Bezic and Nexxice in synch

A story I wrote for the Skate Canada website on world champion synchro skating team: Nexxice.


Mao Asada is back?

Welcome back, Mao Asada, if indeed you are back.

It won’t be easy for you to return after a year away and news of a pack of young figure skaters intending to try out your triple Axel and even quads in the future. (Training those things is one thing.  Producing them in competition is another, as Asada well knows.)

But Asada has never been one to back away from a challenge, insisting throughout most of her career on including a triple Axel that was often underrotated, a jump that seemed to cost her more than it helped her. Never mind. It’s higher, faster, stronger with Asada.

Asada doesn’t seem to be returning because she’s trying to avenge her Olympic losses in Pyeongchang three years hence. She’s coming back, she says, because she has found that figure skating is “essential” to her life. Something in her bones. It’s something that makes her feel good, to accomplish something. It gives her happiness. At times, however, skaters cannot leave what they know and press on with their lives to achieve other things, but Asada is still only 24 years old.

It seems as if Asada has been around forever, but she was such a tiny, smiling prodigy when we first saw her. She was apparently named after Japanese actress, Mao Daichi, although it is said that her mother, Kyoko, who loved ballet, named her after legendary Russian ballerina Maya Plisetskaya. She started skating at age 5, tagging along with older sister, Mai,  and eventually began to train with Machiko Yamada, the coach of Midori Ito.

Ito was an entirely precocious skater. So was Asada, who was given special permission to compete at the senior national championships when she was only 12, at a time when she was still too young to compete on the Junior Grand Prix circuit. And she was astonishing. Wearing a mauve costume – that actually belonged to Ito when she landed a triple Axel – smiley little Asada landed a badly rotated triple Axel and a formidable combination: a triple flip- triple loop –triple toe loop combo, although underrotating those jumps, too. But she was charming, even down to the wonderful layback spin. She skated with joy, and ended her routine while a girlish smile.

Finally, she was old enough to compete on the junior circuit in 2004, and swept all events, including the Grand Prix Final, 35 points ahead of Yu-Na Kim. In the spring of 2005, Asada was the first female to land a triple Axel at the world junior championships, again defeating Kim by more than 20 points. Her mother promised her a dog if she won, and that’s how she got Aero, a toy poodle.

All three of the Olympics she contested came at the wrong arc of her days. She was too young to compete at the Turin Olympics although she had easily dusted off all senior-level competitors at the Grand Prix Final a couple of months before. In Vancouver in 2010, Asada became the first female to land three triple Axels at a competition, but after a few fumbles in the long program, Asada finished second to Kim.

After Vancouver, Asada did the gutsy thing and why should anybody be surprised? She completely relearned her jump technique, right from the basics, and it contributed to a slump in years following. At the Sochi Olympics, after beginning to regain her power, Asada met with disaster, falling on her triple Axel, and dropping to 16th place after the short program, where it is very risky to do such a jump. The tweets flew from all manner of top figure skater to console her.  “Mao – you were great. Special thanks for the 3.5 Axel! You’re a real fighter!” said Evgeny Plushenko. “Mao Asada – heartbreaking,” tweeted Michelle Kwan. “Hard day for Mao –But still you are amazing!!One of my favs,” said Javier Fernandez. “Mao has a gentle grace that you cannot teach. I’d have watched it if she marked all three jumps,” said John Coughlin. “Omg. So much respect for Mao. Pushing the boundaries not only technically, but artistically as well.” quoth Jeff Buttle..

Asada triumphed with a supreme effort in the Olympic free skate, finishing third, and sixth overall. She was mesmerizing in her courage, going after that troublesome triple Axel and landing it. At the world championships that followed, at home in Saitama, Japan, she won her third world title, setting a world record for the short program with 78.66 points, finally breaking Kim’s four-year-old mark of 78.50.

Asada announced her return earlier today, first in a blog on her website, than in a press conference that was to showcase her show “ The Ice” that will take place next month in Japan. She said that while the 2014 world championship was to have been her swan song, she needed to take a physical and mental break. She earned a university degree from Chukyo University, and appeared in glorious attire upon graduation, dressed in a kimono, with long navy skirt and pink floral top in March.

Then she started to work with Nobuo and Kumiko Sato – her coaches from 2010 on, again. In her blog, she said she started to think she could still do it, and felt a void. “And then the idea came to my mind that I wanted to return,” she wrote.

So should Asada return, she will have much to live up to, including her own previous efforts. There is still no guarantee that she will be back. She says she must get herself back to the shape she was in when she won her most recent world championship. If not, she won’t be ready. In other words, she’ll be back when she’s ready.

It’s doubtful we’ll see her during Grand Prix season. She might show up at Japanese nationals this year, and then perhaps worlds in Boston. She knows the bar has been set higher now by young Russian girls and a host of others who are rushing to the triple Axel. She’s coming to Canada for choreography. Sounds serious.

If she can return to her former glories, it will be a huge shot for skating in Japan. While Midori Ito started the ball rolling, Asada made the sport outrageously popular in Japan, where she is still the most recognizable athlete in the country.

Asada ranks extremely high on the DBI or the David Brown index, which evaluates the marketability of athletes – and it has done so for more than 7,000 of them. If you get a zero on this index, you are in trouble and need to find another line of work. A score of 100 is tops.

On the DBI, Asada gets an 88.83, higher than most other female athletes such as Mexican golfer Lorena Ochoa, Venus Williams, Steffi Graf and Carolina Kostner (who also ranks quite high with 86.45). Asada has an awareness factor of 99 per cent from the Japanese population. Who in Japan does not know about here? Incredible.

At the Sochi Olympics, Asada attracted the most twitter mentions, more than her archrival Kim and American snowboarder Shaun White, a two-time Olympic gold medalist.  It seems that when Asada makes a misstep, the world feels  her pain.

So welcome back, Mao. We need your pioneering spirt, your lovely touch on the ice, your soul.

The Margaret Garrison show: 2015

In the early morning light – say 7 a.m –  a battalion of choreographers showed up at the Powerade Centre in Brampton, Ont. Their job? To create moving, arresting, complicated routines for the sixth Margaret Garrison Ice Show. In one day. In all, 29 choreographers lent their talents to this show.

This show held extra significance because it also marked the 60th anniversary of the Central Ontario Section of Skate Canada – a sizable area in the mostly highly populated section of the country. It’s a highly influential section that has spawned 10 level-four coaches, (24 per cent of the total Canadian coach population at this level), six level-five coaches (half of this top-rank in the country), and 11 Olympic medals.

Its skaters have produced the first triple Salchow by a woman (Petra Burka), the first triple Lutz (Donald Jackson), the first triple Axel (Vern Taylor) and the first quad combo at a world championship (Elvis Stojko.) The section has had nine world champions.

The Central Ontario Section or shall we say simply the COS, has muscled its way around the national championships, producing 20 women’s champions, 21 ice dancing champs, 24 pair titlists, eight synchro skating victors and – get this – 40 men’s champions over the past 60 years. Currently it has 94 clubs, two of them with more than 2,000 members and of course, the show is never complete without skaters flying the flags of each club in undulating formations.

Here’s another cool fact, brought up by COS chairman/MC Paul Cotter. Of the 92 members of the Canadian Figure Skating Hall of Fame, 46 of them fly the flag of the mighty COS.

So at one end of the lively complex, which features Brampton’s Hall of Fame, rippled an elegant black curtain with “COS” and “ 60” detailed in bright white lights. The tables floated around the ice surface, ringed in lights. The folks that filed in saw two hours of non-stop skating, from tiny CanSkaters to Canada’s newest hero, Nam Nguyen, the 40th COS men’s champion, who at age 16, finished fifth at the world championships in Shanghai in March.

There wasn’t a dull moment. There never is. There were plenty of falls and skids and hats flying off.  All hugely entertaining. And all in honour of Madame Margaret, who buzzed her way into the section and did it all for 25 years: prepared meals in the kitchen, and making sure everybody had their teacups full before a board meeting. She was the vice-president of administration before she died of cancer May 15, 2009. Surely Margaret was somewhere behind that big black curtain in the Powerade Centre, directing traffic, at least in spirit. It was also an awards night for volunteers. The number of volunteers who had a hand in producing the show was staggering.

One skater was missing. Dylan Moscovitch, the Canadian pair silver medalist with his new Russian-born partner Lubov Ilyushechkina, broke a finger in practice last week and at the moment can do no lifts, no throws, nothing. Ilyushechkina performed by herself in a group number, now an honoured member of the COS. This twosome won the Standing Ovation Bursary Award, given to skaters that share Garrison’s “passion for figure skating, selfless attitude and perseverance,” and this bursary couldn’t have rained in a drier spot, with Moscovitch and Ilyushechkina having to turn to crowd funding last season to finance their incredible journey. They are celebrating their first anniversary of being together.

The show started on a high note. First out of the box, from behind the black curtain came 10-year-old Stephen Gogolev, gold medalist in pre-novice at Skate Canada Challenge and also the champ at the pre-novice level at the Canada Winter Games in Prince George, B.C. At that event, Gogolev got valuable experience: the stands were packed and they were loud. “I was pretty scared when I got out there,” he said.

Not apparently so at the Garrison show. Gogolev astonished spectators with his crisp spins and his arm movements and his body awareness and his flying blond hair, all there for a boy so young. Troll through some YouTube videos, and you can see him landing triple Axels under the watchful eye of coach Brian Orser. He could be a treat in years to come. (And that’s one benefit  of getting to a Margaret G. show.)

And another treat: pre-novice women’s bronze medalist NatalieD’Allessandro, who came out in petal pink and skated with lovely body movement too. She’s 10.

Floods of skaters came out: STARskaters, Future Champions, two little ice dancers looking for all the world like tiny versions of Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, all of them en masse, in a huddle, out of the huddle, and then a CanSkater of the year award came up: to 4-year-old Clark Paton, a little peanut under the “60” lights. (This to a skater who shows enthusiasm and dedication to the CanSKate program throughout the season.)

You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a CanSkate demonstration, with toddlers finding their feet. They had the same presence at this show as did Carol Hopper, who earned a 50-year pin for her work in the section, and also the Peter Hunt Memorial Award (named for a long-time volunteer). You have to be a cherished volunteer to get this award. Hopper has passed the acid test, many times. She has been ubiquitous over the years.

Other highlights: Roman Sadovsky, now seemingly a regular, slipping around the rink in his jeans with inimitable style; (coach Tracey Wainman tells me he’s sprouted some more inches, even since we last saw him at the Canadian championships in January); Michelle Long, who finished 7th in senior women at her very first Canadian championship last January at age 22 (didn’t start competing until she was a 15-year-old pre-novice skater), floated out, dressed in rich orchid and skated to an iconic Leonard Cohen tune:  “Hallelujah.” However, unlike Jeremy Ten, who used Jeff Buckley’s version to win the silver medal at the Canadian championships from his B.C. perch, Long used k.d. lang’s powerful one. (In the 30th anniversary of the song, Newsweek ranked 60 version of the song, from worst to best. Lang ranked fifth. Buckley was second. Cohen himself was eighth. Susan Boyle faded away at 56th place. Yikes, the Canadian Tenors were 59th).

Junior dance national silver medalists Lauren Collins and Shane Firus were winsome, skating to the haunting and heartbreaking “Say Something:” Two Special Olympics skaters dressed in black velvet may have been the best-dressed of the night. Some adult skaters showed off cheek while skating to “Fly Me to the Moon.” (And don’t we  love it when skaters slap their rumps on the way out?). Alexandra Paul and Mitchell Islam did what they do best: something lyrical and lovely with long edges. Team Elite featured Gabby Daleman coming out in a long cloak: Leaside’s synchro club offered up some talented newbies in Meraki, the novice version, making “I Love Lucy” come alive. Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier showed up at their third Garrison, fresh from a sixth-place finish at the world championships and gave us gorgeous moves, including one in which Poirier picks up Gilles on the fly, and then replayed a beautiful move done by Isabelle and Paul Duchesnay years ago in their Reflections number.

And then there was Nguyen, who showed us a side we haven’t seen before, a routine choreographed by Shin Amano, otherwise known as a tough technical specialist, but obviously a program designer with enchanting vision. All of the cheekiness and showmanship of Nguyen disappeared and in its place was a lovely, classical and emotive routine. Stay tuned for more of this in the coming season.







Patrick Chan strides boldly back to competition wars

Apparently, Patrick Chan lives on the edge. He wants his skating to do the same. We apparently have seen nothing yet.

And that, boys and girls, is why he is returning to the competitive skating wars next season, but not before he takes in a few more high-risk, death-defying activities.

Today he, Kaitlyn Weaver, Andrew Poje, Jeffrey Buttle, Eric Radford, and the instigator of all this risky business, Joannie Rochette, are going sky diving in Montreal, where the Stars On Ice tour has landed.  Chan doesn’t intend to tell his coach Kathy Johnson about this, but he says he’s sure she’ll be okay with it.

He certainly didn’t tell her the first time he did it a few weeks ago, down in Florida, with Rochette leading the way. “Joannie is quite the sky diver,” Chan said earlier today on a conference call. “It was a blast.” He admitted he was very scared. “Contemplated life,” he said.

At one point, Chan turned to his experienced jumping partner in the plane and noticed how high about the planet they were. He figured they were about ready to peel out of the door any minute. Not so. “We’re only half way,” he told Chan.

“Are you kidding me?” Chan said.

The anticipation and the waiting were eerily similar to that fluttery feeling that Chan endures after the six-minute warmup at a skating event, he said. The first two or three seconds out of the plane gave him more than goosebumps. Call it terror. “After that, it was such a great rush,” he said. “And I’m really in the moment and you enjoy every minute of it. And you pull [the ripcord], and oh my god, the view is amazing.

“And it just makes you realize how small I am – and not to bash on the figure skating world – but how small the figure skating world is. Many of us think that figure skating is our world and it’s huge and it’s all about us. But at the end of the day, the world is very big, and there are many, many people out there doing many, many different things. I ‘m just a part of this sport and I want to give the best I can and just have a great experience and have that rush. I live for that rush that I get from sky diving.”

It’s not the gold Olympic medal he’s missing that is pulling Chan back into this quixotic skating world – although he admits it’s at the back of his mind. He wants the rush of competing. He’s spent the past season doing all the things he never dared to do while competing: surfing, skiing in the back country, sky diving, where your life is on the line. It has all reminded him that he has a great life, and where he finishes at an event doesn’t affect who he is and what he does with his life. That mindset could make him dangerous next season.

Chan, now 24, feels he has more to give, particularly on the performance side of the sport. He doesn’t want to look back when he’s 40 and regret the hesitation. He wants to remember the feeling of complete satisfaction on an endeavour that will drive future generations to pop the DVD in a machine and say: “This is what skating should be.” He wants to try new things styles, new choreography. He wants to try music with lyrics, which he feels enhances choreographic adventures. He wants to expand his “vocabulary in movement and choreography,” he says.

More than ever, he feels there’s a place for that in the men’s discipline. Chan admits he did not watch the men’s event at the world championships in Shanghai last March. He watched only the ice dancing event, because his friends in Detroit were ice dancers competing there (Weaver and Poje, Alexandra Paul and Mitchell Islam).

Later, he used the magic of YouTube to watch the routines of Javier Fernandez and Olympic champ Yuzuru Hanyu. He skimmed through their programs. “That says a lot,” Chan said candidly. “It wasn’t that I disliked them. I like Javi and I love his jumps as well as Yuzu: his jumps and his triple Axel. I admire it and I admire a lot of elements of their programs. It’s just that’s what it is. I literally fast-forwarded through their biggest jumps and that’s it. Then I stopped watching.”

Chan feels that their skating hasn’t changed. “It doesn’t look any different. They’re skating to the same pieces of music and style.” Even though Fernandez skated to the Barber of Seville, Chan feels that Fernandez still exhibited very much a Charlie Chaplin style, which “totally works for him.” Chan says he’d love to see him do classical pieces. “Just because that’s what I would do if I was in that position,” he said. “I would challenge myself and do that.”

The skaters that brought the kind of special flair that Chan wants to bring to the skating world are ice dancers Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron, who shocked the world by leaping from 13th to first in world standings in one season. Chan admits he knows nothing about ice dance, but he understands the feeling that the French team evoked. “When they skated, I was really taken away,” Chan said. “I was sitting at my house, at my computer, on my desk. I felt like I was in a whole different world. I was taken into their world. I was enchanted. I felt they expressed the emotion of pain and love, and all that cheesy stuff. (!)

“But I felt that it really came out on the computer screen. Imagine that. That’s what I look for these days. The reason I do extreme stuff like jumping out of an airplane is to get that extreme feeling. I had goosebumps watching them. That’s a good sign.”

He wants to get back into the regimented world of competing. David Wilson will be choreographing his routines: “Stepping Out” for the short program (music he used for exhibitions during the 2013-14 season) and a revamping of the long program that we’ve seen only at last year’s Japan Open, which he won convincingly by 23 points over Fenandez. (Hanyu wasn’t there.) The music? Chopin’s Revolutionary Etude.

So drink to that. Chan can help with that, too. In June, Ontarians will be able to buy his own label of ice wine, bottled up in Niagara.