Kaetlyn Osmond and the dark side of a swan.

No, Kaetlyn Osmond does not have an evil twin. But she can pretend.

And when she does, as she does in her free program to the movie “Black Swan,” this season, she is convincing and powerful, a potent force on the ice.

It does no good to watch her do this routine on Youtube. (But I’m including it for your viewing pleasure. Best I can do. Black magic is not my thing.) Seeing Osmond skate the program live is everything.

During practice at a secondary rink at the Pierrefonds ice complex in Montreal during Autumn Classic last week, Osmond swept powerfully around an end curve and hurtled diagonally across the ice, to a crescendo of music. And it was deadly emphatic. Don’t mess with this Kaetlyn Osmond. Better to duck into the opposite corner and holler: “Uncle.” She’ll take your breath away, truly.

For one thing, she is perhaps one of the fastest female skaters in the world. Actually, Canada has three of the fastest  female singles skaters in the world, when you add in Gabby Daleman, the world bronze medalist, and Alaine Chartrand. Osmond, of course, is the world silver medalist, who finished behind only Evgenia Medvedeva of Russia, who won another Challenger event last week, the Ondrej Nepela Trophy in Bratislava.

So wildly different are the routines of the world’s top two female skaters. Sorry to say, but Medvedeva’s new routines look like carbon copies of the ones from last year. It’s the fragile, big eye, dealing-with-death look.  The music titles might be different, the look is not. At the end of her short program, Medvedeva takes her last breath, apparently depicting a soul rising from the body to look back down on it, before death. (Oh my.) But resurrects herself for the long, skating to the lovely Joshua Bell, he of “The Red Violin” fame, playing on his own 1713 Huberman Stradivarius violin. And that violin of his can make you weep.

Osmond finished 15.28 points behind Medvedeva at the world championships in Helsinki last March and earned 218.13. On Saturday in Montreal, Osmond earned close to her personal best: 217.55, after doing seven triples in the free for the first time. All this in spite of the fact that she singled an Axel and took a  belly flop in front of the judges. “It was my favourite part of the program,” she said later, emerging with a big bandage and some ice on her left knee. “I didn’t get to show that much, but it also made me calm down. I might have been getting a little too excited. It was a skid stop. And I stopped.” And she landed a triple loop afterwards, and sailed on, in control.

Across the Atlantic, Medvedeva earned 226.72 points, although it’s folly to compare separate competitions. Medvedeva’s scores in Bratislava were all slightly higher than Osmond’s were in Montreal.

Medvedeva owns all the world records that are possible: short program (80.85), free skate (160.46) and combined score (241.31.) Some have already anointed her the Olympic champion next February.

Not so fast. Experience has shown that Olympics are a different animal. And so much can happen in a year. So much can happen in a day. Witness Yuzuru Hanyu electrifying the world in his short program in Montreal, then the next day, falling apart, finishing fifth in the free, and wistfully watching his gold medal go to training partner Javier Fernandez. Even Canadian upstart Keegan Messing defeated Hanyu in the free skate.

Osmond’s dramatic theme, as tragic as it can be if you think of the ballet “Swan Lake” or its wickedly dark offshoot movie “Black Swan,” released in 2010, goes a different direction, too. She’ll bring us the positive, hopeful lessons learned in “Black Swan.”

We won’t need to throw ourselves in the river in despair after watching it. But what a ride is “Black Swan” – the movie and Osmond’s free skate.

Osmond has always wanted to skate to “Swan Lake,” and never had the chance. “It’s one of my favourite pieces of music when I was younger,” she said. “But when the movie “Black Swan” came out, I liked the darker side of it. I was much more dramatic. That’s what I find I can speak to more on the ice.”

She began to bring up “Black Swan” a few times in those early season meetings, but choreographer Jeff Buttle and coach Ravi Walia suggested “La Boheme” for last season. She tried to convince them otherwise. Walia and Buttle weren’t quite sure that Osmond was ready for “Black Swan.” So La Boheme it was, and it had the effect of softening up Osmond’s line. And it prepared her perfectly for this season.

This year, Buttle brought up “Black Swan” right away. “He asked me if I wanted to do “Black Swan” and I said: “Yes I do!” Osmond said.

Osmond’s big personality on the ice works the best when she plays strong characters. That’s why her Edith Piaf short program works so well. And the characters in “Black Swan” are definitely powerful. The movie gives a new twist to the ballet, depicting ballet dancers auditioning for the roles of the White Swan and the Black Swan in a New York production of “Swan Lake.”

“I love this because it is playing to two completely different characters in the same program,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of people do Swan Lake and a lot of people do Black swan. I try to bring both of them together. But I’m definitely more the Black.”

The movie turns into a battle royale between the white and black swans (dancers) and eventually it becomes clear they are really the same person. “The White Swan is innocent and wanting to be perfect, but almost getting in her head too much,” Osmond said. “She can’t deliver that perfection and the Black Swan being free and slightly evil, can.” Eventually, the heroine finds out they you have to be both to deliver the perfection. In the end, she does the absolute best performance she can do.

The program Osmond delivered was not all she could do. After all, it’s only September and the Autumn Classic is a handy Challenger event, good for priming. “I still am not actually trying everything in it yet,” she said. “I didn’t do a three-jump combination today. And I’m still doing level 3 layback [spin.] Just so that I’m pacing out the program and not putting it all in at once.”

So there’s more to come. She doesn’t throw her arms up in the air like Medvedeva does for more points. She didn’t move a triple Lutz to the second half of her short program because it just didn’t fit the music there and that would have affected component marks. The programs have been worked into an artistic whole with a sophisticated theme.

Her “Black Swan” is challenging and difficult and takes a lot of stamina. She’ll do four run-throughs in a session. The routine relies a lot on balletic line and “having those lines in a program makes it harder,” she said.

Her biggest challenge is to keep the characters alive, totally. If she doesn’t, the program goes from incredible to average. “I don’t want it to be average,” she said.

It’s not a stretch to think the world of the ballet dancer shown in “Black Swan” can mirror the world of a figure skater going for an Olympic medal. The “Black Swan movie is essentially what skating is,” Osmond said. “You’re trying to battle what you think is perfect and skate the way you want. “

At age 22, she has learned so much.



Daleman, pressing onwards to the free

Today, Gabby Daleman will find her rhythm.

It’s what she does in times of peril. The national championship proved to be one of those times, when she endured strep throat, that was replaced by pneumonia by the time she whizzed through her free skate to the rapturous “Rhapsody in Blue.” Even so, she took her second Canadian title from the splendid Kaetlyn Osmond. Always breezily positive, Daleman calls her respiratory ills just more cardio training.

The reigning world bronze medalist is a tad behind the eight ball in seventh place after an uncharacteristic fumble on her astonishing triple toe loop – triple toe loop combination, her big money move because of all the bonus marks she usually gets from it. As in perfect marks. This time, the extra 3.60 points she would have gained by doing it her usual manner would have given her 72.50 points, putting her in ….seventh place. But a closer seventh place.

Daleman did not let that miscue bother her the rest of the way behind the toughest women’s field ever assembled. Judges and technical officials loved her step sequence, giving it a level four, ladling out +2s and a few +3s. (Note: So impressive were the top eight skaters, they all earned level fours for all non-jump elements. Make a mistake at your peril.)

Before the Olympics, coach Lee Barkell said he doesn’t really think about the competition that Daleman is up against. There is no point at looking down when walking across a tightrope across a canyon. Daleman is aware of it, too. “The depth is incredible,” Barkell said. “On any given day, there could be five or six that could do well. That’s why we’ve got to make sure we stay focused and be in our own little bubble and at the end, just do our job. Whatever happens, happens.”

Barkell is a calm figure in the midst of a storm. He always has been. It’s the kind of guy he is. He’s the perfect coach for the bubbling Daleman, who brushes across a room like Hurricane Irma. They have developed a relationship that has been good for both. At the world championships last year, when Daleman finished third, she landed a triple Lutz in the long program, glanced over to the boards and saw both Brian Orser and Barkell, leaping up and down and applauding. It’s not unlike Brian Orser to skate the program himself on the apron, entertaining in itself, but it’s so unlike Barkell to do so.

“Finally!” Daleman thought, with Barkell in mind.

After last year’s national championships, Olympic bronze medalist and world champion Jeffrey Buttle – who also trained with Barkell – approached Daleman and said: “So what did you do to him [Barkell]? He never did any of that for me!”

“Sorry,” Daleman said.

“He never jumped up or did those nervous taps on the boards when I skated!” Buttle continued. “And now he’s doing all this.”

Barkell and Daleman constantly joke with each other. Over the past year, they have taken to playing Jenga when she is waiting to skate at a competition. It’s a testy little game, in which players build a tower, then try to take out blocks to place them on top without the tower falling. The player who causes the tower to fall loses.

The rule allows players to use only one hand to keep things steady. Daleman admits both she and Barkell sometimes use two. “When you have two very competitive people, it can end up very badly,” Daleman said. “You must like to lose.” But most of the time, Daleman wins.

Jenga has been a good strategy for keeping Daleman’s emotions in check. “It keeps the bad thoughts out, the extra little thoughts that you don’t need in your brain,” she said. Her job on the ice is to keep the tower intact.

And they joke. Sometimes, Daleman said, you get hungry at a competition. Orser or Barkell will say: “I could really go for a steak. Or a burger.”

“Really?” Daleman replies. “I have to go on the ice now and I’m thinking about a burger.”

Daleman is in her third season, training at the Toronto Cricket Skating and Curling Club with the formidable coaching team of Orser, Barkell and Tracy Wilson, who among other things, teaches skating skills. Couple that with progressively challenging choreography from Lori Nicholl, and Daleman is turning into a complete skater. She looked the part in her short program in Pyeongchang, skating powerfully to “Carmen” – music so often used by skaters, but this is Daleman’s “Carmen.”

Both Orser and Wilson work with skaters on the stroking, balance and edge skills. “Often coaches will send me their students and it’s like they think it’s a quick fix,” Wilson said. “You say one thing and they say: “Got it,” and I say: “Actually, you don’t have it, because it’s hours and hours or repetition and of doing it a certain way for it to become muscle memory.”

Daleman is a quick learner, but even two-time world champion Javier Fernandez and two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu would initially revert back to rudimentary skills while focusing on other things, like jumps and spins, under pressure.

“So when Gabby came, we said to her parents: ‘It’s going to take a year and a half. You’re going to see signs of it and then it is going to go.”

Now it’s just part of who she is. They saw quality skating skills last season and this year at the Canadian championships.

With Daleman and the rest of them, Wilson says it’s “really about patience and riding the blade. And not going after it too hard. You really have to have it under you. If you are trying to reach for it and go for it, that’s when you are working and you are not getting there. So what we try to do with these stroking classes, it just reinforces those things over and over again. And it becomes muscle memory.”

Wilson wants the skaters to tap into a feeling, not “a thinking.” Find the comfort place. “If they are feeling comfortable and balanced on the approach, they’ve got a really good chance of being successful in the jump,” she said. They work on awareness. And the idea that less is more. Fernandez has finally dialed in.

After Cup of China, Wilson flew to Spain and worked with Fernandez there. “He was working in this freezing cold rink on this hard crunchy ice on his own, and it was just really beautiful skating. “

She liked what she saw from Fernandez at the European championships, where he won his sixth title, because although he made a big mistake, he got right back into where he needed to be, not swayed by it. He was able to think on his feet and add a triple to another jump.

And this is what she tells Daleman: “It’s about being in it, not about being perfect. It’s being able to adapt.”

When you are in that zone where the moon and the stars align, you don’t put a foot wrong. “But the chances of this happening are not high, so you want to be prepared,” Wilson says. “You have to be in it. You have to be comfortable about being uncomfortable, and finding your way.”

Truth be told, Daleman is always finding her way in uncomfortable situations. She knows perfection does not exist. But that does not stop her.

“There are some countries that rather than try to peak every year for a world championship, peak for the Olympics,” Orser said. “They may lose a title in between, but it’s the Olympic year that is really important. We always see the greatest skating at the Olympics. That’s what we hope for. We hope we can get a medal by being better than everybody at their best. You don’t want to win a medal by default.”

All photos by Beverley Smith


Virtue and Moir: on top of the world

To describe the genius of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir is to require an armful of exclamation points.

As one fellow skater put it, they are “beyond.”

Way back in 2010, when Virtue and Moir won their first Olympic gold medal in Vancouver in their early twenties, the 1980 Olympic champion Robin Cousins was already comparing their magic to the legendary British team Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean. And they’ve only increased their power and speed and technique since.

Others could see it at the national training camp last September when their two current Olympic routines were in skeleton form. And the feeling was, that if you always thought Virtue and Moir were exceptional before, then you just had to lock eyes on this stuff: the Latin short dance, the fiery “Moulin Rouge.”

That’s the thing about Virtue and Moir. Excellent is not good enough. There is always better yet. There are nooks and crannies about music and performance and technique that must be explored. They revel in them.

Virtue and Moir brought their best “beyond” to the Pyeongchang Olympics, honed and upgraded to the point of another Olympic gold medal. They are now the most decorated Olympic figure skating champions in history. They have five medals, three of them gold, two of them silver.

The wondrous Gilles Grafstrom (one of my personal favourites) had four, three of them gold. Evgeny Plushenko has two golds and two silvers. The legendary Sonya Henie, dominant in her time, earned three gold. Irina Rodnina, the Russian who won 10 world pair titles, also had three gold. Patrick Chan is actually seventh on the list now, with one gold and two silvers.

In Canada, Virtue and Moir have won more medals at a Winter Olympics than anyone else, except for long track speed skater Cindy Klassen, who has six.

Virtue and Moir also destroyed the curse of the Canadian flagbearer: whoever waves the maple leaf in front of the entire team in an opening ceremonies tends to go down to unexpected defeat. There’s a history. But Virtue and Moir (barely) vanquished it. They won their gold medal by only .79 points.

The surprise is that that ice-dancing contest was so close between the Canadians and the French team, their exquisite training mates, Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, already two-time world champions before Virtue and Moir burst back onto the scene out of respite two years ago.

Virtue and Moir rumbled into prominence as soon as they returned, winning everything emphatically last season. The only close call came at the world championships last year in Helsinki, when they won the gold medal, but lost the free dance to the French.

They had sizzled to a win in the short dance, taking it by 5.54 points over the French, who had made mistakes. But the French won the free by 2.96 points. Virtue and Moir had a bobble on one element. Virtue and Moir won the gold medal by 2.59 points.

Virtue and Moir set a world record in the short program. The French set a world record in the free and in total points, then broke them several times this season.

Therefore, it was deemed that Virtue and Moir were at their greatest strength in short dance, while the French excelled in the free.

All during this past season, Virtue and Moir’s points were always slightly less than those of the French while competing at different events. Note: you can’t compare marks from different panels with different judges, but it can create a chatter. When they finally met head to head at the Grand Prix Final, it was a showdown and the French won it. Papadakis and Cizeron finally took the short dance by .54 points, the free dance by 1.76 points and the overall gold medal by 2.30 points. There were no bobbles by either.

So the tide was apparently set. Could the Canadians overcome this swell of the wave? But Virtue and Moir went home and recast their “Moulin Rouge” free dance.

“At all the Grand Prix competitions, I was like: ‘What’s missing?’” coach/choreographer Marie-France Dubreuil said. “And it just popped into my head that what was missing was the love story.

“I didn’t see enough of the love story [in their routine,],” she said. “The lyrics were beautiful but the introspection part was too long and then the love part was too short. And then she died.”

So Dubreuil kept the same piece of music, but choreographed other little pieces of music into it, an edit, just to bring in the feel of a love story.

“There were a lot of changes in a very short time [before nationals],” Dubreuil said.

Some figured that the French had the edge in Pyeongchang with their glorious , ethereal, floating choice of classical music, the “Moonlight Sonata” for their free dance. “Judges seem to prefer that this year,” said one judge. If really so, Virtue and Moir’s choice did not fit. It’s a painful, emotional tragedy in the Shakespearean way. They inserted the love story, but continued who they were, theatrical, shake-the-theatre-by-the-neck dramatic with modern movement.

They had chosen “Moulin Rouge” themselves, music that had meant much to them. They won the 2010 Olympic gold medal with the delicate tones of Gustav Mahler. At the 2014 Olympics, they skated to soft-kneed classical music, but it never fit them. There were grumblings about it all season. After losing the 2013 Grand Prix Final, they contemplated changing it, but thought it too late. This time, they realized the error of that plan. They had to choose, this time.

So they brought their best to Pyeongchang. That includes the following talents: beautiful carriage, lots of time in closed holds, which are more difficult than open holds; the ability to generate speed with their rhythmic knee action and deep edges – like Patrick Chan, they can get up to speed with a few strokes; their power which is not the same thing as mere speed; the constant changing of dance holds and a variety of them, all in ways such that you almost don’t see the changes; the seamlessness of their routines, with one element folding into the next; the closeness with which they skate to each other; the use of their entire bodies to express music; the ability to create shapes with their bodies, the size of their curves on footwork; the power in their lifts, which means Virtue needs lots of core strength, and strength in her hips and back; and their innovation. Every year they do different lifts that match the music. And they express music so well. Their routines are exceedingly complex, but they make them look easy. That may work against them.

Papadakis and Cizeron are highly skilled, at one with the music. When they skate, they breathe. When they breathe, they skate. They have won all their world titles and accolades by skating to music that shows off their long lines and floating movement. Virtue and Moir, on the other hand, can skate to ANYTHING. They take risks.

And don’t forget, said one former ISU dance official, most folk – including judges – have been mesmerized by Cizeron and his exquisite movement and touch on the ice. I am mesmerized by Cizeron. People are so enchanted by Cizeron, that they overlook Papadakis, who, the expert says, is not quite an equal match. Judges should be taking into account how evenly matched both members of the team are.

Be that as it may, the Pyeongchang Olympic event was a strangely judged animal, spitting out curious results. Although Papadakis and Cizeron did not skate their best in the short dance – it’s not easy to focus with a costume malfunction – their scores did not reflect their difficulties around a twizzle, when they got too close to each other, and Papadakis struggled to grab her skate and did an extra turn. The technical panel still awarded it a level four, and three of the judges, from Russia, Ukraine and France, even gave it the highest grade of execution, a +3.

Virtue and Moir skated full out and set a world record of 83.67 points, while the French ended up only 1.74 points behind with 81.93. Were the French marks too high? “I did have a similar thought to that,” Moir told a reporter. “Because it was tight and we felt like we kind of blew the roof off the arena. But that’s the scoring system.”

Here’s one puzzling results: Russian team Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Soloviev finished fourth in the free dance and fifth overall. Surprisingly. Add up all the scores, like the SkatingScores site does, and you see that in the free dance, judges from Russia, Poland and Turkey all placed them third. A U.S. judge placed them sixth. A Chinese judge had them seventh. The Canadian judge had them ninth. The Russian judge, an old-timer who has been around for years, Maria Abasova, drew onto both panels. So did the Canadian and American judges.

The French, Ukrainian and Italian judges did not make it onto the free dance panel. The short dance panel was not altogether friendly toward Virtue and Moir. The free dance panel? The French topped both the technical and component scores, by a fraction.

The rest was craziness. The Canadian and Japanese judges placed Canucks Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier fifth in the free dance (according to Skating Scores calculations), but the Slovakian and U.S. judges placed them tenth. All this while Tatiana Tarasova was saying on the Russian airwaves that she loved them and found them “like a drop of fresh blood.” Gilles and Poirier finished eighth overall, but at least they went home with Poirier saying: “This may be the most beautiful compliment I have ever received.”

Canada had three teams in the top eight, an enormous achievement. Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, after delivering an emotional “Je Suis Malade,” were awarded third place by the Canadian judge, but the U.S. judge had them tenth. And gave them a -2 for an element in the short, while every other judge on every element gave the Canadians GOE on the plus side. Overall, Weaver and Poje seemed undermarked and although they had been world silver and bronze medalists in previous years, they finished only seventh.

For now, none of this matters. That .79 made Virtue and Moir gold medalists. “You know what the beautiful part is?” Moir said in Pyeongchang. “We’re done. I don’t have to look at the breakdown anymore. It’s fantastic. I’ve never felt so free.”

“It’s everything we dreamed about,” Virtue said. And back home in Ilderton, Ont., a packed community centre rocked with the sound of people rising to their feet and cheering. The comeback had been worth it. Virtue and Moir weren’t coming back for silver this time. Only gold would do.

Said Nelson Mandela once: “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”








Patrick Chan, a farewell look

When I first met Patrick Chan, he was peering over the Hershey Centre rink boards from the ice with only his eyes in sight. He was 10 years old but looked eight, maybe less, at the Canadian national junior championships. As a juvenile, the category on the lowest rung, he took a bronze medal.

His gravelly voiced coach, Osborne Colson, introduced him, and confided: ‘I have this boy.

“You are going to be hearing about him in the future.” So I paid attention.

Back then, Colson knew. Long before anyone guessed that Chan would make an Olympic team, Colson said he intended to be by Chan’s side at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Sadly, he died in 2006 at age 90.

Colson groomed Chan for everything, even for a chance he might meet the Queen on his journey through the stars. We’re talking etiquette, taught by a coach who was a natty dresser. On the ice, Colson drilled edges and stroking and balance and turns into the youngster, 30 minutes a day, every day. It has made Chan the skater that he is.

And what is he? Chan is the current-day proprietor of the lost art of actual skating that Colson loved and taught, working with top-drawer folks such as choreographer Sarah Kawahara, Donald Jackson, Barbara Ann Scott in their professional incarnations. Too many skaters these days don’t know how to work the blade properly. Too many skate on the flats of their blades, not the edges, which allow great sweeping curves. Too many now focus on learning jumps, rather than on skating. And it’s impossible, as Chan says, to work in a lot of blade expertise, when you are tearing up and down the ice, doing quad after quad. Nathan Chen? Watch him. He goes up and down the ice. How else to accomplish six quads in a program?

But Chan, thanks to Colson, is a throwback to a different world. And he may be the best that ever was.

“I think that years from now, you’ll look back on his skating and his career, and he’ll be like a legend,” said coach Ravi Walia, who has been guiding Chan in his final run-up to the Pyeongchang Olympics. “He’ll be remembered for sure, like [Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir]. They will have a place in the history of the sport that is a very special place.”

Walia’s words have value because not only has he watched Chan over the years, but he also trained as a technical specialist. And he recalls being astonished when watching Chan for the first time as a 13-year-old with fancy feet. “I was blown away then,” Walia said. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Back then, I had never seen anything like that: this skater that could just fly across the ice, doing really difficult turns that you would think you would have to do a lot slower. And then it became the norm for him. Doing this complex type of movements with speed: no other skater does it like him.”

Ice dancers –they who must use edges and turns and Choctaws and all the rest – respect Chan in spades. They bow to him. “I’m lucky that Patrick can jump,” Moir said. “Because if he switched over, I’d be in trouble.”

“The quality of Patrick’s skating is something else,” Virtue said. “Everyone knows he’s a rare talent and the glide of the blade he has, the command of the ice, his speed and power is every skater’s dream. I think we would all love to skate like that and fly around the ice like he does so effortlessly. He’s a skater’s skater.”

Moir says he and Virtue will look back at their career’s end – coming soon – and they’ll look back fondly at having a front row seat to witness Chan’s skating prowess. “The way he can move across the ice is second to none – while doing difficult turns and gaining speed effortlessly is something I’ve never ever seen in another skater,” Moir said.

Judge Sally Rehorick says the beauty of his skating has brought her to tears, as she was dealt “the impossible task of finding mere numbers for his other-worldly skating.”

So what is this other-worldly skating? What are they talking about? “I think it’s the mix of power, but also he’s so strong and light at the same time,” Moir said. “He places his feet perfectly and it’s just driving every single edge. It’s such a joy to watch.”

One must see Chan skate live, he added. “If you see him on TV, you can’t feel your hair blow back when you are close to him on the ice, because he has so much speed and command. That’s what makes him Patrick Chan. We’ve been blessed to have that.”

Strangely enough, Andrew Poje says the same thing: It is more special to watch Chan in person than on television.

Perhaps this is why, at one time when Chan ruled the world (a three-time world champion from 2011 to 2013), despite a number of falls, fans coined the phrase “Chanflation.” It wasn’t complimentary. It suggested judges were giving Chan extra component marks to ensure that he won even with falls. Favouring him somehow. Even NBC commentator Johnny Weir surprisingly got into the act, charging Chanflation. But Chanflation didn’t exist. Chan’s skating skills truly were superior.


Jeffrey Buttle, who skated with Chan as a competitor, and worked with him as a choreographer, says: “People who talk about ‘Chanflation’ have probably never been competitive skaters. My legs hurt watching him sustain those ridiculous edges and turns. He is literally a master of skating.”

Walia says Chan’s basic skating was so far superior to his competitors, there should have been a gap between his marks and theirs. “And there should also have been a gap if he made a mistake. There should have been a gap [technically] for that if he made a mistake. He would lose credit for a mistake and mathematically, he did. But if he made a mistake, he still had his skills to fall back on.”

And as Chan took his final bow as a competitive skater on Feb. 16 (in an other-worldly time zone), the tributes began to ring in.

“Patrick skates like a musician who is part of the composition,” said renowned choreographer Sandra Bezic. “He doesn’t sell. He just is. So beautiful.”

“That was incredible, true, beautiful skating…Thank you for all you have given skating. Men’s figure skating is better because of you.” Grant Hochstein, U.S. men’s singles skater.

“Honestly, I can watch Patrick Chan do crossovers and I’d be happy.” Ashley Wagner, U.S. women’s skater, a world silver medalist.

“Perfect? No. Breathtaking? Absolutely! [Patrick Chan] your quality and presence are the perfect complement to your grace and power. Thank you for that free. Hallelujah.” Zach Donohue, U.S. ice dancer.

“Thank you [Patrick Chan], That is all.” Rod Garossino, former Canadian Olympic ice dancer.

“I don’t care who is crowned Olympic champion, no one – NO ONE – has the matchless artistry, finesse and grace of [Patrick Chan.]” Fan.

“Patrick is special,” said Poje. “Just knowing how difficult his movement is, and the way he does it with such ease and such grace is something that is very unique to him and that all skaters strive to have.”

Weaver says Chan makes everything look so easy, and that fools spectators into thinking his work is only easy. If anything, it is efficient. “He covers the ice unlike anybody else in the sport that I’ve seen,” she said. “I feel like there should be someone else on the ice with him at the same time, so you can compare. He’s the best of the best.”

She’s noticed one thing: while skating on the same ice at a Stars on Ice rehearsal, you must keep your eye on Chan. “Or you’ll get run over,” she said. “You think he’s at one end of the ice and you turn your head and he’s in front of your face in one second. He just flies with such an effortlessness that is so smart.”

His turns are so complex that Weaver says: “I couldn’t do that if I worked on it for 10 years.”

Poje says most skaters need crossovers to gain speed, but Chan can do the same thing with turns like a rocker or a counter.

“Or on one foot,” Weaver said. “On one foot, he can cover the ice with no loss of speed from end to end. I’ve seen him do it. He can teach the world a lesson when it comes to edge quality and complexity.”

Walia says Chan is a rare combination of great technique with artistry. “His basic skating quality is unmatched,” he said, speaking of the complex transitions done with speed and little effort.

Hanyu, on the other hand, has a different skating style. Walia doesn’t believe his skating skills are as strong as those of Chan, although the Japanese skater is an effortless jumper.

Chan’s transitions? “It’s a combination of different footwork and turns,” Walia said. “It’s not one turn. It’s the way maybe he does something with a lean, how he can take a basic movement and make it so difficult, do really difficult things with it, that no one else can do. It’s quite special.”

In spite of all this, Chan found he was unable to keep pace with the explosion of quads that have happened in the past three years. As Adam Rippon says, men’s skating has gone “out of control.” And Chan, with his skills have been caught in the middle of it. While in the past, he could rely on his presentation marks to give him an edge, he can no longer do so, because now a male skater can rack up so many points – through quads – on the technical side.

The judging system back in the 6.0 era was constructed to allow equal weight to technical and artistic prowess with two sets of marks. When the new judging system, the code of points, was instituted in the early 2000s, it was constructed in such a way to continue the equal weighting. But quads have changed everything.

When Evan Lysacek won the 2010 Olympics with no quads, his technical marks for the long program (84.57) almost mirrored his presentation or component marks (82.80). Even Evgeni Plushenko’s marks – with a rare quad toe loop – triple toe loop – followed a similar path: he earned 82.71 and 82.80. Chan’s presentation marks were slightly higher: (79.30 for technique and 82.00 for components.) Chan finished fourth in the free skate, a young kid at his first Olympics.

After those Olympics, Chan got busy with Christy Krall in Colorado Springs to learn quads – they were worth more the next season – and became a force, powerful enough to dominate and win three world titles in an era in which repeat champions were not the norm. Everybody else was playing catch-up.

By 2014, he was still in the mix with two quads, one in combination. At the Sochi Games, Hanyu won with two quads, none in combination, but two falls, earnings 89.66 technically and 90.98 on the presentation side. Chan had difficulties too, and lost the gold medal with mistakes and ended up second with 85.40 technically in the free program and 92.70 in components. Note: at the time, Chan had higher component marks than Hanyu.

But the story has become altogether different since Sochi. This week, Nathan Chen won the men’s free skate with a phenomenal, record-setting technical score of 127.64 and component score of 87.44, with five clean quads and an unprecedented sixth quad, a flawed quad flip (two hands down) that still earned him 10 technical points.

Hanyu wasn’t clean either, but still earned 109.55 points with three clean quads, 18.09 points less technically than Chen. Hanyu was able to win the gold medal because of the points he had earned in the short program, while Chen had to come from 17th place.

Boyang Jin with his onslaught of four quads, including a quad Lutz (Hanyu did versions of only two of the easiest quads, trying to be kind to his right ankle injury) and outfinished the Japanese skater technically by .09 points. In all, six skaters cleared more than 100 points technically in the free skate. And they finished in the top six positions.

Chan finished eighth in the free skate, with mistakes and only one quad, and thankfully in combination with a triple toe loop, and he tripled a second one. A triple Axel continued to give him grief, as usual. Chan was deemed to have the fourth best component marks of 91.86, behind Hanyu (winner of the gold medal),  Shoma Uno (silver medal) and Javier Fernandez (bronze).

But technically, Chan’s 81.56 points fell short of Chen’s spine-chilling mark by 46.08 points. And Chan fell 27.99 points technically behind Hanyu and 29.45 points behind Uno. He was also 19.96 points behind Fernandez, who does three quads in the free, and only two different ones.

Chan knew this going in. “The technical is totally overriding the components right now,” Walia said.

Walia, who has been known to do a quad toe loop – triple toe loop in his day, is not against the proliferation of quads. He doesn’t believe anyone should try to limit progress. “It’s very impressive what is happening out there with the multiple quad jumps in one program,” he said. “Some of these athletes are doing quadruples so effortlessly, it’s hard to believe. “

Still, Walia would prefer more of a balance between the technical and the presentation side. “That is why I really enjoy Patrick’s skating,” he said. “I’m saying that if someone can do all those quads, with the artistry, then I would love watching that. But I don’t see that yet.

“It’s great. It’s amazing. But it’s creating a lot of messy programs that I personally do not like watching.”

For this quadrennial, Chan has been caught in a system that does not reward his strengths. He knew he could not win. Partway through the system, he readjusted his goals to win his tenth Canadian men’s title, a record, and help his teammates win the team gold medal. He accomplished both those missions before he even started the individual event, which became his goodbye wave.

Before the season ended, he had already begun to look to his future in Vancouver, starting up a skating academy, getting his real estate licence, having a life that doesn’t involve the stresses of skating in front of judges. The world can only hope that he will start up that skating academy to pass along what Colson taught him so many years ago. It’s important to the future of skating.

And finally, from Hayley Wickenheiser, Canada’s iconic female Olympic champion hockey player: “Got a little teary, watching [Patrick Chan] skate his final Olympics.” Just like the rest of us.




Seguin and Bilodeau: not a medal but a win

Perhaps you could call the Olympic debut of Julianne Seguin and Charlie Bilodeau a happy ending to a pressure-packed road. Perhaps even more so a happy beginning.

The fetching young team finished eighth in the pair free skate this week in Pyeongchang, and ninth overall, under the watchful eye of veteran coach Josee Picard.

Picard had done it, yet again. It had all gone as planned. Maybe better than planned. Nine years ago, when Picard met a tiny Seguin, she planned to get to the 2018 Olympics with her. She knew back then. She could see it. And she knew just how to do it.

But the journey to Pyeongchang has been far from easy. And so much of it has rested heavily on Picard’s shoulders.

Picard was finally inducted into the Canadian figure skating hall of fame in January for a career full of achievements: coach of Olympic bronze medalists Isabelle Brasseur and Lloyd (Herbie) Eisler; coach of world ice dancing champions Shae-Lynn Bourne and Victor Kraatz in the early days – two different disciplines, mind. (Who does that?) Coach of singles skaters, too. Anybody realize she was an early coach of Bruno Marcotte, of Patrice Lauzon, and of Kaetlyn Osmond?

Seguin and Bilodeau gave Picard her sixth trip to the Olympics in 30 years. Shall we bow and scrape now?

Coaching high-level skaters brought with it stress and pressure. So in 2002, Picard stepped away from the sport. “I needed to get my life sorted out,” she said. “I needed to regroup and then decide if I was going to do it again.”

The answer, after a time, was yes. “I realized it was one of the things I really loved,” she said.

When she returned, the first group of little kids that she coached included Osmond, who won the national juvenile title under Picard.

While coaching for her entire lifetime in Montreal, Picard helped set up coaching seminars in Newfoundland and that’s where she found Osmond, a spicy 4-year-old. Picard’s practiced eye knew what she was beholding.

“I had picked her out of a Future Stars group,” Picard said. “I already knew she was something amazingly special. I told her, I told the parents.”

Then Osmond and her older sister moved into Picard’s house in Montreal for a time to take more lessons before the family moved to Alberta. Picard was asked if she would like to go to Edmonton too. Picard thought: “Not really.” But she guided Osmond to skate with Ravi Walia, a new coach. She thought he would be amazing. Right again.

Besides, Picard had no intentions of coaching top-rung skaters again. “It was very stressful toward the end,” she said. She wanted only to start with young kids, teaching them basic skills to better skills. After all, this is what she had done with Isabelle Brasseur, a tiny girl that Picard had taken under her wing when the future world champion was only seven years old. Picard paired her up with Pascal Courchesne and together, they won the Canadian junior title in 1985. Brasseur was teamed up with Eisler in 1987, and the next year, Picard had her first trip to the Olympics with them. They finished ninth. Twice more, Picard went to the Olympics with them and they finished third.

Brasseur and Eisler at the Lillehammer Olympics with Picard and Eric Gilles.

Picard had taken Brasseur all the way to the top.

And then along came Julianne Seguin, a tiny girl who skated with joy. With Seguin, Picard found the joy of teaching again. She was 11 when Picard first saw her, a girl with shining eyes and only an Axel and a double Salchow. Picard knew she had a lot of work to do. But what she saw in Seguin is what she saw in herself: a passion for skating and a love for it, too. This joy thing.

Picard decided that Seguin would become her final project. She would put the entire force of her knowledge and effort into taking her as far as she could go. Seguin had come from a small skating club in Montreal, and her coach – a part-timer who had a full-time job elsewhere – could see that this tiny girl wanted to skate pairs. So Picard opened a new club in Chambly, and now has lots of coaches working under her, developing the little ones. But Seguin is her full-time project that she started nine years ago.

Seguin was a singles skater, too. 

“And nine years ago, my dream was to go to the 2018 Olympics with this little girl,” she said.

There were tears in the kiss and cry at the Canadian championships in Vancouver when Seguin and Bilodeau won the silver medal and a berth to the Olympics. But it wasn’t all certain that it was going to happen.

Seguin and Bilodeau had a charmed career early, jumping from silver medal at the world junior championships in 2015 and a win at the Junior Grand Prix Final (they defeated a Russian team by 9.79 points), to a senior career the following season. Almost incredibly, at their first senior Grand Prix, Skate America, they finished third, then got another third at the Eric Bompard Trophy in France, which got them to the Grand Prix Final, where they finished fourth. First-year seniors just don’t do things like that.

Things went really fast. This season is only the fifth for Seguin and Bilodeau. “At the same time, because I had known how to do it before so many times, I knew the fast roads, the what-not-to-do and the what-to-do in the road,” Picard said. “I knew what it took to get there fast.”

Unfortunately over the past year and a half, Seguin and Bilodeau have run into snags. Seguin missed a world championship two years ago because of a foot injury. Last year, she suffered three concussions in a row, the first in December of 2016, the final one in July of 2017. And then Bilodeau underwent surgery to correct problems in a right knee last spring.

“It had been hurting him for a while,” Picard said. “Then when Julianne did her [second] concussion in April, we went down [to Toronto], to get choreography done at the beginning of May. Because it was hurting him a lot, we went to see Dr. [Bob] Brock.”

Dr. Brock advised Bilodeau to do the surgery then because by this year, it could flare up in mid-Olympic season. “And there is nothing we will be able to do about it then,” he said.

Segin and Bilodeau as junior skaters in Minsk.

So both skaters were out of action. Picard wept. Another obstacle. During this time, Seguin and Bilodeau missed the Canadian championships and the Four Continents, but it came at a time when Picard’s mother died. Because of the hiatus, she could tend to her mother. “Life arranged that it was done the perfect way,” she said.

They did get to worlds, although they were not really ready. Then more concussions came.

“Two years ago, they were on their way up really really fast and they thought it was a fairy tale,” Picard said. “But you know what? Life is not a fairy tale. And what happened to them in the last year and a half was very hard for them to understand, because they had never had a stop yet in the fast move up.

“To me, it’s all part of growing pains. I was hoping that it would happen soon, even though I know it’s going to be difficult, because I know it’s better to happen now, that they could be in for this Olympic cycle.”

“I was really discouraged sometimes,” Picard said. “But in 45 years of teaching and all those Olympics, this was the hardest year and a half. I have never worked so hard in my whole life.”

Picard is now 61, but the trials of the past year and a half have added 15 years to her, she joked. “But [after the pair final at Canadians], about 13 were taken off, so it’s not so bad.”

It felt like a dream, Picard said, when Seguin and Bilodeau finally nailed their programs at the Canadian championships. Laid them down. Got a standing ovation in front of a huge Canadian crowd. “It was like the dream that we had been working towards, and that I had seen in this little girl from the beginning,” Picard said.

What’s even more of a dream is to have made it to the Olympics with two of her former students, who are now major shakers in the coaching world: Bruno Marcotte, and Patrice Lauzon, who have guided world champions in pairs and ice dance. “I’m back there again with them,” she said. “And it’s amazing because it’s like a big family all over.”

There is plenty of upside to Seguin and Bilodeau. They are still young, she 21, he 24. Picard figures they have a couple of Olympic cycles left ahead of them.

And as for Picard? What about her? Does she have two Olympic cycles left?

Currently, she works with Seguin and Bilodeau from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day. Full time. Afterwards, they fan off to work with others, such as Marie-France Dubreuil and Patrice Lauzon.

“I’m going to take it as far as my health hopes I can take it,” Picard said. “As long as they enjoy it and providing there is no injury, I’ll see what I can do.”

She feels they have something special. They still need to improve a lot, she said. “But I think that for the little amount of time they have been together, compared to other teams [Aliona Savchenko and friends], I think we know what they need to improve.

“There is only so much I can do in a day.”

So far, it’s working.

Both of Picard’s students did a moustache thing in exhibitions








An emotional Olympic pair final

You can’t make this stuff up. No Hollywood writer could have conjured up such a load of emotion and tears and effort and heart as the Olympic pair final. It was epic.

Bruno Massot looked so apologetic after he had doubled a triple Salchow in the short program the previous night. He felt as if he had failed his partner, Aliona Savchenko, she who is 34, and who had already been to the Olympic well four previous times, with two bronze medals to show for her efforts. And those two bronze medals never lit her up. She stood stone-faced on the lowest podium at the Vancouver Olympics with her partner Robin Szolkowy. And then again in Sochi in 2014. All that work for bronze again.

When Szolkowy quit skating to become a coach for the Russian group of Nina Mozer, Savchenko wasn’t about to stop competing. Everybody thought she was crazy. They thought her equally silly when she found Bruno Massot, a gentle giant of a French skater that his federation reluctantly released to Germany after months of negotiations. It wasn’t at all certain this would happen. It is said they had to fork over 30,000 euros to make this transition happen, with the original asking price much higher.

Savchenko came to Pyeongchang with five world titles with her previous partner, eight world medals and those two Olympic bronze medals. No doubt Massot was under pressure. “I don’t want her to come back with another bronze medal,” Massot said. “She deserves gold.”

(Pressure? Massot didn’t get his German citizenship until just before Skate America in November. He breathed a sigh of relief, then had to focus on another big task.)

He thought he had ruined it with their fourth place after the short program, about 5 ½ points away from the lead. Massot found it tough to navigate this emotionally. Savchenko told him it wasn’t over.

They were sublime. They delivered. They didn’t put a foot wrong. Their triple twist soared to the rafters. Their throws were no less Olympic. They racked up nine marks of 10.00 for components. They maximized their grades of execution – almost all +2s and +3s. When they finished, they had set a world record of 159.31 points for a pair freeskate, and squeezed out a .43 lead over the exquisite Chinese world champions Wenjing Sui and Cong Han.

Around the world, astonished eyes were watching this miracle. “Aliona being an Olympic champion makes me want to flip a table and throw a chair across the room,” tweeted Adam Rippon. “LOVE HER. SHE’S GOT GRIT AND SHE IS A BEAST. My heart is so full.”

From home in Canada, Canadian skating icon, Ron Shaver, said it was “one of the most electrifying, inspiring and emotional things I have witnessed in history. She is a beast and he is a rock. Well done and it took five Olympics to accomplish. A lesson in belief, resilience and determination.”

It was also the toughest Olympic pair final in history. Going in, at least six couples could have won.

The Germans had worked on choreography with 1984 Olympic champion Christopher Dean, whose twitter account declared: “Love that the German pair worked with Chris and won the gold wearing purple on Bolero day! Congratulations, partner!”

It was the first Olympic title for a German pair in 66 years since Ria (Baran) and Paul Falk, a married couple won in 1952. The Falks, despite not having a coach, were never defeated during their amateur career. Still, they were the first to do double jumps and they invented the lasso lift. Paul Falk sadly didn’t live to see his successors win in such spectacular fashion. He died last May at age 95.

It was the most epic and talent-laden Olympic pairs event in history. And the Germans had won it, although because they had to skate first in their group, they had to sweat it out as three more heavyweights took to the ice. Massot reached for the tissues when the result became clear, (“I kept my emotions for the right moment,” he said later) as Russians Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov faltered in the free, despite a big quad twist, and dropped to fourth after leading the short program. And the world breathed a sigh of relief that a Candyman routine did not become the Olympic signpost. It was a program that just did not seem to fit the moment, or them. And then Tarasova doubled a Salchow and sprawled out of a throw triple Salchow early in the routine.

The Chinese bobbled, too, with Han singling a double toe loop in the midst of a three-jump combination and Sui stumbling out of a triple Salchow. Like the Russians, the Chinese let loose with a quad twist. Still, their “Turandot” routine was most luscious, pressing emotion to the bone. Their performance lifted anyone who watched. After the short program they had about a 5 ½-point lead over the Germans and Canadians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford. That helped them to a silver medal. Tears. Lots of tears, of course. Disappointment that they lost by less than half a point – the most cruel kind of loss? Or pride at the way they had skated?

The Chinese were lucky to be at the Pyeongchang Olympics. They finished second at the Grand Prix Final to the Germans after a rousing free skate, then skipped Four Continents and the Olympic team event to focus on the individual contest. But a few weeks ago, Sui suffered a horrible gash to her leg during a practice collision. The accident left the leg stiff and painful, something she described as a seven to eight out of 10 on a scale of agony. In a previous blog, we detailed her issues with her feet, something that could have halted their career several years ago. They had never competed at an Olympics. They missed qualifying for Sochi.

And then there was Duhamel and Radford, who had never won an Olympic medal, having finished seventh in Sochi. All week long, they had rumbled at the Gangneung arena, skating both programs for the team event – entirely crucial to Canada’s gold team medal – and then two more, all within a few days. Duhamel was a cheerleader for the rest of the world, springing out of her seat when Mirai Nagasu landed a triple Axel in the team event, a leader of the Canadian team, but a citizen and supporter of excellence and grit.

Duhamel and Radford were third in the short program, even after she dropped her phone in a non-flushing toilet, got caught in the high winds that descended on Pyeongchang and that fractured her costume hanger, and then in the confusion almost boarded the wrong bus to the skating venue. Massot saved her. At least with the last catastrophe.

But the long program was the clincher. “I’ll skate my heart out tomorrow for a chance to win an Olympic medal,” Duhamel tweeted. “This is for all the dreamers. Anything is possible. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

In the free, skating to Adele’s “Hometown Glory,” they laid it out so deftly, they actually finished second in the long program to the Germans. They landed a throw quad Salchow, a first in Olympic history. They drifted into it slowly and carefully, and for a few fleeting moments, it appeared as if it could not possibly happen. But Duhamel willed the landing and the Chinese judge gave them a +2 for it. The only other team to attempt a throw quad were the dynamic French Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres, but James staggered out of it (deemed rotated) and they finished fifth altogether.

Obviously, the technical prowess of Duhamel and Radford helped them in this contest as they dispatched a triple twist, a throw triple Lutz, (almost an entire rack of +2s for this) and high GOE for most of their other elements. She did put her hands down on a triple Lutz but rotated it. Their technical score of 79.86 was second highest of this august group, although their component marks were about fourth highest, a breath behind those of the animated Italians Valentina Marchei and Ondrej Hotarek, who finished sixth, at the top of their game all week.

No matter the marks, Duhamel sunk to her knees at program’s end and sobbed happy tears. Radford shook his head in disbelief. It was real. And over, their final competitive event. (No Milan worlds for them. No more throw quads, ever.)

They had to wait until Tarasova and Morozov skated. Had the Russians skated a blinder, Duhamel and Radford could have dropped to fourth. But they took bronze, their third Olympic medal. (They also won a team silver in Sochi.)

“It feels like gold,” Duhamel said. She hopped up and down on the third-level podium.

“I couldn’t have dreamed it that much better,” she told reporters afterward. “I mean, I could have dreamed it without my hands down on my triple Lutz. But we came to the Olympics and we just delivered four amazing performances. Four out of four.”

“We saved the best for the last,” Radford said.





Keegan Messing, speechless


Keegan Messing got the call late Saturday night, hours after the men’s final at the National Skating Championships.

His coach, Ralph Burghart called him to tell him that yes, he was on Canada’s Olympic team and he’d better be ready to pack his bags for Pyeongchang next month.

Because it was so late, Messing, 25, could only mouth the words: “I’m going to the Olympics.”

“I couldn’t scream or yell or anything,” he said. “I couldn’t really do anything like jump up and down.”

After that, he barely slept. Maybe three hours. He’s burning through the gala today on adrenalin.

Today, he can say the words, but “It still feels foreign coming out of my mouth. At this point it’s a dream come true.

“I’m living the dream.”

As he told reporters yesterday: “I’m in hog heaven.” This while wearing his leather Stetson, something he sports all the time at home in Alaska. He’s a different kind of cat on this Olympic team, but a fast-footed, smooth-spinning, charismatic Charlie Chaplin/Gene Kelly sort of a guy. This guy can skate.

He finished the men’s event in second place behind Patrick Chan, and earned 259.25 points, only a point ahead of Nam Nguyen, who skated so splendidly that he doubled over in tears in mid-ice and rained them all the way to the kiss and cry and beyond. It was a tough loss, but hints that Nguyen is back.

Messing punctuated his routine by letting fly a back flip on his way out of the rink. “Honestly, when I was getting off the ice after the short program, I wanted to do a back flip,” he said. But no, he thought better of it and decided to do it after the long.

And then Elladj Balde did one after his free. And he skated just before Messing. They embraced as Balde exited the rink and Messing was about to step in.

“Well, I’ve got to do one now,” Messing said. And he did.

And guess what? They will be doing side-by-side back flips in the gala on Sunday. Choreographer Shae-Lynn Bourne was quick to use material that flashed before her eyes during the week.

Messing has been friends with Balde since Messing used to skate with the United States, mostly as a junior. “He’s a down-to-earth guy [so is Messing], and just a fantastic, great sportsman.

“Oh my gosh, he’s an amazing guy. I’m so proud of what he did [Saturday. – Balde finished fourth overall, despite having to overcome a serious concussion].”

Messing says he never watches another skater skate. But he watched Balde. “His performance helped my nerves just go away,” Messing said. “And I was able to just go out there and perform like a show. I’m excited. I can’t talk. It’s so cool.”

Making the Olympic team means everything to Messing. He’ll turn 26 in nine days. He’s been skating for 23 years. He’s had the same coach, skating in isolation in Alaska, for 20 years.

It takes him eons to fly anywhere out of there to compete. He broke in a new pair of boots recently, and says they’re just starting to feel comfortable after five weeks. It takes longer for boots to break in while in a cold rink.

Making the Olympic team recalls “every day of hard work I pushed through,”Messing said. “I took every hard fall and got up and kept pushing my body.”

.And with the help of Balde’s free-wheeling performance, and after his first quad, “something sparked in me,” Messing said. “And I fought for every step and position.

“I don’t think I’ve fought this hard for a long program in my life.”

Messing will accompany 16 other Canadians heading to Pyeongchang. He’s considered a rookie, having never been to a Games. He’s one of only five rookies on the team. The rest are all seasoned Olympic veterans, some more seasoned than others.

There will be a tide of retirements after this Olympics, but Messing won’t be one of them. He said this week that he does not know if he will go to another Olympics, but he will stick around for at least another two – until the world championships in Montreal. He’s just starting to roll, late in his career.

“It’s going to be a real change of the guard,” said Skate Canada high performance director Michael Slipchuk. “We haven’t had times like this since I can remember. We will see a wholesale change in all disciplines.”

Canada won’t be alone in going through this evolution, this loss of veterans. It will be a world-wide phenomenon.

It will be time, said Slipchuk, for the next generation to step up. Canada may find itself doing through more of a medal drought than it has for years, but there is development behind it all.

Nguyen signaled a return to the year – four years ago – when he finished fifth in a world as a young teenager. Joseph Pfan, only 16, finished fifth in the free and sixth overall at nationals. He has a quad and has been a consistent skater this year, landing jump after jump at both Challenge and the national championships. And of course, there is 13-year-old Stephen Gogolev, who landed a quadruple Salchow-triple toe loop in his first year as a senior – and attempted a quad Lutz.

In pairs, two of the three teams who made the Olympic team are young skaters who will stick around for another quadrennial. Ice dance still has Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, who took the silver medal this year, a fraction ahead of Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje. (Weaver and Poje have no idea if they will stay or continue.) And fourth-placed Carolane Soucisse and Shane Firus have stepped things up a notch and show a lot of promise.

“Are we going to have people on the podium right away?” Slipchuk mused. “No. But we feel as we build for the next four years that we will have a good base of building back up.”

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The Olympics is next up. And Meagan Duhamel says Canada is going hard for a team gold medal., after just missing the first one in Sochi.

The men’s short program in Vancouver


From the mists of Vancouver finally emerged Patrick Chan. And he is shedding some rust.

“It’s slippery,” he said, after he fell on his opening quad toe loop, then sliding unceremoniously on his side. Thinking on his feet, he added a triple toe loop to his triple Lutz, but then stepped out of a triple Axel.

But, oh, those wonderful feet. Nothing like it. We have missed this Patrick Chan.

Chan still leads with 90.98, a rather healthy 4.78 points ahead of Kevin Reynolds, who meant to do a quad Salchow – triple toe loop, but it turned into a triple-triple, still getting him 9.30 points. He edged Chan on the technical mark, and was well behind on components.

In third place is bubbly Keegan Messing, who descended from the rather chillier Alaska, looking for an Olympic spot. There are only two of them. As Roman Sadovsky says, it’s a “free-for-all” for that second spot.

And that newly minted Sadovsky, always thought to be a pretty but not a technical skater. Sadovsky was the ONLY man to attempt two quads in the short. Sadovsky lost a GOE or two on his quad Salchow –triple toe loop, but it still earned him 13.09 points. And for the first time in his life, he landed a quadruple toe loop in a competition, getting 8.59 for it.

“It’s a good step up for me,” he said.

He had been working on a quad toe loop just before he found out – at the last minute – that he was going to Skate America in Lake Placid, so he took that jump out, because he didn’t feel it was ready. If he’d only had another week of training, it would have been there. Sadovsky doesn’t believe it makes a lot of sense to try a quad if it’s not totally ready: it erodes confidence when you miss it.

It was a good experience for him nonetheless. He had never competed at a senior Grand Prix before, and there he was skating with Nathan Chen and all the rest.

“I put a lot of pressure on myself, hoping that I could skate the best that I could, but I wasn’t completely ready, “ he said.

Now he has the training behind him.

Sadovsky underrotated and fell on a triple Axel, but he said he just didn’t quite get the takeoff. “But I had it there,” he said. “I had the right mindset but it didn’t quite work the way I wanted it to.”

Indeed, Sadovsky has been through a lot over the past four years. Then, he was the smallest skater in the group, now he’s one of the tallest. He isn’t sure just how tall he is, and throws out six feet. Some think he is taller.

“I had maybe last year and the year before where I was really up and down when I just really wanted to skate with a bang, really,” he said.

He admits he’s going all in with two quads, trying to earn that second Olympic spot. Hoping and thinking that will help him out.

“People always said I was a good skater, but I never quite matched the group technically,” he said. “So now I feel like I’ve stepped up the game with two quads in the short and if I can do more in the long….”

Sadovsky is in seventh place with 78.72 points, behind Elladj Balde, Nam Nguyen and Nicolas Nadeau. Only Balde had no quad.

Most heartbreaking moment of the day: Liam Firus, an Olympian four years ago, is in only ninth place after a strange replay of an incident that plagued him in the short program last year.

Last year a suspender came undone at the end of a spin – a huge distraction – and everything went wrong in the program. He ended up seventh, off the national team. He had won a medal he previous three years.

This time, a pant strap came undone. Firus looked down, saw it, stopped skating, ripped it off, shoved it in his pants – nobody wants a program-stop deduction – and then tried to sail into his triple Lutz-triple toe loop combo. But the distraction hobbled him. He turned out of the Lutz, and couldn’t do the second part. “I wasn’t focused at all,” he said.

He’s in ninth place and came off the ice, understandably upset.

“Unfortunately, I think that Olympic dream might be over,” he said, sadly.

“It’s heartbreaking,” he added, his voice breaking. “It’s just bad luck. I did everything I could. But everything was just out of control. It ‘s happened two years in a row.

“The Lutz-toe would have put me in first or second.” He’s now hoping for a spot on the Four Continents or world team, if he can redeem himself in the free.

Chan remains hopeful. He knows that missing competitions last fall contributed to his effort last night. “It’s just getting out more to compete more,” he said.

“Unfortunately I spent time during the Grand Prix season in a different way,” he said. “I’m kind of finding the right place for myself, which is also a big part of skating. I’ll just make the best of today.

‘”I’m excited for tomorrow as opposed to dreading it. That’s a big bonus.”

This event will serve as good training for him.

Chan admitted that nerves kicked in because this event is only his second of the season. “But that’s where I can look back on my experience and look back at the 15 nationals I’ve been to and even world championships and it’s not a race. It’s just going along, with my process, how I want to do it.”

Chan said he fell on his quad because his right arm was already in front of him while he launched and his body wasn’t square. So the jump didn’t have much height or lightness. This heavier, into-the-ice feeling could have caused the trip. Chan skates by feel.

“It was a bit of a shock,” he said. “But you know what? I got up and recovered.”

This year has taught him a strategy: he goes week by week. He won’t look too far ahead and “stress yourself out for no reason.”

He still dreams of doing that quad combo with a “swish.

“That’s what we live for,” he said. “And I think I lost that a little bit. I kind of got pulled away and pulled in many directions.

“But I think I’m starting to find it again.”






The miracle of Elladj Balde


You have your Patrick Chans, your Kevin Reynolds, your Keegan Messings. All good.

But Elladj Balde stole the show in the men’s short program at the National Skating Championships Friday night.

He expected nothing. Perhaps no more than a fond farewell. This is his final season as a competitor. He so wanted this season and this night to be special.

And it was.

The crowd who witnessed Balde’s miracle thanked him the only way they could: a standing ovation that started before he had even finished his final spin. He finished fourth with a fat mark of 84.91, only 1.29 points out of second place. His was the performance of the day, a performance among performances among all disciplines.

“About a month ago, I didn’t even know if I was going to be here,” he said, with no small amount of emotion. He’d had the best summer of his life, with the quads clicking, the programs humming and he was in the best shape of his life.

Then, in early September, in the strangest of accidents, he hit his head while simply doing a Mohawk turn, and slammed into the boards. And within a moment, he had suffered his fifth concussion in three or four years.

His first concussion occurred in 2014 just before Skate Canada International. He had to withdraw.

It took a lot longer to heal than he expected. Two and a half months went by with no improvement. Mainly, the condition stagnated, no matter what he did. “I went through a lot of emotional and psychological pain because this season was so important to me,” he said.

Time was running out, and if Balde wanted to get to the national championships, he had to qualify through the Challenge event in Montreal in early December. He was no longer on the national team and he had had no Grand Prix events.

Balde’s life up to that moment? He tried everything to improve his condition. He’d try one thing and it didn’t work. Another. Forget it. “We tried everything until I literally was at the point of giving up,” he said.

One person changed all of that: Jennifer Ann Scott, who is one of the authors of Quebec’s protocol that guides athletic therapists how to manage concussions.

“She is an angel,” Balde said. “The moment she came into my life, she taught me how to manage the symptoms…She teaches you how to go through your day without triggering too many symptoms.”

Before Balde met her, he would find that if he felt better, he’d skate for 15 minutes, then end up in bed for three days. Next time, skate for 10 minutes, bedridden for another three days.

The first three days that Balde was allowed back on the ice with her, he was allowed to skate only forwards. Not backwards. Not sideways. He could not even turn his head. Eyes were to be straight ahead.

He began eventually to skate in circles, and this did not trigger symptoms. But if he tried to turn a little bit, the symptoms would return immediately.

“We had to teach my body how to turn this way and that way,”Balde said. And he was trying to learn these things two weeks before Challenge.

Everything started coming back about a week before Challenge, he said. His goal was only to qualify for the national championships. He didn’t have to get fancy.

He did make it through. “It was a lot of falls and a lot of mistakes,” he said. “But I made it through.”

After that, his symptoms improved markedly and he “just grinded hard” to prepare for this week. “I had so many obstacles to deal with this year,” he said.

When he stepped out on the ice on Friday, his only thought was to be “in the moment.” He had no expectations. Normally, he would be hoping to perhaps make the Olympic or world team, or at least dazzle everybody with his charisma. But he had no pressure this time. But that is when Balde is at his best.

Then something unusual happened. When Balde landed his first triple jump, the crowd roared. It was as if they knew. “The second jump, it was more. The third, even more,” he said.

“Then halfway through my footwork [toward the end of the routine], I could already feel the energy of everyone,” Balde said.

“I was trying to contain it a little because I was starting to raise my energy with them, but I had to remember, I still had to finish because now is not the time to make any mistakes.”

Before his final spin, he could see the people standing up. “The whole time that I was in the spin, I was just: ‘Okay, just focus on the spin. Just do your rotations.”

Balde says the crowd reaction was “the most beautiful gift they could ever have given me.

“My performance here was for my audience. I mean all the fans that were there watching, all the skaters that were watching, the coaches, the judges. The judges were the audience for me. They weren’t judges. I was performing for my audience, for myself.”

So yes, he walked away pleased. Some people who witnessed it, were in tears. Coach included.

“My whole goal was to come here,” Balde said. “And I am here.

“I did it. I did it. I did it.”





Perfection cometh after the fall


Close to perfection, judges seemed to say. Not far off it.

Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir claimed victory in the Latin short dance with a score of 85.12, and that is only .18 short of all they can possibly get if they max out their components and grades of execution.

On the other hand, former world silver medalists Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje dropped to fourth place with 70.31 after Poje fell on the first set of three twizzles. And received o points at all for that element.

It all happened so fast. Poje lost an edge he said. The next moment he was on his hands, and shocked and trying to peel his way back for the next move.

This left Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier in second place with 78.37 points – a first for them. “This is a new place for us, being ahead of Kaitlyn and Andrew going into the free dance,” Poirier said. “We’re going to have to make sure we are in the right frame of mind.

“We just have to trust the training we have done and don’t try to do anything extra to cement that.”

Carolane Soucisse and Shane Firus are in third place with 70.97, only .66 points ahead of Weaver and Poje.

Although they are so easily in first place, it wasn’t easy for Virtue and Moir. “We actually had to fight for it,” Virtue said. “The elements didn’t come easily but I think it’s a testament to our training that we were able to maintain our composure to execute them as well as we did.”

Moir said he felt the same. “Sometimes you have to fight and there is a tendency to go a little scratchy.

“You want those gritty performances leading to the Olympic Games.”

Virtue did not hear the gasp that went up when Poje, skating before them, fell on the twizzles. But Moir did. And it affected him.

“There is a friendship there with Kaitlyn and Andrew as well as being competitors,” Moir said. “We always want them to skate their best…It’s a particular reminder to us that we’ve really got to focus on every move.

“It sapped my energy in a different way,” he said. “I was feeling very free. It was a great thing for me to refocus but I feel bad for them.”

He doesn’t think Weaver and Poje’s wobble will mean anything in the long run. Everybody knows who they are, he said. A strong free could put them back in their place.

“It’s extremely disappointing,” Poje said. ”Knowing the training and the preparation we had for this event, we felt really strong and we were really ready to attack the program. To have that performance today was kind of deflating.”

They are treating this as a learning experience. Weaver said she had already put it behind her. “We’ve moved on,” she said. “The good thing is that we had amazing training coming into this and that is not lost.”

Weaver said she had empathy for Poje. “I know how hard he works and how strong we felt, especially on that element,” she said of the twizzle that has been “sticky” for them in the past.

“The biggest role for me is supportive,” she said. “He knows that I’ll still love him, no matter what.”

Ad she noted they did feel the love from the crowd. “”They don’t need to clap to help you,” Weaver said “And they do. And they get behind us and they know we are having a rough go and we’re grateful for that.”