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.

 

 

 

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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

VANCOUVER

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

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

VANCOUVER

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

VANCOUVER

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.”

 

 

Gabby Daleman taking no prisoners

VANCOUVER

Forget the strep throat, the pneumonia, and all of the inflictions that have ever encroached upon Gabby Daleman’s life.

The 19-year-old (she’ll be 20 on Sunday), powered her way through the women’s short program at the National Skating Championships on Friday, defying all of it, facing it squarely with her brown eyes. And she’s in the lead. A big lead.

She earned 77.88 points (her personal best score internationally is 73), well ahead of Kaetlyn Osmond, who fell on a triple flip. Well, this was to be her triple-triple combination. Osmond, who had the presence of mind to add a double toe loop to her next jump, a triple Lutz and salvaged 71.41 points, 6.37 points behind the high-flying Daleman.

Daleman didn’t find out until yesterday that she had pneumonia. She had strep throat before Christmas, and it supposedly had abated by last week. Her sports psychologist, Judy Goss, had told her that it was better to suffer from it well before the national championships, than during it. This week, Daleman quipped: “Well this back-fired on us.”

Daleman said she knew something was wrong yesterday after practice when she felt she could not breathe. A team doctor diagnosed pneumonia and gave her antiobiotics and an inhaler.

Her friends asked her how she was going to be able to skate. Daleman, in usual form, texted back with emojis, joking that it was actually extra cardio training.

“If I can do this feeling this crappy, I can do anything,” she said.

Before Daleman skated, she disappeared in the bowels of the rink. Her coaches could not find her. “I had to be on my own,” she said.

“We thought we’d lost you,” they told her.

The marks flashed up on the rink board well before Daleman saw them. Her parents and family did and started to celebrate, then stopped, realizing that she didn’t know.

Daleman breezed off the ice like a hurricane. “Honestly,that felt unbelievably amazing,” she said. “After I came off the ice, I said to my coach: ‘That’s how I want to end 19. Last program. Last teenager. New program. Super excited.”

Daleman had shown up with a new costume, new hairstyle, new makeup, even some new choreography to spice up her sassy
Carmen routine, make it more playful to the judges. “I know it sounds bad, but I was just flirting my butt off to those judges in that program and it was a blast.”

Osmond said she was not “overly pleased” with her mistake. “I don’t remember the last time I missed a flip-toe in competition,” she said. “Even since Grand Prix Final, I haven’t missed that jump once in my program.

It was really frustrating. I haven’t missed any of them in practice. So it was really frustrating not doing my first element.”

She said she feels very motivated for the free program tomorrow.

Sarah Tamura finished third, well behind with 54.34 points, while former Canadian champion Alaine Chartrand made mistakes on all jumping passes and is ninth. She seemed stunned afterward and hopes to roar back in the long.

Duhamel and Radford: another program change

VANCOUVER

Timing is everything, isn’t it?

If not for a chance few moments on the other side of the world a few weeks ago, Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford may not have found the answer to that question that has niggled at their subconscious levels all season: Just why is that Muse routine – so special before – giving them more headaches than they had ever imagined?

They thought they had solved the issues after another long trip overseas, to Italy early in the season and they came back refreshed and delivered a humdinger at Skate Canada International.

That should have put an end to it, right?

When most skaters stayed at home with their heads down, eyeing the Olympics, Duhamel and Radford took a side trip after the Grand Prix Final in Japan – where they finished an okay third – to a skating show in China.

They went to China not at all considering making yet another change to their free skate. But in that show, they were to follow the two-time Olympic champion Ekaterina Gordeeva. And she was skating to Adele’s “Hometown Glory.”

Of course, that music more than rang a bell. It was the music that Duhamel and Radford had used to win the 2016 world championship in Boston. It was an emphatic win. An emotional win. A triumphant comeback from a perilous year.

Duhamel and Radford were in the wings, waiting their turn at a dress rehearsal, when Gordeeva skated to this music. Duhamel was so moved, tears filled her eyes.

“This is how I want to feel when I am skating at the Olympics,” she said to herself.

Strangely enough, Radford was thinking the same thing. He had memories of a great energy. “Maybe we should skate to this,” he thought.

Duhamel and Radford know what it is like to feel uncomfortable with a program. Their “Alice In Wonderland“ number from the Sochi Olympics annoyed them all season. Last year, their Seal short program felt all at odds with them. In fact, they considered changing the music after Four Continents, but thought it too late. Later they discovered that their hesitation had done them no favours.

“I didn’t want to feel like that,” Duhamel said. Four years ago, they had gone to Sochi with programs that put them out of their comfort zones.

“Why would we do that again?” Duhamel said. “Go back to an Olympics to be outside of what I know?”

In the years they have been together, Duhamel and Radford have experimented with all sorts of concepts and music. Because of it, they have discovered – even now – what works the best. And what is best is the passionate, emotional music like Adele’s “Hometown Glory.”

“I feel like this Adele program unites us,” Duhamel said. “It’s the style that we have found through our journey.”

Radford says it’s a style that works equally well for both of them: she the athletic bullet, he the long-limbed artistic one.

Okay, Muse was good. They had some good skates to it. But since they skated to Muse the first time, Duhamel and Radford have changed. Their skating has improved. You can see it in their current short program, (“With or Without You”) almost ghostly, lovely. Muse had a different rhythm. They seemed at sixes and sevens trying to reconcile the magic of Muse to themselves and their new style. They just couldn’t connect to it.

“We just weren’t feeling it,” Radford said. It all became clear at that moment in China. As soon as they started working on Adele again, they found that it resonated more deeply with both of them.

So once again, a leading team has switched back to an old saw in this very tense Olympic year. The theme for everyone this season, Radford says, is the search for comfort. “You want to feel you are giving yourself the best chance to have a good skate,” he said.

The best part, they say, is that they came to this conclusion themselves.

In China, Duhamel and Radford found some ice time and a Youtube video of their Adele routine and started piecing it back together, without telling their coach Bruno Marcotte or choreographer Julie Marcotte what they were doing.

Finally, Duhamel flipped Bruno a text message, saying “Hey, we’re going to go back to ‘Hometown Glory.’

Marcotte replied: “You’ve waited four years to go back to the Olympics. If this is what you feel is right, do it.”

They had only three weeks to work on the program. They kept the change to themselves, just wanting to go to the rink, put their heads down and make it happen. They’ve had to make a few changes to the structure of the program.

They realize the switch does not guarantee that they will skate with wings, never putting a foot wrong and win the Olympics. But Duhamel feels that it will help put the odds in their favour. She believes their component marks will be better with this type of program. They will feel more comfortable, which will also lead to higher components. And they will deliver better elements.

Had they left things the way they were, Duhamel believes they might have won a bronze medal in Pyeongchang. But with this comfortable sofa of a program, and the feeling that they are one together, they believe they can do better than bronze.

“Why not take the chance?” she said.

 

 

 

Gabby Daleman: what strength is

VANCOUVER

Gabby Daleman, world bronze medalist, never seems to catch a break.

She has always had to make her own breaks. And she rides a roller coaster through the rest.

You’d think this season that she would have been able to bask in her achievements in Helsinki. But no.

At Cup of China, she suffered from a kidney infection. At Skate America, she was working through a viral infection that stuffed her up. She called it cardio training, always looking on the bright side.

Now, coming into the National Skating Championships, she has been suffering from pneumonia and strep throat. In her first words after a long-program practice, Daleman rasped: “It’s getting there.” With Daleman, it’s always something.

But she’s cheerful, having gone back to her long program from last year, “Rhapsody in Blue,” setting aside her powerful “Gladiator” routine.

But her problems have been far more deep-seated and life draining than a few dark respiratory systems and routines. She’s come through hell to be here.

As we’ve mentioned before in this blog, she’s endured bullying, eating disorders, and very serious health problems.

The bullying started from the time she was in grade one. She has a learning disability. It’s not dyslexia, but although she’s very clever in mathematics, she has troubles reading and writing. She was bullied for this. She was bullied when the school gave her extra time to write tests. She was bullied because she had a muscular body. She was a gymnast when she was young, so her shoulders were broader than you’d normally seen on a figure skater. She’d be bullied for this, her detractors saying that she wasn’t pretty enough, or too fat, and her dreams of becoming a figure skater would die an embarrassing death.

This continued until she made it to the Olympics in Sochi, the youngest member of Canada’s Olympic team at age 16. Say, 10 years. No surprise that her confidence and self-worth took a beating.

Along with all of the bullying came an eating disorder, which started while she was in grade five. She believed the chatter. It’s hard not to. If Daleman did eat, she’d write down the calories. And she’d try to burn off twice as many as she ate. “But it’s life,” she said. It’s an outward shrug. Not really a shrug inside. She talked about it all in a CBC video before the world championships last year. She still can’t watch it.

Since it aired, however, she’s had folk sending her messages: “Oh I didn’t know!” And others have felt compelled to speak about the issue, perhaps their own issues, empowered by Daleman’s message.

“That video is really touching for me because no one should go through it,” she said. “It’s awful. Still, to this day, I cry over it.”

And if that wasn’t enough, Daleman had to endure the growth of a cyst in her abdominal area. To say it’s painful is just an understatement. Some time ago, BEFORE the Helsinki world championship, Daleman first felt the effects of it just while getting up off a couch at home. The pain was excruciating.

She ended up getting an E-coli infection from it, too, that doctors didn’t immediately spot. Disastrous.

She felt better for two months, then it struck again during the Stars On Ice tour last spring. She says she “started feeling kind of weird” around the stop in Toronto. She shrugged it off, as skaters do.

By the time she got to Calgary, she ended up visiting the hospital-doing the show –going to hospital that she finally relented. She went home, hoping it would get better the next week. It didn’t. Doctors told her she needed surgery.

The surgery was serious business. Her abdomen was full of fluid, so ultrasound blocked their view of the problem. She didn’t know how perilous her condition was until she saw the ultrasound photos later.

She quit everything for three months. Unplugged herself from the world. Handed in her phone. Shut off social media. Stopped skating. She went to her family’s cottage in Parry Sound. Went for a swim. Ate. Found herself mesmerized by the gleaming waters. She practiced visualization, something she has found very useful.

Her family and friends have helped her pick up the pieces since. She came back and has been lifted – for a long time – by the work of Toronto sports psychologist Judy Goss. Daleman is happy to be here.

So on Thursday, Daleman hit practice ice for the first time here. You wouldn’t know she had strep throat or anything else. She was a bullet. She and choreographer Lori Nichol had edited the moves and transitions to fit her goals. The music made them seem easier.

And that triple toe loop –triple toe loop? It seemed as if the Thunderbird Arena wasn’t big enough for it. Or her. This is Gabby Daleman motoring forward, again.