An Athlete Abroad – What it’s Like to Travel the World as a Figure Skater

Figure skating is not a mainstream sport in most countries. It’s a 4-year sport, meaning the general population watches it once every four years, at the Winter Olympics.

Despite being the most popular Winter Olympic sport in the U.S., the number of year-round fans pales in comparison to most others. Even the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, the pinnacle of American skating, rarely sells out in any event.

Despite this fact, there is a whole undiscovered world of figure skating to an outsider. There are Junior and Senior Grand Prix competitions around the world, Four Continents Championships, World Championships, a dozen senior competitions mostly throughout Europe called the Challenger Series, shows, and much more.

But what’s it like to be a skater competing at one of these events? Traveling internationally, coming together with your fellow athletes, and representing your country on the elite stage?

It’s certainly not a conventional way of travel. Here’s exactly what happens when you are a U.S. pairs figure skater going to Europe for a Junior Grand Prix.

Part 1: The Depature

You get an email from the United States Figure Skating Association (USFSA), congratulating you on your assignment. The details included are the location, timing, and which competition you’ll be heading to. You have a timeline to accept.

If this is your first competition, you’re uploading your basic information, scanning your passport, getting your frequent flyer number into the system (a must), and making sure they know where you’ll be leaving from and returning to. If you’re smart, you’ll double-check this a few times (we can talk about my coach having a return flight to Delaware instead of Illinois another time).

A few weeks later you’ll be boarding your flight. Brimming with excitement while heading to a foreign city with your coach, your partner, and your skates.

Carrying on Your Skates

Bringing your ice skates is the most stressful part of the whole trip. Well, maybe a close second to actually competing. Whenever possible, you fight to carry on your skates instead of checking them. If you check them and your luggage gets lost, that’s game competition over.

Despite the fact that skates are officially allowed as both carry-on and checked luggage, the official decision is left up to the officer. Hopefully, you get a nice one.

There have been so many past issues with skates that USFSA sends you a letter to bring in your bag. You keep it on you, ready to hand it to any TSA officer who gives you a hard time. This letter outlines you are an elite skater, going to the XYZ competition, and need to carry on your skates to ensure they don’t get lost or damaged.

Despite the letter, your athletic appearance, Team USA jacket, and carrying your skating outfits in your other hand, you will lose the battle about half the time and have to check them anyways. Ah well, at least you tried.

Part 2: The Arrival

Hours and hours later, you arrive. At this point, you’ve caught a connecting flight in Frankfurt. You’ve met up with some of your teammates and skaters from other countries. You’re exhausted, jet-lagged, and grossed out by the coach airplane food you had to stomach.

At baggage claim, if you’re lucky, all the bags show up. You catch up with your teammates that you met at previous competitions. If you don’t know anyone, you introduce yourself to other skaters, and/or you try your best to not fall asleep while standing up.

Your team leader, a volunteer assigned to keep everyone organized, is there to usher you to your bus. You hop on, get comfortable, and pass out. Two hours later, you arrive at the hotel.

European Hotels

Usually, your hotel will be close to the rink, sometimes even right across the street. It’s not nice, but not not nice. You’ll check-in and get a goodie bag from the competition with a practice schedule, your credentials, some local food and drinks, and often a neat trinket.

If you requested a roommate you’ll meet up with them, or claim the good bed if you arrive first. If you didn’t know anyone going in, you awkwardly meet your new living partner for the week, glancing over to the smaller-than-twin-sized beds that are mere inches apart.

You’ll learn the hard way that you need your room key inserted in a slot next to the door for the electricity to work. More than once the door will shut behind you just as you remember you needed that key to get back in. Eventually, you’ll realize you can fold a piece of paper just right to take the place of your key.

If it’s dinner time, you’ll scan your credentials and dive into the buffet with pasta, bread, some kind of fish in a creamy white sauce, a few things you’ve never seen before, and a bunch of juice. Most if not all of the team will have arrived, and you get to know your teammates more. Everyone tells the group where they’re from, and exchanges travel stories from the day before.

Part 3: The Competition

Rinks vary greatly around the world in temperature, the rigidity of the ice, and even the size of the surface. Your first practice session is dedicated to getting comfortable and finding your groove.

Taking a mental note of what the ice feels like you’ll walk through your choreography and do some basic elements. You’ll check in with your partner to see how they’re feeling, and make sure you’re on the same page.

The second practice session will be more intense, you’ll run through all of your elements and likely a full program. This will be your last practice before competing, and you make sure to take extra time to go over any parts of the program that aren’t feeling quite right.

The Competition Draw

In order to determine the order of skaters for the short program (program one of two), an official draw takes place. Tokens are placed in a bag and shuffled around, enough for each skater to pick one out. The order of selecting a token goes alphabetically by country, then by last name. The first country is chosen by whichever number is drawn first.

For example, let’s say the countries at an event are Armenia, Belarus, and Canada. An official will draw from the bag that currently has three tokens in it, one for each country. If a two is drawn, Belarus will go first. If there are three skaters from Belarus, the one whose last name occurs first alphabetically, draws first. The second and third skaters then draw, before moving on to Canada, followed by Armenia. This continues until everyone has drawn, and the order is determined.

The Moment You’ve Been Waiting For

You step onto the ice for your six-minute warm-up. Immediately bending low into your knees and ripping around the ice, you jump into your exercises in the order you’ve practices thousands of times before. A few times, you’ll have to circle around to avoid hitting another skater as you whip around a corner going into a lift.

The one-minute warning is announced, you start to calm down your breathing and get in any last necessary repetitions. If you’re skating first, you’ll head over to your coach at the boards. You’ll blow your nose, take a swig of water, and talk through any last reminders.

Once the warmup is completed, all skaters exit the ice, except for you. You’ll look at your partner, remind them that you’ve got this, and skate to your starting position. The audience erupts into applause.

Silence, as you stop and strike your pose. You stand there for a few seconds until you hear the opening note of music. For Two and a half (short program) or four and a half (long program) minutes, you enter into an intense flow state – a harmony of athleticism, skill, and movement.

You tell a story with your body, matching your movements to the music, and gearing up for big elements every fifteen seconds. When you nail the element, you exhale with relief. A moment of mini-celebration, before you attack your next transition.

<Getty Images> Jacob Simon and Alexandria Yao at SAP Center on January 4, 2018, in San Jose, California.

Not Done yet

After the short program, your unofficial score is announced out loud within a few minutes. Once everyone has skated, the official results are posted. The order of skaters for the long program is the reverse order of current placement. If you’re skating in the last warmup and one of the last four, you’re relieved that you’re in contention for the podium.

You have one more practice in between events before going through the same process for the long program. Once you hit your final pose and the music ends, you’re done with the competition. All of that travel, practice, and preparation for a total competing time of about seven minutes.

If you ended up one of the top three skaters, you’ll have an awards ceremony on the ice. Even if you didn’t, you’ll watch and cheer on your friends who did. Once concluded, you sit back, relax (unless you’re selected to get a drug test), and enjoy the rest of the competition.

Part 4: The Departure

Pairs skaters are usually done first, so you’ll have a few days to explore the city and cheer on your friends competing in singles and dance. You’ll have the opportunity to explore a culture that you’ve never seen, eat authentic food, and walk around Old Town to get a sense of the deep history this European city has. You’ll start to vibe with the character, realizing that you don’t need to understand language to understand people.

Sometimes, you’ll head to McDonald’s at 2:00 AM and buy 13 apple pies. Other times, you’ll wake up early and head to the beach before sunrise, watching in awe as mother nature puts on an incredible art show as the sun trickles up above the glass water.

On the last night before you leave, you’ll have a team dinner with all your new friends. You’ll all be in much higher spirits now that the nerves and stress have gone. You’ll celebrate your fellow skaters who competed well and cheer up those who could’ve done better.

Back at the hotel, you’ll sneak out and get some alcohol. Despite European rules allowing anyone over 18 to drink, USFSA doesn’t allow it for any Junior athletes, even those over 21. Despite this (shhh), you go all out at the local liquor store with the Russians, French, Australians, and any skaters that can speak the same language you do. Hopefully, someone coherent can speak the local language well enough to get your order across.

You’ll party, dance, tell stories, and recount your experiences from the week. You’ll make memories with a mix of old friends you’ve known for years, and new friends you’ve known for days.

The Return Journey

Since your bus to the airport leaves at 4:00 AM, you won’t go to bed. You’ll throw your clothes into your suitcase the best you can and head down to the lobby. Possibly a little drunk and hungover, and definitely very tired, you head down to the lobby a few minutes early (don’t be like my coach and miss the only hotel shuttle to the airport in the Czech Republic).

On this first small plane, you don’t have the energy to fight to carry on your skates. It’s not as important to have them with you now that the competition is over, but you’re still uneasy letting them out of your sight. This feeling of distress dies down quickly as the exhaustion and nausea kick in.

Back home you go, taking a day off when you arrive then right back into the grind. You debrief the competition and evaluate what went well and what can be done better.

Scrolling through the hundreds of photos you took, you edit the best and post them on Instagram. You comment on your new friend’s posts that you miss them a lot and can’t wait to see them. Until next time, when we do it all again!

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