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Opinion

UWRF sophomore lives dream week during National Championships

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February 7, 2008

A few weeks ago, the single most important event in the American figure skating world came to St. Paul—and I was lucky enough to be right in the middle of the action.

The 2008 U.S. Figure Skating Championships was a week-long event held in the end of January which showcased the talents of some of the best skaters in the country. As a longtime skater (and now coach) myself, I was extremely excited at the notion of being able to see my favorite athletes up close and personal, but my experience extended far beyond that of spectator.

As the skaters were wowing packed crowds at the Xcel Energy Center (a.k.a., the “X”) with high-flying triple jumps and dangerous lifts, I was living my dream working as a media intern for United States Figure Skating (USFS).

Ask anyone who knows me and they’ll tell you that skating has been my passion for almost as long as I can remember. I was hooked after watching the 1998 Olympic Winter Games on TV, and soon set out upon Olympic dreams of my own (which you can probably tell, didn’t quite make it). After years of competing and testing, I have now transitioned into more of a coaching role here at the Hunt Arena Skating School on campus. Though I still find time to skate and work on programs early in the morning (no, 6 a.m. ice is not always fun), it’s definitely more difficult now that I must juggle work and a full course load.

Combining skating along with my other passion (journalism, if it’s not already obvious) was something that I had been dreaming of ever since I found out that St. Paul would be hosting the annual event back in October 2005. Over the past year I had been exchanging e-mails with Scottie Bibb, the director of media and public relations for USFS. Fortunately, Scottie was extremely friendly, accommodating and helpful in making my dream a reality.

She stuck with me, even through the countless pesky e-mails I sent her in which I would anxiously beg for details and more information.

A few days after Christmas, I finally knew what I would be doing at the event. Scottie informed me that I would be alongside the skaters in the “mixed zone,” the place where they talk to reporters backstage after they leave the kiss-and-cry (for those not familiar with skating lingo, that’s where the skaters wait with their coaches to receive their scores). The thought of standing next to many of the athletes I look up to the most was definitely exciting!

I suppose the most agonizing part of the whole experience, however, was the waiting. After all, this was something that I had been looking forward to and planning for years. There really wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t think about Nationals. Obsessed? Maybe, but I think I was more excited and just ready for it to begin.

On Jan. 20, I drove down to the X to meet with Scottie and have her show me the ropes. She gave me a tour of the media room, as well as where the mixed zone would be set up and where the NBC camera crews would roam. After meeting with Scottie, I decided to stick around and watch some of the early practice sessions. Although most spectators that day saw an empty arena, I could see so much more. It was so surreal to think that in a few days, thousands of people would fill the seats and witness world-class athletics.

The novice and junior level events kicked off a great week of skating in St. Paul. The talent and skill displayed by the young athletes really impressed me, and it was fun to see some local Minnesotans vie for national medals. The excitement really built mid-week, however, as the championship level events got under way, as well as my internship.

I didn’t sleep much the night before I was to start. My adrenaline was through the roof and I kept trying to imagine what the day would bring. After a 45-minute drive to downtown St. Paul—fighting my way through morning rush hour, no less—I was finally at the arena and ready to start.

I met up with Scottie in the cramped USFS media room again and was introduced to the rest of the media team assembled for the event. The USFS room was secluded from the general media room by a thin, black curtain. The general media work room contained rows of tables with power strips lined up, important papers for the press and media guides to aid reporters in writing their stories (little did I know that this room would turn into a madhouse over the weekend’s events as antsy reporters yelled for results and hurried to meet their deadlines). A small table contained trail mix and chips (not exactly what one would call a “balanced” meal), and the thought of only having this to eat kind of freaked me out (though the catering did improve during the week). I was hoping that I would be busy enough where my grumbling stomach wouldn’t bother me.

My first task was to type up the competitor’s planned element sheets for former Olympic medalist Nancy Kerrigan to use in her commentary on IceNetwork.com.

After spending most of my morning in the media room, I then got the opportunity to take pictures backstage and in the kiss-and-cry, which would then be published on IceNetwork.com. Watching the skating action from the ice entrance and being amongst some of my favorite skaters was a highlight, although I was scared of invading their space and breaking their concentration as they prepared for the competition. In the end, though, I got some pretty good shots, including one of (now) 5-time national ice dance champions, Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto. And who wouldn’t love photo credits on a popular Web site?

The rest of the week was a whirlwind, and I spent the time typing up more element sheets for Nancy, snapping backstage pictures for the Web site, attending press conferences and talking to skaters in the mixed zone. I kept myself so busy during the day, that the fatigue didn’t really hit me until my late nights driving home. Though the 16 hour days (yikes!) seemed too long at the time, I now find myself looking back and missing the time I spent there.

Aside from gaining valuable journalism and public relations experience, I was also able to “hang out” with the skaters and get to see them more as normal people than as high-caliber athletes. It was fun to talk with them a bit before they skated, and I must say that Charlie White (the silver medalist in senior ice dance with partner Meryl Davis) is one of the nicest guys I’ve met. While many of the other skaters avoided eye contact and tried to stay “in the zone” (and rightfully so), Charlie came up to me while I was watching the competition from the ice entrance and talked to me for a few minutes.

Though it may not seem like a huge gesture, it’s something that would not have happened if I was forced to watch the event from the stands, and it reminded me of how privileged I was to have this once in a lifetime opportunity (and that’s why I vote Charlie White the nicest guy of the 2008 U.S. Championships).

As Sunday approached, it brought with it the last day of competition and one of the most contested moments of the championships: the showdown between Evan Lysacek and Johnny Weir in the men’s final. The drama unfolded all afternoon, and I was in the middle of the frenzy backstage. Lysacek and Weir would end up tying, each scoring an overall total of 244.77 points. Lysacek, however, won the tie-breaker and thus the overall competition since he (barely) won the free skate. The World Championships this March should prove to be another thrilling showdown between the two rivals. Sunday also signaled my last day interning at Nationals, as I had a little thing called the new semester starting the next day.

Looking back, I would definitely take the long, hectic days over the quizzes and essays that classes have brought so far. I want to give a shout out to USFS personnel Mickey Brown, Troy Schwindt and Scottie Bibb for all of their help throughout the week. I definitely appreciate their patience and guidance which helped to make my week so memorable and such a success. More than adding to my portfolio and gaining experience, my week at Nationals is surely one that I’ll never forget.

Thank you, St. Paul, for hosting an amazing event, and thank you, skaters, for providing me with enough thrills, spills and excitement to last another year.

Eric Pringle is a student at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.