Hello From Hartford, Part 4

by Michelle Wojdyla, Special to U.S. Figure Skating Online

KVDP leans over the railing to share his love with the reporters after the short program.

(10/26/06) - Unlike last year when I wrote all the competition articles, this year I am concentrating on practices and backstage. It's almost a case of my not knowing what to do with myself! I spent the majority of the competition in the mixed zone, a curtained-off space in the hallway between the skaters' entrance to the ice and the media workroom. Two small monitors sit atop a coat rack disguised with draping. (I know it is a coat rack, however, because I was there when they set it up.) Alongside one draped wall is a raised platform for the skaters to stand on to speak to the press.

Throughout the night, different reporters ask to speak to different skaters after they finish their compulsory dance or short program. I stayed in the area the whole time, taking photos and generally listening to what the athletes were saying, occasionally asking my own questions.

One of the challenges about working an international event is obviously not everyone speaks English, or they do not speak it well enough to give a fleshed out answer. French ice dancers Nathalie Pechalat and Fabian Bourzat came back to the mixed zone, looking very happy to have been in first place at that point. Nathalie let Fabian do most of the talking. She seemed to understand what we were asking but didn't have the words to answer the way she wanted. Fabian speaks excellent English, plus he makes good eye contact and has a real warmth when he talks.

When Morgan Matthews & Max Zavozin came back, Max did most of the talking, even though English is not his first language. They seemed pretty pleased with their performance, and they are really looking forward to skating their original and free dances.

On the opposite end of the spectrum are Rena Inoue & John Baldwin. After a few years of not really talking to reporters, Rena is possibly one of the most garrulous. She doesn't come off as shy and makes the effort to expand upon her answers. John landed his side-by-side double Axel in the program while Rena stumbled out of hers. Rena was very forthcoming about her right ankle injury and how important it was to her to make sure they received credit for the double Axel and not be downgraded to a single. She went on to explain how she injured it before the U.S. Figure Skating Campbell's Cup almost two weeks ago, and how the swelling in her lower leg makes it very difficult for her to fit her foot into her skate boot. On top of that, lacing up is also compromised. John kept interrupting Rena, reassuring her that he was proud of the attempt at all.

Kevin van der Perren (KVDP), who looked like he was on a suicide mission in practice with all the hard falls he took time after time, was positively thrilled with his short program. He burst into the mixed zone, bounding to the railing and leaning over in exuberance. It wasn't athlete/press for those moments. Kevin wanted to share his excitement with the people in front of him. When Kevin skates well, he crinkles up his eyes and gives the most engaging smile.

Ryan Bradley was a superstar in the mixed zone. No one could ever accuse Ryan of having a boring personality, and he drove that home. He almost seemed a bit in awe of his own performance and, like Kevin, shared that excitement with the reporters. Ryan answered questions fully, revealing a person behind the athlete, whether he was talking about the size of his triple Axel, his knee injury that almost kept him out of sectionals and therefore the U.S. Championships last season, or the blizzard that is currently blanketing his home of Colorado Springs.

Melissa Gregory & Denis Petukhov came into the mixed zone with a different carriage. Their posture was that of someone owning the night, both in performance and scoring plus the support of the hometown crowd. Kimberly Navarro and Brent Bommentre were in the “happy to be here” zone, coming off as truly pleased with their performance. They are another couple who makes eye contact with the journalists.

We knew we would see Ryan's smile sometime this week.

Scott Smith seemed perfectly at ease in the mixed zone, as did Naomi Nari Nam & Themi Leftheris. Naomi and Themi compared this event to the U.S. Championships, which happens to be their favorite competition.

For Nobunari Oda, and Nozomi Watanbe and Akiyuki Kido, the mini horde of Japanese reporters swarmed them in the mixed zone. I didn't hear any of the conversation (and it's not like I would understand anything other than “hello,” “water,” “pen” and “pancake” anyway) because I was just trying to get out of the way. At the press conference after the event concluded, the English questions were asked first and then the Japanese press was given their turn. Nobunari answered all of his questions asked by the English reporters in English, a very impressive attempt. Alban Preaubert also answered all questions in strong English.

Here at Skate America, the number of reporters who go to the mixed zone and press conferences is much smaller than at an event like the U.S. Championships or Worlds. For the non-Japanese skaters, it was usually between three and seven of us in there, so there is an intimacy that doesn't occur at the larger events. It is this kind of setting that has benefits for both the skaters and the journalists.

For the new or up-and-coming skaters, it is our chance to get to know them better. Of course skaters are performers as well as athletes, so they are capable of putting on a façade when faced with the media. With only five people together, most of the skaters seem to let down a bit of their guard. To hear Tiffany Vise & Derek Trent talk about being in a competition with the skaters they see on TV, it drives home how young this Olympic quadrennium is.