The Skating & Gymnastics Accidental Doubleheader: Act I

Group 3 at the starting line of the January Thaw Connecticut Open speedskating event in Hartford, CT   An Ithaca College gymnast finishes her floor exercise routine during a meet against Springfield College

As far as I know, never in the annals of misguided sports odysseys has this been done before. I refer, of course, to chronicling two sporting events at once.

Not two events in one day. That’s child’s play. Not two events in one day in two separate cities. Yawn…did it.

I’m talking two separate events in two different states. Simultaneously. You tell me one other person doing a sports walkabout that has pulled that off. I’ll wait…

In the spirit of full disclosure, I can’t exactly claim that I set out to do this. It more or less happened to me. See, I could swear that the Ithaca College Athletics website said that the gymnastics team would be traveling to Springfield College on January 29th. Which was ideal for me, since just down the road in Hartford, the January Thaw Connecticut Open speedskating event was to take place the next day.

So imagine my surprise when I showed up at Springfield’s Blake Arena to find a collegiate wrestling match in full swing. “I must be in the wrong building,” I thought, and set out to find out where the gymnastics meet was being held.

I zeroed in on a gentleman wearing a tie – the universal symbol of somebody who is an informed source. He gave me the extended “Blink, blink” before saying, “If you mean the meet against Ithaca, that’s tomorrow.”

Crap. I need to get a better traveling secretary. Preferably somebody sharper than me.

I needed a Plan B in the worst way. A local Starbucks provided the perfect IGTS Tour satellite office, but a lengthy pit stop there yielded a discomforting conclusion. I didn’t have a whole lot of options for staying on track with my 100 events/50 sports/1 year goal if I chose gymnastics over speedskating – or vice versa.

But a glimmer of hope emerged as I delved into the details of the two events. The January Thaw (which, by the way, turned out to be deeply mis-titled) started at 10:00 AM and ran until 5:00 PM. The gymnastics meet had a start time of 1:00 PM.

So you’re saying there’s a chance…

  

If I were to take in speedskating from the opening gun until noon…and then jump in the car and drive “aggressively” from Hartford up across the Massachusetts state line to Springfield…and then bolt out of the gym as soon as the meet was done and drive “assertively” back down to Hartford for the final races…I could get the full experience of both events. Or a fistful of traffic tickets. Or both.

“What the hell – you’re only young once,” I told myself, ignoring the obvious:  (a) I am no longer young; and (b) I’m not sure I would have tried to pull this off even when I was young.

When I arrived at Trinity College’s Koeppel Center ice rink, the temperature was in the teens. So technically speaking, the January Thaw title was accurate, but only because it had been about ten degrees colder than that during the initial week of the IGTS Tour’s Winter Sports Swing.

This was one of those events that I was going into, well…cold. I didn’t know the slightest thing about speedskating except that at last count, Apolo Ohno (or was that Apollo Creed?) had won somewhere around 789 Olympic gold medals in the sport. How difficult could it be to pick it up though? Everybody starts at the same time in the same place, and the first one to skate across the finish line wins. Right?

Well…yes. And no.

See, at the January Thaw, there were 13 different Groups (competitive divisions), each skating in multiple race distances. And frequently – but not always – there were multiple “heats” (a misnomer if there ever was one) for the same Group and distance. So the first skater across the finish line in any different race may be that event’s winner…or they may not be. It all depended upon whether that race was a heat or a final, and how the skater’s time stacked up against the best time in that Group and distance in other heats. If there were any. Got it?

Once you understand the above, to stay truly up to speed on exactly what’s going on in front of you, all you need is a program, a time clock display, and an intelligible P.A. system. Unfortunately, none of these were available to me.

I did have a secret weapon though. And her name was Lovey Russo.

When I had first entered the building, I’d been immediately drawn to the rink’s plexiglass wall, where taped to the barrier was the equivalent of an event program. Spread across multiple printed sheets was a minute-by-minute schedule of events and a list of all of the competitors in each division, as well as some additional information that featured lots of words in English that together added up to be Greek.

It was while I was looking around for copies of that documentation that Lovey passed by. Or at least started to. See, Lovey is one of those people who just can’t help herself from making eye contact and beaming a “Hi, is there something I can help you with?” – even though she just has to know that the person she’s engaging is bound to actually take her up on her offer of assistance. In other words, she had Volunteer Event Organizer written all over her.

She answered my query about the availability of documentation by diplomatically saying “The programs did not…umm…materialize”, and followed that up with an infectious laugh. At that point I knew she was running this particular show, and that her total compensation package for doing so hovered right around zero dollars.

Which made us kindred spirits.

Lovey nicely filled in some of the gaps in my knowledge by describing how this particular event had been structured. In order to make this the best possible competition for the elite skaters, they had chosen to use a hybrid system for assigning Groups. Instead of simply clustering people together by age, they began with age-based assignments and then reassigned skaters that had earned good “seed times” in qualifying trials previously held. In this way, talented young competitors were able to transcend their age group and test themselves against the overall best.

 

Women’s Open Competitors (l to r) Kristin Santos, Katy Toth and Abagail Bloomer

There were skaters there with clubs from all over the Northeast…and well beyond. While this was billed as the Connecticut Open, it was actually more “Open” than “Connecticut”. Hosting the event host was Lovey’s own Connecticut Speedskating Club, which has acquitted itself well of late in sending skaters on to national and even international competitions.

Now sufficiently educated, I addressed the “programs didn’t materialize” snafu with all of the resourcefulness that 87 previous IGTS Tour events had instilled in me. I took pictures of the posted sheets and used my camera monitor the rest of the day as a kind of virtual program to keep up with who was who, and when they were skating.

In the early stages of the day, when the younger skaters were on the ice, it appeared that this was a classic “Friends & Family” event from a fan base standpoint. I wondered if, when the Open competition started, other interested onlookers would start to roll in. In fact though, I discovered that the Open competition was folded right into the overall schedule.

There were several rotations through each of the various Groups, with each rotation consisting of a new race distance. As I caught on to what was unfolding, I resisted the urge to weep grateful tears openly and unashamedly. This couldn’t have worked out better if I had planned the event myself! The spacing of the January Thaw was setting itself up to allow me to see the elite speedskaters in different races – both before and after my little Cannonball Run excursion.

And sure enough, I was able to see both the men’s and women’s Open Groups in their 1,000 meter races and still get my car pointed northward by 12:25.

With a little luck…

 

 

To be continued in next post…

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