Ice Network

Getting in gear: Dodge blogs from JGP Slovakia

Team USA ice dancer takes readers behind the scenes in Bratislava
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Damian Dodge and his partner, Julia Biechler, are in their second season competing in the Junior Grand Prix Series. -Jay Adeff

U.S. ice dancer Damian Dodge competed at the Junior Grand Prix in Bratislava, Slovakia. He kept a blog for icenetwork.

"Ahoj" from Bratislava, Slovakia! My name is Damian Dodge, and I, along with my partner Julia Biechler, am a Team USA ice dancer. I'm so excited to have the opportunity to blog for icenetwork this week and to give everyone a taste of what it's like to be an athlete at a Junior Grand Prix event.

Saturday, Aug. 22: Final day

For us, the dancers, we had an early morning practice. Everyone on our practice was grumpy, partially because of how early it was and also because it was the final day. Although this week has gone by fast, I think all the hard work is starting to hit us. Luckily, there was a three-hour break between practice and the warm-up for our event. I used that break to take a nap! After my beauty rest, I grabbed a quick bite to eat, and then it was time to walk over to the rink.

We had an interesting five-minute warm-up, to say the least. Everyone in our group was skating to win, and we all wanted to prove ourselves. Because of that, all the teams were in "the zone" and, as a result, there were many near-collisions. It was challenging to get through a section in its entirety. Although we had some "roadblocks," our warm-up felt strong, and we were ready to go.

Rachel [Parsons] and Michael [Parsons] went first. Their tango was fierce, and they were spot-on throughout the program. They were extremely excited with their skate, and their scores.

Julia and I also had a strong skate and received amazing component scores from the judges. We were happy about that, but we wished could have gotten a higher technical score.

After all was said and done, Rachel and Michael moved up and won the event! We improved one spot in the free dance but still ended in fifth, just 0.28 points out of fourth.

After the free dance came the final event of the competition, the men's free skate. Vincent [Zhou] had another great skate and ended in third. Kevin Shum started his program strong but was not able to hold on until the end. Every skater has had this happen to him or her! There's a lot of pressure to maintain everything throughout a program, and there's so much to think about. Sometimes your mind starts running in the middle of a program and it's hard to get your body to do what you want.

At the team meeting on the first day, team leader John Cole expressed that he'd like to have a team dinner after the competition was over, for our last night together. Throughout the week, we were all looking for a nice restaurant to have the dinner. Michael Parsons, through his "connections," was able to find a restaurant called Altitude, which was on top of a huge tower in the mountains. Not only could you see four countries from the restaurant (Slovakia, Hungary, Czech Republic and Austria) but the whole floor rotated. While eating dinner, our table moved all the way around the tower and we had a view of all four countries. Michael definitely came through for us.

Most of us have early shuttle rides to the airport. Julia and I have a 3:45 a.m. shuttle to Vienna, and from there we'll fly to Brussels and then, finally, to Philadelphia. Everyone has decided to just stay awake because after getting back from dinner and packing, there wouldn't be a lot of time to sleep.

On that note, I'm going to go enjoy the rest of my time here in beautiful Bratislava. I'd like to thank icenetwork for giving me the opportunity to blog this week, and I hope anyone who has read it found it enjoyable.

Friday, Aug. 21: Off day

Friday we only had one practice in the early afternoon, so we were able to explore Bratislava! Before our practice, I noticed that two of the hooks on my skating boots were barely hanging on and looked like they were about to pop off.

Our team leader, John Cole, talked to the local organizing committee for the competition and they told us that they had someone who could fix the skates. We were then led outside, where a girl in a car was waiting for us. After a 10-minute drive, we arrived at a seemingly random house. After knocking on a fence door, we were led through a small alley to a shed with skate sharpening equipment.

I hesitantly handed over my skates and watched as the man took the soakers off of my blades. I wasn't really sure why he needed to look at my blades in order to fix my boots. It turns out he thought I wanted my skates sharpened. Once I realized, I quickly tried to stop him from doing anything more to the blades. Luckily, the driver knew a little English and was able to communicate what the problem was. He was extremely sweet and fixed them quickly, and then we were on our way back.

After my boots were fixed, we headed back to the hotel to eat lunch. During this time, the men's event was taking place. Both U.S. skaters had strong skates, with Vincent Zhou placing second and Kevin Shum sixth in the short. When the men's event was over, Team USA skaters, with exception of the ladies who were resting for their long program later in the day, met Norman Thatcher Scharpf, the deputy chief of mission of U.S. Embassy in Bratislava, Slovakia. He came to watch the ladies event and might view the free dance Saturday.

Once we left the rink, Julia and I met up with a few other U.S. skaters to explore Bratislava. Living in Philadelphia, I love and rely on the app Uber, which is basically an on-demand taxi service. It's a U.S.-based company, but we found out that it expanded, just last week, into Bratislava.

We needed two cars, so I requested one and Kevin Shum requested the other. His car came within five minutes and half of our group was off. Mine said that it would arrive in three minutes but it ended up being more like 15. We kept in contact with the first group so that we could meet up once we finally arrived. Our driver decided to drop us off in the middle of the street once we got into old town because it was a more convenient place for him to make a U-turn and head to his next destination. As it turned out, we were on one side of the town, and the other half of our group was on the other side.

We finally were able to meet in the middle and walk through the town; it's beautiful. The architecture is amazing and the atmosphere walking through the streets is so relaxed. After walking through the whole town, we found a pizza shop with the biggest pizzas I've ever seen. After much debate, of about two whole seconds, we decided to get some slices, and they were delicious. The rest of the group was ready to go back to the hotel, so they called another car. Julia and I decided to walk around a little bit more and pick up some souvenirs. We finally left and went back to the hotel.

Saturday, finally, is our free dance. Julia and I can't wait to perform our program to Nocturne and Bohemian Rhapsody. We have an early morning practice, so I have to go to bed.

Thursday, Aug. 20: Short dance

Thursday marked the start of competition. I woke up feeling really excited and ready to go. Julia and I met for breakfast, and we then headed over to the rink for short dance practice. Our off-ice warmup felt strong, and I was excited to get on the ice.

When I walked into the locker room and opened my garment bag, I realized that I brought my free dance costume to the short dance practice! Once I made the discovery, only 10 minutes remained before the start of our practice, so I didn't have enough time to go back and get the correct outfit. Luckily, it somewhat goes with Julia's dress. I was just hoping that it wasn't foreshadowing of the rest of our day.

We came back to eat lunch, and then I passed out. I usually try not to take naps at competitions because I'm pretty grumpy the rest of the day afterward. Today, however, I needed the sleep. We had a pretty decent amount of time between our practice and when we needed to come back to warm up for our event -- about five hours.

I then went up to Julia's room to "sew" her hair. Due to the deductions taken for items falling on the ice, Julia always sews in all of her hair pieces so that there's no chance of getting a deduction. I feel like, if I didn't have skating, maybe I could have a career in sewing things into hair. I'm not sure how far that would get me, but I'm definitely getting pretty good at it.

Finally, it was time to head to the rink for our short dance. The ladies skated earlier and both U.S. ladies -- Vivian Le and Emily Chan -- skated really well. Vivian is currently in second and Emily sits in fifth. We made it to the rink just in time to see our teammates Rachel Parsons and Michael Parsons skate. They had a very strong skate and are in second after the short.

Julia and I warmed up and prepared to take the ice. We had a very strong skate and were extremely happy, even though it wasn't our strongest skate technically. After the short, we're in fifth place.

Shortly after our event, the draw took place for Saturday's free dance. This draw is conducted based on the results from the short. Rachel and Michael drew 11 and we drew 13. This draw was extremely entertaining. Both Russian teams -- Alla Loboda and Pavel Drozd, and Sofia Shevchenko and Igor Eremenko -- drew the same numbers that they picked for the short dance (12th and 15th).

When it came down to the last two couples to draw, the only numbers left in the bag were 4 and 1. The Lithuanian team, Guoste Damuleviciute and Deividas Kizala, went up and drew 4. Her face and reaction were priceless, as she pretended to wipe sweat off her brow. As the last team to go up, Yana Bozhilova and Kaloyan Georgiev already knew their fate. As always, everyone clapped and that was the end of the draw.

Friday is the dancers' off day, and we only have one practice in the early afternoon. Julia and I and the Parson siblings plan on finally seeing Bratislava. Everyone tells us how great Old Town is, so we're excited to check it out for ourselves. I'm off to bed after this long -- and awesome -- day in Bratislava.

Wednesday, Aug. 19: Practice day

After a much-needed night of sleep, I woke up feeling really excited for this week. Julia and I have been training hard, and we're ready to compete.

We had two practice sessions Wednesday: one in the official competition rink and the other in the practice rink. The two U.S. teams were put with the two Russian teams and a team from Hungary -- Kimberly Wei and Ilias Fourati.

As any ice dance fan probably knows, American and Russian teams usually don't like to move out of the way for others during practice. Julia and I were somewhat excited to see how these practices would go because we always appreciate a competitive environment -- not hostile, just competitive. Honestly, it was somewhat of a let down. There were only a few times in each practice when a team had to yell for a team to move out of their way in order to finish its practice regimen.

Our first practice in the main arena was extremely hot. We're so used to being frozen all day long, that when it's hot in a rink, we forget how to function; something about skating in the heat just doesn't feel right. That being said, our practice went pretty well. It definitely took a few minutes to get our legs under us, but that's always expected after a long day of travel. Our second practice was a complete 180 -- the rink was freezing. It was very interesting how, despite being a mere 100 feet apart, each rink had polar opposite temperatures.

Directly after the second practice was the ice dance draw. This is how the starting order for the event is decided. Each team picks a number out of a bag, and that's the slot it will skate in for the short dance. It's always super exciting going into the draw, seeing all the teams we will compete against. All the different skaters usually wear their country's team jacket. For one moment in time, we all have the exact same goal in mind: not drawing the number one!

The best part of the draw, in my opinion, is when someone does draw the first slot. As soon as a team announces that it has picked 'one' out of the bag, all of the other teams clap and get extremely excited. I think it's meant to be an encouraging act of kindness to support that team, but, honestly, most skaters are just relieved that they didn't get stuck with number one. In this case, a Lithuanian team drew number one and will skate first in Thursday's short dance event. Julia and I drew the number 11 and our teammates Rachel Parsons and Michael Parsons drew fifth.

We then headed back to the hotel for dinner and then walked around the mall. Although our day consisted of two practices and not too much more, it was still exhausting. I'm so excited to compete Thursday and show a short dance that Julia and I love.

It's time for me to go to bed and get ready for tomorrow! Good night everyone.

Tuesday, Aug. 18: Working out the kinks

Julia and I had a late flight Monday, which allowed us to have a conventional training day that day. We went through our normal routine and did all of our run-throughs. We felt strong and ready to go!

Since our practice ended a little early, our coach, Yovanny Durango, decided he wanted us to work on a few sections of our program. The first section that we tried, I fell flat on my face doing a basic push...pretty embarrassing knowing that we were about to leave for an international competition, and I fell in front of everyone on a simple stroke. I had to redeem myself, so we tried the section again. I stayed up! Julia, however, caught her toe pick and fell.

After working out these minor kinks, it was finally time to drive to the airport and get our trip started. We had two flights: the first from Philadelphia to Barcelona, and the second from Spain to Vienna.

I'm pretty sure I convinced the other passengers on our first flight that I was crazy. It started when I refused to let Julia sit down in our seats until I had Lysoled and wiped down every exposed surface. After that, we both put on air-filtering facemasks because, let's be honest, planes are nothing more than tubes filled with recirculated germs. Donning a breathing mask, eye mask and noise-canceling headphones, I got up to stretch and walk around (still wearing all the aforementioned items) multiple times during the flight. The guy behind us seemed to be very attentive to every move I made, most likely because he couldn't take in everything that I was doing/wearing. Honestly, I looked ridiculous.

From Vienna, we took an hour-long bus ride to our hotel in Bratislava. Once there, Julia, Yovanny and I walked to the rink, which is only about a five-minute walk, to register for the competition. Part of registration is taking a picture for your credential. This is always something that skaters dread on a good day, let alone after a full day of traveling and being up for more than 24 hours. My picture turned out horrible! Possibly the worst picture I've ever taken, but I didn't have enough energy to care, or even ask for a retake.

We got back the rink (which is amazing, by the way) and had our team meeting. We were given our new Team USA trading pins and gold pins for our jackets. Following that, Julia and I went to the dining hall to eat with the rest of the team (Rachel Parsons and Michael Parsons, Emily Chan, Vivian Le and Vincent Zhou) minus Kevin Shum, who hadn't arrived yet. The U.S. dance judge for this competition, Janis Engel, also joined us for dinner. It's nice to be able to talk to judges, outside of the rink, about non-skating-related topics. Sometimes it's very easy to forget that they're only human, like us.

Julia and I went to the mall attached to our hotel (how awesome is that?) and decided to walk around to get some necessities for the week, such as water and snacks. The mall is split into four levels and even has a grocery store. We came back to our hotel, and I finally got to meet my roommate, Kevin.

It's almost 10 p.m. here, and I've been up for 32 hours. Tomorrow is our first practice day, and I need to get some rest.

Good night from Slovakia!