The Inside Edge: Crunch time ahead of GreensboroFormer U.S. championships competitors discuss pre-competition routines
The last weeks of preparation before the U.S. championships are a tricky and intense time for figure skaters. Every athlete has their own method for peaking their training, coping with nerves, staying completely focused and looking to either avoid distractions or welcome them.
Some keep business as usual while others may have strange rituals prior to leaving for the competition. We tracked down some recently-retired competitors, and a couple of people who aren't competing in Greensboro but hope to be back soon, and asked them what this time of year was like for them.
John Coughlin, who is taking the year off from competing, told us that he used to try to leave anything related to skating at the rink in the weeks leading up to the championships.
"I was lucky that my mom and dad learned what I needed," Coughlin said. "Sometimes, it was to not talk about skating. I know they were dying to know how practice went, but what I wanted was to talk to my dad about the Chiefs, and have that escape from the day-to-day grind. I always found it hard to enjoy the holidays. I tried to make an effort to be in the moment with my family."
"I was always nervous," admitted Ryan Bradley. "I feel like it is really important to feel those nerves and to understand how to use them to help you prepare. I would try to stay off social media to some degree. I am pretty sensitive, so little negative comments would really get to me. I continued to text and stay in touch with those who were important to me. That helped me keep a sense of normalcy."
When he was competing, Drew tended to give things up.
"One year, I stopped drinking coffee for some reason, I don't know why," he said. "And some years I would stop eating bread -- I wasn't gluten-free or anything, I just didn't eat bread. Some of it is about giving yourself a distraction, like not eating sugar, and wanting it; you think about that instead of being nervous. I also got very quiet and didn't want to talk to anyone except my pairs partner and my coaches. It's sort of like quarantining yourself. You don't go out with friends, you don't talk to your family."
"I've definitely seen some compulsive tendencies come out," said Armin Mahbanoozadeh, who is a sophomore at Dartmouth. "For me, I really liked to stick to a schedule, to skate the same sessions every day, to make sure everything was very much the same so I didn't get distracted by changes. I have a weak spot for sweets and junk foods, so I would cut those out completely. You're so obsessed with training that everything else in your life just falls away."
Coughlin said that eating and sleeping before a competition can be tricky.
"Sometimes, I wasn't super hungry as the competition got closer," he said. "I felt like I was eating out of obligation, because that's what my body needed."
Bradley, who is touring Japan with Stars on Ice at the moment, said, "I would barely sleep and found it very difficult to eat full meals. It was a real struggle to get my allotted calories in each day."
Of course, with disturbed sleep can come anxiety dreams. Some skaters have them, some don't.
"In the middle of the night, when that long program pops into your head, and your stomach gets tight, it's hard to pretend the competition's not happening," Coughlin said. "I have these two recurring dreams right before nationals. I've had them my whole life. In one, I'm the only person at nationals not allowed to wear skates. Trying to do edge jumps in running shoes doesn't end well! In the other dream, I'll have a laughing attack at an inopportune moment. You know how you lose all your strength when you laugh? I dream that Caydee [Denney] and I are doing something and I start to laugh and I can't pick her up."
Matt Blackmer, the 2013 U.S. junior pairs champion who has just moved back to Detroit to continue his search for a new partner, says he didn't suffer from nerves at this time of year.
"I'm actually pretty relaxed. I've never done anything really weird," he said. "I do cocoon myself just a touch. At the end of the day, if you make a big deal of it, you're just psyching yourself out. What's different about the ice? It's still frozen water."
He does confess to one rather odd ritual.
"Every night before a program, and I don't know why I do this, I run through the program in my head and visualize every single mistake I could make," he said. "And then I laugh it off and go to sleep."
Rachael Flatt is finishing up her senior year at Stanford, missing the championships for the first time in a very long time. She says that routine was the key for her.
"I tried to keep it as normal as possible," Flatt said. "I would go to school; kind of try and keep it the same. I felt like if I took myself out of my comfort zone, I'd have to deal with the stress of adapting."
Flatt said she never had dreams about competing until recently.
"If anything, I dream about it more now," she said, laughing. "Every once in a while I wake up in a panic, thinking I'm completely unprepared!"
At the rink, things get very intense. Squabbles can break out over the silliest things, like the order the music is played.
"Emotions run high," recalled Mahbanoozadeh. "At the beginning of the season, if you do a bad run-through, that's fine. But two weeks before nationals, a bad run-through can be very stressful. On the flip side, it can be rewarding because you're in the best shape of the season, and ideally everything is coming together. You're doing the best programs of the year."
Flatt also remembered the occasional bad run-through before the championships.
"About a week or two out, I'd usually have one day where the perfectionism would get the best of me, and I would have one or two yucky sessions where it would get in my head," she said. "But I was good at staying focused."
Of course, coaches help their skaters prepare, be it the last weeks before a competition or the rest of the year. They may have special techniques to calm their students and help them stay focused during their programs.
"We would try a lot of different tactics to try and prepare me for any potential distractions," Bradley said. "There was always a game plan, and a plan to get back to the plan if anything went astray."
Visualizations are a big part of preparation, and they can affect an athlete's mind in funny ways.
"As a way of settling our nerves, we visualize our program over and over again," Coughlin said. "Right down to the bright lights, what's the ice going to feel like, how are you going to feel, where are you going to find your parents in the stands. It gets into your dream life too -- hopefully with skates on!"
Even skaters who have left competition behind find themselves thinking about the championships at this time of year.
"I think that I will always get nervous and feel that sense of unease come nationals time," Bradley said.
In the end, though, January is the most exciting time for any skater heading to the championships.
"There's this electric energy -- a buzz of anticipation," Blackmer said. "It's the highlight of the season. Apart from the Olympics, nothing is more exciting than the U.S. nationals."
Like many hockey teams, the Colorado Avalanche have a team of female skaters, mostly former figure skaters, who clean the ice before each resurfacing. For a little festive fun, the team invites local elite figure skaters to join the "Ice Girls" during an intermission on New Year's Eve in Denver. This year's group included Mirai Nagasu, Jason Brown, Jordan Moeller, Tyler Pierce, Todd Gilles and our own Drew Meekins.
They did a two-minute program to Footloose. Given that it's Max Aaron's short program music, it was fun to see Brown skating to it. Nagasu did a double axel and a layback spin, Brown did some cartwheels on the ice, and Drew did pairs tricks with Katie Shipstad. Despite ice deeply rutted from the first period of the game, Brown and Moeller landed some triple jumps.
Some of the skaters headed to Greensboro said it was a good warm-up for the championships, to perform in front of a big sold-out crowd before they go to their own events.
Backstage, as an ice-breaker, the skaters played a lively game of the risqué "Cards Against Humanity." Skaters Liam Firus and Alex Johnson, along with Brown, Pierce and Moeller's coach, Kore Ade, watched the hockey game from the stands. The Avalanche won, 4-3, in overtime.
Our condolences to Jeremy Abbott and his sister Gwen on the death of their father Danny, who died Jan. 8 after a long battle with Parkinson's disease. Danny attended the U.S. championships to watch Jeremy compete every year from 2005-13. The family has asked that, in lieu of flowers or gifts, donations be made to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research.
See you in Greensboro,
Sarah and Drew
@SarahandDrew on Twitter