Hundreds of volunteers help keep figure skating championships running smoothly

Kayla Romero, 9, of La Vista, is one of the volunteer “sweepers,” who clear the ice of stuffed animals tossed by fans at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships.

Sheryl Scarborough doesn't spend a lot of time planning where she'll go on vacation each year.

U.S. Figure Skating decides for her. Last year, it was San Jose. This year, it's Omaha. Next January, she'll pack her bags for Boston.

This is the 32nd time the Annapolis, Md., woman has taken a break from her job in airport development for the Federal Aviation Administration to attend the country's biggest skating event. And it's the 11th time she's worked as a volunteer at the event, handing out credentials to skaters, coaches, officials and reporters.

“It's really been neat because I've met all the kids,” she said. “They all have to come through this room. So it's a great place to work. You meet everybody. You meet the people who are coaches now you watched skate 15, 20 years ago.”

In exchange for an up-close look at the ins and outs of a major skating competition, volunteers like Scarborough keep the U.S. Figure Skating Championships running. In Omaha, there are about 350 of them. They present awards, hand out water bottles and control the music and announcements at the practice rink. They keep watch over the athletes' locker rooms and provide medical care to skaters who take a tumble on the ice.

Most of the volunteers have skating backgrounds, and many are from the four skating clubs in Omaha and Lincoln, said Josh Murphy, an Omaha native and former national-level skater who is helping to oversee event operations at the CenturyLink Center Arena. He said it helps to understand the flow of a competition, and some skating terms, though it's not a requirement.

“What we're really looking for is smiling — and people who can show their Omaha hospitality,” he said.

Though the weeklong event requires fewer volunteers than last summer's U.S. Olympic Swim Trials, it's still a major undertaking. The official color-coded calendar for the event has dozens of specific practices, warm-ups and competition events, each of which needs to be kept to a strict schedule. There are 1,500 athletes, coaches and skating officials to keep happy.

Some locals who signed up to help with skating cut their teeth on the swimming event, so they understand what it takes to make a big sports competition tick.

Cheri Livingston, who lives in Bellevue, said she was wowed by the chance to get up close to swimming stars like Michael Phelps, Ryan Lochte and Natalie Coughlin. When Omaha landed the nationals for skating, she wanted to come back.

This time, she's manning a desk in volunteer services. It's in an upstairs ballroom at the CenturyLink, where volunteers check in other workers as the radios on their hips buzz with questions from workers scattered around the arena. Livingston said she enjoys the chance to meet skating fans from across the country.

“Meeting the people and finding out where they're from and why they like skating,” she said.

Near the practice ice rink in the building's convention center wing, local volunteers with checklists in hand monitor all of the comings and goings on the ice. They check in with each skater, make sure the announcer knows which program (short or long) he or she will be performing, and keep Kleenex boxes stocked for skaters that come off the ice sniffling.

Therese McDermott, an assistant vice president at Physicians Mutual, took time off from work to volunteer along with her daughter, University of Nebraska-Omaha student Tessa McDermott.

She said she's been impressed with the professionalism of the young skaters, including some who have stopped by to thank her after stepping off the ice.

Plus, working on the practice ice, she gets to see all of the competitors in action before anybody else.

“You're kind of cheating because you're working but also watching at the same time,” she said.

Closer to the competition ice in the arena, some of the event's youngest volunteers eagerly watch the skaters performing their programs. Dressed in matching outfits, they wait for the moment the music stops and then spring into action, scanning the ice for stuffed animals or other items thrown by fans.

The “sweepers” are all young members of area figure skating clubs who won their positions by performing well in an audition.

“We had to go skate around the rink, and they'd throw stuffed animals on the ice and see how fast we could pick them up,” said Izzy Schwob, a 13-year-old from Des Moines.

Her partner for the morning, Kayla Romero, a 9-year-old from La Vista, said it's an exciting job, so long as you're up for one big task: “Making sure you don't fall down.”

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