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Susan D. Russell
Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy

By Rob Brodie

WINDSOR, Ont. — When you think of “skating cities,” this certainly isn’t one that first comes to mind. Not even in a country that embraces its image as a land of ice and sno.

In fact, it might be said the 2012 Skate Canada International being held here this week represents a first of sorts in terms of a major figure skating event.

But Windsor, a blue-collar ‘burg in southwestern Ontario with a longstanding connection to the auto industry it shares with its American neighbour across the Detroit River, has a relatively new arena that is trying to make a name for itself. Stars On Ice has visited here. So have Elton John and Michael Flatley, the ultimate lord of the dance.

But this weekend, Windsor and its WFCU Centre (the letters, for the uninitiated, stand for Windsor Family Credit Union, which holds the naming rights to the 6,500-seat building) are about a dance of a different kind.

For those not so familiar with this turf, early impressions have been good. Italian pairs skater Stefania Berton hadn’t been to Canada until now. Windsor, she says, is giving her positive thoughts about the place (she and partner Ondrej Hotarek, who finished second in Friday’s short program, spend part of the year training in Detroit).

This time of year is all about first impressions, and that’s the prism through which we’ll likely view everything we see this weekend. So far, at least, the building gets two thumbs up, the fans are a rather enthusiastic lot ... now it’s up to the skaters to inject a little bit a magic into the proceedings.

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It is often said that any publicity is good publicity. And yes, that includes the type of commentary one would hardly classify as being on the positive side.

With this thought in mind, I shift the discussion to the costumes worn by Skate Canada pairs champions Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy of Germany for their free program this afternoon.

Using words like “colorful” or “definitely different” wouldn’t even begin to do proper justice to the out- there outfits the Germans donned for their "Bolero" routine, a dramatic piece of music that has a long and storied history in the sport.

In fact, one reporter we know tweeted these words: “Have no clue how I'll describe in my story.” I’m guessing she wasn’t alone.

But Szolkowy insists the colorful garb fits right in. “For the long program, I would say there’s a connection between the costumes and the music,” he said. “I see the costumes and the music and I say ‘it belongs together.’”

The costumes quickly became the highlight of the press conference that followed the pairs event, and offered some of the more humorous moments of the week.

When another member of the media mob asked Szolkowy about wearing tights — it’s a no-no for men in the eyes of the International Skating Union — the affable skater responded, “There’s no way (I could) do it tighter.” Hearty laughter ensued.

For the record, Szolkowy said, “I would not go out (in public) like that,” but he quickly took note of all the talk the subject was generating. “If it fits the music and Aliona’s costume and everybody’s talking about us, then I think it’s okay,” he said.

The costumes did have one definite admirer. “Stephane Lambiel said he liked them,” Savchenko explained. The former World champion you might recall, once earned the nickname ‘the little zebra’ for some of his more colorful skating attire.

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They say a picture is worth a thousands words. Well, picture this.

Elene Gedevanishvili, a delightful, bubbly little skater from Georgia — as in Tblisi, not Atlanta — was relating to reporters the tale of how she came to join forces with former world champion Brian Orser in Toronto. Pretty routine stuff, it might be said. But then Orser, her coach for a little over a year, changed the tone by uttering just three words.

The exchange went something like this:

Orser: “You’re in first.”
Elene: “Nooooo.”
(Cupping her hands over her mouth for further ‘I don’t believe it’ effect).

Gedevanishvili, you see, didn’t come to Windsor with thoughts of winning in her head (she had just talked about a recent period of time when she thought about quitting the sport when Orser delivered today’s news).

After gathering her thoughts (and her wits), Gedevanishvili issued an apologetic “That caught me off guard. Sorry.” ... and spoke about how much she wanted to share the emotion of her dramatic “Schindler’s List” program with the audience.

Then she stopped herself and exclaimed: “I talk so much!”

Reporters who aren’t used to such open — and yes, we’ll say it, wonderfully refreshing —displays of emotion will gladly embrace that kind of “character flaw.”

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Then there are the times when you walk away feeling like you have missed out on something.

During the press conference following the pairs short program, a veteran skating reporter asked segment winners Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy if there was any “special story” behind their choice of music ("Kismet" by Bond).

The World champions from Germany looked at each other and both giggled heartily for about 30 seconds. Then Szolkowy went through a rather brief explanation of how they make such choices before concluding: “No special story. We tried to develop our own style and story.”

Thinking we all missed out on the funny part of that tale.

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Somewhere in Newfoundland, they’re doing a little happy dance tonight.

Those would be the many relatives of Kaetlyn Osmond, who watched the 16-year-old Canadian beat her own personal best by more than 10 points in finishing just a hair behind Gedevanishvili in the women’s short program.

While Osmond, a surprise bronze medallist at the 2012 Canadian Championships last January, has done most of her growing in the sport in Edmonton — she trains at the Ice Palace club in the Alberta capital — make no mistake about where her heart still resides. This is one proud daughter of “the Rock.”

“Definitely,” Osmond said when asked if she still feels like a Newfoundlander.

This is also a skater on a serious rise. Until her bronze in Moncton, Osmond was a virtual unknown. Then she went on from there to place 10th at the 2012 World Junior Championships, and opened this season with a victory at the Nebelhorn Trophy in Germany against a quality field.

Skate Canada is her first senior Grand Prix assignment ever and, unless there’s a withdrawal at an event later this fall, it’ll be her only one.

Looks like she wants to make it count.

Part of the charm of the story of newly minted Skate Canada ladies champion lies in her hometown of Marystown, Newfoundland, which the average person would do well to find even with the help of the map (it’s about 190 miles southwest of the provincial capital of St. John’s — if that helps).

Asked to describe its size, Osmond offered up this thought: “It was definitely a town where not many people lived and there was one rink that was only open in the winter and one pool that was only open during the summer. So I had to travel every summer to skate. It’s small.”

Pressed a little further about the community’s population, the 16-year-old added: “I can say it this way. My neighborhood in Edmonton (Sherwood Park) is the same population as Marystown.”

We looked up the number. It’s roughly 5,500, according to the latest census).

But let’s just say Osmond might be the town’s favorite daughter this evening. And if you’re wondering why Canadian skating officials are so wound up by her triumph, consider this: only three skaters wearing the maple leaf have won the ladies title at this event since 1990 (Olympic bronze medalist Joannie Rochette and Cynthia Phaneuf being the two others). That’s a span of 22 years and no, that’s not small.
Speaking of being caught up in the emotion of the moment ...

When the ice dance medals were handed out early Saturday evening, one rather important part of the picture was conspicuous for a short spell by her absence. That would be Tessa Virtue, who teamed up with Scott Moir to mine Skate Canada gold for the fourth time — but briefly left him standing all by his lonesome on the podium. That’s because Virtue took ill just as the medal ceremony began.

“I felt great through the program,” she said. “Nervous, obviously, but maybe (it was) that nervous energy and not breathing ... I felt great on the ice, then I got off the ice and just felt a little bit sick.

“But I felt great on the ice and that’s what matters.”

*****
If you’ve been around this sport for awhile on the media side of things, here’s one sight that always stands out — the heavy-duty coverage Japan gives its skaters.

Despite the long trek involved in getting here, the Asian nation always makes up a significant chunk of the media horde.

We checked with one of the good folks from Skate Canada who run this event on the numbers of media types on hand covering this weekend’s proceedings.

There are 60 accredited journalists here and fully one-third of them hail from Japan. And that’s without an appearance by Daisuke Takahashi, the charismatic star whose mere presence is guaranteed to attract a massive homeland media crowd.

Mind you, we noticed women’s silver medalist Akiko Suzuki getting more than her share of attention from the Japanese press after her free skate today. Hard to imagine what it’ll be like at NHK Trophy later this fall when they don’t have to travel anywhere near as far...

*****
Another truism about this little world: the athletes who make this sport what it is form quite the fraternity, which I suppose is no huge surprise.

Wandered past this sight near the end of the pairs event today. With Savchenko and Szolkowy performing what would be the winning skate of the day, two pairs teams were perched on bright red (and apparently, quite comfortable) chairs in front of a TV set, watching the Germans with great admiration and cheering the elements of the program that particularly impressed them.

Now that’s sportsmanship.
...

On Friday night, Italian ice dancers Anna Cappellini and Luca LaNotte were a little miffed when they were kicked out of the kiss ‘n cry area after their skate — and denied what they considered a primo view to watch Virtue and Moir perform.

*****
They’re always looking at ways to enhance the “fan experience” at skating events and here’s a new one we’ve noticed this week. Last night after every skater’s performance, spectators at the WFCU Centre get an eye and earful of Debbi Wilkes (a Skate Canada official) and 1988 Olympic silver medalist Elizabeth Manley offering up their critique of each performance. Today the tone changed to one of tidbits of information about each skater and team.

It’s sort of like bringing the TV element into a different kind of living room. The experiment met with mixed reviews.

*****
And, finally, talk about no support from your friends ...

Scott Moir admits he sometimes gets the gears from his buddies about the costumes or hairstyles that have become a part of the characters he portrays on the ice.

Following Friday’s short program Moir got a message.
“A close friend of mine sent me a text that said, ‘Happy Halloween.’” I wrote back, ‘it’s not Halloween yet.’ My buddy responded: ‘Then why did I just see you on TSN dressed like an idiot?’

"Yes, that’s the support I receive from my buddies at home.”

All in good fun, of course.


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