Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier competes in the Pairs Short Program at Skate America on Oct. 23, 2020 in Las Vegas.
Call it the huddle in the Las Vegas bubble, take two.
In October, several of Team USA’s top figure skaters convened at the Orleans Arena, a few miles off the Strip and a 10-minute drive from McCarran International Airport, for Skate America. There were no fans and little media. U.S. Figure Skating enforced a restrictive, campus-like environment to protect athletes, coaches and officials from the threat of the COVID-19 virus.
And, according to Bob Dunlop, U.S. Figure Skating’s senior director of events, Vegas did good.
“Everybody really pulled together and followed the rules,” Dunlop said. “No one complained, nobody pushed back, and it worked. We all had our own private concerns that someone might ‘break the bubble,’ so to speak. But at the end of the day, there was the attitude of, ‘We’re all in this together, let’s make sure this happens.’”
Things went so well, the skaters who competed at Skate America, and another 40 or so senior competitors, returned to Las Vegas this week for the 2021 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, part of Team USA Champions Series, presented by Xfinity. Next week, it’s the junior skaters’ turn, as they take the ice Jan. 20-21.
Nathan Chen, the odds-on favorite to win his fifth straight U.S. men’s title, has no problem with how U.S. Figure Skating is handling its big event.
“I think a lot of people are struggling a lot more than elite athletes,” Chen said. “And so I don’t think there’s really much to complain about. … It’s like, man, when you get this opportunity, make the most out of it and enjoy the fact that we have this opportunity, because this is definitely not the same struggles that other people are facing.”
Originally, the 2021 U.S. championships were scheduled for San Jose, California, but under current conditions it made sense to return to Las Vegas and replicate the bubble created at Skate America. San Jose is now slated to host the 2023 U.S. championships.
“Anywhere you have an event, you have to get permission from local authorities, and that’s a process,” Dunlop said. “And this setup (at the Orleans Arena) is perfect, almost meant to be for us. Unlike most venues we’ve used, this complex has a service-level parking lot, so (skaters) can drive and park literally about 30 feet from the doors where they enter. The arena connects to the hotel via a walkway. So, it’s really quite easy.”
What, exactly, is the bubble? From almost the moment skaters arrived at the arena, they are met by staff, ushered to credentialing, tested via a throat swab for COVID-19 and then guided back to their rooms at the Orleans Hotel, where they must remain until test results are received — usually within 10-12 hours, according to Dunlop.
There is no sight-seeing, no outside dining with friends and family. Everyone must stick to approved areas and take meals on the arena’s concourse. Break out of the bubble, and you are out of the U.S. championships.
“Once I got to Las Vegas, the main point I was worried about was messing up the bubble,” said 16-year-old Audrey Shin, the surprise Skate America bronze medalist. “I thought, ‘What if I go down the wrong path?’ But there was no way you could do that, they set it up so well. There were guards there to help if you got confused. I told one of them, ‘I’m so scared I’m going to mess up the bubble and accidentally get eliminated.’”
Dunlop agrees there is little chance a skater can accidentally stray beyond approved areas.
“We do have people there, not so much for security as to help guide (the athletes),” he said. “It’s mostly ushers, and we do have some security guards from the facility. We’ve also put up bike racks and signage that really helps to define the space around the property and helps everybody understand where they are.”
After a while, Shin relaxed and enjoyed her time at Skate America, her first big senior competition.
“I was, ‘Wow, this is cool, this is amazing they can do this,’” she said. “It was basically my hotel room, the dining area, the rink — those were the three places I could go to. I had a good time in my room just relaxing and watching Netflix. If I could have gone outside and had dinner with my family, I bet it would have been even more fun, but I’m not complaining.”
As you watch the 2021 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, here’s a bit more to keep in mind about the Las Vegas bubble:
The Testing Protocol Is Clear
Athletes already qualified, or seeking to qualify, for the U.S. championships, and their coaches, were invited to participate in three conference calls that reviewed the event’s requirements. The first two calls were held in the fall, while the virtual qualification series was still being held.
“I led the calls and we were very transparent, and in some cases blunt, about how the requirements work,” Dunlop said. “We had our medical team present to talk through the scenarios. In no uncertain terms, if you (test) positive you are out of the event, because there’s such a short window of no time. We also discussed what it means if a coach, or a parent, tests positive.”
It was recommended, but not required, that athletes, coaches and chaperones get tested in advance, in addition to their tests on arrival. They were also encouraged to limit their footprint (contacts) as much as possible for 14 days in advance.
Staff members and officials were tested before they traveled to Las Vegas.
“That way, they would not waste their time; they could stay home, as opposed to coming to Vegas, testing positive and then having to (quarantine) in Vegas for 10 days,” Dunlop said.
The Number Of Chaperones Is Restricted
The U.S. championships is very much a family event, with parents, grandparents, siblings and friends often cheering skaters on from the stands. That wasn’t possible this year.
“At nationals, the skaters represent their clubs, and typically their parents come and play a role,” Dunlop said. “So we do have more chaperones this week and next week, but we did limit it to one per entry for skaters under 18. We have the reality of minors in our sport. We have SafeSport, which every year is becoming a more important aspect of event planning. So we looked at that.”
… And So Is The Number Of Coaches
“Our normal protocol for the U.S. championships is for singles, you are allowed a primary coach and you can apply to have a secondary coach also attend for you,” Dunlop said. “For pairs and dance, we usually provide a two-coach limit and a third if they apply for it and pay for it. This year it is simple, one coach per entry.”
It Will Be Lonely In The Kiss-And-Cry
Skaters nervously waiting for their marks, with their coaches seated next to them, is a familiar site at every U.S. championships. But this week, skaters are on their own.
“One of the saddest parts I feel about the way the restrictions have to be for safety, is not having our coaches in the kiss-and-cry,” said three-time U.S. pairs champion Alexa Knierim, who won Skate America with her new partner, Brandon Frazier. “They just do so much for us, and they deserve all the recognition and validation. I wish that there's a way they can also be in the kiss-and-cry, just so people watching will put a face to the name when they see our coaching staff come up.”
Jenni Meno, who coaches Knierim and Frazier along with her husband, Todd Sand, doesn’t mind being left out.
“That’s okay, because it’s their moment,” said Meno, a three-time Olympian and former U.S. pairs champion, including with Sand. “I agree it is a special moment to be there, but for us, we're just so thankful that these kids are getting this opportunity. We feel as coaches, whatever we need to do to get them there and to make these events successful for them, we're good with that. And that’s what we're going to do.”