Ice Network

Tapas Grandes: Experience surreal for Liu, Johnson

Machida, Hanyu speak to press in own unique ways; Clean kiss and cry
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Chelsea Liu and Brian Johnson, seen here with coach Todd Sand, are wide-eyed at being surrounded by so many great skaters. -Lorrie Parker

Jean-Christophe Berlot checks in from Barcelona, where U.S. pair Chelsea Liu and Brian Johnson are beside themselves that they are rubbing elbows with the best in the world.

Welcome to where you belong!

Chelsea Liu and Brian Johnson, from the United States, stayed to watch the practice of their senior counterparts Thursday morning. They left the rink with sparkles in their eyes. "This is pretty amazing for us to be here," Johnson offered with a big smile. "We are the only American team in the Final, and the only American entry as well in the junior Final. For our first season together (Liu and Johnson were paired last June), we did not know what to expect." "Seeing the seniors is pretty amazing," Liu confessed with excitement after the senior practice. "I usually watch them at home on the screen of my little computer. Here, walking past them is like, 'Whoa, are you real?'" "Now we will train hard for nationals, which is our big competition," Liu added. "They should do well, if not very well," coach Todd Sand added. "From there, they will build toward junior worlds. They have two more years of eligibility in junior, so they should come back next year." Welome to the big arena, Chelsea and Brian!

Master class

A whole flock of journalists from his country (plus one from the Western Hemisphere, if I may) gathered in the mixed zone for 2014 Olympic and world gold medalist Yuzuru Hanyu after his practice. Each one had the right to ask one question. Hanyu answered while staring each one in the eyes, as if he were a teacher. Journalists were writing down his words, as if they were his pupils, respectfully nodding their heads and smiling.

Then came Tatsuki Machida, and the whole scene changed instantly. Machida took the journalists' questions the same way Hanyu had done. But Machida does not speak like he breathes. He needs to think from within first, even when he expresses himself in his native language. He answered from his thoughts, keeping his head down. As a mirror image, journalists suddenly concentrated even more on what they were writing without making any eye contact with the champion and paying the utmost attention not to miss a word, or an inflecton of a word, from the "Master."

'Hoovering' practice

Practice for the short program started as early as 6:30 a.m. Thursday morning in the Barcelona International Convention Center. The junior ladies opened the session, followed by the ice dancers and then the men. While the junior pairs were practicing, a familiar -- yet quite unusual in a skating rink -- noise could be heard: The cleaning lady was vacuuming the kiss and cry just behind the boards. Everything should be perfect for the Grand Finale, from toes to smiles to cleanliness.

Skating flake

The emblem of this Final in Barcelona is a number of colorful snowflakes. They are made as paper collages (of course done on the computer), using photos from skaters. The main flake model is quite clever. Four figures are repeated six times around the circle, to make up the branches of the star-shaped flake. One of Julia Lipnitskaia's spins, where she completely bends her upper body, starts the star in the middle. She is wearing a purple outfit. Right above it comes a lift by Sara Hurtado and Adrià Díaz, the Spanish ice dancers (who did not qualify for the Final). At the top of each of the six branches is a Biellmann spin performed by a radiant Mao Asada, who is wearing a purple dress as well. To complete the flake is a graceful spiral by Anna Pogorilaya, dressed in light blue. Skating is very much a melting pot -- or, rather, a freezing pot!

From junior to senior, a matter of mindset?

What is the difference between juniors and seniors? Watching both categories skate in Barcelona raised that question again, especially in the ladies category. The six ladies participating in the junior Final all landed a triple-triple combination in their morning practice session before the short program. Some juniors even innovated to land "candle jumps," as they rotated with their arms extended above their head, like Adam Rippon does with his Lutz. The age is not a clear distinction either: Elena Radionova, whom many favor to win in Barcelona, is just 15, just like Serafima Sakhanovch, who is one of the major contenders in the junior Final. "It's a matter of being ready in their head," explained Svetlana Panova, who coaches 2013 JGP Final champion Maria Sotskova.

Standing in line

What would you think if I told you the following items were all laying in a row at the entrance of the press room: one plastic bag, one bottle of water (full), one camera stand, one computer, another bag (made of leather), a purse, a suitcase, a thermal bottle and another suitcase (with wheels)? That Spain is not an organized country? That journalists are just poor citizens? Right at the end of the row, one person was standing: "I'm number 10, and I'm a person!" she laughed. She was a photographer from Germany. "We're all photographers, and we are standing in line to get our position around the rink," she explained. "Each photographer left a sign to save his place in the row, but they are all gone by now, doing something else. Most of them are Japanese, I must say!" Sometimes complete disorder may hide very serious organization.

And the skaters' best friend is…

In the first hours of any international skating event, you will find a happy man in the corridors of the arena. His name is David Carmichael, an accredited photographer. Each skater comes and gives him a big hug up front. He holds a stack of CDs in his hand and gives one to each skater or team -- and even to officials. "I make sure that everyone gets the photos from his last outing," Carmichael explained. "Before this Final, I have prepared 24 CDs, plus four for the ISU officials. It's nice to see the big grin on their face!" he added, smiling. "That's what we're here for: the skaters! Can you believe that I have 14 trips planned this year?" Carmichael concluded with a broad smile. Machida grabbed his CD (after a hug) and gave it to his coach, who piled it onto other CDs he was carrying. Beware not to mix Carmichael's photo CD with Ludwig von Beethoven's ninth symphony CD (Machida's free program), however!