Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro build their skating programs with large crowds in mind.
Which made watching themselves win the pairs event of the Skate Canada Challenge, a unique virtual event of pre-recorded programs, bittersweet. They were happy to be back competing in any fashion after an almost year-long layoff, but lamented the loss of fans.
Of all the sports played out in front of empty arenas amid COVID-19, figure skating might be the most jarring - like a symphony orchestra playing in an empty concert hall.
"The competitions are definitely driven by the audience, trying to bring them along with us," Marinaro said. "So having that aspect completely gone definitely changes things a lot - it's definitely a different experience."
The two-time Canadian champions earned 135.18 points for their free skate to Damien Rice's "The Blower's Daughter," for a total score of 206.22. Lori-Ann Matte and Thierry Ferland, third after the short program, moved up to claim silver (172.42), while Deanna Stellato and Maxime Deschamps were third (170.65).
The second wave of COVID-19 forced Skate Canada to hold the event virtually. Skaters performed their programs at their home rinks over the past few weeks, then submitted videos, which are being broadcast — and judged in real time — in an effort to simulate a live competition.
Stellato described watching the competition broadcast a month after skating was like playing a video game with a broken controller: you know what you want to do but can't do it.
No fans were permitted in the rinks for filming, only the skaters' coaches, a video crew, and a Skate Canada official who made sure the rules were followed.
Saturday's broadcast included clips of Moore-Towers and Marinaro winning last year's national title to a standing ovation in a crowded Mississauga, Ont., arena.
It was an emotional moment of reminiscing for Moore-Towers.
"Full disclosure, yeah, that was hard to watch, especially the reception from the fans. And that's what's so special for us, we create these programs from the heart for the fans and the people who are watching," said the 28-year-old from St. Catharines, Ont. "And it's just not quite the same when you don't get to interact with them in real time as you're performing it. I really miss that atmosphere."
Almost the entire Canadian team has been grounded since the global pandemic began. The world championships last March in Montreal were one of the first major international events scrapped due to COVID-19. Skate Canada International in October was also cancelled.
Moore-Towers and Marinaro, a 29-year-old from Sarnia, were off the ice for three months due to the early lockdown in Ontario. They spent another month skating without being permitted to touch to comply with physical distancing rules. In September, Moore-Towers suffered a rib injury that kept them off the ice for several weeks.
"So, we figure with this event, our level of readiness can be compared to how we would be ready for an early summer competition, which we do just to get the kinks out. We're in no way, shape or form prepared for the season at that point," Moore-Towers said. "But it's not the summer, we're already in January."
The virtual Challenge is a qualifying event for the Canadian championships, Feb. 8-14 in Vancouver. The event is intended to be live, but with COVID-19 cases on the rise across the country, there is a chance the championship will be held virtually.
Virtual or live, Marinaro said they're preparation will be significantly better than it was for the Challenge.
"Leading into the event, we only had about three weeks of full training under our belt," he said. "So we've definitely made strides in the last four weeks as we've basically doubled our our hard training time."
The Challenge programs for junior and senior ice dance, and senior men and women's singles, are scheduled for Jan. 15-17. Events are being streamed on SkateCanada.ca, Jan. 15-17.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 9, 2021.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press