Groom Team USA Wins The Gold!

By Helen Schaefer

After two years of hard work and months of anticipation by United States pet stylists, the 2017 World Grooming Championships kicked off. Every two years this extraordinary international event occurs in our industry. This year it was held in Belgium, at Groomania.

A team of talented groomers earns the right to represent the Unties States every two years. It is comprised of the top four groomers and one alternate. Open level, also known as Division A competitive groomers, earn points at GroomTeam USA Sanctioned shows they place in across the United States. Those points accumulate over the year. The cycle repeats for a second year, and the best scores (not cumulative points) determine the team. (Disclaimer: the rules have changed for the next cycle of the team, but is a similar concept). The alternate teammate, the one who will step up if another cannot make it, is decided by specific criteria laid out in GroomTeam Rules.

It is a difficult, emotional journey to rank high enough to make the team. It is early mornings, longer days, and a lot of missed meals. It’s work that never ends. At home it is constant practice and sacrifice, lessons, critiques, applying new methods and perfecting technique.

The year leading up to Worlds is much the same but at a higher pitch. The chosen four go into the ring with bigger hair, more flair and tighter timing, all in preparation for one weekend in a foreign land. This year, with emotions and anticipation already running high, more drama was not what was needed, but mother nature had a different idea.

The week before the team was to depart to Belgium, Hurricane Maria landed a massive strike to the home of Team Member Victor Rosado (hand stripping), Puerto Rico. This powerful hurricane destroyed the small island territory’s cell towers, electric grid, and internet. It covered roadways with debris and caused all airports to shut down. Maria left Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million US citizens stranded with no water, no electricity, and very limited food and fuel.

With communications down, the fate of Victor was unknown. He hails from Ponce, a coastal city in the middle southern edge of Puerto Rico. It is difficult to imagine the emotions Victor faced being in the direct heart of the storm, unable to get a message out, uncertain if the dream he worked so hard for, finally within reach of his fingertips, was about to be ripped from his grasp by forces out of his control.

Here on the mainland, unable to communicate or even know if he was okay, Victor’s many worldwide friends shared the same pitched angst. Countless tags and posts were made looking for any information. Groomers reached out from all over, some contacting friends with ham radios hoping to get a message through, to hear any news. But the worry of the multitude was nothing compared to his teammates.

Finally, on Sunday, two days before he was to depart for Belgium, Victor was able to get a message through to the team. He typed through tears he was at a location close to the airport, and would try to get his USDA approval stamp for his contest dog on Monday to make the flight out on Tuesday.

As the Team members started to depart their hometowns and make the long transatlantic flights toward Belgium with their dogs, anxiety gave way to anticipation. As everyone began to gather Thursday, no sight was more welcomed than Victor’s familiar profile crossing the street to the Park Hotel.

Cheryl Purcell (Team Coordinator), the team, and the rest of the support squad squished into a rental van and made their way to the show sight, XPO Kortrijk. The group familiarized themselves with the layout which consisted of one very large expo room where both the tradeshow and competition take place. A stage with an incredible lighting and sound system set up, crowned the competition ring, portable electric tables were setup in four well-spaced columns, with what seemed like endless rows spanning from the very back of the space to within feet of the stage. The large booths shared similar lighting set ups to the stage, and huge beaded chandeliers hung from the center of the room. On the far–right side, rows and rows of stadium seating rose into the rafters.

Quick order was made of the logistics of the show. Cheryl confirmed when and where to pick–up their credentials. Next, they gathered supplies from all GroomTeam’s generous sponsors including the Travel Team’s Presenting Sponsor; The American Kennel Club. Finally, they picked up the travel team uniforms, created, and supplied by Artero. It was then back to the van, and an impromptu uniform try–on in the parking lot.

The weekend consists of two days of individual competitions, followed by one day of Team Competition. First up on Friday was the hand stripping class. Travel Team Member, Victor Rosado and supporter/Top Ten GroomTeam member, Jared Lane represented the USA. Neither made the finals, an emotional blow. Jared produced one of the most beautiful grooms of his career on a Lakeland. It was clearly a crowd favorite as compliments poured in from spectators and other competitors alike. Victor did a beautiful job, and got much needed feedback on what judges were looking for on a Scottie, in anticipation of Sunday’s Big Event.

Friday afternoon, GroomTeam USA members, Lindsey Dicken, Mackensie Murphy, Victor Rosado, and Michelle Breen participated in pure bred scissor class. Both Lindsey and Michelle made the final cut and Victor was nominated for Best Makeover. Their accomplishments helped raise spirits after a disappointing morning.

Saturday was much of the same as Friday. The team met downstairs in the wee hours of the morning, fueled up for the day’s activities and headed over. Victor began the day grooming a gorgeous American Cocker, making the finalist’s cut.

Saturday afternoon, GroomTeam USA was represented strongly in poodles. Lindsey, Michelle and Mackensie all entered small poodles, while Cat Opson, the team’s alternate, represented the USA in Large Poodles. With stiff competition (72 total entered poodles) Michelle won an award of merit for her Scandinavian trim on Ninja, her mini, and Cat made the finalists with her beloved standard, Zealand in a continental.

Groomania does not announce placements initially, just finalists. At the end of the show, all finalists are brought into the ring and separated by event as well as class. The two classes represented in the finals are Open (which is actually similar to USA’s intermediate) and Championship Class (which is where all of the team members competed).

It’s amazing to see every single one of the finalists in the ring together. From student to world over champions, the best of the best are all in that ring. It’s a powerful visual and a great testament to how far hard work can take even an individual groomer (some countries did not send teams, only individual groomers).

After presentations, and thanks to staff, speakers, and judges, we finally learned placements. Lindsey won first with her Bichon, Quin in individuals, Michelle won third with her borrowed Kerry Blue Terrier, Victor placed third with his borrowed American Cocker and Cat Opson placed Second in Large poodles with Zealand. Overall Best in Show went to the English Groomer, Amy Masden with her stunning black American Cocker. With placements finally settled and Groomania coming to a close, it was time to switch gears and prepare for the big contest.

The atmosphere of Sunday morning is almost indescribable. Teams and their supporters arrived on show site in the still darkness of the morning. The team donned their new uniforms; the “Support Squad” proudly wore their team jerseys generously provided by Cat for everyone’s plus–ones and fans.

Before the contest begins, the teams are presented on stage much like the Olympics. The teams march in through the ring, and up onto the stage, not by national anthem, but rather a famous popular song from one of their fellow countryman. The teams are presented in alphabetical order and then file into the bleachers as the next ones start their procession.

Last in alphabetical order is the United States. The team walked out to Born in the USA, and carried the largest flag. Up on stage it was proudly unfurled and framed the team. They joined the other 20 countries in the stands, the best of the best from the world, a completely surreal and unforgettable sight. It’s the moment a dream becomes a reality for over 80 groomers; the moment they must groom better than they ever have before.

In years past, all four categories are held simultaneously. This time they split the teams into morning and afternoon. First up was scissor breeds and hand strip; Lindsey with her Bichon Elliot, and Victor with Yoshi the Scottie, respectively. Judges milled around the ring, stopping to observe progress and techniques, and to make mental notes, all while spectators were kept a considerable distance away by empty space and rope dividers to help avoid interference or distraction.

Nothing is announced at the end of these classes. It is scissors down and the tables are cleaned. Helpers swoop in to lay table covers and move the specially made USA Paw Mats on top. The royal blue satin covers, scalloped with pure white braiding and boldly emblazoned with the GroomTeam logo on the front are the perfect contrast to any dog presented.

All the while the morning competition was taking place, Team members Michelle and Mackensie tirelessly prepped their dogs for the afternoon. Mackensie brought the beautiful Parti-Colored American Cocker, Tubbs; Michelle brought her huge stunning Standard, Indy.

To watch these ladies work is inspiring. Michelle is stoic and consistent, completely absorbed in her work, methodical and precise. Mackensie is diligent and quick, moving from area to area, sculpting the fluid lines and soft swoosh of the cocker profile, standing back analyzing, tweaking, and perfecting.

It is strange when used to the American system, and then to be in Europe and not know instantly. Judging takes a considerable amount of time. The placements and finalists are decided by a panel of three judges and their computed average. It is the same for both individual contests and for the team competition. In team competition, however, the points are tabulated for each category and then added to the team’s score.

There is a lull between the afternoon scissors down and the revelation of the top teams. When the placements are announced, each team presents each dog on assigned tables together, again in alphabetical order. It is at that time the public is invited in to take pictures and see the dogs up close. It’s a moment of pure joy. The teams dance, sing, and their supporters wave flags and cheer. Everyone is smiling; what’s done is done and this is the moment to enjoy the journey that it took to get there.

Luisa Lehmann authoritative voice rings out. The top six teams are announced in alphabetical order, and teams who were not called vacate the ring. The top six teams move to the front tables, moving covers, mats and dogs, and with silent anxiety await to hear where they placed.

The placements are announced in reverse order starting with 6th place. They are announced in short order, although being there it feels like an eternity. France is called to stage as the 6th place finalist, followed by Belgium in 5th, and England as 4th. Heartbeats start to come a little faster and harder when Russia is announced as 3rd place.

The last remaining two countries are Italy and the USA.

Two years prior in Milan, the USA lost to Italy by a narrow margin. Not missing the chance for flair and drama, Kitty Dekeersgieter, Groomania’s show owner, took to the stage with judges Umberto Lehmann and Denys Lorrain. They referenced the previous results of the 2015 Championships, saying it was much of the same. Italy’s massive cheering section chanting “I—tal—ia” the entire time, clapping hands and waving flags.

As Luisa went on to announce second place, she begged for the first-place team’s fans to be silent, to give the runners up a chance to enjoy their moment. Looking at USA Team’s faces, the disappointment was evident; it seemed it would be very much of the same as last time. The air buzzed as everyone collectively held their breath to hear, “2nd place… Italy.”

The disbelief and quiet disappointment the USA team had been holding in turned to elation. There was big fat, cry tears as everyone hugged, and others came and congratulated the team.

All the anxiety and drama getting to this moment was let go and turned into complete jubilation. From that moment, through the many pictures and praise, the only thing heard was the chant, “USA! USA! USA!” ✂

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