Duhamel and Radford always learning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adam Rippon’s answer to the quad quandary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Hanyu’s Fall Classic (or Classic Fall)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then he underrotated a quad toe loop and fell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attitude at Autumn Classic


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drama at Autumn Classic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s our Ellen

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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s my Ellen,” she said.




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.