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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The best figure skaters in the country are standing in line with trays in hand, waiting to choose between spaghetti and apricot-glazed chicken, and greeting friends with hugs and waves.
It's dinnertime on Aug. 21, the first day of training camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center, and it looks like the first day of high school or college — if your school's cafeteria had napkin dispensers stamped with the logo of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia, and was populated exclusively by elite athletes.
In five months, these skaters — people such as Johnny Weir, Evan Lysacek and Alissa Czisny — will be in Omaha, getting a few minutes to try to achieve perfection on the ice at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. Before then, they'll put in hundreds of hours of work, tailor their programs with coaches and choreographers and skate in front of packed crowds in Paris, Moscow and Seattle.
But for this week in August, they've gathered together to get the tools they'll need to be national champions: evaluations from skating judges, practice talking to reporters, sessions with a sports psychologist. For a group of teenagers and 20-somethings who have been in the spotlight for as long as they can remember, it's also a chance to hang out with the only other people in the world who really get them.
But make no mistake: Champs Camp is not a vacation.
"Yeah, summer camp is, like, be free! Be carefree!” said Charlie White, half of an ice dancing pair that has won four straight national championships.
“We put a lot of pressure on ourselves at this point in the season. ... So while we have fun, it's also very much a work trip. It's very much down to business,” added his partner, Meryl Davis.
That said, it's a little like summer camp.
No matter how many gold medals you have, you get a twin bed and a roommate at the Olympic Training Center, just like everybody else. All 39 skaters are expected to show up in Colorado Springs — home of both U.S. Figure Skating and the U.S. Olympic Committee — put on the official camp T-shirt and sit for a group photo.
Like anywhere else, there's time for catching up on gossip and navigating the dance of who sits with whom in the dining hall.
There are the campers who love the group activities and the ones who want to strike out on their own.
For a group photo shoot, Weir, with his larger-than-life skating personality, showed up wearing large sunglasses and a loose-fitting white shirt that was decidedly not Champs Camp gear. After some cajoling, Weir agreed to take off the sunglasses and tossed the official T-shirt around his neck, like a scarf.
There's a busy schedule of activities. Skaters get their blood drawn for medical tests, consult with nutritionists and listen to skating legend Michelle Kwan talk about her triple axel.
They work out alongside whoever else is using the Olympic Training Center facilities. During the week of Champs Camp in late August, other athletes on campus included female weight lifters, Canadian volleyball players involved in an exchange program and a couple dozen of the top young male gymnasts in the country, who came along with a gaggle of gymnastics coaches from around the world.
Perhaps most importantly, they perform the two programs they'll skate throughout the season in front of a panel of technical judges. They skate in an arena, so it looks and feels like a competition, aside from the fact that the place is nearly empty.
Other than the judges, almost no one is allowed to watch. Skaters with family in the area can let a few guests in — but only under strict orders that they watch that performance alone and then leave the arena quickly.
Waiting on the mezzanine level of the arena one afternoon, the parents of pairs skater Andrew Speroff said they didn't mind the rules.
“Skating parents,” said his mother, Judy, smiling and shaking her head. “We're crazy. You take a half day off work so you can watch for two minutes.”
Though they often practice alongside their competitors, the skaters are guarding their secrets — the new jumps they're trying, improvements they've made to their technique. A few even try to shield their costumes from the handful of journalists in town for the camp.
This is the sixth year for the camp and only the third year it has included the technical critiques, said Mitch Moyer, U.S. Figure Skating's senior director of athlete high performance. The goal, he said, is to make sure all of the skaters are on the same page as they head into the competition season.
A year and a half out from the next Winter Games, U.S. Figure Skating is already thinking about getting its Olympic hopefuls ready for everything.
“The whole thing is we obviously are going to be as successful as they are,” Moyer said. “We're really in this together. We want to provide them every opportunity that they can to get what they need to be better.”
Figure skaters don't get much of an off season.
They might take a few days away from the ice, a week or two if they're lucky.
If they're the best of the best — that is, the skaters invited to this camp — they're on the ice or in the gym for the better part of most days. They're almost always training for a big upcoming competition, from nationals to events on the international Grand Prix circuit.
Some try to keep up with class work in high school or college, though they usually end up taking online classes or stretch a degree program over six or seven years. Ice dancers Davis and White, who attend the University of Michigan, said they've signed up for just one class this fall: Egyptology.
Others look for the rare job that can accommodate an athlete's grueling schedule.
Pairs skater John Coughlin, who won gold at this year's national championships, works the reception desk at the U.S. Olympic Training Center. Ashley Wagner, this year's ladies' gold medalist, only recently left her job at a Lucky Brand Jeans store in a California mall when she landed a coveted spot on the Stars on Ice tour.
The daughter of an Army officer and a fourth-grade teacher, Wagner, 21, has been paying for her skating career since she turned 18. And it's a career that usually costs more than it brings in; Wagner said top skaters can expect to spend $80,000 per year, between travel, coaches, costumes and time on the ice.
U.S. Figure Skating provides some financial assistance to skaters, but they have to start winning big competitions before they get the cash.
So for a skater on the rise like Wagner, there were plenty of days when she'd skate for hours, then drive from the rink to the mall. She'd fight off yawns and ignore the soreness in her muscles as she helped picky customers chase after the perfect outfit. She'd remind herself that this was how it had to be if she was going to make this skating thing work.
Even if it was cheap, this sport would still come with a very particular kind of stress.
In figure skating, when you fail, there's no way for anyone to miss it. There's nothing to distract from a tumble on the ice, and the music doesn't stop.
Skaters, said sports psychologist and former nationally ranked skater Caroline Silby, have to develop fairly advanced coping skills at a very young age.
Silby spent the week meeting with skaters in groups and individually, giving them a chance to talk about their training process, managing stress or anything else on their minds.
“They have four minutes to put out the best program of their life,” she said. “They don't get to have a do-over. They don't get to come out of the game, reset, refocus and get back in. They have to do it in a split second.”
If you're preparing for nationals, part of the deal is learning how to be a celebrity — or at least a minor one.
A handful of skaters have the kind of names that almost everyone can recognize: Peggy Fleming, Kristi Yamaguchi, Brian Boitano.
A few end up with the kind of pop culture fame of Weir, who in a brief retirement from competition wrote a book, appeared on several television shows and recorded a pop song called “Dirty Love.” He's now probably the U.S. team's most recognizable athlete, aside from Lysacek, the 2010 Olympic gold medalist-turned-“Dancing With the Stars” competitor who recently announced his return to competitive skating.
Others, like reigning men's national champion Jeremy Abbott, can go almost unrecognized in the United States but have massive overseas fan bases. In this country, Abbott said people approach him so infrequently that he's often confused when someone sidles up to him at Starbucks and asks about skating.
Skating is big in Asia, and Abbott, 27, is a particularly big deal. When he travels there, the crowds are big and the screams are high-pitched.
“I've done shows in Korea where it's the closest I'll ever come to being a rock star,” he said.
For Abbott and some of the other skaters, Champs Camp also was time to work on the personality side of the sport.
On one afternoon, he and Wagner were in downtown Colorado Springs trailed by a photographer and staff members from Skating magazine. They posed in parking lots, on sidewalks and in front of a giant mural of Mozart on the side of an optometrist's office.
Abbott was feeling self-conscious about looking serious in a suit next to a couple of motorcycles parked by the Mozart mural.
Wagner was battling an injury but was game for every request from the photographer. After all, this kind of thing was up there with earning gold medals.
“It kind of makes me feel like I've made it,” she said.
Barbara Reichert, U.S. Figure Skating's communications director, said learning how to be the face of skating can be just as important as the skating itself at major competitions. And while Omaha is the next big destination, it's just part of the lead-up to skating's biggest show.
“We're 17 months away from Sochi. ... We want them to be prepared,” Reichert said.
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Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly listed the year Evan Lysacek won a gold medal.