That’s our Ellen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s my Ellen,” she said.




Tepin: Queen of all she surveys

Hello boys and girls. I’ve had a lovely vacation over the summer, and now will return with a horse racing story to take the rust off my writing mind. Have no fear, there will soon by lots of figure skating stories to come. But for now, we’ll have a little fun with a female racehorse that is becoming unbeatable. All photos below are mine.

With every race, with every rush to the line, the legend of Tepin, a 5-year-old mare with a coat the colour of deep oiled bronze, is growing apace.

On Saturday at Woodbine Racetrack in Toronto, breaking from the outside post eight, Tepin won her eighth consecutive race, the $1-million Woodbine Mile. Never mind that she hadn’t raced in three months. Never mind that she was the only mare in a field of powerful males. Tepin ran like Tepin does. She’s the tops. She’s the queen. And she knows it. She keeps proving it.


Tepin, the heavy 2 to 5 favourite, won by only half a length, turning back the challenges of earnest 23 to 1 local longshot Tower of Texas and the dangerous British steed Mutakayyef, thundering ever closer. But they had no chance. Eurico Rosa da Silva, riding Tower of Texas, said his 5-year-old gelding was gaining on Tepin, but he had nowhere to go in the stretch, blocked. “When I had room, he kicked on so strong, but the filly already had a couple of lengths on me,” he said. “It’s really hard to make up ground on a good horse.”

Mutakayyef’s rider, Dane O’Neill, he of the piercing eyes, said “We could have done with a stronger pace, but we’d never have beaten the filly. She’s exceptional and she’s right back on song to do what she did today. …She had the race won. We weren’t gaining. She’d done enough and she knew that.”


Dane O’Neill


Tepin’s connections know she got a little tired in the final stages, that she needed that race after missing the racing wars for so long, that you can’t just get fully fit off workouts, as rollicking as they may be. And that she won on heart.

And we all saw something we had never seen at a racetrack before. As Tepin returned to the winner’s circle, a large group of spectators on the upper deck of the grandstand began to chant loudly: “Tepin! Tepin! Tepin! Tepin!”

“I’ve never been a part of something like that,” said assistant trainer Norm Casse.”Even when we won at Royal Ascot. It was a pretty emotional moment.”

Never heard such chanting before, said jockey Julien Laparoux, a French-born but U.S. based jockey, who also won an earlier stakes race on the card with Rainha Da Bateria in the $300,000 Canadian Stakes. Laparoux obviously finds trips to Woodbine rewarding. He won another $1-million race, the Queen’s Plate in July with Sir Dudley Digges.


Julien Laparoux


Laparoux with Rainha Da Bateria before the Canadian Stakes


“It’s been for a while now that we can see how people react,” Laparoux said. “When you talk about Tepin, she has a big fan club. At Churchill [Downs, in Louisville, Ky.] everybody came to take pictures of her. So I think it’s been a week since my twitter has been going crazy, since Tepin got into this race. Everybody loves her and it’s great. It’s good for racing and she is good for racing. It’s been great for everybody.”


Tepin’s youngest fan


How great? Tepin picked up $600,000, and now has won about $4-million (U.S.) for her owner Robert Masterson, a retired chief executive officer of several worldwide service companies. And Saturday at Woodbine? People wagered $9,638,444 on the 12 races on the card, and completely smashed the previous Woodbine Mile day record of $7,187,062. It’s the fifth highest wagering total ever for a Wooodbine card. All accomplished on a dismal day with steady rain falling. Tepin is good for business, indeed.

Tepin’s appearance at Woodbine was a homecoming of sorts. Her trainer, Mark Casse, has been Canada’s top trainer 10 times, so successful at attracting moneyed owners to buy horses for him, and at building up a group of loyal employees that has made it possible for Casse to open up stables at major tracks in the United States, too. Casse still has a large and lively division at Woodbine, where he is still the leading trainer, even though he has been here physically only about a half dozen times this season.

Casse tried his best to get to Woodbine on Saturday – he’s been attending the Keeneland yearling sales in Kentucky, where he is stocking up on the next generation of top racehorses. He had planned on taking a small plane from Kentucky to Toronto, but felt uncomfortable about pending storms.

That left his son Norman Casse to handle the duties at Woodbine. He’s an assistant to his father, but he has been so much a part of Tepin’s career, that he was more than capable of stepping into the role.


Norm Casse


Norm initially showed no interest in his father’s career, but when he changed his mind, he learned by working with the best horses and people in the business. Casse fast-tracked his son.
“This was a real special moment,” said Norm, of winning the Woodbine Mile, a race he feels is Woodbine’s marquis race. And besides, Mark Casse has won just about every race there is to win at Woodbine – except the Woodbine Mile.

“I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t coming to Woodbine,” Norm said. “When I first started in horse racing, I came to Woodbine and this is where I learned everything. And to bring a top horse to win it, it is really, really nice.”

As for Tepin, he’s been by her side for her entire career, as soon as she came to the Churchill division of his father’s stable that he oversees. “I got to know her. I got to know what makes her tick. I know the little things we need to do to get her ready for a big race.”


Tepin at Woodbine


The big question mark about Tepin was whether or not she was sharp enough after such a long layoff to win the Woodbine Mile. Her previous start was in the Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot racecourse in England June 14. Tepin overcame everything – soft turf, etc. – and won by half a length. While Mark Casse feels the hot summer in New York didn’t suit her, Norm feels that the long trip back from England hurt her more. She had a very long van ride across a body of water to get to Amsterdam from England. She boarded a plane to New York, and stayed four days in quarantine. Then she travelled to Belmont racetrack in New York, jumped on another van to Churchill Downs, and then headed back north to Saratoga in upstate New York. “I think any of us would have been wiped,” Norm said.

The Casse stable intended to run Tepin in a stakes race at Saratoga, but her works were lacklustre. They backed off on her training, and then got her ready through some impressive works for the race in Canada. Tepin had never run in Canada.


Tepin winning the Woodbine Mile


Now, the grinding win in the Woodbine Mile sets her up for her ultimate goal of winning another Breeders’ Cup race. (She won the Breeders’ Cup Mile last year against males, even though she could have run in the Fillies and Mares Turf division.) The Woodbine Mile was designated as a Breeders’ Cup win-and-you’re-in race, so Tepin gets a trip to these world championships of horse racing at Santa Anita in California in November.

First, owner Robert Masterson would like to see her run one more time before that, to keep her on her toes. There are two options: the tough Shadwell Mile at Keeneland racecourse in Kentucky. (Last year’s Woodbine Mile winner, Mondialiste skipped this year’s race to prepare for the Breeders’ Cup in the Shadwell). There, she would run up against males again. The other choice would be to run her against her own gender in the First Lady Stakes at Keeneland in mid-October.

Tepin won the First Lady last year. Laparoux has won it four times. Norm feels Laparoux has been a key to Tepin’s success. “If you look at her form, he may be the biggest change that we made with her,” she said. With Laparoux riding her, she’s been defeated only twice, and by very narrow margins.

Laparoux says the biggest change in Tepin since he started riding her is that she is a racehorse with confidence. “She’s more relaxed,” he said. “It’s almost like she knows she’s going to go and win the race. She’s so much confident, she makes me more confident.”

Because he’s won eight consecutive races on her, he’s very aware that he doesn’t want to snap the streak. “You don’t want to lose any more,” he said. “She’s been winning so much.”

Norm says Tepin showed heart in winning the Woodbine Mile. “She laid it all out on the line,” he said. “She was exhausted afterwards. I had my reservations coming into the race. I thought we had her cranked up, but I wasn’t 100 per cent confident. But now she’ll move forward. And she’ll run a better race next time.”


Tepin in her negligee


And that should make her opponents very worried indeed.

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.

kurt and don 4

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.

kurt and don 5
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.

kurt and don 8
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.