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Sweepers take to ice

Young skaters vie for chance to pick up after Olympians

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Whether you're bracing yourself for an oncoming hockey puck or putting your mettle to the petals as a figure-skating "flower sweeper," it helps to have rink-ice water in your veins.

Take Ellie Williams. The 9-year-old Cottonwood girl is tough enough to play goalie for the Utah State Mite Travel Team. She's also poised, delicate and determined enough to try out as one of the people who'll pick up flowers traditionally tossed after figure skaters finish their performances in the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games.

So Ellie, which is tougher, posies or slap shots?

"Depends on the team," Ellie said, off-handedly chomping pretzels after the 2-hour session that brought 57 hopefuls, ages 8-12, Friday night to the discerning eyes of six judges at the Salt Lake Sports Complex.

"Either one, you can be nervous or comfortable. I felt pretty comfortable tonight," Ellie said.

"Her older brother shoots pucks at her all the time, and he tried goalie once. He had the pads on five minutes and said, 'Here, El, you take it,' " said JoEllen Williams, Ellie's mother. "I was just hoping she didn't biff it here. But she handled the pressure great and performed beautifully.

"They all did."

In fact, the kids might've handled the night easier than the moms and dads.

"I thought my stomach wouldn't feel like throwing up like competition," said Tammi Mori, Centerville, watching her daughter, Chloe, 8, sail serenely off the ice. "It took me 45 minutes to calm down."

"I had fun on the ice," said Chloe. "I'm glad we came."

Organizers, who'll narrow the field then pick 35 winners from a draw at the end of September, were glad to see such enthusiasm and talent

vie for the job. It might seem a flyspeck in the Olympic universe, but actually the flower sweepers are critical to pulling off a successful figure-skating competition.

"They're just as important as the Zambonis," said Katy Head, coach of the Timpanogos Figure Skating Club from Provo, who helped conduct the tryouts. "You need perfectly clean ice for the competition to be fair and safe."

A cornucopia of totems can come chunking down on the ice.

"Baked goods, stuffed animals, cereal boxes — anything," said Heather Linhart Zang, figure skating sport manager for the Salt Lake Organizing Committee.

You can't have someone's gold-medal chances go poof from Pooh hairs or a triple-Lutz go on the fritz from Frosted Flakes.

"One skater's dress unraveled at Four Continents (the figure skating championship in February). It took five minutes to pick up the beads, and we had to make sure we got them all," Head said.

Time is a major essence in this task, said Linhart Zang, who must juggle competition and television needs during the Games.

"Michelle Kwan knows she comes on at exactly 8:26, not 'sometime around 8:15.' These kids are an integral part of keeping the program going," she said.

And they must keep the show going on with pizzazz.

"They should show solid skating skills, but also stand tall, be alert, pay attention, follow directions and flash lots of personality," Head said.

Also stopping ability.

"A girl at Four Continents flew right into the curtains off stage. A wrangler caught her before she shot out of the Delta Center," Head said.

While most trier-outers were girls, seven were boys.

Said Tilesa Beasley, West Valley City, mother of one boy, Alema Beasley, 10, "His older brother kids him about, 'This isn't a boy's thing.' But he likes the individual sports because it's all on him. He's up at 5 a.m., jumping rope and off to practice. He's on the ice twice a day three times a week.

"It's tough stuff," Tilesa said.

Eric Newbold, 11, Bountiful — the only boy flower-sweeper at Four Continents — said, "I think this is awesome. If I make it I get to be right next to the stars."

"Not a lot of people," said his mother, Lavon Newbold, "will be able to say that."

E-MAIL: gtwyman@desnews.com