In the first days of competition at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, there are no network TV cameras or big-name skating stars.
But sit rink-side for a couple of hours and you'll see something else: the future.
Five years from now, when you settle in to watch the broadcast of the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, there's a good chance that some of the brightest hopes for U.S. figure skating gold would have been here, this week, in Omaha.
They're novice- and junior-level skaters sharpening their skills with hopes of moving up to the senior level and competing around the world. They dream of soaring up the ranks like Gracie Gold. The 2012 junior gold medalist is now, a year later, one of the most-talked-about senior skaters in the competition.
Most of the novice and junior skaters swapped attendance at middle and high schools for grueling training schedules that require hours on the ice every day. They do homework for online classes between practice sessions or study on the road as their parents rack up thousands of miles driving between home and the ice rink.
Young skaters like Karen Chen, the 13-year-old Californian who was last year's U.S. novice champion, say they miss the friends they made when they attended school. But, Karen said, the calculation is simple: If you want to be an Olympian, you'll probably have to miss eighth grade.
“I was thinking about going back to school at one point,” she said, “but if I went back to school, I wouldn't be able to skate.”
Karen, competing for the first time at nationals as a junior-level skater, is one of the youngest — and tiniest — athletes at the competition. On the ice, she can curl up all of her 4-foot-6 body into a ball that looks like a speck in the middle of the arena.
She's been skating since she was 4, competing since age 6. By now she has this stuff down to a science, from the jade necklace she wears at every competition, for luck, to the perfect training schedule.
“Usually I stay on the ice three to four hours,” she said. “No more than four. I try to limit myself because, when I over-skate, the next day I'm usually exhausted and it's easy for me to get injured.”
Being this good this young means you know a thing or two about time management.
Barbie Long, 16, another strong contender in the junior ladies division, gets up every day at 5 a.m. and heads to the ice. She skates for an hour and a half or two hours, does some schoolwork, then returns to the rink for another couple of hours. Then maybe a nap, and more homework, and to bed by 8:30.
There's little time for trips to the mall or staying out late with friends.
Reporter Erin Golden, left, and photojournalist Rebecca S. Gratz will lead our coverage team this week. Erin and Rebecca have been tracking U.S. skating developments since attending the 2012 championships in San Jose, Calif.
Go to Omaha.com/skating for full coverage of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, including athlete profiles and ticket information.
And even if she wanted to, she couldn't. For years, Barbie has spent all or most of her time away from her home and family in St. Louis, living and training with her coach in Springfield, Ill.
During competition season, she sometimes heads to faraway places such as Slovenia, where she took silver at a junior Grand Prix competition last year.
Barbie is focused on the Pyeongchang Games, but she knows there is plenty of work to be done.
She feels good about her triple lutz and is working on her triple axel. She'll put on pads and jump and fall, then jump and fall again. She'll do it dozens, hundreds of times if she has to.
“I just keep working on it until one day I get it. I keep doing it until it's good enough.”
Nathan Chen knows that kind of discipline. The Salt Lake City 13-year-old — who is not related to Karen Chen — has been racking up titles for years.
He's been a national champion every year since 2010 (the first two as a novice, the third as a junior) and took gold at a junior Grand Prix competition in Austria last fall.
Nathan started skating because he wanted to play hockey with his brothers, but he quickly landed on figure skating.
These days, figure skating is everything for him. Just about all of his friends are people he knows from the rink. There's not much else he'd rather do in his free time, Nathan said, except maybe other sports, like hockey and gymnastics.
Fellow junior men's competitor Vincent Zhou, a 12-year-old from Palo Alto, Calif., said he also has jettisoned some hobbies to focus on skating. A few years ago he was into Pokémon, but that's taken a backseat to skating.
He and his mother frequently make an 800-mile round-trip commute so he can train with his coach, while his father and 14-year-old sister stay home. It has paid off, at least in terms of competition success: Last year, Vincent was the U.S. novice champion.
He knows, though, that stepping up to the next level will be a challenge. He's still too young to compete internationally, and in the senior division he'll face skaters older than him by 10 or 15 years.
But Vincent said being one of the smallest in the pack has its advantages. The judges and the crowd love to be dazzled by the tiniest skater doing big jumps.
“I know that small doesn't mean I'm not a good skater,” he said.
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