#TheCave. My ode to practice rinks

1 Practice session in The Cave 2017 Worlds Helsinki

Simple as that: the practice rink at 2017 Worlds, aka #TheCave, holds some of my best memories from the week in Helsinki – so I decided to honor it in a story. Can you blame me? Trust me: you can’t.

by Florentina Tone/Helsinki

There’s something about practice rinks at competitions. A certain aura, the feeling that’s the place where the magic happens, the diamonds are made. And when the rink has particular features as well – not only hosting the skaters polishing their routines, but offering an unique experience by itself – well, at that point, you know you’re in for a treat. Remember that practice rink in Nice, on the 5th floor of a building, at 2012 Worlds? That wall made entirely out of glass, letting the sun enter all day long – and the rink itself, a window to the mountains?

…and so the practice rink in Helsinki at recent Worlds was supposed to be located underneath Hartwall Arena, built 20 meters into rock. I knew that when coming to the most important competition of the season – but, as it turned out, I knew so very little.

I didn’t even know where the entrance was.

But as soon as I embarked on the journey of finding it, asking questions and following in someone’s footsteps – in this case, sharing an elevator, two stories underground, with Angelina Kuchvalska’s coach, Jekaterina Platonova – I knew this wasn’t my road to take. Add here bumping into Ashley Wagner and passing alongside skaters’ dressing rooms… yes, on the first day of the week, two days before the actual competition, someone might have just missed this journalist from Inside Skating, letting her use the skaters & coaches’ entrance to #TheCave.

I named it “The Cave” as soon as I entered, while writing on instagram: “I’m in a cave. Literally. The practice arena at 2017 Worlds looks absolutely amazing. And it’s so amazingly cold in it”.

It was. Cold. And my hands and toes froze in a matter of seconds. But whoever had the time to think about it?
I was busy marvelling at the space – this practice rink is literally carved into stone. And the stone is white dyed – so the entire space has this winterly look, enhanced by all the lighting.

2 Gabrielle Daleman Rhapsody in Blue in The Cave 2017 Worlds Helsinki

Later that day I read what colleague Jyrki Pirkkalainen had written for Icenetwork: Hartwall Arena was built ten years ago, for 1997 World Ice Hockey Championships. But heading to 1999, when Helsinki last hosted World Figure Skating Championships, the organizers had to meet International Skating Union’s requirements and provide a practice facility to the skaters. And so this rink, affectionately nicknamed now “The Cave”, was excavated into the rock underneath the main arena. But the space has always been an issue – you won’t find here the usual rows of chairs surrounding the ice, only a couple of them in the upper part of this small arena, and just a strand, a narrow alley, in between the stone walls and the ice itself.

And since this is a space where, during competitions, only athletes, teams, chaperons, organizers, journalists are allowed, it goes without saying that, along the years, the sports events, many members of the media expressed their awe, their admiration when entering the rink. For the World Ice Hockey Championships in 2012, for example, someone wrote on twitter: “Most amazing arena and system of all times, great builders and engineers of Finland”. Another one, on a hockey-dedicated website: “You can imagine Neanderthal man finding a place like this and playing hockey with a few T Rex fibulas for sticks and guano for a puck”. And then: “The ceiling is as low as you can possibly imagine for a hockey rink. It feels as though Shaq [Shaquille O’Neal] could jump up and touch the lights, but perhaps it’s a bit higher than that”.

It goes for skating too: no pairs’ practices were scheduled into #TheCave precisely because of the low ceiling. I laugh about it with a fellow photographer while watching a group of men practice in this particular space; she says: “Imagine Bruno throwing Aliona for their twist! It will result in a… frittata”. That’s the Italian word for omelette, in case you didn’t know.

The (first) skating stories of #TheCave
Now that you know already what I will know only after I’d visited “The Cave” for a couple of days in a row, let’s turn to my surprise when entering this space, this temple of sound. Because you need to trust me on this: the acoustics in this practice rink is unbelievable.

Here in #TheCave the sound is stripped of all impurities: you hear the piano, rain drops on clear water, the gliding and its swish, its traces in the air, the sound of blade hitting the ice when landing a jump. It’s only that: the purity of sound, the purity of skating – and so my eyes, my ears are treated like royalties. And when the first piece of music that you hear in this space is Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, you’re happy, just that, and you can’t ask for anything else.

3 Gabrielle Daleman Rhapsody in Blue in The Cave 2017 Worlds Helsinki

It’s 15:37 in the afternoon, on Monday, the week of Worlds has started, and Canada’s Gabrielle Daleman is on the ice, practicing her free skate. She’ll finish the competition with a beaming smile – the World bronze medal will be hers on Friday – but for now she’s in #TheCave: no smiles, just focus, concentration, and a perfect double Axel landed under my very nose.

And then there’s that: “Sous le ciel de Paris/S’envole un chanson, /Mmm, mmm…” – Kaetlyn Osmond brings Edith Piaf into #TheCave while polishing her short program; she too will end the week with joy, enthusiasm: that’s what a World silver medal, one year before Olympics, brings to its bearer.

And for 40 minutes, Gabrielle, Kaetlyn and Estonia’s Helery Hälvin have the ice for themselves – the rest of ladies in this practice group, Loena Hendrickx, Isadora Williams, Carolina Kostner, will meet #TheCave the following days. And so will the Russian ladies from the next group – only Kazakhstan’s Elizabet Tursynbaeva shows up for her practice in #TheCave on Monday afternoon. And while I leave the rink, a line of Japanese journalists are hastily heading to it: group 6 of practice includes Wakaba, Mai and Rika.

And only after I marvel (for how many times already?) at the interest of Japanese members of the media in their skaters, only now I get to see I’m in a tunnel; that too carved into stone.

4 Tunnel carved into rock 2017 Worlds Helsinki

That’s the media’s official entrance to/exit from #TheCave, and, let me tell you, that’s a thrilling experience by itself. That long tunnel bringing you to the surface – or down in the ground, depending on your destination point – bears a strong resemblance with the web of tunnels, caves in prehistoric times; especially with the drawing-decorated walls. In history, we call this “cave art”, “parietal art” – in this case, the drawings feature skaters, hockey players. And, heading for the metal door, and then the light, I can’t help laughing by myself and taking pictures, lots of pictures. How else could I spend a Monday afternoon in Helsinki?

5 Drawings featuring skating and hockey 2017 Worlds Helsinki

“Balada para un loco” and the chills – and not the cold-related chills
Two hours later, just like a human already enthralled with an addiction, I am back in #TheCave for the men’s practice. The Japanese journalists are still here, a compact group of writers and photographers in the media’s designated area – and, on the ice, Keiji Tanaka, Shoma Uno, Stephane Walker, Misha Ge.

7 Media in The Cave 2017 Worlds Helsinki

Yuzuru Hanyu decided to skip the second practice of the day, but you can still hear the music of his short program in #TheCave, and Prince’s voice, when the time comes. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today…” to enjoy these young men’s talent, and their preparation for the final, most important act of the season – and that’s exactly what some of the journalists accredited to this edition of Worlds are doing.

And when Misha Ge takes the center of the ice for his short program run-through, and the piano pours into all corners of #TheCave – Misha skates to Franz Liszt’s “Liebesträume” – you become once again so very appreciative to this bubble of sound, that keeps within all nuances of music. And you also become so aware of Misha’s skills and qualities: such a beautiful, elegant skater he is, a true dancer on ice.

As for Shoma Uno during the first minutes of the practice, every practice, he’s just like a bird cleaving the air, the heights.

8 Shoma Uno Keiji Tanaka Stephane Walker Misha Ge in The Cave 2017 Worlds Helsinki

And then he freezes into the starting pose of his free skate, and we’re already sold. Cause there’s no better place than this freezing ice rink called #TheCave to host the passion and the madness in “Balada para un loco”. And the chills of the (scarce) audience while listening to it.

Quereme asi, piantao, piantao, piantao…
Trepate a esa ternura de locos que hay en mi,
Ponete esa peluca de alondras, y vola!
Vola conmigo ya! Veni, vola, veni!

Quereme asi, piantao, piantao, piantao…
Abrite los amores que vamos a intentar
La magica locura total de revivir…
Veni, vola, veni!

(Love me the way I am, crazy, crazy, crazy…
Climb up into my insane tenderness,
Put this wig of larks on your head and fly!
Fly with me now! Come! Fly! Come!

Love me the way I am, crazy, crazy, crazy…
Open up your love, we are going to attempt
the crazy magic of reviving…
Come, fly, come!)

It seemed a gutsy, daring move at the beginning of the season: any tango, and this one in particular, requires some adjustment, and the skater’s readiness, availability, to become one with the music. Especially when the music is so bold, so loud, so strong – Shoma used the version sang by Milva, full of power, character.

But even in its own time, the hoarse voice of Amelita Baltar, the first interpreter of the song, wasn’t to everyone’s liking, and some people threw coins at her when she first sang it, during the Festival de la Canción y de la Danza, in Buenos Aires, in November 1969. It was later proved this was an act of sabotage against musician Astor Piazzolla, who composed the tango, to the lyrics of the poet Horacio Ferrer. And so „Balada para un loco” won only second prize that time in Buenos Aires – but it survived the stories and the histories, entering amongst The best 100 latino songs of all times (Las 100 mejores canciones latinas de la historia).

As will this free skate – embracing the two tangos accompanying him this season, „Buenos Aires hora cero” and „Balada para un loco”, both by Piazzolla, Shoma Uno will become the 2017 World silver medalist. And whoever chose for him this music did an act of brilliance.

My first day in the practice rink ends with “Tosca” – what a treat! –, one of Denis Ten’s favorite pieces of music, and the one he chose for his free skate during pre-Olympic season. And that’s that: the musical feast has ended. For now. Tomorrow is another day into #TheCave.

9 Denis Ten in The Cave 2017 Worlds Helsinki

The power of a triple Axel in a sea of quads; and what Sam Smith’s voice has to do with that
For this particular group of skaters, practicing in #TheCave on Tuesday around 14:00, the interest is absolutely huge. Javier Fernández, the World champion en titre, and Nathan Chen, recent Four Continents champion, are on the ice – hence numerous journalists sit (and freeze) on the wooden benches, in the media’s corner.

Among those, former competitive skater, 2010 Olympic bronze medalist, now commentator for Fuji TV, Daisuke Takahashi – who, in an article written for the Japanese newspaper “Nihon Keizai Shimbun” prior to Worlds, had used beautiful words to describe the strengths of some medal contenders in Helsinki, men and women; and took the time to express his admiration to Jason Brown’s feel for the music: “As for the program that really stays in mind, it is Jason Brown’s. I like his free skate, Piano Lesson, very much. You can see he performs all movements while paying attention to the music – he was even listening to the music while he was spinning. He’s not so good at jumping, but all the other parts are remarkable, praiseworthy. Still, they are not too much, and you can embrace everything as a whole”.

10 Jason Brown in The Cave 2017 Worlds Helsinki

And the truth is that: your eyes are drawn to Jason Brown as soon as you enter #TheCave; and not because he is wearing a blue T-shirt, a stain of colour among everyone else dressed in white and black. But because Jason’s skating is addictive through its quality and beauty of the movement. You come to realize it more and more while watching his SP run-through, to Sam Smith’s „Writing’s on the Wall”. And in this feast of quads, hosted by a surreal, freezing ice rink, a gorgeous triple Axel landed on the music, on the lyrics even, „I’m prepared for this/I never shoot to miss…”, makes you happy; and attracts spontaneous claps from a knowing, hard to please audience.

And then there’s that: the quads, lots of them, of different kinds – as you would already expect from Nathan Chen – and the burst of energy in the final part of his long program to „Polovtsian Dances” by Alexander Borodin. His heart is surely racing at the end of this tour de force that his free skate represents – and you can’t help being amazed by the enthusiasm, the freshness this 17-year old brings to the figure skating world.

…and let me just share with you the pure emotion of watching (and listening to) Javier Fernández’ „Malagueña” in #TheCave. This jewel of a flamenco dance – it’s a dance this one: intense, and strong, and full of character –, choreographed by Antonio Najarro, found in Javier Fernández the best interpreter; and in this practice rink in Helsinki, the perfect place to be performed. A tablao flamenco 20 meters underground – can you imagine that? And the sound of a Spanish guitar in a cave? I’ll write just that: some experiences are meant to be lived – and they soon become wonderful memories.

Two days later, skated in the main arena, a flawless, impressive „Malagueña” will bring Javier Fernández 109.05 points. And the lead after the short.

Yuzuru’s nemesis: the quad Sal-triple Toe spreads anxiety amongst the fans
It’s 16:20 and I’m back in #TheCave for a display of talent – all men in group one of practice are on the ice, including Japanese superstar Yuzuru Hanyu – the man they all came to see. They: the fans travelling in large number from Japan to Helsinki, for this particular edition of the Worlds. I hear bits of information about Japanese airlines supplementing flights to Finland, to accommodate the huge demand – but I also know people travelling from so many other places to see Yuzuru at work during the biggest competition of the season, and the last major one before the Olympics in PyeongChang.

„I’m accompanying my sister in Helsinki, she’s a big fan of Yuzuru”, a Romanian pianist living in London tells me during Worlds. He’s a talent by himself, a prizewinner in many competitions – but here, in Helsinki, he’s just the big brother chaperoning for his sister. He’ll smilingly draw some conclusions from his first figure skating event ever: „It was very interesting for me to see the strengths of all those successful here – I’ll try to transfer them for my own piano competitions”.

But we’re in #TheCave now, and Yuzuru’s run-through of his Prince routine isn’t going according to plans; he misses all the jumping elements – so unusual of him – and even makes the journalists & photographers in the rink exchange preoccupied looks when he falls near the boards, under their very nose. But Yuzuru looks calm, collected: he gracefully stands up, on the tip of his blades, just like a cat – a slender, agile cat – and carries on. And his success rate in landing the big jumps in his repertoire gets higher and higher as we advance within the practice session.

11 Yuzuru Hanyu Shoma Uno in The Cave 2017 Worlds Helsinki

12 Yuzuru Hanyu in The Cave 2017 Worlds Helsinki

13 Yuzuru Hanyu Prince SP in The Cave 2017 Worlds Helsinki

…while I unintentionally manage to instill anxiety amongst Yuzuru’s admirers by posting bits of his run-through on instagram. And though you can barely see what’s happening on the other side of the rink in that fuzzy recording, the fans notice Yuzuru popped the planned quad Salchow; and what was meant to show the wonderful air, atmosphere in his SP, to the voice of Prince in #TheCave, becomes the object of angst, unease, concern, on a figure skating forum. The quad Salchow-triple Toeloop combination is the trigger of all those.

„Combo of doom again”. „I feel like dizziness and anxiety kick in now. Yuzu, please, divorce that combination already!”. „Can’t believe he popped combo again, cancel my trip”. „I shall quietly mourn the beauty of NHK and GPF SP 4S-3T, who decided to take a long vacation”. „Marry 4Lo-3T instead!”. „4S-3T combo is officially on my hate list. Bring my glorious 4T-3T back!!! It would never betray you, NEVER!”. „Maybe 4S-3T is testing him… to see his will is strong enough”. „Seriously, drop that sucker!”. „At GPF, he was doing crazy 4S combos at gala, that jump was like butter to him. Then suddenly at 4CC, 4S decides to go on a long vacation in both programs. And it hasn’t returned properly”. „I just don’t know why 4S has to be the drama queen all the time”. „What an emotional roller coaster 4S is…”.

Two days later, during the short program, the quadruple Salchow, aka „the drama queen”, will strike again; and having to improvise a bit after landing the jump, Yuzuru Hanyu will lose precious points and finish this particular segment of the men’s event on the 5th place.

But sitting in #TheCave on Tuesday I come to realize one thing, and I thoroughly enjoy the thought and the discovery. I first saw Yuzuru Hanyu in a practice rink, on the 5th floor, at 2012 Worlds in Nice. That was only his second season in seniors, and he gloriously finished it with a bronze medal in France. And so a circle closes today in Helsinki, in just another practice rink, at 2017 Worlds. Such a beautiful road for Yuzuru Hanyu in between, and I’m so happy to have witnessed it. And I am clearly looking forward to other beautiful circles such as this one. Cause for the first one I’m clearly grateful.

Three beautifully aligned columns of jumping elements – my mind „takes” a picture of them
As for Shoma Uno, another hugely talented Japanese skater, he always starts the practice session looking focused, preoccupied, eyes turned to himself, fully immersed into his thoughts and strategies – and finishes it with a smile, a laughter even, bottom on the ice, covered in snow.

14 Shoma Uno in The Cave 2017 Worlds Helsinki

15 Shoma Uno in The Cave 2017 Worlds Helsinki

You should have seen him doing exactly that in #TheCave on Tuesday afternoon – he just sits there on the ice, for a couple of seconds, catching his breath and smiling, and the journalists next to me follow his example, and start to chuckle. I’m in a sea of Japanese journalists during this practice session, and the two girls on my right and left had spent the last 40 minutes noting down, scrupulously, on three separate columns, one after another, every single jump attempted by their three skaters on the ice: Yuzuru, Shoma, Keiji Tanaka.

And Shoma’s dedicated column is full of Loop(s) and Flip(s), all quads, of course, and it’s the longest of all three – hence his relief, his tiredness, while sitting on the ice – and I feel the urge of taking a picture of those beautifully aligned columns, jumps-only, on the notebook of the girl on my right. …and I (hardly) resist the temptation.

Later on, there will be stories in the Japanese press focusing exactly on that: whoever did what during the practice session in #TheCave; and some of Yuzuru’s fans will impatiently assess the „inventory”: „Sports Hochi also reported about this session. He [Yuzuru] popped 4Lo and 4S and fell on 3A. Hochi’s reporter also guessed it was because of the difference of ice condition between main rink and subrink. He/she wrote that soon Yuzu adjusted to it and at the end of the session he landed 4Lo 4S 4S 4S 4S 4S, as already reported by Spo-Nichi”. Someone else draws a conclusion: „Totally 6 good quads in the final 10 mins”. Not too bad, right?

The butterflies, the woollen blanket – and the „rocketing fame” of the cave
Once the actual competition starts in the main rink of Hartwall Arena, my visits in #TheCave slowly tail off; but I indulge myself with one more dive on Wednesday in the evening. No better time, no better choice: Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron are on the ice, and I can’t even tell you how their peculiar, intriguing free skate music sounds in this peculiar, intriguing space.

It’s thrilling, it’s exhilarating – „Stillness”, „Oddudua”, „Happiness Does Not Wait” found such a good home in #TheCave – and I am like a kid who’s chasing butterflies. Literally.

16 Gabriella Papadakis Guillaume Cizeron in The Cave 2017 Worlds Helsinki

I’m sharing a woollen blanket with some friends – the cold, the chills need to be fought somehow – and I’m taking it all in. Especially when I get to see, for the first time these Championships, the subtle changes in the program, that lovely, intricate spin embracing the routine in the last seconds. And, contrary to what a journalist would do, I just decide to keep it for myself; and only tease my followers on instagram: „Just this: new nuances, new details – a totally different ending to Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron’s free dance. Oh my”.

…and I am not the only one to marvel at the space, its qualities and its uniqueness. Following the practice session, Guillaume too drops a picture and a thought on social media: „It’s not everyday that you get to skate in a cave!!”. And the enthusiastic feed-back on the practice rink from journalists and skaters altogether makes even the inhabitants of Helsinki revisit, evaluate, look at the space from different angles. Nina Salmenkaita writes on twitter: „The famous #cave under Hartwall Arena is an ice rink where my girls regularly practice their figure skating skills”. And then: „Discussed the rocketing fame of the #cave with my figure skater kids. For them it’s just a rink, for superstars it’s a memory”.

Sun(s) shining bright in #TheCave
It was the sunniest, bluest sky in Helsinki for the first couple of days of the World Championships. But we only saw that in other people’s pictures. Cause our sun(s) were all inside Hartwall Arena – some of them, 20 meters underground, in (now) the famous Cave.

…and bringing bits of joy, of information from this space – just like a story teller travelling to places out of other people’s reach – has been one of the most pleasant occupations during the week of Worlds. There, I’ve said it.