January 18, 2021

Well, despite the reduced capacity at the event, the senior competition weekend still managed to feel like a whirlwind. I am grateful that U.S. Figure Skating was able to stage this event, and I have felt quite safe here. Of course, the bubble isn’t perfect—that would take an unreasonable amount of time, money, and private ice—but I certainly have felt safer here than I do at the grocery store. The athletes that I have spoken to (or crept on social media) largely seem to echo the same sentiments of gratitude.

At times, the competition felt odd, and at other times, it felt as though everything was exactly as it should be. One major difference I felt was at the start of each event. I often arrive at the arena hours before a competition begins, whether it is to photograph a practice, attend a draw for photo spots, or just to get some of the previous day’s editing done. In the half-hour or so before a competition begins, the energy begins to pick up. I don’t need to check a clock; I know an event is beginning when I start hearing the shuffling of papers and the click that the latch on a camera case makes when it is opened. Wheeled bags get pulled into the room, and people start coming out of the woodwork. Ten minutes before an event starts, I load my cameras with memory cards and fresh batteries, toss extras in my purse, and grab a pastel-colored timing sheet from the filing racks at the front of the press room. If I’m on top of my game that day, I like to start heading to my spot before the trumpets sound, so I have time to say hello to anyone that I might run into, but many times, I’m racing toward the elevator as the fanfare begins.

This weekend though, it was quiet and calm. I would be working on a set of photos when the fanfare would start, and I’d jump up and realize that my lenses weren’t even attached yet, and I had no idea which batteries were charged. Of course, if I wanted to photograph from rinkside, I could be at my spot in four seconds, so there was still plenty of time to get ready. They played the montages of past champions in the arena, and no fans were there to clap for their favorites. Besides the announcer, there wasn’t a sound in the rink until the skaters took the ice for warmup, and then the arena filled up with the most beautiful sound of blades cutting through fresh ice. How I had missed that sound.

By the end of each event, though, an energy had emerged. I felt it, in particular, during the free dance, as the final flight built with one outstanding performance after another. During each dance, while I was switching between cameras and listening to the shutters of my colleagues click in synchronicity, everything felt normal. It wasn’t until the end, when the cardboard cutouts didn’t stand, that I would think of how sad it was that so few of us were able to be in the room where so many terrific performances were happening.

I am so thankful to the athletes and coaches who were able to attend this event and prepare for a national competition this year. I appreciated every moment and am so grateful to all of you for continuing to train through lockdowns, choreographing new dances over video calls, and finding new ways to stay inspired during 2020. I am so grateful that I had the chance to be here and to create something beautiful (I hope) from your talent and dedication. You have all done something incredible this year, and I hope it was fulfilling for you to be here.

It’s a bit odd to have the juniors still to come after the seniors finish, but it’s not the first time for me. We had a backwards schedule at the 2014 Canadian Championships, when after the thrill of watching an Olympic team be named, the novices and juniors took the ice the next day at a different rink. After the gala on Sunday, I had a 16-hour marathon at nearby community rink, with the novice pattern dances starting the day and the junior short dance ending it. No one had thought that the press might bother to come, so we had no press room and had to commandeer a picnic table in the very cold lobby and use the power strip and extension cord that I had in the trunk of my car to power our computers and charge our batteries for the day. That was a Monday; on Tuesday, we all headed back to the big arena, which felt so empty and forlorn after the buzz of a senior-level Olympic-year competition. I was unusually exhausted, and I remember bringing in a warm fuzzy blanket (also from the trunk of my car) and napping across a few chairs during a Zamboni break.

So I am thankful for this day off between events, even though it does stretch out the week. The break was necessary to keep the numbers down; most of the senior-level athletes and coaches were out before the juniors began to arrive today. We all take a COVID test today—the initial test, of course, for anyone arriving, and a third or even fourth test for those who have been here the whole time. Aside from USFS staff and some of the officials who are here the whole time, there are only seven coaches and three photographers who are doing the whole marathon.

I have posted two practice galleries and both the rhythm and free dance competitions, and I still have three more practice galleries to post. I’m quite sure I won’t get all off those done today, but I should finish at least one tonight before I start focusing on the junior event tomorrow.

– Melanie