The AT&T U.S. Figure Skating Championships, starting in Spokane today, will attract up to 75,000 passionate and vocal fans.
Many will be part of tight-knit groups that began planning for the event more than a year ago.
The groups often take breaks and have meals together. Many will finish their days with a nightcap to discuss how well the skaters did.
They’re the skating world equivalent of Deadheads, the roving bands of fans who gathered at performances by rock legend The Grateful Dead.
In this case, the bond among fans is a strong affinity for ice skating.
Just don’t call them groupies.
“I’d hate to be called groupies,” said Gerrie Wszolek, the unofficial leader of The Splinters, one of dozens of fan groups in town for the championships.
“We’re just die-hard, educated fans who know skating very well, having watched a lot of these events for years,” said Wszolek (pronounced “Zo Lek”).
The Splinters date back to 2001. This year the group will bring together about a dozen members from all over the country, Wszolek said.
Barb Beddor, one of the organizers of the skating event, said she’s aware of “tons of fan groups” buying tickets for the championships, which run through Jan. 24.
“Not all of them have names. But it’s natural that people join with other skaters to form groups,” Beddor said.
“When people end up sitting next to each other for 10 hours a day, after a while you talk with those people around you,” she said. “Those people know each other really well by the end of the event.”
That’s what happened to Maryann Farnell, back in 2007, the first year Spokane hosted the U.S. Figure Skating championships.
Farnell, with an all-event ticket, was seated next to The Splinters for all eight days of that competition. On day one she became a good chum of Bev Kerr, one of the Splinters.
By the second day Farnell was on first-name terms with the others. By the end of the 2007 event, Farnell was part of the group, and already had her seats purchased for the 2008 championships.
This year Farnell is the unofficial hostess for The Splinters. At least one of the group’s members will stay at her home. Her husband, Spokane County Chief Executive Marshall Farnell, says he has no interest in the event and expects to see Maryann just “from time to time” until Jan. 24.
The Splinters first formed in 2001 after some of the members – mostly from the East Coast – already were making annual trips to skating events, buying accommodations and tickets through a travel agency.
“One of us said, ‘You know, we can do this ourselves,’ “ said Wszolek, a 70-year-old retiree from Trenton, N.J. “And someone else said ‘That makes us a splinter group.’ “
The Splinters, befitting their name, have no collective favorites among the skaters. There are other fan groups in town for this event who are the exact opposite – rooting loudly for one specific skater.
Those fan groups give themselves names that often go with the pins or buttons that feature their favorite skater.
“This year the Johnny Weir fans are Johnny’s Angels,” said Scottie Bibb, the spokeswoman for U.S. Figure Skating, the governing body for this event.
“And the Evan Lysacek fans go by the name Evan’s Elves,” she said.
One of the two men in The Splinters is Doug Linneman, who flew in Thursday from Philadelphia, where he works for Linneman Associates, a real estate consulting group.
Linneman said he joined the group last year at the Cleveland championships. Like Farnell, he was assimilated because he sat near The Splinters.
“We seem to never tire of the conversations we have about the competition,” Linneman said. Members disagree often about how a skater did, or how well or badly judges scored a program.
“But one thing we always agree on is that we love the sport,” Linneman said.
He said he never feels singled out by the others, being one of the few men in the group.
“Yes, it’s true I am the official guy in the group,” Linneman said. “But it’s not hard or weird. Being surrounded every day by about a dozen women? For me, that’s a lot of fun.”