COVID crunch eating into icetime for figure skaters

Lara Lacharite has been watching her 13-year-old daughter Isabelle dig her blades into arena ice with the Prince George Figure Skating Club for the last six years, but that’s no longer allowed.

The stands are empty at skating practices and will stay that way until the threat of the pandemic subsides. It is forbidden for parents to remain at the rink. They can only be there as long as it takes the skaters to put on and take off their skates and then they have to leave. That’s the harsh reality of the COVID world.

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“That’s probably the biggest concern of parents, that they would like to go in and watch,” said Lara Lacharite. “It’s great to watch them, but I’m just happy they’re on the ice.”

Prince George arenas were shut in mid-March, when the pandemic began, and remained that way until August 17, when the city re-opened the three Kin Centre rinks after parents and skaters pressured city council to approve funding to open the rinks for user groups.

For Isabelle Lacharite, a Star 4 skater who usually ends her season in mid-May and takes the month of June off before getting back on the ice in mid-July to prepare for fall competitions, that two-month break turned into five without any icetime. Club coaches stepped up their online dryland training and instead of two or three sessions per week they’ve been getting together to practice their moves five times each week. But there’s no substitute for ice.

“As soon as spring break ended they did 45 minutes a day of dryland Monday to Friday, so that was awesome that they could stay active and keep those skating skills up, even though they couldn’t be on the ice,” said Lara Lacharite. “It was good she stayed connected with her skating friends on Zoom. But it’s a lot different wearing running shoes than wearing figure skates.”

Isabelle’s usual practice schedule would mean three 1 ½ hour or two-hour sessions on the ice per week, instead of the condensed hour-long icetimes they now have. The reduced COVID schedule means icetime for PGFSC skaters is about 80 per cent of normal, with four one-hour practices per week. That bottleneck is expected to ease in November, when the ice at CN Centre and Rolling Mix Concrete Arena is installed.

That day can’t come soon enough for Rory Allen. The director of skating for the Northern BC Centre for Skating says all his group sessions are maxed out with waiting lists. Even when the two other rinks open the city will still be without a sixth ice surface because council has elected to keep the Eksentre closed indefinitely to save money.

“There’s a common misconception that because there’s half of the arenas open that everyone’s getting half the ice they had last year but that’s very far from the truth,” said Allen. “Every user group has what they call switches in between each group going out on the ice, and every time a group changes everybody gets off and they clean for 15 minutes.

“So on average, we’re losing an additional 25 per cent for all the cleaning that’s happening. We’re used to having in the mid-20s for hours on the ice and we’re down to 9 ½. We’re anticipating around four or five more hours (with two other rinks available), but there will still be all this cleaning going on and it does subtract quite a lot.”

Provincial health office guidelines require rink attendants to clean and spray disinfectant for 15 minutes between each group session, which eats into the time available for skating. It also increases the length of the workday for full-time coaches like Allen.

“It’s literally like doing 45 minutes of work and then a break and 45 minutes and another break, it makes it very difficult to get in the zone and be productive,” said Allen.

Skaters are not allowed to linger in the rink and that means warm-up stretches and exercises have to be done away from the rink, which Allen says could increase the risk of injuries. Change rooms just opened up a couple weeks ago but each room is limited to just eight skaters at one time.

Reduced icetime means the Northern BC club’s power skating program taught by Kurtis Cormack has to combine skaters of different levels of ability in one practice session. Figure skaters also have to share their ice time with skaters who are either more or less advanced.

“It’s caused us to go into a one-room schoolhouse scenario,” said Allen. “Every program is running like that. We have a junior academy program which is designed to be a skater's intro to figure skating, right out of CanSkate, and it needs its own ice.

“Those kids need to get used to skating on full ice and getting power and strength and they’re brand new to figure skating, and they’re running at the same time as the Star 2 and Star 3 class. So everyone is crowded for space and crowded for lessons. It’s tough.”

Despite all the turmoil and the challenges coaches are going through trying to deliver the programs, Allen says his skaters have not lost their enthusiasm for skating. The numbers in his club remain healthy, with between 350 and 400 registered skaters.

“Those kids are just so happy to be back,” he said. “Kids need to have fun to stay motivated and another motivation is to have progress or a sense of accomplishment and that’s where I worry that if something doesn’t change it’s going to become a fruitless effort. Kids will stop and drop out.

“We’re the ones keeping kids goal-orientated and focused on improving themselves as humans, not just teaching them skating but all the things they will need to succeed in life instead of hanging out at the mall and doing graffiti in back alleys. These are very formative years and it’s critical for their development and maturation right now that we keep this going and we keep them focused and busy and direct them at time when there’s so much uncertainty going on right now.”

Public skating sessions in the arenas have been canceled. Those indoor icetimes are a source of future athletes for figure skating, speed skating, ringette and hockey and Allen fears that’s another closed door which will have a detrimental effect on society.

“You want the appetite to continue to be there, and right now it’s great,” said Allen. “But in terms of replenishing and cultivating new skaters, that’s what I worry about if the city doesn’t offer programs like public skating.

“We have these great facilities and when council was shutting rinks down they didn’t realize the outcry people would have and they underestimated just how obsessed our city is with skating. It is huge in this city, it’s so intense here. It’s preventative healthcare.”

The Prince George club now has about 100 registered skaters this fall, compared to the 380 it had last year. The club’s CanSkate learn-to-skate programs have been cut back severely and now instead of 65 CanSkate skaters there are just eight, with plans to increase capacity to 22 in November.

On the advice of SkateCanada, the two city clubs have cut out CanSkate lessons for the most inexperienced skaters because of health rules that forbid coaches from making contact with the skaters, even to help them up after a fall.

“We have one kid in our groups that’s three years old - we’re strictly hands-off in the rink but she’s able to stand up own her own,” said PGFSC head coach Jennifer Auston. “Most of our participants (in CanSkate and figure skating) are in the four-10 age category.

“I will say the kids are learning a little independence. Some kids who fall down and get hurt, they want to go have a hug from mom. Now they have to self-sooth, they’re adapting. Everyone seems to be adjusted well.”

 Auston said the city is looking at setting up a camera at the rinks to let parents watch what’s happening on the ice when they can’t be there.

“I think it’s a great idea because then at least the parents can see what their kids are doing, what the practices look like and can watch their kid progress,” she said. “I suspect we won’t see spectators in the rink for at least a year.”

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