These days, one has to look up, way up, to meet Conrad Orzel’s gaze. Yes, he’s grown, in many ways really.
This new Orzel, now statuesque at 5-foot-11, at age 16, has taken the lead in a very very tough junior men’s division after the short program at the Canadian championships this week. With 68.16 points, he’s 1.98 points ahead of wonderkid Stephen Gogolev, who is competing at the junior level for the first time this year, after dominating the novice championships last year in Halifax.
Gogolev is only 12, for heaven’s sake. And just turned 12 last month. He won’t even be able to go out on the junior international circuit until the 2018-2019 season. He lands quads with aplomb. He comes up to Orzel’s armpit.
They couldn’t be more different. Gogolev has that softly flowing blond silky hair that flutters in the breeze he creates. He floats about the ice, hardly making a sound. Orzel is an explosion.
In the short, Gogolev stepped out of a triple Axel that went so high, maybe almost too high, and he squeaked out a triple Lutz –triple toe loop after almost coming to a stop after the Lutz. Miraculous. Orzel landed his triple Axel, which didn’t flow out, nailed that triple Lutz – triple toe loop, and landed a triple loop, as easy as pie. (although I’ve never found pie easy, but there you go.). Little things make a difference in this game.
Besides, for the past week, Gogolev has been ill, suffering a fever and coughing his lungs out. All of this hasn’t helped the Gogolev magic. We’re not quite seeing vintage Gogolev, if you can say “vintage” and “12-year-old” in the same sentence.
Last month, Gogolev won the qualifying event, Challenge, with 215.01 points, getting there with 76.24 for the short program. Orzel was third.
Yes, Orzel has grown.
“Over the past few years, since I’ve been in high school, I’ve had a growth spurt,” he said. “A lot of people struggle with this, but I think it has actually benefitted me. I think it has given me more strength and for some reason, more core control.”
Orzel landed the first quad in his life (a quad toe loop) at his second Junior Grand Prix event in Dresden Germany during the fall. Huge. He intends to try one in the long program on Wednesday.
But he is so talented, so precocious, he has more up his sleeve that we may see in years to come. Just for fun, he’s been playing with the ultra difficult quad Lutz – and he’s landed one. During a team day for Ontario, Orzel told his coach he was actually going to land one. And he did. “It was really exciting,” said Najarro, who has been coaching him since he was five years old.
He’s dabbled with the quad Salchow. He’s done a quad loop. He has very very fast twitch muscle, He can explode, like nobody’s business. Sometimes too quick. His coach, Eva Najarro, works to keep him calm and patient.
He came to the table in the short program with music he loves: “Secrets” by One Republic and “Beethoven’s Five Secrets” by The Piano Guys.” Who found it? Former skater Alexandra Najarro, daughter of Eva. Spotify proved a gold mine. Orzel listened to it for five minutes and knew it was perfect. Former ice dancer, Shae Zukiwsky, choreographed both his programs for the first time.
“They are really good together,” (Eva) Najarro said. “I can see Conrad in that program. I think this program is really him and that’s why he feels it.”
Najarro has called on the help of coach Joanne McLeod in Vancouver to help with Orzel’s quad education. He goes there in the summers. He has’t been working on quads so much this season because Najarro wanted to prepare him for the work at hand. But maybe in the spring.
“It’s going to be something to think about next year,” Orzel said. Najarro said his practices have improved this year and so have his spins, footwork and edges. It’s all important.
Last year, Orzel took a hard fall during the men’s event, and landed on his head. Miraculously, he picked himself up and continued. And even more miraculously, he did not suffer a concussion and all the aftereffects that come with it.
The next week, his friends had wondered about his black eye. He had to tell them he had fallen on his head at nationals. “I guess I have a hard head,” he said.