I spent most of two days last week at Pacific Sectionals. I'd been to several Regionals before, and Worlds when they were in Los Angeles, but never Sectionals. When I checked the USFSA web site I was surprised to read they host only three sectionals a year. Amazingly enough this year's Pacific was at my daughter's former home rink, Pickwick in Burbank.
For a chance to see one-third of the top up-and-coming skaters in the U.S., the $25 entrance fee for a day seems quite reasonable. Walking into the rink I noticed the usual room set-asides for hospitality, trophies and photos, et cetera. It all seemed exceedingly well organized, much more so than a usual competition. Once I paid my admission and got my paper wrist wraparound, I entered the rink proper. It didn't seem terribly crowded: mostly just the usual crowd (folks dressed in standard skating fare and hanging nametags) without a lot of outside spectators.
Pickwick features rather extensive bleachers opposite the "garden" side of the rink, probably twenty deep at a fairly steep rise, along the whole length of the rink. Smack in the middle they had cordoned off a group section with signs reading "trial judges only" but nobody was sitting there. All the audience sat on one side of the rink, with the official judging in the first three rows at midrink (and the customary scorekeeping tables smack up against the back of the dashers). The entire top three-quarters of the bleachers behind the judges was empty, so I took my usual seat at the topmost bench behind them.
I happened in during an ice cut so things were pretty quiet, but I could tell this wasn't quite the typical scorekeeping setup. There seemed to be a bit more technology than usual, or maybe just all the technology was in one place, rather than spread out at different rink locations. Video, music, scorekeeping entry, timers, and announcer were all in one group, complete with little tables and pop-up stands for their monitors. Down by the dashers sat official looking empty numbered trunks the videographer brought with his equipment.
One very pleasant thing about Sectionals is, aside from the skating mechanics themselves, the rest of the competition has a nice air of informality to it. Most of the folks know about half of the other folks there, everyone has seen these judges before, and you can pretty much wander around anywhere without raising much of an eyebrow. Well, I can anyway, as I'm fairly well known by the community out these parts.
Once the events started ramping up I sensed the scoring process moved quite a bit quicker and considerably more formalized than usual. This may have been a misimpression just because I was stationed ten rows up behind the technology, but it did seem that everything clicked together and stayed on schedule, with only the occasional delays in the technical video review holding things up a bit.
The other thing I noticed once the events ramped up (okay even before then, while perusing the schedule) was it seemed that nearly half the events were either ice dance or pairs. I guess this makes a lot of sense if you think about it logically (uhhh, there's men's, ladies, ice-dance, and pairs, so yeah: half). In your normal local events you're lucky if you've got one ice-dance couple and maybe two pairs, so locally maybe 4% of a competition is this. In the national qualifying events though it's fully half. (Afterthought: the upshot of this must be that all ice-dancers and pairs nationally know each other).
Mostly I like to watch the ladies intermediate and junior events. The novice division is too weird (more about that briefly) and the senior ladies skate last so by then I'm too tired (mentally and physically).
For many of the Intermediate level skaters this is their first time at Sectionals, so nerves are palpable. There's a fair amount of variance in skill and size, but pretty much all of the Intermediates are pre-puberty and haven't gone through any kind of long-bone growth spurt yet. They are all small, compact, little powerhouses of personality with a low center-of-gravity (when they fall it's not a big traumatic deal). They are charming and a pure joy to watch skate.
Junior level skaters are the seriously upwardly-mobile competitors. Juniors have generally all "grown into" their body after those awkward post-puberty years when you feel like a spider chicken. Most of them have been skating around ten years, and already well know the routine. Nearly all have been to regionals several times and probably half have been to sectionals. The juniors seem to fall into two broad groups: those that really have their act together and are desperately seeking a ticket to Nationals, and those that are, well, having a bad day. It's hard to tell in the "bad day" subgroup if it's something personal, or if they just really don't have the heart to lug their entire family to Nationals.
You see, the thing about Novice level is it is smack in the middle of Intermediate and Junior. Some of them are skaters who are way too good to skate Intermediate: they have just begun their growth spurt and their thin svelteness makes triple jumps child's play. Some of them are skaters who aren't skilled enough to skate at Juniors even though they are pretty much their final body shape. I suppose they could easily split Novice into two independent groups but then that would be too many Divisions to manage (really, four divisions is plenty). It seems unfair to judge the Novice against one another: each Novice has their own unique struggles.
I'm thinking the worst of the stress falls on the parents and the rink staff. US Figure Skating apparently quite verily micromanages all of the rink appurtenances, so the local rink team gets held to extremely high standards (btw great job Pickwick!). Many of the parents look shell-shocked.
After Sectionals finished and I had some time to reflect quietly, I recognized the audience for figure skating is a lot like the audience of track-and-field. Yeah you get those couple-a-year televised events (and the Olympics!) where the general populace watches and gets to know the top stars. The general populace also thinks what they see on TV is how most of the athletes in the sport perform. Then you get the vast majority of the athletes laboring in obscurity to weekly audiences of their friends and parents.