Now that you know when my skating saga began, I turn next to where my perspective was shaped – St. Louis, 2006.
Based on my newly found passion for figure skating, I was beyond thrilled to realize that by the time the 2006 U.S. National Championships came around, I would have moved from Utah to Iowa, and be a mere five hours from the best skaters in the nation. I determined then and there to be in attendance that week, whatever the cost.
Now, I’m not one to settle for less than the very best, and this was no exception. I didn’t just want tickets to the events. I wanted GOOD tickets. Not only that, but I didn’t just want tickets to the EVENTS, I wanted All-Event tickets, which included passes to every single practice session, too. (Try telling a 16-year-old dreamer something’s impossible…chances are, the kid will prove you wrong!)
So I spent the entire summer before my senior year in high school working almost 40 hours a week to pay for 2 sets of All-Event passes (I’d talked my daddy into going with me, but I had to buy!). Before the summer was through, I’d purchased the tickets that would change my skating experience forever.
Then, it was just a matter of waiting ’til January. Talk about waiting an eternity….I thought it would never come!
The day that I left school early to hit the road for St. Louis, I couldn’t have been more excited. (Okay, I probably could have. I’d been devastated that my hero, Michelle Kwan, was injured and had to withdraw from Nationals, but even still, I was positively giddy!)
That night, as we walked into the arena for the pairs practice, I was floored. I couldn’t believe this was really happening. My mind was racing, but my heart was racing faster. I’d never been to an event so grand, much less an event that meant so much to me. As we walked toward the ice, my dad looked over at me and said, “Breathe, Tara. Breathe!” I guess my jittery excitement was rendering useless even the most involuntary functions…like breathing!
No worries, though. Clearly, I remembered how to breathe, and we headed down to the boards.
I couldn’t believe we were actually allowed to sit that close. I mean, our tickets for the events were good, but front row? Right behind the coaches? I could actually HEAR the conversations between Rena Inoue and John Baldwin as they chatted with their coach? Impossible.
But it was possible. And totally the coolest thing ever.
That week, I had up-close-and-personal interactions with some of my favorite athletes in the world. I had my picture taken with Evan Lysacek, got autographs from Michael Weiss and my boy, Timothy Goebel, along with Sasha Cohen, Emily Hughes, Alissa Czisny, and the legendary coach, Frank Carroll (who said, “You don’t want my autograph!” after I asked for it. Oh yes, Frank, I most certainly did!).
At one particular ice dance practice, I was fascinated by the intensity of Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto. Ben is hilarious off the ice, but he turns it on the second he steps out there, whether it’s to compete or to practice. Tanith is truly gorgeous, and she was matching Ben’s intensity, that’s for sure.
Funny story about them – they were practicing in their competition costumes, and Tanith’s dress was decked out with black feathers. Well, those feathers needed some work, because by the time the practice was over, nearly half of them had fallen off. As the couples were coming off the ice at the end of the session, a couple of the guys were talking – one coming off the ice, the other getting set to head out onto it. They were commenting about the quality of the ice and how good it felt out there, and one guy said, “Yeah, the ice is great, but half of Tanith’s dress is all over it!”
Here’s the feather dress: (Note: It was altered…i.e. featherless…by the Olympics!)
While getting the autographs and photos is cool, it was these little moments that made me realize how different things were from the boards.
Another “from the boards” experience came at one of the men’s early morning practices. My dad and I had arrived at the arena a bit early to stake out our spot for the day. We’d decided that the best spot was right in front, just by the tunnel where the skaters come out. Not only for the sake of autographs was this the best, but for the experience of being at such close proximity to the skaters and their coaches as they headed out to the ice.
This particular morning, one skater came through the tunnel 15 minutes or so before they were opening the ice for the session. The skater was Jordan Wilson, a skater from Santa Rosa, CA. For the next 15 or 20 minutes, we chatted it up like we were besties, talking about how he wasn’t used to these early morning practices, what he was most excited about, how the ice was, and what he wanted to do beyond skating.
He may not have been the at the top of the pack competitively, but that morning, he became tops in my book, because I’d met him at the boards and realized how real his life was beyond skating.
From that same place at the boards, I saw Dick Button studying the competitors, I saw Coach Nicks talking Sasha Cohen through a cautious practice, and watched Johnny Weir interact with a, shall we say, “dedicated” fan who’d gotten his name tattooed on her ankle. It was all so different from this spot at the boards. But it wasn’t all smiles there, either.
I saw dance teams leave the ice in a huff after bombing an element three times in a row (literally, “bombing”…it was a lift and he basically dropped her on her face three times in a row. Bad day, anyone?). I saw big name skaters ignore little girls waiting for autographs, and I saw up-and-comers stressing over nailing a triple lutz.
But mostly, I saw a whole new world (Aladdin, anyone?) and I most certainly didn’t dare close my eyes. I wanted to see it all, take it all in, memorize it, remember it, treasure it. This wasn’t just a sport I’d see from a distance anymore. It was a sport filled with real people and real drama that I’d seen from the most real angle of all – from the boards. The same angle a coach sees it, the same way competitors see each other, and the only way to get a real sense of the personalities and the pressure of this beautiful, challenging, technical and magical sport.
When I saw Rena Inoue and John Baldwin land history’s first throw triple axel, the feeling was electric – not just because they’d come back from a frustrating short program to win a national title in record-breaking style. Not just because the entire arena felt the shock wave blast from the ice up into the nose-bleeds. But because I’d been there – I’d seen the doubt, the determination, and the danger all week as Rena soared through the air, working out all the bugs so they’d be ready on game day.
Now, as a new season rushes in, I still take every chance to see things “from the boards.” And while I may not be standing at the boards ever time, I most certainly look to them. Because it’s from there that my perspective changed, and it’s from there that the magic truly begins.
Until next time…
Pictures: follow me on Twitter for links to all my photos from Nationals in St. Louis – twitter.com/FromTheBoards