In the Olympic season, Paige Rydberg wants “no regrets”

By Gina Capellazzi, Team FSO website administrator
Photo shoot photos by Sarah Arnold
Skating photos by Robin Ritoss

The 2020-2021 figure skating season was full of uncertainty for all skaters. Still, when Paige Rydberg looks back at it, she calls it her best season yet — despite it not looking like that on the surface.

“(The pandemic) put life in perspective and made it one of my best seasons yet,” Rydberg explained. “It made me really work hard (at every moment) because of all the lost time.”

Like most skaters, Rydberg spent two months off the ice in spring 2020 when the pandemic forced the closure of ice rinks across the country. Then, the cancellation of summer and early fall club and international competitions left Rydberg unsure what specifically she was training for, or when she would get her first opportunity to compete.

“It was hard because you don’t know what you should be doing,” the 21-year-old from Plainfield, Illinois, said. “You don’t know if you should be going 100% or just 25%, because there wasn’t going to be a season at all. That was difficult for me, because I’m not a person that likes a lot of change and uncertainty. I’m a planner type person.”

Then in October, the ISU announced plans for a modified Grand Prix series. With 2020 Skate America  set to include only U.S. skaters or skaters training in the U.S., Rydberg thought she would have a shot at competing at her first Grand Prix Series event. But when the roster was announced on Oct. 1, Rydberg’s name was left off the list. Disappointed, she traveled to Arizona to see family. While driving back to Colorado Springs a week later, Rydberg got the phone call that she was added to the roster.

“I was very excited because it was my first international in three years and my first Grand Prix ever,” Rydberg recalled. “I definitely would have loved to have it [be] normal with international skaters and with the crowd, but honestly, I think for me that was probably the best way to have my first Grand Prix, and I’m so lucky to say that I have been to one.”

Because of the late assignment, Rydberg said she had no expectations for herself heading into the event, to which she credits her success at the competition.

“I could just be me and not have to prove anything to anyone but myself,” she declared.

After a clean short program, Rydberg found herself in sixth place and competing in the last warm-up group for the free skate. After a rough practice the morning of the free skate, Rydberg was questioning whether she would be able to repeat her strong performance from the short program. With help from coach Tom Zakrajsek and her training mate and good friend, two-time U.S. champion Bradie Tennell, Rydberg said she was able to turn her mindset around and deliver a free skate that earned a career-best score.

“I couldn’t have asked for anything better,” Rydberg said of her seventh place. “That was probably was one of the best weeks of my life. I had so much fun.”

With her newfound confidence from Skate America, Rydberg went home to prepare for the 2021 U.S. Figure Skating Championship Series, hoping to qualify for the 2021 U.S. Championships. Just days after Skate America, U.S. Figure Skating announced that the series would be conducted as a virtual event. So Rydberg submitted her free skate video to U.S. Figure Skating on Nov. 20, but didn’t learn the results and if she qualified for Nationals until Dec. 23, just two half and weeks before the start of the U.S. Championships. The three weeks waiting for the results was stressful, Rydberg told Figure Skaters Online.

“I was training for the unknown,” she said. “I was training long programs, I was training short programs, not even knowing if I’m going to Nationals.”

Rydberg did qualify for Nationals by winning the senior ladies event. Instead of traveling home to Chicago for the holidays, Rydberg chose to spend Christmas and New Year’s alone to focus on Nationals.

“I wanted Nationals to be my moment, because I was just building off of Skate America, I was building off of the qualifying event. I was ready to be on the top at Nationals,” Rydberg told Figure Skaters Online.

In preparation for Nationals, Rydberg took a COVID-19 test on Dec. 31, two weeks before traveling to Las Vegas, as recommended by  U.S. Figure Skating. Rydberg’s test came back negative. She continued her training.

Once arriving in Las Vegas for Nationals on Jan. 11, Rydberg took a required COVID-19 test and settled into her hotel room for the night. The next morning, Rydberg woke up early and checked her phone. That’s when she learned that she had received a positive COVID-19 result.

“I’m like, ‘It is six in the morning. I don’t wake up at six in the morning. This is too early. This is just not the right time to find this out,’” Rydberg explained of her initial reaction to her result.

Once she realized that what she was seeing wasn’t a dream, Rydberg followed the protocols set up by U.S. Figure Skating. She contacted the team doctor, who notified her that she wasn’t allowed to enter the bubble and that she would be forced to withdraw from the competition. The protocols also stated that a second test would not be administered and that Rydberg would have to leave immediately.

“I cried a lot that morning,” Rydberg shared, noting that she also talked with her coaches on the phone and that members of U.S. Figure Skating reached out to offer support and encouragement.

Meanwhile, Rydberg’s mom, Theresa Koris, got the first available flight out of Chicago and flew to Las Vegas.

“My mom was amazing and willing to take the risk to put herself in danger basically (to be with me during this time),” Rydberg said.

While waiting for her mom to arrive in Las Vegas, Rydberg stayed in isolation in her room at the Orleans Hotel. Throughout that time, U.S. Figure Skating left meals and snacks for Rydberg outside her hotel room.

“It was hard to be alone. I was devastated, and I couldn’t believe this was happening,” she admitted, noting she was held up in her hotel room alone for almost 12 hours. “I was looking out the window of my hotel room and saw everybody walk to practice, and I was stuck there (in my hotel room). It was mentally really hard.”

Once Koris arrived in Vegas, the two were escorted out of the Orleans Hotel by hotel staff, using a separate elevator and door from those in the bubble. They were then sent to a different hotel twenty minutes away, where U.S. Figure Skating had arranged rooms for athletes, coaches and officials in the event that anyone tested positive. The next day, Rydberg and Koris drove back to Colorado Springs. Showing no apparent symptoms, Rydberg took another COVID-19 test Jan. 13 during her trip home, stopping in a town in Utah. She received a negative result the next day.

“I actually got the email when I was sitting on my couch, watching the ladies short program,” Rydberg mentioned. “That was really hard. To be sitting on my couch in the (Colorado) Springs, with the negative test result in my hands, while all my friends are out there competing.”

“They (U.S. Figure Skating) had to follow protocol, so I couldn’t really question it. I just had to do what they said,” she added.

After being advised by a doctor, Rydberg took another COVID-19 test Jan. 15, which also came back negative.

“(The situation) was very strange, but in a way, it made me realize how much I love competing,” Rydberg admitted about the circumstances. “I also think I needed that (this experience) to put more confidence in myself that I love competing. I felt ready and prepared (for Nationals). And if I had a chance (to compete at Nationals), who knows what would have happened. I can’t say I would have went out there and skated clean, but I want to compete when I have that much confidence in myself. So in a way it was a blessing in disguise. because I don’t think I would have realized that if I did compete.”

During the U.S. Championships, news emerged that Rydberg’s coach Tom Zakrajsek had tested positive for COVID-19 two weeks before the start of Nationals and was therefore unable to attend the event in Las Vegas. Rydberg acknowledged that many people assumed that her positive test was the result of her close proximity to Zakrajsek. However, Rydberg told Figure Skaters Online that she wasn’t in contact with Zakrajsek for a few days before his positive COVID-19 test result. She also noted that she had tested negative for the virus just a day before he received his positive test.

Rydberg’s training mates, Bradie Tennell and 2018 U.S. junior silver medalist Pooja Kaylan, tested negative before traveling to Vegas and received negative COVID-19 test results in Las Vegas. As a result, they did not have to withdraw nor quarantine because of Rydberg’s positive result in Las Vegas. Rydberg noted that all athletes who made it into the bubble were subject to additional COVID-19 tests during the competition. Rydberg personally notified her training mates and coaches of her test result and expressed that she was worried how her situation could impact them.

“That was something that honestly also terrified me,” Rydberg said. “If I’m the reason that somebody else isn’t able to compete. That is why I wanted to make sure I posted about my situation, because I didn’t want people thinking I wasn’t careful, and I would put my training mates and my friends in danger.”

“I’m really glad that no one else tested positive,” she added.

Despite her two negative COVID-19 test results after the positive test in Las Vegas, Rydberg still underwent a two-week quarantine, which she felt compelled to do for herself and for the health of those around her. After completing her quarantine, Rydberg took another week away from the rink — spending time with friends, doing some hiking, and being outside. Once back at the rink, Rydberg eased herself back into training. In mid-March, she started the process of working on her programs for the 2021-2022 Olympic season with choreographer Ilona Melnichenko, former ice dance competitor and mother of U.S. competitor Andrew Torgashev. Although she did not get a chance to compete her Titanic free skate at Nationals, Rydberg wanted a clean slate and chose to have two new programs created for the upcoming season.

“I did not want any sort of (negative) emotions attached (to my programs),” she said.

For her short program, Rydberg chose Celine Dion’s cover of Peggy Lee’s “Fever”.

“I had no idea what I was going to do for my short, what direction I wanted to go in, what genre,” Rydberg said, mentioning that she just Googled songs. “I kid you not; I literally (just) came across it (the song “Fever”).”

Although “Fever” is a popular piece with figure skaters, Rydberg was unaware of the Celine Dion version.

“It’s more jazzy,” Rydberg described Dion’s rendition of the song. “I really love it. It completely fits my personality.”

For her free skate, Rydberg will skate to Broken Vessels (Amazing Grace)” by the Australian praise and worship group Hillsong Worship.

“I chose it because I’m a Christian, and I’m big into my religion,” Rydberg explained, mentioning that she saw the group in concert in summer 2019.

“It (the music) is so powerful. I don’t think I have ever had a program be so powerful. It is just so freeing to skate to,” Rydberg added. “I don’t feel like I’m trying to get to the end. I’m just skating, and I’m just in the moment. I’m so excited that I chose it.”

Rydberg intends to debut her new programs at the Broadmoor Open, which will take place June 27-July 3. She also plans to do at least two more summer competitions before the start of the international season. Although Rydberg is listed in U.S. Figure Skating’s International Selection Pool, she is uncertain how many opportunities she’ll get to compete internationally.

Rydberg continues to work on her quadruple toe jump, both on and off the harness, several times per week.

It is something that I never thought I would learn, but skating is evolving,” she admitted.  “It has been fun working on it.”

Rydberg did throw the jump at the Aerial Figure Skating Challenge last fall. She is considering adding the element into her programs this season if the jump becomes more consistent. Additional goals are to improve her international ranking and obtain a bye to Nationals.

“I don’t want to have any sort of regrets,” Rydberg said of the new season ahead. “Just knowing how easily Nationals was there, and then it wasn’t, I don’t want to have any reason for me to not be the best that I can.” She added:  “I want to leave the rink (each day) satisfied. I want to be confident in what I did. And if it still doesn’t work out, I (will) know that I gave it my all.”