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.”