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When Ice Rinks Closed Around the State, a Portland Figuring Skating Coach Still Found a Way for Her Students to Compete in the National Championships

Portland figure skating coach Mari Malama has faced many professional challenges this year. The toughest? Finding an open rink.

Last month, ice skating coach Mari Malama learned her home rink was about to close a few weeks before her student's biggest competition of the year. So she did what any dedicated coach would do: pack up and drive to the nearest open rink.

Where was that? Six hours away in Klamath Falls.

"Skating in general, it always teaches you resilience," she says. "But this year has been a really big test for all of us."

Malama coaches teenage athletes who are part of Portland Ice Skating Club, the city's oldest figure-skating association. Malama's students are high-level, career-minded athletes who usually train for about six hours a day. Every year, all those hours culminate at the U.S. Figure Skating Championship Series, which crowns national champions and helps determine the country's international teams.

This year, the competition is being held virtually. Instead of traveling to a giant arena somewhere as usual, the 10 PISC athletes competing in this year's championship had to perform their routines remotely, under the supervision of a proctor and with their coach filming on a cellphone from the sidelines. Competitors had a three-week window, which closed earlier this week, to record and submit a video of their performance for the championship qualifier round.

Malama coaches two skaters who are competing this year. She usually coaches at Sherwood Ice Arena. But in late November, the statewide freeze shutdown ice rinks across the state for the second time, barely two weeks before the Dec. 8 submission deadline for the championship's qualifier event. Malama had to scramble to find another rink so her students could participate in the competition they had been training for all year.

"We didn't know if our rink would reopen after the freeze," she says. "For me as a coach, you need to provide stability for your athletes. If [the athletes] have a limited time to submit the video, I didn't want to uproot them a day before they have to submit."

She found Klamath Falls' Bill Collier Community Ice Rink. Since it's outdoors, it's one of the few rinks in the state that's allowed to remain open. Two weeks ago, Malama, two of the students she coaches and their families drove from the Portland area to a resort by the rink, where they've been living ever since.

Malama didn't think twice about relocating for almost a month. She says she and her students had been traveling as safely as possible, wearing masks and isolating themselves, except when hitting the ice.

"You do what you have to do, and you have to do whatever it is to get it done," she says. "Having to pick up and go one way or another under short notice, we're kind of unfazed by that already because it's been happening so much this year."

Her students and their parents have been scrambling since the beginning of the pandemic to prepare for the competition. In the early days of lockdown, Malama coached off-ice trainings over Zoom. When rings opened in Washington before Oregon, she and her students drove back and forth to train in Tacoma. Some skaters and their parents would spend the week in Tacoma and only come back home for the weekend. Early in the summer, when the nearest open rink was in Colorado, Malama and PISC drove to Colorado.

"This is happening all over the country," says Malama. "Skaters are doing whatever they can to get back on the ice."

Now that the national championships are over, Malama isn't sure what her next few months will look like. She hopes she can return to her home rink in Sherwood soon, but for now, it's open by private reservation only.

"I hope to be back on our home ice," she says. But if that's not possible, "we will find ice, for sure."

Other Winter Sports You Can Still Do This Season

Skiing and Snowboarding

Mt. Hood Meadows, 14040 OR-35, skihood.com; Timberline Lodge, 27500 E Timberline Road, timberlinelodge.com.

Mount Hood's two major ski resorts are open for the season. And for the most part, neither will feel all that different from pre-COVID times. Lift lines are socially distanced, masks are required on chairlift rides, and Mt. Hood Meadows requires reserved tickets, along with upgrading the HVAC systems in its lodges. But once you hit the slopes, it'll seem just like any other year.

Roller Skiing

Rent roller skis at Mountain Shop, 2975 NE Sandy Blvd., mountainshop.net.

If leaving your neighborhood and dealing with even socially distanced crowds doesn't sound like a good idea, there's always roller skiing to keep your ski legs in shape. Roller skis are basically what they sound like—cross country skis with wheels, made for training on dry ground. Here in Portland, the Springwater Corridor is arguably the most popular roller-skiing spot, since it provides 21 miles of smooth, mostly flat trail.

Snow Biking

Wanoga Snow Play Area, Cascade Lakes Highway, Bend, 541-383-4000.

Yes, it's a thing. The relatively niche fat-tire sport has a dedicated following in Bend, where ample snowmobile and mountain bike trails get covered with snow each winter. Most of those trails are open, but if you don't already have a bike with wide tires, rental options during the pandemic are limited. And, of course, traveling during a pandemic is strongly discouraged. So if you live in Portland, you'll have to cross your fingers for a rare Willamette Valley snowstorm.

Snowshoeing

Rent snowshoes at Next Adventure, 426 SE Grand Ave., nextadventure.net, or Mountain Shop, 2975 NE Sandy Blvd., mountainshop.net.

Since it's basically just hiking but on snow with weird shoes, the only COVID-19 restrictions on snowshoeing are the odd closed trails. And if your navigation and safety skills are honed enough, it's the perfect socially distant sport: Snowshoeing makes it easy to go off trail and traverse ground that'd normally be too thick with brush.

Tubing

Mt. Hood Skibowl, 87000 US-26, skibowl.com.

The affordable mountain sport of choice for those of us who are too scared to ski, tubing is still on this winter. Skibowl hasn't opened its ski tracks yet, but the tubing slides are open for business, including for its popular, neon-illuminated "cosmic tubing" on weekend nights. Of course, face masks and social distancing are required, as are reservations for non-passholders.

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