World Figure Skating Championships: ‘The whole experience is going to be strange’

For Scottish ice dancer Lewis Gibson and his partner Lilah Fear, this month’s World Figure Skating Championships in Sweden mark a particular anniversary of the pandemic.

Lewis Gibson was born in Prestwick.

This time last year, they were preparing for the competition, which was due to be held in Montreal, Canada, where they have their training base. The event was cancelled with just days to go and less than a week later, the world went into lockdown.

“When we heard the news of Worlds being cancelled in Montreal we were devastated as we were sure it was going to be a great event and at that point the world was still very unsure of what was happening,” said the Prestwick-born skater.

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"Having done Skate Canada the same year, we got an idea of the time and effort the host federation was employing and know it would have been really special. Of course, in hindsight, it was definitely the right decision and keeping everyone safe was so important.”

Natasha McKay, from Dundee, will compete in Sweden.

Since then, the couple, like most skaters, have not taken part in an international competition, with everything from the British Figure Skating Championships to January’s European Figure Skating Championships - which should have taken place in Croatia - cancelled due to the pandemic.

Now, the pair, who ranked 13th in the 2019 World Championships, will be hoping to make the top ten in this year’s competition, which starts on Wednesday. The couple have been steadily climbing up the rankings since they teamed up as an ice dance pair in 2017, scooping a bronze medal in one of the major Grand Prix competitions in the 2019 season and fifth in last year’s Europeans, held just weeks before Covid-19 closed ice rinks across the world.

Four-times world champions Gabriela Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron from France - with whom Gibson and Fear train at the prestigious Ice Academy of Montreal - will not defend their title at this year’s event, clearing the field for other skaters. The French couple said a lack of competition earlier in the season, Covid-19 protocols including quarantines, and psychological stresses had led them to take the decision to withdraw and focus instead on the Winter Olympics in Beijing next year.

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For Gibson and Fear, the lack of competition has allowed them to focus on different elements of their skating.

Gibson said: “This past year has been very different for us as skaters. We normally train each day with competition goals always approaching. We found ourselves changing up our goals and really making it about the day to day improvements and found the wins in that. We were able to also use this concentrated training period to focus on areas of our development that we often don’t have time for with competitions so that was an unexpected benefit.

"Being together in Canada and away from family, we connected more in our partnership and drew lots of support from everyone back home as well as our coaches and training mates at our academy in Montreal.”

For British ladies champion Natasha McKay, who trains in Dundee, finding ice time has been even more difficult.

In the UK, rinks were closed for longer than in many countries, even for elite skaters, meaning that McKay was forced to spend much of her training time keeping fit with off-ice exercises. When lockdown measures began to ease last summer, Scottish rinks remained closed, forcing the skater and teammate Karly Robertson, reserve for the World Figure Skating Championships, to relocate temporarily to Bradford until Scottish Government guidelines changed.

She said: “I am excited to be competing again. I know the whole experience is going to be strange, but just to get back out there gives me a buzz. My first goal is of course to make the free program like I did in Japan. I feel more prepared for the free program too this year so it would be great to get there again.”

The championships are a qualifying event for the 2022 Winter Olympics, which are to be held in China.

McKay added: “Of course, talk of Olympic spots is on everyone's mind, but for me its just a case of doing the best I can do and seeing where that takes me.”

McKay’s coach at Dundee Ice Arena, Simon Briggs, said: "This past year has been tough for everyone. Me and my wife Debi have put in place off-ice training for all our athletes and kept them motivated as much as possible with them not being able to do what they love. GB Performance Skaters were able to return to the ice earlier in line with government guidelines.”

He added: “Natasha's hard off-ice work during the pandemic has made it easier for her to return to the ice and to the level she was before the pandemic started. The Championships are an important event, as Natasha could qualify a spot for the Olympics. I can't wait for her to compete and have every confidence in the authorities for making this a safe event for everyone involved."

The Swedish health authorities, together with the International Skating Union, have put measures in place in a bid to prevent any outbreaks of coronavirus. PCR tests have to be done prior to departure for Stockholm and upon arrival at the venue. There will be no spectators allowed and everyone in the competition will be in a bubble only able to move between the venue and hotel. Health is closely monitored, temperature checks will be in place and after no later than four days, all competitors have to take another PCR test.

The British team will also include PJ Hallam, from Sheffield, in the mens’ competition and Zoe Jones and Christopher Boyadji from Swindon in the pairs competition.

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