Donald Jackson: there’s only one

kurt and don 1

It started out as a tantalizing little secret.

“I have a BIG surprise for skating fans,” bubbled Kurt Browning on twitter several days before the Toronto stop of the 2016 Stars On Ice tour in Canada.

He started dropping hints. “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore?” King of Blades? The special guest would show up only in Toronto and Hamilton.

It all seemed hush hush. But when Elvis Stojko stepped out on centre ice and introduced the duo about to skate: Browning and Donald Jackson, the 1962 world champion, a hush settled. Yes. Donald Jackson, a newly minted 76-year-old in a tux and a grin, his packet in trade when he skated for Ice Follies so many years ago. He is the King of Blades, or so his autobiography was called.

They skated to “Don’t Get Around Much Any More,” a duet sung by a younger voice, Michael Buble, and an older voice, Tony Bennett. Perfect. When Bennett starts to sing, Jackson starts to skate. Buble begins to warble. So does Browning on skates. Genius.

Missed the Saturday dance
Heard they crowded the floor,
Couldn’t bear it without you
Don’t get around much anymore.

They stole the show. Fans that filled the spacious lower bowl at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto rose to their feet as one. It was the only complete standing ovation of the night. Everybody was in on it, appreciating the usual Browning thing, and the Jackson spirit of old: his head up, smiling, playing to the crowd, just like he always did, so many years ago.

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Photo by Julie Larochelle

The only other ovation that came close was for Browning’s solo in the second half, a solo with deft footwork, body movement, attention to every note. A ham, as always. Neither of them are newbies to this sort of gig. Browning will turn 50 in mid-June. Experience worked.

This is the first season that Browning is not part of the entire tour. He will take part in only five stops. But his sense of what charms a crowd is still fully intact. He created the duet, from start to finish.

Browning had been working on a commercial for the Home Equity Bank that will air later this year, and one day, in a creative meeting, someone suggested that another skater was needed in the clip. It didn’t have to be a known skater. Then somebody mentioned Donald Jackson’s name. Obviously, the name still resonates in Canada.

“Hmmm,” thought Browning. “He still skates. He’s charming. He’s funny. He’s handsome. Yes, yes, yes.”

They made it happen. They filmed the commercial. But Browning had to go further. If there was a camera around, they had to play at doing a duet. “Because that’s just too cool,” Browning said.

They filmed something very casually, in a rink, and thought perhaps it could be used to supplement the commercial.

But Browning’s instincts – dead on – were still at work. “This is so cool, people should see Don do this,” he thought.

So he suggested the idea to the Stars on Ice brass and they liked it, too.

Jackson is the oldest person ever to take part in a Stars On Ice show.

To create a number for the show, Browning asked Jackson to come to the Granite Club in Toronto and the “youngster” filmed the “oldster” doing all of his cool tricks. Browning wanted an idea of what a 76-year-old Jackson could do. He saw waves of fancy footwork, spins, an Axel jump.

“I tried to implement as much of his natural footwork into the program that I could, making it easier for him,” Browning said. “Otherwise, it’s more than he needs to worry about and besides, his stuff is really cool.”

“This show, I never expected,” Jackson said. When Browning saw what Jackson could do, he told the septuagenarian that he was actually going to push Jackson a little. “You can do it,” Browning told him.

“I don’t know if he pushed me, but he did,” Jackson said. “He was a good coach. He told me about the knees and what happens when you’re in the show [they tighten], and it just brought back a lot of things.”

Browning asked Jackson what sort of music he’d like to skate to. Jackson told him: something in the direction of Frank Sinatra. A week later, Browning had found the music and they began to create.

I thought I’d visit the club
Got as far as the door
They’d have asked me about you
Don’t get around much anymore.

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Photo by Julie Larochelle

Back behind the curtain on performance day, Jackson paced the halls, listening to the music on earphones, just like Patrick Chan or Javier Fernandez or Nam Nguyen would on competition day. He admitted to a case of nerves, a gimpy leg and foot. “He’s really pumped,” Browning said. “He really wants to land that Axel.

“He’s nervous. So am I.”

“Are you going to land that triple Axel?” he was asked in jest.

“No, but I’m dreaming of it,” Jackson replied.

Browning tried to help him ease the nerves, to bring back memories of how Jackson would have handled things decades ago. “Now Don, don’t think about what comes next,” Browning told him. “Just do it. Bend your knees and think ahead a little bit. Keep that soft knee.” Browning told Jackson that soft knee is his gift, and it’s something not everybody has.

Part of what was so special about the duet is that Browning and Jackson have a little bit of history.

“He gave me some advice when I was a kid about landing the quad and doing it,” said Browning. “And having the confidence to stick your neck out and go for it.”
After all, Jackson knew. He had been the first man to land a triple Lutz in competition at the 1962 world championship, the first time he had ever landed the jump in his life, at a hard-fought competition, in which he needed to be perfect in the free skate to win. And he did. “So he knew,” Browning said. “He was like: ‘Just go for it. You’ll thank yourself later. Just go and do it.’”

So Browning did and became the first skater to land a quad in competition at the 1988 world championships in Budapest.

Browning had met Jackson even earlier. When Browning won the Canadian novice title, someone grabbed him and led him to an unfamiliar room – the media room. “I didn’t really know why,” Browning said. They planted him in front of a man with a pen and a piece of paper. It was Jackson, who was working at the time as a skating correspondent for a Toronto newspaper.

“I’m going: ‘Oh my god, that’s Donald Jackson,’” Browning said.

Jackson started by asking him how it felt to be Canadian novice champion. Browning hadn’t even realized he had won.

“What?” Browning said.

“How does it feel to be novice champion?” Jackson said again.

“I won?” Browning cried. “I won! I won!” He began jumping around the room, later reminiscing that Jackson must have thought: “How does this kid get to the rink?”

Browning and Jackson haven’t spent much time together since. Browning also had a relationship with Barbara Ann Scott, who became affectionately, his adopted grandma.

As for Jackson? “Let’s call him skating Dad,” Browning said. “I don’t think he’d want to be called Skating Grandpa. He’s very proud of his age, but there’s a limit.”

Browning wanted to do something creative and interesting and fun with this man. The theme of the music, according to Browning is that “I don’t get around and womanize anymore because I’m in love with you.” But for the Browning/Jackson duet, it’s simply: “We don’t get out of the house much anymore. And here we go.” At various points, they clench their hips, as if their bodies are giving out. Jackson shakes a finger at Browning. Tsk tsk.

Darling I guess, my mind’s more at ease
But nevertheless, why stir up memories?

During the shows in Toronto and Hamilton, Jackson landed a single Axel on two feet. He’s annoyed with himself, still a true athlete. He’d been 90 per cent consistent at landing them in practice. But he was taken aback when the crowd applauded him doing a waltz jump.

“I thought, what the heck?” Jackson said. “I couldn’t believe it.”

It’s not as if Jackson has had to crawl into an attic and dust off old leather hardened by time. He still skates three times a week in a public sessions that he shares with three “older guys” who skate around the outside, while Jackson skates around the inside of the ice surface in Oshawa.

And he teaches too, mostly CanSkate and adult skating. “I don’t want to teach competitive skaters, because once you do that, your time is their time,” he said. He does work with some singles skaters, but loves working with young skaters, trying to instill in them a love of the sport so that they will want to return, as he has.

He’s always kept up his skills, as he can. He landed a triple Salchow when he was 60 years old. There is a private video to prove it somewhere in the dustbins of time.

After his ground-breaking performances in Stars On Ice, Jackson phoned Cathy Sproule, who asked him to skate solos at intermissions of NHL Legends hockey games that traveled across Canada. In the first season, Jackson did 20 shows in 22 days. But he kept coming back from 1998 to 2008. He credits this 10-year gig with helping him to stay fit enough to skate at Stars On Ice at age 76.

He reveled in the standing ovations during his brief stint, but the best part of being invited to skate was the feeling that he was part of the skating family, again. “It’s different, going back into an ice show like that again,” he said. “But what I really liked was getting to know the stars. They know me because I’ve been around, but just to say hi. Now I know them as real people. They were so nice to me. It was so nice to see that all of them were stars in their own right….They worked their tails off.”

And the way they spoke to Jackson, it was “almost like they had me on a pedestal,” he said.

Andrew Poje admitted he felt intimidated by Jackson’s prowess. “He does things I wouldn’t even dream of doing,” he said during rehearsals.

“They are being nice to me,” Jackson said.

“He killed it,” Tessa Virtue said of Jackson at the Hamilton show.

“We will have to tell Don to tone it down a bit,” Scott Moir said.

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Photo by Julie Larochelle

The whole thing has energized skating in these parts in the right way. And reminded us that the old trick ponies have a lot to offer.

“I don’t know if there is anybody else I could have skated with that made us look good together,” Jackson said. He might have told Browning:

They’ve been invited on dates
I might have gone but what for
It’s awfully different without you
Don’t get around much anymore.

Duhamel and Radford golden


There is only one thing certain about the pair event. It is unpredictable.

Certainties are never certainties here. Banks don’t deal in this currency. The scales of justice are forever tipped in the direction of the fearless and the brave.

And apparently, that’s what Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford are: mindfully, powerfully adept at doing their job when folk don’t think they can. And thus they won their second consecutive world championship with the second highest score in history: 231.99.

“Winning a world championship to begin with is beyond my expectation,” Radford said. “ It was always in my hopes and dreams, but you never know if everything is going to be aligned. No matter how talented you are, it doesn’t always happen.

“For it to happen twice in a row is even further beyond my expectation,” Radford said. “It makes me proud.

“I had chills as the national anthem was playing. I just feel so proud that we represent Canada…. And it’s nice to be able to give back in a way. By winning this title again.”

After a season of frustration and meandering will and fumbles, Duhamel and Radford strangely enough became the underdogs coming into this event, in which the mighty and exquisite Olympic champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov were making a comeback, and so were Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov after they put a pause on their career to get more technical tricks. How was this supposed to all shake out?

“We kind of flew in under the radar,” said Radford “People had kind of drawn a conclusion based on our season that we weren’t quite as strong contenders compared to last season, when we won everything.”

When they finished their free program and Duhamel and Radford looked at each other in stunned belief/disbelief and the crowd rose to its feet the moment the last note died, Radford screamed something unintelligible. The closest human word would be “Yeah!”

“It felt great,” Radford said. “Because it’s difficult not to doubt yourself when everybody else has this expectation of you to skate like that.

“It shows it doesn’t matter what expectation is,” he said. “As long as we believe we can do it, we can make it happen.”

The biggest shock of the day was what happened to Volosozhar and Trankov, gods almost. They tossed up an enormous, beautiful triple twist as in days of old (although it got only a level three much to their chagrin – they had been accustomed to level four), but then things came unraveled.

Trankov stumbled out of a triple Salchow, the first part of a three-jump combination.

Volosozhar’s leg flipped up for balance on the landing of a throw triple flip. Their flying change foot combo spin went out of synch. Volosozhar turned out of a throw triple loop. Officials totally discounted a difficult reverse lasso lift, because it did not go up in one continuous motion. They lost levels on their other lift and that wonky spin.

Then the marks flashed up: 128.68 for the free skate. (154.66 had been their record, the world record actually from Skate America in 2013). That placed them only seventh in the free skate, behind Canadians Lubov Iliushechkina and Dylan Moscovitch.

Overall, they earned a total of 205.81, well below their world record of 237.71, taken at the 2013 Skate America.

Volosozhar and Trankov, sixth overall, offered no comment.

The top Russian team, Stolbova and Klimov finished fourth 214.48 points. It was little comfort for the brainy, endlessly pleasant Klimov to be the top Russian pair. “We are not on the podium,” Klimov said. “And there is no Russian on the podium. I don’t care if we are top Russians or not. It’s good for today. But in general, it is not a good result for Russian couples.”

But it was for Canadians. All three Canadian teams finished among the top eight with Iliushechkina and Moscovitch finishing seventh and Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro eighth. The later were alternates for the world team until Julianne Seguin and Charlie Bilodeau had to with draw with injury. Moore-Towers and Marinaro shaved more than 13 points off their previous best free skate score. They also improved on their season’s best for their short program.

Because of their injury, incurred during a fall at nationals in January, Moore-Towers and Marinaro couldn’t put in as much training as they would have liked. “So we had to work smart,” she said. Every day, they watched Duhamel and Radford skate as if
they were already at the world championships.

“Next year, we want to be here the right way, and not by chance,” Moore-Towers said.

Duhamel and Radford’s coaches were the wind beneath their wings, who turned their season around after an agonizing Canadian championship in Halifax in January, Yes, they won, but not with the razzle dazzle they had hoped.

“We had a rough season,” Duhamel said. “But they believed in us. And I believe in us. We knew that this result was possible, and it feels amazing.

Duhamel said that she felt so much frustration by nationals that she began to wonder: “Is it time to stop competing? Can I never reach the level I want to again?”

Duhamel and Radford hadn’t talked about this feeling, but Radford had been thinking the same thing. They felt it individually. “We are always on the same page somehow, even though we don’t talk directly about it.”

Her husband/coach Bruno Marcotte told her that if she was getting frustrated, it meant she still care. And that it wasn’t over.

After nationals, Duhamel and Radford sat down with choreographer Julie Marcotte (Bruno’s sister) and made a plan about how to make it to worlds.

“How are we going to get there?” Duhamel recalled. “What steps are we going to take? “ Revising the music of their long program was one thing, but the mental approach to their training was the main thing. Going to the Four Continents Championship, they had made a turnaround. But when Duhamel fell ill with the flu, the pair was forced to withdraw after the short program and nobody saw what they had done.

With Marcotte, they made their goals clearer. They held themselves to a higher standard every day. “I think we got a little bit lazy in how we trained day in and day out,” Duhamel said.

It wasn’t enough to land a throw quad every day. They needed to do one that would get a GOE of +2 or +3. “That’s within our ability,” Duhamel said.

They pushed themselves to do that every day, to ensure their elements were solid. With this accomplished, they could focus on creating moments.

For some reason, they hadn’t been doing that at the beginning of the season.
“We were wandering aimlessly without goals,” Duhamel said. She recalls going to Skate Canada, and sitting in the kitchen with her husband and saying: ‘I don’t know what’s my goal. I don’t know what we want to do at Skate Canada.’”

Bruno replied: “Well, you’d better figure that out.”

But they floated. So they decided after nationals, they wanted to do it right.

Every morning at 9 a.m., they’d perform their long program in their rink, and “it was like it was the world championships,” Duhamel said.

Others in the rink noticed the charge in energy. As Duhamel and Radford flew around the rink, the others would stand back by the boards and watch. “That’s when you know you are in the right place,” Duhamel said.

After their talk with Julie, the following session, their free skate was “five times better than anything we had done,” Radford said.

Duhamel and Radford work with Julie twice a week. But two weeks ago, they met to discuss it all again. They needed a refresher course. The frustration had started to creep in again. “We’re starting to feel lost,” Duhamel said.

Because they told her right away, Julie got them back on track immediately. The next day, they did a perfect runthrough. “I guess we need to be more open when we feel like this so we don’t go through half the season feeling like it,” Duhamel said.

If they hadn’t done this, they would not be standing on top of the podium with gold medals slung around their necks.

At Boston, Sui Wenjing and Han Cong had skated right before Duhamel and Radford. They did not watch, but Duhamel said they could feel the rink’s energy when they finished and they knew they had not been perfect. “We tried to be comfortable,” she said. “When we try to be perfect, perfect is impossible. And when you focus on being perfect, we get tense and nervous and mistakes happen.”

Then they heard the Chinese marks: 143.62 for the long program. Duhamel and Radford looked at each other and said: “This is our moment and our opportunity.” But they had felt this on the warmup, too.

Yes, Radford could have had a smoother landing on their jump combination. Duhamel could have landed her throw quad Salchow more smoothly. They’d done better in practice, with a softer landing. “But I’ll take that one today,” she laughed.

And the marks flew. Duhamel and Radford got a 10 for components once for a short program. But on Saturday, they had four of them, three for performance and execution, one for choreography.

“It’s the magic key of being an athlete,” Radford said. “Figuring out how to make it happen in the moment. All you can do is be in a mind frame that gives you your best chance.”

And this may have to be what the Russians need. And maybe they need more. For the second consecutive year, Russia won no medals at all in the pair event, a discipline the country has dominated since the 1960s.

The last Russian gold was taken by Volosozhar and Trankov at the 2013 world championships in London. This was Volosozhar and Trankov’s first world championship since.

In 2014, Stolbova and Klimov took the silver medal.

One Russian journalist said that the Russians don’t belong to the group at all. It’s logical that this is happening now, the journalist said because the Russian federation
believes their athletes are so strong and that will be enough. But with Duhamel and Radford starting a rush for quads, the Russians have been left behind.

The federation has caused its own issues by sending all of its best pair skaters to one school – and it has been besieged by injuries, right down to the junior level.

The Germans have made a strong push into the elite with Aliona Savchenko (five-time world champion with previous partner Robin Szolkowy) and her new partner, the gentle giant, Bruno Massot, a French skater. Savchenko had to wait months for Massot to be released by the French federation to allow him to skate for Germany.

They have turned into an impressive team, earning the bronze medal with awe-inspiring twists, and fabulous side by side spins, matched beyond belief. They had hoped to finish within the top six here.

“We are really happy to be here in our first season together to get a medal,” Massot said. “That was not our objective. It was just performing two good programs. There were some mistakes but [in the end] we got a medal. I thank Aliona for wanting to continue with me. Without her, I would not be here.”

Savchenko who now wears a different countenance than in the old days –more relaxed, happier – said her dream has come true. “It’s amazing all these emotions all come out. I’ m really happy I can continue and I can enjoy what I love to do. Unbelievably happy.”

Their free dance is choreographed by Canadian icon Gary Beacom who has moved to Europe.

This event was a breakthrough when Lubov Iliushechkina and Dylan Moscovitch finished sixth in the free skate, ahead of the Olympic champions. The Canadian media contingent all trudged down to the mixed zone, but they never appeared. Television networks have adopted a new thing – to put the top three leaders in a green room to show their reactions as other skaters compete. This has rendered the mixed zone an empty zone. We still haven’t heard about their magnificent effort.

Fernandez: skate of a lifetime


Yuzuru Hanyu doesn’t live in a normal world.

On Saturday night, after the men’s free program, Japanese fans waited and waited for a chance to see their fallen hero, who had squandered a 12-point lead after the men’s short – to win the silver medal, not the gold.

No matter. Well past midnight, the Japanese fans gathered at the TD Garden tunnel where the athlete buses churn to and fro. Because of Hanyu’s rock star status and all that goes with it, he had his very own shuttle, a large bus with an entourage and a burly security guard. He’s Justin Bieber on skates.

The fans were waiting at the other end of the trip, at the hotel, too. And as the bus chugged up, the fans ran. Hanyu raced past them, eyes straight ahead. Protected.

After demolishing world records left and right all season, Hanyu has been viewed as somewhat of a skating god. He indeed has a set of scary-good talents. So when he chalked up that mighty lead, (some say the largest of any discipline in world championship history,) others may have been thinking about fighting a separate contest, with Hanyu in a league all his own.

But in the bright lights of the “Gahden,” chock full of fans up to the rafters, things changed in a hurry. It wasn’t Hanyu’s night. Nor was it Patrick Chan’s night. Nor Maxim Kovtun’s. Nor Shoma Uno’s. Nor Denis Ten’s. And neither Han Yan nor former world No. 5 Nam Nguyen even made it to the long-program round.

The last two groups rocked the place. Max Aaron, former U.S. champion landed a dynamic quad Salchow-triple toe loop to finish up with 172.86 for the free, and 254.14 overall, to finish eighth. Standing ovation.

U.S. champion Adam Rippon was a new Adam Rippon this year, having shaken off all that hobbled him in the past. He was fitter than he’s ever been. More confident. Last summer he told Jeff Buttle he wanted music that would lead him to win the U.S. title and to fly at worlds in Boston, at home.

Buttle picked “Blackbird,” the Beatles song that goes:

Blackbird singing in the dead of night.
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see
All your life
You were only waiting for this moment to be free.

Rippon said later that he actually heard those words as he competed Saturday night. He went for the gusto early, for that pesky quad Lutz that has always eluded him and in the free program, he landed it on one foot, although it was underrotated. He knew it was. “But I kept going,” he said.

He said before he went out, he felt like taking a nap. “Just let your training kick in,” said coach Rafael Arutunian. Rippon felt very nervous. He was shaky in his warmup. “I fought through everything but at the same time, I tried to have the best time ever and I did.” He finished fourth in the free skate with 178.72 points, ahead of Chan. Thunderous standing ovation.

A third U.S. man, Grant Hochstein, a replacement for the injured Nathan Chen, also sparkled and finished ninth with 162.44 points. He landed a quad toe loop and as he went on, continuing to land more and more jumps, the crowd roar started. He had a hand down on a triple Axel. The crowd was on its feet before he finished.

This meant that the host United States had placed three men in the top 10. But their sixth (Rippon overall), eighth (Aaron) and tenth (Hochstein) meant that the country fell one point short of getting three men to the Olympic qualifying world championships next year. Rippon had finished only 2.31 points behind Chan. Of course, the hubbub started that Chan was overmarked, having snared a perfect 10 from a judge for interpretation.

In component marks, Fernandez led the way with 98.36 points, with Chan second (92.60), Hanyu third (92.02), Shoma Uno fourth (86.58), Rippon fifth (85.64), and exciting Russian newbie Mikhail Kolyada sixth (84.64.) Should Rippon have had higher components? Possibly? Should Uno have had lower?(He skates a lot on two feet). Perhaps. (And Boyang Jin getting 76.14 for components? He hasn’t developed this side of himself much at all.)

Technically, Chan bumbled and fumbled on ice he said didn’t match his unique way of going. Instead of his opening quad toe –triple toe loop combo, he eked out a triple toe loop. He did get the triple Axel in. He landed his next quad and gallantly tried to put a triple toe loop on the end of it, but he was close to the boards and stepped out of it. His second triple Axel combo turned into a single Axel – double toe loop. He doubled a flip. Points bled away, heavily. He was only eleventh best technically on the night (79.31).

Let’s have a fun look at the technical virtuosos. Fernandez of course, led with a stunning 118.05 points followed by: Jin, second (104.99 – after stepping out of his quad Lutz, landing a quad Salchow, holding on for dear life to a quad toe that was supposed to be in combination, but wasn’t, and bravely tacking a double toe loop onto his fourth quad, a toe loop), Kolyada, third (93.67), Hanyu fourth (93.59), Aaron fifth (93.16), Rippon sixth (93.08), Shoma Uno seventh (87.93), Grant Hochstein eighth, believe it or not (85.02), Alexei Bychenko of Israel, ninth (82.57) and Michal Brezina, tenth (81.12).

The judges’ panel for the long program included no Russians, no Canadians or Americans. The panel was Europe heavy, with officials from Sweden, Israel, Italy, Germany, France and Ukraine and also South Korea and Kazakhstan.

The doors came off the competition when Hanyu, second to skate in the final group, put a hand down on his opening quad. There was an intake of breath. Then he fell on his third quad, the Salchow in combo with a double toe loop. It was called a repeated jump because he didn’t do it in combination, so that was worth only 4.09, a very costly fall. (Fernandez’s quad Salchow-triple toe loop was worth 14.80 before GOE was applied.) Then he singled a triple Salchow at the end of a triple Axel series. He put a hand down on a triple Lutz. It was so unlike Hanyu, except when you recall his Olympic free skate. He had opened the door wide for Chan in Sochi. And Chan didn’t take it. Just the same as he didn’t take it in Boston.

Hanyu choked down the news of getting only 184. 61 for his free, which is 34.87 points short of his world record (219.48) and he ended up with 295.17 overall, 35.26 lower than that record, too (330.43.)

Coach Brian Orser said he was expecting at least a repeat of the Grand Prix Final when Hanyu set his most recent world records. And he’d upped the technical content a little by doing two quads Salchows and a quad toe loop instead of two quad toes and one quad Salchow.

“I thought we would see the usual from Yuzu, which would be just about everything,” Orser said. “I was a little bit surprised because he was in a little bit better shape than what we saw. He’s very disappointed.”

Hanyu was a little nervous before he skated, and he was slow getting to his starting position, taking almost the entire allotted 30 seconds. His warmup was good but “not out of this world,” Orser said.

But then, Hanyu is always nervous, Orser added. Orser sensed Hanyu’s nervousness at an early practice, but it’s not unusual.

“There’s not one particular thing that went wrong with Yuzu,” Orser said.

“I can’t explain my feelings,”Hanyu said. But he’s regretful.

“I am really sad, and I am really happy for Javi’s program. I know I am happy [for him] but I am really sorry for my long. I want to do it again.

Hanyu said he felt calm before the free skate, but that he hasn’t hit the sweet spot and the balance between mental and physical condition. Throughout his performance, he admitted he was nervous.

Then came Fernandez and the performance of the ages. Perhaps one of the best clutch performances of all time. Reminiscent of Donald Jackson at the 1962 world championship in Prague, where he was considerably behind after compulsory figures. Jackson had to be perfect to win and he delivered a string of 6.0s and the first triple Lutz in competition history.

Fernandez, perhaps one of the most under-the-radar world champions since his victory last year, had his own troubles to worry about. A month before Boston, he developed a bursa on the heel of his right foot – his landing foot. It’s an annoying, painful, ugly goose egg thing caused by friction.

Fernandez had taken 24 hours off when it first caused him trouble and when he returned, it was fine.

But not forever. It flared up again. Fernandez tried the same treatment, a little Advil and rest, but it didn’t help.

“When he bends his ankle, it pushes the heel back and it hurts,” Orser said.

Fernandez took a day off practice on Thursday. But at Friday morning practice, he skated little. He spent his time fiddling with the boot, to no avail, trying all sorts of last-minute things. Fernandez started to panic. Orser said his face began to turn white.

“Okay, now we need to get some medical attention,” Orser said. “And I need to talk him through it.”

So the afternoon of the men’s final, Fernandez spent hours with the event’s medical team, who gave him a pad to place in his boot and treated the problem. “It kind of occupied him and he was getting lots of attention, which he likes,” Orser said with a smile.

It all shortened the wait. “You can sit in the hotel room and just awful-ize the situation about where it’s going to hurt,” Orser said. Eventually, Fernandez went back to the hotel, took a nap, had dinner and then it was time to head to the rink. Orser also persuaded him that his best long program runthoughs came on Mondays, after he took the weekend off. He framed it positively.

Fernandez said he didn’t think about how important it was for him to win. “I just kept going from jump to jump,” he said. He did three marvelous quads. He sold the program. He was charming.

“It was not an easy day,” he said later. “It was not an easy month.” He knew that he had to do the best skate in his life to defeat Hanyu. He told himself that it was the last competition of the season. That helped him through.

Gracious in victory, gracious in defeat, Fernandez gave credit to Orser for his victory. “Brian is the person with us every single day,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if we are in a good mood or a bad mood, or if we do a good practice or a terrible practice – he is the person that is helping you no matter what. They [the coaches] want you to be better every single day.

“I saw that Yuzuru was training every day to be the world champion and not every time you can do what you’re planning to do. “

He said he does not know how he was able to overcome his heel problem and win. ‘I think sometimes we feel so strong that it doesn’t matter what happened before,” Fernandez said. He hadn’t known how Hanyu had skated.

Chan skated last, but just like at Four Continents, he encountered ice that did not suit his stroking style. He was the last skater of 12, with no ice resurfacing and a couple of six-minute warmups.

“I feel really stupid for talking about it,” Chan said “But the ice just wasn’t to my favourite specifications.”

He said the ice appeared white and frosty, with no shine or slip. The ruts were a serious issue. “I couldn’t be confident when I stepped forward to get my edge that the edge would go straight,” he said. The blade would skip and jump over a bump.

Chan said he needed to use the flex in the ice to get his movement over it. In a perfect world “it almost rebounds me and gives me speed into my jumps.”

It wasn’t a good day for Chan but he’s happy to be back. It’s not often anymore that skaters see fans in seats up to the rafters in a NHL-sized rink. The sound poured off a warm crowd.

Still, “it stinks to be fifth,” Chan said.

Meanwhile back in the green room, where skaters sit after they skate, Fernandez said to a crestfallen Hanyu: “It’s okay Yuzu. You still have lots of time to beat me.”

Fernandez has now won two world championships. Hanyu has won only one, but he’s the 2014 Olympic champion. They are about even and will watch each other at the same rink in Toronto every day.

For now, Chan is on the outside looking in. But he knew it was a tall task to defeat the entire field in his first season back.

Pair short, Boston


“Enough is enough,” said Meagan Duhamel. Both she and her partner Eric Radford had enough of the cloying feelings of frustration this season when they finished a program and looked at each other, regret in the air.

Not this time. After the national championships, Duhamel and Radford sat down with choreographer, light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel skatingmeister Julie Marcotte and they found a way.

She told them to stay quiet on the inside. In the school in which they train in Montreal, there is chaos all around them. It has a lot of top students. But Duhamel and Radford hadn’t been staying calm. They needed to find quietude inside themselves.

Coach Bruno Marcotte said the 2015 world champions had also lost their focus of last year, focusing too much on the comeback of Olympic champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov, they of the multiple maximized points. And they thought about the other Russians, Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov, who had apparently taken the remainder of last season off in search of a quad.

Duhamel and Radford had been on a roller coaster all season. The decision came that they must focus on each other, and a personal best routine, and forget about all of the rest.

To find this quiet spot, Duhamel does not use a key word as many athletes use. She touches her stomach to find her inner calmness.

They were ready to slay dragons with this new approach at the Four Continents, but Duhamel fell ill with an apparent case of the flu.

So they used it here. “We’ve been getting sick of finishing that short program feeling frustrated,” Duhamel said.

In Boston, Duhamel said she didn’t care if she “was upside down on the Lutz, I was landing it.”

End of story.

“We were really determined,” she said. “And focused.”

With this approach, Duhamel and Radford finished second in the short with a personal best of 78.18 points, only 2.67 points behind the flawless Chinese Sui Wenjing and Han Cong, who won with 80.85, also a best for them.

The Canadians hadn’t spoken one word about the Russians. And for the first time in their career, they finished ahead of Volosozhar and Trankov by about a point.

Trankov thought he and wife/partner had skated their Bollywood routine well, and is okay at sitting in third place. He knew they had made a big mistake on their throw, with Volosozhar landing the triple flip on two feet and not subtly.

But he was taken aback when the technical folks up on the judges’ stand gave them only a level three on their lofty triple twist. They had always maxed out the levels on this soaring move, at level four.

“It’s the first time we got level three for twist,” he said. “It was a big surprise for us. We are a little disappointed with this.”

However, Trankov said he and Volosozhar aren’t seeking any more medals. They have already won two Olympic gold (team and individual) at home in Sochi. They had teamed up for Sochi. Now, it is all about the process, the skating, the exploring. They are okay with third.

Volosozhar and Trankov earned the highest component score of 37.16, ahead of the Chinese at 36.97. The Chinese worked hard at improving this side of their skate.

Three years ago, they began to train with 2010 Olympic pair champion Zhao Hongbo because they felt they had some shortcomings he could solve.
“We decided to follow whatever he said,” Han said.

“He told us many things about how to cooperate with your partner, so we can improve the unison,” Han said.

He also got them into working on their skating skills, and they do so, more than any other Chinese team, Han said.
“We don’t want to think too much about placement or scores,” Han said.

Asked when they fully began to find chemistry together, Sui and Han comically misunderstood the question. They started talking about their personal relationship.

“There isn’t any chemistry between us,” Sui said.

“That was a joke,” Han said, after a little consultation.

But no, Sui said. Han is like a cousin, a father figure to her. (He is three years older.) “He talks too much every day,” she said.

Asked to direct their thoughts to a more professional relationship or chemistry between them, Han paused to think.

Trankov looked over at Han and said: “Be very careful,” he said.

“First there is chemistry when you skate. Then you get married,” he said., referring to his relationship with Volosozhar.

He said he and Volosozhar might think about having a baby by the next Olympics.

Marcotte let it slip that Duhamel and Radford might work on a throw triple Axel next year.

The other magical moment of the event: the dizzying triple twist delivered by new team Aliona Savchenko (now relaxed and happy looking) and Bruno Massot, who finished fourth with 74.22 points. It’s a happy story indeed.

Women’s short program, Boston


For Gracie Gold, it was a magical moment, if not yet a golden one.

The U.S. champion, in front of a home crowd, finally delivered the goods when it counted, in the women’s short program at the world figure skating championships on Thursday.

Gold has had so much promise and so many stops and starts that it seemed as if the United States would be bogged down for another 10 years without a women’s world title.

But Gold stepped onto the ice prepared and calm in the warmth of the TD Gardens, a good place for her. The crowd roared when she was announced. She wasn’t expecting it , but she was focused on her job.

“It just felt right,” she said. “I felt cautiously optimistic that it was going to be really good.”

And it was. She purred through a triple Lutz – triple toe loop combination, an element that earned her 11.60 points out of the 40.51 technical marks she received. The crowd noise boomed, just as it did when she landed a triple flip.

Gold finished up with 76.43 points a season’s best, and 2.67 points ahead of the Russian nobody expected to be the top Russian: Anna Pogorilaya, with 73.98, it too a season’s best.

In third place is the Russian favourite, Evgenia Medvedeva, caught in a bind when she didn’t land her triple flip well enough to tack a triple toe loop onto the end of it. Oopsy. But she had presence of mind to attach the missing toe loop onto the end of her last jump pass, a triple loop. “You get tense, because you need to switch your mindset to do another combination that you haven’t trained so much,” she said afterward. “You have to fight and you cannot make mistakes.”

Medvedeva, who won the Grand Prix Final in her first season as a senior, however, had never encountered such a large throng. And this was her first senior world championship.

“When I stepped out and saw the full stands, and the spectators so close to the ice, I realize that this is a big stage,” she said.

Neither Medvedeva, nor Elena Radionova were as steady on their feet as Pogorilaya.

With such a logjam at the top, something had to give. Ashley Wagner dished out a thriller, finishing fourth. The top four women are within 3.27 points of each other. Radionova is fifth.

Tiny little workaholic Satoko Miyahara of Japan, the reigning world silver medalist, finished only sixth with 70.72 points, but underrotated her triple flip. When the marks came up, her face was like stone.

She admitted she was nervous on the jumps and had set a goal of breaking 70 for the short program, and she did. Her spins were a marvel.

Former world champion and Olympic silver medalist Mao Asada sits in only ninth place after she stepped out of her triple Axel, which she underroated. She also doubled the triple loop at the end of her triple flip. That left her with 65.87 points.

Ahead of her in eighth place was 2015 Canadian champion Gabby Daleman, who blasted her season’s best by almost seven points when she landed everything she attempted, including a flawless triple toe loop – triple toe loop combo.

She outpointed current Canadian champion Alaine Chartrand, who had stormed through her practices all week. But Chartrand ended up 17th, when she underrotated the second part of her triple Lutz – triple toe loop combo, which caused her to stumble out of it. And then she fell on a double Axel. She lost focus, thought she was doing well, and then….It’s a hard lesson. She fell short of her season’s best by almost 12 points.

But Gold – and Wagner – were having none of it. “She was MAHvellous,” said Gold’s coach, Frank Carroll, walking about looking like David Bowie in his black brimmed hat.

“I was very very happy, but you know she skated so consistently day in and day out. Both the short and long program.”

“Now, for the long program, she’d better do the same thing or she’s dead,” he deadpanned. “I will arrange for her to be assassinated.”

She’s been training her long program very well this week. (But so had Chartrand.)

Wagner breezed into the mixed zone, glowing, admitted she’d fallen on her behind while celebrating her skate on centre ice.
“It shows I’m human even after a superhuman skate,” she said.

If she looked in control during that ‘Hip Hip Chin Chin” routine, In truth, she wasn’t. “Fake it till you make it, “ she said. She had a shaky skate in a morning practice and her warmup wasn’t all she had hoped it to be either.

“I got back to my room and just reminded myself that it played in my head so often and it never works for me.”

So she just decided to relax. She knew she was prepared. “I don’t feel I have to make any excuses for myself. Today I got out of my own way.”

Her triple-triple combo is “money for me,” Wagner said. “If I get that first jump out of the way, I have a feel of the ice.”

But the event isn’t over and the medals haven’t been won yet. The women’s final is on Saturday night.

Vasiljevs:fully charged


Deniss Vasiljevs operates on a battery that doesn’t quit, that causes his eyes to twinkle and his feet to dance.

“He is energizer,” said his coach of one year, 1994 Olympic men’s champion Alexei Urmanov. “He have a few batteries inside of him, I think. I believe. That’s why I call him the Energizer. The good Energizer.”

At the world figure skating championships this week, they have become the event’s comic relief – but very, very serious, too.

Vasiljevs comes from a Baltic country – Latvia – that has never been a power in figure skating. Somehow, he has emerged as a skater with a powerful talent to move beautifully – and with great speed – with music at his young age. Exquisite. Then he heads to the kiss and cry and charms, his eyes googling like a cartoon character, grinning good-naturedly all the time. It seems there are all sorts of facets to Vasiljevs.

So far this week, Vasiljevs has been astonishing. At age 16, at his first senior worlds, he sits tenth after the short program, a very young man among men, holding his own. At the world junior championships about a month ago, Vasiljevs sat third after the short program, then unraveled to finish eighth. A lot has changed in a month. And a lot hasn’t. Vasiljevs has definite ideas about his hobby/sport/life pursuit.

Skating is about more than jumps, Vasiljevs said. “It’s my life, figure skating,” he said, with no small amount of passion.

Step sequences, spins, how they make Vasiljevs’ mind burst. He has an entire list of favourite skaters/role models. First on his list is Stephane Lambiel of Switzerland.

“He was the first skater that I really loved his skating,” he said. As a boy (he’s still a boy), Vasiljevs watched Lambiel all the time, every time he could. “It was like the first moment of work that I would try to skate as him,” Vasiljevs said. “I was always trying to reach his level.”

Besides, his mother, a former dancer, was a Lambiel fan.

His second love was Daisuke Takahashi. “In my opinion, he is so talented and so unbelievably great skater,” said the beaming Latvian. “He could do every music you going to give him. Like for me before, I could do only classical.”

Next on the list? Patrick Chan,the three-time world champion known for his uncommon skating skills, who steams from one end of the ice to the other in a couple of gulps, who skates on the edge, pushing the limits like nobody else. Yes, Vasiljevs appreciates that.

Chan is the first skater of the highest level that Vasiljevs has met “in real life.”

“I love his performance,” Vasiljev said of the Canadian. “It is in my opinion something special, that I never saw in other skaters.”

He liked Chan before and he likes him even better now, he said.

And just for good measure, he throws in Javier Fernandez. “He’s from Europe, come on,” he said. “Always it’s Canada or United States or Japan. And here he is coming from Spain and he is a very good skater.”

Perhaps he feels a sort of kinship with a skater who has bolted to the top from an essentially non-skating country. Like maybe he will.

Vasiljevs start didn’t come in traditional ways, of course. It doesn’t in a country that doesn’t have a history. Vasiljevs can’t explain how he has come to understand the beauty of the stroke and the movement that goes with it.

But he tries.

“I never tried to learn somewhere, like a school,” he said. “Skating for me is like free movement. So every time I’m skating in my home country [in hometown Daugavpils] alone, my mom – she’s not a coach but she’s simply a huge fan of figure skating – she’s always correct me.

“So I hope everyone likes it because she is very good critic.”

He also credits his first coach, Ingrida Snieskiene, from the time he was nine, oh some short seven years ago. “She showed me that I must skate free, to try to do good curves,” he said. His choreographer has pushed him in that direction, too.

“They are trying to give me something new,” he said. Perhaps this explains why he is skating to Daft Punk for his free skate. It’s different, for sure. He bursts out with a black costume with white figures on it, taken from the movie “Tron: Legacy” from which the music comes. It’s definitely not classical.

And he says Urmanov has become an important addition to his learning curve, too. Urmanov said that before Vasiljevs came to skate with him about a year ago in Sochi, Russia, the kid didn’t have a reliable triple Axel. In the short program in Boston, he rose to the occasion and he did one that earned him 9.50 points. It helped him edge closer to the technical scores of seasoned senior skaters.

In the short program, he outskated folks like Denis Ten (12th), Maxim Kovtun (13th ), and his technical score is nudging those of former U.S. champions Max Aaron, and Adam Rippon.

Urmanov says he’s training quads, but they are not ready yet.

Vasiljevs started with Urmanov before last year’s world junior championships and the young Latvian trains almost full time in Sochi now.

“It’s always a lot of work with some of my athletes,” said Urmanov. “He didn’t do triple Axel, so we fix it in August-September. And we put it in program.”

Later, Urmanov stepped up the kids’ challenge, putting two triple Axels in the long.

Vasiljevs is an eager learner, Urmanov said. “He grow a lot and he becomes a man.”

And he has extremely novel spin positions. “Yeah, he has seriously unusual positions,” Urmanov said. “This is good because in figure skating, we want to see something new. This is good that he have such a nice position, different from others.”

The positions come from Valsiljevs’ heart, from his personality, Urmanov said.

“Some people are born to be skaters,” Urmanov said. “And somebody not.”

He admits that Vasiljevs sometimes scares him because he moves so fast across the ice. “I just sometimes ask him: ‘Please, don’t do short track for me. We’re doing figure skating.’”

And in this moment, Urmanov sounds so much like his own coach, Alexei Mishin.

As Vasiljevs spills his wishes, hopes, dreams, beliefs, all in a vocal tumble of words, his mouth always turned up, Urmanov returns to the mixed zone, like a hovering parent.

He grabs an elaborate cloth flower someone threw on the ice for Vasiljevs (yes, he now has Japanese fans, too), and slips beside his student, using the flower like a microphone.

“Leave something for after the free program,” Urmanov tones into the flower, but the message is for Vasiljevs. “Say to journalists [after] free.

“Keep your energy because your battery is running low.”

And with that, Urmanov whisks his protégé into the wings. The show is over, for now.

Canadian women ready to play

It’s just all in a day’s work, all these crazy things that Canadian champion Alaine Chartrand does in practice at the world figure skating championships.

All focus is on the Russian women, and the Japanese and of course the Americans, too, but Chartrand is a lively wild card.

On Tuesday during practice, Chartrand, very quietly at one end of the rink clicked off a triple Lutz- triple toe loop – half loop – triple Salchow – hop- double Axel combination thingie.

And just for good measure, she followed it up with a triple Salchow – double Axel – double Axel. Ho hum.

And didn’t miss a beat.

“It’s a way to feel loose,” she said afterward. “I can do all of these crazy combinations when I’m in a good state of mind, relaxed.”

Her practices have been “pretty spot on,” she said. On Monday, she did a long-program run-through that was: “clean, clean, clean,” she said.

She was 11th at worlds last year in her debut. Last week she said she’d love to improve on that and a sixth place finish would be a lovely number.

Between the Russians, Japanese and Americans, there is a logjam of talented skaters at the top. But it might not be wise to count out Chartrand.

Chartrand’s pal, last year’s Canadian champion Gabby Daleman always seems to encounter roadblocks. And she had one after Canadians: a plantar fasciitis problem flared up two days after the event. But she’s clear of it now, has been for several weeks and has also practiced wonderfully.

Daleman skipped Four Continents, which allowed yet another former Canadian champion Kaetlyn Osmond to go. Reason? That injury.

“I’ve always had plantar fasciitis in my left foot,” she said. “I’ve got tendonitis, arthritis. And it all flared up at once and it was just getting too painful to put weight on it.”

So she and coach Lee Barkell made the world championship their first priority and gave Four Continents a miss.

Daleman dealt with plantar fasciitis at the Sochi Olympics and then it started coming back last year at nationals. She’s been battling it for two years. It comes and goes.

She was fine at this year’s Canadian championships, but two days after she returned, she had so much pain in her foot that she could not put her skate on or put weight o it. To Barkell, she said: “There’s something wrong. I need to check this out.”

Dr. Bob Brock told her she needed rest. She was off the ice for two or three weeks and she used her time to find new exercises to improve her strength (exercising muscles she didn’t know she had) and spending a week doing just edges with Tracey Wilson. “I did a lot of programs without spins.” She improved her edges and cardio.

She’s been pain free for the past two or three weeks. “It was kind of a blessing in disguise,” she said, always the positive one. She’s found new edges, new spins, new exercises. She gets foot massages but notes they are not the pleasant kind. She wears a special sleeve that helps to keep the foot tendons stretched.

How ready is she for this? “To be honest, I’ve never felt more ready for a competition in my life than right now,” she said. Which is saying a lot. She always feels ready.

Mao Asada: Wunderbar

In a practice rink with windows all around, the sun finally streaming in to ease the chill, skates Mao Asada, forgotten by too many.

Asada hasn’t stormed the place in her last few efforts. But look at her schedule: after sitting out a season (and Patrick Chan knows how hard that is to do), Asada looked like her old self in the first Grand Prix event, the Cup of China last fall.

Then she had to compete in three events where first, she faced the intense scrutiny of Japanese fans at the NHK Trophy. Then she suffered gastroenteritis at the Grand Prix Final, when she finished sixth of six. Japanese nationals? Another toughie, at home. She was third to the sprite, Satoko Miyahara. Exhaustion from all of this? Who would be surprised?

Asada, admitting her motivation was slipping, skipped the Four Continents championship in Taiwan to focus on this world championship in Boston this week.

So here she was in Boston, floating through the icy air in practice tights and a simple pink top. Hair up in a ponytail. No adornment. No fur. No frippery. She took her opening pose and held it, blinked those eyes, and thought and blinked, staring softly at something nobody else could see. There was something magical about that, somehow. Then the music started.

She was Queen of all she surveyed. I lost myself in her routine, carried by her grace. Time went by in a flash. Words barely measure up. Yes, yes, she was doing triple Axels and they looked good today. But it was more than that. It was the stretch of an arm, of her body, of a pure glance, unfettered by -just about anything glances can be fettered by. She softly whirs through a jump. That’s what it feels like to watch. You can feel what it looks like.

She says she’s going to 2018, that is, she humbly admits “if I make the team.” Yes, she knows she’s the elder now at age 25, what with all of these precocious youngsters raising the dust around her.

She’s very happy to be here, she says. She just wants to perform her best, she adds. Where she finishes is not important to her.

But what she does and how she does it so very, very important.

The Bourne Advantage: Weaver and Poje

Could it be that grief is so close to joy? That happiness can be found in grief? Yes, say Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, heading with a skip in their step to the world figure skating championships this week, with their “This Bitter Earth” free dance.

They feel down-in-their-boots grief every single day they practice, at times close to tears when they lay it all out on the line. And then comes the joy in the doing of it. There is lightness in their step and their words as they head to Boston.

“This Bitter Earth” came from the soft-heeled imagination of Peter Tchernyshev, but the feeling came from Shae-Lynn Bourne and her madly creative husband Bohdan Turok. Bourne is not just a consultant to Weaver and Poje. She is their muse. She is their touchstone at every emotional point.

“I’ve worked with them for a long time now,” said Bourne. “They are like my kids in some ways. They were my kids before having [son] Kai. I’m really happy for them because they’ve matured. They’ve continued to develop and grow their experiences. Every year, it’s difficult, especially in ice dancing. Nobody ever reuses a program. In singles, they get a chance to really develop a program. But not in dance. Everything has to be new, even the elements. In dance, lifts change, spins, everything changes of course to fit the rules. It’s like reinventing yourselves every year.”

This year, Bourne was less involved with their creative process, and has stayed involved from a distance. She mentally prepares them, helps with costumes, music, or with that final choice of finding music. Even Turok has been heavily involved with their music the past few years.

Once the free dance was developed, Weaver and Poje asked Bourne if she’d take a look at the routine at national monitoring sessions at the beginning of the season. Their question: “What story do you see?” After their first competition, they added a vocal. Bourne thought it added more soul.

However, Weaver and Poje had to deal with what the free dance was all about, what they had to do from within to make an audience get it.

Strangely enough, as Bourne watched the free dance, a story that Turok had written came to her mind. It was a short film he had created about the stages of grief.
It was, said Turok, a story about how two people, having lost a child, can completely turn in different directions in the relationship. “So one can completely lose oneself in grief and the other balances the reality of life,” he said.

In Detroit one day, watching Weaver and Poje skate their free dance, Bourne felt as if she was watching her husband’s short film. “Wow, that’s Bohdan’s movie playing out,” she thought.

So then she told them the story of his film. She felt the team just didn’t have the full story of expression at that point. As Bourne told the story, this Bitter Earth” started to make sense to the team. “We started to go through the pieces and changed expression,” Bourne said. “In this moment, we are feeling this… In this moment, we are feeling that. And then it came more alive.”

That’s when she started feeling goosebumps, Bourne said. “You cannot not have goosebumps,” she said. “I don’t like to watch something that leaves me with a question mark, where I’m not fully understanding it. You don’t even have to fully understand it, but you have to be touched by it.”

From the time that Weaver and Poje unleashed their “Je Suis Malade” routine several years ago, their trump card has always been their power to elicit goosebumps in viewers’ arms.

Turok emailed Bourne the script after she left that night and Bourne passed it along to Weaver. It was an aid to help them tap into a picture to make the routine more understandable, “so there is more of a reason for the movement,” Bourne said.

The program was no longer a blank. It was inside them. Weaver and Poje had never been through the experience of losing a child, but they could imagine.

Turok’s short film? It’s called “Return to Sender.” A couple loses their 6-year-old son, who died six months before the film starts. Every day, the wife writes letters to her son to stay connected with him. The letters never reach him, of course. They are always returned to sender. And she really wants to join him.

The husband is the one who is trying to stay in balance and deal with the realities of life. There is conflict, two people dealing with a tragedy in different ways. She blames him for not loving the son enough. “You have left me, too,” the husband tells her.

At the end, there is a reversal of roles. The wife comes to the brink of committing suicide, but chooses not to and arrives back to her life in the moment. And as soon as she has returned, the husband can break down, and allow himself to feel also.
“He has been supporting her,” Bourne explains. “He was holding her up.”

“He was maintaining his life in a quasi-balance, but it’s also temporary, because he doesn’t grieve,” Turok says. “Until she allows herself to survive. While she has one foot in the world of her son, he has to maintain the balance.”

At the end, they are able to hold each other.

At the end of Weaver and Poje’s routine, they shifted the choreography to reflect this story: at one point both of them lean back, almost like falling into a world of grief, but he turns and sees her falling and he catches her. He is her support through much of the routine.

The feel of the program lightens during the final footwork section. The music lightens. “It feels like life,” Bourne says. “It feels like they can live again.”
The program ends with the two of them holding hands and standing. “It’s almost like choosing life,” Bourne says.

The message of the routine: It’s not just a bitter earth. It is “This bitter earth, how sweet it is.”

“You can look at it many ways,” Bourne says. “It’s the best thing and it’s the worst thing because we die. And the people around us die, but we want to be here as long as we can, because it is so beautiful. Life is beautiful. We’ve got to embrace every moment because it is so precious and short. It’s bittersweet.”

Before and after competitions, Bourne and Weaver and Poje always check in with each other. Bourne says she has witnessed their growing confidence over the years. She remembers their nerves when they first started. She sent them away from training in Toronto with her to let them be in an environment with competitors, “because it’s very difficult when you are not,” she says.

“They are on this journey and they are on the right track,” Bourne says.

Bourne has known Weaver since she moved to Connecticut where Bourne had been training with her world champion dance partner Victor Kraatz. Weaver was taking lessons from British born dancer Matthew Gates. “I remember working with her and her partner,” Bourne says, recalling a show program she helped to do.

“I remember her bubbly personality and she always has this positive attitude that has been driven from day one. She visualizes and dreams of what she wants, and then she goes for it.”

Weaver and Poje balance each other perfectly. They are ying and yang. They have very different personalities, “but they are like an old married couple in their relationship,” Bourne says. It works.

So Weaver and Poje, performing to deep grief, are coming to the world championships with joy in their step, and the freshness as if they were starting a long season, not finishing it.

They stumbled at the Four Continents, defeated favourites, but – knowing them – that is to their advantage. “We had a bit of a wakeup call,” Weaver said. “We’ve actually risen with these challenges.” Coach Anjelika Krylova has told them: “This is the hardest you have ever worked. I’ve never seen you skate like this.”

Over the past five weeks, they worked on every microscopic detail: their fingertips, the point of their toes, their eyelashes, their power, their speed, every edge, every glance, what those glances mean, how they want it to read.

“I feel like we’re skating with confidence and power with no hesitation,” says Weaver, with a flush of excitement in her voice.

“That brings us to great places,” she said. “We are also enjoying what we are doing. For us, I’ve always said that happiness is an advantage.”

Nexxice: Ready Freddie?

Their mission is epic. The world synchronized skating champions – Nexxice – are tackling a musical behemoth. They are going where few have gone before. They are flying into the sun.

They are skating to “Bohemian Rhapsody” this year.

They are up to the task.

At the Canadian championships Feb. 20 in Waterloo, Ont., they took their opening poses, with some of the 16 reaching quietly but dramatically to cross their hands to their shoulders. The simple gesture spoke volumes. The visual is reminiscent of the iconic photo that graced Queen’s album cover for Queen II.  Over 20 years of performing and more remembering, the compelling image has always been Queen’s favourite photo. We got the reference right away.

They are Freddie Mercury’s hands that are crossed and this epic, one of the most revered songs in pop history, all came out of his wondrous imagination. Genius. The song soars along in different keys, with different rhythmic and harmonic changes, in different genres (ballad, opera, hard rock, heavy metal). It has no chorus. Freddie began to dream up pieces of it from the late 1960s until Queen finally released it in 1975 as an apparently unwieldly five minute, 55 second song, much too long for radio, right?

But the world – beguiled, mystified, energized – has been listening to its grand melodies ever since. Indeed, the song is a bit of a siren.

Last season, Nexxice won the world synchronized skating championships while skating to “Rhapsody in Blue.” This season, choreographer/coach Anne Schelter thought it intriguing for the talented team to skate to a different rhapsody, the Bohemian kind. It was a major leap from a glorious, sweeping lollipop to a tune about the fullness of life, with all of its shades and shadows.

“As soon as she suggested it, I thought, yes, that’s perfect,” said coach Shelley Simonton Barnett. “It’s the antithesis of what we did last year. We had wanted to skate to this kind of music for a while, and we just hadn’t found the right thing. And that was it. That’s exactly where we needed to go.”

One of the early worries? Had “Bohemian Rhapsody” played too many times in people’s consciousness? Was it over done? Perhaps not, at least in skating. Ask a Nexxice member if they ever tire of hearing it day after day after day of practice.

“Never,” said Kiersten Tietz, 20, of Erin, Ont. “Never.”

“I don’t know how you could ever get sick of that song,” said Lee Chandler, a fixture with Nexxice.

“It feels so powerful and empowering,” Tietz says. “It feels like this program is continuing to grow every single time we perform it. We are taking it to a new level and the next time, it will be even bigger.”

“Bohemian Rhapsody” is not an easy piece of music for a skater to master.  Perhaps that’s why it’s seldom seen this season, although Freddie Mercury and Queen have been prominent in mainstream figure skating as vocals have been allowed. (Young Canadian novice Alistair Lam skated to it at the Canadian championships, under suggestion from his adventurous choreographer Shawn Sawyer, never one to turn away from a challenge.) The musical and emotional complexities of the music are overwhelming.

It’s a beautiful piece of music,” said Barnett, who grew up during the era of Queen but who admits the band “didn’t stand out” for her at the time. (Sounds familiar.)

The music is intricate, she said. “There are so many layers and emotions. It’s so sophisticated. And to be able to skate properly and convey the feelings of that piece of music takes maturity.”

And for 16 people to be able to do it together and convey the same message? Daunting.

They’ve all had to explore the Queen thing. Some of the young skaters knew of him. Barnett thinks some hadn’t even listened to Queen before. “But they’ve certainly gotten to know him a lot better,” she said. “That’s what is wonderful about skating to music like that for a full year. You research and go deeper and keep trying to bring out more. With each month that passes, we just get more and more out of what we are hearing and what we are learning about him.”

Chandler, 25, said he’s always loved the song. He has wanted to skate to the song for years. No, it’s not from his era. (The song was released 41 years ago.) “We’ve had to go back and really dive into something that is different and unique,” he said. “I think the team has really been pushed a lot to get into that Freddie Mercury character. So far it’s been working really well.”

He admitted that although he’s been a fan of Queen songs, he didn’t really know a lot about the band. Tietz knew a little bit, but not a lot of details. They’ve surfed the video channels, where they’ve seen their live performances.

Ironically, Chandler, who had retired from the team after the world championship win last April, was pulled back into the Nexxice fold just before the Grand Prix Final in Barcelona, when synchronized skating became part of an ISU event featuring other skating disciplines for the first time, alongside the Yuzuru Hanyus and Patrick Chans. But Nexxice had some problems. They don’t usually peak that early in the season. And the team had been riddled with injuries. Schelter was reluctant to go to Barcelona.

One veteran severed a femoral artery during practice. The injury was so severe, surgery was required. She’s retired. The week before they were to leave for Barcelona, another veteran broke a wrist during practice. And then the next day, another of the veterans twisted an ankle warming up. Who said synchronized skating was easy?

Currently about eight of the 16 members are new. “We needed to train them to skate,” Barnett said. Hurriedly, they put together a program that was “skateable”, and tidy. It certainly didn’t plumb the depths they would have liked.  Just as difficult: how to reduce the 5:50 minutes of “Bohemian Rhapsody” into the required length of a free skate, which is no more than 4:40 minutes. And for all the times Queen was told to cut the piece and thought they couldn’t, Nexxice did. You can’t tell what’s missing.

At the last minute in December, Barnett called Chandler, who now works as a full-time coach.

“I was happy to come back,” Chandler said. “I still really love the team, and love the work ethic that the girls have. And they welcomed me back.” And imagine: he was coming back to skate that song.

But Chandler had to work miracles. He had been in Australia and returning through the United States at the time of Barnett’s plea. He learned the routine on his laptop on the way back to Canada for a practice. He had one practice. They flew to Barcelona the day after he learned the routine.

“That is a testament to him, but he’s so focused and he’s so talented,” Barnett said. “And he believes in Nexxice, so he really tried hard to make it work. He was great.”

Nexxice finished third, a remarkably good effort, all things considered. When they returned to Canada, they still had to create a short program – the Grand Prix Final called for only a free skate – and they created a routine to “Carol of  the Bells,” a Christmas song performed by a children’s choir. And with its purity and heavenliness, it was the total opposite to “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Dressed in the white of innocence, they skate to lyrics that go: “Hark? Hear the bells/Sweet silver bells/ All seem to say/ Throw cares away.”

Not at all Freddie’s scene.

After Nexxice finished the short-program choreography, they had an event called Winterfest in Mississauga. And only after that could Nexxice buckle down to do some serious re-choreographing of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The new rhapsody looks decidedly different from the old.

A big help: Sandra Bezic, who had worked with them last year enroute to their victory in the world championships, returned, inspired by their work ethic and abilities.

At first blush, Bezic, who has choreographed Queen before, said “Bohemian Rhapsody” was not a piece that she would have gravitated to. She’s now all in.

Bezic’s contribution has been to stress the importance of an emotional connectivity to the music, “trying to draw things out of them that they didn’t know they had, or it hadn’t occurred to them in the music,” Barnett said.

“We’re just getting them to understand so they can skate it honestly. The really big thing is we don’t want them to skate it without knowing what they’re saying.”

Emotionally, Nexxice is endeavoring to show “a raw pain.” They wrestle with the conflicting emotions of a young adult. At the end, they free themselves from the darker side. Below is their performance at the Canadian championships.

At the very end comes a tribute to Freddie, inspired by a performance he did of “Bohemian Rhapsody” with the British Royal Ballet in 1979, although truth be told, Freddie had two left feet when it came to ballet. For most of the routine, he strutted as Freddie does. But at the very end, a group of ballet dancers turns him upside down, like an upended cross. (The second clip shows Freddie talking about the experience.)

Nexxice wanted to re-create Freddie’s inverted cross but International Skating Union rules prevent skaters from being suspended upside down. Bezic came up with a solution: Chandler does a handstand and supports his own weight.

“We had our Freddie,” Barnett said, speaking of Chandler, the only male on the team. Indeed they do.


(And just for the Queenies among you, watch Queen’s “One Vision” below, where they revisit the iconic photo 10 years after “Bohemian Rhapsody” was released.)