COVID On Ice: Some Thoughts About the 2022 U.S. Figure Skating Championships

Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan on the ice at the Winter Olympc Games
Yeah, you know the meme: My plans vs. COVID, blah blah blah, etc.

I can’t believe I am even bothering with anything for this fucking sport, especially in a time when the pandemic continues to rage.

But last night, as the first practice session for Championship Women’s wrapped up, the news broke about the pairs team of Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier—a favorite for gold—withdrawing on account of COVID-19 that I feel if I don’t say something about how the pandemic has winded its way through the sport, that it would just eat at me for the rest of eternity.

I think I want to start this off with a brief, loose timeline of what I saw and experienced as an adult skater. Then I’ll dive into the international/elite scene. I’ll try to be as comprehensive as possible without boring you to tears. Emphasis on try.

Let me bring it back to March 2020. I had competed at the Eastern Adult Sectionals event (a qualifying event for Adult Nationals) and done really well. Actually, I was doing amazingly for a season in which I tore my meniscus a month prior, hitting personal and season’s best, as well as competing in my first international event. Yeah, I’m gonna gloat.

Mid-February, COVID hit Italy (as we all know by know) and I was warned by my family abroad to take this seriously. I did the best that I could with the knowledge available to me at the time and proceeded with caution, assuming this would never hit the States. (It is wild to think that the last real social thing I did outside of competition preparation was to attend the Tibet House concert at Carnegie Hall. All those people!)

Sure enough, COVID came for all of us. What I didn’t know at the time was that an official at the event was infected. It is wild to think of how many people were crammed into the rink, with the most minimum of safety precautions (hand sanitizer!). On March 27, competitors learned by email that the official who had contracted COVID had died. Others did come down with the virus and survived. In retrospect, I think about how fortunate I was to have dodged a bullet, as the saying goes.

And so began the Great Shutdown. Rinks closed, there was a demand for inline roller blades (mine arrived in August!), and people had to figure out what to do without ice skating for a while. More or less. News about rinks being open began floating around on the skating backchannels and of course, there were plenty of skaters who would travel across state lines to get that ice time in—all during a time in which vaccines were still in development.

By the summer, rinks began to reopen with safety protocols, though as we would learn, temperature checks wouldn’t do a fucking thing to detect the virus. Masks were required, locker rooms were closed and skaters had to lace up outside. It was the best they could do with the knowledge they had. I remained off the ice, because these protocols weren’t sufficient for me. My coach, whom I had not heard from since the day I competed, reached out to me about resuming lessons. I let him know I was remaining off the ice for the foreseeable future until a vaccine was available, and his response was “We could all be dead next week, you should just do it.”

That’s when I knew the tide had turned in skating. There’s always been a “rise and grind” mentality in the sport, but “rise and risk” started to become the dominant attitude, even amongs my adult skating peers. Rinks began to loosen their already weak safety protocols.

Elite events began to return, mostly because someone in the USFS/ISU home offices began to scream about it. Much like professional sports, the concept of the bubble would emerge. Events would be held without audiences. Even as a fan, it was unsettling to watch skaters perform to literally no one. I kept on thinking, none of this should be happening. Why is this happening?

Then in 2021, the vaccines arrived. Thank fucking god, the vaccines arrived! For a moment, it felt like the end was in sight. But there was no campaign from US Figure Skating or the Interational Skating Union to encourage vaccination, in the same way they had worked to get the message out about Staying Home and Staying Safe.

I didn’t see my skating pals boast about their vaccination on social media—especially the ones who could be categorized as influencers—in the same way my non-ice friends did. (Yes, there were a lot of conversations about the safety and “privilege” of sharing vax status but also? Fuck that noise. Look at our current hellscape.) The safety protocols at rinks were more or less the same as they were in Summer 2020, but even then the requirements for masking began to slide. Waxed and Vaxxed™, this still didn’t sit right with me. So I remained off the ice for another summer, which was fine, because I had found a good roller hockey rink where I could rollerskate and frankly, I needed the Vitamin D after all that staying indoors.

Because this was the season leading into the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing, the ISU resumed having events. We had Nebelhorn Trophy and finally the list of entrants for OWG was beginning to take shape. I attended the US International Classic in Boston (double masked!) and saw Alexandra Trusova skate to the music of the Stooges. I went down to Maryland to see friend in one of the few remaining hotel-based ice shows. I stepped on the ice myself for a couple of weeks in November. For a hot minute, it seemed like the safety protocols were working. All things considered, Fall 2021 was as normal as we could get. Maybe we were seeing a way out of this.

And then, Omicron. Unlike other variants, it was more transmissable and hit everyone all at once. The Grand Prix Final, the first of the big competitions for the season, was rightfully cancelled. But individual countries, like Russia, continued to have their domestic championship events. Russian Nationals is usually a delightful, dramatic way to spend Christmas, but watching a packed house without any masking cheer on skaters whose vaccination statuses were unclear made me sick to my stomach.

It took a brush with exposure in early December to send me back into lockdown, but I didn’t see the same thing happening with the skaters I knew nor the sport at-large. Even as other industries were starting to require proof of vaccination for entry, I saw none of this trickle down to skating. People continued to have their holiday shows in rinks with lacking in safety protocols. Here we are in 2022, and things feel more chaotic than ever.

It’s been known for 2 years, if not more, that Nationals were going to be held in Nashville. This is the result of extensive campaigning by Scott Hamilton, an Olympic medalist and former commentator who has enormous sway over the sport and has since made the city home base for his own training academy. We already knew that USFS could shift gears for the event, it had happened the year prior. 2021 was originally slated for San Jose and subsequently moved to Las Vegas because it could provide them the necessary safety measures. So to see the organization dig its heels in for this location—in a state where the GOP has a stranglehold and actively thwarted any and all COVID safety efforts—isn’t simply appalling, it’s the culmination of an organization that has never prioritized its athletes. (People always say to keep politics out of skating, but what I have discovered is that skating is perhaps one of the purest ways of understanding how political forces work. I guess I never needed to take Poli Sci 101 when I had Lucy Brennan failing my figure tests all those years instead!)

From the way that body image issues remain pervasive in the sport to the sexual abuse scandals it keeps trying to ignore, figure skating has never been a safe haven. I know this from personal experience as a young competitor in the high development system and now as an adult, to see the complete disregard for safety from my adult skating peers and the organization at-large disgusts me to my very core.

I don’t believe in religion, but I do think some higher force is punishing USFS for holding these events, based on what we have already seen. The USFS required proof of vax or a negative PCR test for entry. (Reminder: A negative PCR test is not an acceptabe substitute for getting vaccinated!) Knierim/Frazier were on a practice session, unmasked and allora, now they’re out of the event with a positive COVID diagnosis. There are audience reports of people sitting in the stands without masks and no enforcement. Journalist Christine Brennan tweeted out a photo of a USFS hospitality suite where the majority of people in attendance were unmasked in a small space. Given what we know about the transmissability of the Omicron variant, it would be a reasonable assumption that any spectator, athlete, event volunteer, official, or otherwise poses the risk of being infected or being an asymptomatic carrier now. Great work, United States Figure Skating!

USFS did not have to have this event. They could have told everyone to stay home and make their Olympic Team selections based on the existing criteria. Or they could have fucking scrapped the criteria and say “Fuck it, we’re going with whoever we want.” That this event continues—and as a fan, I am still unsure about whether I want to watch and give them the satisfaction of engagement—says so much about the current state of COVID in America, January 2022 edition. Skating should have been a pleasant distraction from the current state of things (especially on the first anniversary of the January 6th riots), but it drives home how deep our problems are, and that as a society we haven’t learned any real lessons. Profits and prestige above the dignity of human lives. Shame on all of us, really.

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