Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Red tape trips up Manitoba skaters

Visa woes put global debut on ice

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MANITOBA pairs figure skaters Neeta and Devinder Singh should be in Slovakia today, eagerly anticipating their debut as international competitors in the prestigious ISU junior Grand Prix series.

Instead, the disappointed sister and brother are stuck at home after being denied permission to board their flight to Europe Monday evening because Skate Canada, the sport's national governing body, failed to arrange proper travel visas for the young India-born athletes.

On top of that, even if they had been allowed to make the trip to Bratislava, it is doubtful the Singhs would have been eligible to compete for Canada under International Skating Union rules since they are not yet Canadian citizens.

It seems that glitch only came to light in the wake of the visa problem and, yesterday, Skate Canada officials were gathering information needed to address the matter.

Although they have competed at the Canadian junior nationals for three years, landing on the podium twice -- recently capturing a silver medal at the North American Challenge Skate -- Neeta, 16, and Devinder, 19, are Indian citizens and hold Indian passports.

For Canadian events that is not an issue, since they both have landed immigrant status and have lived in Canada 12 years now. However, ISU rules require competitors at its events to be citizens of the country they represent, although a special waiver can be granted in certain circumstances. Such requests must be made by July 1.

While Skate Canada did secure a visa for the Singhs that would have permitted their travel to Slovakia, the association failed to request clearance for them to land in Vienna, Austria, from where the team was to take a bus to Bratislava.

Neeta and Devinder's adoptive father, Bhagwant Singh, says both he and Devinder alerted Skate Canada to the citizenship issue, aware that travel regulations would be more complicated for them than for the rest of the Canadian team. ISU eligibility was not something he knew anything about.

"After the fact, everybody is smart," Bhagwant Singh said drolly.

"I guess they (Skate Canada) didn't realize what we were trying to tell them, that the kids had Indian passports... My understanding is they didn't get the right advice from their travel people," he added.

"Neeta was more upset than Devinder. She's younger. It was a letdown," Singh told the Free Press yesterday afternoon while Neeta was at school and Devinder at the skating rink in Mississauga where they have trained for more than a year now.

"Now, they will just concentrate on skating. That's all they can do," Singh said. "It's kind of a mess but there's nothing lost as far as we are concerned, except we missed an opportunity. In time it will be sorted out."

Skate Canada spokeswoman Brenda Gorman said that although the deadline is well-passed, every effort will be made to obtain ISU clearance for the Singhs to compete at one of the six remaining junior Grand Prix events, which continue weekly through October.

"They've been competing for a long time and it (their citizenship) has been missed every step of the way, unfortunately. We've caught it now and will try to do something about it," Gorman said.

Given the adversity the Singhs have overcome and the hurdles they've leaped to get to this point in their career, the siblings should have no trouble rising to the occasion at a later date.

Until last season, the Singhs trained alone during the winter in an unheated rink in their home town of Ear Falls, Ont. They basically coached themselves and watched videos to help learn various pairs moves.

Members of the Winnipeg Winter Club, the siblings represent Manitoba in competitions.

On alternate weekends and almost weekly in the spring, their father would drive them into Winnipeg to train. The 10-hour round trip was not an issue for the eager youngsters, whose talent was evident at an early age. For two months each summer, they relocated to Winnipeg and trained several hours a day with experienced coaches at the Dakota complex.

In the summer of 2002, Bhagwant Singh moved with the ever-improving duo to Mississauga so they could be coached by 1997 Canadian pairs champion Luc Bradet. Singh's wife, Krishna, has just joined them after retiring from her job as the town's librarian.

All the while, the people of Ear Falls have been behind the skating Singhs, raising funds to help cover their substantial travel and training costs.

"They're still helping out a lot. Without them, I don't know if we'd still be skating," Neeta said last week, as she looked ahead to making her Ear Falls supporters proud with a great performance in Bratislava.

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 17, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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