Firus, the man

Mississauga, Ont.

Liam Firus is that guy. The unselfish one. The one who gave up his berth on Canada’s world championship team last March in hopes of a better team result for all.

Firus earned a silver medal at the Canadian championships last year and the right, along with Patrick Chan, to represent Canada at the world championships in Boston. Who wouldn’t want to ride that wave?

Yes, Firus would definitely have loved to have done it. But he was thinking longer term. His motives, he said, were actually rather selfish. His ultimate dream is to make the 2018 Olympic team. Yet Canadian men had earned only two spots for the world championships last year, and Firus reasoned that if Canada could win three spots for this year’s pre-Olympic event, his country might have a better chance to get three spots for the Olympics. More chances for everybody, including himself.

He gave up the cookies for the full dinner at an upscale restaurant. He gave up his spot for someone else who might be more able to do the job last March. That’s when Nam Nguyen got the chance to go. Sadly, he didn’t earn an extra berth after all.

“I went to nationals and skated good,” Firus said. “I skated good all year. But I kind of didn’t feel like I was the one. I wasn’t quite ready for the world stage yet because I was still struggling with some of my jumps. I didn’t feel I was the most prepared.

“Yes, I did earn that spot, but I did make the decision to send someone who I felt had a better opportunity than me to get three spots for this year and three spots for the Olympics.”

And no, Skate Canada did not go to him and tell him he was off the worl team. Or try to talk him into it. Firus made the decision from his own heart and will.

It wasn’t an easy decision for sure. He gave up a lot. “It was very hard. And I felt very alone,” he said. “I was disappointed, even with myself. I was questioning what was going to happen to me.

“But at the end of the day, I knew it was the right decision for me.”

What has happened to Firus since is unquantifiable. It can’t be measured in dollar and cents, or ISU points and placements. Firus said he feels like a different person and a different skater today. He says he’s grown so much from this adversity of his own making.

Both he and coach Christy Krall agreed that Firus had to change things up to reach the holy grail. They could see their partnership just wasn’t working. Krall advised him to seek out a new coach. They were on the same page.

“It was what I needed when I went there,” Firus said. “And it’s what I need at this point in my career. “

After a month or so of reflection, Firus chose to work with pair coach Bruno Marcotte in Montreal, who had taken on men’s singles skater, Elladj Balde the previous year. Marcotte is sprouting a burgeoning singles club, himself. Firus now lives in Montreal with his brother, Shane, an ice dancer. It all works out very well. Never mind that the Canadian dollar goes further in Canada than it does in the Colorado, where he had been training.

“It’s been amazing,” Firus said. “Right away, we connected. He [Marcotte] is known for pairs but he’s fantastic in singles. He’s amazing with the mind game. That’s what I need. I need confidence in my skating. ”

Firus says it’s not so much what Marcotte says to him as his daily demeanour. The silver-haired coach is consistent in his attitudes. Firus knows what he’s going to get every day. “He’s very positive when working on the basics if something is not working,” Firus said. Krall was more analytic. Marcotte never says something has to be this way or that way. He asks Firus how he feels when he does something. And Firus skates by feeling. And they build on it.

Firus has come far since he moved to Montreal in the off-season. He seems more relaxed about things. He looks at himself as a whole skater now. He doesn’t obsess over small things. He’s happier with his skating. He’s not focused on the life or death or a quad or a triple Axel (his nemesis) or how many points he’ll score. He skates because he loves it. Sometimes the love drives one, and the rest falls into place.

“I want to skate great here for myself, and accomplish what I can do,” he said. “If I do my best, what else do you want? “

At the end of the day, he wants to look back and find a moment that he’ll always remember. We’ll see this week where that takes him on his journey.




What Yuzuru Hanyu said

Yuzuru Hanyu. Star of the show. Sometimes removed from the rest of the world by a language barrier.


At Skate Canada International this week, the Japanese media – who do understand him of course – liven up the place and fill it up too. There are at least 90 media accredited for this event, most of them Japanese. Out back, there are three enormous television trucks, all from Japan. The little one in back is for TSN/CTV, the host broadcaster.


On Thursday night after a men’s practice, the final one of the day, Hanyu held court in the mixed zone to a group of intrepid Japanese reporters. He spoke, of course, in Japanese. And this is what he said, through translation:


Asked about his stamina (especially in light of his performance at Autumn Classic in Montreal a few weeks ago), Hanyu said his issues weren’t so much about stamina, but that he just wasn’t really able to do the jumps accurately with the music. And in the weeks since, that is what he has paid most attention to.


Granted, he was really annoyed with himself for missing elements at Autumn Classic, but once that dust cleared, he promised himself that he will shed his skin. There is a Japanese expression about shedding one’s skin to renew oneself. We have it too. But Hanyu told himself that he would shed 20 to 30 skins. So far, he admits he has shed only one. In other words, there is room to shred further. (So look out, fellow men’s competitors.)


He also promised himself that he would practice to prevent making any sort of mistakes at all. He can’t promise that he wouldn’t. It would be chocolate ice cream if he could. But he’ll work towards it with a ferocity. Every time he practices, he searches for points to improve.


And what about the ground-breaking quad loop? Yes, it has a higher base value than the two different quads he’s done before, the toe loop and the Salchow. Every little bit helps, after all. But Hanyu just considers it one more quad to add to his arsenal. The key is not just adding a jump that is more difficult, but to add a variety of quads. The more quads you have, the less likely you will be subject to the penalty of repeating them, he said.


“All quads are difficult to me,” he said. “It’s just a different type of quad that I can add to my repertoire.”


Hanyu said he’s getting accustomed to the mental and physical energy required to do four quads in a long program. But for now, his focus is only on doing two quads in his short program today (Friday.) Then he’ll turn his attention to the quartet of quads.


Hanyu was smiling and engaging until he was asked the final question: “What do you think of Shoma Uno?” Of course, Uno won Skate America last week with a quad flip that is deemed more difficult than what Hanyu does. Hanyu has not performance a quad flip – yet.


Was Uno a new rival? Hanyu was asked. (From his own country, no less.)


Hanyu said, his face changing: “Uno is not my only rival. Obviously, if you talk about the flip, Boyang Jin does the quad Lutz. And he also does different quads and more quads. And if you talk about quads, you have to mention Nathan Chen [who does five in his free.]


“I don’t want to talk about who is my rival,” Hanyu said. “I am my only rival.”


The men’s short program is late on Friday night.









Patrick Chan’s happy accident



Three-time world champion Patrick Chan, beleaguered at the world championships in his comeback year last season – he was a fumbly fifth – has fallen quite happily into a good place.


He’s stepping into the Skate Canada International wars this week, with a plan to do THREE quads in the long program for the first time.


Last season, he started with one quad in the long and didn’t add another until the Canadian championships in January. He has never done three quads in the long.


He attempted only two at his first start of the year, Finlandia Trophy, but now he’s going for a new quad, the Salchow. He landed a lovely one in practice on Thursday. “I know a little more what to do to be successful,” Chan said at the Hershey Centre, where he skated 17 years ago as a juvenile. (He knows this ice better than anybody.) “It felt great on practice today.”


Chan’s quest to return to competitive status needed something. And he’s found it at the Canton club in Detroit, with ice dancing coach Marina Zoueva, Oleg Opstein and Johnny Johns and whoever else happens by to give him a timely tip. And that might be 17-year-old competitor Nathan Chan, who defeated Chan at Finlandia Trophy. Chen can humble Chan. Chan can humble Chen. Together, they are ferocious.


For Chan, it has been a happy accident that Chen came to Zoueva for choreography, and never left. “He’s smart,” Chan said. “He knows what he needs. He knows his weaknesses. “


Chan knows his weaknesses, too, that being that so many young men, Chen included, are ramping up the quads in their programs faster than moths to the light. And Chen, Chan admits, is “the epitome of what skating has become.”


The 25-year-old Chan – eight years Chen’s senior – could have become totally discombobulated at the sight of what such a youngster can do: quad Lutzes, quad flips, five quads in a long program. But Chan has chosen to use Chen as a motivating factor. And it has sped up his own progression in the quad department.


“I see it every day,” Chan said. “I see how technically stronger he is than I am. I’ve learned to accept it and just be amazed at the ability of these kids.”


It’s motivated him indeed to drop in this quad Salchow at the FIRST major competition of the season. Every morning he strolls into Canton and sees a quad Lutz. “God, are you kidding me?” Chan says under his breath. “I never thought this would be possible.

“But it also makes me go into the quad Salchow, thinking, okay, this is just another jump. Don’t make a big deal of it because he landed a quad Lutz, which is nearly impossible for me.”


Chen has made everything seem normal to Chan. “He just whips off these jumps and doesn’t think twice.” Chan did that when he was younger, too.


Now Chan has Zoueva as a musical/presentation backboard, and Epstein and Johns for the technical side. The feedback is good. Chan admits that bodies change over the years. And his quad toe today does not look like the quad toe he did in 2011, when he was 20 years old.


Chen has the nerve to help Chan when he is struggling with a quad. He’ll tell him he didn’t check enough, or he needed to be a little more patient. All of this helps Chan. “It’s amazing, because I don’t know if I would have done that when I was 17 to go out of my way to talk to a successful, much older skater,” Chan said.


As for Zoueva, she feels privileged to have Chan in her rink. She thinks of him as a Rembrandt painting, a work of art. “Ice is my home,” she said. “It’s my house. It’s like always there is a piece of art, his skating, in it.”


If Chan is a little bedeviled by his age, compared to Chen, Zoueva reasons with him, that he’s not old at all, that Zhao Hongbo was no spring chicken when he won Olympic gold (36), that George Foreman was 45 when he won the world heavyweight boxing championships, after having dropped out of the sport for 10 years.


“Age is no matter,” Zoueva told him. “You can be at the Olympics at 16, like Katya Gordeeva. It just matters what you feel and what you want.”


Chan, she said, just needs to believe that he can do it, that “he really can do anything.”


Yes, Chan said. Zoueva always knows the right thing to say.





Duhamel and Radford always learning

Petite, energy-bunny Meagan Duhamel is 30 years old now, a two-time world pair champion with her elegantly musical partner Eric Radford, now 31.

They are elder statesmen in the skating world. They’ve taken their lumps and bumps and they still keep coming, always giving their competitors something to worry about, as they did at the world championships last year in Boston, where they thought they might finish as low as fifth. But they came prepared and won, defeating Olympic champions from Russia. These Canadians are relentless. And remarkably, they are still learning.

They learned a lot at Finlandia Trophy, an excellent little Senior B international competition a few weeks ago, that they won. Still, in some ways, that win felt like a defeat. They made mistakes. They were floored by jetlag to Espoo, east of the Finnish capital Helsinki, to depths they hadn’t felt before. “There wasn’t a single night that I wasn’t able to sleep through the night,” Radford said. “It would always be like when it was time to go to the rink and skate, that I would feel like I just wanted to go to bed.”

And Radford had just acquired a new pair of skates before they ran off to Finland. And they were barely broken in when he got there.

“They were comfortable enough,” Radford said. “But there’s always these little things that take time to become completely natural, like the feeling of your edges on the ice and the stiffness of the boot around your foot.”

Duhamel and Radford showed off their new short program to Seal’s “Killer,” but Radford stumbled out of a triple Lutz and Duhamel fell on their new triple Axel.

Long program? Still a small flurry of big bobbles: this time, Duhamel stumbled out of the triple Lutz and then she fell on their quad Salchow, then got lost in the midst of three jump-toe loop combination. They just could not get centred. They tried to draw on all of their previous experiences, but they just didn’t feel 100 per cent. The way she explains it: “We didn’t have such a great experience and a great skate.”

It’s not as if it was their first competition of the season. They had made their debut at a small provincial competition in picturesque Quebec City and they sizzled.

Seconds after they finished their free skate at Finlandia, already Duhamel was chattering, discussing, trying to figure out where they had gone wrong.

“That’s where the most value comes out,” said Duhamel of their rocky ride in Finland. “It gave us a good guide of the things we need to focus on and the things we need to work on, that we wouldn’t have learned if we hadn’t had the experience we had.”

“We’ve always learned more from our difficult skates than the most spectacular ones,” Radford said. “We learned a lot in Finland. There was a big realization that being a world champion doesn’t ever make it any easier.”

So they changed things up when they got home. They restructured their short program. They have now made their new throw triple Axel the third element instead of the fourth, and by doing so, they’ve also cut down the preparation time going into the throw by three seconds. Naturally, the preparation is different going into that throw. “It really helped a lot,” Duhamel said. “I feel very positive with that throw going forward to [Skate Canada International in Mississauga] next week. I feel optimistic that we’re going to be able to do it.”

Duhamel noted that they already felt that the short program wasn’t going to stay the way it was, even before they left for Finland. “The throw Axel was just uncomfortable, coming in the program after the lift,” she said. “And we also had such a long, labored preparation for the throw.”

The changes alter “the whole energy of the program,” Duhamel said. “We’ve added a new exit to our lift. And everything is just more musical. It’s sharper. It’s stronger. The day we changed it, one of our coaches said: ‘There, now the program looks like a real program.’ It looks like it’s going to be really entertaining.”

So yes, they learned a lot from going to Finland. But they’ve never been averse to learning, even at their advanced ages [in the skating world.]

They haven’t worked on a throw quad Lutz since Skate Canada last year. They don’t feel they need another quad, that their quad Salchow is just enough. This athletic pair was quite disappointed that the International Skating Union does not allow quad throws in the short program. So they decided to amp up their point quotient by learning a throw triple Axel.

The throw triple Axel feels very light for them, whereas the quad Lutz that they tried to do last season became so heavy, psychologically. “It was like it determined if we felt successful day by day,” Radford said. “If we couldn’t do it, we’d go home feeling sad and upset. And the throw Axel is more like we treated the throw quad Salchow. Everything else is really good and we have this one new move and if it doesn’t work, we can always go back and do a throw triple Lutz.

“But it’s been working well, so we’ll put it in. It’s very light and I think that’s going to be a key to its success. We’ve done it [putting a difficult throw] one way with the Salchow, we’ve done it the hard way with the Lutz.” Imagine a throw triple Axel feeling “light.”

It’s not as if the throw triple Axel has never been done before. It has been. Americans Rena Inoue and John Baldwin became the first to land one at the 2006 U.S. championships, and they also landed it at the Turin Olympics a month later.

Germans Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy attempted them, one of them at the 2012 world championships, but Savchenko brushed the ice with her free foot. The throw triple Axel had cost them a chance to win a European championship, when a hard fall on the throw before the event caused them to withdraw.

However, Savchenko and her new partner Bruno Massot have taken up the chase, and landed one at Nebelhorn Trophy, which they won. Some judges deemed that Savchenko landed it on two feet, but it was the first time they offered it up at competition. Duhamel and Radford see the German pair – third at their first worlds last March – as their main competitors this season.

So yes, Duhamel and Radford have decided to do it in their short program this year. The challenge of it all? They had never done a throw Axel of any rotation before in their careers. Not even a throw double Axel.

The world champions had to go back to basics. In March, they learned a throw waltz jump. Then a throw single Axel. (And they had never even done that before.) “It was literally step by step,” Duhamel said.

The learning process involved at first, how to do a single throw waltz jump. How were they to hold each other? Where was Radford’s position while she was doing it? They had to address simple things, like a takeoff that is second nature on a Salchow or Lutz. “But for an Axel, it was really weird,” Duhamel said.

Astonishingly enough, it was the week before worlds in Boston that the two of them were fooling around the ice and though it would be fun to try a single. It felt good. A double felt good. “And we started thinking: ‘Okay, this could be possible.’”

“I do a quad and I do a triple Axel and the danger risk is the same in both,” Duhamel said. In the last two weeks of August, the jump had its ebbs and its flows, but evened out by the time they got to the national training camp in Mississauga in early September.

At Skate Canada, Duhamel and Radford will be up against a pair even older than they: Yuko Kavaguti, who is 34 and Alexander Smirnov, who is 31. The years of competing haven’t been kind to these Russians, who were fourth at the Olympics in 2010. Injuries have caught up with them. They missed part of last season when she ruptured her Achilles tendon while training off-ice. The previous year, they were forced to miss the Sochi Olympics when Smirnov ruptured ligaments in his knee in Oct. 2013.

In the past these Russians have landed throw quad Salchows, and they attempted a throw quad loop, but it was landed on two feet at a competition.

Looking for more oldsters? There’s Zhang Hao, listed at 32, although with the Chinese, you never know. He won an Olympic silver medal with Zhang Dan in 2006. Zhang competed with Pang Cheng up to last year, but for this season was paired up with former two-time world junior pairs champion Yu Xiaoyu, who had looked to have a wonderful future with her previous partner Jin Yang. Their programs have been choreographed by Canadians.

And oh yes, there is Vera Bazarova and her newish partner Andrei Deputat, who last July married Russian ice dancer Ekaterina Bobrova. They are trained by 1984 Olympic champion Oleg Vasiliev. They were ranked sixth in Russia before all the defections: Olympic champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov are expecting their first child, and Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov missed Finlandia because Stolbova is recovering from injuries inflicted by a skating boot. She is currently undergoing treatment in the United States before heading back to Russia. Last season, the pair missed a lot of time because Klimov had a serious shoulder injury.

Adam Rippon’s answer to the quad quandary

Nathan Chen is the current aspect of men’s skating these days that speaks to flying high and rotating like a tornado at every opportunity. Adam Rippon is another aspect, quite pleasing, actually, but more short of those point-grabbing quads.

Chen, only 17, with ballet in his background somewhere, attempted five quads at the Finlandia Trophy last weekend – and defeated three-time world champion Patrick Chan, who lists two. Mind you, Chen really landed only one cleanly, the rest resulting in falls or turns. But whether he succeeded or not, Chen gave a hint at where men’s skating is going these days. Last season, Boyang Jin of China attempted four in his free skates and that was enough to land this teenager a world bronze medal. Chen just one-upped him a week ago, now the first man to list five.

Rippon, the reigning U.S. champion, feels he can be competitive with a couple of quads. He’s just not quite ready to unleash all of them yet, on the dawn of the first Grand Prix of the season, Skate America in Chicago.

After a magical performance at the world championships in Boston last March – in which Rippon finished fourth in the free skate with an underrotated quad Lutz and a confident, relaxed, unrushed demeanor, Rippon figured out an ambitious plan for this season. The plan was not to sit on his laurels, but to grow and improve: add more difficulty to the second half of his free skate, hopefully include two quads in the free skate, and push the envelope with his musical choices and routines.

Rippon spent the summer trying to clean up the landing of his quad Lutz, and to introduce the quad toe or the quad Salchow to his repertoire. He’s been pushing either two quad Lutzes, or one quad Lutz and one quad toe, but the quad toe is his main focus. It’s the quad, he says he really wants to try at Skate America. He is reluctant to do a quad in competition if it isn’t consistent in practice. He needs to feel it’s 100 per cent ready. After Skate America, he may look at adding a quad Lutz back in.

Difficulty in the second half? Two triple Axels and a couple of combination jumps. He’s aware of the flying quads this season: Shoma Uno of Japan, who is in the Skate America field, is attempting quad flips now, too. And Jin is competing in Chicago, too. “If you look around and you see what the others are doing, you like, poop your pants,” Rippon said.

But he’s going to be 27 in a few weeks, he’s been relatively injury free and he doesn’t think it realistic for someone like him to jump up and do four quads in the next competition, “That’s just not where I am,” Rippon said. “If you can’t do four quads, then you need to do the rest of the elements as well as you can. You need to do the spins as well as you can.”

He knows what he’s up against, but how does he get his mind around it and compete against the onslaught of quads? He knows what everyone else is doing, and yet, he’s not looking around too much. He can only focus on himself. “And at the end of the day, if I do everything that I’ve planned to do as well as I can, I’m not going to come away from an event disappointed,” he said.

His musical choices are most fascinating. For years a classical music skater, Rippon skipped ahead a few centuries and skated to Queen and the Beatles last season, using music that is both highly recognizable and crowd friendly. His choices this year are different.

Rippon told coach Rafael Arutunian what sort of music he wanted to use. Arutunian shrugged and said: “Okay, let’s just see how it works out.”

The short program seems to have worked out fine. Rippon has picked out an electro-pop number: “Let Me Think About It,” by Ida Corr vs Fedde Le Brand. Think purple fringe, pulsing beats, sensual dance moves, night clubs.

“I’ve always done something a little faster, more dramatic [for the short program], and I just went right up to club music with my short program this year,” Rippon said. “Every time I do it at home, I want to dance to it. I’m so grateful that I have set choreography to it. Otherwise, I might do some embarrassing dance steps to it, but it’s great music. It’s amazing. I love to look over when I’m in the middle of a program and Rafael is dancing and not paying attention to what I’m doing.”

The free program has been another story. Rippon had been skating to an introspective, quiet piece called “Bloodstream” by Stateless. (Vocals: “I think I might have inhaled you/I can feel you behind my eyes/ You’ve gotten into my bloodstream/I can feel you floating in me.”)  Rippon loved the routine. But he began to get feedback suggesting the music wasn’t building or carrying him enough. After a decent performance on his first outing at Japan Open  – he was fifth of six men – Rippon felt the music wasn’t giving him what he needed.

Before he had even left Japan, Rippon called friend Benji Schwimmer, who won the second season of the Fox television series: “So You Think You Can Dance,” and asked him to help. Rippon landed in California, dropped his luggage at home, ignored all the jet lag, and immediately headed for Schwimmer’s studio to choreograph a new free. Rippon took note of Schwimmer’s movements on the floor, then he tried to translate it onto the ice. It took him three or four run-throughs to “solidify” his steps. The order of the elements was the same as the previous free skate. The transitions were different. Rippon has done many run-throughs since.

“I think Benji and I are kindred spirits,” Rippon said. “We get along incredibly well. We kind of have the same mentality when it comes to different pieces and different emotions that we feel when we hear different pieces of music.”

The new free skate had been primarily a piece called simply “O” by Coldplay – a piece Rippon wanted to save for Olympic season. “I really fell in love with it,” he said. “And I thought, you know what? You never know what is going to happen, and if you have a good idea, you have to use it. Because if you use your good idea, it might make room in your brain for an even better idea.”

Fascinating thought. It’s why I like listening to Rippon.

The free is made up of two pieces of music, including “Arrival of the Birds” by Exodus and the Coldplay piece. Rippon had been doing it as an exhibition all summer, on the Stars On Ice tour, on a Japan tour. He even skated to it at exhibitions after the world championship in Boston.

“I just had more time with the Bird,” Rippon said. “The music carries and builds a little more.”

Rippon has played around with The Bird so much, it’s inside him. Watch below, a video he did in which he explores the movement of a bird with a broken wing, trying to return to the flock. It has been distilled for his exhibition and at Skate America, we will see further what he has done to it.

The men’s short program begins on Saturday (Oct.22), the free on Sunday (Oct. 23). Rippon is in tough competition, indeed, but he’ll find out where the Bird and the O will take him. His list of goodies stood up well in Boston. He’s facing the same quandaries as Patrick Chan, who competes the following week at Skate Canada.



Hanyu’s Fall Classic (or Classic Fall)


Funny how this works. Yuzuru Hanyu is considered the hot toddy of men’s figure skating. The amazingly talented champ who buzzes out quads like nobody’s business – and with ease. The Sensei of ice chips.

Yet Hanyu feels the pressure of the young guns, panting on his heels, trying to match him at his own game. There’s that kid, Nathan Chen from the United States who did four quads in his free at U.S. nationals last year. That Shoma Uno kid from Japan who is landing quad flips and who just used one to win the Japan Open over reigning world champ Javi Fernandez of Spain. That Boyang Jin kid from China who regularly does four quads in his free, one of them being the unfathomable quad Lutz. And he pledges to work on his artistry too.

Hanyu knows he has to stay ahead. Or at least work things so that he doesn’t have to play catch up. So therefore he introduced the quad loop at Autumn Classic, his season opener where he became the first man to land one in competition.

Yes, he landed one in the short program. And he landed one in the free skate at Autumn Classic. And he won the men’s event at Autumn Classic. But boy is that ambitious plan of his giving him a rough ride at this point.

Hanyu finished the free with 172.27 points, more than 47 points lower than his world record of 219.48. His total score of 260.57 is almost 70 points behind his world record total of 330.43. Why, he’s almost an entire short program behind his record!

In the men’s free on Saturday, Hanyu landed that quad loop, then a quad Salchow, delivered a high quality combination spin, then some level-four footwork that sizzled. Then things began to go awry.

His triple flip didn’t quite sing. Instead of a quad Salchow-triple toe loop, he did a double Salchow-double toe loop. The big crowd at Sportsplex gasped in disbelief.

Then he underrotated a quad toe loop and fell.

A triple Axel – triple toe loop turned into a triple-double. Not horrible.

But his big point getter, the triple Axel – single loop – triple Salchow turned into a triple, single, single loop. Oops. Points ran down the rain barrel.

Then he fell on a triple Lutz, not his favourite jump, mind.

And then to add thistles to thorns, on the way to the mixed zone, Hanyu slipped on the floor and did a pratfall. Hanyu’s skate guards were plastic and didn’t grip the footing. “So he just bit it,” Orser said. Ice wasn’t the only surface he was falling on. Unfortunately, he did it in front of the Fifth Estate. (We ink-stained wretches).

It wasn’t even his last glissade, cropper, header, or sprawl of the day. After the podium ceremony, Hanyu tried to dazzle by doing a jump with the flowers in his hand. Oops again. He fell flat and hard, but popped up quickly enough, laughing. He played the ham. What else can you do?

Yes, Hanyu was nervous before he skated. Coach Brian Orser says that’s normal.

His warmup hadn’t been great either, although Orser said that didn’t bother him a lot, either.

“But it was just sloppy,” he said. “I thought we were off to a good start with the quad loop.” Turned out the new jump was his best jump.

“My only concern or advice is we can’t get caught up with what the others are doing,” Orser said. “And that’s not where we always win anyway. We won on the other marks. That’s what we need to train and focus on. That’s what Javi [Fernandez] is doing. Javi has no intention of upping the ante.”

Doing a program with four quads always begs the question about what happens to the choreography of the rest of the routine, and all the lovely things you are supposed to do in between. In practice early Saturday, Hanyu seemed to answer that question: he hadn’t forgotten at all. He included steps and performance bits that sang. But when it came time to compete, that focus melted away. His in-betweenies were much more lackluster during his competition skate.

“He was so focused on the quad loop,” Orser said. “What we are discovering on a technical level is that the rhythm and tempo of the loop are totally different from the Salchow. We’ve talked about it. You do the loop and then you have your body wrapped around the Salchow feeling and tempo – and shift gears to execute it.

Yes, Hanyu was tired at the end. “We didn’t get a whole lot of long programs done,” Orser said.

His training has been rather sporadic because of injuries, Orser said. He was off the ice for six weeks after the world championships in March with an injury to a ligament that ran across the top of his left foot. The injury actually started at Skate Canada last year (when he had another tough day.) Of those six weeks, he was off the foot for three weeks.

Then, two weeks ago, Hanyu sprained his right ankle. “It’s just been this or that,” Orser said.

And Hanyu is so sure of what he wants that he leads the way in what he wants to do. Orser had no inkling of the costumes that Hanyu wore this week – until he saw them on the ice.

But all is not lost, Orser said. If the quad loop is the plan for the world championships in March, then they have to start now, and not January. A new difficult jump in a routine often sends the others into disarray. It takes time to sort it all out. “You have to build, which he is very capable of doing,” Orser said.

“Maybe a lot of people think he’s bitten off more than he can chew but know that when he gets better trained, and trains a little more consistently then things will kind of come together.”

Sometimes when Hanyu was skated below average, he “really digs deep,” Orser said. He was dismal at Skate Canada and lost to Patrick Chan. But by the NHK Trophy, Hanyu set world records. And then he broke them two weeks later in the Grand Prix Final. Once he finished fourth at NHK Trophy, barely squeaked into the Grand Prix Final, where he skated “lights out,” in the final.

He’s a patient man, is Orser. Sometimes he needs to be.

Attitude at Autumn Classic


Canadian champion Alaine Chartrand wanted to be fierce this season. And on Saturday at the Autumn Classic, wearing a dress inspired by Joannie Rochette – who more fierce than she? – Chartrand won the free skate with moxie, upending Mirai Nagasu , who in 2010, had been fourth at the Olympics.

Chartrand took to the ice dressed in teal, because it reminded her of what Rochette wore during her emotional free skate at the Vancouver Olympics, when she took the bronze medal. For her entire career, Chartrand’s grandmother had sewn Alaine’s skating garments, except for two. This precious one, the colour of the deepest ocean green, had some extra help from another designer who tended to its structural complexities.

But on the way to Montreal, Chartrand’s mother stitched on the gems. Her grandmother sewed on the shiny braid. This costume was done the day before Chartrand came to Montreal for the Autumn Classic, her season’s debut.

With this battle dress newly minted, Chartrand skated the way she had always dreamed. She had waited since March, when her world championship had not gone well, to put the memory behind her. The words spilled forth like never before.

She had been only sixth in the short program on Thursday after she fell on her triple Lutz combo, and was forced to stick a triple toe loop at the end of a triple loop, not a combination she had actually practiced much.

“I think I handled my adrenalin a little bit better today,” Chartrand said of her triumphant free skate, which earned a score of 129.50, second highest long program score by a women so far this season.

In the free, Chartrand powered through a triple Lutz – triple toe loop (oh my, it was high), a triple Salchow, a triple flip (although done with a bit of a wrong edge), a double Axel – single loop –triple Salchow (underrotated), a second triple Lutz, a triple loop and a double Axel – double loop. She earned level fours for all elements. And the judges showered her with bonus marks of +2 and +3 for her step sequence.

Chartrand finished second to Nagasu, who won on the strength of the huge lead she had built up in the short program. Nagasu earned a total of 189.11, while Chartrand finished with 186.11. Elizabet Tursynbaeva of Kazakhstan was third.

“The short was my first out,” Chartrand said. “I went for it, but it was a little bit wild. And today, I kept better control. I took it one[element] at a time.”

The national championship that she was last January was such a huge breakthrough for Chartrand, who had always been on the outside peeking in, almost there, but not quite. Most importantly she proved to herself that she could put two really good programs together. She still doesn’t think of herself as Canadian champion. Every once in a while, she still has to pinch herself. “Every time someone says ‘Canadian champion,’ I’m like: ‘Oh yeah, that happened. That wasn’t just one of those really good dreams. That’s what it felt like when it happened.”

Chartrand skated to music dreamed up by choreographer David Wilson to make her feel fierce. And he settled on a soundtrack from the HBO television series “Rome.” The music has an exotic feel, with a little Egyptian touch. Chartrand has never skated to anything like it.

She loves this routine. “It’s very fierce and it has the right energy to it that I want to feel going into my jumps, that makes me want to go for it. It’s powerful. “

The past few seasons, she’s skated to movie soundtracks such as “Dr. Zhivago” and “Gone with the Wind” that feature a sad story. “This year I wanted something that was powerful all the way through,” she said. “So that I could feel fierce going into my jumps.”

Despite the gung-ho spirit of this thing, Chartrand maintained her focus throughout. “Of course, landing my Lutz-toe at the beginning with a bang like that, and the crowd reaction gave me an adrenalin spike. And then I have to do an easy little triple Salchow after to keep my calm and get that done. I knew I had a long way to go, so I kept my momentum.

“I thought: ‘This is really going to be good,’ but this is not something you repeat to yourself in your head. That’s when you make a mistake.”

She did not focus on scores. “I just wanted to feel good when I got off the ice,” she said. Mission accomplished.

Nagasu did not skate the way she wanted to. She piled up a laundry list of underrotations on jumps, something she had been guilty of in the past. But she knows why and she knows now what to do about it.

“It wasn’t the perfect program, but it’s a step on the way up,” she said. She felt she rushed all of her elements. “I was just antsy to get it done, instead of letting things happen,” she said. “I tried to force things. I got things done but I didn’t get them done the way I wanted to. I want to get rid of those unders.

“And I know I can do it really clearly, as I did yesterday. I think I will go home and work on my breathing.”

A couple of seasons ago, Nagasu said she “fell into a wall” and seriously injured her knee. The accident caused her to sit out a season. “I felt really left out,” she said.

The next season, she tried hard to make it back onto the scene. “I’ve always wanted to compete better,” she said. “I think I always trained really hard, but maybe not as smart as I do now I definitely wasn’t as strong a competitor.”

It was easy when she was 13, she said. She didn’t really think about anything. It didn’t mean as much to her then as it does now.

“I think [coach Tom Zakrajsek] has helped me to be a stronger competitor,” she said. “We’ve trained more smartly and more efficiently.”

Drama at Autumn Classic

Non-stop action at the Autumn Classic. The place was almost packed. A kindly crowd noisy and appreciative of what they see, no matter the country of birth.

A night of short programs, to get the first taste. Yes, Yuzuru Hanyu was the star but Mirai Nagasu was the revelation.

(Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, 2010 Olympic champions competing for the first time since the Sochi Games – easily won the short dance on Thursday night with a score of 77.72, easily besting their previous high of 77.17, which had stood as the fourth highest score of all time. But they are another story.)

Hanyu was less than magnificent first time out this season, but he still won the short, skating to Prince in a costume that even coach Brian Orser hadn’t seen before .(“This is the first I’ve seen of it, when he came out of the rest room,” Orser said. “Oh, white.”) The 2014 Olympic champion earned 88.30 points, a far cry from his world record of 110.95. Twenty-two points lower in fact.

Still, he became the first man to land a quadruple loop in competition, although it wasn’t as pretty as the one he did in warmup. American Alexei Krasnozhon attempted a very good one at a Junior Grand Prix in Ljubljana, Slovenia recently, but stepped out of it and got some minus GOEs out of it.

Hanyu lost oodles of points with the single Salchow-triple toe loop combo which fizzled into 2.20 points. (As soon as he got off the ice, he told Orser that he’d stepped into a hole, perhaps even from one he created in warmup.) He lost levels on two spins. One judge gave him marks as low as 7.75 for skating skills, while the rest were in the 9.25 range. He received average marks in the eight range for transitions and performance.

Orser said he thought Hanyu was nervous. “We’ve been fussing around the last couple of weeks,” he said. “Little injuries and little things. And it’s September and it’s kind of where we are.” It’s six months to worlds.

“He kind of digs this program,” Orser said. “I think it bodes well for the future. I think it’s a good vehicle.”

Jeff Buttle chose the music, soon after Prince died, and the Prince music was everywhere. “We wanted to go that direction,” Orser said. “I think for this year too, it’s time for it.”

But, aside from Hanyu and all that he trails along with him (abandon all hope for those who want an interview, especially English-speaking media), Nagasu was humbly magnificent. She’s had a long journey of incidents and accidents to come to this point: winning the short program at the Autumn Classic in Pierrefonds Sportsplex with its icy aqua walls.

In this setting, she delivered the highest short program score of her career: 73.40, thereby defeating mosquito-sized Elizabet Tursynbaeva of Kazakhstan by almost 12 points. Na Hyun Kim of South Korea was third with a triple loop – triple loop combination, while Rika Hongo of Japan was fourth.

Nagasu was a wonder child, the second youngest ever senior U.S. champion at age 14 in 2008. And she was only 16 when she made the U.S team to the Vancouver Olympics, where she was fourth. At the world championship that followed, Nagasu won the short program with 70.40. But the results were scattered since.

After working with a laundry list of coaches, Nagasu moved to Tom Zakrajsek in Colorado Springs two years ago. She had been left off the Sochi Olympic team, even though she finished third and the U.S. had three spots. Ashley Wagner being named to go in her place because of a better international record.

Zakrajsek had tall orders for her when she showed up. “I’m only in this to make you a world and Olympic champion,” he told her. “That is her potential. I didn’t want to do it just to work with someone in the twilight of their career.”

On Friday night, Nagasu had Zakrajsek beaming. “It was fun to watch,” he said. “I was so at ease. I knew something like that could come out. I was at peace through the whole program.” When she finished, the crowd gave a standing ovation. Youngsters who had been holding banners spelling out “Canada” earlier, rose to their feet for Nagasu.

Her jumps unfolded easily, like roses blooming. Triple flip – triple toe loop, clean as you please with positive GOE. Her spins, as usual, were things of beauty. Perhaps one of the best spinners in the world.

She skated to Nocturne, and that was a triumph in itself. She didn’t want to skate to “Nocturne”, another Buttle creation, at least at first. (She practices her free to – appropriately enough – “The Winner Takes It All” more than her short. Azkrajsek has to nudge her into Nocturne the odd time.)

The tough part about Nocturne for Nagasu? “It makes me really nervous at the beginning.” She said. “Tom and I have really worked on the beginning, because it is so quiet.

“I can hear the audience. I can hear myself think. So we really work on quieting my own mind because I can’t control the audience. I think after the initial softness, the audience goes quiet too. I think it has the effect we are looking for.” Nagasu said the quiet nature of the piece scared her a little because she felt she had to grab someone’s attention to keep it. “Other people have skated to this, but I feel the weight of this,” she said.

Zakrajsec says the Nocturne sets up a scenario that he wants for Nagasu. “We want to be podium material in the big show,” he said. “We want the audience hushed and have their attention. “

He added that Buttle who choreographed Nagasu’s short program and David Wilson who did the long, have passed on all sorts of wisdom. He’s grateful. “They know the business,” he said. “They know the career. Aside from their artistic greatness, it’s the other stuff that they impart.” Stuff like perspective.

Zakrajsec said that Buttle attended the U.S. Champ’s Camp because he had choreographed for several skaters at it. “Then when we talked about Marai, I could just tell that he got her.”

Nagusu didn’t lose focus like she used to do because Zakrajsek has her do lots of repetition. It gives her confidence. “My main thing is I want to feel confident, knowing I can do this in any situation.”

And she’s becoming less worried about making mistakes, because skaters, she says, strive for perfection and too often when they make one mistake, they look at the entire program as a failure. She’s been working through those destructive mentalities.

She said she enjoys training alongside former national champion Max Aaron. She finds it motivating. “We push each other,” she said. “He works really hard. I think what I’ve learned from Max is that there are a lot of people who will tell you you can’t do something and Max always likes to prove them wrong.”

Zakrajsek said Nagasu’s reputation had preceeded her when she showed up on his doorstep, but when he looked more closely, he thought: “This girl has something that really hasn’t been tapped and I was interested in helping her find that herself.”

She’s very easy to coach, he said. “She’s just becoming herself and she’s finding herself. I’m just very grateful that she asked me to coach her. I feel very humbled.”

Yes, yes, he’s talking about Mirai Nagasu. He feels this will by Nagasu’s year. ‘I can just tell how grounded she is,” he said.

That’s our Ellen

It feels like a seismic shift, the death of Ellen Burka on Sept. 12.

Yes, she was 95 years old, so she left us eons of spirit, of blunt observations, of tough love, of excellence, of great parties.

But it’s a wonder that Miss Ellen lived to 95, especially when she faced death in concentration camps during World War II when she was so young. We could have lost her more than 60 years ago, and we would never have known her interpretative, artistic vision. We would never have seen Petra Burka, and Toller Cranston or Strawberry Ice. You shudder when you see how close she was to not living much past 25. So, we’ve had 70 years of this treat of nature.

For my obituary on her, written for my old alma mater, The Globe and Mail, and posted Sept. 24, click here:

I loved what Sandra Bezic once told me: that training with Mrs. Burka (as everyone called her) was “not for the faint of heart.” But as soon as people discovered a secret that she kept for years – that she was a Holocaust survivor and Jewish – they understood. To see the documentary, “Skate to Survive,” directed by Burka’s daughter, Astra, click on this link:

The documentary helped Burka come to terms with her past, but she was, in the beginning, a reluctant participant of the film. And even after it was finally released, she told me: “Sure, I was a Holocaust survivor, but who cares? Many others are, too.”

Still, the stories are compelling. Burka’s husband, Jan, who died in the south of France in 2009 at age 85 – he had a long life too, after surviving the same camp that his future wife did – testified for two hours about his experience in the Theresienstadt camp in his native Czechoslovakia. I stumbled on it only last week. And here it is:

Ellen Burka had to become frighteningly pragmatic. She watched her parents board a cattle car enroute to a death camp in 1943, her mother so upset that she disappeared into the darkness of the car, her father looking out, just staring, staring. Then she returned to her work in the field, in a peat bog. “You lived with it,” she said. “It was either your turn or not. It wasn’t my turn.” In those desperate times, you can’t destroy yourself with thoughts. But in the telling of it years later, you could almost see the inward take of her breath and how heavily it still rested upon her brow when the memories came back.

She told her young daughters, Petra and Astra, that her own parents had died in a car crash rather than reveal the horrifying truth.

Out of all these horrible ashes, rose Burka’s undeniable spirit. In Toronto, and working as a figure skating coach, she worked very long days, driving from rink to rink, even to Dundas, Ont., to coach a young Donald Knight (eventually the 1965 world bronze medalist) and then as daughter Petra showed promise, getting her into the Cricket Club (pencilling her in as an Anglican) by driving back and forth twice a day, to pick her up and take her back and forth to school. On trips abroad, Burka had to deal in cash. Women weren’t allowed credit cards in those days. One day, when she was a bit short, she and Petra dined on beans.

She is known for many things. The 1976 Olympic champion Dorothy Hamill used to show up at the Cricket Club to work under Burka. In her book, “On and Off The Ice,” Hamill wrote that “I was immediately drawn to this large, warm-hearted woman dressed in a gigantic red topcoat and woolen mittens. She had curly blonde hair and peered through her spectacles at us with an air of mild surprise.” Burka insisted that even Hamill start with stroking classes. Hamill flunked her first stroking test with Burka. Generally, Burka said, stroking is not taught correctly.

And when it came time for the 1976 Olympics, it was Burka that reset Hamill’s long program, found new music for a slow part and choreographed her short program, too. To this day, Hamill is known for her exquisite glide. And she was a performer, no doubt aided by Burka’s Wednesday night “Theatre on Ice” classes. Burka started them in 1973, staging two classes a week (one a seminar, one a workshop) for eight weeks.

Another benefactor of those Theatre on Ice classes was Tracey Wainman, who competed at the 1980  world championships in Dortmund when she was only 12, and who won her first Canadian senior title at age 13. Wainman was a tiny, charismatic sprite, a star from the start. She was only 10 when she participated in those classes. In other words, she learned that choreography wasn’t just about steps. It was all about what was inside a person and how the inside came outside.

“Mrs. Burka and I always had a great relationship,” Wainman said. “”She was somebody that really understood what I was going through at all times and could relate to it. And she always really brought out the best in me.”

Wainman has come full circle. She’s now a coach, and would for years always turn to Burka if she had a question. When Burka came to the York Region Skating Academy to look at some of Wainman’s students one time, Wainman felt it really special. Wainman considers herself a tough coach, too, passing on the Burka mystique.

If Burka had a claim to fame, it was in bringing Theatre on Ice to fruition via the flexible body and mind of Toller Cranston. She first met him when he was 13, she comforted him later when he bombed at the Canadian figure skating championships, and then he begged her to coach him. Burka wasted no time in telling him she didn’t like his music, that he needed to get fit and lose weight. (After his first run through at the club, he had steam coming off his hair, Burka said. She’d never seen that before.) And that he didn’t dress properly on the ice. “He was wearing a brown jumpsuit with a zipper from here to here and a belt, and everything was hanging out,” Burka said. “It was disgusting. He wasn’t a taste maven back then.”

Cranston took off his boots and left. “Okay, that was a short lesson,” Burka thought.

But two days later, he returned and said: “Mrs. Burka, I will do anything you tell me.”

Cranston was later to describe Burka as a woman with boundless energy, who got bored easily.

“In some strange way, we needed each other,” Cranston said once. They were “as inseparable as Tweededum and Tweedledee,” he said in one of his books. “Together we were a formidable pair which intimated and terrified most people. At least that’s what I hoped,” he wrote.

Burka remembers him as “a nice boy” while he skated with her. “He was totally dedicated to skating and painting,” she said after Cranston died at age 65 two years ago. “He had hardly any friends. He skated and he went to his studio and put on the music and painted.”

They had something in common: both were artists. Their conversations didn’t always revolve around skating. They could talk about music and art. They went to art galleries and museums together when they went to other countries. But when Cranston retired from skating and began to earn money in shows, he became more difficult, Burka said. He started to bleach his hair. “The first time I saw him, I burst out laughing,” said Burka, never one to shy away from honesty. “I said: ‘What the hell did you do with your hair?’ And he understood.” Cranston was loyal to her.

When he went broke, Burka helped him out. But he changed.

In the 10 years before Cranston died, they hardly spoke to each other. From time to time, Cranston alienated people close to him. Burka was just one of them. When he was in San Miguel, “he could behave sometimes very badly,” she said. “I don’t know what happened. I don’t know what made him alienate himself from all these people.”

The silence between them was a mystery to Burka and she felt badly about the ways he had adopted.   “But he always talked about me with glowing words, and he totally believed in me,” she said. “He never said one bad word about me. He was very thankful about the whole thing that I had done for him.”

On his first full morning with Burka at the Cricket Club, Cranston showed up at 7 a.m. for compulsory figure practice. He arrived with a huge portfolio of his work. She had no idea that he was an artist. He had no idea that she was, too. She was amazed at his work. And when Cranston told her that he had been thrown out by two landlords who didn’t want to smell turpentine anymore and had no place to go, Burka offered up a downstairs studio in her home for a week. He stayed seven years.

Only two years ago, Dutch television heard about Burka’s story, and invited her to come back to The Netherlands to do a documentary of her dramatic life. Millions watched it when it was released in January of 2015. While in The Netherlands, Burka stayed in a hotel that overlooked her old family home in Amsterdam.

Although she was such an icon in the skating world, Burka’s final word was always: “It’s just skating.”

“It’s not the oncology ward at Sick Kids,” said Karen Preston, who became an Olympian under Burka. “Yes, you want to be the best skater you can be, but at the end of the day, the skating fades, the triple flip goes away. It’s your life lessons that you are left with.

“That’s my Ellen,” she said.