(NBC) — After a figure skating performance, the ice can be littered with gifts from adoring fans in the audience. Oftentimes these are stuffed animals, flower bouquets, or other small trinkets. But plush emojis have emerged as a popular choice lately and tequila bottles – really – have made appearances, too.
(The over-age U.S. skater Sean Rabbitt skated his short program to “Tequila” earlier this season, leading adult skating fans to present him with 12 miniature bottles of the beverage.)
A fan once gave Patrick Chan of Canada a Nintendo DS. Yevgenia Medvedeva’s plush cat, Luna, was a gift from a Japanese fan and typically accompanies her at practice and in the Kiss and Cry. Secretly, Luna doubles as a tissue box. She said her bedroom is full of gifts from fans, many of which are more plush toys.
2014 Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu’s performances typically conclude with a hailstorm of stuffed Winnie the Poohs. His personal Pooh also disguises a tissue box in the Kiss and Cry. China’s Jin Boyang says some of his favorite post-skate gifts are Spider-Man and Star Wars toys, both of which represent programs he has competed.
U.S. skater Jason Brown, who won a team event bronze medal in Sochi, is well-known in the skating community for donating all his on-ice gifts to the Ronald McDonald House Charities. Last year, he donated his gifts in Finland, South Korea, and Kansas City following the world championships, Four Continents Championships, and U.S. national championships, respectively.
But who collects these gifts between each skater?
That’s the job of the “sweepers,” as they’re known, typically boys and girls from local skating clubs invited to share the ice with elite athletes. In PyeongChang, the sweepers will be elementary school-aged figure skaters from all over South Korea.
The 17 figure skaters were selected back in 2016 by the Korea Skating Union and worked at the 2017 Four Continents Championships, the official test event for the 2018 Olympics.
While ice dance siblings Maia and Alex Shibutani were never sweepers themselves, they know what it’s like to share the ice with them.
“We enjoy seeing them,” Alex told NBCOlympics.com. “It must be such a cool experience to be a young skater and be able to be in that competitive environment, especially after a great performance because you’re on the ice experiencing that. We’ve definitely seem some sweepers bite it a little bit. It’s always really cute, because they’re trying their best. It’s fun. Sometimes what we have to do is dodge things that are thrown out onto the ice. Sometimes things come a little bit close. Right after the performance, you’re just focused on enjoying the moment with each other and getting off the ice hopefully without getting hit.”
Karen Chen has never collided with a sweeper, but she said she has experienced some pretty close calls.
“For sure I’ve gotten really, really close,” she recalled. “I was on my way out, and we went to go pick up the same stuffed animal. And then I just kinda – at the last minute, like ‘you know what? Never mind. You can grab it.’”
Why might a skater crash into a sweeper, or have to swerve at the last second?
“Usually, you’re so exhausted at the end of your program, so all you can see is the place where you can go sit down. So you’ve got your blinders on and your job is done,” 2014 Olympic ice dance champion Charlie White explained.
His gold medal-winning partner, Meryl Davis, acknowledged the effect of having blinders on. Before going out on the ice to win their sixth consecutive national championship in 2014, the team was laser-focused on the task at hand. Days later, Davis said, she was informed that the person who opened the gate to let them on the ice was a lifelong friend of theirs – that they had accidentally ignored.
“We were so focused, that we didn’t even see the people who were around us. It’s a really good indication of just in the zone you are at that point,” Davis said. Of the skaters, Davis added, “I think it’s fun for them.”