For Drew Gonzales, coming to Spokane for the 2010 AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships feels like a homecoming.
The 19-year-old skater from California took to the ice Wednesday for his first practice session of the championship event. Competition begins Friday.
Gonzales said he competed in his first nationals here, in 2007, and returning to the intimacy of the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena puts him at ease.
“I feel a little more comfortable because I’ve competed here before,” Gonzales said. “And the small arena helps it feel like day-to-day training.”
The practice sessions, which began Wednesday afternoon, were closed to the public and included all senior men’s division skaters and pairs.
Family and a small number of media watched at 7 p.m. as the men began practicing in groups. The first to go included Evan Lysacek, who took first place at the championships held in Spokane three years ago.
Gonzales is a newcomer to the senior men’s championships, having placed 11th in the junior men’s division in 2007 in Spokane.
While Spokane is familiar to him, it’s even more so for the young skater’s coach, Scott Wendland. The 44-year-old is a Spokane native who carved his time on the ice at the Eagles Ice-A-Rena, where he was a member of the Lilac City Figure Skating Club.
“I always love coming back to Spokane,” Wendland said. He said the “big little city” of Spokane and its arena have become a well-liked venue for skaters, providing a warmth and intimacy that many big venues cannot.
Wendland graduated from North Central High School in 1983 and left that year for California to train. He retired from figure skating after competing in the 1992 Olympic games in Albertville, France, where he and then-partner Jenni Meno finishing 11th in the pairs division.
He now coaches several young skaters, including Gonzales and another novice ladies competitor, both from the All Year Figure Skating Club in Culver City, Calif.
Because Spokane is not a major city, where major sporting events or teams are the norm, “when they get a sport here it brings people out,” Wendland said.
And Spokane has not disappointed. Three years ago a record number of tickets were sold for the championship events, and as of Tuesday tickets sales were the second-highest.
“You can tell the people here have really taken to skating,” Wendland said.