Stephanie Prior can relate to the feelings of Nickel Blades Skating Club teammate Rebecca Ryan.
That empathy will be even more important, moving forward, as Prior looks to ways to connect with young skaters, ready to tackle the next phase of her time on the ice.
While Ryan, at the age of nine, is only just beginning to experience the thrills and emotions of competitive skating, her soon-to-be 18 year old counterpart was performing for the judges, one last time. The local duo were among a field of some 300 skaters assembled for the Super Series event in Sudbury on the weekend, a gathering of 37 clubs that was hosted by the Nicke Blades.
"I only did two competitions this year," noted Prior, a tad somber come Sunday morning at the Gerry McCrory Sports Complex. "The first one, it didn't really hit me that it was my second last competition, pretty much ever. Yesterday, I did cry, because it was my last time skating."
"I've been skating for 14 years - it's been a big part of my life."
Thankfully, separation anxiety is not likely to set in.
Having first contemplated a transition to coaching some three years ago, Prior would earn her Can Skate certification in 2018, following up with the Regional Coach program last year. "When I was younger, I thought I would be skating forever," said the grade 12 Marymount student, with a smile.
"I didn't really know what I was going to do, after I finished skating. I still wanted to be in skating, but I wasn't sure what I wanted to do."
And even as she squeezed in time to work on her own routines, Prior was taking to the ice, in the fall, beginning to assist the very young, those with dreams of becoming the next Meagan Duhamel, but not advanced enough yet to be allowed to skate without their helmets.
"I find it hard, at times, because sometimes the kids don't listen to me yet, because they still see me as a skater," said Prior. "I have to remind them I am their coach. I don't have that much experience, just a year and a half, so I am still learning how to best get my point across."
Taking in all that her final weekend as a competitor had to offer, Prior was reminded of the slightly different landscape that lies ahead. "It's going to be weird going to a competition and not being on the ice," she acknowledged. "I think I will be able to live through the skaters, a little bit. I'll be able to watch them and pretend it's me on the ice."
"I love the kids so much, and just want to see the kids do the best that they can."
In time, one of those "kids" might well be Rebecca Ryan, the grade four student at Churchill Public School who began skating at four, and is still enthralled, at this time, with elements of skating that have far less to do with true competition.
"I think figure skating is fun because you get to dress up in costumes and go spinning and twirling and jumping," said the young athlete, sounding very much the part of a typical nine year old girl. "And you always have to try and smile, because that will get you more points," she added.
Having competed in both Bracebridge and Sault Ste Marie earlier this winter, Ryan would enter her Star 2 division with somewhat mixed feelings, as the Sudbury region hosted a Super Series event locally for the first time since the revamped competitions were introduced in 2018-2019 (there was one event on Manitoulin Island last year).
"For some reason, I find I skate better when I'm sleeping in a hotel - and I don't know why," said Ryan. Still, with a bevy of supporters on hand, including numerous friends as well as her school principal, the eldest of two skating sisters was more than comfortable at Countryside. "I think it was good, because there were people cheering me on, and that gives me confidence," she said.
And though it routine integrates elements as diverse as the flip jump and loop jump, as well as the sit spin and the back spin, Ryan sees herself more as a jumper than a spinner. "I am very, very skinny, so it's not hard to jump," she explained. "I usually start turning on the ice, so that it helps me turn in the air."
Nickel Blades club president Aila Lepage is undoubtedly thrilled, though quite tired, with the feedback she received from the entire spectrum of her club skaters. Now in her tenth year or so as a member of the Blades' board, the long-time skating mom has branched off to serve on a regional level, allowing her much greater contact with the entirety of Ontario figure skating administrators.
"Sometimes, we get the impression that because we are in the north, that we may not get the support that we were used to with the Northern Section (which was disbanded just a few years ago)," she said. "But working with Skate Ontario, I feel that they do care about the north, they really truly do."
"It's tough for them too, because the demographic density is in the GTA and south. They have to try their best to please everyone and make it fair for everyone. But at the end of the day, they love skating, just like we do."
Though the event was hosted by the Nickel Blades, volunteers from a number of the local clubs were prominent right through the weekend. With plans in the works already to look at hosting another event in 2020-2021, Lepage and company were thankful that went well with this initial foray.
"This place was packed all weekend, with great skating, personal bests, qualifiers to provincials," she said. "I think we're heading in the right direction, even though it does take time."
One of the highlights of the weekend came courtesy of an exhibition skating performance from 27 year old Nadia Bouillon, who left first thing Monday morning with the remainder of the Sudbury contingent that are travelling to Thunder Bay this week, site of the 2020 Special Olympics Canada Winter Games.
Competing for the sixth or seventh time at these national Games, Bouillon has been continuing to perfect her spins in practice, already an area of strength for the well-known local athlete. "I'm best at spins, either a one foot spin or back spin," she said. "You have to keep it tight, and just spin."
"I'm working on my sit spin," Bouillon continued. "It's coming along, but I have to sit down lower." As for the highlight, in her eyes, of the Games that lie ahead, this cheerful skater noted that it seldom changes, from one event to the next.
"I love the Opening Ceremonies," she said. "You get to go in, by province, and then when you go in, you're on TV. I like that."