On Wednesday February 15th, 1961, Sebena flight 548 crashed to the ground in Brussels killing all 72 people on board. All eighteen members of the 1961 U.S. Figure Skating World Team lost their lives that day, as well as sixteen other people who were accompanying them, including their family members and many of America's top coaches and officials. The skating community lost 34 members of its family, and the United States lost the top talent that had built an American empire in skating and the promise of what those skaters, officials, and coaches would continue to bring to our sport.
Out of respect for those who lost their lives in the crash, the 1961 World Championships were cancelled. The world championships have only ever been cancelled for 2 other reasons by necessity, a world war or a global pandemic. This is the magnitude of the times we face. I'm going to make the argument that this time will be the most difficult to recover from. This time the war will not just end with a battle and a leaderships change. This time we didn't just lose the top tier of the cake in many ways we've lost the whole oven. This pandemic is exposing many of the cracks we've had in our frozen world that many always took for granted would always hold. Getting up and moving forward from this moment on is going to require creativity, innovation and fundamental shifts in our long established norms and paradigms.
The casualties to the skating community from this pandemic won't come this year. Nathan and Alysa are still trained and will be back and better than ever. Some form of a world championship will happen by next year, though it may not look like anything that we've seen before. The problem will be the year after that, and the year after that, and the year after that. How will we as a sport keep the faith if our house of worship (the ice) has become dangerous, or even more dangerously, it's become inaccessible? The harsh reality is that it has been for a lot of people, for a long time, but there's been no sense of urgency to change that fact.
Anyone who knows me has probably heard me say at one point or another how much I hate Lake Placid. I know, how could anyone HATE Lake Placid?! It is one of the most beautiful, picturesque, inspiring winter sports destinations on the planet. For a total skating dork like me it should've been right up my alley. I remember being 13 years old and begging my dad to go. All of the kids at my club were going and all I heard about was how the iconic Golden Arrow Resort had an indoor swimming pool and there were all of these fun shops and places to see. I went and had a blast! I skated, I swam, my dad bought me a Lake Placid tee-shirt that I eventually wore the logo off of. In the morning when it was time to check out I was the first to wake up. I saw that a piece of white paper had been pushed under the doorway. That was the first time I remember ever seeing a bill for skating, with a number on it that I didn't know bills could come in.
I had always loved that trip, especially spending the time with my dad. But when the time came to sign up the next year I said ”I didn't really like it that much" and instead my family took a trip to NH. I only skated in Lake Placid one other time as a competitor. I was a senior man at sectionals and by that time I was paying my own bills. I stayed one night at the Motor Inn between the short and long programs and after getting my medal I slept for a few hours in my car and drove home overnight.
COST IS A BARRIER IN OUR SPORT.
Not just at an elite level but at EVERY level. The price-tag for membership into the skating community has been completely out of reach for so many. People who could benefit from this community the most. Skating often gets referred to as a "luxury sport". While I will be the first one to argue that skating has exceedingly high quality benefits, we are entering a time where “luxury” may quite rightfully be going out of style. Figure skating and involvement in the skating community ARE quality experiences with incredible value to participants of every age, level and interest. With great humility we need to look at our existing models and find ways that we can innovate our sport to make it not only safe for all during this pandemic but also set up to last and GROW in the new future ahead.
One thing I find great joy in as an adult is finding solutions to the challenges of your childhood. I'll begin with competition costs...
I'm currently working with USFS and The Colonial Figure Skating Club to launch the first of its kind Cyber Series, the announcement is up on www.colonialfsc.com. In this new model the skater, parent or coach will record their program from their home rink on the practice ice they are already utilizing and submit it for review. The video must not be edited and the skater may wear a dress or black on black. The video will be viewed and called by a proper technical panel, submitted to judges for normal scoring and the skater will receive their protocol sheet and feedback just as they would at any other competition. There will be a viewing party for all of the skaters in each event to watch each other and recognition will be given for their achievements. The series will recur monthly like a typical competitive season so that the skaters will have opportunities to continually make changes, grow and make improvements.
Advantages of this model include:
Drastically lower entry fees
Drastically lower operating costs for clubs
Zero additional cost for practice ice
Zero travel costs (no white paper under your door)
No additional health risks outside of normal practice
Officials can work remotely eliminating health risks specifically for that age demographic
No missed income for coaches to travel
Recurring model allows for fairness as everyone returns to play at different times
Recurring model allows skaters not to rush, but to properly get back to training with a plan, schedule and goal in mind
Skater has the opportunity to "try again" preventing discouragement and helping build confidence
Skaters see each others progress fostering good sportsmanship and motivation
If your skater generally competes 3-4 times annually assuming that 2 of those events would require travel and a short hotel stay, this will add up to a minimum of a $1,400 to $1,600 annual savings.
Conversations have already begun on ways that this cyber model could potentially be applied to testing, synchro or a TOI platform as a way to temporarily supplement what our normal structure would look like. With the limitations of how many skaters can be on the ice and how close they can be in proximity to each other for synchro, I envision something like these wonderful cyber choruses that have popped up during quarantine. I’d imagine that we could find a way for skaters to skate individually but participate as a team much like we do already with our collegiate model. What’s important to recognize is that these skaters are all an integral part of our skating community and we need to have a solution for them to be able to continue to participate in the sport that they love. It’s in the works and I’m confident it will get done.
I may lose some friends writing this next section but this may be the area where our sport requires the greatest reform. The 1-2 session per day private lesson model was hardly sustainable for the demographics we were serving before and was never even an option for the many who did the math early on and realized that this sport may not be a realistic option for their skater or their family.
In recent years quite rightfully, USFS has really begun to get behind the idea of a small group or “monitored training” model. This is the system that has been in place for years in many other countries including Russia and Japan, and has started to take root with some success here in the States. Skaters receive the majority of their instruction in a class based setting or monitored training much like they would on a competition practice if the coach has multiple skaters on the ice.
Advantages of this model are:
More time and interaction with the coach
Lowered (shared) cost of instruction
Working in a team setting helps with motivation and building camaraderie
If implemented correctly can help build independence
Coach can see more skaters in a single day
Coach has more oversight of the mood and energy of the environment
One of the challenges to this model is that especially in the US, not all coaches are full time coaches. Nor do they have the roster of athletes to support this type of model. As diverse as our skating community is it requires an equally diverse set of coaches with various skills and specialities to serve them. This will be the challenge as we move forward as to how we can continue to best serve our skating community's unique needs in this new economic reality. Depending on the frequency and duration of lessons, transitioning to this model could help families save well over $10,000 annually.
Of course, not all elements of our sport can be taught in a group format. For example, program training needs to be monitored more carefully for the safety of the skater. Choreography is very individualized and would require some 1-on-1 time but I’ve been really impressed in working with other coaches over this quarantine in the steps that they are taking to FOSTER CREATIVITY in these skaters. In an interview I did with Jason Brown over the break, when I asked him how he’s able to build such a wide repertoire of styles, he credited coach Kori Ade for all of the interpretive work she had done with him during his development. “She’d put on a piece of music and we’d all go skate to it!” Laura Lipetski similarly told me how she’d been challenging her students during quarantine to make up dances to different styles of music that were outside of their comfort zone. This inspired me to challenge my athletes to make up several interpretive dances, one in support of essential workers. Creativity is a learned behavior that we as coaches can train. These are steps we can and should be continuing to take to help foster creativity to supplement some of the costs and time that can go into choreography.
I will say that as we look forward to where our sport is situated in comparison to many other youth sports, we have a tremendous opportunity for growth in front of us. Skating is a non-contact singles sport. The benefits of skating to a young person’s development are undeniable. Athleticism, adaptability, hard work, determination, time management, focus, problem solving, etc… these are all the reasons why parents sign their children up for youth sports. Those kids who were playing football aren’t going to be tackling each other anytime soon. Those girls who were cheerleading are not going to be building any pyramids in the very near future, but they CAN skate. If we can find a way to get our price point looking more like that of other other youth sports that we have historically been competing with, I think skating will sell itself. A large part of that barrier has been the ratio of coach-to-athlete in our sport but I’ve already begun to see solutions organically forming out of the rubble we find ourselves in.
Early on during this quarantine I reached out to several other coaches. Some of them I had worked with before that had offered to help me with my Staycation Challenge, some of them I had never met but just really respected their work. I am still to this day HUMBLED by how amazingly generous my coaching colleagues have been from all over the country and even the world. Kori Ade and Tom Zakrajsek attended my first meeting and Kori explained a program she had helped launch called SHARP4sports.com. On SHARP, skaters could log on and see a comprehensive schedule for the day that included anything you’d ever need for class offerings with some of the BEST coaches in the world. I mean for PENNIES on the dollar of what they would normally have to spend, skaters could log in to a detailed technique class with Tom Z or a choreography class with Rohene Ward. One night I spent a lovely evening with some skaters doing interpretive dance with Michelle and Karen Kwan. This is stuff that these kids just never even would have had access to before the pandemic because of cost and distance.
This got me thinking about the amount of time I’ve spent as a coach in a lesson with different skaters going over these finer details over and over. Not to say that off-ice group instruction on zoom is ideal and should be the new model, but I think there are some really huge opportunities there. We now have the potential to get a much broader audience of athletes access to really high quality instruction at next to no expense to what it previously would’ve cost. Since I’ve begun teaching on SHARP and have had my athletes take advantage of their other offerings, I have been able to take some of that work load off of myself so that I can better utilize my on-ice time with my skaters.
Because of the increased efficiency in supervised training and specialized instruction I believe there are some opportunities to reduce the amount of ice purchased without sacrificing quality of training. Let’s just say a skater previously skated 6 days/week. 3 days for 3 sessions, 3 days for 2 sessions at $18 for a 50 minute session that adds up to about $270/week just on ice. I'm going to assume that cost of ice may need to go up slightly since the rinks aren't going to be operating at capacity so let’s create a new model that's 5 days/week but just 2 sessions per day at $20. That's $200/week or a $3,500 annual savings.
A much more eloquent man than I once wrote...
Skaters are a particularly resilient bunch. As a community we have always prided ourselves on our ability to GET UP. There will be good that comes out of all this. There will be beautiful skating in our future. This pandemic will force this sport we love to adapt in many ways that have been long overdue. We will need all hands on deck to continue to be ambassadors of our sport and as a community we will rebuild the ice underneath us together.