The nation’s top adult figure skaters glided into Wake Forest this week, crystals glimmering on their dresses, hair primped to aerodynamic perfection, Lutz jumps practiced to exhaustion.
Most of these amateurs won’t carry home a medal from this national championship, let alone ever touch Olympic gold. One of them – Burton Powley from Des Moines – skates dressed as the Sparkle Troll of DreamWorks movie fame. Another – Terryl Allen from Albuquerque – is still competing at age 61.
But another prize waits for these hardworking rink veterans. Each time they skate, fans reach into Ziploc bags and grab stuffed animals, candy, pinwheels and even miniature liquor bottles to throw onto the ice – “tossies” for the effort. Whether they skate a perfect 6.0 or fall on their bedazzled fannies, skaters can scoop up these trinkets like an opera soprano collecting a bouquet of roses.
“Tossies are huge,” said Allen from New Mexico, who collected so many after skating on Wednesday that she had to stuff them down the front of her dress. “Frisbees. Undergarments. Everything’s been done. I swear.”
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None of the skaters gathered at Polar Ice House this week could pinpoint the origin of tossies, but all agreed the tradition has skyrocketed to the point where an inspired skater-spectator might bring 200 – all of them hand-made.
“It’s become bigger because adults understand they’ve got lives and jobs, and just getting here is hard,” Allen said.
The title of Tossie Queen, by informal vote, might go either to Wendy Bauer of Spokane, Wash., who knitted rainbow-colored sweaters for each of the stuffed bears she lobbed onto the ice, or to Allen, who designed 175 skating-themed medals complete with a mirror, a heart-shaped crystal and four-paragraph inspirational passage – all of them wrapped inside a purple bag.
Diane Wing, 51, from Los Angeles came equipped with bags of tissue – essential for nose-wiping alongside the frigid rink – paired with boxes of Minion-themed Tic Tacs. She toted them inside a shopping bag along with stuffed ducks for her more personalized tosses.
“For me, it’s almost like a goodie bag for a kiddie party,” she said. “I’m big into Minions.”
Others arrange their tossies on the fly for a more spontaneous touch.
“I went to the Wal-Mart Easter section where everything was 50 percent off,” said Amanda McGowan, 35, from Charleston, W.Va. “I bought a bunch of stuffed animals for 49 cents.”
These athletes compete in five classes, from ages 21 to 35 through 66 and beyond. Many started skating as children, saw their practicing interrupted by parenthood and careers, then coasted back onto the ice as intensely motivated adults. The fandom at Polar Ice this week rivaled ACC Tournament games. Fans shrieked, swayed in the bleachers to Elton John and the “Gone With the Wind” theme and sent their tossies skidding across the rink.
In the morning hours, before school let out and children could serve as “sweepers,” skaters were forced to bend double to pick up their own tossies – sometimes the most challenging part of their routines. But as their heartbeats slowed and the adrenaline scaled back, they could relax and sort through their loot.
The most prized tossie this week: booze. One skater showed off a foot-long dolphin puppet thrown onto the ice with a plastic bottle of coconut rum in its mouth. Katherine Pariezs, 35, from Michigan, finished her program to “Hernando’s Holiday” to discover a 66-proof, cinnamon-flavored treat.
“I got Fireball!” she squealed. “This is like my unicorn.”
Skaters do not evaluate their own performance by the volume or quality of tossies, and the fans who make them do not intend for them to serve as tokens in a popularity contest. These are competitors, but a family bonded by lonely practice and long-distance travel.
Allen can recall her first two years as a competitor in 2002 and 2003, when she finished her program and skated away on empty ice – passed over on tossies. She can still remember her first: a white bear in 2004 from a former skater named Mary Morose. So for this determined maker of tossies, who spends eight months of the year in planning, who negotiates with the awards shop over every detail of her medals down to the squiggly line representing an ice trial, a tossie is a validation for those who dare to lace up a skate.
And on Wednesday, as she finished her program without a hitch, she stuffed her dress full of bears, frogs and candy – love thrown right back.
Toss your own
The U.S. Adult Figure Skating Championships will be held through Saturday at Polar Ice House, 1839 S. Main St. in Wake Forest. Admission costs $25 on Friday or Saturday or $45 for an all-event pass. See www.usadultfigureskatingchampionships.com.