Play it again, Spokane: the sooner, the better
Barb Beddor rolled her eyes
That happened Saturday, when I told her Spokane should be in a regular rotation as the host city for nationals.
"What can I bribe you with not to write that?" Beddor said, laughing.
Sorry, Barb. Your event management company -- Star USA, run by Beddor and her husband, Toby Steward -- and the staff of the Spokane Arena and the good people of this attractive, little big city (population 202,000) did such a brilliant job with the event for the second time in four years that I think nationals should return at least once every six years. (Truth be told, I would rather it be once every four years.)
If I were giving a grade of execution for the 2010 nationals, as judges do with skaters, it would be the maximum plus-3.
Although attendance for senior championship competition was down from the 2007 nationals by about 1,000 per session, Spokane set another overall meet attendance record, 158,170, beating the 2007 mark by nearly 4,000. That earlier record is 25,000 more than for any other nationals.
And that new record was in spite of an unprecedented competition schedule that dragged over two weekends, with a three-day break in the middle. It discouraged some fans who couldn't take all that time off from work and/or couldn't afford to see everything (many skating fans at nationals are out-of-towners), so they chose to see nothing. In the past, senior-level competition ran five days at most.
And in spite of an economic downturn of staggering proportions.
"It was much harder selling tickets and marketing than it was in 2007," Beddor said.
In no way did that affect the organizational quality of the event. I heard nothing but praise for Spokane from the skaters. And although the fan and skater experience is a more significant measure than the media's experience in evaluating an event, I would be remiss if I did not thank the organizers for the best working conditions imaginable.
The media experience was so positive because the arena staff was unfailingly helpful, friendly and able to handle issues big and small. There is one staff member in particular I want to commend: info technology guru Ryan Wilson, who not only set up the most reliable wireless network I ever have seen at a big event but was on duty about 28 hours a day to resolve any glitches between media members' computers and the network.
So, Barb, here's the sad truth: Spokane deserves to have the event again whenever it wants. And the sooner, the better.
Full Confession of a road (bike) warrior
And the 37-mile Centennial Trail, which runs through the middle of Spokane, was both a spectacularly beautiful and extremely safe place to ride.
I followed it both 13 miles east and nine miles west of my hotel. (Lack of time prevented me from going all the way.) Most of the trail is a dedicated path for cyclists, walkers, bladers and runners. Some parts use wide bike lanes next to roads. Just a short stretch, about two miles, involves city streets marked as bicycle routes with no separate lanes.
The flat stretch east goes all the way (22 miles from my starting point) to Idaho. The western part is hilly, following a ridge line with stunning views of the Spokane River far below as it traverses Riverside State Park.
Because I was riding in mid-morning and in midwinter, there were few others on the trail, allowing me to go as fast as my venerable legs could turn the cranks. Even at busier recreational times, when it would be wise to observe the 15-mph speed limit on the sections away from the road, one could still get a fine workout.
I know you didn't have any control over the weather, Barb, but what the heck, I'll give you and Toby credit for that too.
Yes, I do have a few last words on Sasha
Everyone who trashed Sasha Cohen's comeback as nothing more than an attention-getting stunt owes her an apology.
That includes all you critics who hide behind the anonymity of the Internet as well as Jenny Kirk, the ex-skater-turned-blogger who had the guts to put her name on her critical comments.
When Cohen withdrew from her first planned Grand Prix event last fall, citing tendinitis in her calf, this was Kirk's take: "My guess? Sometimes the fear of failure can be more painful than any injury."
I took Kirk to task for that remark. When Cohen also withdrew from her second planned Grand Prix event, I thought her chances of making it to nationals were only 50-50 because of the injury, but I never doubted the sincerity of her effort. (Her coach, John Nicks, said at nationals the odds weren't even that good until early December, when Cohen finally was healthy enough to begin skating respectably in practices.)
Cohen made it to nationals and was second after the short program, only a fraction of a point behind leader Mirai Nagasu. Then Cohen's free skate was surprisingly leaden -- her six triple-jump attempts resulted in one fall, a couple of two-footed landings, a step-out landing, and negative grades on the two successful triples; the rest of the program was flat -- and the judges' scores hammered her appropriately.
So where did she finish? Eighth? Tenth? Twentieth?
A little more than a year ago, I wrote a blog headlined, "Come back, Sasha Cohen. please." Its premise was that U.S. women's skating needed help, and Cohen still looked like the only woman with the talent to win a 2010 Olympic medal. The plea also was based on the idea that this sport I have come to love while covering it the past 30 years needed the attention Cohen's return would attract.
I was, of course, wrong about the medal part. Cohen, the 2006 Olympic silver medalist, proved unable in the free skate to make the most of her extraordinary talent in spirals and spins because her jumps, always inconsistent, simply weren't good at all during those four minutes on the ice.
But Cohen's presence was a huge boost for U.S. skating. NBC's overnight rating for the women's free skate Saturday was 4.0, or 43% higher than a year ago. Its second hour finished first in the ratings, and that segment did well in demographics advertisers covet: first among men and adults ages 18 to 49 and adults 18 to 34.
Both the prime-time show and the Saturday afternoon skating show got higher ratings than any of the weekend's nine other over-the-air sporting events except the two NFL championship games.
Think NBC, the Olympic broadcaster, might have been rooting for Cohen to make it to Vancouver?
Nagasu and Rachael Flatt, the new U.S. champion, are going for the U.S., having rightfully earned the spots with unquestionably the best skating among the 22 women.
Sasha Cohen's comeback earned respect and gratitude from anyone who cares about figure skating.
-- Philip Hersh
Photos: top, Spokane organizers Barb Beddor and Toby Steward; middle, cyclists on the Centennial Trail in downtown Spokane (both photos courtesy of Spokane Convention and Visitors Bureau); bottom, from left, Mirai Nagasu, Rachael Flatt, Ashley Wagner and Sasha Cohen on the awards stand after the women's final at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. (Matthew Stockman / Getty Images)