SAITAMA – During the competition at the World Figure Skating Championships, skaters like Yuzuru Hanyu, Nathan Chen and Alina Zagitova are the stars of the show.
After their routines end, it’s the flower girls’ turn to shine.
Since the event kicked off on Wednesday at Saitama Super Arena, a dedicated squad of teenagers in blue outfits have stood ready after each routine, ready to rush out onto the ice and pick up any flowers, bouquets or stuffed animals thrown out by the crowd.
This tournament’s flower girls were handpicked by the Saitama Skating Federation based on their performances in recent competitions and reliability.
“They’ve been practicing since the beginning of February,” said Naomi Nishimura, head of the federation’s figure skating division and coordinator for the flower girls. “They know that they have to get (everything) off the ice quickly and cleanly by the time the judges are finished, then close the door so the next skater can begin their performance.”
Many of the 18 flower girls, ages 10-14, are participating in their first major figure skating event.
“Since I was young I wanted to be a flower girl,” said 10-year-old Risa Kanehiro. “I’ve always watched figure skating on TV, but there’s so much more intensity in person.”
The flower girls have to be ready for anything at the end of a performance. Sometimes it’s a single flower thrown by a dedicated fan. Occasionally, for a popular skater such as U.S. champion Chen, reigning Olympic champion Zagitova or star Rika Kihira, it’s a flood of roses and bouquets, all of which are sorted backstage and eventually delivered to the skaters.
And when Hanyu finishes his performance, it’s a veritable deluge of Winnie the Pooh stuffed toys, cascading from every corner of the arena like a waterfall of yellow and red.
“The rink was covered in yellow, even more than it looks on TV,” said 12-year-old Arisa Oshima, who started skating at 2 years old.
At Saitama Super Arena, where the throwing of flowers and gifts is only allowed from certain sections of premium-class seats in the lower level of the rink, the bears occasionally fly from unexpected directions. Hanyu, like many skaters, donates the toys to local charities.
“Watching on TV I thought we’d be able to (collect the Pooh bears) quickly, but it was really difficult,” said 13-year-old Konoka Matsui, who considers Kihira her favorite skater.
Nishimura, fondly remembers her own experience as a flower girl at the 1977 world championships, which were hosted at Tokyo’s Yoyogi National Gymnasium.
“It’s a memory (the flower girls) will have for the rest of their lives,” Nishimura said. “When people come from around the world, everyone speaks English, and I think that’s a great experience to give them.”