The magic of Canada’s junior men

OTTAWA

Stephen Gogolev looks like somebody’s lost little brother who wandered up on the medal podium for junior men, slipping out unnoticed from the cheap seats, looking for ice cream.

But no. The 12-year-old with the shy glance won the darned thing. He could have taken his opponents out by the knees, because he stood so close to that part of their anatomies. But no, he became the Canadian junior men’s champion with stealth and talent, two triple Axels and a quad Salchow attempt and a jump series he never should have landed but did.

On the night in question (Wednesday), Gogolv set out to do an ambitious triple flip – loop – triple Salchow thing, but when he landed the triple flip, he appeared in big trouble. It just didn’t come down well. But he didn’t stop. He did it, somehow. And up in the stands, watching incredulously were multiple world champion Kurt Browning, his old friend Mike Slipchuck, now the high-performance director for Skate Canada (and winner of the men’s senior title 25 years ago) and the ever-cheerful songbird Scott Rachuk, a man with his eyes on talent for Skate Ontario.

All three almost fell out of their seats at the utter audacity of tiny Gogolev. “God!” they all voiced.

Had they just witnessed him pulling it off? It seemed unbelievable. ‘He had no earthly right to try that last triple,” said Browning, still reeling from the display. “And he still did it. He didn’t give up. It’s not like you need this, you don’t need this. Maybe he thinks he did.”

Gogolev, second after the short program, won the long program with 142.88 points, almost five points ahead of the spectacular 16-year-old Conrad Orzel. Overall, Gogolev won the gold medal with 210.06 points over Orzel with 206.06. It was a most entertaining contest.

Browning extended his hand to Gogolev off the ice. Gogolev’s eyes lit up at the sight of him. They know each other. Browning first saw Gogolev at a summer camp when he was about eight years old. They spent 20 minutes together. Gogolev scarcely seemed to know what to think: Browning was loud and unpredictable and lively. Gogolev is a person of another ilk.

“He’s got a very kind heart,” Browning said of the youngster. “He’s a good boy. He donates triple Axels to charity.”

And although he did not land the quad Salchow in his free – he landed his first one in a qualifying event leading to Canadians last month – coach Brian Orser said it wasn’t far off.

“It looks like everything is where it should be,” said Browning, the first man to land a quad almost 28 years ago. “He’s like a well-organized kitchen. You don’t have to look for that paring knife. It’s always where it is.

“It’s just very under control. With him, you can sit back and relax and watch him skate and you know it’s going to be 95 per cent of what the potential is.”

Browning told Gogolev what he thought of him: “”You’re not big on the ice,” he said. “But you share. You don’t keep it to yourself. You’re very humble but you share. And it’s not gregarious and it’s not outgoing but it’s real. It is really nice to watch.”

Gogolev unleashed two triple Axels and they are as textbook a jump as one will see – and he’s coached by a guy – Brian Orser – who broke ground as one of the first to do a jump that some find more difficult than a quad.

As for that magical triple flip – loop – triple Salchow, Slipchuk said that Gogolev has a keen sense of rotation and knows instinctively where he is in the air. “That’s something you either have or you don’t,” Slipchuk said. “He obviously has that quick twitch. It’s fun to watch him.”

Gogolev is currently training a quad Lutz and a quad toe as well as the quad Salchow. So is his new nemesis, Orzel, who defeated him in the short program and finished with the silver medal. Gogolev is too young to even go out on the junior circuit, but Orzel would like a spot at the world junior championships in Taipei City. It’s crowded at the top, though, with a couple of guys of junior age, who currently compete nationally at the senior level (last year’s world silver medalist Nicholas Nadeau, and Roman Sadovsky, now a clubmate.)

Orzel has been an explosive new addition to the ranks pushing up against the big senior boys. He’s extremely talented and showed grit in his long-program effort.

He didn’t go into it with all of his limbs intact.

“I had a tough time in the practice,” he admitted. He did something to his knee, perhaps on a quad toe attempt, because the knee hurt most when he tried that jump again. He was in such pain, he could barely do a triple Axel. “Thanks to adrenalin and the whole crowd and the energy, I just really focused on my training and not on the pain,” he said. “And that’s why I was able to pull it off.”

Orzel landed that magical quad in the long program (even though he hadn’t been able to do a quad toe in practice), and a couple of triple Axels too, one in combination with a triple toe loop. He sailed along at the top of his game and only in the closing moments did he fall on a triple loop.

He landed his first quad toe at a Junior Grand Prix in Dresden, Germany, but found that his nerves kicked in for the first couple of times he tried it in competition. Now, it almost seems old hat.

Next year, he’d like to qualify for the Grand Prix Final, but sometime in the summer, he may start working on his other quads. He says his quad Salchow, quad loop and quad Lutz are all there. He’s landed each one at least once. His main focus will be a quad Lutz.

All this despite the fact that he has grown about nine inches over the past two years. He’s a different person from the boy who skated to tumbleweeds a few years ago.

They are the future, these two. For now, they looked so very fascinating, Gogolev as Little Lord Fauntleroy, creamy jabot and all; Orzel blazing onto the stage in the brightest of bright emerald greens. That’s just the way they are. Certainly not two peas in a pod.

 

Bugs and ice dancers

OTTAWA

Paul Poirier and his moustache were ready to go at the first practice session for senior ice dancers today at the revamped TD Place arena. But his partner, Piper Gilles wasn’t.

Poirier had to face the music alone, since Gilles fell ill yesterday after arriving in Ottawa and was busy upchucking elsewhere.

“We think it’s the flu,” Poirier said today after practice. “Right now we are just taking it practice to practice. And we’ve been just trying to do everything we can to compete at our best [in the short dance Friday].”

Gilles is battling this virus with rest. Because it’s a virus, there’s not much you can do about it, Poirier said. “But I think we are extremely well prepared. We’ve done run-throughs sick this year. It’s a matter of getting as much energy and fluid and food back into her body for tomorrow.”

Poirier spends a lot of time in Gilles’ arms, breathing the same air she breathes, and he’s probably embraced that bug as much as anybody can. He said he’s taking as many precautions as possible. Washing hands. Staying as far away from his partner as possible, perhaps. “So far, so good,” he said.

Today he had to practice the free dance alone, and that proved terribly difficult, since it’s a tango. “It’s very reactionary so a lot of my movements don’t make much sense without her, and some aren’t certainly possible.”

So Poirier focused on what he could do: some twizzles, marvelous stroking about the rink, some footwork. “Make sure that I’m just in the best place physically and mentally to get on the ice,” he said. “I just wanted to get on the ice and feel what it feels like.”

It’s hour by hour. Viruses have their own time schedule. Hopefully Gilles can will it into bay.

And if she does decide to go for it, she won’t be the first skater who felt a lump in the throat through all the strenuous elements of skating. Once at junior nationals, a young male skater pushed himself to the utmost, and suddenly took a detour to the boards, and left his lunch on the other side. Stuff happens.

 

Where have all the pair skaters gone

OTTAWA

Patricia Andrew is a 4-foot-8 dynamo, looks a tad like 2002 Olympic pair champion Jamie Sale, and is an emerging force in pair skating.

She’s only 11 years old.

She and her partner Paxton Knott surprised everybody, perhaps even themselves, perhaps anybody who put reason above spirit, when they won the silver medal at the novice level at the national figure skating championships on Wednesday.

They had been third to Quebec-trained Chloe Panetta and Steven Lapointe in the short program. (Should we mention there were only five pairs in the novice event?)

Andrew and Knott had been together only since September. Somehow, in the four months that whizzed by as they toiled at the London Competitive Skating Centre, they learned how to set sail a nice little double twist, a floating lift, and a throw double Salchow, just as the music launched into “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and forgive me if I misplaced a consonant or two.

They were like, together, the little engine that could. When they launched their side-by-side spins, tiny Andrew made the vocal calls for the team to shift positions, her little voice delivering the message quite well enough. As coach Alison Purkiss says, she’s the boss.

Knott couldn’t stop grinning through the whole thing. He had found his home.

They out-finished teams from Quebec and Alberta, chalking up 92.91 points, their best score ever, to win that silver medal, about 20 points behind the more experienced gold medalists. Mind you, Panetta is only 13, Lapointe, 19, but they train every day with talented senior skaters, such as two-time world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford and world team candidates Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro.

The secret weapon possessed by Andrew and Knott is coach Purkiss, a former pair skater who is an unsung gem in the skating world. She also coached new junior gold medalists Evelyn Walsh and Trennt Michaud, crowned within an hour of the novice contest. Neither Andrew nor Walsh had skated pairs before Purkiss gently gathered them into the pair fold. Both had been lifted – for fun – by experienced male pair skaters during club shows. They had been exposed to it all at an early age.

Walsh and the very talented Michaud got together only four months ago. Walsh, who also competes in the junior women’s event, which ends Thursday night, never imagined she’d be standing atop a national podium a few months after she signed up. She gritted her teeth through the steep learning curve she experienced with death spirals – and she hasn’t had time to learn all four of them, just the ones she needed at hand. She still hasn’t been taught all the lifts – just the ones needed to get to Ottawa. The first lift Walsh learned was one of the most difficult. She skipped all the rest of the steps, just to be ready.

“She did her job,” Purkiss said. Michaud sells it. He’s also a good patient partner, a budding star, as is Andrew with her partner. She’s led him gently to success, too. They’ve all done what they could in the time they had, with what they had, a little collection of happy misfits.

Last year, Michaud won the novice title with partner Hope McLean, and they lit up the Halifax arena with their emotional Tango Roxanne, from the Moulin Rouge list. The piece, choreographed by Purkiss, sent shivers down spines. In the end, the crowd gave a standing ovation to a novice pair. After they finished, a judge walked by Purkiss and blurted: “That gave me goosebumps.”

Right now, pair skaters are as scarce as fiddlesticks on a frosty January day. Only five pairs contested the novice event. Also only five showed up for the junior event. And Wednesday, rising Canadian senior stars Julianne Seguin and Charlie Bilodeau were forced to withdraw after Seguin suffered a concussion in December – and hasn’t yet been cleared to compete. That withdrawal drops the senior numbers to seven.

Yes, Canada, traditionally a force in pairs at the highest levels, is running a little short. And the country has never been so short of teams.

“I come from a time when we needed to eliminate pairs [leading to the national championships in qualifying events called divisionals, now called Challenge],” Purkiss said. “There were alternate spots, particularly in novice and junior.”

Actually, this week, there had been seven pairs listed to start juniors, but some dropped out along the way for reasons that had nothing to do with the perceived dangers of pair skating. Missing in action from pairs competition this week: One had a blister that became infected from an ill-fitting skating boot. One got an ankle injury that occurred during a foot fumble while walking. In shoes. A young pair trained by former Olympic pair competitor Annabelle Langlois dropped a coffee mug on his foot and suffered a stress fracture. Really? Really.

There are so few pairs on the national scene (actually it’s a world problem) that Skate Canada had a meeting of pair coaches this week to discuss the problem and figure out how they could change things.

“It’s hard to get people involved in pairs,” said Langlois, based in Calgary with husband and former pair partner Cody Hay.

It seems that folk think it best to fulfill their singles career until they can’t do it any more, then switch to pairs. But pair skating requires many more sorts of skills that can’t be learned overnight. If they show up later in their careers, it can just be too late.

Strangely enough, there is a statistic showing that some skaters that have doubled up on disciplines, are not going to route of the more usual singles/pairs combination, but are moving more toward singles/ice dancing.

Case in point: junior singles skater Bruce Waddell also skates with Natalie D’Allessandro, with whom he won the novice dance title this week. In fact, there is only one team around Canada that is currently doing singles/pairs doubles right now.

Michaud lost his former pair partner to dance. She no longer wished to be thrown or tossed or generally soar through the air any more. Pair females have to like this sort of thing.

Still, Purkiss says parents need to know that if skaters are taught the skills when they are very young, they don’t have to start out with dangerous feats. “Everybody seems to think you have to be like Meagan and Eric, but we have to remember that they are two-time world champions and they had to start somewhere as well,” she said.

Another problem? Canada is a large country. And if an intrepid coach finds a male skater from Vancouver, who is just the one for a female skater in Toronto, somebody has to relocate, leave home, and incur extra expenses. “That’s a big hurdle at a young age,” Langlois said.

Her novice team did, too, even if the miles weren’t vast. Novice pair Josh Venema moved to Calgary from Edmonton. Langlois scouted out his partner, Takara Dei, who she found in Grand Prairie. They’ve been together only since July. “It’s a big commitment,” Langlois said.

It’s just easier in Montreal, which has a large population and the most powerful pair school in the country.

To salve the fears of worried parents, Canada has a clever juvenile pair program that does not allow overhead lifts. Purkiss has a juvenile team that has spent a year learning how to do an overhead lift off the ice in preparation for moving up to the pre-novice level.

Langlois feels that some pair scouting is in order, whether nationally or regionally. “People need to have a talent identification so they know what their best opportunity in skating is, because unless parents are educated about it, they may miss the boat completely,” she said.

All these potential teams need is a start, even if they are ultimately mismatched in the beginning. Few skaters stay with the same partners throughout their careers. Dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir are an exception (19 years in the trenches,) Purkiss says. Breakups need not be traumatic. Hopefully, by the time they are junior skaters, they will have met their matches.

 

 

 

Conrad Orzel: his head in the game

OTTAWA

 

These days, one has to look up, way up, to meet Conrad Orzel’s gaze. Yes, he’s grown, in many ways really.

This new Orzel, now statuesque at 5-foot-11, at age 16, has taken the lead in a very very tough junior men’s division after the short program at the Canadian championships this week. With 68.16 points, he’s 1.98 points ahead of wonderkid Stephen Gogolev, who is competing at the junior level for the first time this year, after dominating the novice championships last year in Halifax.

Gogolev is only 12, for heaven’s sake. And just turned 12 last month. He won’t even be able to go out on the junior international circuit until the 2018-2019 season. He lands quads with aplomb. He comes up to Orzel’s armpit.

They couldn’t be more different. Gogolev has that softly flowing blond silky hair that flutters in the breeze he creates. He floats about the ice, hardly making a sound. Orzel is an explosion.

In the short, Gogolev stepped out of a triple Axel that went so high, maybe almost too high, and he squeaked out a triple Lutz –triple toe loop after almost coming to a stop after the Lutz. Miraculous. Orzel landed his triple Axel, which didn’t flow out, nailed that triple Lutz – triple toe loop, and landed a triple loop, as easy as pie. (although I’ve never found pie easy, but there you go.). Little things make a difference in this game.

Besides, for the past week, Gogolev has been ill, suffering a fever and coughing his lungs out. All of this hasn’t helped the Gogolev magic. We’re not quite seeing vintage Gogolev, if you can say “vintage” and “12-year-old” in the same sentence.

Last month, Gogolev won the qualifying event, Challenge, with 215.01 points, getting there with 76.24 for the short program. Orzel was third.

Yes, Orzel has grown.

“Over the past few years, since I’ve been in high school, I’ve had a growth spurt,” he said. “A lot of people struggle with this, but I think it has actually benefitted me. I think it has given me more strength and for some reason, more core control.”

Orzel landed the first quad in his life (a quad toe loop) at his second Junior Grand Prix event in Dresden Germany during the fall. Huge. He intends to try one in the long program on Wednesday.

But he is so talented, so precocious, he has more up his sleeve that we may see in years to come. Just for fun, he’s been playing with the ultra difficult quad Lutz – and he’s landed one. During a team day for Ontario, Orzel told his coach he was actually going to land one. And he did. “It was really exciting,” said Najarro, who has been coaching him since he was five years old.

He’s dabbled with the quad Salchow. He’s done a quad loop. He has very very fast twitch muscle, He can explode, like nobody’s business. Sometimes too quick. His coach, Eva Najarro, works to keep him calm and patient.

He came to the table in the short program with music he loves: “Secrets” by One Republic and “Beethoven’s Five Secrets” by The Piano Guys.” Who found it? Former skater Alexandra Najarro, daughter of Eva. Spotify proved a gold mine. Orzel listened to it for five minutes and knew it was perfect. Former ice dancer, Shae Zukiwsky, choreographed both his programs for the first time.

“They are really good together,” (Eva) Najarro said. “I can see Conrad in that program. I think this program is really him and that’s why he feels it.”

Najarro has called on the help of coach Joanne McLeod in Vancouver to help with Orzel’s quad education. He goes there in the summers. He has’t been working on quads so much this season because Najarro wanted to prepare him for the work at hand. But maybe in the spring.

“It’s going to be something to think about next year,” Orzel said. Najarro said his practices have improved this year and so have his spins, footwork and edges. It’s all important.

Last year, Orzel took a hard fall during the men’s event, and landed on his head. Miraculously, he picked himself up and continued. And even more miraculously, he did not suffer a concussion and all the aftereffects that come with it.

The next week, his friends had wondered about his black eye. He had to tell them he had fallen on his head at nationals. “I guess I have a hard head,” he said.

 

 

 

 

 

Weaver and Poje: home at last

Yes, they had won medals at two world championships, chalked up undefeated strings on Grand Prix circuits, ruled Canada’s ice dancers for two years, and earned sheets of standing ovations for their heartfelt routines. But still, Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje felt something was missing.

A flutter, a little heat, perhaps. A new energy. After a stellar Grand Prix season last year, they had finished only fifth at the 2016 world championship in Boston. And 2010 Olympic champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir had announced a comeback for this season. The ice dancing world was getting crowded at the top.

Still, it wasn’t that, they say. “Regardless of their comeback, we knew we needed some new spark to our skating,” Weaver said. “And something inspiring. [Virtue and Moir] only fuelled the fire.

“Their comeback, it’s neither here nor there,’’ she continued. “It’s not involving us. But I’d be lying if I said I haven’t worked harder because of it. And that’s just the competitors in us. We’re natural competitors and I think that’s how we’ve made our career as successful as it has been so far.”

Weaver and Poje, who have won the two Canadian titles that Virtue and Moir missed by stepping aside for two years, haven’t gone head-to-head with the dance virtuosos this season yet. That will change next week at the Canadian championships in Ottawa.

“I’m not really concerned how our results will be against them,” Weaver said. “We’re still Kaitlyn and Andrew. People appreciate what we do, thankfully, and we love that they do. We bring something different than anybody else. And that’s because we’re us.

“They have no bearing on that, and will not be able to take that away from us.”

Well, an “us” with a little extra spark this year, down to the fingerless gloves and the heat they engender in their Michael Jackson hip-hop short dance. More on that later.

Coaches Anjelika Krylova and Pasquale Camerlengo in Detroit knew something was missing too. Change will sometimes  fix that. And so they suggested the Canadian team go to the court of Nikolai Morozov, who hasn’t worked in the ice dancing world for the past two years. He says he just didn’t like ice dance any more.

“I didn’t work for two years,” he said. “Not anywhere. I didn’t see competition. I didn’t do anything.

“I was tired. I didn’t want to do anything. I’ve been working since 1999 with very high level skaters and this was very hard. I didn’t see my daughter, so …I just decided to stop.”

His daughter, Annabelle, currently lives with him.

Morozov had been involved with the coaching and choreography of a wide array of singles skaters (Shizuka Arakawa, winner of the 2006 Olympic gold medal, 2002 Olympic champ Alexei Yagudin, and world champion Daisuke Takahashi), countless ice dancers, including 2003 world champions Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz, and most recently, he’d worked as the choreographer for 2014 Olympic pair champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov.

Still, the dangling of world silver medalists before his nose caught Morozov’s attention. He took on Weaver and Poje, finding them easy to work with because of their professionalism. His biggest job, he says, is to keep them from skating too much.

The 41-year-old Russian-born coach first met with the Canadians in June in Moscow for a week, he said. “They are beautiful on the ice,” he said. “They are good skaters. I don’t know why they couldn’t make medals before, because it is so easy to work with them. I is surprising.”

The deal is that Krylova and Camerlengo still serve as mentors, while Weaver and Poje’s muse, Shae-Lynn Bourne, has not worked with them this season. She was briefly married to Morozov years ago. “She’ll always be a part of our lives,” Weaver said. “We still keep up with her so often.”

Morozov was sitting in the kiss-and-cry corral with Tatiana Tarasova when Bourne and Kraatz won the Grand Prix Final in Kitchener, Ont., a couple of months before the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. Bourne and Kraatz won that event by using a memorable free dance to Michael Jackson music.  Perhaps not so strangely, Morozov has led Weaver and Poje to a Michael Jackson medley for their short dance, too.

In the beginning, Morozov fashioned for them a country swing that the Canadian team showed off at the national team training camp last September. “We worked really hard through the summer with Nikolai and his new ways,” Poje said. “And we really thought we had the right direction for us with our original short dance. And it was so much fun to perform that country swing that we really pushed ourselves to get it ready for camp.”

But when they arrived at camp, and monitors were scribbling away their thoughts, Morozov said to his new team: “I like this short dance, but let’s try something else, just for fun.”

Michael Jackson took over. “Just knowing [Morozov’s] ideas, we really fully committed to trying something completely out of the blue,” Poje said. “And we knew from day one that this was the right direction for us. We fully accepted.” Out came the fingerless gloves.

The music is fun, Weaver said. “Everybody loves MJ music and it’s easy to dance to.

“And you can just groove and have fun and let loose,” Weaver said. “Right away, we were gelling with this style. It was daunting to take on hip hop because we had to be very strategic about how to transfer that onto the ice, which  has proven difficult in the past.” But along with Morozov came top-notch dance teachers and helpers and choreographers to figure it all out.

While Bourne and Kraatz used well-known Jackson tunes, Weaver and Poje are opting for Jackson that is “not necessarily oversued.” A female voice, Judith Hill, sings “The Way You Make Me Feel,” while Jackson is on board for “Dangerous” and “Jam.”

They trusted Morozov, they said, because one of his biggest strengths as a teacher is “packaging and finding an incredible identity for skaters,” Weaver said. “He created [Alexei] Yagudin, he made Brian Joubert’s “Matrix,” and name one person he’s done something with, and he’s given them something memorable.”

“So when he says try something else, we have to jump in with both feet and trust. Seeing as we made this big change, there is no reason to hold back. We did it and I’m so, so happy that we were brave.”

Because of the change, Weaver and Poje had to miss their first international event. They just weren’t ready. And with Grand Prix assignments outside of Canada, they’ve been a bit of a mystery back home. They now train in Hackensack, N.J., and also at the major Russian training centre in Novogrosk, a suburb of Moscow.

They are also used the tried and true skating routine – used by so many – Concierto de Aranjuez, that should play to their emotional strengths in the free dance. This best-loved guitar concerto, written by blind Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo in 1939, is addictive. He used to play this music, night after night, in the dark.

 

However, they did not qualify for the Grand Prix Final, an event they had won the past two years. “Sometimes you have to take one step back to take two steps forward,” Weaver said. The bright side? They were able to spend more time with Morozov, to knuckle down and perfect their opuses.

They feel rested and energized, coming into the Canadian championships next week. The major block standing in their way now is Virtue and Moir. Last spring, Weaver first expressed surprise at their comeback, but as is their custom, they forge ahead.

Is it awkward for Virtue and Moir, knowing they have elbowed aside a team that has carried the torch in their absence? No, says Virtue.

“We’ve been long-time fans of Kaitlyn and Andrew and long-time friends as well,” Virtue said. “We want them to have their best season yet. And we know that they are going to deliver exceptional performances in Ottawa and we’re going to have to be at our best. We’re grateful that there is such a strong Canadian team in ice dance and in all the other disciplines.”

Moir says he knows them as fierce competitors and they do not assume they will defeat them next week – although they expect to win if they deliver. “We haven’t pushed them down anywhere,” Moir said. “That has yet to be decided.

“There is going to be a fight and we are going to have to go head to head. That’s what competition is all about.”

Virtue and Moir have set world records this season: 80.50 for the short dance, and 197.22 total. Their free dance score of 116.72 is the second highest in history.

Weaver and Poje’s top scores are 73.78 for the short dance, 110.18 for the free and 182.93 for a total score.

The Osmond-Walia Accord

What a duo they are, Kaetlyn Osmond and her bright eyes, and the willowy, calm form of her coach Ravi Walia at rinkside.

They have grown simultaneously together in a difficult sport and are marching steadily (thundering actually) toward world attention. Never more so than this year, when Osmond has been busy defeating world champions and medalists. And this all on the brink of the Canadian championships next week in Ottawa, where Osmond’s goal is to make the world team this year. But she’s a solid factor to snatch back her national title from Alaine Chartrand and Gabby Daleman, too. There are only two world championship spots for three strong women vying for them.

This season, at the Grand Prix Final in Marseille, France, Osmond delivered scores never achieved by a Canadian woman in the current judging system. Her personal best total score of 212.45 points is the ninth highest score accomplished by a woman anywhere, still behind Yu Na Kim’s record of 228.56 attained at the Vancouver Olympics.

Her short program score of 75.54 – unleashed by judges for Osmond’s Edith Piaf medley – is also Canada’s highest, at eighth best in the world, not all that far behind the record holder, Russian Evgenia Medvedeva, who collected 79.21 at the Grand Prix Final in Marseille.

Osmond’s long program best of 136.91 is 13th highest in the world books, behind Medvedeva’s 150.10 from Boston worlds (you know the record that eclipsed Yu Na Kim’s record by four-hundredths of a point). Rochette at 131.28 is 20th on the list.

All season long, Osmond has been sending out smoke signals that she’s becoming a force on the world scene. When she won the Finlandia Trophy in Espoo, she defeated world champion and Olympic silver medalist Mao Asada, a revived Anna Pogorilaya (world bronze) and former world champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva. Actually,Osmond has defeated Tuktamysheva three times this season, also at Skate Canada and Cup of China.

At Skate Canada, Osmond, in winning the silver medal, defeated world silver medalist Satoko Miyahara. And at Cup of China, she won the short program over Elena Radionova, who roared back to take the overall gold.

At the Grand Prix Final, Osmond finished second, ahead of so many of the world’s best women, in the short program. She dropped to fourth overall, with a strong routine that had two mistakes. “I could watch her all day,” enthused one Eurosport commentator.

Yes, it’s been good this year, a definite turnaround from the previous season when she finished third at the national championships and didn’t even make the trip to Boston worlds. Osmond has a different twinkle this season, and it’s thanks to the soft-spoken Walia.

Osmond’s biggest blow came when she fractured her right fibula (the small bone of the lower leg) during a freak fall while training on Sept. 11, 2014. She missed the entire season. Walia had to navigate all of the swirling emotions, the heavy one at the back of all sorts of minds that perhaps, Osmond would never come back at all.

“I think it was a very good possibility that she would not skate again after she broke her leg,” Walia said. These thoughts entered his mind when she finally returned to the ice. And he could see that the task wasn’t so easy.

“I had to find ways to try to get that to happen,” said Walia, speaking of a comeback.

Walia remembers a day when her doctor told her she could finally start skating again on a Monday. But come Monday, Osmond didn’t show up. “Most athletes would probably have been back that day,” he said. “But I know that she was afraid.”

Walia got busy, trying to find ways to gently coax her back onto the ice, without her knowing that he was doing so. He called her a few times, talked to her about different things, about shows, some opportunities coming in the future. Mostly he was trying to lead her to remember what she loved about skating, to create that in her mind again. The message was an attempt to bring her back, but he never made it the purpose of the calls. It was always, on the surface of it, about something else.

To keep the love of skating alive in her eyes, he was trying to boost her confidence, lower her stress levels.

When Osmond did get back onto the ice, Walia had her do it in a private session, away from eyes and expectations and the sight of young kids whizzing around, doing what she could no longer do.

“I went on the ice with her and just talked,” he said. Osmond could only skate like a beginner. She couldn’t even turn backwards.

“I was talking to her and having conversations with her so she wouldn’t be thinking about skating,” Walia said.

Yes, it was a struggle. The first intent was to try to get her ready for the Canadian championships in January. But eventually it became clear she wouldn’t make it. It was just unrealistic. So they abandoned that pursuit, and with it came relief. “She wasn’t’ healed and she had another surgery,” Walia said. “She was having a lot of pain with the plate in her foot.”

When she had the plate removed in February of 2015, Osmond felt better. Things became more normal.  At first, finally back in the middle of March, still  she “was really not in a physically or mentally in a good place, maybe,” Walia said. “But it was a start. You have to start somewhere.”

Walia set small goals for her every few weeks. She accomplished them. The approach was slow, to be sure. But luckily, Osmond just happens to be a generally positive person. She has strength nobody even knows about. She’s very strong-minded. And she works hard.

When she came back at the start of the 2014-2015 season, she seemed ready. She won Nebelhorn. But then came Skate Canada and it was a definite setback.

“I had the most disastrous skate that I’ve ever done in competition,” she said of her 11th-place finish. And she had injured herself in practice. The success-failure thing threw her for a loop. She didn’t trust herself after that. Not her body. Not her mind.

Besides, what she saw out in the world shocked her. While she’d been recovering, she had retreated into a bubble. She stayed away from the skating world. She didn’t watch. When she returned: “I was almost in shock with how great the world competitors and even the Canadian skaters had gotten in that year,” she said. “I could see it wasn’t going to be as easy as it was in the past years when I had competed.” Confidence fizzled.

Then there was that momentous 2016 Canadian championship in Halifax, where she finished only third and missed the trip to the world championships. “It was an eye-opener and a kick in the butt for me,” she said.

She hadn’t realized how much faith she had lost in herself until that event. “I didn’t feel like myself at all,” she said. “I didn’t feel how I like to skate in competition.

“After my long program, I was upset, obviously, but I was more upset over the fact that I was able to finish that program and not feel like I actually skated. It’s hard to explain how that feels. I just didn’t feel like myself on the ice and I don’t like that feeling.”

But with Walia at her side, Osmond picked herself back up and restarted her career. At the Four Continents championships in February, she finished sixth overall, but skated well in the long program to be fourth in a good field. Placements weren’t as important as the effort.

“She’s a very positive person,” Walia said. “At the rink each day, she’s always very happy.  I wouldn’t necessarily see that she was devastated. I know she had high goals and that was a big setback for her [the 2016 Canadian championships.] But I think, in the end, it taught her a lot. “

After Four Continents, Walia and Osmond had a discussion about what they could improve for the future. At the centre of it all was Walia’s realization that Osmond was no longer the coltish 16-year-old that had burst onto the scene with such oomph a few years ago. She was now 20. “She was a completely different person,” he said.

“I gained a lot of maturity over the last year,” Osmond said. “I gained a lot more self-awareness. Last year was such an eye-opener, knowing that I wasn’t going to go out and be perfect every time. That’s something I had to come to grips with in practice.”

This season, it’s being mindful about what she needs. And she knows what she needs and now to get herself in the right frame of mind, what state she has to be in, how she’s training, how her body is working and feeling. Walia also nudged her toward talking to a sports psychologist.

“One thing that has improved is her ability to work and her love of the work,” Walia said. “This has improved compared to when she was a teenager. She can handle it. She pushes herself and it’s never a struggle for her. “

Walia, a 43-year-old former Canadian bronze medalist (behind Sebastien Britten in 1995), has been just the ticket for Osmond. He knows what it’s like to comeback from injuries. His crowning moment was at Skate Canada in 1997, when he landed a quadruple toe loop – triple toe loop combination at a time when such things weren’t so common. Walia got a standing ovation.

Since then, he worked at his coaching skills by being an assistant to Canadian skating guru Barbara Graham in Alberta until she died. And he became a certified technical specialist. Osmond came into Walias’s coaching fold when she was only 10 years old.

“Ravi has been unbelievable,” Osmond said. “Last year, he expected the season I was having more than I did. He knew how to build me up after each competition, whether to calm me down after I did well, or build me back up after something not so great.”

Osmond describes him as a “great motivational coach,” trying to get her to enjoy skating. “He knows what I need to do on the ice to make myself feel better. And that’s what he’s been doing all year this year, to keep my confidence up, pushing me in ways that boost my confidence, to make me push myself every day.”

Walia has been on top of everything: getting her to see a sports psychologist, getting to see a physiotherapist, ensuring she does warm-ups and cool-downs. “He knows my body better than I do,” Osmond said.

Last year was a learning experience for both of them. But they are both coming out on the other side, and it’s working, in spades.

The message and the lesson from all of the tough experiences she’s had in the past couple of years, says Osmond, is more of a message for herself: that she could come back from anything. “I want to show everyone that it doesn’t matter how many setbacks you have in life,” she said. “It might take a while, but you can come back.”

And it also helps to have a friend in your corner, thoughtfully and carefully pointing the way.

Gary Beacom: Blade Master

Around the rink they flew, all manner of skaters executing unusual shapes and steps, all in the mold of blade master Gary Beacom, a 56-year-old pied piper of sorts. There were falls. There were smiles.Giggles to be sure.  A tiny girl clearly unafraid of the odd slip – who undoubtedly had never heard of Beacom – young skaters, adult skaters too, all drank in the funky Beacomisms.

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Gary Beacom performing “I’m Your Man.” (Photo by Beverley Smith)

 

Beacom had folded his personal challenge to perform his signature piece “I’m Your Man’’ 100 times (anywhere anyone would have him)  in memory of the song’s author, Leonard Cohen, into a seminar hooked into the week of the World Figure Championship in Toronto. He performed that routine, once again, and then taught them the skills to do it in a freeform kind of way.

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Gary Beacom, the pied piper. It’s not so easy to do what he does. Witness the splats. (Photo by Beverley Smith)

 

With all of the skills he showed off – and more – Beacom won the men’s World Figure title last week with great ease, displaying edge qualities rarely seen today, since compulsory figures were dropped after the 1990 world figure skating championships in Halifax. To see Beacom trace a figure is akin to watching Yo-Yo Ma stroke his cello.

One of the event judges, 1962 world champion Donald Jackson waxed enthusiastic over the prints that Beacom left on the ice, especially a complex creative figure that Beacom did on one foot. “Just gorgeous,” Jackson said. It was not only the well-traced design that gave goosebumps; It was the way he did it, in endless motion, in fine form, body never breaking, slipping around the curves with speed, as if he had been doing it forever. “He had control of his whole body,” Jackson said.

“He has balance to die for,” Isabelle Duchesnay once said.

Before he was awarded the medal, Beacom gathered speed from one end of the arena to the other and planted a double Axel with aplomb. Fellow competitor Shepherd Clark saw it, and threw his arms into the air. Then the others began to applaud. He also did a single Axel over the red carpet to the podium. And all probably on his figure blades.

Beacom was always the creative one, right? The cerebral one. The one who always thought up different ways to skate an edge, or express a piece of music, to even skate with boots and blades on feet AND hands. So from whence comes this ability to do figures so well?

It always started with figures. Beacom is who he is because of figures. From the time he was a young skater, he learned special figures, even though their heyday was from 1870 to 1890. He studied the lost art under Tim Brown, who was a four-time U.S. silver medalist during the 1950s. And he studied under Sheldon Galbraith, a stickler for detail and for rules. So was Beacom, believe it or not.

“Not everybody thinks about Gary Beacom as a rule person, because I’m kind of creative and out there and I do things that are not inside the box,” Beacom said. “But I do like to stay within the rules.”

When one thinks of Beacom and compulsory figures, one recalls his utter frustration after the third figure, a back change loop, at the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo. When judges placed him 11th on that figure, Beacom kicked the boards, his emotions overcoming the usual decorum.

“My figures at worlds met the exact specifications according to the rule book,” Beacom said. “And nobody else’s did. My figures looked weird because they followed the rule book.”

Others, he said, skated a flattened middle circle because it was easier to do so. And Beacom’s figure was the correct size: rules stated that they must be the height of the skater, minus the head. And that’s how big his circle was. It was perfectly lined up. Beacom expected to win that figure. Inside, he knew he  wouldn’t.

“I was angry,” he admitted. “I had my temper tantrum there. But that’s in the distant past now.”

Still, it’s clear that Beacom has learned how to use his blades to do everything he does. Beacom can do footwork from one end of the ice to the other. He can blitz the ice for longer with high-risk edges and complexities. He can do off-balance footwork, swinging his arms in opposite directions to the norm.  He’ll lean to the left, and be on an edge he has no business being on and staying upright, on an edge that would be impossible for most. He used to have rubber ankles, too. And Beacom would use antique figures in his choreography. Only a student of figure skating might recognize what they were.

Beacom only reluctantly agreed to take part in the World Figure Championships last week. He’s busy building his seminar, teaching and choreography business around the world, from his new home base in Obertsdorf, Germany. He was invited to a figure workshop last October at the North Toronto Arena, where the world figure championships were held. After he underwent some arm-twisting, he thought it would be kind of cool.

“I’m quite glad I did,” he said. “It is a real challenge and it’s a really good foundation and a good way of honing the skills. I’ve already noticed that I’m free skating better now that I’m practicing figures.”

Since figures have been dropped from ISU competitions, Beacom has noticed a decline in actual skating ability. “The name of the sport is still figure skating [unless you skate in Canada, where Skate Canada has dropped “figure” from the name],” Beacom said. What they are doing out there nowadays is not figures.”

Figures are always on one foot, not two feet at a time. And everything is traced on curves. “What you see out there now is straight lines and two-footed skating,” Beacom said. “And a lot of jumps. We’re seeing a lot of quads and the girls are doing all triples now. It’s really quite remarkable what they do, stamina wise and technique wise. But skating has lost its beauty and charm in my view.

“I think there’s something really nice about seeing nice curving edges all the time, rather than skating down the rink straight on a flat, pausing for a long time, then cranking off a jump. It doesn’t have appeal for me.

“And it’s the hard way of doing things. Curves lead so naturally into rotations, so if you want to do an easy jump, do it on curves.”

Beacom injected a double Axel into his “I’m Your Man” routine and it’s easy to see his strong curve on the ice as he launches himself into the air.

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Beneath him, the curved entry, visible on the ice. (Photo by Beverley Smith)

 

Case in point? Mao Asada comes from the Midori Ito “school” of skating, where jumps are important.  And when she switched to Nobuo Sato to fix her issues, he faced a tough task trying to change her technique after years of doing things another way. The muscle memory had been so ingrained. Shoma Uno comes from the same school as did Asada in the beginning: he skates in straight lines. And he skates much of his routine on two feet. As for Zuzuru Hanyu? He’s been known to practice figures under Brian Orser in Toronto. And edge work is an important part of schooling in the club. It’s not a surprise that skaters from this school excel.

Many skaters do jumps the hard way now, even as the bar keeps going higher and higher. And injuries are far more common. “There’s an upside and a downside to the progress that skating has made,” Beacom said.

Tracing figures has its downside, too. While doing them, you are always looking down. As a free skater, you do not want to be looking down, but rather looking up and projecting into an audience. “This is one of the reasons why I didn’t want to get back into figures,” Beacom said. “I didn’t like the idea of looking down and it’s kind of a habit that I’ve gotten into from doing so many figures and I have to constantly remind myself to keep my focus up. But I think there are more pluses than minuses in doing figures.”

Beacom didn’t have to pull old figure blades out of mothballs to compete last week. He really is a skilled blade master in many ways. He can work the blade himself, as an expert skate sharpener. Earlier this year,  in China to do a seminar, Beacom found that his luggage didn’t arrive. So he was forced to go shopping for another set of blades. He found a set made by a different manufacturer than what he is used to.

Because he figured he probably wouldn’t use them for free skating again, he had no qualms about altering them to become figure blades. He shaved the toe pick off and put a two-inch radius hollow in them. Translated, that means the hollow for figure blades is a lot shallower than those for free skate blades.

Beacom mounted them on a new pair of Edea boots, and sharpened them himself. No doubt, they had precision sharpening.  He had no excuses and didn’t need any.

His figure boots were works of art, actually. Stationed permanently in Germany, (at least when he is not out and about doing seminars),  Beacom designed the choreography for the free skate of rising German pair stars Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot. With it, they won a bronze medal at the 2016 world championships in Boston.

Savchenko got hold of Beacom’s boots and – because she has a bling business – she decorated them with sparkly stones. “She puts Swarovski stones on gloves and tights and just about anything she can get her hands on,” Beacom said.

He admits, he’s not really a sparkly kind of guy. “But reluctantly I agreed to have her put those on and I guess it makes me feel very special,” he said.

Beacom sparkled, too, during his “I’m Your Man” seminar. He had retired that popular number after performing it about 500 times, but when Leonard Cohen died  on Nov. 7, he decided to bring it back in tribute to an artist he admired, the so-called Godfather of Gloom.

“It’s a wonderful piece of music,” Beacom said. “And Leonard Cohen in general is such a great musician, thinker, performer and I was saddened by his passing. I thought it would be nice to do a tribute.

“It’ was a signature piece of mine. I got a lot of attention from it and people loved that piece,” he said.

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Beacom, performing “I’m Your Man.” (Photos by Beverley Smith)

 

He’s performed it on an outdoor rink in beautiful Bled, Slovenia in early December and in Innsbruck Austria, too. And he’ll do it again in Tallinn, Estonia on Jan. 14. Before the world figure championship began, he performed it at the Scarborough Ice Galaxy in Toronto for Special Olympic skaters.

The steps in that piece are meant for entertainment rather than as a complex display of skills, Beacom admits. Yes, there are some straight lines and two-foot skating in it. That’s when he added a double Axel, to show off some skill. The emphasis, he said, in that piece is the way it has been choreographed musically. “I listen to the rhythm,” he said. “And I stay on the rhythm the whole time. I listen to the melodies. I try to hit the highlights. I feel  the character of the music. This is something that figure skaters can improve on: their musicality. And their component score.”

Since Beacom has moved to Europe, he has travelled the world to give seminars. He has no trouble filling up his dance card in Asia. He’s spent a lot of time in Japan, where he has been well received. He’s building his services in Europe. Next week, he’ll be in Turin, Italy, then Tallinn, Estonia and Helskinki, Finland.

He’s even given some lessons in Japanese. “I know all the body parts,” he said. “I know how to say up and down and right and left. I don’t have perfect grammar, but I’ve learned.”

He gives lessons in French, German and Italian, too.  He speaks many languages, some better than others. In Italy, he taught a 6-year-old girl who could speak no English at all. “Most of it is demonstrating,” he said. “I don’t need to speak a lot, but sometimes it comes in handy.”

He has more than half a century of experience as a figure skater. “It’s nice to be able to pass on what I’ve learned and developed over the years to the next generation of skaters,” he said.

There are many from other generations who remember the Beacom mystique and still applaud it. It was not for nothing that Beacom’s first job as a pro skater was on the Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean World Tour back in the 1980s.

From John Thomas, who was a Canadian medalist in ice dancing and a contemporary of Beacom: “You are a national treasure and a true inspiration,” he said on a Facebook post after Beacom won the World Figure championship.

“You make me proud of my sport and proud to know you. Still, I think unless you have changed, you used to be a crazy driver. I will not drive with you. Other than that, they need to make a statue of you to honour you and your amazing talents.”

It’s Beacom in a nutshell.

 

A different kind of victory

TORONTO

The atmosphere at the rink at the World Figure Championships last week in Toronto was hushed, quiet, subdued. Heads tilted downwards, eyes on the tracings. People huddled in the cold in the spare stands.

But this event and this pursuit – tracing figures with precision and intent – have given life to Christian Hendricks, a lanky skater from Tacoma, Wash. Trumpets could have been blaring, albeit silently, in this special arena of black ice.

Six years ago, Hendricks was in hospital in a wheelchair, doctors having told him he would never walk again. Diagnosed with full-blown AIDS in 2009, Hendricks waited to die. And waited. “I wasn’t living,” he said. “I was a very unhappy, struggling person.”

That is, until former U.S. national competitor Shepherd Clark talked him into competing at the inaugural World Figure Championships last year in Lake Placid, N.Y.  Finally, after an eon of darkness, a flicker of light fell across his brow.

His doctors were dead set against Hendricks getting up out of that wheelchair and engaging in a sport. They didn’t think his body would hold up. Hendricks says he has three terminal diseases: diabetes (most recently diagnosed), pancreatitis (not fixable and painful) and AIDS, to the point that he has only about 12 per cent of his immune system left to sustain him. He takes more than 50 pills a day. A couple of years ago, he weighed only  114 pounds, his cheeks hollow, his six-foot frame gaunt.

But six weeks before the Lake Placid event, Hendricks began to practice. The energy came from somewhere. From spirit. From will. Everything that he had left.

Ironically, figures were never his thing. “I was horrible,” he said. “Absolutely horrible and I hated them. Hated them!”

Hendricks was definitely a free skater, one of the first to land a triple Axel in competition as a junior, at a time when few senior men were trying the jump. (Brian Orser landed his first triple Axel as a junior and was the second man to land one, after countryman Verne Taylor squeezed out the first one in 1978.) Hendricks competed at four U.S. championships, one of his coaches being Frank Carroll. And he was a popular show skater, performing back flips, strong and confident. He worked as a producer and choreographer. When he found out he was HIV-positive in 1993, his show career eventually stopped.

Now Hendricks finds figures absolutely fascinating. “If I had understood those things when I was younger, I might have been a little better at them,” he said. “I never really knew how my blades worked. I just knew that they skated. And it’s made me aware of how important your equipment is.”

Most importantly, Hendricks does not compete to win medals. Last year, with little time to prepare, he set out to do the best he could. He did win a bronze medal last week at the Toronto event – against only two other competitors. He was a distant third, after falling flat on his back during one of the figures, a forward change loop, one of his best figures. The fall took some of the wind from his spirit, too. His entire goal last week was to skate clean. “Heartbreaking,” he said. However, he looked better this time, somehow managing to pack enough pounds to weigh 130, despite every medical problem he is up against.

Still, the fall and the slips and the touching down of the free foot where it shouldn’t, didn’t matter as much as his quest and his purpose.

“I’m here to represent all the people that were ever told they can’t, because I was told that I can’t,” Hendricks said. “I refused to believe that.”

He worked as hard as he could this year. But all that work did take its toll. He ended up in hospital in August for 16 days, trying to modify treatments to get himself back together. Now doctors absolutely approve of his quest. “They back me up. They do whatever they can to help me,” he said. “It’s really wonderful. It’s turned my life around.”

He’s become an inspiration to others. His fans open up to him, because they know he understands the most difficult of difficulties. “I’ve had that kind of disappointing news,” he said. He listens to their stories.

Now Hendricks has a purpose. It’s remarkable that he’s on his feet at all. He’s become a role model. He takes it very seriously.  He feels a responsibility to help others gather their forces to live, to work, to try, to ignore negative thought. Astonishingly enough, he laced up a pair of boots with free skate blades to take part in Gary Beacom’s Master Blades seminar one night at the championship. He can’t remember the last time he put them on. He floated about the ice, trying as many Beacom-like movements as he could, taking the microphone at one point to offer advice, and offering encouragement to youngsters in the group. He had experience. He had knowledge to pass along, too.

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Most gratifying: Judge Trixi Schuba, a figures master who won the 1972 Olympics, singled out Hendricks, “kidnapped” him and asked him to sit at the judges’ table during the opening night gala at the Toronto Cricket Skating and Curling Club. He found the experience “enlightening.” And heart-warming.

Hendricks has inspired many people with his quest, and he’s been inspired by those who have stepped up to help him. Last year, he couldn’t pay the $500 entry fee to the first world championship, so World Figure Sport Society president Karen Courtland Kelly found him a sponsor to get to Lake Placid.

This year he’s had to rely on a foundation he’s set up to raise money through the sales of T-shirts and hoodies, and through a GoFundMe account.

His personal campaign is called the Infinite Love campaign, with the shirts emblazoned with the infinity sign. “”That’s how I feel about skating, how I feel about my friends and my fans,” he said. “I’m skating the infinity sign because I do have an infinite love for skating, and this really has made me happy again.” This campaign is not going to make him wealthy.

It was touch and go whether or not the GoFundMe campaign would generate enough money to get Hendricks to Toronto this year. People gave what they could: $30 here, $100 there. One anonymous donor gave him $2,400. Another, also anonymous, donated $4,000. And so he made it to Toronto. It took him three days from Washington State to get to Toronto, what with flight delays and cancelled flights. But to Toronto he came and he laced up his skates, happy, a spark in his faded blue eyes.

Hendricks didn’t have his own figure blades, which are flatter than free skate blades and which have fewer toe picks. There aren’t exactly a lot being manufactured these days, since compulsory figures were dropped from International Skating Union competitions 25 years ago. The World Figure Sport Society encourages people to use what they have, even free skate blades. But women’s competitor Tracey Robertson-Hanford, a Canadian novice champion and junior bronze medalist, while skating alongside Brian Orser and Elvis Stojko in Orillia, Ont., with coach Doug Leigh managed to find an Ottawa man who had bought up all the old figure blade stock and got herself a pair, started training in November and finished fourth in the women’s category. She found that the rocky nature of free-skate blades made the tracing of figures difficult.

Hendricks found another way. The mother of a friend who died of AIDS gave him the young man’s blades that he used to pass his eighth gold test. “She was just so proud that Rickie [Scarry] was a part of the world championship in any way, shape or form,” Hendricks said. “Everybody has gone beyond the call of duty for me.”

When Hendricks finishes using those blades, he plans to shower them with gold leaf, frame them in a shadow box and send them back to Scarry’s mother.

Hendricks has a different definition of winning, indeed.

Shepherd Clark: a jewel of a figure

Make way, all you Yuzuru Hanyus and Nathan Chens and Javier Fernandezes, and hey, even Evgeny Plushenkos. The real  hero of the World Figure Championships, held this week in Toronto, is Gillis Grafstrom.

Grafstrom, a poetic Swede who was a three-time Olympic champion (1920, 1924, and 1928), a painter, an etcher and by trader an architect, created the mind-numbing intricacies of the Swiss S (the bracket stop bracket- and it’s the “stop” part that is the killer) competed at the World Figure Championships this week.

grafstromGilles Grafstrom. Nuff said.

Gilles Grafstrom’s creations (He said he had designed about 50 figures at one time) have brought the sweat out on the brow of competitor Shepherd Clark, a former world junior silver medalist who competed 10 times at U.S. championships as a senior. Now 45, he’s testing his mettle on a side of the sport that disappeared 25 years ago. And that in his early days, he could have done without.

This week, competitors were required to trace that Swiss S, a special figure that had never been competed at a world championship. Control of the blade has never been so important.

At least, Clark competed at a time when figures were part of the game. Clark skated the next-to-last figure ever competed at a U.S. championship. Paul Wylie skated the last one. And the organizing masochists made it the hardest figure they could find: a left forward paragraph loop.

“It was the freakiest one,” Clark said. “It’s extremely difficult. It sounds like backward would be harder, but it’s easier to have flow on a backward edge, even though it’s difficult. When you go forward, you have to have nerves of steel to do it.”

Clark thought his figure was good, strong, decent. It wasn’t his best, he admits. But he was happy with it. And thought he’d never be doing these things again.

Clark stopped competing in 2003. Thirteen years ago. “I find it surreal that I’m here, competing in figures at a world championship for figures,” he said with a hearty laugh.

In the beginning, figures were not Clark’s friend. He was so bad at them when he was a young boy, that even at regional competitions, examiners would stop him in mid figure. They wouldn’t even look at his entire test. They’d stop it. No more, they said.

Please.

“It was the ultimate failure in figure skating,” Clark said.

So Clark began drawing his figures on a piece of paper. Remarkably, his hand made the same mistakes that his feet had made on the ice. But somehow, it all helped Clark figure it out. He moved from his hometown of Atlanta to Denver, Colo., to work with Don Laws, who had coached Scott Hamilton, and then eventually to Colorado Springs to work with Christa and Carlo Fassi. By this time, Clark was winning figures. He’d win short programs. He’d win free programs. His figures career had changed like night into day.

Obviously, Clark has changed his opinion of them. “I’ve always thought that figures should be included in the Olympics as a separate event,” he said. “It has a rich Olympic history. It’s the creating of art on the ice. It has several art genres all wrapped into one. I think you can make an argument that it is one of the hardest art forms in the world, if not the most difficult. It’s creating pictures with your whole body, balancing on a blade and as I like to say, dancing on a crystal in a jeweled sport.”

Grafstrom fits into all of this perfectly. In fact, Clark is a big fan of a man who died 78 years ago, when he was only 44. All you need to see is the photo of Grafstrom in a 1929 photo, seemingly skating into the clouds, a white fedora perched jauntily on his head, his free leg outstretched behind him, his arms just so. Picture Clark in a fedora. You can.

cci21122016Gilles Grafstrom, poetry in motion.

“Gilles  Grafstrom had a very interesting personal style,” said Clark, who has one, too. “The way he dressed. The way he moved on the ice. He didn’t do all those world championships, but would come into the Olympics every four years and dominate. He had an extraordinary talent for balancing like a cat.” (At the 1924 Olympics, Grafstrom traveled around the last three loops of his loop figure in a crack in the ice that was about an inch deep. No other skater could have accomplished it.)

Grafstrom once worked with Norwegian skating star Sonja Henie, who was powerfully good at figures, too. “She was an amazing athlete,” Clark said. “People sort of glossed over that. We never really knew. I never got to see Trixi Schuba’s figures. I remember Don Laws and Christa and Carlo Fassi talking to me about Trixi Schuba. And I hadn’t met her.”

heniegrafGilles Grafstrom with Sonja Henie

Clark finally met Schuba last year at the inaugural World Figure Championships last year in Lake Placid, N.Y. where she attended as a judge. And she’s here in Toronto, too, pouring over the tracings. “I was just amazed that I was meeting this sort of mystical person I had heard about,” Clark said. “I never saw her figures, but she had accomplished something that no one else in the world had accomplished.”

Clark refers to another of the judges, Tim Wood, as an American male version of Schuba. “His technique is really interesting,” said Clark, who worked with him on practice day. “It’s not what I learned. He’s showing this to all the skaters so it is not lost.

014Shepherd Clark and Tim Wood

“I like the fact that we’re doing figures for the first time in competition that haven’t been done in 100 years. So people are having to learn something that no one who is ever alive ever did in competition.”

And that Swiss S that Grafstrom has inflicted on this brave, new world? There are 24 turns to a Swiss S., Clark said. The ice gets pretty rough by the final swish of a Swiss S.

And all that talk of jewels and such? Well, Clark is a jeweler by trade, among a host of other pursuits. He creates paintings encrusted in jewels. The heels of his skating boots are bejeweled. An entrepreneur, he also has a soft spot for a cause, for charities, for people that need a hand up, for a sport that needs a hand up, too. He designs jewelry to help raise money.

025Clark’s sparkly heels

He’s currently working to put together a television series based out of Los Angeles. It has a jewel theme, of course.  It’s a story about an eccentric jeweler who shepherds people, generates money to do good in a challenging economy. It sounds like Clark, himself.

“It’s people who reflect light,” Clark said. “People are precious.”

Clark, a silver medalist at the first world championship last year, took another silver on Wednesday after producing a creative figure with infinite interwoven curves. In other words, the Olympic rings.

Janet Lynn and why she loves figures

Janet Lynn has that pixie smile still. You know it’s her, although she stepped out of sight for 25 years to raise a family after igniting the world with her free and joyful skating style during the 1970s.

She’s back as a judge at the second World Figure Championships from Dec. 19 to 23 at the North Toronto Memorial Arena in Toronto along with a host of other skating icons of the past.

janetlynnPhoto by Deborah Hickey

 

Strangely enough, figures were never Lynn’s best friend when she competed as an American teenager. “The narrative was that my figures weren’t very good,” she admitted candidly. “But I was competing against the very best school figures in the history of the world.”

Lynn was known more as a free skater who could weave a spell, even in defeat. She never won world or Olympic titles. Some compared her free skating to poetry. Toller Cranston once said that Lynn was the best female skater he had ever seen. “On the ice, she became ethereal, magical,” he said. She created mass press hysteria in Japan after the Sapporo Olympics in 1972, when she won the bronze medal behind Trixi Schuba of Austria and Karen Magnussen of Canada, who were much more adept at school figures.

When Lynn moved on to a professional career, Ice Follies paid her the unprecedented amount of $1,455,000 (U.S.), making her the highest paid female athlete in history.

But figures were the key to Lynn’s magic. They made her what she was. And next week, here she’ll be, shuffling about the ice, analyzing the tracings of some 16 “foundational figures,” and to spice things up, some special figures, like they did during the 1870s and even at the 1908 Olympic Games. And there will also be creative figures too. There will be no free skating at this event, only the quiet swish of blades on black ice.

The International Skating Union dropped compulsory figures from its competitions 25 years ago.  Today, there are few who know what a loop-change- loop is – the favourite figure of Schuba, the master.

“The entire underlying knowledge base has been very eroded,” said Karen Courtland Kelly, a former American Olympian based in Lake Placid, N.Y., who is the president and driving force behind the new World Figure Sport Society. The society conducts these world championships and also works to bring a more modern perspective to figures through seminars, workshops and exams. The society does not use the old words “compulsory” or “school” figures. It calls them “foundational figures.

The value of skating figures? Since they are skated equally on both feet, they create a symmetry in the body. Figures teach control of the blade and balance. “Skaters who grow up with current blades, with a very deep hollow and toe picks, they don’t necessarily become very strong in their feet and ankles,” Courtland Kelly says. “They become limited in technique. The foot doesn’t know how to move as much as it needs to manipulate those turns. That leads to more injuries.

“Toe picks aren’t the biggest problem, but being over-booted causes one’s muscle development and alignment to be affected. Figures help the whole skating body. But people can still practice their fundamental figures even with toe picks.” The society wants to look forward, not back.

The sport was built on turns. Some of them fly in the air and become jumps. Courtland Kelly calls them “flying figures” – which are not part of the world figure championships. The techniques learned in figures will also help other families of skating, such as hockey.

Courtland Kelly’s group has worked hard to address the ominous undercurrents and biases that existed around the old compulsory figures, left out of skating competitions because they were too boring, took up too much time, were not interesting to audiences or television, and were an easy mark for score manipulation, because tracings were never very visible to the eye of an audience.

The tracings have not been easily visible because ice has been artificially painted white since the 1949-1950 hockey season after an NHL board of governors vote. “With the TV and everything, people were having a harder time seeing the puck,” said Red Kelly, who played on eight Stanley Cup champion teams and who, at age 89, has just released his autobiography “The Red Kelly Story.”

“And so if they painted the ice white, the fans on TV could see it better and the fans in the building could see it better,” he said. “The puck travels at over 100 miles an hour and it’s pretty tough to see it, even today on the white ice, but it’s certainly better than on the old ice, which wasn’t so white.”

So the World Figure Championships will be skated on black ice.

Also to eliminate bias, judges at the Toronto event will be sequestered in a room while competitors are tracing figures. A referee will take note if anyone touches a foot down inappropriately, which results in a penalty. For each figure, competitors will be given completely different patches of ice, so judges will never get a sense of identities. There are eight skaters on the ice at a time, who all skate the same figure at the same time, creating a visually pleasing spectacle.

Last year, Lynn remembers waiting in a room with the other judges and hearing ovations from the rink. “I’m thinking to myself: ‘This was something that was said not to be interesting to the public,’” she said. Others from Lynn’s generation remember standing ovations for school figures in the past.

Lynn found the experience  “inspiring” last year. Learning the fundamentals of the sport is important for many reasons, she said. When she took up skating again about 10 years ago, “I could not believe how many muscles in the feet were developed by school figures,” she said. “And the muscular development goes all the way up the body.”

There is a specific muscle and neurological memory and building up of strength that cannot be done on the floor, she said.

Figures also taught her a language, a way to move and manoeuvre and bring finesse to it. “If you do a change of edge [from inside to outside], and you move from one circle to another, without moving your body, first of all, it’s beautiful. And second of all, people go: “How did you do that?”

“It’s a beauty that is in the world that has to be developed,” Lynn said.

Lynn had taken all eight figure tests by the time she was 11, and she also studied the Canadian and international systems, too. They were precise development systems that were “genius,” she said, as each skill is built on a previous skill.

“From all of that is where the joy of skating comes from, because it sets you free, because you have that kind of control,” she said.

All of the skaters who will compete – and the other renowned judges – are a part of “preserving something that literally is going to be lost if these people do not learn it and pass it on,” Lynn said.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ISV1Rgd1ofA

Janet Lynn’s long program from the 1971 world championship. She won the long program but finished

Fourth overall.