Oberstdorf is a clean-cut compact town where visitors have been arriving for two hundred years and more to enjoy the beautiful Bavarian Alps which enclose its periphery. Chalet-style houses line its streets, each laden with bright coloured flowers hanging from windows and balconies, brightening the bleached wooden fascias. In winter the town is packed with winter sports enthusiasts but in summer it’s full of (mostly middle-aged) walkers. The place has an atmosphere of syncopated prosperity, a sense of contentment rooted possibly in the values of its sturdy Lutheran inhabitants. At night the hostelries swing to the sound of accordions as the supping of Bavarian beer seems to elicit the need to sing loudly in chorus.
Overhanging the town like a huge concrete diving board is the giant ski-jump constructed for a previous Winter Olympics. The walk from our hotel to the ‘eissport’ (it’s easier to comprehend German if you say the word rather than read it) stadium took barely fifteen minutes. The path follows a tumbling mountain river that’s been carefully diverted around the town. Passing over our heads at regular intervals were sky-surfers (hang-gliders) and the mountain bus, a huge cable car that reaches high into the Bavarian Alps. We planned to take a trip up (to see the spectacular panorama that featured in The Sound of Music) after the skating competition ended and my nerves (good or bad) were firmly back on land.
I had been nervous for weeks. The Nebelhorn Trophy was going to be my son and his partner’s last chance to qualify for the Sochi Winter Olympics. David and Stacey have been skating together for ten years, representing their country in European and World Championships and winning the British Senior title eight consecutive years. After competing in the Vancouver Winter Olympics in 2010 (finishing 16th) they were more than hungry to try again. For the last three years this has been their main goal but one catastrophe followed another until it seemed their chances of getting to Sochi were hopelessly remote. But never ones to give up (I wish I possessed half their determination) they came out fighting.
I’ve been going to pre-competition practises for ten years, shivering in ice stadiums all over the world, watching the best skaters in action. Each group practise lasts thirty minutes and each couple (up to four pairs allowed in each group) have their music played once, giving them one opportunity to run through their competition programme. It can be manic with so many teams on ice together but there is a code of etiquette (which most skaters adhere to) that they ‘give way’ to whichever pair’s music is being played. At Oberstdorf David and Stacey’s first practise was scheduled at ten in the morning, a very civilised time (it can be early as 6am or late as 11pm). I believe it’s a huge privilege to watch practises. In fact it can be more memorable than the final performance, not least because by then I’m usually too wrapped up in nerves to appreciate anything. And no matter where a competition is held, if it’s under the control of the International Skating Union (ISU) they are organised in close symmetry, which can be comforting, but sometimes there are surprises.
At Oberstdorf the surprise was finding a swarm of news cameras surrounding the ice pad during that first practise. Generally speaking the media concentrates on final performances and it was more than disconcerting to find a wall of TV reporters hanging over the rail shouting encouragement to one particular team. Even more surprising that this team (representing Turkey) were completely unknown, rank outsiders. My nerves span out of control (with all this attention they must surely be worthy of top place) until I watched them skate. The gentleman of the pair was barely better than a beginner and watching his first attempt to lift his partner was scary. It turned out they had been entered after they won the German version of ‘Dancing On Ice.’ Olga Bestandigova was actually a very skilled (and extremely brave) skater but her partner Ilhan Mansiz, a Turkish football hero who scored a goal in the last World Cup, wasn’t in the same league (sorry). Such is the power of the media their presence brought spectators from all over Germany (and even further afield). Rather more frustrating was the way their supporters ‘popped’ in to watch them skate, raising the roof with very vocal support, but then aborted as soon as they stepped off the ice, even though another team were half-way through their performance. Not just bad manners but utterly unforgivable as far as real spectators are concerned.
There were 19 pairs teams competing in the Nebelhorn Trophy and four Olympic places up for grabs so in essence this was probably the most important competition of my son’s career. And by the time David and Stacey stepped onto the ice my nerves were jangling out of control. I could hardly speak never mind cheer. I have never been so grateful for the presence of a remarkable set of people – TRUE SKATING FANS – people who follow figure skating wherever, whenever and will travel across continents to watch. The couple sitting next to my husband (and yelling ‘David’ and ‘Stacey’ at the top of their voices) came from Munich and the lady on the other side waving a British flag was actually Spanish. As a lovely Italian gentleman later explained – if skating is your passion you support all the skaters all the way because you love what they do and wish with all your heart that you could do it too.
There are 20 places for Pairs Teams at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Sixteen of these are allocated after the World Championships, dependant upon which teams are placed in the top ten. After that it’s down to Nebelhorn, and the competition was pushed up a peg because this year, for the first time, there is going to be a new team skating event at Sochi. To qualify for this you must have competitors in a minimum of three figure skating disciplines so new teams were competing from countries already qualified in both singles events but lacking pairs or dance. There were also strong contenders from countries who haven’t broken into world league, countries such as the People’s Republic of North Korea. It was only after the competition ended that Lyndon Johnson, David and Stacey’s Canadian coach, confided that he thought the Koreans would come out on top. But it was David and Stacey’s night and they shone. The crowd went mad and I could relax, a little. But I knew they had to skate their long programme the following day with equal quality and style.
We have three unspoken rules during a competition. First, we never try to contact David or Stacey, if they need us they can phone or text; second, we only eat after they’ve skated (which sometimes means we go without) and third, we neither celebrate nor despair until the competition is over. As far as my nerves are concerned the second day is worst – there’s the carrot dangling, on the end of the stick, but will it remain out of reach? I find it best to be occupied and prefer to watch all the practises rather than sit in an empty hotel room trying to read a book or write my blog – anyway, by this stage, my concentration has gone to pot. At Oberstdorf the free skating didn’t start until evening and David and Stacey were 12th to skate. As preceding teams completed their programmes my knees began to knock harder and my hands shook to such an extent I couldn’t be trusted with a cup of coffee, never mind hot gluhwein. Their music began playing, a medley of Beatles songs, and I could feel the crowd lifting them with an enormous cheer but I could hardly bare to watch. And they played safe, David said afterwards he has never been so nervous, but they did it – scoring the highest score of their career and top out of the qualifying teams. Later, when David appeared behind the security barrier, I wanted to run down and hug him, but that would have meant disturbing every other spectator in our row……That night we had supper at eleven and for the first time in a month I actually slept all night. Who’d be a skating mum?