Eric Radford battling hip issue

The timing couldn’t be worse.

A day before the pair short program at the world figure skating championship, two-time world champion Eric Radford could see there was something wrong with his hip. And he could not do a triple Lutz.

“I’ve had a spasmed muscle in my deep abdominals,” he said, clenching his right hip after a practice Tuesday in which he was able to land only one triple Lutz, with hand down, mind you. It was clear that something was not right.

“It was bugging me, but I still had good control,” he said. “It was just kind of sore. And then this morning, I woke up and it was so stiff that I could barely move.”

This was not good news for a team that has had to iron out various wrinkles all season, that has been hustling to repair and improve all wayward elements, and that finally seemed to be finally getting a grasp on it all.

The triple Lutz is worth 6.0 as a base mark. At its max, with +3 bonuses added on, it could be worth as much as 8.1. A fall could cost a one-point deduction, as well as lost points on Grade of Execution (GOE).

This is a new wrinkle that Radford has never faced before. He said that when he got onto the ice, he just could not squeeze his legs together. “I don’t know what muscle it is specifically, whether it is my adductor or something. But

When I’m in the air, I can’t pull in properly. My legs feel like they are going to fly apart.”

Radford says he even has problems doing crosscuts. “I feel like I don’t have a lot of control over my hip,” he said. And it was not a cheerful voice.

He will work with a therapist Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.

Coach Bruno Marcotte said the physiotherapist knows what to do to help Radford. “I feel really confident that the physio will be able to help him,” he said.

The muscle issue began last week, but usually when he skated, it was fine. “It just got really bad [Monday],” Radford said.

The problem affects only the Lutz because his right leg pivots on the right hip to do it. And when he goes up into the air, the problem means he cannot squeeze in the air. “My legs feel floppy,” he said. He said it does not cause him pain. It’s numb. Pain would be easier to deal with, he said.

With other jumps, it’s easier to transfer weight and motion, he said. He can manage them.

During his second practice on Monday, Radford did a beautiful triple Lutz – double toe loop. “And my body felt great yesterday in practice,” he said.

The first practice actually was rather rocky, the second one hummed. On Tuesday, neither the first nor the second practice went well for Radford.

Even so, other elements sparkled on Tuesday’s last practice. Partner Meagan Duhamel said they did a really good throw quad, and a triple twist good enough to get level four that they have been practicing for extra points this year.

And while Radford was pondering his plan of attack during the practice, Duhamel circled around the rink, and avoided the triple Lutz. (“The more I do of them, I’m probably going to start getting into my head,” she said.) So she started doing other jumps, starting out with doubles. They were going so well, she started doing double Axel – triple toe loop combinations and a triple loop, things she does not usually do or practice.

“I didn’t even tell my coaches,” she said with a grin. “that was just for fun. I can only jump like that from time to time.”

Coach Bruno Marcotte said Duhamel went off to do her own thing to keep her mind positive and “to give Eric some space to gather his spirit.”

Chen hobbled only by boots

HELSINKI

Nathan Chen has blasted history, made history and defied history with his assembly of powerful quads this season. When the 17-year-old American defeated a savvy Olympic veteran in Yuzuru Hanyu at the Four Continents championships last month, well, the figure skating world just hasn’t been the same.

On the first day of the world figure skating championships this week, Chen held court in a frigid cave at the Hartwell Arena, on the first practice day, in front of a cast of a handful of die-hards, shivering under the rock.

During his run-through of his free program, Chen didn’t land five quads, but six quads as he motored his way about the ice on a pair of skates that can’t take the heat.

They are falling apart. He figures they will hold out until Thursday, the day of the men’s free. Therefore, he has packed with him a new pair of skates, and he has access to another pair from a boot manufacturer.  Chen doesn’t look worried.

Coach Rafael Arutunian says Chen slipped into his current boots for the first time only about four weeks ago, (after Four Continents) and already they have softened with the punishment of constant quad work.

This week, he’s holding them together with hockey laces, (“Every little bit helps,” Chen says) and praying that he won’t have to dip into that suitcase loaded with his weaponry. The laces are waxed, so they are stable in the boot.

Chen also had a problem with the way the boots were mounted. Arutunian says he carries about a pouch of tools to settle every such issues.

If Chen has any problems on the ice with these foot covers, it’s with the quad flip. He flipped out of one during his Monday run-through. He did others.

This is Chen’s first world championship, by the way. Such problems to have.

Aruturnian says he doesn’t know yet what the game plan is.

“We practice so many things that we don’t see yet,” he said. “But that is what sport is based on. I feel I have a company of production. I produce something. I try stuff.

“I get experience of how that works and then I make a decision. I don’t want to show that before it’s ready.”

As for the boots, they weigh heavily on Arutunian’s mind. “Boots have always been a problem, not only for him,” he said. “I think ice skating is improving and boots improve slower than skaters. Materials are something that could be done better. We have hard time with boots.

“They are too stiff and they get too quick soft. So there is very difficult to find the perfect timing: when to put them on to get the right time to be ready, to be not too soft and to be not too stiff.”

He thinks boot manufacturers should more often consult coaches, at least the ones who understand technique. If the boots are too stiff, a skater can’t use them for edges. If they are too soft, and a skater jumps, “they collapse,” Arutunian said.

The task to find boots that will do everything is going to get even harder, the coach said.

It’s definitely a concern whether or not Chen’s boots will last the week, he said. “At competitions, you always try harder. It’s adrenaline. “

At least, Arutunian said, Chen has skated in his spare boots, if he needs to pull them on at last moment. They will probably be a bit on the stiff side, mind.

But the way Chen seems to be: he’ll deal with it. He always seems to unruffled, despite his high-flying ways.

Bridge Over Troubled Waters

In the early days, Sui Wenjing and Han Cong did cute. They were cute. They bopped around the ice doing country dance one year, he clad (depending on the competition) in chaps, plaid shirt, fringes, faded  jeans, boot covers that suggested spurs;  she in red gingham and a little girl smile. They did Kalinka, too, charming folk with their peppy routine and colourful garb.

 

It was perfect. Both were tiny. Physically, they haven’t grown much. Emotionally, they have. They’ve had to. Life does that to you. Over the past few years, they’ve felt pain, disappointment, fear, disillusion. And all the bleakness of a landscape with little hope.

So, they stunned everybody by winning the difficult Four Continents championships a month ago, in their first competition in a year, their only performance this season. They tossed out a quad twist. (They were, after all, doing this very tricky move when they were juniors.) And their performance, to the beloved Simon & Garfunkel tune, “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” was mature, heartfelt. It was the story of their lives.

“When you’re weary, feeling small,” the song goes,

“When tears are in your eyes

I will dry them all

I’m on your side

When times get tough

And friends just can’t be found

Like a bridge over troubled water

I will lay me down.”

It’s a miracle that they are still skating at all, because of Sui’s dire history of injuries. Sui and Han resorted to the big tricks to climb the ranks, but they have cost the pair. Sui missed most of the 2013-2014 season because of severe epiphysitis, a condition caused by the crushing impact on her young bones.

She had also severed a few ligaments along the way – a lateral collateral ligament – a problem that continued to plague her. While they couldn’t train on ice, they still worked on upper body strength, with Han carrying his tiny partner piggy-back style to the rink. Somehow, Sui competed, relying on the power of her muscles to do the actions she needed to do. And sheer will. “I can’t not skate, just because they hurt,” she said.

It’s not a surprise that when Sui was a singles skater, others gave her the nickname of Lui Hulan, who was a young female spy during the Chinese Civil War. She was beheaded at 14, but became a symbol of courage for the Chinese people. Sui was always fearless.

When Sui and Han won their three junior world pair titles, they were doing quad twist and quad throws. They did a throw quad Salchow at the 2012 Four Continents, but set it aside until last season, after having seen Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford use one to win worlds the previous year. They landed their first throw quad Salchow in four years when they won their third Four Continents title a year ago.

They also landed a quad twist in their free program in 2016, even though Sui had fallen on a throw jump and hit her head in training before Four Continents. The fall affected her sight. She couldn’t see very well out of her left eye. They trained sporadically before the event  – Sui also fell ill with the flu before the Four Continents. Zhao told them to do every element the best they could. “In daily training, he always tells us not to have any regrets,” Han said. “So we don’t want to have any regrets in our training and we want to challenge ourselves and surpass ourselves in the competition.”

Just before the free skate at Four Continents, they decided to try the throw quad Salchow, whether they succeeded or not. They knew it would be good experience to try it in competition before the world championships. They didn’t execute the quad twist as well.  They landed it, but lost a few levels of difficulty. Perhaps the consistency with which they had been doing the quad throw helped: Han said before Sui’s injury, they had a 90 to 95 per cent success rate doing them. In the three practice sessions before Four Continents, they had landed less than 10. They figured they were only plugging along at 50 per cent capacity.

Then by the time of the world championships, coach Zhao said the eye issue was resolved. And when they finished second, Sui and Han appeared happily surprised by their marks and what they were able to accomplish.

With all of the stress Sui puts on her feet and ankles, she also injured an Achilles tendon during training in November of 2015, just before Cup of China, causing the team to withdraw from the Grand Prix Final. It was on her right foot, her landing foot, which impacted her training. Also, the supporting ligaments on both sides of her foot were completely severed. Her joints were also not very stable. They had been training very hard, and the bone trauma was severe. She often twists that foot in normal life. She took painkillers and skated with the injury taped up. They couldn’t really practice throw jumps at all.

Zhao understood better than anyone what she was going through: He had also suffered an Achilles tendon injury and made a very difficult comeback to win Olympic gold in Vancouver in 2010. Somehow, Sui competed with it. She ignored the pain. But she knew she would have to undergo surgery at season’s end. And there would be no guarantee about whether she could come back in tip-top condition.

From the Boston world championships, Sui and Han trundled over to Toronto to have Lori Nichol do the choreography for both of their programs for this season. Sui was in such pain, she could not actually be on the ice during the exercise. Someone had to stand in for her.

Her toughest task lay ahead. Sui figured she would have surgery a day after she returned, but the cautious doctors argued with each other about the best way to procede. Finally Ren Hongguo, the head of the National Winter Sports Administration Centre in Beijing, arranged surgery for May 5.

The plan was to deal with injuries in both of her feet at once. According to the China Sports Daily, doctors had to reset a tendon in the left foot and stabilize it with a staple.  Doctors spent three hours repairing the lateral collateral ligament on her right ankle, and it was to take four months to recover. They put in another staple to join ligaments together. And they had to remove bone chips from both the inner front area and outer back area of the foot.

Sui dealt with a swollen ankle afterwards, that sometimes still bled. She couldn’t sleep for the pain. “I couldn’t stand it,” she told Chinese media. “I screamed and cried. It hurt even more on the second day. I cried all day,” she said.

After surgery, she suffered high fevers and her blood work was not stable. She was discharged from the hospital on May 9 to start rehabilitation.

She said later that her surgery lasted longer than normal, so much so that she needed three anaesthetic injections. Han was waiting for her when she got out of hospital, as well as a host of others. She calls Han her “big brother.”

“When you’re down and out,” their free skate music goes.

“When you’re on the street

When evening falls so hard

I will comfort you.

When darkness comes

And pain is all around

Like a bridge over troubled waters

I will lay me down.”

Sui and Han say they felt stressed out and tired after the Four Continents last month. “I don’t think anybody knew we were exhausted,” Han said. “It was hard for us.” They still have some problems to sort out. They need more practice time.

“We got this medal not only for us, but we owe it to everyone who is around us and helped us to come back. We were reborn in this championship,” he added.

The music is slow-paced, grand, all about their struggles together. “It describes our experience,” Sui told the Chinese media. “A man and a woman. The two of them each other’s best friends. They’re only friends. They share one goal and one career, helping each other, supporting each other.”

Yes, it’s emotional, and they skate it that way. They say they want to perform it like a piece of art. They have gone way beyond the cute factor.

 

 

 

Virtue and Moir’s “warmup” season

This was supposed to be only the warmup season for Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir after a two-year respite. The one where they chugged their engines back into order, cleaned out the cobwebs, overhauled their basic skating skills, and stubbed their toes a few times against the curbs of the sport.

But so far the winsome twosome has floated past all impediments, including two-time world champs Gabriel Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France, who seemed to have set themselves on a higher plane from the rest by the end of last season.

Together 20 years, Virtue and Moir have come a long way

 

Now, Virtue and Moir are at the top of the leaderboard with the toughest competition of the season to come: the world championships in Helsinki next week. They have surprised themselves, remaining undefeated this season, while setting and resetting a couple of world-record scores (original dance 80.50 and combined score, 197.22.)

The French hold the world record for the free dance score of 118.17. Virtue and Moir have the second highest mark in history of 117.20, gained at the Four Continents last month, about a point shy of training mates Papadakis and Cizeron.

“It’s still not really the goal of the season,” Moir said of the records. “I think it’s not a big secret that we’ve come back with the Olympics in mind.” What surprised them is that they’ve enjoyed the day-to-day slog – training at a Montreal school that is sending seven teams to Helsinki.

They came back, they say, not after scouring the scene (they didn’t really) to see what the competition offered, but for more personal reasons, because “we wanted to skate and we had more to give,” Moir said. “We felt like we could be better.”

Really, Moir thought that he and his partner would feel all fresh and excited at the beginning of their return, but that the day-to-day grind would take the starch out of it. But the feeling of excitement has never really gone away, even in the darkest of days. “We’re still enjoying it every day,” he said. “Probably more than we ever have in our career.”

This crazy kind of joy makes Virtue and Moir dangerous, because over a season, they will spend far more time in practice rinks than in competitions. The Helsinki event will be Virtue and Moir’s eighth competition of the season. “I think this translates into a little bit of success,” Moir said of their happy daily toils. “At this point in our career, we can say our focus is to enjoy the moment, and go and have performances like we do at home and enjoy them. We’ve done all the work, and it’s hard not to be excited at this point of the year.”

“We have to show up hungry,” he said. “We have to show up to compete, but we’re really excited to do that.”

They are not thinking of results, but so far this year, the results have been icing on a cake. They’ve been successful out of the gate. They expect hardships to come. And who knows if Papadakis and Cizeron will show them a new side of hardship next week?

“We train with a very talented young French team,” Moir said. “We know they are bringing their best of the year next week and we’ll have to be much better than we’ve been all year in order to have a world title.”

The French won’t be the only folk in the rear view mirror. Virtue and Moir have marvelled at how deep in talent the field is now. “I think it has come a long way,” Virtue said. “Skaters are executing extremely clean turns and technical callers are also recognizing those and looking for different things.”

Key points are very exacting. They cannot miss one. Probably because of the depth of the field, in order to separate teams, the technical panels are looking for any small ripple or bobble. They’re getting very picky. At this event, there will be no room for hesitation or sloppy feet.

“Callers are looking for the absolute perfect turn on the ice,” Moir said. “In order to get that level four, you need to make sure you don’t come close to hitting the toe pick, and you have clean entry and exit edges on every turn. It has to be extremely clean.”

Virtue and Moir expect that they will skate in front of “one of the hardest panels that we’ve come across all year,” he said. But they accept that this is the system that is in place. They like it.

“I appreciate when they reward people for executing and unfortunately, the flip side of that is that if you make the mistake, you have to pay for it,” he said.

The judges and the technical panels have been judging this way the past couple of years, Moir said. “It’s like the judging has been pretty well spot on.

“We are looking for it to have another great clean world championship,” he said. “That would be good for ice dancing, to see the best people with the best turns and the whole package come out on top.”

Jason Brown: bouncing back

If Jason Brown ever found himself in the Hundred Acre Wood, he would be Tigger, hopping and bopping, swinging his arms around everybody with glee, smiling until tomorrow.

“Tiggers are wonderful things,” the song goes. “Their tops are made out of rubber. Their bottoms are made out of springs.”

The young American is irrepressibly positive, despite living in the shadow of the Giant Quad, of which he’s landed few. Three years ago, a video of him skating to “Riverdance” at the 2014 U.S. championships went viral, attracting something like four million viewers.  It wasn’t the jump content that captured hearts. It was the Jason Brown mystique: beautiful skating, with expression, with skating skills. The kind that lives in the memory.

See? We still remember his “Riverdance.”

Brown has always been playing catch-up with the difficult jumps. He was injury-free until the past two seasons, when he set out to make up the jump deficit. Still, he won’t blame his back injury from a year ago that caused him to miss the U.S. championships and thusly, the worlds, too, and a stress fracture in his right fibula, his landing foot last December.

This time, he didn’t dare miss U.S. nationals, since a petition to go to worlds last year didn’t pass muster. So he competed in January. And February. With watered-down content and certainly no quads in sight, he skated. And remarkably at nationals finished third to youngsters Nathan Chen and Vincent Zhou, and by the grace of god – Zhou went to junior worlds and won it instead with wicked quad content – made it to the world championships in Helsinki next week.

Brown won’t blame his injuries on the quad pursuit. Although it may be part of it, he thinks it’s just because male skaters at a certain age are going through a growth spurt, and that males are just figuring out their bodies and what the limits are.

“When you’re young,” said the 22-year-old youngster, “…and being young in the sport, you’re kind of a whippersnapper, able to do these things without even thinking about it. Your body is just quick and it fires fast and you’re short and as you grow up and mature, things start to change.”

Somehow the description of “whippersnapper” fits him. The word seems all Tiggerish. But he’s past it now, he says. His injuries have taught him how much he can push the limit and when he should pull back.

Before his stress fracture flared up, he said he had been landing quad Salchows and quad toes. And he’s going to press on in the future. Going to go for more quads in the future? he is asked.

“One hundred per cent!” Brown cries in that bouncy way of his. “One hundred per cent!”

He’d like to also work on a quad flip. He’s constantly working on quads, he says, although he said his task is to find the balance between pushing his technical limits, staying injury free and doing only what he can manage. No sense putting four quads in a program, if it only falls apart under the stress of competition.

But here’s the rub. He’s been injured. He was wearing a special boot for support on his right foot and took it off only a week and a half before he left for Four Continents, where he finished sixth without a quad. His leg still felt weak. He was still taping it up to compete. But he has his strength back now. The height of his jumps is better, he is hustling across the ice at greater speed.

The quad toe loop is going well, he says. Elements will return. He’s had five weeks since Four Continents (finished sixth without a quad) to get his quad toe loop back in formation. He intends to put a quad in the short and a quad in the long. Mind you, he’ll have to see how they go in practice.

“It’s all about putting together a program that you feel the most confident about and to put those clean skates out there,” he said. “The main goal is to do what I can do and do it in the most competent manner.”

So no, he’s no Nathan Chen on the quad question. But if Tigger bounces recklessly to and fro with exuberance, on the ice, Brown is exquisite. He skates on big curves, the way skating was born. He uses his feet. He has transitions. He does crazy things, like a hydroblading move low to the ice, which then explodes into a lofty split jump. He gets top component marks, as well he should. Brown may be five years older than Chen, but he’s a whippersnapper in other ways. Both of his routines this season are things of beauty.

“The technical side can only draw people in so far,” he said. “Riverdance” was special and what it represents is what he hopes he can bring to the sport.

He’ll work hard to improve his technical content because he has to. But he won’t ever lose the other side, “never losing what made me fall in love with the sport in the first place,” he said. “I love it because I can perform, because I can draw people in, because I can connect with an audience.”

He faces the same conundrum that Patrick Chan – he of the beautiful edges and scary speed – does.  “I don’t care what anybody says, but what I know for sure from my experience so far since my comeback, when it comes to adding more quads…the skating transitions, the skating skills do get sacrificed, 100 per cent,” Chan said. “I guarantee. Now does that make me shy away from pushing myself technically? No, not at all. I think I have to go in the direction that the sport is going in, which is dictated by the top men’s skaters. All I can do is follow the lead.

“All I know is all I can control is maybe being able to combine the difficulty of the quads with really great transitions and skating skills. And that may be my edge above the other men. That’s not for me to decide. All I can do is skate the way I’ve always skated and then add additional quads as I go along, to my capabilities.”

So Chan and young Tigger are treading the same path. And if Brown were ever to get lost in the Hundred Acre Wood, I think I would open the door of my shack to let this cat curl up around the hearth. Because skaters like Chan and Brown must be cherished somehow.

 

 

 

Patrick Chan’s new plan of attack

It’s as if Patrick Chan is sweating his way through a nightmare. Just as he is about to grasp the golden ring, it slips out of his reach. He’s running as fast as he can but it feels like slow motion, as his opponents pull away. We know how it feels, when the bottom suddenly falls out of a dream.

He says that feeling was most true last season, when he made his comeback after a couple of years of doing shows and was taken aback by the new crazy quad world. He had thought that Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu had been hitting the limits of men’s skaters at the Sochi Games. How wrong he was. Hanyu, with his little hips, and inherent ability to rotate like a top, was only starting to push it. And he pushed it more while Chan was gone.

Now Chan feels as if he’s catching up, sort of. He’s had to. He originally never dreamed that he would be including a quad Salchow in a program, but the headlong race to the quad in the men’s event has driven Chan to a new level. However, even with the extra quad, he’s going to have to skate clean short and long programs to make a dent on his competitors,  because he still falls short of the technical arsenal of the others. Although Chan has the best skating skills in the world, it’s the quads that plop the biggest points into the basket.

So at Four Continents last month, Chan found himself watching the top three skaters of the long program while sitting in the green room – that place where the ISU puts them so television cameras can record them squirming – and it changed his strategy for the world championships in Helsinki, Finland next week.

“It was mind-blowing, what these guys were doing, technically,” he said.

It was also interesting for him, just to watch them skate. He never had. He’d always been in the lineup, perhaps after some of the top three. He had never watched their programs from beginning to end, all three of them: Hanyu, Nathan Chen, Shoma Uno.

“It was great to see,” he said. But what he saw was that he was “at a great disadvantage technically.”

Winner Nathan Chen – with whom Chan trained briefly at the beginning of the season – squashed his opposition with five quads and a stunning final score of 307.46, almost 40 points more than Chan. Hanyu had stumbled in the short program but felt a moment of triumph after his long and a frothy mark of 303.71. But he skated before Chen and the wind went out of his sales when he saw the unassuming, matter-of-fact American kid lay it down. He doesn’t like to lose. At all. Current Japanese champion Shoma Uno fell twice and dropped to third with 288.05, still about 20 points more than Chan.

“It was eye-opening,” said Chan, who fell on two of his three quads in the long. Chan finished fourth in the free, fourth overall. On the outside, looking in. Believe it or not, Chan is the reigning Olympic silver medalist from 2014. Hanyu had skated badly, leaving the door wide open. Chan had skated worse.

Yes, Chan felt frustrated about this most recent test. The results made him want to hold a meeting with his coaches, immediately, on the spot, to figure out how to combat what happened. Eventually they did meet, and the week after Four Continents, Chan flipped around some of the elements in his long program, and changed up some combination passes to improve his chances for next week.

Chan keeps his opening tour-de-force, the quadruple toe loop – triple toe loop, that he enters with the speed and drama of a freight train. The quadruple Salchow becomes the second jump now instead of the third. This, his newest jump, which has evaded him this season in many competitions (as it did at Four Continents) switches places with the triple Axel.

The triple Axel, now third in the parade, gets a facelift because it will become a jump series: a triple Axel – loop – triple Salchow. It had been a jump combination with a triple toe loop in the second half of the program.

Now, Chan will turn a lonely triple Lutz late in the routine into a triple Lutz – double toe loop  combination (now his second-last jump), great for second-half points. There will be a sole triple Axel and a quad toe loop in the second half, too. Finally, there will be a triple flip and a tripe loop.

“We gave it [the quad Salchow] as many chances as we could to see how consistent the layout was,” Chan said. “But it didn’t’ seem consistent enough. We thought it was logical to try a different order.”

“And I decided that I’ve lost out on quite a few points just on not having completed enough combinations,” he said. “I didn’t fill my combination bracket.”

The new arrangement will give Chan slightly higher point totals, but that wasn’t really the full intent of the change. “It was more just to allow myself a new approach and maybe the possibility of having the jumps become more successful” in the heat of competition, he said.

Couldn’t he really be doing something else with his time, instead of chasing something that younger skaters are increasingly capable of? He’s a bright guy. He doesn’t need this craziness.

“We are at a point now where it’s crazy,” he said. But he admits, it’s true. It’s hitting the nail on the head to say he could be opening up a rink in Vancouver to teach skaters or to become part of the finance world, or to do anything. Chan said he’s had many more options for his future opening up to him in the months leading up to the Pyeongchang Olympics than he did before Sochi.

But hope springs eternal. The battle doesn’t halt Chan. It spurs him on. His new sports psychologist has set things in perspective. “It does get to a point where it’s frustrating, where I’m running as fast as I can, but they are just creeping away from me,” he said. “It doesn’t help seeing other people have success. Or to be in the spot that I used to be in.”

So Chan has had to separate the raw emotions of the moment, from the logical thought of tackling the fight at hand. He can’t worry about those other guys. He got his plan of attack for the world championships.

He’s miles ahead of where he was at his first world championship back – at Boston a year ago. He has more confidence and a tougher list of elements. “Last year, I think there was always a lingering doubt that I was behind the eight ball, compared to the other guys,” he said. Coach Marina Zoueva said last year her most important task was to instill confidence in him.

It’s all been worth it, he says. He’s surprised himself at what he has been able to do. Where this will all take him, we shall see next week. Next year? Perhaps two quads in the short program. He can always dream (or plan), can’t he?

Finland: A homecoming for some

Finland has given us the word “sauna.”

It is about the only word in the difficult Finnish language (given level three of difficulty by a language institute in California) that translates to English very happily and is most welcome in our vocabulary. “Tundra” might be the other, but that word leaves you feeling rather bleak. Let’s not think of tundra. Let’s think of sauna, instead. We love sauna. Tundra – conjuring up images of moaning, cold winds and barnacles of frozen turf – not so much.

Especially today, the first day of spring.

And then there is Meagan Duhamel.

Finland has, rather indirectly, given us Duhamel, too. Her grandmother (on her mother’s side), Raili Koski, was born 84 years ago in the small western Finnish city of Kauhava, about 400 kilometres northwest of Helsinki. She and her husband emigrated to Northern Ontario during the 1950s, looking for more economic certainty. They weren’t the first Finns to do the same by any means. Populations of folk from Kauhava began drifting into these mining communities in Canada even before the turn of the last century, building their own little society in the midst of others.

Meagan Duhamel: starting on a path from Lively, Ont.

 

Duhamel’s grandparents and a son were born in Finland. Duhamel’s mother was born in Ontario after the grandparents moved to Canada. But Duhamel has been raised in Finnish traditions in her little town of Lively, about a 20-minute drive from Sudbury. She’s proud of it. In fact, the announcement that the 2017 world championships were to take place in Helsinki sorted out the path of her pair career.

“After Sochi, Eric and I weren’t sure how long we would continue skating, and it was announced that we were going to Finland for 2017, I immediately thought: ‘We have to keep going until then. I have to continue to worlds in Helsinki,’” Duhamel said.

And of course, with these world championships only one year away from the Pyeongchang Olympics, why not take them in, too?

It’s been a worthwhile decision. Since the Helsinki world championship has been dangled in front of their noses, Duhamel and Radford have won two world titles. Thank you, Helsinki.

“It’s extremely special,” said Duhamel, one week before the first practice in Helsinki. “I have a lot of family there.”

In fact, her grandmother is returning for the first time in almost 20 years. She hasn’t seen her brothers and sisters in all this time. And it is very special. And it could be daunting for an 84-year-old. But the Finns are made of tough stuff. They have “sisu.”

“It’s in my blood,” Duhamel said. “I’m a Finlander. It’s almost like I get to skate at home. And I get to have a lot of my family come to watch the competition. Some of them I’ve met. Some of them I haven’t. They are all going to share this experience with me.”

There will be a lot of Koskis and derivatives thereof attending the world championships. There will be aunts and uncles sitting in the Hartwell Arena in Helsinki next week. Most of them are coming only for the long program, because they had a hard time getting tickets, and also – those tickets are expensive. (Former Canadian skating development guru David Dore used to say: ‘Make the tickets reasonably priced, to get the spectators in the door, then give them many reasons to part with their money with trinkets and souvenirs and t-shirts and just about anything.’ That’s what made the 1996 and 2001 world championships so financially lucrative: he filled enormous 17,000-seat rinks both times.)

But we digress. Duhamel’s grandmother and parents will stay a little longer after the world championships have finished to visit Kauhava, and to visit the farm where Raili grew up. She’ll see the rest of the family that could not come. Finns had to take surnames in 1879, so it was easy to add a name like Koski, which means “rapids” in the language – a no-brainer of a choice if you lived near a river. A river runs through Kauhava.

And what’s to see in Kauhava, aside from family? Kauhava, population just shy of 17,000 (of the folk who didn’t emigrate to Canada) is known as the city of knives. The Kauhavians were knife makers from centuries ago. At one time, Kauhava sported five knife-making enterprises, although now it’s down to one that has been around since 1879. There is a Kauhava International Knife Festival where people participate in knife throwing and other exciting knife activities. There is even a museum of knives in the city.

In Kauhava, there is an art gallery, three hotels, a church and a theme park, where people can even ride carts in the winter, although for obvious reasons, it much more popular in the summer. (It’s the tundra thing.)

Meanwhile, Duhamel quietly whips up her own version of a Finnish braided bread called pulla, (with cardamom, yum) that of course is vegan. Visit her Lutz of Greens site to get the recipe.

Pair sit spin last season

 

But before they get to Helsinki, Duhamel and Radford have had to take stock of a season that surprised and didn’t delight them, finishing third at the Grand Prix Final and second at Four Continents last month. “We kind of went back to square one after Four Continents, reassessing what has gone on this season, why we are underperforming, why we are not succeeding in competition the way we are training” Duhamel said.

After all, they had been training amazingly well before both events. So they’ve made a lot of changes to their programs for next week.

Radford says the changes work to free up the program, which also helps them be more confident with their technical elements.

They have changed no elements, but they changed the entrances to both of their side-by-side jumps. They completely changed the entrance to their throw quad Salchow. They are trying to execute their jumps more closely together, with better unison. In short, everything that adds to the GOE, which can make the difference between winning and not.

Duhamel said the entrance to their quad has more ease. “We used to telegraph it,” she said. “It used to be slow and careful. Now we’re trying to eliminate that a little bit. In turn, doing these things has really elevated the elements and they feel better than ever.”

They completely changed the footwork in their short program.

“I feel like [we’re doing] the technical elements the best technically and with the most ease all season,” Radford said. “When we skate both our programs now, I personally feel a lot more relaxed and seamless. “

Duhamel and Radford feel they are coming into the world championships rather under the radar, because there are teams that have put up higher scores. But they haven’t performed to the max, yet.

Applying sisu.

 

The ultimate goal, Duhamel said, is to gain personal bests in both programs and let the results fall where they may. “If we do that, we can win a third world title,” she said.

There is that other Finnish word that applies so very well to Duhamel and Radford’s journey this year. It’s “sisu,” a Finnish state of mind that features strong character and grim forbearance. Well, yes it’s been grim some days, but the answer is in the language. And if all else fails, hit the sauna.

 

 

 

Duhamel’s act of compassion

For a time, Mootae, a short-legged little dog with a mix of Dachshund blood and a pair of curious eyes, padded about a modest little temple in South Korea, following every step of his saviour, a Buddhist nun to her meditation, and her prayers.

Now Mootae has a new saviour: two-time world pair champion Meagan Duhamel, who brought him home with her last month after competing at the Four Continents championships, the Olympic test event in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Now Mootae shadows Duhamel everywhere she goes, at her Montreal condo.

Duhamel and Mootae. All photos courtesy of Duhamel

 

Mootae has come a long way to be safe. He was destined to die a horrible death and to be somebody’s dinner in South Korea, which, according to the Humane Society International, currently houses about 17,000 dog meat farms. Although dog meat is also consumed in other Asian countries, South Korea is said to be the only one with established dog meat farms.

The approach of the 2018 Olympics – less than a year away – has rekindled the debate on eating dog meat again in the Asian nation. It became an issue during the 1988 OIympics in Seoul, when surveys showed that 25 per cent of Koreans ate dog meat. Since then, attitudes have changed, with opinion polls suggesting that dog meat consumption is relatively low now, with 27 per cent of people having eaten dog meat within the last 12 months and of that 27 per cent, most (86 per cent) have eaten it only once or twice. “It’s clear that only a few Koreans eat dog meat on a regular basis,” said Humane Society International spokesman Raul Arce-Contreras.

However, he says dogs are still being raised for meat in terrible conditions and killed in inhumane ways. Killing methods are typically electrocution, but beating and hanging also take place.

“Over all the years I’ve travelled to Asia, I’ve often heard when we’re in China or Korea, that they eat dog meat,” Duhamel said. “I know that in China there is a huge dog meat festival every summer. I never put much thought into it, other than thinking this was disgusting and terrible. But unless people raise their voices and do something, nothing is going to change. And the dogs can’t speak for themselves.”

Mootae, a cherished life.

 

North Korean leader Kin Il Sung ate dog meat twice a day, with CIA files showing he demanded dog because he thought it would keep him virile. Multiple Olympic gold medalist archer Ki Bo Bae started eating dog meat when she was in highs school, according to a post by her father, who attributed her success to the practice.

In 2003 Korean professional baseball player Dae-ho Lee refused to eat the dog soup that all of his teammates ate. The team coach believed dog meat gave the team its stamina and strength.

However, the practice has grown increasingly out of favour among South Korea’s younger generation. Many are unaware of the extent of the suffering experienced by dogs. The Olympic archer’s revelation  about eating dog meat resulted in a mixed reaction, but a social media backlash.

Park says she does not advocate aggressively wagging a finger at dog farm owners for their practices. Rather, she stresses education and pointing them toward other agricultural opportunities.

The issue isn’t restricted to South Korea. An estimated 30 million dogs are brutally killed each year primarily in Asia: China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Laos and others.

In January, the Humane Society International succeeded in rescuing 200 dogs from a dog meat farm in Wonju – their sixth dog meat farm closure in South Korea. Overall the society has rescued 770 dogs since January 2015 as part of a campaign to end the farms across Asia. It is pressing Gongwon province – in which Pyeongchang is located – to phase out the dog meat trade before the Olympic Games start.

EK Park, whose rescue organization Free Korean Dogs has saved 250 dogs over the past 1 ½ years, says 25 per cent of Koreans also own dogs as companion animals. She has friends who go to a restaurant that serves dog meat a couple of times a month. “So in their mind, there are two different kinds of dogs,” Park said. “That’s where we are trying to bring change. There is no such things as dogs you can eat. They are great companions, probably the best creatures on the earth. So they deserve better.”

Mootae’s soulful eyes.

 

Working on a documentary about the issue, Park said she has been told by some dog farm owners that their children and grandchildren would no longer wished to visit. Often a son or daughter leads the farmer to give it up. Some dog farms have been in families for generations.

Park, born and raised in South Korean, came to Toronto about 14 years ago, and now operates a media company with her husband. Two years ago, she returned home to visit her parents, and saw four men trying to hang a dog on a bridge in front of her parent’s house. She knew about the practice of eating dog meat, but after being away for years, she had forgotten about it. Te sight horrified her and brought her to tears. She knew she must do something.

Park’s organization linked Duhamel with Mootae. Duhamel heard about Free Korean Dogs from Humane Society International, and phoned the Toronto organization up the month before she was to compete at the Olympic test event in Pyeongchang. Initially, Duhamel donated $200 to the group. Then, when she realized that Free Korean Dogs always needed volunteers who would fly with the dogs leaving Korea, she volunteered to bring back one for Korea for somebody to adopt.

A week later, she thought: “Why would I just hope somebody adopts them? Why wouldn’t I just take him?”

Mootae, with more toys than he has ever known.

Duhamel and her husband Bruno Marcotte already own a rescued dog, a beagle called Theo, saved from North American animal testing labs, which favour the breed because of their docile nature and eagerness to please. When they got Theo, he was seven months old and had never lived in a house. They had to train him completely. “That was quite the process because he was very stubborn,” Duhamel said. “But he’s turned into an amazing dog. He is so loving. He’s very active, but he’s also very lazy. He doesn’t want to wake up in the morning. Sometimes I have to drag him out of bed for his morning walk. He covers his eyes and moans and groans.”

Because Theo is a sizable pooch in a small condo, Duhamel did not want to choose a large dog from Korea. The Free Korean Dogs website showed three small dogs, with profiles, one of them showing Mootae at a Buddhist temple. “I thought maybe this dog had some beautiful spiritual energy,” Duhamel said. “I would love to bring that to my life and home. That’s what really drew me.”

She thought perhaps his name, Mootae, also signified something spiritual and zen. Park had to tell her that Mootae simply meant: “Not Big.”

Park engineered the adoption, driving eight hours from Seoul to pick up the dog, then delivering him to Duhamel in Pyeongchang. She stayed with the nun, saw the 60 dogs she was harbouring and the size of the temple and laughed: “No room for Buddhas!”

If Mootae is a spiritual dog, he clearly speaks with his eyes. “He’s an extremely calm and confident dog,” Duhamel said. She brought him back to Canada with another dog, a female poodle named Sara for an adopter in Toronto. Sara was all nerves. Mootae was her rock. He took care of her.

After Mootae took up residence with her in Montreal, Duhamel discovered he was extremely playful. He’s already annoyed her cat, Zara. “She’s not too sure of him,” Duhamel said. “He’ll chase her and want to play. He’s learning his boundaries of who he can play with and who he can’t. “

He’s also annoyed lazy Theo, who is not that playful. Now Theo has adjusted and plays, and even lets Mootae lay on top of him. Mootae has come to love Theo. Mootae watches him all the time.

Best friends, Mootae and Theo

 

Mootae has also had to adjust to English commands, rather than Korean. And he’s had to adjust to cold weather. It’s been a challenge for him, trotting over the ice and snow.  He tries hard to learn. His eyes are always bright and alert. He has soulful eyes.

Duhamel has long been saddled with regret that she did not adopt one of the stray dogs of Sochi. Several U.S. athletes brought home the dogs that were being slaughtered. “They were all over,” Duhamel said. “Some would be in the athlete’s village where we lived and I would try to give them food and water. But they were always so scared. And then we were being warned to stay away from them because they didn’t know what diseases they had. But how can you stay away from these stray dogs that just look so lost and troubled in their eyes?”

When she heard of the American athletes who adopted the dogs – snowboarder Lindsay Jacobellis was one of them – and took them back to the United States, Duhamel thought she had missed a chance. “That would have been so amazing if I could have helped to do something like that,” she said. “So now this is my second chance to help these dogs.”

Duhamel may bring back another dog after the Olympics next year. And it may not stop there. Duhamel, who is a vegan, knows that cattle and pigs – even in western society – suffer. “I don’t want any animals to be harmed. I don’t want our farms to slaughter any animals,” she said.

“If I could, I would rescue pigs and cows from these places as well. “

And because they probably all won’t fit in her condo, Duhamel realizes she may need to have a farm. She would like to create an animal sanctuary some day.