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Skating fan or not, it's hard not to appreciate the appeal of a tiny, remote-controlled Zamboni.
Wednesday afternoon, a booth offering the chance to race the miniature ice-clearing machines was one of the most popular spots in the FanFest area of the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.
It was the first day for the fan-friendly exhibition area, which is next to the practice ice rink on the convention side of the CenturyLink Center. Organizers say the FanFest, which is free for visitors, is the largest ever at a national skating event.
Among the competition for the Zamboni racing: demonstrations from local skating clubs; interactive games featuring Omaha and sports trivia; and vendors selling anything and everything skating related, from sparkly T-shirts to colorful plastic guards for protecting skate blades.
Later in the week, some of the sport's biggest stars, such as 2006 Olympic silver medalist Sasha Cohen, will show up to sign autographs. Or, if you prefer, you can stop by the autograph stage to meet Snow Plow Sam, the “cuddly bear” that serves as U.S. Figure Skating's mascot.
A few steps away, fans can take a seat in the bleachers and watch the competitors practice their full routines. It's an unusual chance to preview the performances in an intimate setting — and a chance to marvel at how several skaters on the ice at the same time jump, spin and race across the ice without crashing into each other.
Visitors to the FanFest's opening day included 450 students from four Omaha middle schools. For several weeks, they've been learning about how skaters train and trying out some of the conditioning for themselves in gym class.
Cierra Magee, 11, marveled at a demonstration from young skaters on a small sheet of ice in the FanFest area. She said she'd like to try it for herself but isn't sure she's up to the kind of tricks she got to see up close. The biggest challenge, she said, would be something smaller: “Getting on the ice.”
On the other end of the exhibit hall, kids scribbled with markers at a poster creation station.
Sponsored by Create, an Elkhorn store that offers art-themed birthday parties and other special events, the booth provides the supplies for fans to draw their own supportive signs before heading to the competition.
“Even if kids just come over here and chill out, it's great,” said Amy Gleason, the store's owner.
Vendors, including New York skate maker Klingbeil, were still setting up Wednesday.
Richie Perna, the company's president, was setting up shelves lined with skates: white skates, black skates, even eye-catching red sequin skates. He said prices range from $89 to $1,000, depending on how much stress the skate is designed to handle. His company outfits 38 of the top skaters at the championships.
Michaela Voelker, an Omaha 10-year-old who was one of the skaters involved in demonstrations on the FanFest ice, said she was excited to spend the afternoon checking out the exhibits — especially because she got to take the afternoon off from school.
She said she was inspired by the elite skaters she watched on the practice ice and resolved to try to get there, one day.
“I'm not going to quit ice skating,” she said. “Ever.”
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