Celebrating Women in Sports at the Aurora Games
This past weekend we drove to Albany, New York, for the figure skating competition at the inaugural Aurora Games – an all-women 6-day sports festival. The all-star female athletes of the team World and team Americas were competing against against each other in basketball, tennis, figure skating, gymnastics, ice hockey and beach volleyball.
Figure Skating is the sport I follow closely, so I jumped at the opportunity to start the spectator season before the summer was even over and be able to see some of my favorite skaters in person. Yes, I knew that the format was going to be more of a show and less of an official competition (protocols et all), but Alysa Liu, 2019 U.S. champion, had been announced to skate for Team Americas and I was going! My daughter and my husband are admittedly less of the sports fans than me, but as always, they had no choice but to follow me on another one of my weekend adventures. The three of us had an amazing day celebrating women in sport and we are happy to share some of the highlights with you.
THE FAN ZONE
We left Boston at 7:30am on a Saturday morning and made it to Albany in less than 3 hours- in time for the Fan Zone experience at the Albany Capital Center. I also stopped at the press conference for beach volleyball that was scheduled to take over on day 6 but made it in time for the meet and greet with Ashley Wagner and Alysa Liu (who were scheduled to take the ice at an adjacent Times Union arena in a little over an hour). It was wonderful for the die-hard figure skating fans to be able to ask questions and take photos with the two skaters who are at the very different stages of their figure skating careers yet seemed so connected with each other and with the sport they represent. Alysa, who was “using” the festival to get ready for the Junior Grand Prix in Lake Placid that is happening this week, discussed how she puts herself in a competitive mind set and Ashely, who is searching for her next role following recent retirement from the competition, described her Olympic experience and thanked her mom for always pushing her to get up for those 5 am ice practices.
After a brief lunch at the City Beer Hall next to the Arena we hurried inside for the 1pm competition.
Being a festival style (and inaugural!) event, the judging (and scoring) criteria was unclear (yet, it would be difficult to argue with the fact that the stronger routines – both in content and in artistry-somehow did get the higher scores). There was an “ice wars” flair to the event with with top three individual scores from each team counting towards the team total. There were three judges (one of them a daring French skater Surya Bonaly whom I still remember competing in my childhood!), no real protocols and a maximum score of 30. The skaters performed short program followed by a long program after a very short break. There was some unclarity with several skaters performing only one program or the other for various reasons; those skaters then performed the “other” program after the awards ceremony. (Think of it as a “substitution” similar to the one that happens at the Olympic team event when different skaters often perform short and long programs).
The roaster of athletes was eclectic, with some retired or semi-retired skaters such as Americans Ashley Wagner and Mirai Nagasu and some very active skaters such as current U.S champion Alysa Liu and 5-time national French champion Mae-Berenice Meite.
Ashley Wagner opened the competition with her short program to the the music of Sweet Dreams, well known to her fans and greatly enjoyed by my daughter. Ashley might have retired but she has still got it!
Russian skater Stanislava Konstantinova was next in her ethereal dress performing a very different program – her new lyrical February short program (to the music of Leonid Levashkevich). Stanislava is one of the most beautiful skaters performing today – by which I do not only mean her physical beauty but the quality and ease of her movement on ice. There is a fierce competition for the spots on team Russia at international events and where Stanislava lacks in the difficulty of jumps (she does not have quadruple or triple axel jumps that some of the skaters are preparing to unravel at the senior competition circuit this season), she more than compensates with her artistry.
I got to talk to Stanislava after the competition about her goals for this season and how she was inspired by Ashley’s Moulin Rouge program. Moulin Rouge is Stanislava’s long program this season which she did not get to present at Aurora Games due to copyright issues. She was instead performing a version of her last year’s Melaguena (Spanish) program. She got one of the four perfect scores of the day (30).
And on the subject of the triple axels (the most difficult jumps performed at the senior women’s circuit last season), we were lucky to get to see several at the Aurora Festival! First, it was 24 year old Japan’s Ayaka Hosoda who landed not one but two triple Axels (one in combination) in her long program. Her famous training partners are world medalists Satoko Miahara and Rica Kihira. Japan national team is very competitive and even with such difficult technical content, Ayaka has not yet represented Japan in international competitions (I am hoping Aurora Festival would help get her noticed by her federation).
Mirai Nagasu, another queen of triple axels (she did not perform one here but successfully landed it at the 2018 Olympics) might have had the best performances of her career with the perfect short program score. She was so good that I had to ask her whether she was indeed retiring (she was “in the process”, she told me).
The main competition “drama” happened around 14-year old U.S. champion Alysa Liu. Alysa did not perform her short program with the rest of the field and I began to worry that she had dropped out. Far from it! Alysa went (and cleanly landed) two triple axels and a quadruple lutz (a first by an American woman). It was not officially recognized by the ISU (the governing body of the sport) and there was a “he said, she said” talk of “under-rotation”, but Alysa plans to go for it again later this week at the Junior Grand Prix event in the nearby Lake Placid. She wanted to try it at the first competition of the season to get it out of the way. “It was more fun than nerves” she told the media about her quadruple success in Albany.
American women have not won medals at the world championships since 2016 Boston Worlds where Ashley Wagner earned silver (which I was lucky to witness in person), and a medal prior to that was Kimmie Meissner’s gold in 2006. There are a lot of eyes – and expectations- on Alysa right now to lead U.S. women to the international success (when she is age-eligible to compete in senior competitions, which will not happen for a couple of seasons). Alysa seems really relaxed yet able to hold her own with the media and the public. I enjoyed witnessing Alysa’s notable performance, but I am even more joyful that my daughter got to witness someone going after her very big goals.
Olympic medalist skater (in 1992 and 1994) Nancy Kerrigan (whose husband Jerry Solomon is Aurora Games’ creator) led the awards ceremony. Team Americas won.
As a legendary gymnast Nadia Comaneci (an honorary team World captain here at the Games) said, “everybody won”. Nadia was happy to be part of the event that celebrated women in sports, she told us as we all – the fans, the athletes, the honorary team captain- congregated at the host hotel lobby (Hilton Albany- see hotel’s affiliate link here).
Frankly, we were star-struck at that lobby as we saw many figure skating celebrities and even got to chat with some of them, including Nancy Kerrigan.
My daughter surely had the summer stories to tell at her first day of school this week.
It’s been announced that the Aurora Games are coming back to Albany in 2021 and 2023. We will be back!