The women’s world ice hockey championships, postponed last spring and relocated to Calgary, are under way. The American skiers already are training on European snow. And the figure skaters are attending the Champs Camp in Nashville to prep for the international season, which includes a stop in Norwood next month for the US Classic at the Skating Club of Boston.
The Tokyo Olympics are barely in the rearview mirror, but the Winter Games in Beijing, where the temperature now is in the mid-80s, are a little more than five months away. The world’s elite athletes, whose seasons were scrambled last year, are looking forward to their upcoming competitions with high hopes and crossed fingers as the evolving coronavirus continues to create uncertainty around the planet.
“We knew the pandemic wouldn’t be entirely over but things were looking good early this summer,” said Tiger Shaw, US Ski & Snowboard’s president and chief executive. “Now it’s going to be somewhere between normal and last year.”
For nearly all winter sports last season was a disjointed jumble of canceled or displaced events. The Grand Prix skating series went domestic-only and the Beijing final was scrubbed. The World Cup in long-track speedskating was condensed into consecutive January weekends at one arena in the Netherlands and the short-track version was scrapped. For the first time in nearly half a century no World Cup Alpine events were held in North America.
Yet most sports ended up with a reasonable facsimile of a calendar and all of them held world championships, unlike most of their summer counterparts in 2020. “We were lucky last season in that most of our world tours occurred,” Shaw observed. “We had protocols that seemed to work pretty well, not without infection but we got through it. This year we’re expecting very similar in terms of masking and testing and separation.”
One major difference this year is that virtually all of the US Olympic hopefuls have been vaccinated. But with breakthrough cases on the rise in the States and elsewhere, the teams are exercising renewed caution.
“This year for vaccinated athletes we were able to lift a lot of restrictions,” said Shane Domer, US Speedskating’s high performance director. “Now we’re going back to being super-safe, trying to eliminate any kind of spread.”
The precautions will be useful exercises for the Games where the Chinese government’s “zero-COVID” policy likely will be significantly more restrictive for athletes than was Tokyo’s, where “arrive-compete-leave” was the mantra.
Coronavirus concerns already have rearranged some schedules. The Cup of China skating event slated for early November has been moved to Turin and it’s all but certain that the World Cup luge stops in Whistler, British Columbia, and Lake Placid, N.Y., will be shifted as well due to entry policies for foreigners.
“One of our biggest challenges getting ready for the season is staying on top of all the protocols needed to get our team into other countries,” said Mark Grimmette, USA Luge’s sports programs director. “Last year was a lot of testing. This year it’s proof of vaccination and countries have varying ways of how you can prove it. We have training in Norway coming up and it’s unclear whether we’re going to be able to get in.”
While the US skiers had a productive offseason program in Oregon, they weren’t able to travel to South America and New Zealand for their usual training on the slopes there. So they went early to the glaciers in Europe, where the World Cup season will begin in late October before moving to the States for races in Beaver Creek, Colo., and Killington, Vt.
Traveling to China, which has a three-week quarantine for visitors that likely will be waived for pre-Olympic competitions, presents logistical challenges. For the World Cup luge opener on the Yanqing track in November, the international federation is considering using a charter flight to transport all of the sliders to what will be the official test event for the Games.
Beijing’s scheduled test events, where international athletes were supposed to have an invaluable rehearsal on the Olympic venues, either were held with Chinese athletes or pushed forward to this fall. But with most sports starting their seasons in Europe, competitors are unlikely to fly halfway around the globe for a preview.
For the Americans, getting in a normal pre-Olympic schedule and making the US team are the priorities. Last year, the sliders skipped the first half of the World Cup season.
“We weren’t liking the [COVID] numbers that we saw in Europe,” said Grimmette. But the bobsled, skeleton, and luge teams went over for the second half and finished their campaigns.
“It was good for the mind-set of everyone to be able to go over and compete,” said Grimmette. “Because the first half was tough.”
Staging world championships was critical in sports such as figure skating and curling where placements determine how many Olympic entries countries receive. Both US curling teams qualified for Beijing with the women, who were eighth in PyeongChang in 2018, winning a surprise bronze medal.
The delayed world hockey tournament proved something of a boon for the American women, the defending Olympic champions who are chasing their sixth consecutive global crown. It gave them a chance to put their core group in a global competition much closer to the Games. The US males won’t have that advantage.
Last time, USA Hockey knew by the previous April that NHL players would not be competing in Korea and had ample time to assemble a group of minor leaguers, European clubbers, and collegians that came within a shootout of making the medal round. This time, the federation will have to wait until at least the end of the month to find out.
At a time when the pandemic and its deadly Delta variant continues to expand, adaptability has been paramount.
“We always talk about trying to build resilient athletes, but last year took it to another level,” said Domer. “They had to be ready for anything. They had to be ready for potentially going into quarantine in their training and continuing on as if nothing was happening. If we were to have hiccups within competitions or protocols in Beijing it will help tremendously that we were able to go through that last year. They’re ready to go with whatever they get thrown at them.”