ice detour

I really like figure skating. This isn’t something I’ve ever mentioned on the blog, as I guess it’s always felt a bit silly or irrelevant. However, I have lots of pictures from last year’s Helsinki GP I’ve never published, and I thought I’d use the excuse of the fast-approaching new season to write about how I ended up watching the competition in the first place.

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Sports that strive to combine athleticism and artistry, like figure skating and rhythmic gymnastics, have always felt special to me. The excitement of seeing who’s going to win is augmented by the sense of drama that I don’t get from team sports (although there is plenty of acting in a sport like football, the performance aspect is not quite as central to it). Because figure skating is a sport focused on the individual (or a pair of individuals), it’s also easy to identify different styles of performance and things skaters may be wanting to convey, which I find one of the most interesting aspects of watching FS. 

Even when watching skaters I’m not familiar with, I often end up connecting emotionally to their performance - I don’t think I’ve ever watched a competition without crying at some point, either out of joy/relief for someone doing well, or out of sympathy for someone who did badly (or most likely both at some point). It often turns out to be an emotional rollercoaster, and I think that sometimes it’s good to just get really invested in stuff that ultimately has no bearing on your daily life, particularly in stressful times.

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Figure skating is also a sport with many idiosyncratic or outdated aspects. Growing up in Finland, it’s relatively well-known and popular, but also kind of exclusive. I tried a lot of different sports as a child - football, floorball, swimming, ice hockey, ringette, etc. - but it never even crossed my mind to try figure skating. All the figure skaters I knew at school were really posh and seemed to represent this kind of model I could never fit into. So even though I loved opening the TV and being transfixed by figure skating competitions as a child, it wasn’t really a world I ever thought of actively participating in. I guess this is also why I’ve felt a bit defensive and even embarrassed about my fondness for FS, particularly as a teenager, when I felt like it represented things I should rebel against instead of reveling in.

My mindset changed while I was living in Japan. If figure skating is relatively popular in Finland, it’s massive in Japan, with much more media coverage and events, and this made it feel more normal to say I like the sport. Although there are several popular skaters (both domestic and foreign) in Japan, one person has definitely contributed more to the sport’s current popularity than any other, and also inspired me to physically go watch figure skating for the first time - Yuzuru Hanyu. In the 2014 Sochi olympics, he became the first Asian person to win gold in men’s singles. In the Pyeongchang olympics last year, he outdid himself by winning again - the last time someone managed two consecutive wins was in 1952, with way fewer quads. The win was particularly impactful, because Hanyu was still recovering from a major injury. It felt like everyone was holding their breath when he begun his short programme after a months-long absence from the ice, unsure if he would be anywhere near his peak condition (there were plenty of sceptics, and he proved them wrong).

I was doing my internship in Tokyo at the time, and I remember watching the free skate during my lunch break in the office and being so moved I just broke into tears. That summer, I jumped at the chance to see Hanyu skate live and bought tickets to an ice show as a birthday present to myself. The more I watched his performances, the more impressed I was with him. Although there are lots of skaters I enjoy watching, nobody’s skating moves me like Hanyu’s. His way of expressing the music is just absolutely beautiful to me.

In August, it was announced that the ISU Grand Prix event that’s usually held in China had been moved to Finland, and the list of participants included Hanyu as well as many of my other favourites, such as Kaori Sakamoto, Viveca Lindfords and Boyang Jin. It felt like such a lucky coincidence, and I ended up buying tickets for myself and Max, too, and planning a mini holiday around it.

So one weekend in November last year, I found myself somehow transformed from a life-long casual TV viewer of figure skating to someone actually sitting in the rink watching a GP competition live. It was a magical experience - most of my favourites did really well, the atmosphere was lovely, and it was nice to be able to spend a weekend back in Finland, away from the dissertation stress that had been piling up all autumn. Even Max claimed he enjoyed himself, at least in parts (eg. during the pairs events, where there’s a greater sense of possible doom). While I’m definitely no sports photographer, it was also a fun challenge to try and capture the dynamic movements on ice.

This year, I won’t have the time or money to travel to any figure skating competitions, and that’s probably for the best. To be honest, I enjoy watching competitions at home just as much, only in a different way. The Junior Grand Prix is starting up next weekend and senior events soon afterwards (the September 12-15 weekend will be packed with ACI, Lombardia Trophy and a JGP event all going on), and I’m really looking forward to snuggling up on the sofa and spending a few hours rooting for favourites old and new.

Kaisa Saarinen