SAINT JOHN, N.B. — Mary McKay fell in love with figure skating watching Karen Magnussen capture gold at the 1973 world championships in Bratislava. With her cropped blond hair and understated rose-coloured dress, Magnussen laid down scores so high the event was all but over before most of the field had even skated.
Then McKay saw skating live for the first time at the 1996 world championships in Edmonton.
The sheer speed. The size of the jumps. The sound of steel blades slicing the ice. McKay was hooked.
"I'm sitting there thinking 'I'm in trouble, because this is way better live than on TV,'" McKay said with a laugh.
As Olympic ice dance champion Scott Moir once said about watching three-time world champion Patrick Chan skate, figure skating is best enjoyed live.
"On TV, you can't feel your hair blow back when you are close to him on the ice ... he has so much speed and command," Moir said.
Some 50 trips later, McKay continues to combine her love of skating with her passion for travel. She was among a tour group at the recent Canadian figure skating championships in Saint John, N.B., with Uniworld Travel.
Cathie Leak started the business in 1984 when she took a group of women from the Toronto Cricket Club to the world championships in Ottawa.
Angela Hildebrandt first joined the tour group in 1988 for the world championships in Budapest, Hungary, and was a regular client until Leak retired in 2010 and Hildebrandt took over the business.
"Luckily I enjoy skating, and I've made it into a career," Hildebrandt said.
The hook for Hildebrandt was Brian Orser's dramatic victory — finally, after three silvers — at the 1987 world championships in Cincinnati, Ohio, which she saw live.
A close-up of Orser during the medal ceremony captured him shedding a single tear; a moment of accomplishment that Hildebrandt found truly moving.
"That's really what started me into travelling internationally. After Cincinnati, I said 'I've got to go to the Olympics,' that was my push to go to Calgary and I managed to get a ticket to the men's free skate, so I was there," she said. "I remember clutching this ticket, like 'Oh my god.' And it was so exciting to see (Orser). That was sort of the push that 'Yeah, I want to go see this again, that program was so exciting.'"
Uniworld traditionally travels to three events per season: Skate Canada International, the Canadian championships and the world championships.
Hildebrandt will add the Grand Prix Final if it's in an interesting location — as was the case in December when Hildebrandt took a tour group of more than 150 fans to Vancouver.
She had a group of 38 in Saint John, and she'll take 58 to Saitama, Japan for the worlds March 18-24.
The biggest group to date was 400-plus fans for the 1996 Edmonton world championships.
Hildebrandt has numerous repeat clients.
"People build a relationship, and they turn into friends. They're clients but so many come to every single thing," she said. "If I have four events, they come to all four. It's amazing. I have quite a handful who do everything."
A typical international world championship trip costs about $5,000, and includes a four-plus star hotel, a prime all-event ticket — which can cost as much as $3,000 on its own — plus breakfasts, transfers, and welcome and farewell functions. Airfare is not included.
Hildebrandt also organizes pre- and post-tours clients can add to their trip. For last year's world championships in Milan, she took a group on a pre-tour to northern Italy's wine country.
"That was awesome ... did some beautiful wine tasting, saw some beautiful private estates, did all private touring, which is nice, so you're not on a bus with a whole bunch of strangers," Hildebrandt said. "And people get to know each other over the years."
The post-tour saw a group spend four days on the Amalfi Coast.
"It's just a nice experience. One of the things I like about the job — I get to travel too, which isn't a bad thing — but I really enjoy the friendships I've built with my clients. That's really nice," Hildebrandt said.
McKay, who's retired from her career in IT, likes that the all-event tickets allow her to watch the junior events held earlier in the week of competitions. She watched Nam Nguyen win bronze as a junior in 2010. She was there to see him win gold as a senior in Saint John.
"My very first Canadians, I saw Jeff Buttle come second in junior men," McKay said. Seeing Buttle win world gold eight years later in Goteborg, Sweden is on her list of highlights.
"Favourite moment probably would be seeing Tessa (Virtue) and Scott (Moir) winning the gold medal at the Vancouver Olympics. I was there for that," McKay. "Seeing Shae-Lynn (Bourne) and Victor (Kraatz) win the world championship in Washington (in 2003), first time a North American won dance ... seeing Jeff win the world championships in Sweden.
"There've been lots of big moments, but those ones stand out for sure."
Hildebrandt has her list of highlights. Watching Chan skate gave her goosebumps.
"This year it's Piper (Gilles) and Paul (Poirier), their free dance. I don't know what it is, but I'm always bawling at the end," she said, with a laugh.
"People when they hear what I do, they're like 'What the hell? People pay what? Are they crazy?' I say, 'You don't understand, when you hear the blade' ... the sensations and stuff, you can't explain that unless you come."
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Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press