COVID-19 spectre hangs over Canada's Olympic figure skating trials in Ottawa

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After three flights over a stressful 33 hours with numerous delays, Keegan Messing finally in arrived in Ottawa for Canada's figure skating Olympic trials on Wednesday.

He was nearly a day late. His skates were still to arrive, in his luggage somewhere at Toronto's Pearson Airport.

"But we're staying mentally strong," Messing said on Wednesday, less than two hours after landing in Ottawa — too late to make the day's practice at TD Place.

Messing, a dual citizen who lives in Girdwood, Ak., travelled from Anchorage to Seattle to Toronto to Ottawa, with his wife Lane Hodson and their six-month-old son Wyatt.

"We had about three or four cancelled flights (Tuesday), constantly getting rebooked and redirected. My wife and I actually got split up at one point," said Messing, who believes a combination of weather, plus the countless flights cancelled due to the recent crush of COVID-19, factored into his marathon trip.

Messing is one of Canada's top figure skaters who'll begin their quest for a spot on the Beijing Olympic team on Friday.

The national championships are being held in front of no fans, and media is covering the event virtually due to the crush of COVID-19 cases in Ontario.

While the skaters lament the absence of fans, they've at least become well-versed in curve balls. The world championships in Montreal in March of 2020 were one of the first international sports events cancelled due to the coronavirus, and it's been much of the same since.

"Yeah, definitely unforeseen here," pairs skater Kirsten Moore-Towers said on the recent COVID-19 threat. "We are super bummed that the crowd was removed from nationals. But obviously, we understand … we are grateful for the chance to perform at all.

"COVID has made us all so adaptable, this would have absolutely crushed us a couple years ago," she added. "We really have learned to roll with the punches and appreciate what we do have. And though there is an element of bitter-sweetness to it, I think we just take these things as they come and we're still really looking forward to the weekend."

Adding to the stress of vying for an Olympic berth is the spectre of COVID-19. A positive test at nationals could keep an athlete from competing in China, due to the timeline of pre-travel testing protocols.

Pairs skaters Vanessa James and Eric Radford, who contracted COVID over the Christmas holidays, decided Thursday they would compete in Ottawa despite having just four days of practice after being in isolation.

"So after 4 days of practice we are gonna just go for it. We will head to Ottawa for the Canadian Championships and give our best!" Radford tweeted. "Both Vanessa and I had negative antigen tests this morning and are feeling happy and healthy."

Radford talked earlier this week about how stressful the Olympic homestretch is at the best of times.

"But now there's this invisible minefield laid out in front of you over the next few weeks as you try to dodge COVID-19 and not become positive, while training for one of the biggest moments of your life. I think there are already stories rolling in of COVID-19 dashing Olympic dreams."

The U.S. championships this week in Nashville have already seen defending pairs champions Alexa Knierim and Brandon Frazier withdraw after he tested positive for the virus, amid reports of crowds of maskless people at the official athlete hotel.

French ice dancers Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, runners-up to Canada's Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir at the 2018 Olympics, won't compete at European championships in Estonia next week to protect themselves from the coronavirus.

Canada's world ice dance bronze medallists Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier said they're trying to keep thoughts of the virus on the back-burner this week.

"We know how big of a deal this is, and our Olympic dream could be taken away within days if something like this happens,” Gilles said. “But we can't really look at it, because if you do that we’re going to drive ourselves absolutely crazy, and it’s not good mentally."

Canada has three spots in ice dance in Beijing, two spots each in pairs and men's singles, and one in women's singles.

It could be a tight battle for the two men's spots between Messing, who was 10th at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, Nam Nguyen and Roman Sadovsky.

Much of Messing's preparation ahead of Ottawa was about minimizing contacts, to avoid the virus. He does his off-ice weight training at home, and his cardio on a backyard rink he built.

" (COVID-19) definitely broadsided us, but you have to try and stay positive the whole time," he said. "It's the only thing you really can do, just hoping that the actions and at home and here help keep everyone safe."

Gilles and Poirier and Moore-Towers and her partner Michael Marinaro all said they've greatly limited the people they've been in contact with the past few weeks, travelling only between the rink, the grocery store and home. They all drove to Ottawa from Toronto rather than risk crowded flights.

"Both of us had very, very quiet Christmases," Gilles said.

Messing's wife and son aren't permitted to be at the rink during competition, but Messing said their presence in Ottawa this week is comforting.

"We bought the tickets a while ago, when it was much safer," said Messing, who turns 30 on Jan. 23. "We talked about it a lot. Ultimately, it came down to my wife really wanted to come and support me. My little buddy gets his first trip to Canada. He did awesome and she was supermom, as always. She hit it out of the park. It was super cool and (Wyatt) handled such a rough journey so well."

The short programs in all four figure skating disciplines are Friday, while the free programs are Saturday. The Olympic team will be announced Sunday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 6, 2022.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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