Queen Carolina. Nuff Said.

Carolina Kostner speaks a different language. She just does.

It’s not Italian, German, French or English  – although she does speak all of these. It’s the art of movement. At 30, she’s a master of it.

And on Saturday, it unfolded in her free skate at the Rostelecom Cup, the first Grand Prix of the season. She won the silver medal, but the medal or the marks don’t tell the story of what she did with the haunting understated, melancholic  “Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune,” one of the best known works of Claude Debussy. Debussy was known as the man who broke the rules of modern harmonies, using dissonances and untraditional tones, using – in The Faune – layers of motifs that float from phrase to phrase, stirring up music that combines fragments of previous melodies. All carefully composed and complex. Debussy  developed his own musical language.

And Kostner, in all of her delicate glory, understood and spoke it with refinement. Kostner rendered people speechless. As she floated past the spectators, you could see folk in rapt attention. It was magic.

Half a world away was her long-time choreographer Lori Nichol who had led her to these moments, shaped her development, saw her grow, and took her through all the rough bits of her career and her life. And vice versa, actually.

Nichol was not at her home near Toronto, but in China where she has been working with the Chinese team. She was still awake in the wee hours of the morning, watching the Russia Grand Prix in her hotel room. And she saw what Kostner did – in her first Grand Prix of the season.

“I was just so happy for her and proud of her,” Nichol said. “Her journey has been very difficult and very tumultuous. To see her love and passion in the last several years to develop movement in an incredibly refined way, and to see her feel comfortable tonight to perform that kind of standard, well I’m just still in my “wow” zone.”

Nichol and Kostner have collaborated on “Afternoon of a Faun” before – during the 2011 season when the Italian skater was trying to return from injuries and had suffered just too many ups and downs in her career. Nichol suggested Debussy’s piece, which had also been done by John Curry, a mentor of Nichol. Janet Lynn also did it, too. Only the best did. It took a great deal of courage, Nichol said, to skate to something that had been done “to such a divine level.”

(Above) John Curry COMMENTATING on Janet Lynn doing a routine he made legendary as a pro.

 

Kostner wasn’t keen at the start. Nichol was able to convince her that it was perfect for her: the “ethereal nature of the music” suggested that Kostner could be her natural self in the piece. Talk to Kostner and you can feel her natural self. Nichol calls her a “pure, Zenlike person.”

So Kostner used that piece for her first artistic breakthrough, at a time that she was troubled that she couldn’t do two of her most difficult jumps because of injury. Nichol told her to use this time to develop her artistry. And with that routine, Kostner finished second at the Grand Prix Final and took the bronze medal at the world championship that season.

Now, Kostner is returning to this magical piece, so good to her in the past. So good in the way it softened her knees, gave her patience, taught her so many things about beauty.

“We listened to so many different pieces of music and of course, at this point, she is so experienced, she could have done many things,” Nichol said. “But it was about finding the piece that made her feel at home, and be able to really dive into the character, the emotion, the divinity of it all. It was just a pleasure from start to finish in choreographing it [again.]” Nichol said.

Still, she and Kostner went through many difficult times trying to sort out the structure of the program, to allow her to be technically sound, but not let go of the artistry. There were many challenges along the way. They were at a rink in Milan Italy several weeks ago, after she competed at the Lombardia Trophy in Bergamo, in northern Italy, not all that far from Kostner’s home town to touch it up.

Kostner had finished third in the event to two young sprites, Alina Zagitova of Russia and Wakaba Higuchi of Japan. Kostner had finished second in the short program (another exquisite routine to Celion Dion’s version of “Ne Me Quitte Pas” – note her beautiful arms positions in spins) and fifth in the free, with lots of jump bobbles. Still, Kostner easily had the highest component marks of 71.12.

“We decided: ‘Let’s just love being Carolina and love the music and just build toward the moment,’” Nichol said. “Some of that had been compromised.” And she did that in Russia. And straightened out the technical problems, too.

Of course, Kostner doesn’t yet have the technical content of others – hey, no sight of the two triple Lutzes that others do  – but it’s a shame if judges use that to discount her artistic mastery. “Skating is both sport and art,” Nichol said. “Tonight, she did the technical. Her two triple flips were absolutely gorgeous. And if you watch how she lands, you watch that actual moment of landing, and see the clear running edge with no wobbles through to the second jump, there is such mastery there. “

Yes, she will increase her technical content.

“Just as it’s incredibly difficult to do the technical to a very refined state, it’s the same level of difficulty to take artistry to the next level,” Nichol explained. “I think that’s what’s misunderstood in many ways. I don’t want to use the numbers of the new system, I just want to use the concept that refinement of body movement and body line and integrity and interpretation – to achieve her level is equal to being an incredible technical master.”

So Nichol feels proud of her. She feels great for skating. It’s a very fascinating time in figure skating, she said. She watched the men “knock it out of the park” with intensely difficult programs and they still kept the integrity of movement and music.

Nichol also created the free program of Nathan Chen. “I absolutely adored working with him,” she said. “He’s one of the most intelligent skaters I’ve ever met. And the moment where we broke through that intelligence and went into the realm of living in movement and through movement was a very rewarding experience. “

There must have been a great environment at that rink in Russia, she said. The ice must have been great. There must have been a great energy for this to happen, for folks to see what Kostner stands for: great quality and truth.

“When I saw her take her starting position, I thought: she feels at home,” Nichol said. “And whatever created that, through the organization, or through the ice, or through the people, I love watching how well received Carolina is.” She got standing ovations.

With all of her experience and with her performance, Kostner finished with 1.37 lower component marks than winner Evgenia Medvedeva, a 17-year-old, in the short program, and .2.84 points less in the free.

In skating skills, performance and interpretation, Kostner was a sliver behind Medvedeva in all three.

Nichol isn’t puzzling over these things. “Carolina and I decided long ago not to allow marks to validate what she’s doing.” And they clearly don’t.

“She just skates from such an incredibly pure place with that desire to love skating, and it sounds cliché as I say it, but perhaps remembering in this moment the true glory and preciousness of skating is exactly what is needed,” Nichol said.

Kostner comes from a pure place. She’s a freshet in the world of humanity. A Gerard Manley Hopkins sort of water rippling over stones in a creek. She’s the faun.

Nichol knows no one else like her, unless you’re talking about her parents and her brothers and her family. They’re just the same. “She’s divine on the ice and off the ice in a way that blows my mind on a constant basis,” Nichol said.

About two years ago, Nichol had an appointment for surgery on the day her son was to compete at a provincial championship that day. Of course, she could not go. Kostner had been in town, working with Nichol to polish up a routine.

Kostner stepped in, without hesitation. She took Nichol’s son to his tournament. She watched the tournament on her own, because she didn’t know anyone, aside from the team. And she celebrated with Nichol’s son as they won. And brought him home.

Later, Nichol was facing another surgery during choreography season, and wasn’t allowed back on ice yet. Still, she had to work with the entire Chinese team. Kostner flew from Italy on her own dime “to be my body,” Nichol said.

“She knows my teaching. She knows my mind. She knows what I want and I could say things and she would create them as I wanted, and then teach the skaters.”

On her own dime. Her own time.

“I consider her my angel of skating,” Nichol said. She certainly looks the part.

 

 

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Patrick Chan deletes a quad – for now

You have to feel for these guys. These single men’s skaters who are going to war this season to out-power all who lie in their paths. They will rotate like spinning tops. They will try to defy gravity, shrug at it, taunt it like fiends. They are coming close to Cirque de Soleil performers who defy death with their tricks.

Three-time world champion Patrick Chan discovered how quickly things change in this discipline when he took a year off. When he won the silver medal at the 2014 Olympics, champ Yuzuru Hanyu did a quad  toe loop and a quad Salchow.

Patrick Chan won two silver medals at the 2014 Olympics.

 

When Chan returned, all hell had broken loose. Kids like Nathan Chen, 16 last year, was doing quad Lutz, quad flip, all sorts of astounding feats, like becoming the first to land five quads in a program. And Hanyu can’t resist the challenge. Last season, he became the first to do a quad loop in competition. Hanyu, by the way, is about five years younger than Chan with a wonderfully noodly-thin body that just flies. And rotates at will.

Strangely enough, Chan’s first Olympic Games was in Vancouver in 2010 and the men’s event was won by Evan Lysacek, who executed no quads at all. And it was Chan who brought quads back, because the International Skating Union increased the value of them. And Chan was quick to take full advantage. It became hard to catch him, because he excelled in all areas of skating.

That’s just not true anymore. There’s a week to go before the men’s event at Skate Canada International in Regina and today we heard of Chen landing a quad Lutz combination and a quad flip enroute to winning the short program over Hanyu at the first Grand Prix of the year, the Rostelecom Cup in Moscow. And  a few hours later, we heard Patrick Chan talking about not increasing the number of his quads, but scaling them back for Regina.

Holy Hannah.

The guy is just overwhelmed. What is a guy that is pushing 27 to do?

“I’ll admit it,” he said. “I’m not a technical genius when it comes to jumps. I’ve done what I needed to do to get to the top during my prime days. I accomplished that. For me to try to compete with the others, adding a quad flip, a quad Lutz, I don’t enjoy that. At the end of the day, I’m skating because I’ve continued to push myself into the 2018 Games, my third Games, because I want to enjoy it.”

At Skate Canada, Chan said he’s dropping the quad Salchow from both his short and long programs – for now. He’ll do only a quad toe loop in the short. And two quad toe loops and two triple Axels in the long. Not two quads in the short, and not three in the long. He intends to bring the quad Salchow back for later events. But for right now, he just needed not to do them.

“My strategy is to focus on the quality of the program,” Chan said. “It’s more what I want to do and what I love to do about skating: the actual performance.” His two new programs – “Dust in the Wind” and “Hallelujah,” are meaningful to him, easily the most meaningful, soulful programs he’s ever done, he said. It’s a meaningful season to him, too, because it will be his swan song.

Chan said that whenever his mind rolled around to the thought of how he would feel standing on the ice with the prospect of some heavy duty elements to face, his confidence to attack vanished. He felt fear. “So I’ve decided I would stick to my old guns and my old tricks and do what I can do at the very best,” he said. And let the chips fall where they may.

The thing is, Chan’s motivation this year is to enjoy the process and the Games. He feels this new strategy will make him feel that he can accomplish the most out of every performance this year. “I want to perform with a feeling of complete control of my situation,” he said. He’s thinking about his own personal enjoyment, performing what is still a very difficult routine.

It’s not a crazy idea. Witness Hanyu at the Autumn Classic a month ago. He shelved the quad loop for the event to prevent a potential knee problem and guess what happened? He set a world record of 112.72 without it. Hanyu is one person who can pull off this sort of miracle, because he can wrack up such huge GOE points and component points, too, especially if you do a routine with perfection – which Hanyu did that day.

And Chan has that same gift.

Hanyu did not repeat his stunning short program in Moscow on Friday. He added the quad loop back in this time, but he underrotated it. Minus GOE across. His triple Axel was HUGE (+3s all across) but then he fell on a quad toe loop – triple toe loop combo in the second half. Lots of minus GOE and a point deduction for the fall. He still emerged with highest component marks (46.61) (although not that much more than Russian Mikhail Kolyada, who flipped out of his quad combo. Kolyada’s component marks ranged from 7.00 from one judge to 9.50 from another). Hanyu still received high GOEs in his level-four step sequence, and mostly +2s on both spins, one a level three, the other a level four. It all adds up.

Hanyu finished second in the short program with 94.85 points, 22.87 points behind that magical routine he did in Montreal. That 94.85 points would be a great mark for just about anybody else. But the Olympics is not all about just being great. There’s not much room at the top.

Chen caught Hanyu in a weak moment, but Chen has stepped up the magic markedly this year, serious about improving all of his question marks from last year. In other words, his component marks. He turned to Shae-Lynn Bourne for his short-program choreography and displayed an explosion of body movement. He’s no longer just some kid with quads. He now looks like a powerful contender. His components were about four points behind that of Hanyu. And he’s 17.

He’s not making small steps this year. He’s making giant ones. He finished the short program with 100.54 points, breaking that magical barrier. He topped that last year at Four Continents (103.12), but this is early season. He knows there is lots of work to do. This is his first Olympic season.

Chen still doesn’t maximize his GOEs in the way that a Hanyu or a Chan can. But it’s early days and it will be fascinating to watch how he grows.

Chan’s top short program score is 102.13, set at the world championships last March in Helsinki, when he was third at that portion of the event.

All fall, the prospect of riding that crazy roller coaster of quads had nagged at Chan. And then one Thursday, not so long ago, he tackled a run-through of his short program, with a list of elements such as this: quadruple toe loop, quad Salchow and triple Axel.

“I fell on the toe,” Chan said. “I kept myself in the right mindset to do the quad Sal and I went up and I rotated it and I fell again. Then I went up into the triple Axel and fell on the triple Axel. At that point, I  kind of threw my hands up in the air. At that point, I didn’t even want to complete the footwork sequence, which I love personally. It’s my favourite part of the program. But because of the mistakes on the jumps, I had no desire to keep going.”

He still has his tour de force of a jump sequence: the triple Axel – half loop – triple Salchow, which he says offers a better balance of risk and reward. It gives him headaches, sometimes. But it can work and it’s “empowering,” he said. It leads into his choreographic step sequence. It just works very well. He likes it. It will become valuable to him.

Look how far he’s come.

He’s spent years thinking about Olympic gold, but he hardly thinks of it at all now, because, as we’ve noted before, he does not believe it will change his life. “My priority isn’t to think about gold as much as people love to talk about it,” he said. “It is exciting to think of the prospect of having a Canadian win gold, but my process as an athlete is completely different and my reality is at a different stage.”(A Canadian male singles skater has never won an Olympic gold medal.)

He does know that Canada’s chances at the Olympic team event are very good, and he’s putting his focus on that. “If there’s any kind of focus on podium finishes, it’s doing it as a team with a very good, strong Canadian team,” he said.

Next is winning his tenth Canadian title in Vancouver in January. Montgomery Wilson won nine Canadian men’s titles from 1929 to 1939 (Osborne Colson, former coach of Chan, broke up his undefeated string for a couple of years.) Chan had already surpassed Brian Orser’s mark of eight wins, and last year, he equalled Wilson’s record.  If Chan could break the record this season, it would put a tiny bow on his career and keep him in the record books, perhaps for a long time. And Chan is always at his best at the national championships.

Chan intends to put that quad Salchow back in later, depending on how his body feels. But for the time being, he needs to build his confidence to be able to perform consistently. The strategy is sound. And personal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Alaine Chartrand: a new outlook

It was hard, indeed, for Alaine Chartrand to watch the world championships in Helsinki last March – and she wasn’t there. She wanted to be there.

Still, it gave her a head start on this season and she set to work. When she heard that Canadians Kaetlyn Osmond had finished second, and Gabby Daleman, third in Helsinki, thereby earning Canadian women three spots at the upcoming Olympic Games, Chartrand happened to be on the ice, doing choreography for her short program for this season with Shae-Lynn Bourne.

When Chartrand got off the ice, she checked the women’s results on her cell phone. And she started to cry.

So this season is one of hope. Those three spots? Snaring them took the pressure off Chartrand, who would have had to try to defeat one of the other two Canadian women at the national championships in January to get an Olympic spot. “Now I can really focus on me,” she said. “I always try to do that, but having that extra spot is amazing.”

This season has been one of rebirth for Chartrand. There is little doubt that Chartrand has all the tools to make a mark on the world stage. There have been signs of brilliance in the past. Her jumps are HUGE. She’s one of the fastest female singles skaters in the world. Her programs are done by the best choreographers. They are beautiful things. But this season, she’s working on the rest of the package. Including herself. There have been many changes. Many new approaches.

For one, she spent the summer consistently in one spot, in Oakville, Ont., where prime coach Michelle Leigh hangs her hat. In other words, she wasn’t travelling about in the family RV from rink to rink to rink. She bunked up in Oakville with a skating family.

“Some things are a lot easier to manage,” she said. “Like being close to the rink. After skating, I can make sure I have time in the evening to have proper recovery.”

Other things are not so easy. Her mother always did a lot for her at home. Now Chartrand has had to learn how to cook and work the washing machine. And the small-town girl (Prescott, Ont., population 4,284 and maybe less when Chartrand is not in town) had to learn how to navigate driving in Toronto. “It’s been an experience,” she said. “All of those things have been new for me, and fun to get used to.”

Other changes? She’s now making regular trips to Colorado Springs to work on her jump technique with Christy Krall, she of the video/Dartfish fame. Chartrand investigated a few other locations, but decided Colorado Springs was the place to be. And along the way, she’s drafted Olympic dance champion Christopher Dean onto her team of advisors as well.

Chartrand paid another visit to Krall after her less-than-happy performance at the Autumn Classic International in Montreal a month ago, when she underrotated five jumps, some less drastically than others, in the free skate. She ended up fifth overall. She hoped for better. Last year at Autumn Classic, she had won the long program, to take the silver medal overall behind Mirai Nagasu.

The thing is, Chartrand was suffering from a head cold that surfaced the night before the long program this time, even after a stellar practice the previous day. She had a headache, and a fever, and she couldn’t breathe through her nose.

So off to Krall she went. Krall has been helping her to get her jumps organized better, to get into the rotation more quickly, to ensure the left arm is in control, and the exit is quick.

“It’s frustrating, because I jump huge,” Chartrand said. “I’ve been told I have big jumps.”

Krall set the timer to record how long she was in the air between the launch of the jump and the landing. And then looked at the Canadian skater and said: “You should be able to do a quad with this.”

So Chartrand is in search of ways to become more efficient in her jumps so that she can land them cleanly. “There is no way that I should be underrotating with the height I get,” she said.

Krall has lots of little toys and tricks to make this happen. She ties a little squeaker to Chartrand’s ankles. When Chartrand hears it squeak while she is in the air on a jump, she knows she has pulled her feet together. And the sooner she hears the squeak, the better.

The wonderful thing about training with Krall is that she is on the same page as Leigh. They both subscribe to the same coaching ideas. Chartrand also gets to train sometimes with Nathan Chen. The Colorado Springs arena is a busy one, so Chartrand has to go with its flow, in a competitive environment with other top skaters. And she gets to train at altitude. At home in Oakville, Chartrand is the No. 1 skater and gets to skate to her music as much as she likes. The mix is all good.

And Dean, who retired from skating after winning the Olympic title with Jayne Torvill in 1984 and then returned with the reinstatement of pros in 1994, has also played a role this time in Chartrand’s routines. The last time she was in Colorado Springs, she asked him to help. Krall encouraged it.

Chartrand, who was born two years after Dean’s last appearance on the competitive scene, knows all about the blond Briton. “When you think of the beginning of ice dance, he’s it,” she said. “He’s like a king in my eyes and in the skating world. It’s such an opportunity to work with him.”

Dean looked at both of her programs and they spent a couple of hours together on ice, working on facial expressions, bringing out the background story in specific parts of the program, and telling her how to use her eyes and where to look and how to look during a program.

 

“I have a tendency to look down,” Chartrand said. He told her how to use motions with her eyes.

“I think he has so much to give, so anything that he could possible give, I’m going to take and use it,” she said. “So there is a little piece of Christopher Dean in there. And I think that’s pretty cool.”

With the help of all these changes, Chartrand has her eyes set on one goal: to make it to the Olympics. “The Olympics is something I’ve been dreaming about forever,” she said. She missed out on the Sochi Games four years ago. She’ll do what it takes to get to Pyeongchang.

A photo diary of the Canadian International Championship day at Woodbine

All photos by Beverley Smith

 

Nobody celebrates like jockey Eurico Rosa da Silva. He won the big prize.

The day started with a ferocious rain burst. Rain blowing sideways. High winds.

Trainer David Adams grabbed a rain slicker to saddle two horses for the first big event, the Nearctic Stakes.

Luis Contreras rode local 40 to 1 shot Field Courage to defeat horses from Britain and the United States

Contreras and his family in the winner’s circle. He didn’t mind that his daughter’s dirty little boots inflicted mud on his white riding britches.

Get an eyeful of this gorgeous beast, Senior Investment, which finished third in the Preakness Stakes, and was here to contest the Ontario Derby. US jock Robby Albarado aboard.

Local entry, Tiz A Slam is huge and powerful, too, towering over his pony in the post parade.

 And here is dainty little Holy Helena, winner of the Queen’s Plate against the boys, and running against males again in this Derby. She always looks happy, with her ears up.

 Tiz a Slam pulled off the win, rewarding his patient trainer, Hall of Famer, Roger Attfield.

Powerful win. Powerful horse.

Attfield, trying to keep his hat on in the wind.

What a treat to see one of my favourite European jockeys, Ryan Moore, on Irish-bred Rain Goddess in the E.P. Taylor Stakes.

The E.P. Taylor belonged to Irish-bred Blond Me, ridden by Oisin Murphy.

One of the longest shots on the board (42 to 1) was Eugene-Melnyk-bred Bullard’s Alley. Jockey Eurico Rosa da Silva only heard about four days before the race that he was to ride this ship-in from Kentucky and he never jumped aboard him before this race. He saw him in the backstretch barn. Gave him a pat. Da Silva is Woodbine’s leading rider and locals get few chances to ride in , much less win this $800,000 event. (At one time the purse was more than $2-million.)

So imagine Da Silva’s joy when he won the race by 10 3/4 lengths, the largest winning margin in the 80-year history of the race, a more lop-sided victory than Secretariat’s win in 1973. Outrider Rob Love appears amused at Da Silva’s constant celebration after he passed the wire.

Trainer Tim Glyshaw had never won a Grade One race in his life. All of the horses were running into a stiff headwind coming down the homestretch, but that didn’t faze Bullard’s Alley a bit. “Bullard is a great horse and I love him to death, but he’s not the smartest horse in the world. He would have no problem with that. I mean, he might not even know what it is. Some of these smarter horses in the race might be like: ‘What is this? What is this hitting me in the face?'”

Glyshaw tried to get a couple of jockeys from New York to ride Bullard’s Alley, but they had other plans. He picked Da Silva because he was the leading rider at Woodbine and he knows the turf course. Now he has to figure out if he can get Bullard’s Alley into the Breeders Cup in California in a few weeks. He has no clue what it takes to get into the race.

And winning this race? “This was my dream to win this race,” Da Silva said. “I need to pinch myself many many times. I was very lucky to steer him today. It’s just a blessing.”

Da Silva won four races that day.He also won a riders’ championship in Japan earlier in the year.

Virtue and Moir, kissing the ice, still

These days, with the Olympics looming, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir prepare by attending team seminars. And there they see their own accomplishments from the past: their youthful gold medal at the Vancouver Olympics and their silver medal from the Sochi Games.

“We see pictures of old Tessa and Scott,” Moir said. “We see the 2010 version, which are two kids we barely know.”

They were the youngest Olympic dance champions when they won in Vancouver, she being 20, he 22. They were the first dancers to score a component score of 10.0 (at the 2009 Skate Canada International). First, first, first. We could go on.

Medals and victories aside, Virtue and Moir haven’t stopped pushing their own limits since that Olympic win (which by the way was their Olympic debut.) Cases in point: their two programs this season. Latin is the prescribed rhythm for the short dance this season, but they’ve been there, done that. In both of their routines this year, they felt their routines had to be special. They had to stand out. As Moir says, “It’s very likely…our last kick at the can.”

They wracked their brains at how to differentiate themselves. “It’s daunting, making music choices for the season,” Moir said. “We wanted to have programs we really connected with. We want to go out and have a blast. It’s really not much more complicated than that. We love to skate. We love to skate with each other. And we’re showing that with three pretty iconic pieces of rock music with a Latin twist, which also is kind of super cool.”

Who could imagine skating Latin rhythms to the Rolling Stones, the Eagles and Carlos Santana? It came from the mind of Marie-France Dubreuil, just to throw a little twist into the genre. Besides, Dubreuil is a genius at translating Latin movement onto the ice. “It’s not just about wearing skates and doing what you do on the ballroom floor,” Virtue said. “It’s really connecting it to edge work and making it just glide and use your body in the way that connects down onto the floor is really complimentary to what we do on the ice.

“We’ve never worked with anyone who was able to do that.”

Dubreuil’s partner in life and on the ice, Patrice Lauzon is also a wizard with technique. It helps that Moir has always been a huge classic rock fan. It’s a dream come true for him to mix it up with these artists.

Dubrueil and Lauzon doing Latin in 2006.

 

Virtue and Moir had once considered skating to the Eagles for an exhibition performance. They never dreamed “Hotel California” could become part of a competitive program. But here it is, in all of its 1976 glory.

“We’re both kind of old souls,” Virtue said. “Especially when it comes to music. It’s not all that surprising that we connect to music from that generation.”

“They’re pretty epic songs,” Moir said. “Yes, they’re before our time, but obviously they’ve withstood the test of time. They are still kind of the best music. That’s the generation that we connect to the most. I think what’s funny is that some of the younger teams we skate with probably think we were around when those songs were out, because they think we’re dinosaurs. We let them think that we have that much experience.”

That being said, Virtue and Moir have a special place in their hearts for last year’s short dance to Prince. “Prince is very close to our hearts,” Moir said. “We love to skate to it. It was a special program. I don’t think we’ve said by to that Prince program for sure. It will poke its head up once in a while.”

Prince

Still, it’s very hard to compare anything to what they’ve done in the past to what they are doing this year. They press on, always. They are still spending time working on technique, to change their patterns of movement. There is no standing still. “There is so much in the way we prepare that is so different,” Moir said. “”That’s what makes it so special. We had no interest in coming back and doing the same thing.”

Strangely enough, even though they have been Olympic champions and silver medalists and world champions, Virtue and Moir have never prepared for a season the way they do in Montreal, backed by their everything-but-on-the ice team, B2Ten.They mention them at every turn. They are now subscribed to a very sophisticated approach to elite training. “It’s going to pay dividends,” Moir said.

They’ve already had one outing, at Autumn Classic and “I’m glad it doesn’t feel like it did last year,” Moir admitted. “To be honest, the first time out is always nerve-wracking. It doesn’t matter if you are in your 20th year together, or your first, you’ve got to break that ice.”

He and Virtue were nervous for the short program at Autumn Classic a month ago. However, last year, their first start back after a two-year sabbatical was heart-stopping. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt like that, and that includes the Olympic Games,” Moir said. “There was a lot of pressure. I wasn’t quite sure how to handle it. I kidded myself that it was just going to be like another snow. And it absolutely wasn’t.”

This year, however, they understand a little more how to control the nerves in a competitive environment. It’s why they did a two-year plan to return. “Hopefully we can ride some of that momentum from last year while picking up that little bit of experience on the way,” Moir said.

The most difficult part of their first event was NOT to see it through an outsider’s eyes. Those eyes expect to see a continuation of the level at which they skated at the world championships last March in Helsinki, where they won the gold medal – and the programs had been developed and nuanced and prepared.  “We really had to wrap our heads around that,” Virtue said. “There was some pressure to create magic and to give people what they expect to see.”

In other words, the public wanted to see their Olympic program at its Olympic level of development.  Instead, the team had to focus inwards and realize how it fit into their Olympic season and what could they learn from it. Note: their performance at Autumn Classic last year didn’t come close to their performance, even at their next event, Skate Canada. It grew. A lot.

At Autumn Classic a month ago, their free dance to Moulin Rouge had been so prepared, their expectations of performance were high. And while it was a strong first outing, it wasn’t what they had envisioned. It wasn’t quite what they had been training at home. They still have to learn how to compete the program. They have already injected more power and speed into the performance we’ll see in Regina.

Even though they’ve been together for 20 years, they’ve never competed in Regina, although they have done Stars On Ice tours there. Regina is also the headquarters for Hillberg & Berk, a jewelry company that Virtue has aligned herself with. Some of her designs with them are just launching. She’ll be able to check out their new offices and see her new pieces of jewelry in stores.

Their first Skate Canada was in Victoria, B.C. in 2006. It was special because they competed against Marie-France Dubeuil and Patrice Lauzon and shared a podium with them, although the people who would become their coaches, defeated them.

“We just looked up to them so much,” Moir said. “They always looked out for us and were mentors to us. That really stands out to us to be on a podium with them at such a young age, was a pleasure. It really was a great start to our senior Grand Prix days. “

Dubreuil and Lauzon are still taking them by the hand. But mostly, Virtue and Moir never tire of skating. Not a little bit. Moir expected the fun to wear off after a while. It hasn’t. And that’s what will drive them to Pyeongchang.

Ilyushechkina and Moscovitch: skating for the Maple Leaf

Lubov Ilyushechkina is glowing. Positively glowing.

She and her pair partner Dylan Moscovitch will go to Skate Canada next week as a completely Canadian duo. On Sept. 21, she became a Canadian citizen.

“It was definitely a big day for me,” Ilyushechkina said. “Being Canadian means being warm and friendly. And I also associate Canadians with being very friendly. I always felt supported and welcome and now I am proud to call myself Canadian.”

She’s changed, personally, since she came to Canada from Russia to skate with Moscovitch after the Sochi Games.  “I started thinking more about people,” she said. “I became more open and more talkative.” She has more friends, she said.

“It was one of the proudest moments of my life,” she said on an Instagram post with Moscovitch, posted during Citizenship Week. “To be Canadian means to be warm and friendly.”

“To look after your neighbour,” Moscovitch said.

“To be accepting,” she said.

“To be inclusive,” he said.

“To do things right,” she said.

“To be concerned with issues domestically and abroad,” he said.

Her new Canadian citizenship will allow Ilyushechkina to represent Canada at the Olympics next February. It’s been years in coming, but it arrived just in time. While Moscovitch has been to an Olympics before, Ilyushechkina has not. “I can see the level of excitement is higher at our rink,” she said. “It is, too, for me, but I try not to get overthinking.”

The twosome started off their new penny of a season a few weeks ago at Finlandia Trophy, where they finished fourth overall, and third in the free skate. The reigning Olympic silver medalists, Ksenia Stolbova and Fedor Klimov had a nightmare of a free skate, a meltdown in fact. and finished behind the Canadians in that portion, but they outfinished Ilyushechkina and Moscovitch by 1.48 points overall.

Ilyushechkina and Moscovitch were buoyed by their sixth-place finish at the world championships last March – the top-finishing Canadian pair – but Finlandia wasn’t their finest moment. It was not a meltdown, but as Moscovitch put it: “sloppy.” That performance gave them a kick, as they realized they had left points on the table that they could easily have snatched. They’ve bucked up since.

“It kind of set us on track for where we need to be leading into the Grand Prix,” Moscovitch said. “Since coming back, I would say we stepped it up quite a bit. In terms of the quality of our training and just our mentality and approach day to day, I think we’re getting ready properly for Skate Canada.”

They were fit enough in Finlandia, but their training wasn’t. Too many details lost, too many silly mistakes. Some are expected early in the season. Some just not what they planned.

Their triple twists were a little tight in both programs. They got no marks at all for a pair spin in the free. And they had some jump issues, an underrotation here, a double there, and two-foot landing, too. Now they want to ensure they do enough rotations in the pair spins, make the changes smooth. “ It was just a reminder for us to hold our standards to a higher level while we are doing our run-throughs,” said  Moscovitch. They have been working on evolving the sharpness and clarity of movements in both programs.

Movement is extraordinarily important in their short program, to “In the Air Tonight,” by Phil Collins, a routine choreographed by David Wilson and Marie-France Dubreuil. The movement is contemporary (are we surprised if Dubreuil is in the mix?) It has an edge to it.

“The short program is kind of speaking for us,” Ilyushechkina said. The words: “I’ve been dreaming of this moment all my life, oh lord,” rings a bell with them. “It’s a phrase that outlines our work and living towards the Olympics,” she said.

The free? Fasten your seatbelts for some angst as they skate to “At This Moment,” by Billie Vera and the Beaters. While Wilson enthusiastically presented the music for both programs, Sandra Bezic has also had a hand in choreographing this number. It’s a step up from last year’s routines, with more drama, a story about a relationship that is falling apart. “It’s about unsureness and love and a little frustration and trying again,” Ilyushechkina said.

“My side of the story is that I’m trying a little harder to hold it together and Lubov’s side of the story is trying, but she kind of knows that it’s not going to work.” There’s a back and forth, until they realize that it’s not going to happen. A relationship on the rocks.

Neither of them knew this song from the 1980s. “It’s another step up for us, another movement in the direction of growth,” Moscovitch said.

Both routines have the potential to become phenomenally emotional and beautiful to an audience. It’s all there. You can see it from the Finlandia skeleton.

In Finlandia, Ilyushechkina and Moscovith landed a throw triple Salchow as their fourth element in the free skate – but the program has been choreographed to allow a throw quad Salchow. Interestingly enough, Iyushechkina had never done a throw Salchow in any of her programs in the past. She’s learned it as a new element to her.

For the past couple of years, the team has been training throw quad Lutz, but mostly as a training routine. They never inserted it into a program. But this spring, they turned to the throw quad Salchow. And they’ve landed them. There are videos to prove it.

“We just thought it would be a good tactic to work on the Salchow, seeing that our Lutz is our short program triple,” Moscovitch said. “And sometimes the quad can make the triple a little funky.”

Back in late August, at the national team camp, Moscovitch said the move was “a work in progress,” but it’s coming along. “When it’s ready in the run-through, it will go for sure [in the free],” he said. “We’re hoping we can get it in early in the season to get some mileage on it. The goal is to have it in the program for the better part of the season.”

They worked on it a bit last year, but did only throw triple Salchows. They tried a throw quad twice, but they weren’t realistic back then. “This spring is when we really started putting some real work into it,” he said.

Now that they’ve been skating together for more than three years, their ability to work together has gelled. “It’s an interesting relationship,” Moscovitch said. “I don’t know if there are many sports where a man and a woman are in that kind of a relationship – at that level of trust. It’s a very unique kind of experience. It puts a unique set of strains on a relationship and I think over time, we’ve gotten better at it. It’s one of the main keys to becoming a successful pair skater – to manage those stressors and those challenges when you’re skating with someone every single day and physically relying on them.”

Yes, pair skaters are a different breed. And this pair has a new joy behind it all.

 

 

Duhamel and Radford take a deep breath

After the cruelty of a long program gone completely haywire at Autumn Classic a few weeks ago, Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford have hit the reset button.

They will be coming to Skate Canada International in another 10 days feeling settled after some clever reworking of their Muse 2.0 free program.

“We had a big breakthrough with a training run of a clean long program for the first time this season,” Duhamel said Monday.

“Since we’ve made those changes, I think that we are starting to skate with a lot more confidence,” Radford said. “And a lot more consistency.”

At Autumn Classic in Montreal, Duhamel and Radford presented a stunning short program to Bono’s “With you, Without You,” as voiced by April Meservy. Thanks to the music and the choreographic collaboration between their long-time program designer Julie Marcotte and new one, John Kerr, Duhamel and Radford have never looked like this: their program breathes and whispers at the same time.

But all that euphoria came crashing about their heads during their long program to Muse, as Duhamel feel three times, on a triple Lutz, a triple Salchow and their throw quad Salchow. They were left confused and rather dazed by it, but not surprised: at home when training five run-throughs of it, they just could never seem to make it work, especially when somebody was watching.

They went into panic mode. To fan the flames of this angst, Duhamel and Radford had committed to a skating show in Verona, Italy and were to leave the next day. They sat with their coaches and Marcotte for hours, wondering if they should just ditch Muse altogether, or try to fix it. They called Kerr in Florida and asked him if he could come to Italy. “At that moment, I thought we shouldn’t be going to Italy,” Duhamel said. “There was too much work to do.” And Skate Canada wasn’t far off.

In the end, they decided to make Muse work. “We knew that it could still be great,” Duhamel said. “Things kind of calmed down.”  Fortunately, the show producers allowed Marcotte to accompany them to Verona – and how could they miss a show like this: Intimissimi on Ice, featuring Andrea Bocelli singing with Shizuka Arakawa, Stephane Lambiel and Evgeny Plushenko skating.

 

So they solved their problems in Italy.

They figured that the pacing was off between various elements, and that all of that threw them to the winds. The throw quad had been later in the program, but they moved it to the third element. “It was just a lot more difficult than I thought it would be,” Duhamel said. “These were all things we didn’t know until we tried.”

So now they will do triple twist, triple Lutz, throw quad Salchow, side-by-side spin and then a three-jump combo in the first part of Muse.

“The pacing feels very natural like this and now we have a more comfortable setup going into the throw quad,” Duhamel said. “We were trying it out of a lift, and we were always stuck in the corner out of the lift and anyways, it was so much later in the program. Not only did we fall on the quad at Autumn Classic, we were never landing it in the run-through at home, either.”

The routine has a better flow now, with the change of pacing. And they feel settled.

Radford figures they had tried to push the artistic side too far, and just assumed that the technical elements were going to work. With the changes, however, the artistic flow will be there, just as it is in the short program, but “just in a totally different colour than the short program,” he said.

Somehow, they handled all of this while doing a show in Italy. They used one of their routines to “practice” their short program, more or less. They skated basically the same program, to different music. “We worked really hard when we were in Italy to still be able to enjoy this spectacular show, to also be doing our job training, because we knew Skate Canada was going to be coming fast by the time we got home,” Duhamel said.

Italy worked for them. “I think that Eric and I love to perform in shows,” Duhamel said. “And we improve so much every time we perform in a show. And the fact that we got to perform three nights in a row in this amazing show and we had great performances. It gave us back our confidence, that we could perform well. We could do it.”

In one of their routines, they landed triple Lutzes and a throw triple Lutz.

When they came home, they felt like they had hit the restart button. It’s as if the season did not start with Autumn Classic, but it will start with Skate Canada. They returned refreshed. “We had this energy and this excitement about what we were creating,” she said.

“We had probably one of the more spectacular weeks of training last week,” Duhamel added. “Every program we ran was basically clean.” Including that Muse long program.

They are problem solvers. “I think that it’s just that we had to make those kind of mistakes to figure out how things really needed to be,” Radford said. They have taken an interesting path to get there, but they are back on track for Skate Canada.

Johnny Bear in the race of his life

Ask Johnny Bear what he would like to have done when he grew up, and it probably wouldn’t have been man-about-town at Woodbine racetrack.

Nope. Johnny Bear would be the lagabout. A slugabed. A lazyboots. A gentleman of leisure. A lotus-eater.  When others would be studying and learning, he’d be dozing off in the classroom, getting a friend to peel his grapes for him. Loving everybody. Never having a care in the world.

By the way, Johnny Bear is a racehorse. Now he’s the 9 to 1 surprise winner of the Northern Dancer Stakes, where he took the measure of the glorious European star Hawkbill by defeating him in one last determined head bob at the wire and making the tote board sing a few weeks ago. And now he’s stepping it up this weekend to become a 12 to 1 contender in the frothy $800,000 Canadian International Championship Stakes, with a storied history as long as a backstretch.

Johnny Bear, outside, defeating Hawkbill, inside

Johnny Bear is six years old, for heaven’s sake, a late bloomer in this business and he’s finally finding his footing. On Sunday, he’ll be racing against  Erupt, last year’s Irish-bred winner of the International  and winner of $1.46-million for Flaxman Holdings (the family of the late Greek shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos); Flamboyant, a horse owned by the chief executive officer of Target Enterprises in the United States in partnership with a high-powered tax lawyer; the 5 to 2 favourite Idaho, a 4-year-old bred in the purple from Ireland, running for powerful European owners Michael Tabor, Derrick Smith and Mrs. John Magnier – she the daughter of legendary trainer Vincent O’Brien – and trained by famed Irish handler Aidan O’Brien, who is within two wins of equalling the world record for most Grade One or Group One races in his career; and of course, there’s Chemical Charge, owned by Qatar Racing Ltd. (three princes from the royal family of Qatar, with headquarters in England).

Idaho, last year in the International

Erupt, winning the International last year for his French team

 

In the midst of all this racing royalty, is humble little Johnny Bear, the only Canadian entrant in the field. Nobody has told him what he’s up against. Odds are, he probably isn’t sweating it.

Johnny Bear, in the walking ring before the Northern Dancer

Johnny Bear was impressive enough as a yearling – he was a looker, indeed  ­- to attract ever so much attention at the prime Canadian yearling sale in Toronto five years ago.  Even Canada’s top trainer, Mark Casse was having a look and he’s long had a bankroll of wealthy owners to back him. On that note, breeder/owner John Burness linked forces with his friend Danny Dion, of the Sovereign award winning Bear Stable, who began to buy horses after he had developed Bear Slashing Ltd., site preparation company for oil fields into a multi-million business in Alberta.

They went halfsies on this colt, a son of English Channel, and figured he’d bring $200,000. Burness let Dion do the bidding.  When the dust settled, Dion had to break the news to Burness. The colt sold for $275,000, the sale topper.

“Well, guess what,” Dion said to Burness. “I spent a little bit more than I anticipated. If you want out, it’s okay.”

“No,” Burness said. “If we’re partners, we’re partners.”

There were probably a few times when he wished he hadn’t said that.

Johnny Bear (who got his name for obvious reasons), wasn’t exactly precocious. He is a son of English Channel, who got better as he got older, and won the Breeders’ Cup Turf in his third attempt, winning by seven lengths, the largest winning margin in the history of the race.

“To be totally honest, I didn’t think I was going to get to train the horse,” said Burness’s daughter, Ashlee Brnjas, whose first full year as a trainer came in 2007, only four years before Johnny Bear came into her care. “I thought there would be much more experienced trainers that would get the horse. But Bear [Danny Dion] told me they had decided I would get to train the horse. I was pretty flabbergasted.”

Ashlee Brnjas

Johnny Bear was always a favourite. “He was kind of a short, fat, stocky little guy,” Brnjas said. “And he slept ALL THE TIME, to the point where I used to get really concerned. It was like he was anemic or something. But he was fine. He just matured.” She took him to Florida and started him out sprinting, although she knew that wasn’t his game. Like all good English Channels, he wanted to run a distance.

The stable had to be very patient. Brnjas was endlessly patient with him. His owners? Not so much. After a streak of losses and layups, frustration began to set in.

“There were discussions going back and forth, but you know, frustrated owners,” she said. “They want to see a return on their investment. We had a few fights over him potentially getting claimed. And lucky enough, he ran in a $32,000 claimer in Florida [but nobody claimed him.] I didn’t want to, but they said: ‘Run him.’ I believe he won that race.” That win made him eligible for other races.

He’s an easy horse to train. No arguments from Johnny Bear. Brnjas calls him a “marshmellow.” He is indeed mellow. After his Northern Dancer win, Brnjas was asked if it was okay to bring him out for a backstretch tour, which included children. No probs.

“I had 50 people out on the lawn taking photos of him last week at Woodbine in front of my barn,” she said. “He’s the most cool horse. Kids can pet him, feed him, take pictures with him, kiss him. He doesn’t care.”

Everybody loves Johnny Bear. He loves everybody.

Johnny Bear, looking askance at Hawkbill, who was sashaying in front of the starting gate. Notice the tongue sticking out.

 

“He’s totally laid back,” Burness said. “Nothing really fazes him at all. Sometimes when you bring him over, you go: ‘holy smokes, is he going to run?’ But when he gets on a track, he’s a different horse.”

Burness had more faith in the little red horse than the Bear. “My partner said a few times: “Run him for $32,000 and let somebody else worry about him. He let me manage him most of the time and he wouldn’t get upset with me and he kind of agreed when I didn’t run him for a tag.”

Burness had to admit that his daughter’s protests against having him claimed swayed him. “I fought so hard with the owners not to run him in claiming races,” she said. “Please don’t. He’s just starting. We’ve had him for five years and we’ve just started and you’ve put all this money into him.”

So Johnny Bear stayed put. He could have been claimed for $40,000 last October at Woodbine.

This year has been Johnny Bear’s turnaround year. The clan took him to Florida last winter and he won twice in three starts at Tampa Bay Downs. He was getting the hang of this winning thing. In his first start at home at Woodbine in the spring, he ran second to major Woodbine stakes winner Are You Kidding Me.  Finally, in early September, Burness thought he’d take a chance on actually entering Johnny Bear in a stakes race – the Halton Stakes, a race restricted to horses that had sold in the Canadian yearling sale. “What are you doing?” Bear asked. “You are crazy.”

“No, he deserves a shot,” Burness said. He won the thing by 3 ½ lengths. Then Burness stepped up and entered him in the Northern Dancer, a major graded stakes race at Woodbine that often attracts good international horses. Once again, the Bear had his doubts. He thought Johnny Bear was in over his head. Although the Bear had come to Toronto for the yearling sales and therefore the sales stakes, he stayed at home in Alberta and watched the Northern Dancer on television.

Johnny Bear was in against Hawkbill, a $350,000 yearling purchase owned by Godolphin (in other words, a sheikh of Dubai). He had won the important Coral Eclipse Stakes (Group One) in England. He had run in the Grand Prix de Saint Cloud in France. He had run in Germany. He won the Princess of Wales Stakes at Newmarket, England. He had finished second in the Grand Prix von Berlin. He was an imposing beast. A gorgeous thing.

Hawkbill

 

Johnny Bear started right next to Hawkbill, to his inside. At the start of the 1 ½ mile Northern Dancer, Johnny Bear hurtled out of the gate ahead of the big European. But Hawkbill took over the lead, and in the stretch, Johnny Bear started gaining on him with every stride.

First time past the stands, after the start. Johnny Bear is ahead of Hawkbill in the blue. Hawkbill looks sweaty and washed out. Johnny Bear, cool as a cucumber.

 

She can barely remember who she had been sitting beside in the stands, but Brnjas said: “She’s probably still has claw marks in her arm. I didn’t care who I was grabbing. I was just grabbing something. It was pretty special.”

It was her first graded win as a trainer. And it was a Grade One.

“It was very exciting for me,” said Burness who has been in the business for 40 years, has 40 horses in training, and a 300-acre training and breeding centre, Colebrook Farms in Uxbridge, Ont. “I’ve never had a horse that you could ever consider putting into a Grade One, never mind winning a Grade One. So yeah, that was over the top, really.

“I knew he won and I was screaming,” Burness said. “Everybody was looking at me and saying: ‘It’s a photo. It’s a photo.’ I said: ‘No, there is no photo. The only photo is for Johnny Bear. Not anybody else.”

Johnny Bear won the photo finish by a head. All in the last stride.

 

At the finish. Johnny Bear in the orange, Hawkbill in the blue beside him.

 

The Bear called Burness and congratulated him. “Hey, I guess you were right,”” the Bear said.

“Which was kinda good,” Burness said.

The Bear wasn’t around to give jockey Luis Contreras his patented bear hug (jockey’s feet leave the ground).  Contreras has ridden Johnny Bear in all of his three wins this year at Woodbine.

Hawkbill’s jockey, Colm O’Donoghue, explaining his loss.

 

Johnny Bear has a tougher task on Sunday than he did a couple of weeks ago. In the Northern Dancer, he had only two big bears to defeat. In the International, there are many more.

“I think if he runs back to the way he ran in the Northern Dancer, then we got just as good a shot as anybody else,” Burness said. “I know these horses are tough and there are European horses and there are more of them. But I’m hoping that he gets a trip and gets there first.”

As for Brnjas – and her father – she is used to running horses in the restricted Ontario Sires Stake program. Her father breeds a lot of horses for that program, so that’s where they end up.

John Burness, leading in Johnny Bear

 

Did she ever dream she would have a horse running in the Northern Dancer? “Nope,” she said. “That was a pipe dream.”

The International is yet another story. It was the race in which Secretariat ran the final race of his stellar career. The great mare Dalia won it. Youth, the horse that Sandy Hawley calls the best he’s ever ridden, won it, too. Another great race mare, All Along, was victorious, as well.

Brnjas hopes so too. She has experienced the incredible twists and turns, highs and lows, of thoroughbred racing already.

She was married on the day that she won her first stakes race at Woodbine on Sept. 10, 2011 with 70 to 1 shot Reconnect in the La Prevoyante Stakes. Brnjas wasn’t even there.  It was her best wedding present.

“Nobody was there because all of my bridesmaids were my grooms,” she said. “My assistant trainer, everybody was at the wedding. We had somebody else get the horses ready for us.”

While Brnjas and her man stood atop the hill at the farm having a photographer take “the romanticky ones,” all of her girls came running out of the house, shoeless. “We won!” they cried. “We won!” Brnjas went back inside, just in time to see the winner’s circle view.

So yes, she knows how life can turn on a dime, sometimes for the good. And Johnny Bear? He’s been the icing on the cake.

All photos by Beverley Smith

 

 

 

 

Kaetlyn Osmond and the dark side of a swan.

No, Kaetlyn Osmond does not have an evil twin. But she can pretend.

And when she does, as she does in her free program to the movie “Black Swan,” this season, she is convincing and powerful, a potent force on the ice.

It does no good to watch her do this routine on Youtube. (But I’m including it for your viewing pleasure. Best I can do. Black magic is not my thing.) Seeing Osmond skate the program live is everything.

During practice at a secondary rink at the Pierrefonds ice complex in Montreal during Autumn Classic last week, Osmond swept powerfully around an end curve and hurtled diagonally across the ice, to a crescendo of music. And it was deadly emphatic. Don’t mess with this Kaetlyn Osmond. Better to duck into the opposite corner and holler: “Uncle.” She’ll take your breath away, truly.

For one thing, she is perhaps one of the fastest female skaters in the world. Actually, Canada has three of the fastest  female singles skaters in the world, when you add in Gabby Daleman, the world bronze medalist, and Alaine Chartrand. Osmond, of course, is the world silver medalist, who finished behind only Evgenia Medvedeva of Russia, who won another Challenger event last week, the Ondrej Nepela Trophy in Bratislava.

So wildly different are the routines of the world’s top two female skaters. Sorry to say, but Medvedeva’s new routines look like carbon copies of the ones from last year. It’s the fragile, big eye, dealing-with-death look.  The music titles might be different, the look is not. At the end of her short program, Medvedeva takes her last breath, apparently depicting a soul rising from the body to look back down on it, before death. (Oh my.) But resurrects herself for the long, skating to the lovely Joshua Bell, he of “The Red Violin” fame, playing on his own 1713 Huberman Stradivarius violin. And that violin of his can make you weep.

Osmond finished 15.28 points behind Medvedeva at the world championships in Helsinki last March and earned 218.13. On Saturday in Montreal, Osmond earned close to her personal best: 217.55, after doing seven triples in the free for the first time. All this in spite of the fact that she singled an Axel and took a  belly flop in front of the judges. “It was my favourite part of the program,” she said later, emerging with a big bandage and some ice on her left knee. “I didn’t get to show that much, but it also made me calm down. I might have been getting a little too excited. It was a skid stop. And I stopped.” And she landed a triple loop afterwards, and sailed on, in control.

Across the Atlantic, Medvedeva earned 226.72 points, although it’s folly to compare separate competitions. Medvedeva’s scores in Bratislava were all slightly higher than Osmond’s were in Montreal.

Medvedeva owns all the world records that are possible: short program (80.85), free skate (160.46) and combined score (241.31.) Some have already anointed her the Olympic champion next February.

Not so fast. Experience has shown that Olympics are a different animal. And so much can happen in a year. So much can happen in a day. Witness Yuzuru Hanyu electrifying the world in his short program in Montreal, then the next day, falling apart, finishing fifth in the free, and wistfully watching his gold medal go to training partner Javier Fernandez. Even Canadian upstart Keegan Messing defeated Hanyu in the free skate.

Osmond’s dramatic theme, as tragic as it can be if you think of the ballet “Swan Lake” or its wickedly dark offshoot movie “Black Swan,” released in 2010, goes a different direction, too. She’ll bring us the positive, hopeful lessons learned in “Black Swan.”

We won’t need to throw ourselves in the river in despair after watching it. But what a ride is “Black Swan” – the movie and Osmond’s free skate.

Osmond has always wanted to skate to “Swan Lake,” and never had the chance. “It’s one of my favourite pieces of music when I was younger,” she said. “But when the movie “Black Swan” came out, I liked the darker side of it. I was much more dramatic. That’s what I find I can speak to more on the ice.”

She began to bring up “Black Swan” a few times in those early season meetings, but choreographer Jeff Buttle and coach Ravi Walia suggested “La Boheme” for last season. She tried to convince them otherwise. Walia and Buttle weren’t quite sure that Osmond was ready for “Black Swan.” So La Boheme it was, and it had the effect of softening up Osmond’s line. And it prepared her perfectly for this season.

This year, Buttle brought up “Black Swan” right away. “He asked me if I wanted to do “Black Swan” and I said: “Yes I do!” Osmond said.

Osmond’s big personality on the ice works the best when she plays strong characters. That’s why her Edith Piaf short program works so well. And the characters in “Black Swan” are definitely powerful. The movie gives a new twist to the ballet, depicting ballet dancers auditioning for the roles of the White Swan and the Black Swan in a New York production of “Swan Lake.”

“I love this because it is playing to two completely different characters in the same program,” she said. “I’ve seen a lot of people do Swan Lake and a lot of people do Black swan. I try to bring both of them together. But I’m definitely more the Black.”

The movie turns into a battle royale between the white and black swans (dancers) and eventually it becomes clear they are really the same person. “The White Swan is innocent and wanting to be perfect, but almost getting in her head too much,” Osmond said. “She can’t deliver that perfection and the Black Swan being free and slightly evil, can.” Eventually, the heroine finds out they you have to be both to deliver the perfection. In the end, she does the absolute best performance she can do.

The program Osmond delivered was not all she could do. After all, it’s only September and the Autumn Classic is a handy Challenger event, good for priming. “I still am not actually trying everything in it yet,” she said. “I didn’t do a three-jump combination today. And I’m still doing level 3 layback [spin.] Just so that I’m pacing out the program and not putting it all in at once.”

So there’s more to come. She doesn’t throw her arms up in the air like Medvedeva does for more points. She didn’t move a triple Lutz to the second half of her short program because it just didn’t fit the music there and that would have affected component marks. The programs have been worked into an artistic whole with a sophisticated theme.

Her “Black Swan” is challenging and difficult and takes a lot of stamina. She’ll do four run-throughs in a session. The routine relies a lot on balletic line and “having those lines in a program makes it harder,” she said.

Her biggest challenge is to keep the characters alive, totally. If she doesn’t, the program goes from incredible to average. “I don’t want it to be average,” she said.

It’s not a stretch to think the world of the ballet dancer shown in “Black Swan” can mirror the world of a figure skater going for an Olympic medal. The “Black Swan movie is essentially what skating is,” Osmond said. “You’re trying to battle what you think is perfect and skate the way you want. “

At age 22, she has learned so much.

 

Muse 2.0 gets a bumpy debut

MONTREAL

It’s a shocking ride to go from a beautiful high to a stumbly low.

Two-time world pair champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford are trying to figure it out, how and why they fell to a troubled third place in the free skate at Autumn Classic on a blistering hot Saturday in a cold rink.

Ouch.

It’s Olympic year. Ouch.

And they had performed as if they were in a dream in the short program, which they had won the previous day.

Duhamel says she’s confused at their performance, in which she fell on a triple Lutz, a triple Salchow, and a throw quad Salchow and just to add misery to the load, they slipped quite out of synch on a side by side spin.

Think of the energy it took Duhamel to pick herself up three times, and catch up to her taller partner.

”I feel like the times we’ve had to perform it in the last month, it’s all felt so difficult,” Duhamel said. “Whereas the short has just felt as light as air and super easy.”

Radford said they’ve been having troubles trying to translate stellar training efforts of their free skate to Muse into competition success. “In the last little bit, we’ve done five run-throughs and to be honest they’ve all been like this,” he said. “ Just lots of misses. And lots of bizarre misses.

“If you see us practice, you never really see us do stuff like that.”

They are puzzled, both of them. “We need to go back and make some changes so we can access it,” Radford said.

If they were to mess up once in a while, no big deal. But nightmares keep happening.

They shown the program in front of judges three times, once at a training camp, once in front of judge monitors and here. Each time, with somebody watching, and they’ve put the program all together in once piece, everything goes pear-shaped.

“Things just go so haywire,” Radford said.

Musing, Radford said: “Good thing it happened here and not during the season. We’ve got time to figure things out. We’ll give it another go at Skate Canada.”

Another thing: Radford says they always learn so much when things don’t go well. “We have a lot of experience to draw on in that regard,” he said.

No, they don’t feel like all is lost or that it’s all over. This performance was only the beginning. They have work to do. They take comfort in the thought that during the 2010 Olympic year, German team Aliona Savchenko and Robin Szolkowy, fell afoul of their long program too, changed it mid-season from the dirge You’ll Never Walk Alone to Out of Africa, which earned them a bronze medal.

The idea of changing their routine came up in conversation very quickly (“At this point, we’re open to anything,” Radford said.). But then again, he thinks it’s too soon to jump to that conclusion. “I think we need to give it more time to develop,” he said. Maybe they need to change their layout patterns, maybe even choreography. Maybe they just need to revisit their strategy, he said.

They’ve had nothing but good memories of their Muse routine that they used for their first world title in 2014-2015.

Interestingly enough, they feel that their successful short program has a much slower pace. They have discovered a smoother style. Their lines also match better.

And when they did Muse for the first time “we were younger,” Radford said. They are different skaters now.

Perhaps they were trying to take the feeling of the short and relate it to the long. Perhaps the two just don’t mix, like oil and water. Radford seemed to be thinking out loud.

The fall on the triple Lutz was just a freaky thing. They had changed their entrance into the jump, putting it straight at an end, rather than in a corner. “It’s very uncharacteristic of us. Even if we do a very bad one, it’s never like that.”

Little miscues just piled up. Radford said he missed a little step going into the twist. “Like a brain fart,” he said.

“But then little things start to change. And when we’re not completely comfortable patterns, you just get a little tight and things start to get a little further away from you.”

It’s a mystery and a puzzle. And it’s time for some soul searching. They’ve done it before. They’ll do it again.