Figure skaters get a leg up from those behind the scenesby Nikki Tundel, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — At the U.S. Figure Skating Championships in St. Paul, most of the attention is on the lutzes and axels and the rare quadruple toe loop.
But there are also some pretty nice French twists.
"Actually my goal is to not have my hair be bigger than my partner's shoulders," says pairs skater Jennifer Wester.
The nation's top skaters may be able to throw the perfect triple salchow. But few have the ability to braid their own hair or mend the inevitable tears in their lycra. For those things, they rely on the talents of others.
"I'm getting my make up done. It's our Russian coaches, they insist," says competitor Logan Giulietti-Schmitt. "They just want me to have a little more color, I think, so they can see my face."
In a dark corridor of the Excel Energy Center sit the make-up artists and hairstylists. It's their job to make sure the skaters look their best during their four minutes out on the ice.
"Everything has to be a complete package," says make-up artist and former skater Kimber Heartly. "And if you're out of sorts and the judges feel that's taking away they will probably comment. Or they could actually technically deduct for that."
Which means the difference between first and second place can come down to, well, hairspray.
"We just go for the maximum hold," explains Heartly. "The rock solid that's not going to move that makes your hair just a hard helmet hat."
Out near the ice is Chip Rauth, the head music coordinator for the figure skating competition.
Rauth, a Twin Cities resident and former figure skater, works with a team of engineers from across the country, handling the music for every competitor at nationals.
"We're always adjusting the volume," explains Rauth. "If we have a loud crowd and somebody lands a great triple, the crowd can get very loud in a building like this. We have to make sure the skaters are always hearing the music. So the music gets as loud as the crowd does."
Classical music is still the most common choice of skaters. But Rauth says the tune selections get more and more interesting each year.
"That would be a very kind way of putting it," he says. "We all, of course, have our own opinions of good music and bad music. The music at a competition like this runs the gamut from one extreme to the other -- from Swan Lake to Def Leopard and Molly Hatchet. You name it. And we make it sound as good as we can."
On the far edge of the rink sit six girls in blue sequins and nervous smiles. They're not part of the line-up, but they will make an appearance on the ice.
"We're supposed to pick up the teddy bears and flowers that people throw on the ice when the skaters skate," says one of the girls.
These are the ice sweepers. And they're kind of like the ball girls in tennis. After each skater performs, the sweepers swoop in and gather up the roses and stuffed animals and anything else audience members felt motivated to pitch out onto the rink.
Sounds easy enough, but the job comes with some pretty strict guidelines.
"We're not allowed to wink or draw any attention to ourselves," explains one girl.
"We're not supposed to smile," says another, before correcting herself. "No, wait, we're supposed to smile. We're not supposed to wave at our parents. And we're supposed to watch out for bobby pins and sequins to make sure that the skaters stay safe."
And what if they get the urge to do just one little spin while out on the ice?
"Oh, that'd be bad."
All the girls are trained skaters so the trip down the ice is a breeze. They return with armfuls of things that clearly would have been obstacles had they been left on the ice.
One got a rose. Another, a photo album. Another sweeper collected a stuffed lion donning ice skates.
One sweeper picked up "a Pez dispenser. And it was wrapped in snakes, fake rubber snakes."
And just what do the ice sweepers think prompts a spectator to throw some rubber snakes or a stuffed animal out onto the ice?
"It depends 'cause, like, some just watch one skater. Then there's other people who are like, 'Oh, I don't really know a lot about skating. She looks pretty. Let's throw the bear now.' That's what I think."
One of the most vital volunteers at this skating competition comes armed only with a needle and thread.
"We end up mending a lot of pants, a lot of torn mesh," says Louisa Pineault, one of the event's seamstresses.
She calms down the aspiring champion who's torn a big hole in her spandex during warm-ups. And she reassures the hands-on favorite who ripped a seam ten minutes before he's to defend his title.
"It's my job to talk them off the ceiling and say, 'It's ok. We can fix this. It's no big deal.'"
Pineault works wonder with elastic and rhinestones. And she's a whiz at getting blood out of competition costumes.
"With these new Biellmann spins where the gal is catching her blade behind her head, (there are) a lot of cut fingers, (with) those sharp blades. One gal cut her finger on her blade and then put her hand on her partner's white shirt," remembers Pineault. "I had to get that blood stain out before they competed again."
Adds Pineault, "It's kind of fun to see the dresses you fixed and say, 'I did that skirt. I remember those pants.' So there's some professional pride when you see your handiwork go out on the ice."
In total, there are over 800 volunteers working behind the scenes at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. And it takes all of them to ensure the competitors can execute their camel spins and cartwheel lifts exactly as they should.
- All Things Considered, 01/25/2008, 6:24 p.m.