-place finishers in dance, are now married with three sons. Dance bronze medalist Naomi Lang recently married eighth-place finisher Mark Fitzgerald (who skated with Elizaveta Stekolnikova for Uzbekistan), and she also has a four-year-old daughter. Her partner, Peter Tchernyshev, is also a newlywed.

It’s easy to see how quickly the world of ice dance has changed by looking back even just five years. Of the 13 teams that competed in 2004, only one returns to the event in 2009: Xiaoyang Yu & Chen Wang of China. 2004 champions Tanith Belbin & Ben Agosto are still competitive, but are currently sidelined by Agosto’s back injury.

The medal contenders in dance this year were not even on the radar in 2004. Now fighting for their first ISU title, both Tessa Virtue & Scott Moir and Meryl Davis & Charlie White made their world championship debuts in 2004 — on the junior level — with neither team cracking the top ten at the 2004 World Junior Championships. In a world of musical partnerships, it’s interesting to note that the teams who will probably fight for the bronze medal, Vanessa Crone & Paul Poirier and Emily Samuelson & Evan Bates, were also skating together in 2004. Crone & Poirier were 12th in novice at Canadian nationals, while Samuelson & Bates snagged novice bronze at the U.S. Championships.

For me, a Four Continents in Canada holds special significance because the first competition that I ever attended was 2004 Four Continents in Hamilton, Ontario. It was there that I first experienced the thrill of seeing a competition live, and it was there that I bonded with a group of friends that I am still close to today. I have so many vivid memories from 2004, and I hope to make many more in 2009.

That is, if I ever get there. I’m writing this from a middle seat on a flight from Chicago to Seattle, and the screaming child behind me might cause my head to explode before we ever land.