Road To The Olympic Games

Figure Skating

Moore-Towers, Marinaro lead after short program at virtual Skate Canada Challenge

Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro are the leaders after the short pairs program in the unique and virtual Skate Canada Challenge.

Deanna Stellato and Maxime Deschamps 2nd, Lori-Ann Matte and Thierry Ferland 3rd

Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro, seen in this file photo from 2020, lead after the short pairs program at the virtual Skate Canada Challenge on Friday. (Eric Bolte/USA Today Sports)

Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro raced home from practice on Friday to watch themselves win the pairs short program at the Skate Canada Challenge.

"I'm a little tired from the program we just skated," Marinaro joked during a phone interview afterward.

His words perfectly summed up the bizarre world of sports amid a global pandemic.

Moore-Towers and Marinaro scored 71.04 points for their short program to Alabama Shakes' "Gimme all Your Love," a skate that due to COVID-19 was recorded at their all-but-empty Oakville, Ont., home rink more than a month ago.

Moore-Towers touched a hand down, nearly falling on the landing of their throw triple loop, but the program was solid enough to give them a 10-point lead over Deanna Stellato and Maxime Deschamps (61.19 points). Lori-Ann Matte and Thierry Ferland were third after the short program with a score of 59.01.

The long program will be broadcast Saturday.

Rising COVID-19 cases across the country forced Skate Canada to hold the event virtually, with pre-recorded programs. Skaters performed their programs in costume at their respective home rinks over the past few weeks, following regular competition rules. They were only allowed one shot.

In an effort to simulate a live skating competition, the programs are being streamed online — and judged in real time via video by officials spread across the country.

Moore-Towers and Marinaro watched Friday's broadcast at their separate homes.

Moore-Towers was a bundle of nerves.

"We texted through the events while we were watching as if we were watching it together. But honestly, I was stressed so I was kind of wanting to be in my own space," said the 28-year-old from St. Catharines, Ont.

"I find this more difficult and more anxiety-ridden than if you were to actually compete in the event. Obviously, we know what happens more or less. But we did this . . . a little over four weeks ago. And so at the time, when we competed, everything happened so fast, and we got off the ice, and there's no replays to see you have really no immediate feedback. And so this is the first time we're seeing it as well."

There were no fans in the rinks, only a handful of coaches, a video crew and a Skate Canada official there to ensure rules were followed. A smattering of applause could be heard after each skate.

"We feed off the crowd, we depend on the audience and the crowd to bring us through and we use them to have facial expressions, and making eye contact [with judges]. And these are just all things that you kind of have to pretend in a virtual event," Moore-Towers said.

'Tough to watch' yourself get judged

Almost the entire Canadian team has been sidelined since COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the world

championships last March in Montreal.

It's been a particularly rough few months for Moore-Towers and Marinaro.

A 29-year-old from Sarnia, Ont., Marinaro lost his grandmother Charlotte Jones to COVID-19 in April. The 88-year-old lived in a long-term care facility.

Locked out of rinks for months at the beginning of the pandemic, training was finally going well when Moore-Towers displaced a rib in September. That kept them off the ice for the better part of another two months.

Being four weeks better now than when they actually skated the program only added to Friday's viewing angst.

"It's tough [to watch] because we have improved in four weeks, right?" Moore-Towers said. "We do video work in training every day. So we are able to see that program and see how it's evolved and changed, and we're significantly better now than we were four weeks ago.

"So in a sense to it's difficult to watch something when you feel you've improved so much."

Their phone interview Friday ended with wishes of good luck in Saturday's free program — even though they've already skated it.

"Wish us luck watching — it's almost harder," Moore-Towers laughed.

Keegan Messing, who won bronze in men's singles at Skate America, is the only Canadian skater to have competed prior to the Challenge.

The virtual Challenge is a qualifying event for the Canadian championships Feb. 8-14 in Vancouver. It's planned as a live event, but with COVID-19 cases on the rise across Canada, there is a chance the championship will be held virtually as well.

There's also questions around whether the world championships scheduled for March in Sweden will happen at all.

The Challenge programs for junior and senior ice dance, and senior men and women, meanwhile, will be broadcast on SkateCanada.ca, Jan. 15-17.

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