Karen Chen
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Virtual figure skating competition offers glimpse of sport’s possible future

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It was early April. The 2020 World Figure Skating Championships had been canceled by Covid-19, abruptly ending last season. Rinks were closing down for health reasons. Some entire countries were on lockdown.

Anyone who has been around figure skating as long as Gale Tanger could see even then how difficult it would be to have any competitions the rest of 2020 if they required travel by athletes or officials, whether the events were international, national, regional or local.

Tanger, an international judge for 32 years, began looking for an alternative to give elite U.S. skaters left unmoored by the pandemic’s impact at least something that could feel like a competition, something to anchor a goal in the early part of the 2020-21 season.

So the Peggy Fleming Trophy became the first virtual event in the sport’s history.

“It worked!!!!!!!” an excited Tanger said in an email late Tuesday, after the judging of the competition was completed. “What an incredible leap for our sport. Obstacles have been removed, and a new highway has been paved.”

A 90-minute streamed video of the event will be available to the public beginning Friday at 7 p.m. EDT on the U.S. Figure Skating Fan Zone video center. The question now is whether this concept can be expanded during the pandemic to make more competitions possible.

“Any time you experiment with something new, you always are paying attention to how it can be applied to other things – and for normal times, as well,” U.S. Figure Skating spokesman Michael Terry said. “The virtual concept has not yet been discussed for any other specific events, including the qualifying season (for the 2021 U.S. Championships).”

Tanger figured the Peggy Fleming Trophy was a good place to experiment. The event, which she and 1968 Olympic champion Fleming had created in 2018, already was an alternative to the usual competition format.

It has just one program, a three-and-a-half-minute freestyle in which there is heavy emphasis on artistry and musicality and significantly reduced weight on jumps. It allows men to compete against women and is easier to judge than an event using the International Judging System and ISU rules.

The third Peggy Fleming Trophy was supposed to take place July 1 at the Broadmoor World Arena in Colorado Springs, its home in 2018 and 2019. When it was clear by late April that doing it live would likely be impossible for public safety reasons, Tanger enlisted the help of U.S. Figure Skating and immediately began working through the logistics of doing it virtually.

After all, Tanger and her husband, Tom, who live in Wauwatosa, Wis., had been using Zoom to help with the virtual schooling of their grandchildren in Sydney, Australia, and she was using Facebook Live to judge off-ice competitions in Latin America. She thought there had to be a way to use such technology for a judged competition in which both athletes and judges could take part from their own rink or, in the case of the judges, their home or office.

Once the various parties were sufficiently convinced it could be done to post an online entry announcement, the 18-person field filled overnight.

Gale Tanger
Gale Tanger at the 2019 Peggy Fleming Trophy at the Broadmoor World Arena. (Courtesy Gale Tanger)

“I thought we may have found the Holy Grail,” Tanger said, referring to the way skaters responded to a solution to save at least this event.

“It’s so great that everyone associated with the event is trying to test the waters and see what is possible,” said 2018 Olympian Karen Chen, third in last year’s Peggy Fleming Trophy and a virtual contestant in the 2020 event.

This was the basic premise: each skater would perform a program at his or her convenience between July 8 and 10. He or she would submit video of the program, to be shot from a high center-ice position. Multiple attempts were permitted, but the video chosen had to be of a single complete attempt, with no editing.

The seven judges and technical specialist David Santee, all qualified to work international events, watched the videos from eight different places via Zoom at the same time Tuesday, as if they were in an arena. They scored on iPads, using the IJS software they have at live events, and they have taken a vow of secrecy about the results until the event is streamed.

Could it be more than a one-off? Probably not for more significant events like the Grand Prix series. The International Skating Union council will again discuss its fate for 2020 in early August. A decision is supposed to be made by Aug. 1 on Skate America, the series opener, scheduled Oct. 23-25 in Las Vegas.

To the question of whether the ISU is looking at a virtual format as a possibility for some events this season, ISU vice-president Alexander Lakernik said in an email: “No… At least at the moment.”

Added Fabio Bianchetti of Italy, chair of the ISU singles and pairs technical committee: “I didn’t know about the idea of having it (the Peggy Fleming Trophy) online this year, and I think it is a wonderful possibility to do it in this way in such a difficult moment. As to the possibility of using this format for other events this season, I have no answer. The matter has never been discussed so far.”

Chen, who has been training at the World Arena since late May, chose an expanded version of a short program to Katy Perry’s version of “Rise” that Drew Meekins had choreographed for her to use this season. She did three “takes,” with about 30 minutes between each, for an iPhone recording done by her boyfriend, Camden Pulkinen, the 2018 U.S. junior champion, who also competed. Another competitor, Andrew Torgashev, shot iPhone video of Chen as a backup.

(Defending champion Jason Brown heads the field, which includes 12 athletes who train at the World Arena. For a complete list of the competitors, now 10 women and seven men after Amber Glenn withdrew, click here.)

“I was quite happy with my first attempt, but I got nit-picky and ran two more,” Chen said. “I finally decided to use the third because it didn’t make sense to go with the first after all that effort.”

The limitations of iPhone video, where close-ups can lead to a blur from pixelization, meant about half the rink was visible on nearly all of Chen’s video. That obviously reduced the size of her image.

“For the most part, all the skaters’ videos were clear,” Tanger said.

Pulkinen, who competed in the first two editions of the Peggy Fleming Trophy (finishing second in 2018), also did three takes, using the third, as videographed by Torgashev. His performance, to “In This Shirt” by The Irrepressibles, enlarged on the new short program choreographed for him by Josh Farris.

“I tried to treat it as if each run-through was my only shot, the way it would be in a normal competition, instead of falling back on the mindset that if one was bad, I have multiple attempts,” Pulkinen said. “I felt the same sense of relief one would typically feel at the end of a competition.”

Pulkinen did not think it was impossible for a variation on this format to be used for more important events, perhaps with each competitor using a live feed and taking the ice one after another for a single attempt. It might require choreographic changes for skaters knowing they are not being judged on the view from several sets of eyes but on the view from a single camera angle.

“I’m keeping an open mind and taking this as, ‘Okay, this is a trial run for how video competitions may be, and maybe I learn how to choreograph something differently to appeal more to that specific camera more,’” Pulkinen said.

Such “virtually live” competitions would eventually depend on the ability of the ISU or USFS to ensure a high-quality, very reliable stream created with professional video equipment by a professional camera operator at the many rinks where skaters would perform. Given the money saved if there are no live Grand Prix or Junior Grand Prix events, arranging for such equipment might be money well spent to preserve some of the season.

“I think it would be very mentally challenging to do live feed competitions,” Chen said. “Part of competition is its whole environment: being with other skaters, feeling the pressure, having the adrenaline kick in when you get on the ice with people cheering.

“Letting go of that side of competition and embracing this new side will be quite challenging for people. I think it could work, but there will need to be a lot of experimentation.”

Over the weekend, Tanger judged a “live” off-line competition run by Argentina that had skaters from four countries. The marks were simple, on a scale of 1-to-10, but so was the execution of a concept that would have seemed like science fiction a few years ago.

Now the Peggy Fleming Trophy has paved a few miles of a way for figure skating to travel the information highway.

Philip Hersh, who has covered figure skating at the last 11 Winter Olympics, is a special contributor to NBCSports.com/figure-skating.

MORE: Jason Brown remains optimistic facing uncertain skating season

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Figure skating Grand Prix events in China remain scheduled

Grand Prix Final
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Figure skating Grand Prix events in China in November and December remain scheduled, the International Skating Union announced Monday, four days after reports about international sporting events in China being canceled through the end of 2020.

A notice about sports events, issued Thursday by the General Administration of Sport of China, made an exception for Beijing Winter Olympic test events and other preparations for the first Winter Games in China in February 2022.

The Grand Prix Final, the second-most prestigious annual figure skating competition, is still scheduled for December in Beijing because it is an Olympic test event.

Furthermore, the Cup of China, one of six events across the globe that determines Grand Prix Final qualifiers, remains scheduled for November in Chongqing because it is related to the Final.

“Like for all other five ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating events in the different countries, this is of course subject to finding the necessary logistical, medical and safety solutions to hold the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating events as planned,” according to the ISU.

The ISU previously announced it set a deadline to decide on possible event cancellations: 12 weeks before an event starts. For the first Grand Prix Series competition, Skate America in Las Vegas, the decision deadline is Aug. 1.

The ISU council will meet virtually on Aug. 3 to decide on further action for upcoming competitions.

MORE: Tai Babilonia, a Winter Olympic original, credits skating trailblazer

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Tai Babilonia, a U.S. Winter Olympic original, credits figure skating trailblazer

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When pairs’ figure skater Tai Babilonia debuted at the Olympics in 1976, the fact that her presence in Innsbruck, Austria, was historic did not enter her 16-year-old mind.

None of the previous 500-plus U.S. Winter Olympians dating to 1924 were Black. Babilonia is multiracial. Her mom is Black. Her dad was half Filipino and half Hopi.

“The whole family, we got the stares,” said Babilonia, noting people didn’t believe she was related to her older brother, who was a few shades darker. “At some point you kind of have to laugh it off.”

Babilonia, introduced to skating and given her first name by her godfather, Mako Nakashima, never felt uncomfortable in the predominantly white sport. Part of the reason: Mabel Fairbanks, her childhood skating teacher in Culver City, Calif.

Fairbanks was a trailblazer. In the 1930s, she wasn’t allowed to join a figure skating club because she was Black, and thus barred from competition. Yet Fairbanks still ended up in the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame, having skated in international shows and coached future Olympic and world champions.

“She always told me and her other students of color, when you get out there to perform and compete, it doesn’t matter what color you are, you still have to go out and give it your best,” Babilonia said in a recent interview. “Pearls of wisdom I use to this day.”

Fairbanks first matched Babilonia, then 8 years old, and Randy Gardner, then 10, as a pairs’ team for a small skating show at their club. Babilonia had never held a boy’s hand. She was bribed with stickers and Barbie dolls. She and Gardner skated together over six different decades.

In Culver City, she felt like part of a family. Fairbanks’ group was diverse.

“Black, Hispanic, Asian, mixed,” Babilonia said. “It wasn’t until we would go to competitions, like the nationals, where it’s like, oh, OK, it’s predominantly white. But at 13 years old, it’s like, who cares? I’m 13.”

Babilonia was 13 when she and Gardner won the U.S. junior pairs’ title. They later took five straight senior national titles and the 1979 World title, sandwiched between two Olympic appearances. No U.S. pair has won a world title since.

When Babilonia and Gardner competed at their first Olympics in 1976, the bulk of the figure skating attention went to Dorothy Hamill. When journalists did interview Babilonia, she told them her exact background.

“They turn around and give me a label: exotic,” she said. “I would see exotic a lot. Well I didn’t say exotic. I said Black, Filipino, Hopi Indian.”

What was said, what was written, it didn’t matter during her seven competitive seasons before turning professional.

“That’s out of my hands,” she said. “I’ve got to go out and do the job. Randy and I had a job to do, and we did it from 1973 to 1980.”

Babilonia and Gardner, after surprising themselves by placing fifth in 1976, entered the 1980 Lake Placid Games as reigning world champions.

Dominant Russians Irina Rodnina and Aleksandr Zaitsev didn’t compete at the 1979 Worlds due to Rodnina’s pregnancy, but perhaps Babilonia and Gardner could challenge the Soviet reign (four straight golds dating to 1964) on home ice.

They didn’t.

Gardner pulled a groin muscle training in Santa Monica 10 days before leaving for Lake Placid. He then aggravated it in practice the night after the Opening Ceremony. They tried a last resort minutes before the short program: a pain-killing shot of xylocaine. It left Gardner so numb that he couldn’t control his leg muscles and fell multiple times in warm-up.

They withdrew. Their Olympic careers were over.

“That Olympic incident had a very lasting impression on her and the what-if,” Gardner said. “She was always so kind and thoughtful about me. She would always say, ‘He had an injury. What could anybody do about it?’ I think that was so kind of her. She could have ditched me.”

As a touring professional in the 1980s, Babilonia found she was an inspiration to young girls. Fan mail poured in.

“I know some people have named their kids after her,” Gardner said.

Babilonia also plunged into alcoholism in her 20s. She tried to commit suicide on Sept. 14, 1988.

“I bought some sleeping pills and a bottle of booze,” she wrote in a 1989 People magazine cover story. “I cleaned my house and wrote a will leaving my cats to my parents, my car to my brother and my antique dolls to the L.A. Children’s Museum. I was calm and I was serious.”

She woke up the next morning. She started getting help.

Babilonia and Gardner remained skating partners — “soulmate,” Babilonia calls Gardner now. Gardner remembered appearing on the cover of Jet magazine with Babilonia, but that she didn’t care for the attention and didn’t want to identify as one race.

“I just don’t think Tai got the recognition she deserved, if she wanted it,” as a pioneer, he said. “I don’t really think she really cared that much about it, though, to be honest.”

Babilonia was asked if she considered herself a pioneer. She paused, then answered.

“In a multiracial way, yes,” she said. “I think I am the first multiracial Olympic figure skater with the Black, Filipino, Hopi Indian makeup. Is that a pioneer? I don’t know.”

She was followed by Black Winter Olympians in bobsled, luge, speed skating, hockey and, most notably in figure skating, 1988 bronze medalist Debi Thomas.

Babilonia points to her predecessors whom she calls legends, like Fairbanks and another Fairbanks student — Atoy Wilson, the first Black skater to win a U.S. title, at the novice level in 1966.

Babilonia is active with Diversify Ice, a non-profit providing opportunities for minorities in figure skating. She wants to see more Black skaters at the U.S. Championships and more people of color in leadership roles within the sport.

She often thinks about Fairbanks, who died in 2001. Others are learning about Fairbanks now, including Adam Rippon, who recently called her “pretty damn chic.”

“She is the sole person responsible for creating Tai and Randy,” Babilonia said. “Every night before I go to bed, I thank her.”

MORE: Jason Brown remains optimistic facing uncertain skating season

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This is Mabel Fairbanks. She’s pretty damn chic. She is someone I’ve just recently learned about. Mabel wasn’t allowed to join any skating club, never had access to ice time, and wasn’t allowed to enter competitions because she was black. She was persistent AF and found different ways to get on the ice and skate. She later traveled abroad as a show skater and then worked as a skating coach in LA. She was an amazing coach and taught many of the champions and skaters I looked up to when I first started skating. So, today on #olympicparalympicday, I’m going to celebrate Mabel. She didn’t have the chance to qualify or skate in an Olympic Games because of the color of her skin. She paved the way for so many to live out our dreams. Thank you, Mabel ❤️

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