The King is back: my photos from the Wando Stakes at Woodbine Racetrack

My two worlds are colliding at the moment. Days after the Stars On Ice tour landed in Toronto, a group of Queen’s Plate hopefuls tested out their legs in the Wando Stakes at Woodbine.

The race is named after a spectacular Canadian colt called Wando, a copper-coloured gentle sort that became the first to win the Canadian Triple Crown in 10 years, back in 2003. Nobody has swept the series since. Only seven have ever won it.

Now, 14 years later, Canada’s best 3-year-olds are preparing for the first leg of the Triple Crown, the Queen’s Plate, which Wando won by nine lengths. Wando, bred by Toronto developer Gustav Schickedanz, died three years ago and is buried at Schickedanz’s Scomberg Farms, beside another of his Queen’s Plate winners, Woodcarver, as well as one of Schickedanz’s favourite riding horses.

The Wando Stakes on Sunday was a contest between Queen’s Plate winterbook favourite, Tiz A Slam and Sovereign Award champion 2-year-old from last year, King and His Court, both from powerful stables.

The following are photographs I took at Woodbine on Sunday:

 

This is Tiz A Slam, trained by Hall of Famer Roger Attfield. If Tiz A Slam wins the Queen’s Plate this year, it will give Attfield a record ninth victory in the classic race. Canada’s top jockey, Eurico Rosa da Silva, rides.

In the other corner is King and His Court, ridden by veteran Gary (Boo) Boulanger. He is trained by Canada’s perennial top trainer Mark Casse, who had one of the favourites for the Kentucky Derby last Saturday.

 

Breaking from the gate in the Wando Stakes. King and His Court is No. 3, Tiz A Slam is N. 4.

Pounding in front of the grandstand for the first time.

Down the homestretch, King and His Court battles it out with Tiz A Slam, with Gus Schickedanz’s grey horse, Megagray between them. Megagray ended up third.

King and His Court, winning the Wando over Tiz A Slam. It appears the King is back after two lacklustre efforts in the United States earlier this spring on different racing surfaces.

Winner’s circle glory for the King.

Gus Schickedanz presenting the trophy to Gary Boulanger.

 

Kaetlyn Osmond: the empty space has been filled

Just as Kaetlyn Osmond was about to make her way to the world figure skating championships in Helsinki – only her third – the value of silver, down in the doldrums on world markets, began to pick up. The ticker tapes of the world began to spin in the right direction.

It’s good news for Osmond, who has earned buckets full of silver medals this season, none as spectacular as the silver medal she earned at the world championships.

Osmond, 21, started the season at Finlandia Trophy with a gold medal, defeating Mao Asada and world bronze medalist Anna Pogorilaya.

A short time later, she won a silver medal at the Skate Canada International, behind only world champ Evgenia Medvedeva of Russia.

Cup of China was next. Silver again, just behind Elena Radionova of Russian. Osmond had won the short program, and finished third in the free.

Grand Prix Final? Osmond was the first Canadian woman to qualify for it since Joanne Rochette in 2009. Osmond finished second in the short program, but fourth in the free, for fourth overall. She was not now going toe to toe with the best six skaters in the world. Behind her after the short program were world medalists from Japan,( Satoko Miyahara) and three other talented Russians. All season long, Osmond was able to spar very well with the tops in her discipline.

Four Continents was an unfortunate hiccup on Osmond’s journey. She says she tries to forget that one. Just as well.

And of course at the world championships, Osmond sped to second place behind only Medvedeva, after finishing second in both the short and the long.

Going into this world championship, Osmond was not thinking about winning a medal or about where she would place at all, despite her successful season. “I was going into worlds thinking I finally wanted to feel proud of how I skated,” she said. “I have had a season of highs all year, so when I went into worlds, I just wanted to end on that same feeling and to feel the best I had felt all season.”

Don’t forget, it’s the first time Osmond got to experience a full season. That idea excited her. She just wanted to feel proud. When she skated the way she hoped and it meant she won a silver medal, Osmond said: “Honestly, it still doesn’t feel believable.”

What is real is hard to explain. Her silver medal is entirely motivating for anything she does from now on. “After I broke my leg, I thought my career was done,” she said. “And the competitions that came afterwards, didn’t go well. It put so much doubt in my head. And I questioned that I would never be able to perform at my best ever again. I hated going home from competitions, feeling like I didn’t compete.

“And I felt lost every time. So this season, each time I went out and skated, I forgot about the feeling that I wanted to find and just focused on finding the love of the sport again. And each time I went out there, that’s what I felt. I felt like that empty piece of me kept getting filled up and filled up. And at the end of my long program [in Helsinki], it was finally like I felt full again.”

She can’t explain the feeling at the moment in which she took her final pose in the free skate. “I just felt like a full human being again,” she said. “It’s something I never realized I felt so lost before that.”

Her silver medal will probably find its way into a case at home full of her other silver medals she won during the season. Aside from an Olympic team silver medal, Osmond hadn’t won silver medals before, she said. “I think I’ll have a box of silvers,” she said. Right now, the shiny world medal is in Newfoundland, her home spot.

One of the first things that Osmond did when she returned to Canada was to return to Newfoundland. She’s lived near Edmonton since she was 10 years old, but the home province is dear to her heart. She hadn’t been to Newfoundland in a year. And she hadn’t been to her hometown of Marystown (population 5,500) in four years, when she was feted for winning her first of three Canadian titles.

Marystown did it up big that day. She rode a red convertible into town, waving all the way. There was no shortage of “Welcome Home, Kaetlyn,” signs. “I wanna be just like Kaeltyn Osmond,” said a young girl’s placard, from her perch in another car. Osmond spoke and spoke. Signed autographs, Posed for photos. Got to take home a quilt. Marystown renamed their rink the “Kaetlyn Osmond Arena.” The town named a street after her.

Kaetlyn Osmond as a young skater in Newfoundland

“Even since post-Olympics, I hadn’t been back,” she said. “For me to get a chance to go home, that was the biggest thing. I have so many supporters in Newfoundland, and so many friends and they’ve kept me going through numerous, numerous things, so it was a chance for me to see them and to hear their stories and for me to share my own.”

Osmond made a trip to the Children’s Hospital, too. “It was a really humbling experience,” said the athlete who has endured a shopping list of injuries, some that could have ended her career. “It reminded me of when I was in the hospital. And seeing so many kids go through way worse things than I was dealing with, was inspiring.”

Osmond has clearly been a star on the Stars On Ice tour this season. And she has easily stepped into that role. With a swish of newly blond-tipped hair, Osmond was spellbinding as she skated to Tori Kelly’s “Hallelujah.” She just looked different, all told. Bigger. More commanding. Soft as she needed to be. Mischievous as she chose in “I Love It.”

“The group numbers are so much fun,” she said. “I love Jeff [Buttle]’s choreography. There’s a reason I go back to him every year now for my long program. [This past season, Buttle choreographed her La Boheme free skate and he’s done exhibition routines for her in the past].

“He’s so much fun and his choreography is crazy hard. But it brings out a different side of me each time and it makes me learn new things. So I love it. Being able to do this tour and perform, it’s why I started skating. And it brings me back to my love of skating every time.”

Osmond was also part of the tribute routine to Jeff Billing, the talented costume designer and director for Stars on Ice for many years before he died last September of natural causes at age 71. If there was a number that pulled at heartstrings in the show, this was it. “It was really heartfelt,” she said. She knew Billings from two previous tours with Stars on Ice.

Before she went on tour, Osmond already completed her routines for the Olympic season. She’s staying mum for the moment on the music being used, but she will say they are programs that are very different from the past season. “There’s two pieces of music that I absolutely love,” she said. “My long program is something that I wanted to do for years and years and years and years and years. So I’m really excited for it.”

Lance Vipond has choreographed her short program for the coming season – always her mainstay in the past – and Buttle did her long program. “The choreography is very different from one to the other,” Osmond said. “But I love them.”

Of course, it means that she will leave behind her short program routine to Edith Piaf, singing “Sous le Ciel de Paris,” and “Milord,” but even though it served her extremely well all season, and it gave her a feeling of strength, Osmond is happy to get it go.

The memorable Piaf routine

“I can tell you right now, if I did my short next year, it wouldn’t look the same,” she said. “I love the challenge of having a new character. And even though some people see my program about eight times a year at competition, I hear it about 15 times a day. You are really looking forward to not having that any more.

“Time to get annoyed by a new program.”

 

Gabby Daleman: standing tall

It hasn’t all sunk in yet for Gabby Daleman, at 19, the world bronze medalist. There is a medal now jingling against her heart, even when she doesn’t wear it.

That medal is proof positive of so many things: that she can overcome, that she’s as good as anyone in  the world, and that she didn’t ever, ever, deserve to be bullied. Ever. For any single thing about her.

On her debut appearance on the Stars On Ice tour, Daleman is skating to Demi Lovato’s “Confident.” Perfect. Lovato was bullied as a young girl, too. And Lovato, too, has overcome to the point that she is a spokesperson for mental health.

“It’s time for me to take it,” Lovato warbles.

“I’m the boss right now

Not gonna fake it

Not when you go down

‘Cause this is my game

And you better come to play.”

“You had me underrated,” Lovato sings. So was Daleman, from the start. For all those who have watched her rise from young Canadian medalist (at 16, she was the youngest athlete on the Canadian Olympic team in Sochi) to world medalist, they’ve seen an exhibition of confidence, of positive messages, of power, speed and will. “She never wanted for self-confidence, that girl,” figured one scribe. And so it appeared.

But Daleman has had to fight every step for that confidence. As a young girl, Daleman suffered from a learning disorder, making it difficult for her to read and write. The bullies came out in full force. And the jealousies, too. Daleman was a whirlwind of activity, learning gymnastics for nine or 10 years and figure skating, too. She would leave class to practice. The others gave her a rough ride, because they didn’t get to do the same. Daleman suffered under a double whammy. She couldn’t win.

The taunts were so bad, Daleman didn’t want to go to school. “Personally, it was awful,” she recalled. “I would not want to do anything. I wore long-sleeved t-shirts to hide my biceps because I was getting made fun of for having too much muscle, for not being pretty enough to be a figure skater.”

At every turn, she was being told that she had to look a certain way to do what she loved. She was told how a girl should look. She didn’t love who she was. She was ashamed of her abs. And her strength.

Gabby’s abs

 

Fortunately, her friends and family picked her up. Her younger brother, Zach, also a figure skater, played a major role in boosting her self-confidence. It’s no surprise that they are so close. About a year ago, Daleman began to do fitness exercises on Instagram, and it caught on. People began to tell her how much they wanted to be like her. She was also experiencing some success in the skating world. Now people wanted to have abs and muscles, just like Daleman.

“That really helped me in a certain way, because I’m like, if people want to do this, why should I not want to look like this?” she said.

It wasn’t a simple task to repair the effects of bullying. Daleman has always been hard on herself, personally and in training. Sometimes, she’ll still show up in baggy shirts when she doesn’t feel good, an effect from the past. When this happens, she’s fortunate to have friends like training mate Dylan Moscovitch, who bucks her up when she needs it. The people closest to her get it.

In the next year or two, Daleman plans to write a book about her experiences, to tell others how to deal with a problem that is rife, everywhere. She’ll be working on a project with Skate Canada, too.

Gabby Daleman: not pretty enough to be a figure skater?

 

And so finally, that bronze medal puts the exclamation mark on what Daleman is: no longer underrated.

“I’ve just been taking it day to day,” she said while on tour. “Enjoying myself. I had World Team Trophy [after world championships], which was a lot of fun. So I focused on that. And now I’m just focusing on the tour and enjoying myself.”

How did she make it happen? One foot in front of the other. Doing the work every day. Training. Trusting herself. Believing in herself. “I had a great coaching team and great training mates there to cheer me on and my parents,” she said. “I had my brother, back home. But not only my brother. My country.”

She felt proud that she strung two solid programs together and boy, does she make her triple toe loop – triple toe loop combination sing – the only skater to max out the points and sometimes the +3s on that jump combination multiple times last season.

Gabby Daleman’s cheering section, back home in Newmarket. (Courtesy CNW Group/Pickering College)

The history of her triple toe loop – triple toe loop combo:

At Nebelhorn Trophy, Daleman attempted triple Lutz – triple toe loop in the short program, slightly underrotating it to get 8.30 points on that element. For the long program, she did the triple toe loop – triple toe loop for 10.60, and seven marks of +3 across.

At Skate America, she more noticeably underrotated the triple Lutz – triple toe loop and got 5.80 for that. Back to the triple toe loop –triple toe loop for the free, she earned 10.30 points, with four +3s.

At Trophee de Paris, Daleman left the triple Lutz combo behind, and did triple toe loop – triple toe loop in the short program, earning 10.70, to put her in second place. In the free, she missed the combo, getting only 2.20.

At the Canadian championships, she had hit her stride, took the silver medal and absolutely maxed out her scores, with all +3s for 10.70 points in both the short and the free programs.

At Four Continents, Daleman won the short program over Kaetlyn Osmond, hitting the triple toe loop combo well enough to get 10.30 with three +3s. And in the free, she got eight +3s for 10.70.

World championships? Maxed out those scores at 10.70 for both the short and long programs, while getting eight +3s in both.

Osmond and champion Evgenia Medvedeva did the more difficult triple flip – triple toe loop combo and each got the exact same mark in the free: 11.00. So Daleman was breathing down their necks with a combo considered easier.

How did she make that combination so effective and ferocious a tool? “To be honest, I don’t even know,” she said. “That’s just how I’ve done it. It’s just more controlled and it’s fluid.” She doesn’t know if she’s keeping it for next season. “Anything can happen,” she said.

So no, Daleman doesn’t back down from a challenge. During the tour, she’s been seen doing backflips with ropes around her waist. At one end of the rope on one side is Kurt Browning, who does them (at age 50) in the show, and on the other end, Moscovitch. “I want to try,” Daleman told them. They gave her tips.

Gabby Daleman, so young at the Sochi Olympics

 

“Don’t untie it,” Daleman insisted. “I’m serious.”

Because they both knew Daleman had years of gymnastics training behind her, they tried one. Daleman landed it. “It felt good,” she said. “Let’s film it.”

“They’re actually really easy and a lot of fun,” she said.  The ropes are there in case she bails out and they help to keep her in the air, not on the ice. With Daleman, they really didn’t need the rope. It never occurred to Daleman to bail out.

Her Stars on Ice numbers were apropos and she skated them with confidence. She sparkled. Former Newfoundland skater Joey Russell choreographed them both. “’Confident’ was to help me feel confident,” Daleman said. “And to tell people where I am now in my skating, and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t be. I’m in great shape. I have the jumps. I have the skills. I have everything else everyone has.”

Her other routine is to “Gold,” sung by Linda Eder, a 56-year-old American with a golden voice. Buttle picked out the music for Daleman because he thought it would bring her luck. “It shows a much softer and gentler side,” she said. “And it actually is really touching. I have had people come up to me at the (post-show) meet and greets and say: ‘You made me cry from that program.’ Yes! That was Daleman’s aim.

“I wonder if when all is done

Anyone heard my voice,” Eder sings.

“I know my voice was just a whisper

But someone may have heard

There were nights the moon above me stirred

And let me grab a hold

My hands have touched the gold.”

So onward Daleman sweeps, living the life she’s been given, standing tall through it all.

Duhamel and Radford: We can be heroes, just for one day

Thursday was a good day, said Eric Radford, slipping into a rink-side seat at the Air Canada Centre during Stars on Ice rehearsals in Toronto.

It was good, because he – for the first time since the world championships in Helsinki – landed some double jumps. “And I feel fine,” he said.

On tour, having fun with Gabby Daleman (Stars On Ice photo)

Radford and partner Meagan Duhamel finished seventh in Helsinki when Radford’s back/hip started bothering him badly at exactly the wrong time: the day of the short program. During morning practice, he couldn’t land a triple Lutz. After he returned from Helsinki, an MRI showed his L2 disc (the upper part of the lower back) had herniated.

Actually he figures he had symptoms hinting at troubles back in February. “I had some back spasms just a few weeks before Four Continents,” he said. “I was dealing with them when I was there. Then I had that tight muscle heading into worlds. I think they were all coming from the same place.” The injury got so bad on the day of the short program at Helsinki that he could not skate properly.

Looking back, Radford figures if his disc had herniated three days earlier, it would have given him some sort of chance in Helsinki. Still, he’s also lucky that it’s an injury that came at season’s end. “I’m right at the moment when I have the time to get better,” he said. “And we don’t’ have any extremely important competitions coming up.”

The herniated disc caused the two-time world pair champions to miss World Team Trophy in Japan, and at one point, they wondered if they would be able to do the Stars On Ice tour at all. The Canadian leg of the tour stops at 12 cities from April 28 to May 18, starting in Halifax and ending in Vancouver. For the first time, all of the cast members were Canadians, simply because there are so many powerful skaters in this country. The tour was to mark the first time that Kurt Browning, Patrick Chan and Elvis Stojko had skated on the same tour together. Add up their world championship titles, and throw in choreographer/director Jeffrey Buttle, and you have 11. The tour also celebrated the singular achievements of Canadian women, with Kaetlyn Osmond (silver medal) and Gabby Daleman (bronze) being the first Canadian women to win two of three world medals.

“Sitting at home was horrible,” Radford said. “I did feel very lost. It was so unknown. We didn’t know if we would do Japan, and I didn’t know if I would be able to do the tour even. It’s really nice to be back skating a little more now.”

He had only been doing singles in the last few days. Then his physiotherapist said he should probably try some doubles. He wears a supportive belt when he skates. And he reckons he’ll have it for a while. “But jumping felt good,” he said. “It feels like I felt when I was a little kid on the ice again, by jumping my first double Salchow.” It WAS his first double Salchow in a month.

Duhamel said that she and Radford kept skating when they returned, because they initially thought they would do the World Team Trophy and the tour. But as the doubt grew, Duhamel was also mindful of the fact that fellow pair skaters Julianne Seguin and Charlie Bilodeau were forced to pull out of the Stars on Ice tour. “I knew the tour was down some numbers,” Duhamel said. “So I offered my singles services to Jeff Buttle if he needed a number filled.” She grinned.

In the end, she and her partner are doing the tour, albeit only one solo number, although they also take part in the group numbers. “I feel there is nothing I can do to control anything about Eric, so I just focused on myself and being the best I can be,” Duhamel said. She’s been working on some skills and has kept herself in top shape. “With the Olympics coming in less than a year, there is not a day to waste,” she said. “You have to be better than top shape every day.”

And she is. She says she’s in the best shape of her life right now.

Coming on tour had its advantages for Radford. It meant that he was able to have a physiotherapist at any time, and he does physiotherapy three times a day. “Just moving and getting back into skating slowly has really helped [the back] to improve quickly,” he said.

“But I’m not going to be going back and doing triple twists or anything like that soon,” he said.

Their solo routine on the Stars on Ice tour is to a David Bowie Song: “Heroes,” but Buttle, as he did with many pieces in the show, gives familiar music a twist by using a version done by another star. (Tom Jones sings Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song, a number performed by Kurt Browning, and American Idol contestant Tori Kelly sings Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” in a routine done by Osmond.)

Duhamel and Radford skate to a version sung by Peter Gabriel.  “As people know, Meagan and I have been through so much in our career,” Radford said. “Ups and downs. We’ve had to beat a lot of odds and I feel like this song lends itself to that story.”

“I, I will be king,” the song goes.

And you, you will be queen.

Though nothing will drive them away,

We can beat them, just for one day.

We can be heroes, just for one day.”

 

The music was Radford’s choice. Dylan Moscovitch introduced the song to Radford at the Sochi Olympics. Radford loved it. When he presented it to choreographer Julie Marcotte, she loved it too.

For next season, they will return to their “Muse” free program, although it will be refreshed and reinvigorated for the Olympic run. They have a new short program that captures their story, too. They’ll announce it a little later.

Their past season was not ideal. They showed up ready for the world championships, at their peak, ready to do the A game. The morning that Radford could not do a triple Lutz, and the music for their run through was about to start at practice, Duhamel knew she had to think fast. She skated over to Radford – no time to consult with the coaches first – and said: “Eric, we’ll do a triple toe.”

“We didn’t work that hard to go to worlds not to skate,” Duhamel said. “We’d find a way to skate. And I hadn’t tried a triple toe in three months. So I warmed one up and we did it with the music.”

“It was a bit of a different experience. It’s one thing not to practice a jump for three months and do one, but to have to do one at competition at worlds, is a little bit of a scary unknown experience. It’s life and it’s sport.” Curve balls are going to come at any time. Duhamel knows that it’s up to them to figure out how to deal with them. It’s not an option to deal with it in a negative mindset. “You can’t give up,” she said. “You find a way. You work around it and you make it work and that’s what we did.”

Looking back, the whole year was “pretty terrible,” Duhamel said. “The programs weren’t a fit for us. The skating wasn’t working. It wasn’t gelling. It was lacking some oomph and pizzazz. The whole thing, now that I think about it, was just like mush. A puddle almost. But we had two stellar seasons before that. You can’t be on top forever. You have to go through these ebbs and flows.”

They’ve dealt with the disappointment of finishing well off the podium at the Helsinki world championships. They’ve learned much. They know what to do. “We finished seventh. Life went on,” Duhamel said. “So what. It happened. It wasn’t as scary or as terrible as we thought it could be. And that just goes to teach us that it’s not that bad when you don’t win. It’s not the end of the world.”

“At the end of the day, if we go to the Olympics and skate really well and we come seventh, it is what it is,” she said. “But we’re going to do everything that we can and make the changes and strategize so that when we show up for next season for every competition, we are in the best shape of our lives, we have the best programs, that we’re motivated and we’re on the top of our game mentally and physically. And it has to be like that from day one in the season all the way to the Olympics. If we’re able to do that, then we’ll consider it a success.”

 

Laurie Silvera, the Jamaican gentleman

Tonight, I won my fifth Sovereign Award for a story I did on Woodbine trainer Laurie Silvera, published on the Woodbine website. The Sovereigns are thoroughbred horse racing’s annual Horse of the Year awards.

I had earlier won Sovereign Awards in 2005 (for an obituary on colourful trainer Jerry Meyer, who was buried with his binoculars), in 2008 (for a story on Toronto builder/developer Gus Schickedanz, who came to Canada with a few dollars in his pocket after his family escaped a Russian invastion into Germany during the 1940s); in 2010 (for a story on “Stumpy,” the man in charge of 12,000 jockeys’ colours at Woodbine, who died – and those left mourning his death did not know his system for finding colours); and 2011, a story on rags-to-riches turf runner Rahy’s Attorney.

This is my award-winning story on Laurie Silvera:

On  the backside of Woodbine Racetrack one balmy summer morning, Laurie Silvera chugged up a gentle slope in his SUV, and parked it to watch a horse work. Classical music filled the cab.

It’s not what you’d expect from a horse trainer who has spent the 85 years of his life on dusty backstretches and under barn roofs ridden by pigeons.

“The music they play today, I find no joy in it,” said Silvera, from under his signature Stetson. “But then again, I remember my parents saying: ‘I don’t understand what rubbish these children are listening to.’”

Rubbish like Frank Sinatra? Yes, quoth the backstretch sage.

He believes the greatest song ever written is “Stranger in Paradise.”

“Take my hand,” goes the Tony Bennett song.

“I’m a stranger in Paradise.

All lost in a wonderland.

If I stand starry eyed

That’s a danger in Paradise.”

Silvera’s paradise for more than 40 years has been the backstretch of Woodbine Racetrack, where he has spent much of his time since he landed in Canada in 1974, after leaving his birthplace of Jamaica. He speaks with a Jamaican lilt. His home near Guelph, Ont., is filled with the sound.

He has no intention of quitting his job. “Fortunately in racing, if your eyesight is in order and your mind is in order, you can do as good a job as a 20-year-old with all the physical attributes that you would like,” he said.

Time and experience are Silvera’s trump cards. “If your mental attributes remain with you, you get better as you get older,” he said. “Let’s face it: training is a guessing game. Until you can talk to horses, it can’t be a science. But it’s a guessing game based on educated guesses. Experience makes the difference.”

He looks forward more than he looks backward. Last fall, he bought three yearlings, one of them a colt by Exhi out of T.P.’s Wit, for $22,000. He’s a half-brother to Julie’s Witt (winner of the Ontario Damsel and the Passing Mood Stakes at Woodbine) and Mighty Quinn (winner of the Vice Regent, Bold Ruckus and Frost King Stakes). He’s named the colt Wit o’ Windsor, after a good horse that his father, Owen had, while Laurie was growing up in Jamaica. The original Wit o’ Windsor (translation: the Smart Alec of Windsor) was a British-bred horse that his father imported and he raced in the top classes at Caymanas Park. The Jamaican theme keeps popping up in Silvera’s bailiwick.

Caymanas Park, a 1/18-mile track, opened in 1959 and before that, there was Knutsford Park in Kingston. Currently, Silvera has a horse racing at Woodbine called Knutsford Park.

Don’t ask the niggly details of his previous horses and his past life. He doesn’t remember them. His first winner in Jamaica as a trainer was with a mare called Silver Light, owned by his first client, Barry Rose. Silvera remembers her as a good filly. Beyond that, nada.

“I don’t remember too much,” he said. “I’m not one that contemplates yesterday that much. I’m a today and tomorrow person.

“I don’t ponder the past at all. There is nothing you can do about the past. That is part of my makeup. I don’t dwell on the past.  In this game, what you did yesterday is soon forgotten.”

But his yesterday is fascinating.

Silvera’s yesterday

Silvera’s ancestors came from Spain, via England.  Silvera believes they were Jewish and escaped the country during the Spanish Inquisition, which ordered Jews and Muslims to convert to Catholicism or leave the country in 1492. Silvera’s forbears headed for England and then in 1745, two adventurous Silvera brothers settled in Jamaica, a British colony.

They became farmers, establishing a beautiful banana plantation in Jamaica. Large enough, by all accounts. “For anybody coming from England, the land was there for the taking,” Silvera said. His father, Owen, continued the tradition.

Horses were a way of life in Jamaica. The first industry in Jamaica was horse breeding and sales. The majority of horses used by Cortez to conquer Mexico were bred in Jamaica. Transportation was by buggy. Horseback riding was a pleasure sport. It’s not surprising that Silvera’s father found his way into training thoroughbred race horses.

The racetracks in Jamaica never had the financial wherewithal to equal those in Canada or the United States, but racing was a revered pursuit. “The joy of racing far surpasses that of Canada,” Silvera said. “The general population in Jamaica knows all about what is going on in racing. It’s covered in the newspapers on a daily basis.” Racing got a large section of the sports page – and it still does.

Sometimes top British jockeys, like Lester Piggott and Sir Gordon Richards would ride in Jamaica. They were treated like royalty. Piggott has in the past ridden for Silvera. “He was somewhat hard of hearing,” Silvera recalled. Piggott would spend December and part of January in Jamaica.

Silvera’s father was one of the leading trainers in Jamaica and was well known throughout the country. Back in the 1940s, he trained a horse called “Brown Bomber,” described in the Jamaica press as “great and invincible.” His most intense tangles were with a horse called Jetsam in Trinidad.

Silvera doesn’t know a time when he didn’t sidle up to a racehorse. “I grew up in a racing stable,” he said. He galloped horses for his father.

At age 18, Silvera wrote the senior Cambridge matriculation exams that signalled the end of high school. The exam was sent to England to be scored. Silvera passed.

Silvera played on a cricket team in Jamaica. He’s the one with the wavy hair, back row, fifth from the left.

Photo courtesy of Laurie Silvera

Career established

It wasn’t a stretch for Silvera to start training horses, but he didn’t take out his training licence until he was 29 years old. His mother, Angele – who had an eye for a good horse but stayed away from the barns – wanted him to become a veterinarian. But Silvera started training horses for Rose, won some races and people began to take a second look at the tall young man. “All of a sudden, you have a barn full of horses,” he said.

He trained about 200 winners in Jamaica and was leading trainer there five times between 1960 and 1970. There were no stabling facilities at Caymanas, so the family would walk or ride the horses three miles to the track.

One of Silvera’s best horses was a tiny filly (14.2 hands high) called Bonnie Blue Flag, pretty, tough and wiry, known to carry huge imposts. She used to go long. She became one of the most revered horses in Jamaica.

Silvera, left, with the original Bonnie BlueFlag

Photo courtesy of Laurie Silvera

Years later in Barbados, Silvera spotted another filly that almost took his breath away: She looked exactly like Bonnie Blue Flag with her chestnut coat and blaze. So Silvera named her Bonnie Blue Flag, too, and she became the top 2-year-old in Barbados. With Silvera, what goes around often comes around.

Silvera with his next Bonnie Blue Flag, champion 2-year-old in 1994 in Barbados

Photo courtesy of Laurie Silvera

Now there is a race in Jamaica named after Silvera’s great fillies: The Bonnie Blue Flag Trophy. Last year, it was won by All Correct, a horse owned by Silvera’s nephew Raymond Rousseau. Shane Ellis rode him.

In 1965, Silvera ended up in Richmond, Va., to visit one of his father’s clients, Richard Reynolds, a big mining boss, who invited him to spend a week with his family. But it was March and it was cold for a Jamaican. Silvera went looking for a hat, and didn’t find one he liked until he spotted a 10-gallon Stetson. He bought it and never took it off, he said.

Now, he doesn’t take it off, because underneath it all, he’s bald, and if he doffed it, nobody would recognize him. “I was born bald,” Silvera says. Over the past 50 years, Silvera estimates he’s owned about 100 Stetsons.  It’s now his trademark.

The man with the hat.

Photo courtesy of Laurie Silvera

While in Jamaica, Silvera met Clive Brooks, who owned several supermarkets and retail outlets in the country. Silvera trained the second horse Brooks ever owned after they met in 1961. The name of their first horse together? Jesse James, after the American outlaw, gang leader, bank robber, murderer and folk “hero.”

“We had a lot of fun with him,” Brooks said of the horse. And then things, as Brooks describes it,” just exploded.”

At age 34, Brooks sold all of his commercial holdings and retired. At first blush, it seemed like a good idea. At second blush, he realized he needed to do something. He suggested to Silvera that he buy a farm and get into the horse business. Silvera liked the idea.

They called their partnership and their farm “Silverbrook” a combination of both of their names. “He wanted to call it the other way around,” Brooks joked. “But that didn’t make any sense.”

The two of them started to go to the United States to buy, import horses to Jamaica and then sell them. Their little farm, on about 100 acres, was home to some horses they bred, too. On their buying trips, they would move around, but their first stop together was Charles Town, Va., a small town of about 5,000 in a rather remote area of the state.

“I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed that place,” Brooks said. “It was a real backwoods sort of operation.” The town found it necessary to enact a bylaw decreeing it unlawful to keep unlicensed, abandoned, junked cars on public or private property for any longer than 10 days. The terrain was rugged. Mountain culture reigned.

“But the guys were fun to be around,” Brooks said. “We bought quite a few horses in Charles Town.”

They would ship them to Florida, then to Jamaica. In most cases, they sold the majority of them before they even left the quarantine station. “We just told people we had horses and they came to look at them, and we sold most of them,” Brooks said.

There was a decent profit margin involved, he said. These horses were very cheap. After all, the standard of racing in Jamaica didn’t demand more. Brooks remembers the first place he went to in Ocala – in the days before OBS – attending a horse auction sale that was on the site of a cattle auction. It wasn’t high brow. “I think at that sale, I bought the sale topper,” he said proudly, with a twinkle. Price? $3,500.

“It was something ridiculous,” Brooks said. Silvera was savvy enough to realize that there wasn’t a lot of money in training horses in Jamaica. Trading horses worked better.

“We messed around a lot in Ocala,” Brooks said.  “I got to know a lot of the guys down there. So we’d visit quite often. We both liked it there for a long time.” He and Silvera had adventures together. They laughed a lot.

As a leading horse trainer, Silvera gained celebrity status in Jamaica. “You are inclined to get preferential treatment,” Silvera said. Once, when he flew into Kingston, and needed a taxi to take him home to Spanishtown – three-quarters of an hour away – the driver dropped him off and said: “No charge.” And there was nothing unusual about it. Racing was part of Jamaica’s culture.

But while life in Jamaica seemed idyllic in one way, it wasn’t in another.  “Jamaica became a little too hostile for our liking,” Silvera said. He was married, with six children from age seven (Arthur Silvera) to teenagers. “We decided the future for them in Jamaica was not particularly accommodating.”

There was a lot of crime. The rule of law was ignored. Bullets would whistle past ears. One morning, Silvera was standing on the Caymanas track when a man came rushing toward him. “Help me,” he cried.

“Mr. Laurie, I beg you.”

The man ran behind Silvera, who found himself staring down the barrel of a revolver. “And I was between the man and the revolver,” he said.

Silvera did the only reasonable thing that he could in those circumstances. He legged it, as fast as his feet would carry him. “I left at such a speed that I would have made Usain Bolt look like his grandmother,” he said.

Another morning, bullets screamed overhead at the track. “Two rival political gangs, I guess,” Silvera said. “When you are in the middle of that, it is not fun.”

Gradually, Silvera reduced his string of between 30 to 40 horses and both he and Brooks left for Canada where they all had close family already. Silvera bought a home near Toronto. Brooks looked around for a business to run and couldn’t find one that satisfied him right away.

When Silvera arrived in Canada, he told Brooks that he was finished with horse racing, that he had to try something new. He’d done it long enough.

“We were sort of at loose ends and didn’t know what we were going to do,” Brooks said. But he found the ticket when he took his young kids bowling. “I had never seen a bowling centre before in my life,” he said. “I looked around and thought: ‘This looks like something worth doing.’”

Brooks bought some land at Walker’s Line in Burlington, Ont. and had a 36-lane alley built, called Burlington Bowl.  “In those days, Walkers Line was like you were out in the sticks,” Brooks said. “There was nothing around. People told me I was crazy. What am I doing out there? But it did very well.” He expanded it to 48 lanes.

Both he and Silvera owned the bowling alley, although Silvera says it wasn’t his game.  They sold it, then build another one in Hamilton, Ont., called Hamilton Mountain Bowl. At 60 lanes, it was the largest in Canada and had the latest automatic scoring technology. They owned it together for 30 years until it was sold a few years ago. Silvera’s wife, Claudia, worked at the bowling alley for years.

But about a year into Silvera’s new experiment with bowling alleys, Brooks encouraged him to go back to training horses. “Let me tell you something,” Brooks said. “That’s what you’re going to do because that’s what you know and that’s what you enjoy.”

Brooks talked him into going to a horse sale and convinced him to buy a horse for Silverbrook. The horse, Dashing Young Man, was a modest investment at $7,000 to $8,000. Silvera took out a trainer’s licence in 1975. Dashing Young Man didn’t disappoint, giving Silvera his first win in Canada, well enough that, as Brooks says, that one thing led to another and soon Silverbrook was in full swing.

Silvera’s first win in Canada.

Michael Burns Photo

And soon Silvera was in full swing too. He proved to be a wizard at picking out precocious horses with early speed. He thrives on picking out young horses and developing them into something.  He won three straight Greenwood spring titles from 1989 to 2001, where sprints were king. His stable stars?

Silverbrook’s first stakes winner was George Dinkle, a son of Wrinkle Dinkle, that Silvera claimed ($32,000) and then turned him into a stakes winner (Connaught Cup). In the winner’s enclosure, Dinkle rose up on his hind legs, perhaps protesting his name, perhaps celebrating his accomplishment. A photograph of this memorable moment won somebody an Eclipse Award.

Silvera picked Rustic Light out of a sale for $28,000 for Silverbrook and the horse won the $500,000 Illinois Derby in 1993, leading all the way in the slop. Rustic Light placed in other major sprint races in Canada and won almost $600,000.

And who can forget Demaloot Demashoot? This fan favourite was a track-record setter whose victories all came at six furlongs or less, all good enough to win $574,825 in his career, winning stakes all over North America from age two to six. At one point, he landed in Team Valor’s barn, and finished fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in 1993.

Silvera’s Free At Last was a Sovereign Award as champion 2-year-old colt in Canada in 1991, after winning the Summer Stakes.

The trainer also picked out a colt called Solo Guy at a sale in Miami for $32,000 for one of his early clients, Gord Hall. It was an astute pick. Solo Guy was a champion sprinter, winning the Victoria Stakes as a 2-year-old. As a 3-year-old, he won the Nearctic Stakes and also took the Highlander too. Solo Guy went to California and won a graded stakes there, too.

Silvera took a chance on buying a yearling filly from the first crop of Storm Cat – before he’d proven himself at stud  – and paid $35,000 for November Snow.  “She was out of a good producing mare,” Silvera said. The Storm Cats would get more expensive later.  By 2005, one of his yearlings brought $9.7-million at Keeneland. And his stud fee climbed to $500,000.

Silvera with Clive Brooks (second from left) after a November Snow victory at Woodbine.

Michael Burns photo

In the beginning, Silvera wasn’t overly impressed with this filly, which finished fourth in her first start. He ran her back in the My Dear Stakes. The filly had figured it out by this time and came from behind to win going away to become Storm Cat’s first stakes winner. She paid $100 to win.

After that, Earle Mack bought her. As a 3-year-old she won the Alabama and Test Stakes at Saratoga, was runner-up in the Eclipse voting for 3-year-old filly, and was eventually sold for $1.1-million as a broodmare.

For eight seasons from 2001 to 2011, horses trained by Silvera earned more than $1-million. During that time, Silvera scored with Ariana D. in the Bessarabian Stakes, closing from last at 18 to 1 to win, and in the Avowal the next year. She also hit the board in four of five graded stakes she contested at Woodbine and Presque Ile.

Silvera, still winning after all these years. With Bob’s Ring and Emile Ramsammy April 25, 2010.

Michael Burns photo

In 2009, Silvera won his 900th race with Dublin Lane, and it took him five years to win his 1,000th race, with his splendid gray Sorry About That.

In the meantime, Silvera always gave a hand up. Several years in a row, he’d pick out a yearling, keep 50 per cent of it for himself, then let grooms in his stable own parts of the other 50 percent. “A couple of times, we did really well,” he said.

Woodbine groom Larry Harvey Brenton knew Silvera as a kid growing up in Jamaica and came to the Woodbine backstretch in 1989. Silvera once picked out a yearling for him for $5,000. The horse won some races and they sold it for $50,000. “He was the best,” Brenton said of Silvera. “He would help me out any way he can. He’s one of the greatest trainers on the grounds.”

Silvera doesn’t think it is any more difficult to buy yearlings than it has ever been. “What is tough is to select a good horse,” he said. “I believe I am able to do this better than most. It stems from experience and I look at horses critically from the get-go. There are some common denominators in good horses. ’

Brooks eventually got out of the racing business during the early 1990s, so now Silverbrook includes Silvera and Brooks’ two sons, Phillip and Cary, who train a few horses, too. “I call him uncle,” Phillip says. “I’ve known him since I was born. He’s like a father to me.”

Some call him Sir Laurie.

At age 85, Silvera still oversees a stable of as many as 18. In general, training horses has given Silvera the experience of a lifetime. “Up to this day, I enjoy it to an extent you would not imagine,” he said.

“When I’m able to drive in here and perform the day to day things, I’ll be here until I’m unable.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eric Radford battling hip issue

The timing couldn’t be worse.

A day before the pair short program at the world figure skating championship, two-time world champion Eric Radford could see there was something wrong with his hip. And he could not do a triple Lutz.

“I’ve had a spasmed muscle in my deep abdominals,” he said, clenching his right hip after a practice Tuesday in which he was able to land only one triple Lutz, with hand down, mind you. It was clear that something was not right.

“It was bugging me, but I still had good control,” he said. “It was just kind of sore. And then this morning, I woke up and it was so stiff that I could barely move.”

This was not good news for a team that has had to iron out various wrinkles all season, that has been hustling to repair and improve all wayward elements, and that finally seemed to be finally getting a grasp on it all.

The triple Lutz is worth 6.0 as a base mark. At its max, with +3 bonuses added on, it could be worth as much as 8.1. A fall could cost a one-point deduction, as well as lost points on Grade of Execution (GOE).

This is a new wrinkle that Radford has never faced before. He said that when he got onto the ice, he just could not squeeze his legs together. “I don’t know what muscle it is specifically, whether it is my adductor or something. But

When I’m in the air, I can’t pull in properly. My legs feel like they are going to fly apart.”

Radford says he even has problems doing crosscuts. “I feel like I don’t have a lot of control over my hip,” he said. And it was not a cheerful voice.

He will work with a therapist Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.

Coach Bruno Marcotte said the physiotherapist knows what to do to help Radford. “I feel really confident that the physio will be able to help him,” he said.

The muscle issue began last week, but usually when he skated, it was fine. “It just got really bad [Monday],” Radford said.

The problem affects only the Lutz because his right leg pivots on the right hip to do it. And when he goes up into the air, the problem means he cannot squeeze in the air. “My legs feel floppy,” he said. He said it does not cause him pain. It’s numb. Pain would be easier to deal with, he said.

With other jumps, it’s easier to transfer weight and motion, he said. He can manage them.

During his second practice on Monday, Radford did a beautiful triple Lutz – double toe loop. “And my body felt great yesterday in practice,” he said.

The first practice actually was rather rocky, the second one hummed. On Tuesday, neither the first nor the second practice went well for Radford.

Even so, other elements sparkled on Tuesday’s last practice. Partner Meagan Duhamel said they did a really good throw quad, and a triple twist good enough to get level four that they have been practicing for extra points this year.

And while Radford was pondering his plan of attack during the practice, Duhamel circled around the rink, and avoided the triple Lutz. (“The more I do of them, I’m probably going to start getting into my head,” she said.) So she started doing other jumps, starting out with doubles. They were going so well, she started doing double Axel – triple toe loop combinations and a triple loop, things she does not usually do or practice.

“I didn’t even tell my coaches,” she said with a grin. “that was just for fun. I can only jump like that from time to time.”

Coach Bruno Marcotte said Duhamel went off to do her own thing to keep her mind positive and “to give Eric some space to gather his spirit.”

Chen hobbled only by boots

HELSINKI

Nathan Chen has blasted history, made history and defied history with his assembly of powerful quads this season. When the 17-year-old American defeated a savvy Olympic veteran in Yuzuru Hanyu at the Four Continents championships last month, well, the figure skating world just hasn’t been the same.

On the first day of the world figure skating championships this week, Chen held court in a frigid cave at the Hartwell Arena, on the first practice day, in front of a cast of a handful of die-hards, shivering under the rock.

During his run-through of his free program, Chen didn’t land five quads, but six quads as he motored his way about the ice on a pair of skates that can’t take the heat.

They are falling apart. He figures they will hold out until Thursday, the day of the men’s free. Therefore, he has packed with him a new pair of skates, and he has access to another pair from a boot manufacturer.  Chen doesn’t look worried.

Coach Rafael Arutunian says Chen slipped into his current boots for the first time only about four weeks ago, (after Four Continents) and already they have softened with the punishment of constant quad work.

This week, he’s holding them together with hockey laces, (“Every little bit helps,” Chen says) and praying that he won’t have to dip into that suitcase loaded with his weaponry. The laces are waxed, so they are stable in the boot.

Chen also had a problem with the way the boots were mounted. Arutunian says he carries about a pouch of tools to settle every such issues.

If Chen has any problems on the ice with these foot covers, it’s with the quad flip. He flipped out of one during his Monday run-through. He did others.

This is Chen’s first world championship, by the way. Such problems to have.

Aruturnian says he doesn’t know yet what the game plan is.

“We practice so many things that we don’t see yet,” he said. “But that is what sport is based on. I feel I have a company of production. I produce something. I try stuff.

“I get experience of how that works and then I make a decision. I don’t want to show that before it’s ready.”

As for the boots, they weigh heavily on Arutunian’s mind. “Boots have always been a problem, not only for him,” he said. “I think ice skating is improving and boots improve slower than skaters. Materials are something that could be done better. We have hard time with boots.

“They are too stiff and they get too quick soft. So there is very difficult to find the perfect timing: when to put them on to get the right time to be ready, to be not too soft and to be not too stiff.”

He thinks boot manufacturers should more often consult coaches, at least the ones who understand technique. If the boots are too stiff, a skater can’t use them for edges. If they are too soft, and a skater jumps, “they collapse,” Arutunian said.

The task to find boots that will do everything is going to get even harder, the coach said.

It’s definitely a concern whether or not Chen’s boots will last the week, he said. “At competitions, you always try harder. It’s adrenaline. “

At least, Arutunian said, Chen has skated in his spare boots, if he needs to pull them on at last moment. They will probably be a bit on the stiff side, mind.

But the way Chen seems to be: he’ll deal with it. He always seems to unruffled, despite his high-flying ways.

Bridge Over Troubled Waters

In the early days, Sui Wenjing and Han Cong did cute. They were cute. They bopped around the ice doing country dance one year, he clad (depending on the competition) in chaps, plaid shirt, fringes, faded  jeans, boot covers that suggested spurs;  she in red gingham and a little girl smile. They did Kalinka, too, charming folk with their peppy routine and colourful garb.

 

It was perfect. Both were tiny. Physically, they haven’t grown much. Emotionally, they have. They’ve had to. Life does that to you. Over the past few years, they’ve felt pain, disappointment, fear, disillusion. And all the bleakness of a landscape with little hope.

So, they stunned everybody by winning the difficult Four Continents championships a month ago, in their first competition in a year, their only performance this season. They tossed out a quad twist. (They were, after all, doing this very tricky move when they were juniors.) And their performance, to the beloved Simon & Garfunkel tune, “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” was mature, heartfelt. It was the story of their lives.

“When you’re weary, feeling small,” the song goes,

“When tears are in your eyes

I will dry them all

I’m on your side

When times get tough

And friends just can’t be found

Like a bridge over troubled water

I will lay me down.”

It’s a miracle that they are still skating at all, because of Sui’s dire history of injuries. Sui and Han resorted to the big tricks to climb the ranks, but they have cost the pair. Sui missed most of the 2013-2014 season because of severe epiphysitis, a condition caused by the crushing impact on her young bones.

She had also severed a few ligaments along the way – a lateral collateral ligament – a problem that continued to plague her. While they couldn’t train on ice, they still worked on upper body strength, with Han carrying his tiny partner piggy-back style to the rink. Somehow, Sui competed, relying on the power of her muscles to do the actions she needed to do. And sheer will. “I can’t not skate, just because they hurt,” she said.

It’s not a surprise that when Sui was a singles skater, others gave her the nickname of Lui Hulan, who was a young female spy during the Chinese Civil War. She was beheaded at 14, but became a symbol of courage for the Chinese people. Sui was always fearless.

When Sui and Han won their three junior world pair titles, they were doing quad twist and quad throws. They did a throw quad Salchow at the 2012 Four Continents, but set it aside until last season, after having seen Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford use one to win worlds the previous year. They landed their first throw quad Salchow in four years when they won their third Four Continents title a year ago.

They also landed a quad twist in their free program in 2016, even though Sui had fallen on a throw jump and hit her head in training before Four Continents. The fall affected her sight. She couldn’t see very well out of her left eye. They trained sporadically before the event  – Sui also fell ill with the flu before the Four Continents. Zhao told them to do every element the best they could. “In daily training, he always tells us not to have any regrets,” Han said. “So we don’t want to have any regrets in our training and we want to challenge ourselves and surpass ourselves in the competition.”

Just before the free skate at Four Continents, they decided to try the throw quad Salchow, whether they succeeded or not. They knew it would be good experience to try it in competition before the world championships. They didn’t execute the quad twist as well.  They landed it, but lost a few levels of difficulty. Perhaps the consistency with which they had been doing the quad throw helped: Han said before Sui’s injury, they had a 90 to 95 per cent success rate doing them. In the three practice sessions before Four Continents, they had landed less than 10. They figured they were only plugging along at 50 per cent capacity.

Then by the time of the world championships, coach Zhao said the eye issue was resolved. And when they finished second, Sui and Han appeared happily surprised by their marks and what they were able to accomplish.

With all of the stress Sui puts on her feet and ankles, she also injured an Achilles tendon during training in November of 2015, just before Cup of China, causing the team to withdraw from the Grand Prix Final. It was on her right foot, her landing foot, which impacted her training. Also, the supporting ligaments on both sides of her foot were completely severed. Her joints were also not very stable. They had been training very hard, and the bone trauma was severe. She often twists that foot in normal life. She took painkillers and skated with the injury taped up. They couldn’t really practice throw jumps at all.

Zhao understood better than anyone what she was going through: He had also suffered an Achilles tendon injury and made a very difficult comeback to win Olympic gold in Vancouver in 2010. Somehow, Sui competed with it. She ignored the pain. But she knew she would have to undergo surgery at season’s end. And there would be no guarantee about whether she could come back in tip-top condition.

From the Boston world championships, Sui and Han trundled over to Toronto to have Lori Nichol do the choreography for both of their programs for this season. Sui was in such pain, she could not actually be on the ice during the exercise. Someone had to stand in for her.

Her toughest task lay ahead. Sui figured she would have surgery a day after she returned, but the cautious doctors argued with each other about the best way to procede. Finally Ren Hongguo, the head of the National Winter Sports Administration Centre in Beijing, arranged surgery for May 5.

The plan was to deal with injuries in both of her feet at once. According to the China Sports Daily, doctors had to reset a tendon in the left foot and stabilize it with a staple.  Doctors spent three hours repairing the lateral collateral ligament on her right ankle, and it was to take four months to recover. They put in another staple to join ligaments together. And they had to remove bone chips from both the inner front area and outer back area of the foot.

Sui dealt with a swollen ankle afterwards, that sometimes still bled. She couldn’t sleep for the pain. “I couldn’t stand it,” she told Chinese media. “I screamed and cried. It hurt even more on the second day. I cried all day,” she said.

After surgery, she suffered high fevers and her blood work was not stable. She was discharged from the hospital on May 9 to start rehabilitation.

She said later that her surgery lasted longer than normal, so much so that she needed three anaesthetic injections. Han was waiting for her when she got out of hospital, as well as a host of others. She calls Han her “big brother.”

“When you’re down and out,” their free skate music goes.

“When you’re on the street

When evening falls so hard

I will comfort you.

When darkness comes

And pain is all around

Like a bridge over troubled waters

I will lay me down.”

Sui and Han say they felt stressed out and tired after the Four Continents last month. “I don’t think anybody knew we were exhausted,” Han said. “It was hard for us.” They still have some problems to sort out. They need more practice time.

“We got this medal not only for us, but we owe it to everyone who is around us and helped us to come back. We were reborn in this championship,” he added.

The music is slow-paced, grand, all about their struggles together. “It describes our experience,” Sui told the Chinese media. “A man and a woman. The two of them each other’s best friends. They’re only friends. They share one goal and one career, helping each other, supporting each other.”

Yes, it’s emotional, and they skate it that way. They say they want to perform it like a piece of art. They have gone way beyond the cute factor.

 

 

 

Virtue and Moir’s “warmup” season

This was supposed to be only the warmup season for Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir after a two-year respite. The one where they chugged their engines back into order, cleaned out the cobwebs, overhauled their basic skating skills, and stubbed their toes a few times against the curbs of the sport.

But so far the winsome twosome has floated past all impediments, including two-time world champs Gabriel Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, who seemed to have set themselves on a higher plane from the rest by the end of last season.

Together 20 years, Virtue and Moir have come a long way

 

Now, Virtue and Moir are at the top of the leaderboard with the toughest competition of the season to come: the world championships in Helsinki next week. They have surprised themselves, remaining undefeated this season, while setting and resetting a couple of world-record scores (original dance 80.50 and combined score, 197.22.)

The French hold the world record for the free dance score of 118.17. Virtue and Moir have the second highest mark in history of 117.20, gained at the Four Continents last month, about a point shy of training mates Papadakis and Cizeron.

“It’s still not really the goal of the season,” Moir said of the records. “I think it’s not a big secret that we’ve come back with the Olympics in mind.” What surprised them is that they’ve enjoyed the day-to-day slog – training at a Montreal school that is sending seven teams to Helsinki.

They came back, they say, not after scouring the scene (they didn’t really) to see what the competition offered, but for more personal reasons, because “we wanted to skate and we had more to give,” Moir said. “We felt like we could be better.”

Really, Moir thought that he and his partner would feel all fresh and excited at the beginning of their return, but that the day-to-day grind would take the starch out of it. But the feeling of excitement has never really gone away, even in the darkest of days. “We’re still enjoying it every day,” he said. “Probably more than we ever have in our career.”

This crazy kind of joy makes Virtue and Moir dangerous, because over a season, they will spend far more time in practice rinks than in competitions. The Helsinki event will be Virtue and Moir’s eighth competition of the season. “I think this translates into a little bit of success,” Moir said of their happy daily toils. “At this point in our career, we can say our focus is to enjoy the moment, and go and have performances like we do at home and enjoy them. We’ve done all the work, and it’s hard not to be excited at this point of the year.”

“We have to show up hungry,” he said. “We have to show up to compete, but we’re really excited to do that.”

They are not thinking of results, but so far this year, the results have been icing on a cake. They’ve been successful out of the gate. They expect hardships to come. And who knows if Papadakis and Cizeron will show them a new side of hardship next week?

“We train with a very talented young French team,” Moir said. “We know they are bringing their best of the year next week and we’ll have to be much better than we’ve been all year in order to have a world title.”

The French won’t be the only folk in the rear view mirror. Virtue and Moir have marvelled at how deep in talent the field is now. “I think it has come a long way,” Virtue said. “Skaters are executing extremely clean turns and technical callers are also recognizing those and looking for different things.”

Key points are very exacting. They cannot miss one. Probably because of the depth of the field, in order to separate teams, the technical panels are looking for any small ripple or bobble. They’re getting very picky. At this event, there will be no room for hesitation or sloppy feet.

“Callers are looking for the absolute perfect turn on the ice,” Moir said. “In order to get that level four, you need to make sure you don’t come close to hitting the toe pick, and you have clean entry and exit edges on every turn. It has to be extremely clean.”

Virtue and Moir expect that they will skate in front of “one of the hardest panels that we’ve come across all year,” he said. But they accept that this is the system that is in place. They like it.

“I appreciate when they reward people for executing and unfortunately, the flip side of that is that if you make the mistake, you have to pay for it,” he said.

The judges and the technical panels have been judging this way the past couple of years, Moir said. “It’s like the judging has been pretty well spot on.

“We are looking for it to have another great clean world championship,” he said. “That would be good for ice dancing, to see the best people with the best turns and the whole package come out on top.”

Jason Brown: bouncing back

If Jason Brown ever found himself in the Hundred Acre Wood, he would be Tigger, hopping and bopping, swinging his arms around everybody with glee, smiling until tomorrow.

“Tiggers are wonderful things,” the song goes. “Their tops are made out of rubber. Their bottoms are made out of springs.”

The young American is irrepressibly positive, despite living in the shadow of the Giant Quad, of which he’s landed few. Three years ago, a video of him skating to “Riverdance” at the 2014 U.S. championships went viral, attracting something like four million viewers.  It wasn’t the jump content that captured hearts. It was the Jason Brown mystique: beautiful skating, with expression, with skating skills. The kind that lives in the memory.

See? We still remember his “Riverdance.”

Brown has always been playing catch-up with the difficult jumps. He was injury-free until the past two seasons, when he set out to make up the jump deficit. Still, he won’t blame his back injury from a year ago that caused him to miss the U.S. championships and thusly, the worlds, too, and a stress fracture in his right fibula, his landing foot last December.

This time, he didn’t dare miss U.S. nationals, since a petition to go to worlds last year didn’t pass muster. So he competed in January. And February. With watered-down content and certainly no quads in sight, he skated. And remarkably at nationals finished third to youngsters Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou, and by the grace of god – Zhou went to junior worlds and won it instead with wicked quad content – made it to the world championships in Helsinki next week.

Brown won’t blame his injuries on the quad pursuit. Although it may be part of it, he thinks it’s just because male skaters at a certain age are going through a growth spurt, and that males are just figuring out their bodies and what the limits are.

“When you’re young,” said the 22-year-old youngster, “…and being young in the sport, you’re kind of a whippersnapper, able to do these things without even thinking about it. Your body is just quick and it fires fast and you’re short and as you grow up and mature, things start to change.”

Somehow the description of “whippersnapper” fits him. The word seems all Tiggerish. But he’s past it now, he says. His injuries have taught him how much he can push the limit and when he should pull back.

Before his stress fracture flared up, he said he had been landing quad Salchows and quad toes. And he’s going to press on in the future. Going to go for more quads in the future? he is asked.

“One hundred per cent!” Brown cries in that bouncy way of his. “One hundred per cent!”

He’d like to also work on a quad flip. He’s constantly working on quads, he says, although he said his task is to find the balance between pushing his technical limits, staying injury free and doing only what he can manage. No sense putting four quads in a program, if it only falls apart under the stress of competition.

But here’s the rub. He’s been injured. He was wearing a special boot for support on his right foot and took it off only a week and a half before he left for Four Continents, where he finished sixth without a quad. His leg still felt weak. He was still taping it up to compete. But he has his strength back now. The height of his jumps is better, he is hustling across the ice at greater speed.

The quad toe loop is going well, he says. Elements will return. He’s had five weeks since Four Continents (finished sixth without a quad) to get his quad toe loop back in formation. He intends to put a quad in the short and a quad in the long. Mind you, he’ll have to see how they go in practice.

“It’s all about putting together a program that you feel the most confident about and to put those clean skates out there,” he said. “The main goal is to do what I can do and do it in the most competent manner.”

So no, he’s no Nathan Chen on the quad question. But if Tigger bounces recklessly to and fro with exuberance, on the ice, Brown is exquisite. He skates on big curves, the way skating was born. He uses his feet. He has transitions. He does crazy things, like a hydroblading move low to the ice, which then explodes into a lofty split jump. He gets top component marks, as well he should. Brown may be five years older than Chen, but he’s a whippersnapper in other ways. Both of his routines this season are things of beauty.

“The technical side can only draw people in so far,” he said. “Riverdance” was special and what it represents is what he hopes he can bring to the sport.

He’ll work hard to improve his technical content because he has to. But he won’t ever lose the other side, “never losing what made me fall in love with the sport in the first place,” he said. “I love it because I can perform, because I can draw people in, because I can connect with an audience.”

He faces the same conundrum that Patrick Chan – he of the beautiful edges and scary speed – does.  “I don’t care what anybody says, but what I know for sure from my experience so far since my comeback, when it comes to adding more quads…the skating transitions, the skating skills do get sacrificed, 100 per cent,” Chan said. “I guarantee. Now does that make me shy away from pushing myself technically? No, not at all. I think I have to go in the direction that the sport is going in, which is dictated by the top men’s skaters. All I can do is follow the lead.

“All I know is all I can control is maybe being able to combine the difficulty of the quads with really great transitions and skating skills. And that may be my edge above the other men. That’s not for me to decide. All I can do is skate the way I’ve always skated and then add additional quads as I go along, to my capabilities.”

So Chan and young Tigger are treading the same path. And if Brown were ever to get lost in the Hundred Acre Wood, I think I would open the door of my shack to let this cat curl up around the hearth. Because skaters like Chan and Brown must be cherished somehow.