A little more than five years ago, Leslie Gianelli attended a Georgetown-Connecticut basketball game at the new MCI Center. It was then that she got the idea for Washington to host the World Figure Skating Championships.
Yesterday morning at 5:15, she arrived at MCI Center for the first day of practices for the event. She just wanted to see skaters on the ice to make sure the event was a reality. No skaters showed up for the 6 a.m. men's practice. None came to the 6:45 a.m. session, either.
Finally, at 7:45 a.m., Russian Evgeny Plushenko, the heavy favorite, was on the ice. The world championships, at least in Gianelli's mind, had begun.
"Seeing skaters on the ice is thrilling," said Gianelli, a volunteer who has co-chaired the event with Sam Gutter, a local attorney. "It's very cool because we've been on such pins and needles with everything else going on. The last couple of days have been very stressful.
"But everything has been going well. Smooth as silk."
Even with the United States waging war against Iraq, organizers have done everything in their power to ensure that the world championships would continue as planned. According to Gianelli, nearly 80 percent of the skaters have arrived as of yesterday, and no one has withdrawn because of the war.
Competition will begin Monday morning with the men's qualifying round.
The Chinese contingent, which some had thought earlier this week might not compete, arrived late Thursday night. Reigning pairs champions Xue Shen and Hongbo Zhao practiced their short program late yesterday afternoon at MCI Center with their teammates.
"This is the most important event of the year," said Shen, who was interviewed through translator Zhimin Yin, a Chinese team official. "Every skater and coach wants to be here."
Two judges from Slovakia recently had contacted officials to say that they would not be coming because of the war but yesterday changed their minds and will be here, Gianelli said. Meanwhile, a Russian official, referee Alexander Lakernik, has yet to arrive, but event officials said that his visa has been approved and are hopeful he will be in Washington in time for the competition.
Many of the American skaters practiced, including Olympic bronze medalist Timothy Goebel, U.S. bronze medalist Ryan Jahnke and pairs champions Tiffany Scott and Philip Dulebohn. The two U.S. ice dancing teams, Naomi Lang and Peter Tchernyshev and Tanith Belbin and Ben Agosto, are scheduled to practice today.
None of the U.S. women has arrived. Four-time world champion Michelle Kwan and Olympic gold medalist Sarah Hughes are expected to practice on Tuesday. Sasha Cohen, the U.S. bronze medalist, is scheduled to skate Monday. The women's competition does not begin until Wednesday.
Most of the skaters said they felt comfortable being in Washington despite the war. Asked whether he considered not coming to these championships, Goebel said, "There was never any doubt in my mind."
At the rink, Goebel said, he is entirely focused on skating. As soon as he is at the hotel, however, he tunes into CNN.
One pairs team from the Czech Republic said it was worried about traveling to the United States.
"Two days ago, I thought, 'I can't go,' " said Katarina Berankova following her practice yesterday. "But once I got on the plane, I realized everything would be okay. We left the night before the bombing started, so I was feeling pretty safe."
Once she arrived in the United States, she said security was tight, but not much different than when she traveled to Salt Lake City for the Olympics.
Several hundred people -- fans, judges and coaches -- attended yesterday's practices, which were held at MCI Center and the Convention Center. Taffy Holliday, the U.S. judge for the pairs event, was among those watching the pairs teams practice at the Convention Center in the afternoon.
Fans could pay $12 to see the skaters practice. Some fans were disappointed that some of the skaters either hadn't yet arrived or skipped practices, but they were glad to get a taste of elite-level skating nonetheless.
"We got here at 9:30 this morning and watched Timothy Goebel and Ryan Jahnke," said Laura Sewell of Crofton, who was sitting with her mother, Nancy Ashland of Annapolis. "We have all-event tickets and we always watch on TV."
Some took a break from work to watch the skating. Others bought tickets well in advance and weren't going to miss a minute.
"I'm 52 years old and I've wanted to come to D.C. my entire life," said Shirley Pedersen of Seattle, who purchased her tickets in January 2001. "My family nearly had heart failure with the war and me coming to D.C. I certainly don't want to lose my life over this but I wanted to come."
Aside from some last-minute construction and touch-up work around MCI Center, the facilities were ready. The ice at the Convention Center, a standard-size but temporary surface, received good reviews from skaters. Workers began working on that facility at about 4 a.m. Monday. On Thursday night, some local skaters (national competitor Derrick Delmore of Alexandria among them) gave the rink an hour-long test. All of the competition will take place at MCI Center.
"We have been planning this for so long," said Gutter as he sipped coffee. "This is all great to see. I'm so happy it's finally happening.
"A true international sports competition at a time like this is a wonderful thing."