Figure skating gifts

Figure skaters recall odd gifts from fans

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Michelle Kwan still has bags of stuffed animals, and she doesn’t know what to do with them.

The toys are mostly at least 10 years old, thrown on the ice by fans after her figure skating performances. Kwan believes the bags are collecting dust in the attic of her parents’ home.

“I think it’s a little too late to give stuffed animals [away to children] because they’re so old now,” Kwan said at a Figure Skating in Harlem gala in New York last week. “The kids will be like, ‘They make these still?’ … I don’t think kids would want to play with them anymore.”

Ardent figure skating fans go to competitions toting presents they heave on the ice after their favorite skaters perform. Whether the skater lands quadruple jumps or falls on a simple spin, they will receive lovely parting gifts.

Usually, children called “sweepers” gather the teddy bears, fake flowers, even candy for the skaters, who will sometimes pick up one or two items themselves on their way to the kiss-and-cry area.

It’s one of the sport’s unique traditions that grew more visible this past season, if one looked closely.

In January, U.S. Olympian Gracie Gold received a small stuffed sea creature at the U.S. Championships in Greensboro, N.C. Her coach, 76-year-old Frank Carroll, appeared to try to take a bite out of it while Gold waited for her scores.

In February, Gold carried a stuffed white bear about half her size to the kiss-and-cry area at the Four Continents Championship in Seoul. The bear wore a pink backpack, Gold opened it and pulled out a bag of Reese’s peanut butter cups while waiting for her judges’ scores.

The world’s most popular skater, Japan’s Yuzuru Hanyu, is known to have a Winnie-the-Pooh tissue box with him at competitions.

In March, gold and red Pooh bears rained on the ice at the World Championships in Shanghai, China, following Hanyu’s short program. At least 10 sweepers required minutes to clean the surface.

Hanyu’s friendly rival, Spain’s Javier Fernandez, was scheduled to skate after Hanyu in the next day’s long program.

“I’m going to skate around [the bears] and try not to kill myself,” Fernandez reportedly said then.

Active and retired U.S. skaters agreed that Japanese fans are on their own level.

“There’s adoration, and then there’s that,” 1992 Olympic silver medalist Paul Wylie said. “It’s like worship almost. I think that would be overwhelming for a skater. That is pressure.”

Wylie competed in the pre-sweepers era.

“You would go around, and you would take probably two to three minutes and then greet anyone who was giving you a rose or something like that,” he said. “People wouldn’t throw them. They would stand at the edge of the barrier, and then the skater would come by and have this meet and greet. Based on that, it was taking too long.”

Wylie’s account conjures this Coca-Cola commercial from the Salt Lake City 2002 Olympics:

“Back in the ’90s, it was popular to do flowers, which I don’t think they allow anymore because of the debris,” 1992 Olympic champion Kristi Yamaguchi said.

In 2001, U.S. Figure Skating banned flowers “in part because of safety concerns related to the Sept. 11 attacks and subsequent anthrax scares,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

“Sept. 11 made the U.S. Figure Skating Assn. move up a decision it was already going to make,” said Larry Kriwanek, chair of the Los Angeles 2002 U.S. Figure Championships organizing committee, according to the report. “Flowers were going to be eliminated. It was just a question of when.”

That did little to quell fans’ creativity.

“We sometimes will get stuffed animals made in custom costumes to match what we’re wearing,” Sochi Olympic ice dance champion Meryl Davis said, referring to partner Charlie White and herself.

Davis remembered as a child watching Kwan skate, and seeing the stream of stuffed animals being thrown by people sitting around her. But she said she’s never thrown a gift on the ice for another skater.

There’s difficulty in deciding which items to squeeze into luggage for the flight home. The others usually go to children’s hospitals.

“It’s tough to leave stuff behind, because you know that people are going out of their way to give it to you,” Davis said. “Usually in Japan, you get the most.”

Sasha Cohen, the 2006 Olympic silver medalist, received marriage proposals and, once in Paris, a bunch of Cashmere sweaters. She made sure to find room for them on her return flight.

“I may have worn them back,” she said.

The 1988 Olympic bronze medalist Debi Thomas once received a box of Domino’s Pizza. Canadian Olympic silver medalists Elvis Stojko and Patrick Chan have both said they received lingerie.

“The panties came out on the ice after my short program,” Stojko said in 2010, according to ESPN.com, “and the top came out the next night after the long program, with a phone number and name attached.”

Kwan, a nine-time U.S. champion, still has a buttoned, navy blue figure skating outfit with a skirt tossed by a fan.

“And it actually fit,” she said. “When I was a kid, I was 13 [years old] at Nationals, I used to keep every single toy. The next year, I got the same amount of stuffed animals, if not more, and I said, ‘What am I going to do with them?'”

Kwan said that, as a young spectator, she once threw a stuffed rabbit on the ice for Tisha Walker, a late 1980s and early 1990s U.S. skater.

Evan Lysacek, the 2010 Olympic champion, said he’s received a bobblehead of himself, among stranger things.

“I got a self-sufficient ecosystem with a statue of me in the middle, so if the earth ever like came to an end, you could open this up, and the earth would regrow again from the center of this ecosystem with a statue of me,” he said.

Wylie remembered a famous fan story from the late 1980s, when he skated on a tour that visited Milan.

The star of the show was East German Katarina Witt, the 1984 and 1988 Olympic champion. Wylie noticed a famous spectator, Italian Alpine skier Alberto Tomba.

“Tomba was kind of after her, you know,” Wylie said of the man-about-town, five-time Olympic medalist. “He came into the boys locker room and noticed that there was this mound of flowers that we had sort of set there because they were going to go to the hospital or whatever. He kind of second-hand picked up the flower and gave it to Katarina.”

Was the gift well-received?

“She kind of liked him, I think,” Wylie said, smiling. “I think it worked.”

Yevgeny Plushenko to return to figure skating competition

Olympian Tasha Schwikert says she is a Larry Nassar survivor, speaks out on Steve Penny

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Tasha Schwikert is at least the ninth Olympian to come forward as a Larry Nassar survivor.

“After months of grappling with the decision, I have decided to come forward as a victim of Larry Nassar,” was tweeted from the 2000 Olympic bronze medalist Schwikert’s account. “I want to join my former teammates and fellow survivors to help enact REAL change at @USAGym and @TeamUSA. #MeToo.

“I refuse to remain a victim. It is time for @USAGym and @TeamUSA to come clean and be held accountable for the toxic environment that enabled Nassar’s abuse. Only then will we see REAL change.”

Schwikert, now 33, was the youngest woman on the 2000 Olympic team across all sports, the U.S. all-around champion in 2001 and 2002, the 2003 World champion team captain and an alternate for the 2004 Olympic team.

Schwikert also said that ex-USA Gymnastics president and CEO Steve Penny pressed her to publicly support USA Gymnastics at the height of the Nassar scandal, according to ABC’s “World News Tonight.”

Penny was arrested Wednesday and indicted on charges he tampered with evidence in the Nassar sexual-assault investigation and on Thursday banned for life from USA Gymnastics. Penny’s lawyers said he is “confident that when all the facts are known it will be shown that he did nothing criminal.”

“Steve had always manipulated all of us, really, but I felt indebted to him,” Schwikert said on ABC. “Him and USA Gymnastics made me feel like if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be the person or the athlete who I was.”

She is at least the second member of the Sydney 2000 team to come forward as a Nassar survivor, joining Jamie Dantzscher, the first Olympian to do so in February 2017.

USA Gymnastics posted a statement from Schwikert on social media the night Dantzscher’s first interview aired, saying, “As a member of the national team from 1999-2004, I firmly believe USA Gymnastics always had my health and well-being top of mind. The program provided me with the resources and experiences that helped me achieve my goals.”

Penny resigned a month later.

Seven of the eight members of the 2012 or 2016 Olympic women’s artistic gymnastics teams have also come forward — Simone BilesGabby Douglas, Aly RaismanMcKayla MaroneyJordyn WieberKyla Ross and Madison Kocian. As have world championships team members among the hundreds of girls and women who said Nassar sexually abused them under the guise of medical treatment when he worked for Michigan State and USA Gymnastics.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Madison Hubbell, Zach Donohue can make it 10 straight at Skate America

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If Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue ever lacked motivation in the post-Olympic summer, they needed only scan their Montreal training ice.

They would spot France’s Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, the only ice dancers from the Olympic podium who return this season. Papadakis and Cizeron relegated the Americans to silver at March’s world championships, one month after Hubbell and Donohue were fourth in PyeongChang (the French took silver). They have trained under the same coaches in Quebec for three years.

They would also see Madison Chock and Evan Bates and Kaitlin Hawayek and Jean-Luc Baker, the third- and fourth-place finishers from January’s U.S. Championships. Those couples moved to the Montreal group in the spring. They are Hubbell and Donohue’s top threats to repeat as national champions in Detroit in three months, given U.S. silver medalists Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani are also taking a break.

Practicing next to rivals is often shunned in sports. It has elevated ice dance the last several years.

Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and Americans Meryl Davis and Charlie White trained together in Michigan and split the Olympic gold and silver medals in 2010 and 2014.

When Virtue and Moir returned from a two-year break in 2016, they joined the Montreal group and went one-two with training partners Papadakis and Cizeron at every major competition through PyeongChang.

Hubbell and Donohue thrived last season, their third in Montreal, winning their first national title after six straight years of finishing third or fourth. They were in position for an Olympic medal, third after the short dance, but Donohue fell in the free dance (as he did at 2017 Worlds after they were third in the short).

Then at worlds in March, they delivered back-to-back podium-worthy performances on the global stage for the first time for that silver medal. They are the world No. 2 and the favorites at this weekend’s Skate America, with the French not in the field.

U.S. couples have won nine straight Skate Americas, more than the other three disciplines combined in the last decade.

MORE: Skate America TV/Stream Schedule

“Clearly this formula is working for them,” NBC Sports analyst and 2006 Olympic ice dance silver medalist Tanith White said. “It has proven to work for many of the greatest teams in ice dance over the last few decades. … I cannot see a drawback.”

Hubbell and Donohue (and Papadakis and Cizeron) appear to agree.

They joked back and forth at a press conference after worlds in March. Asked how they would spend the offseason, Cizeron looked straight at Hubbell and Donohue and said, jokingly, “Our goal is to get drunk together as many times as we can.”

“As much as our own personal accomplishment is pretty incredible, being on the podium with training mates and having, literally, everyone from our training center skate the best programs of their season, all at the same competition, was pretty incredible,” Donohue said last week.

Hubbell and Donohue should breeze through Skate America in Everett, Wash. Nobody else from the top nine in PyeongChang is in the field. They’re the favorites next week at Skate Canada, too.

The first real test will be at December’s Grand Prix Final, where Papadakis and Cizeron should join them. Hubbell and Donohue never outscored the French in nine head-to-head competitions and were more than 10 points adrift at worlds.

“The French, where they left off last season, I think that they are still in a category on their own based on the last time we saw those two teams go up against each other,” White said. 

Hubbell said the world silver medal showed that they had tackled their demons, fear and history of errors. If the next goal is gold, they must conquer a much more visible foe, one they see every day on the ice.

“The podium at worlds,” Hubbell said, “was the moment I was able to leave that season behind me and go into the future.”

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