Bern is hosting the European Figure Skating Championships, but it looks as though fans’ hopes for local success will remain on ice.
Following the retirement last year of double world champion Stéphane Lambiel and with a creaking Sarah Meier, twice European silver medallist, skating competitively for the last time, Switzerland is putting on a party without expecting any rewards.
“At the moment I’m really trying to block out the sentimental feelings and prepare like it’s a normal competition. But of course when it’s over I will be kind of sad,” 26-year-old Meier told swissinfo.ch.
“But that also gives me energy to really fight because it’s my last chance. I would be satisfied finishing in the top five – of course it would be a dream to get another medal, but I know right now it’s not really realistic.”
Europe’s figure skaters will be looking to regain some respectability since being shut out of the gold medals at last year’s Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
The dominance of North American and Asian skaters left Europe with a medal haul of one silver and two bronzes, its first failure to top the Olympic podium in 50 years.
Only two of those medallists – German duo Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, who got bronze in pairs – will take to the ice in the Swiss capital, leaving space for new talent to begin building reputations before the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Russian resort of Sochi.
But the fact that Swiss skaters are unlikely to step onto the podium this week doesn’t worry Peter Grütter, Lambiel’s former trainer, who is convinced that future champions will emerge in a few years.
“Switzerland has several future stars,” he said. “The champions of tomorrow are currently 13 or 14. Most are still inexperienced and too young to take part in the big international competitions.”
Every body hurts
Whether it’s been her back, hips or Achilles heel, injuries have followed Meier throughout her 11-year career. In October she strained her left foot and has only been able to train at a reduced level.
“A fortnight ago I still didn’t know whether I could take part. That would have been terrible to end my career without being able to perform my programme one final time.”
She added that had these championships not been held in Bern, she wouldn’t have taken part.
“I don’t have really serious injuries but my body is just aching everywhere and I feel that I can’t beat or even be on the same level as the younger girls coming up. It’s the right moment for me [to stop];” she said.
“To be a great champion you need a robust body – and that’s not the case with me. Under the circumstances, I think I’ve made the best use of what I’ve got.”
Meier denied feeling greater pressure because the championships were being held in her home country.
“It’s more that I’m really excited to welcome all the skaters. Also I know many people here – volunteers, friends, my sister is skating in the opening ceremony. I know the rink already, so I feel good, but of course there’s more attention than if the competition were somewhere else.”
In addition to Meier, three other Swiss will be gliding and spinning round the PostFinance Arena: 16-year-old Romy Bühler in the women’s competition, and Moris Pfeifhofer, 22, and Stéphane Walker, 20, in the men’s.
Walker, who says Sochi is a “childhood dream”, is optimistic for the future of Swiss ice skating.
“One great Swiss skater has retired and another is going to stop, now the others and I have to work hard to help the young ones behind us. For me the situation is looking very good,” he told swissinfo.ch.
As one career chapter comes to an end for Meier, will the next one involve staying in skating or doing something completely different?
“I want to do a bit of both if possible. If I get the chance to do some shows, I’ll do some shows. And then I’d like to maybe start working or go to university. I don’t really plan a career in coaching full-time, but I could imagine maybe doing it part-time.”
[Postscript: Sarah Meier surprised everyone - not least herselfexternal link - by winning gold!]
European Figure Skating Championships
The ISU European Figure Skating Championships 2011 is being held in the PostFinance Arena in Bern from January 23-30.
Following the Euro 2008 football championships and the Ice hockey World Championships in 2009, this is the third major sporting event held in the Swiss capital in three years.
The PostFinance Arena can accommodate 17,000 spectators, making it the largest hockey stadium in Europe.
The arena was built 40 years ago and is still home to SC Bern, the most successful ice-hockey team in Switzerland. During the European Figure Skating Championships the stadium will have a capacity of 7,500 seats.end of infobox