Sunday, March 17, 2013

Canada's London shines!

Before I start this review of the World Figure Skating Championships – Ladies’ Free Program, let me point out something important. I am not, nor will I ever be, a figure skater. In fact, the last time I wore skates at the age of 8, I ended up with a broken wrist after completing the highly difficult move of STEPPING ONTO THE ICE

I am, however, a figure skating fan, although more for the artistry of it, than for the technical aspects. I have to be honest – I don’t know a lutz from a sow cow from an axel when I see them, but I do know when a performance moves me vs. when it just seems like a series jumps strung together into something robotic. I also know that if I fell as hard as some of the women I watched last night at Budweiser Gardens, I would still be on the ice moaning and possibly crying, waiting for some sort of sympathy ice cream cone or something. 

I was excited to be chosen as the #BGreviewer for this final competition of the World’s, not only because of my love of figure skating, but because curiosity was starting to get the best of me as to what was happening in our downtown. Was it really alive with excitement? Were thousands of tourists really checking out the shops and restaurants that I take for granted daily? What did they think of Canada’s London? And what was this light show all about? 

I need to thank Bud Gardens for allowing me to explore the answers to these questions, because in doing so, I came away with a new appreciation for my city and what we can accomplish when given the opportunity. 

First though, let’s talk about the ladies’ final. There were 24 skaters vying for top spot, representing 17 different countries and it was clear from the looks on their faces that each one was in it to win it. The top two tiers (each tier had six skaters) took to the ice and performed lovely routines that drew cheers from the supportive crowd. But when tier three got underway, it was clear the level of difficulty was beginning to ramp up. Jumps were more difficult, falls were harder, spins were faster and that gracefulness that only comes through experience was obvious.

At the close of this tier, it was clear that something big was about to happen. Chatter among audience members got noticeably louder. Flags began appearing around the arena for USA, Japan, Italy, Canada and Korea. And in a move that delighted my tech loving husband, iPads began popping up out of nowhere. Apparently if you're a figure skating enthusiast, you come prepared to follow every aspect of a skate, right down to watching the judges scoring breakdowns in real time as they’re posted online. Who knew? I didn’t. The row of 12 women in front of me clearly did! 

Our seat mates to the left from Rochester, NY – who up to this point we hadn’t really chatted with – began filling us in on some tidbits of information on the upcoming skaters. Mao Asada from Japan was apparently going to attempt a quad, Yuna Kim of Korea who was currently in first place after the short program was looking hard to beat. I tucked those tips into my back pocket and resolved to watch Asada closely in case the quad materialized – hoping I would recognize it if it did. We didn’t chat with our seat mates to the right due to language difficulties, but the rapid pace of their chatter during the fourth tier warm up led me to believe they were getting excited for this final group. 

I could tell you about each skater in this tier...who got the loudest cheers...who fell multiple times...who had the coolest outfits. But instead, the one thing that stands out for me that I want to share is the determination and spirit of one woman – Carolina Kostner of Italy. It was obvious during warm up that something was wrong. Carolina was skating around with her head tilted back, skating over to her coaches from time to time before heading out to warm up a little more. As it came time for her performance, the audience has started to figure it out – Carolina’s nose was bleeding...a lot. But it was her slot to perform, and I imagine when it’s your time, you have to just get out there and do your best. It seemed there were no time outs allowed in this competition. Well, to the amazement of the packed crowd, not only did this brave young woman skate, but she skated almost flawlessly. Blood drops appeared on the ice as she flipped and spun through the air as if nothing was wrong. Moans of sympathy and amazement filled the arena when Carolina performed a complex set of spins flawlessly, all while pinching her nose, head tipped back to try to slow the flow. A well deserved standing ovation followed this brave performance, as the young flower girls were sent out on the ice to clean the spots before the next performance. 

That brave performance earned Carolina Kostner a silver medal. As our new pals from NY predicted, Yuna Kim did, indeed, win the gold, and Mao Asada (who incidentally did not attempt the quad) earned the bronze. Canadian Kaetlyn Osmond, who went into the free program in fourth place, fell to eighth spot after a few unfortunate falls. 

The medal presentations quickly followed the event, and I was pleased to see that most people remained in their seats for the ceremony, regardless of what skater they were cheering for. I had read stories during the week of the wonderful Amabile choir learning over 30 national anthems for the week, but still gasped a little as the spotlight was turned onto the group all dressed in flowing white, and they began singing the Korean national anthem as if they had known it for their entire lives. Kudos Amabile singers – you did London proud this week! 

We wrapped up our night outside Bud Gardens watching the final “Tree of Light” show which really was a sight to see. We stood shoulder to shoulder with hundreds – perhaps even thousands – of Londoners and tourists from around the world watching images of figure skaters then and now, mixed with highlights of Canada’s London. If you missed your chance to see it in person, you can watch it here although I guarantee it won’t be as exciting as standing under a light snowfall, listening to the oohs and aahs of the crowd. 

As my husband and I returned home, we chatted about how glad we were that we had the opportunity to be part of this once in a lifetime event in our city. We had started the week with a resolve to stay away from the ‘craziness’ that we expected downtown, but now realize that had we done that, we would have missed being a part of London’s shining moment. 

Well deserved kudos need to go to:

Budweiser Gardens – not only for allowing us this opportunity, but for consistently making London a better place. I remember a time not that long ago where I would lament all the ‘cool’ shows going to Toronto, and wishing that London had that kind of excitement. Well, we do now, and this was just one more shining example! 

To Londoners for showing the world that we are a classy, hospitable city which was worthy of this event. I know that local businesses and restaurants didn’t see the huge bump in business that they were hoping for this week – and after being ‘on the inside’, I can understand why with very short breaks in between competitions – however, I have no doubt that some of those heading home today will leave with an intention to return to London one day. There will be a return on this investment  - I’m sure of it. 

To the London Police Service – last night I watched thousands of fans pour out of Bud Gardens, as hundreds more gathered for the Tree of Lights and still hundreds more gathered outside downtown bars to starts their St. Patrick’s Day celebrations early. This could have been a recipe for disaster, but instead it was a calm, orderly evening and that’s because of you. Our visitors thank you and so do I. I have never crossed a downtown street easier than I did last night! 

To our visitors from far and wide – I hope you enjoyed your time in London and are taking back good memories of your time here. We can sometimes forget how big this world really is as we go about our day to day lives, but this week, you reminded us that there’s a whole world out there to explore, as you explored our little city. We look forward to hosting you again as visitors and as new friends. Don’t be strangers.

To all the naysayers – if you were speaking this week, no one could hear you over the music, and for that I am thankful. Our city isn’t perfect – no city is – but when we have a chance to shine for the world, we owe it to ourselves to put our best foot forward. There are more great things about London than there are negative. If there weren’t, none of you would be here. Continue to stand up for what is right – we owe ourselves that too – but don’t forget that it’s ok to celebrate when London does something right. And boy, did we do something right this week. 

PS – covering this event didn’t come without regrets. Not being brave enough to speak to Toller Cranston and Joanie Rochette as I walked past each of them, not seeking out Kurt Browning to tell him he’s the reason I love figure skating the way I do, not getting a soft pretzel even though they looked so yummy, not asking my seat mates to teach me how to say “hello” in Japanese so I could confuse friends and family...the list goes on. I guess these will have to wait until London hosts another international skating event – except the pretzel – that’s going to happen sooner – I guarantee it. 

さようなSayōnara – goodbye world!