Canadian pair champions Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro did not believe there would be a world figure skating championship this season, so hunkered down were they because of a pandemic that doesn’t quit.
They thought their virtual performances earlier this year at Skate Canada Challenge were going to be it this season, and everybody would be left with the visuals of their not-yet-perfected routines. Moore-Towers had incurred a rib injury in the fall and they had little time to train before the video taping. By the time the routine was seen by judges in January, they had already changed parts of it. And trained it.
They felt as if they had squandered – through no fault of their own – their momentum of last season when they had won silver medals at both of their Grand Prix events, qualified for the Grand Prix Final for the first time as a partnership, won their second national title, and won the short program at Four Continents over all the best Chinese teams. All heady stuff.
With a season like that, they believed they could reach the podium at the world championships at home in Montreal last March. But it was cancelled as the world went into lockdown. (Or most of it did. Sweden, not so much. More on that later.) Poof went their hopes.
Since then, they have suffered a surfeit of bummers.
But now, beyond all belief, in another week, they will be heading to Stockholm to compete after all at the world championships, mostly because it has been designated as an Olympic qualifier, to set the numbers of entries for each country at the 2022 Beijing Olympics. Had it not been designated – and the world championship before the Olympics always is, but these are different times – it’s not so certain that they would have gone. They had to make a list of pros and cons. But now, for them, it is a no-brainer to go.
And they have been training up a storm in this “bizarre year,” Moore-Towers said. “We couldn’t have dreamed we’d be this well prepared.”
Marinaro says he’s “super excited” to compete again. “It’s been a long hiatus from those competition jitters that I’m extremely looking forward to,” he said. “…Having that layoff and that step away from competition just has rekindled the love for the sport,” he said. “I haven’t been looking forward to a competition this much since I was a little kid. I just can’t wait to get out there.
He said, with training going the way it has, they are ready to step right in to where they left off last year and “even a step higher.”
They will have to place their trust in everybody else to do the right thing along the way. The International Skating Union has set up a protocol, a bubble. US Figure Skating set up a bubble at both Skate America and their national championships, and it worked extremely well as they used a hotel next door to the rink, with strict separations and cardboard cutouts in the seats. Japan seemed to make things work at their national championships, even with audience spectators.
Russia held a national championship, but alas, its bubble was pierced by clumsy mask wearing, (no masks at all in the kiss and cry), federation-sanctioned parties with no social distancing, nor masks and lots of audience members doing the same thing.
As a result, not surprisingly, many Russian figure skaters have been hit hard by COVID. European dance champions Viktoria Sinitsina and Nikita Katsalapov both contracted COVID. Katsalspov’s case was mild, but Sinitsina was particularly hard hit, with a partial lung collapse.
Alexandra Stepanova and Ivan Bukin had it. All top three male pair skaters had it in the fall. Evgenia Tarasova contracted COVID while she and Vladimir Morozov competed at the fourth leg of the Russian Cup series and had to skip the final one. The team – two-time European champions and world medalists, had only three weeks to train before winning the Russian title.
Alena Kostornaia, 17, the 2020 European champion and Grand Prix Final champ, who holds the world records for short program and total score, contracted COVID and missed her nationals. Anna Shcherbakova, 16, who won the event, suffered from illness that she called pneumonia from November to January. At nationals, she competed, although she was breathing heavily, fell into her coach’s arms and was given smelling salts afterward. Miraculously, she landed a quad Lutz and a quad flip in her free skate.
World champion and self-proclaimed Empress, Elizaveta Tuktamysheva suffered from COVID badly enough that she was hospitalized and got back just in time for nationals, where she finished seventh, tiring. Afterward, her coach, Alexei Mishin came down with COVID, saying he felt fatigued and lost his sense of smell. Off he went to his dacha to recover. He is 80 and at risk.
Also two-time world champion and two-time Olympic silver medalist Evgenia Medvedeva contracted COVID in November and suffered severe lung damage. She spent November and December recovering, and had to withdraw from nationals.
Among the Russian men, Dmitri Aliev, last year’s European and national champion, contracted COVID and did not compete at nationals. Roman Savosin, the 2019 world junior silver medalists, also missed nationals because he caught the bug.
So whew. A tsunami of COVID traversed that team like no other. Will the Russians who enter the bubble at the world championships maintain protocols? They are a wild card.
Following are the ISU protocols for the world championships in Sweden:
Also let’s look at Sweden itself. It’s the rare country that did not institute a lockdown, rather entreated its folk to do the right thing. Just as a second wave started in October, the government allowed public gatherings to go from 50 to 300.
And only when cases began to soar in December, did the health authorities recommend wearing face masks on transit during rush hour. With hospitals overwhelmed, King Carl XVI Gustaf said the country had failed in its approach to the virus. And five days ago, Crown Princess Victoria and her husband Prince Daniel both tested positive with mild symptoms and are in quarantine.
Next week, Moore-Towers and Marinaro will undergo four COVID tests before they leave. That gives them confidence. When they return, they will quarantine in hotels, but after a negative test, can continue the quarantine with family, as long as they are in a separate room and have separate washroom facilities. Moore-Towers will stay with her parents; Marinaro will stay at his home in Oakville, where he has built up a “sweet” collection of fitness equipment.
The two-week quarantine means that they will miss the World Team Trophy in Japan in late April. They would have to leave for the event the day after their quarantine ends. “Another big bummer,” Marinaro said. “It’s definitely one of the most enjoyable events of the season.”
They floated the idea of staying in Europe after the world championships or heading to Japan, but they did not want to be away from home for so long, then delay their work on next season’s programs because their quarantine at home would end much later.
“All we can control at this point is how we act and how we approach the pandemic,” Moore-Towers said during a conference call. “We have been extremely prudent and safe at home, even more so the last couple of weeks to ensure we are travelling healthy and not infecting anybody around us.
“I think that is something that is at the back of our minds, but we try not to allow it to come to the forefront. The situation is what it is. All we can do is follow the rules and do the best we can.”
She’s taking disinfectant wipes with her to wipe everything down. And they will wear masks.
She has flown once during the pandemic, to British Columbia, so has a taste of what to do with new procedures. “But for the rest of it, we are just trying to control the uncontrollable. That’s my favourite saying.”
Marinaro says they have no idea how the bubble will look “We hope it’s a big success,” he said. “But all we can control is our actions and safety precautions.”
There are so many uncertainties ahead for them. They don’t know what to expect at the world championships. While Russian and Japanese and U.S. teams have international scores, the Canadians (except for Keegan Messing) have no data on what they are doing.
“We usually say we don’t think about results,” Moore-Towers said. “And usually, it’s a lie. But this time, we just don’t know.”
“Normally by the world championships, when we’re sitting in the kiss and cry, we know exactly what score we’re going to get, within a point or two,” Marinaro said. “We know what every little minor mistake means exactly to our score.
“This year, we have no idea. So I’m going to say that the ultimate goal is to get into the ending pose of the free program and be able to say we are proud of both our performances, both short and free performances. And if we are proud of our two performances, it will be a success.”