Petite, energy-bunny Meagan Duhamel is 30 years old now, a two-time world pair champion with her elegantly musical partner Eric Radford, now 31.
They are elder statesmen in the skating world. They’ve taken their lumps and bumps and they still keep coming, always giving their competitors something to worry about, as they did at the world championships last year in Boston, where they thought they might finish as low as fifth. But they came prepared and won, defeating Olympic champions from Russia. These Canadians are relentless. And remarkably, they are still learning.
They learned a lot at Finlandia Trophy, an excellent little Senior B international competition a few weeks ago, that they won. Still, in some ways, that win felt like a defeat. They made mistakes. They were floored by jetlag to Espoo, east of the Finnish capital Helsinki, to depths they hadn’t felt before. “There wasn’t a single night that I wasn’t able to sleep through the night,” Radford said. “It would always be like when it was time to go to the rink and skate, that I would feel like I just wanted to go to bed.”
And Radford had just acquired a new pair of skates before they ran off to Finland. And they were barely broken in when he got there.
“They were comfortable enough,” Radford said. “But there’s always these little things that take time to become completely natural, like the feeling of your edges on the ice and the stiffness of the boot around your foot.”
Duhamel and Radford showed off their new short program to Seal’s “Killer,” but Radford stumbled out of a triple Lutz and Duhamel fell on their new triple Axel.
Long program? Still a small flurry of big bobbles: this time, Duhamel stumbled out of the triple Lutz and then she fell on their quad Salchow, then got lost in the midst of three jump-toe loop combination. They just could not get centred. They tried to draw on all of their previous experiences, but they just didn’t feel 100 per cent. The way she explains it: “We didn’t have such a great experience and a great skate.”
It’s not as if it was their first competition of the season. They had made their debut at a small provincial competition in picturesque Quebec City and they sizzled.
Seconds after they finished their free skate at Finlandia, already Duhamel was chattering, discussing, trying to figure out where they had gone wrong.
“That’s where the most value comes out,” said Duhamel of their rocky ride in Finland. “It gave us a good guide of the things we need to focus on and the things we need to work on, that we wouldn’t have learned if we hadn’t had the experience we had.”
“We’ve always learned more from our difficult skates than the most spectacular ones,” Radford said. “We learned a lot in Finland. There was a big realization that being a world champion doesn’t ever make it any easier.”
So they changed things up when they got home. They restructured their short program. They have now made their new throw triple Axel the third element instead of the fourth, and by doing so, they’ve also cut down the preparation time going into the throw by three seconds. Naturally, the preparation is different going into that throw. “It really helped a lot,” Duhamel said. “I feel very positive with that throw going forward to [Skate Canada International in Mississauga] next week. I feel optimistic that we’re going to be able to do it.”
Duhamel noted that they already felt that the short program wasn’t going to stay the way it was, even before they left for Finland. “The throw Axel was just uncomfortable, coming in the program after the lift,” she said. “And we also had such a long, labored preparation for the throw.”
The changes alter “the whole energy of the program,” Duhamel said. “We’ve added a new exit to our lift. And everything is just more musical. It’s sharper. It’s stronger. The day we changed it, one of our coaches said: ‘There, now the program looks like a real program.’ It looks like it’s going to be really entertaining.”
So yes, they learned a lot from going to Finland. But they’ve never been averse to learning, even at their advanced ages [in the skating world.]
They haven’t worked on a throw quad Lutz since Skate Canada last year. They don’t feel they need another quad, that their quad Salchow is just enough. This athletic pair was quite disappointed that the International Skating Union does not allow quad throws in the short program. So they decided to amp up their point quotient by learning a throw triple Axel.
The throw triple Axel feels very light for them, whereas the quad Lutz that they tried to do last season became so heavy, psychologically. “It was like it determined if we felt successful day by day,” Radford said. “If we couldn’t do it, we’d go home feeling sad and upset. And the throw Axel is more like we treated the throw quad Salchow. Everything else is really good and we have this one new move and if it doesn’t work, we can always go back and do a throw triple Lutz.
“But it’s been working well, so we’ll put it in. It’s very light and I think that’s going to be a key to its success. We’ve done it [putting a difficult throw] one way with the Salchow, we’ve done it the hard way with the Lutz.” Imagine a throw triple Axel feeling “light.”
It’s not as if the throw triple Axel has never been done before. It has been. Americans Rena Inoue and John Baldwin became the first to land one at the 2006 U.S. championships, and they also landed it at the Turin Olympics a month later.
Germans Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy attempted them, one of them at the 2012 world championships, but Savchenko brushed the ice with her free foot. The throw triple Axel had cost them a chance to win a European championship, when a hard fall on the throw before the event caused them to withdraw.
However, Savchenko and her new partner Bruno Massot have taken up the chase, and landed one at Nebelhorn Trophy, which they won. Some judges deemed that Savchenko landed it on two feet, but it was the first time they offered it up at competition. Duhamel and Radford see the German pair – third at their first worlds last March – as their main competitors this season.
So yes, Duhamel and Radford have decided to do it in their short program this year. The challenge of it all? They had never done a throw Axel of any rotation before in their careers. Not even a throw double Axel.
The world champions had to go back to basics. In March, they learned a throw waltz jump. Then a throw single Axel. (And they had never even done that before.) “It was literally step by step,” Duhamel said.
The learning process involved at first, how to do a single throw waltz jump. How were they to hold each other? Where was Radford’s position while she was doing it? They had to address simple things, like a takeoff that is second nature on a Salchow or Lutz. “But for an Axel, it was really weird,” Duhamel said.
Astonishingly enough, it was the week before worlds in Boston that the two of them were fooling around the ice and though it would be fun to try a single. It felt good. A double felt good. “And we started thinking: ‘Okay, this could be possible.’”
“I do a quad and I do a triple Axel and the danger risk is the same in both,” Duhamel said. In the last two weeks of August, the jump had its ebbs and its flows, but evened out by the time they got to the national training camp in Mississauga in early September.
At Skate Canada, Duhamel and Radford will be up against a pair even older than they: Yuko Kavaguti, who is 34 and Alexander Smirnov, who is 31. The years of competing haven’t been kind to these Russians, who were fourth at the Olympics in 2010. Injuries have caught up with them. They missed part of last season when she ruptured her Achilles tendon while training off-ice. The previous year, they were forced to miss the Sochi Olympics when Smirnov ruptured ligaments in his knee in Oct. 2013.
In the past these Russians have landed throw quad Salchows, and they attempted a throw quad loop, but it was landed on two feet at a competition.
Looking for more oldsters? There’s Zhang Hao, listed at 32, although with the Chinese, you never know. He won an Olympic silver medal with Zhang Dan in 2006. Zhang competed with Pang Cheng up to last year, but for this season was paired up with former two-time world junior pairs champion Yu Xiaoyu, who had looked to have a wonderful future with her previous partner Jin Yang. Their programs have been choreographed by Canadians.
And oh yes, there is Vera Bazarova and her newish partner Andrei Deputat, who last July married Russian ice dancer Ekaterina Bobrova. They are trained by 1984 Olympic champion Oleg Vasiliev. They were ranked sixth in Russia before all the defections: Olympic champions Tatiana Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov are expecting their first child, and Olympic silver medalists Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov missed Finlandia because Stolbova is recovering from injuries inflicted by a skating boot. She is currently undergoing treatment in the United States before heading back to Russia. Last season, the pair missed a lot of time because Klimov had a serious shoulder injury.