COVID-19 has figure skaters ‘on edge’ heading into nationals

Olympian Jason Brown is one of the most popular athletes in American figure skating.

Under normal circumstances, he would love to hang out, sign autographs and chat with the fans who crowd arena mezzanines and hotel lobbies. But Brown isn’t staying at the official hotel at this week’s U.S. Figure Skating Championships in Nashville.

His parents are also renting a car so he can avoid official and public transportation to and from Bridgestone Arena and local practice rinks.

“I’m as bubble in my own capacity as I can be,” Brown said, “and the rest is what it is.”

With the omicron variant spiking COVID-19 cases in Nashville, U.S. Figure Skating officials have taken additional precautions to protect athletes and spectators attending the event that will determine who represents Team USA for next month’s Olympic Games in Beijing.

The ladies’ short and pairs short programs kick off the event’s senior competition on Thursday. The men’s competition opens with the short program on Saturday afternoon.

“I’m just going to do my part to be as safe as I can,” said Nathan Chen, who is aiming for his sixth consecutive U.S. title this week and then Olympic gold next month. “I’ve been triple vaccinated. I’m going to wear my mask everywhere I can. We know the situation is going to be changing. So I have no idea what’s going to turn out but right now my focus is still just on preparing myself as best I can for nationals and trying to keep myself safe within my own bubble.”

U.S. Figure Skating announced last week that all spectators over the age of 5 will be required to show proof of vaccination, or a negative PCR or NAAT COVID-19 test taken within three days prior to entering Bridgestone Arena for each ticketed session.

U.S. Figure Skating has also canceled popular autograph sessions with fans and restricted entry to the practice rink to accredited individuals only. For those who have credentials for the event – athletes, coaches, judges and the media – it means navigating a pleasant if strict assembly line-like process just to gain entry. There are waivers to be signed, vaccination cards to be shown, a negative test taken within 72 hours of receiving credentials, and the agreement to test again four days after arrival.

U.S. Speedskating has gone even further. This week’s Olympic Trials in Milwaukee will be held without spectators or media, a decision that was made on Monday, just two days before athletes were to begin vying for their spot on the team for Beijing.

Brown recalled a recent conversation he had with his coaches.

“‘Guys, I’m feeling on edge right now,’” Brown recalled telling his team. “Which I bet a lot of people are at the moment.”

Nashville, a city of just under 700,000, reported 10,186 new COVID-19 cases last week, a 34.4% increase over the previous week and more than double the rate of new cases at the peak of the pandemic in Music City in January 2021.

“I’m not going to lie,” Olympian Karen Chen said. “I’m a little bit concerned about it but I know U.S. Figure Skating is doing everything they can to keep us, all the skaters, all the coaches protected.

“But yeah, I mean with the new variant being out and about it’s definitely a little scary. I do know it’s definitely been going around. So all we can do is sanitize our hands a lot, wear our masks and hope for the best.”

U.S. pairs champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier withdrew from the competition on Wednesday after Frazier tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in the day. Knierim said they will petition to a selection committee for one of the two pairs spots on the Olympic team.

The International Skating Union, the sport’s international governing body, canceled both the Cup of China, a Grand Prix event in November, and the Grand Prix final in Osaka last month because of COVID-19 issues.

“It’s just been a crazy year for all of us,” Chen said.

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