Once again, Brian Orser will be wearing three different team jackets, this time at the world junior figure skating championships in Sofia, Bulgaria this week, as he will at the (senior) worlds in Saitama, Japan at the end of the month.
Orser, two-time Olympic silver medalist (when he skated) and two-time Olympic medal champion (as a coach), has skaters representing Canada (finally), Kazakhstan and South Africa. (In Japan, he will wear Japanese, Spanish and Canadian colours.)
The common denominator for both events is Nam Nguyen, a 15-year-old Canadian. As Nguyen matures into his boots, perhaps finally, eventually, Orser will have to stop answering questions about training non-Canadians to defeat Canadians.
Actually, Orser gets fewer requests to teach Canadian skaters than from skaters around the world. But nevertheless, Nguyen made a splash when he skated an entertaining exhibition at the Vancouver Olympics as a tiny kid. And since then, he’s climbed up the Canadian skating ladder with a precocious ability to jump and jive.
Actually, lately, with all of the Olympic hype, Nguyen has been flying rather under the radar. He finished fifth at the Canadian championships in Ottawa, just behind the Olympic contenders, and then went off and finished 10th with 204.69 points at Four Continents, in his first senior competition.
“I don’t think a lot of people have noticed, really, how much he has improved over the last two years,” Orser said. “At Canadians, he was great. He went to Four Continents and did an amazing job at his first senior event. He skated a clean short and long and he was in the big boys competition.”
And he hasn’t stopped improving – or growing. “Since then, he has improved a ton, a ton, a ton,” Orser said. He has a lot on his plate right now, with his first senior world championship in the offing. Orser thinks he can handle it. “He’s kind of ready to take it himself to the next level,” Orser said.
For one thing, Nguyen has grown. It was obvious, as he stood in the mixed zone at the Canadian championships in Ottawa. He’s been through a growth spurt and all of the struggles that come with a changing body. He’s persevered. He’s settled into this new growth, and now he’s not only taller, but he’s stronger.
“We went through the ugly time,” Orser said. “Now he’s just stronger and he’s getting faster. And he’s trusting his movement and he believes. It’s not artificial. It’s the real thing. It’s coming from his soul. He’s really emoting. And he sees it every day from some of the other skaters. He has stepped up.”
Orser is also taking two junior women to Sofia, one of them tiny Elizabet Turzynbaeva, born in Moscow, now skating for Kazakhstan. Orser anticipates a top-five finish from her. Tracy Wilson choreographed both programs.
Turzynbaeva learned her skills at the feet of Eteri Tutberidze, the coach of Russian sensation Julia Lipnitskaia, who is 15. Turzynbaeva is 14 years old and stands 4 feet six inches on a good day. When she finished second to the wonderful Polina Edmunds of the United States at a Junior Grand Prix event in Minsk, Turzynbaeva barely came to Edmunds shoulders in the podium photo.
When Turzynbaeva decided to skate for another country, she was pulled from Tutberidze’s group, so she began skating on her own at another rink in Moscow. Orser has had her only four months. Turzynbaeva has been trying to get to Canada to train with Orser for a long time, but had difficulties getting a visa. Once her family secured it, she and her mother were in Toronto in a flash.
Turzynbaeva can do everything: triple Lutz-triple toe loop, triple flip- triple loop. She’s been doing these things since she was 12. Ahead of her is a log jam of talented Russian girls.
“She’s a feisty little thing,” said Orser. “She’s just a teeny tiny little thing. She looks like she’s 10, but she’s 14. She’s fierce. She reminds me of Yuna [Kim] because she’s not the happiest skater. She’s more of a machine and she kind of bases her happiness on whether she’s landed everything in practice. So we have to find the joy for her in skating. But we’ve been there [with Kim].”
Turzynbaeva is in Toronto for the long haul, Orser said. They’re committed. They’ve found an apartment. Her brother and father are still living in Moscow.
Orser’s other charge in Sofia is South African skater Michaela Du Toit, and former Finnish champion Oula Jaaskelainen also shares coaching duties. Du Toit has some second and third place finishes from minor competitions such as the Bavarian Open and another in Belgrade.
Nam will have only five days off between junior and senior worlds. It’s almost certain that Orser can manage it.