They may be the among the smallest in stature of the 700-some volunteers for the 2010 U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but their job is among the most important for those actually performing on the ice.
They are the "sweepers," a pint-sized army of young, local skaters that will comb the ice after each performance to pick up fallen pieces of costumes, stuffed animals and fabric flowers that fans throw to show their support. This year, 25 youngsters from the three local figure skating clubs -- Inland Northwest, Lilac City and Spokane -- have volunteered to take part on the ice-clearing crew.
But to make the team, the skaters had to first show they were at least semi-proficient on skates and able to quickly clear the ice for the next competitor. After all, with so much at stake for the national figure skaters since the Spokane championships will determine the U.S. figure-skating team for Vancouver, one little piece of clothing can be enough to trip up an athlete and end their bid for the Winter Olympics.
"There is a minimum level of skating ability. They do have to have poise and posture and be able to skate swiftly," Diana West, co-chair of the "sweepers" and opening ceremonies' figure skaters routine, says. While there is no age restriction and the "sweepers" range in age from as young as seven years old to 15, she adds the kids have to have "enough experience to bend and scoop and get back off the ice before the next performer because it's a safety issue."
The items that are thrown onto the ice have to be purchased from within the arena or in the concourse area, says Barb Beddor, executive director for the national figure skating event. That's to eliminate any potentially dangerous or breakable objects from entering the rink.
"From a security standpoint, U.S. Figure Skating has certain procedures; not just anything can be thrown onto the ice," Beddor says, adding that articles such as real flowers have been banned since they can break into pieces. "It only takes one little pebble to ruin a skater's performance."
Some of the more common and acceptable items of fan paraphernalia include Beanie Babies, teddy bears and fake flowers. After the events, many of the items are then collected and distributed to area children's hospitals or other family-oriented businesses. In 2007, West says they were able to donate a truckload of stuffed animals to the Shriner's Hospital.
As for the "sweepers," West sent out an announcement to the local clubs for the cleaning crew in September. More than 30 kids showed up to try out, but there were only enough spots for 25 skaters to take part.
And the perks? Well, they are pretty much the stuff of dreams for any up-and-coming figure skater. Front row seats. The chance to meet their favorite athletes. And maybe a picture with them to prove it.
It was enough to make 9-year-old Kayleigh Elliott volunteer again for the 2010 championships. A veteran "sweeper" from the last time the figure skating championships were in town, Elliott, who's been skating since she was three years old and now skates for the Lilac City club, says she's looking forward to her front-row duty.
"It was really fun," she exclaims, adding that she met at the 2007 event skaters Rachael Flatt and Tanith Belbin, among others. Why? "Just getting to meet the skaters and watching from the front row," she says.