The Osmond-Walia Accord

What a duo they are, Kaetlyn Osmond and her bright eyes, and the willowy, calm form of her coach Ravi Walia at rinkside.

They have grown simultaneously together in a difficult sport and are marching steadily (thundering actually) toward world attention. Never more so than this year, when Osmond has been busy defeating world champions and medalists. And this all on the brink of the Canadian championships next week in Ottawa, where Osmond’s goal is to make the world team this year. But she’s a solid factor to snatch back her national title from Alaine Chartrand and Gabby Daleman, too. There are only two world championship spots for three strong women vying for them.

This season, at the Grand Prix Final in Marseille, France, Osmond delivered scores never achieved by a Canadian woman in the current judging system. Her personal best total score of 212.45 points is the ninth highest score accomplished by a woman anywhere, still behind Yu Na Kim’s record of 228.56 attained at the Vancouver Olympics.

Her short program score of 75.54 – unleashed by judges for Osmond’s Edith Piaf medley – is also Canada’s highest, at eighth best in the world, not all that far behind the record holder, Russian Evgenia Medvedeva, who collected 79.21 at the Grand Prix Final in Marseille.

Osmond’s long program best of 136.91 is 13th highest in the world books, behind Medvedeva’s 150.10 from Boston worlds (you know the record that eclipsed Yu Na Kim’s record by four-hundredths of a point). Rochette at 131.28 is 20th on the list.

All season long, Osmond has been sending out smoke signals that she’s becoming a force on the world scene. When she won the Finlandia Trophy in Espoo, she defeated world champion and Olympic silver medalist Mao Asada, a revived Anna Pogorilaya (world bronze) and former world champion Elizaveta Tuktamysheva. Actually,Osmond has defeated Tuktamysheva three times this season, also at Skate Canada and Cup of China.

At Skate Canada, Osmond, in winning the silver medal, defeated world silver medalist Satoko Miyahara. And at Cup of China, she won the short program over Elena Radionova, who roared back to take the overall gold.

At the Grand Prix Final, Osmond finished second, ahead of so many of the world’s best women, in the short program. She dropped to fourth overall, with a strong routine that had two mistakes. “I could watch her all day,” enthused one Eurosport commentator.

Yes, it’s been good this year, a definite turnaround from the previous season when she finished third at the national championships and didn’t even make the trip to Boston worlds. Osmond has a different twinkle this season, and it’s thanks to the soft-spoken Walia.

Osmond’s biggest blow came when she fractured her right fibula (the small bone of the lower leg) during a freak fall while training on Sept. 11, 2014. She missed the entire season. Walia had to navigate all of the swirling emotions, the heavy one at the back of all sorts of minds that perhaps, Osmond would never come back at all.

“I think it was a very good possibility that she would not skate again after she broke her leg,” Walia said. These thoughts entered his mind when she finally returned to the ice. And he could see that the task wasn’t so easy.

“I had to find ways to try to get that to happen,” said Walia, speaking of a comeback.

Walia remembers a day when her doctor told her she could finally start skating again on a Monday. But come Monday, Osmond didn’t show up. “Most athletes would probably have been back that day,” he said. “But I know that she was afraid.”

Walia got busy, trying to find ways to gently coax her back onto the ice, without her knowing that he was doing so. He called her a few times, talked to her about different things, about shows, some opportunities coming in the future. Mostly he was trying to lead her to remember what she loved about skating, to create that in her mind again. The message was an attempt to bring her back, but he never made it the purpose of the calls. It was always, on the surface of it, about something else.

To keep the love of skating alive in her eyes, he was trying to boost her confidence, lower her stress levels.

When Osmond did get back onto the ice, Walia had her do it in a private session, away from eyes and expectations and the sight of young kids whizzing around, doing what she could no longer do.

“I went on the ice with her and just talked,” he said. Osmond could only skate like a beginner. She couldn’t even turn backwards.

“I was talking to her and having conversations with her so she wouldn’t be thinking about skating,” Walia said.

Yes, it was a struggle. The first intent was to try to get her ready for the Canadian championships in January. But eventually it became clear she wouldn’t make it. It was just unrealistic. So they abandoned that pursuit, and with it came relief. “She wasn’t’ healed and she had another surgery,” Walia said. “She was having a lot of pain with the plate in her foot.”

When she had the plate removed in February of 2015, Osmond felt better. Things became more normal.  At first, finally back in the middle of March, still  she “was really not in a physically or mentally in a good place, maybe,” Walia said. “But it was a start. You have to start somewhere.”

Walia set small goals for her every few weeks. She accomplished them. The approach was slow, to be sure. But luckily, Osmond just happens to be a generally positive person. She has strength nobody even knows about. She’s very strong-minded. And she works hard.

When she came back at the start of the 2014-2015 season, she seemed ready. She won Nebelhorn. But then came Skate Canada and it was a definite setback.

“I had the most disastrous skate that I’ve ever done in competition,” she said of her 11th-place finish. And she had injured herself in practice. The success-failure thing threw her for a loop. She didn’t trust herself after that. Not her body. Not her mind.

Besides, what she saw out in the world shocked her. While she’d been recovering, she had retreated into a bubble. She stayed away from the skating world. She didn’t watch. When she returned: “I was almost in shock with how great the world competitors and even the Canadian skaters had gotten in that year,” she said. “I could see it wasn’t going to be as easy as it was in the past years when I had competed.” Confidence fizzled.

Then there was that momentous 2016 Canadian championship in Halifax, where she finished only third and missed the trip to the world championships. “It was an eye-opener and a kick in the butt for me,” she said.

She hadn’t realized how much faith she had lost in herself until that event. “I didn’t feel like myself at all,” she said. “I didn’t feel how I like to skate in competition.

“After my long program, I was upset, obviously, but I was more upset over the fact that I was able to finish that program and not feel like I actually skated. It’s hard to explain how that feels. I just didn’t feel like myself on the ice and I don’t like that feeling.”

But with Walia at her side, Osmond picked herself back up and restarted her career. At the Four Continents championships in February, she finished sixth overall, but skated well in the long program to be fourth in a good field. Placements weren’t as important as the effort.

“She’s a very positive person,” Walia said. “At the rink each day, she’s always very happy.  I wouldn’t necessarily see that she was devastated. I know she had high goals and that was a big setback for her [the 2016 Canadian championships.] But I think, in the end, it taught her a lot. “

After Four Continents, Walia and Osmond had a discussion about what they could improve for the future. At the centre of it all was Walia’s realization that Osmond was no longer the coltish 16-year-old that had burst onto the scene with such oomph a few years ago. She was now 20. “She was a completely different person,” he said.

“I gained a lot of maturity over the last year,” Osmond said. “I gained a lot more self-awareness. Last year was such an eye-opener, knowing that I wasn’t going to go out and be perfect every time. That’s something I had to come to grips with in practice.”

This season, it’s being mindful about what she needs. And she knows what she needs and now to get herself in the right frame of mind, what state she has to be in, how she’s training, how her body is working and feeling. Walia also nudged her toward talking to a sports psychologist.

“One thing that has improved is her ability to work and her love of the work,” Walia said. “This has improved compared to when she was a teenager. She can handle it. She pushes herself and it’s never a struggle for her. “

Walia, a 43-year-old former Canadian bronze medalist (behind Sebastien Britten in 1995), has been just the ticket for Osmond. He knows what it’s like to comeback from injuries. His crowning moment was at Skate Canada in 1997, when he landed a quadruple toe loop – triple toe loop combination at a time when such things weren’t so common. Walia got a standing ovation.

Since then, he worked at his coaching skills by being an assistant to Canadian skating guru Barbara Graham in Alberta until she died. And he became a certified technical specialist. Osmond came into Walias’s coaching fold when she was only 10 years old.

“Ravi has been unbelievable,” Osmond said. “Last year, he expected the season I was having more than I did. He knew how to build me up after each competition, whether to calm me down after I did well, or build me back up after something not so great.”

Osmond describes him as a “great motivational coach,” trying to get her to enjoy skating. “He knows what I need to do on the ice to make myself feel better. And that’s what he’s been doing all year this year, to keep my confidence up, pushing me in ways that boost my confidence, to make me push myself every day.”

Walia has been on top of everything: getting her to see a sports psychologist, getting to see a physiotherapist, ensuring she does warm-ups and cool-downs. “He knows my body better than I do,” Osmond said.

Last year was a learning experience for both of them. But they are both coming out on the other side, and it’s working, in spades.

The message and the lesson from all of the tough experiences she’s had in the past couple of years, says Osmond, is more of a message for herself: that she could come back from anything. “I want to show everyone that it doesn’t matter how many setbacks you have in life,” she said. “It might take a while, but you can come back.”

And it also helps to have a friend in your corner, thoughtfully and carefully pointing the way.

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