Chan’s game plan in the face of all quads

About 3 ½ months ago, at Skate Canada International, Patrick Chan felt the heaviness in his legs during the long program and wondered why.

Yes, he won the gold medal at Skate Canada last fall by almost four points over Yuzuru Hanyu, but it hadn’t gone as well as hoped in the free skate for the three-time world champion from Canada, who is still putting his puzzle together before Pyeongchang.

Hanyu had defeated Chan in the free skate by about seven points, even with a fall on a quad loop and having doubled a quad Salchow. But Chan fell on his new quad Salchow, then doubled some jumps at the end of his long program, as his legs dragged him away from winning that segment. Chan’s components saved him that day. He out-footed Hanyu by about three points for the artistic side. Hanyu defeated him in the free by 10 points.

Chan spoke the next day to Elvis Stojko about the heavy feeling in his legs, and Stojko gave him advice on conserving NO energy while training, so that when stresses of big competitions befell him, he’d have something in reserve.

But Chan also began to consider something else: a sports psychologist. Even though he is 26 years old, has competed at two Olympics and seven world championships and is a nine-time Canadian champion, he’s never had one.

After a practice at Skate Canada, his coach Marina Zoueva asked him if he knew any breathing exercises to combat the tightness he felt in his upper body that seemed to drain the strength from his core. He didn’t. And then he began to think that he should. “It doesn’t hurt to try everything,” he said. “I don’t want to leave any stone unturned.”

Judy Goss, Skate Canada’s go-to sport psychologist, recommended that Chan see Scott Goldman at the University of Michigan, only a 20-minute drive from the rink at which he trains. Goldman is a director of high performance psychology at the university, with a history of athletic enhancement, and confidence building. All good stuff for Chan.

Chan met with Goldman just before the Canadian championships and had great opportunities to try out some tools, especially since he had to deal with long waits to compete: he always skated last. His calm coach Oleg Epstein told Chan he had 40 minutes before he was to skate after he came off the warmup. Chan didn’t hurry to take off his skates. Then he found a table, climbed aboard and began some breathing exercises, accompanied by some visualization. There is no exact science to this, no defined formula to stave off unproductive thoughts.

Mind you, it wasn’t an extremely high pressure situation at the event in Ottawa, because Chan led by 10 points going into the free skate. And he knew there wasn’t a herd of competitors about to unleash a string of quads at him, other than Canada’s Quad King, Kevin Reynolds, who attempted four quads in the free.

But there will be at the upcoming Four Continents championships in Pyeongchang, which serves as a test event for the 2018 Winter Games. Quads will be flying. More than anybody has ever seen.

He’ll have to face his young friend, Nathan Chen, who dazzled a nation (the world too) with his spectacular free skate at the U.S. championships where he landed five deft quads. The sky seems the limit.

And just last week, came word from China that Jin Boyang plans to do five quads, too, in his free skate, up from the four he used to win the world bronze medal last March in Boston. He aims to blitz the rink with a quad Lutz – triple toe loop, a quad Salchow, a quad loop, a quad toe loop and a quad toe loop – double toe loop.

Chen has a slightly different repertoire. He doesn’t do the quad loop, but he does do the quad flip, which is worth more points. (Quad loop is worth a base mark of 12 points, a quad flip a trickle more at 12.3. The quad Lutz? Now there’s a jump. It wasn’t so long ago that Chan didn’t think it possible. It’s worth 13.6 points. And now several skaters are doing it. Junior skaters are training it. Hey, even 12-year-old Stephen Gogolev, Canada’s new junior champion, has tried them.)

Chan has re-entered a crazy world indeed, rotations ablur. Now in his second year of a comeback, he’s had to face a growing list of competitors who do more and more difficult quads. As scintillating as his win was at the Canadian championships (he did land only two quads in the free, and a third turned into a triple toe loop), he seemed to be going in the right direction. And then Chen unleashed his fireworks at the U.S. championships a day later.

It’s a crazy exercise to compare Chan’s marks with Chen’s at two national championships, not judged independently by international judges. But perhaps they tell a story.

Chen’s free skate score was 212.08. Chan wasn’t all that far behind him with 205.36, only about seven points. Chan could have almost closed the gap if he had landed a quad toe loop instead of a triple.And with some bonus points, he could have edged ahead.

Without a doubt, Chen’s element score outpaced that of his northern neighbour, Chan. While Chen earned 121.08, Chan got 106.88. Chan also got as close as he did by maximizing his grade of execution marks. Judges gave him plenty of +2s and +3s as bonus points. Yes, Chen was getting some +3s, too, but many more +1s.

As for the component mark, Chan rules this category and he did that week, too. Canadian judges gave him 98.48 points. Chen got 91.00. While Chen didn’t crack 10, Chan got 22 marks of 10.

Okay, okay, lest there’s an uprising over the idea that Canadian judges may have been heaping rewards on Chan so that he could go off to the international wars with their backing, let’s look at the Grand Prix Final. It’s not so easy to compare different competitions, because Chan didn’t skate his best in Marseille, and Chen won the free skate over more seasoned competitors, including Hanyu and Javier Fernandez, both world champions.

But in Marseille, international judges were a little more reluctant to dish out high GOEs to Chen, almost three points less. And his component marks were 84.42  in Marseille, 6.58 points lower than what he earned at U.S. nationals.  Still, there’s always the argument that he had progressed by the U.S. championships, too.

Chan fell four times at the Grand Prix Final free skate, so obviously he had improved by the Canadian championships.

So perhaps there’s hope for Chan, if he gets his mental hamsters under control. And if he delivers. Still, it’s most important that he delivers a year from now. And it’s important that he has included the quad Salchow this year. He says the next step is to put two quads in the short, which could go a long way to having him reach his goals.

At the beginning of the year, Chan said he saw himself as a skater who could fall into third, fourth or fifth position, not first, or maybe even second.  “And that’s okay,” he said. “It helps me to focus on what I have to do and not think about : ‘Oh I’m head to head with Yuzuru or I’m head to head against Javi and I’ve got to do as many quads as they are.’” Now he has a few more names to add.

Where is it all going to go? What is the limit? “We don’t know,” Chan said. “We’re going to keep pushing the boundary until something has to give. Either you will have skaters that will not last very long due to injury or maybe the presentation side of the sport gets affected. I leave it up to everyone.

“I’ve said it over and over again: the skating is more important. It’s cool to see the other guys pushing the boundaries. It’s amazing to see them rotate these jumps. I’m in awe. I’m going to stick to my plan. I’m not going to change it, according to that. But it’s going to be interesting to sit back and see where it does top out and where the limit is.”

How much does artistry suffer when a program has four or five quads? “I see a lot of two-foot skating, which is not bad,” Chan said. “It means they are centred. They are balanced. Whereas I feel like I ebb and flow from one leg to another. I transfer my weight from one to another.”

It also makes it more difficult to maintain balance. It creates a lot of flow in Chan’s skating, but he sometimes gets off balance and has to set himself up for a jump. There are pros and cons. “It depends on how a judge interprets that,” Chan said.

Chen almost seems to be alone in delivering endless amounts of quads without a lot of falls. Everybody else has been slip-sliding this year at one moment or another. Hanyu has taken lots of falls. Stojko, a two-time Olympic silver medalist, can see how it’s all building to the 2018 Games.

He told Chan, since everyone is now working on quads, that he has one season only to get this right. He must add the quads now. “I told him, you are going to make mistakes, bro,” Stojko said. “You may have to give up competition and wins for it. Hanyu did. The last couple of years, he tried quads and fell. How many performances have you seen him just splat everywhere? And then all of a sudden, last year he does that almost perfect program. He’s starting to do it.

“Nathan Chen, same thing. A young kid coming up, they are going to splat all over. People only see that one performance and say quads shouldn’t be in. But you don’t see the big picture of what they’re doing. They’re trying to learn how to do these things under pressure in competition. You’re going to make mistakes before it becomes perfect.”

Still, don’t expect Chan to add some quad loops or flip or Lutzes into his repertoire in the next year. Epstein thinks he can learn another one. Chan doesn’t think it’s necessary.

Firstly, it’s pointless to set ridiculous goals that only serve to discourage you and then you get mentally stuck and achieve nothing, Chan said. Secondly, Chan wants to remain healthy.

“Nathan and Shoma [Uno] are going to be 26 and 28 at the end of their career and not be able to ever do any other sports. They are going to be so banged up,” Chan said.

Chan values his post-career activities. He wants to be able to go to the back country and ski. He wants to go rock climbing, sky diving too.

The first thing he‘s going to do when he’s finished is buy himself a pair of powder skis and find a mountain to climb. For now, he’s climbing another one.

To do it, he’s reading “The Rise of Superman,” a book that details a rather magical mental state allowing one to accomplish the impossible, or at least the difficult. It’s called flow. Or being in the zone, when time seems to stand still.

The psychologist is “a leap of faith,” Chan said. “I had to find a way to get myself not to focus on what all the other skaters are doing.”

The Four Continents will be an important test along the way.

Is the quad Axel the next frontier?

A story I wrote for Yahoo Canada recently:

 

Over the past year, male figure skaters have been loading their programs with more and different kinds of quadruple jumps, choosing airborne power over spins and fancy footwork.

But nobody has touched the giant of them all, the quad Axel, a jump that by virtue of it being an Axel, has an extra half rotation to it. Anybody tackling a quad Axel would have to rotate 4 ½ times in the air. And since a typical quad takes about a second to do, is it even possible?

As it is, skaters have dipped their toes cautiously and gradually into the quad realm. But suddenly last year, the quad rush began in earnest. And it came from skating youth. Chinese skater Jin Boyang, now 19, was the first to put that crazy quad Lutz in combination with another jump, a triple toe loop during  the 2015-2016 season. And he was the first to land four quads in a single long program, which helped him win a bronze medal at the world championship last year. At the U.S. championships this year, 17-year-old Nathan Chen landed five quads in his long program to win his title by more than 55 points.

 

 

 

 

The quad Axel is the final frontier. Some of the sport’s leading minds are pondering the possibility of a skater landing one, especially leading into the 2018 Olympics. It will definitely be a Games in which figure skating becomes a race conducted in the air.

So is it possible?

Mike Slipchuk, winner of the Canadian men’s title 25 years ago, currently high-performance director for Skate Canada:

“To me, it’s just a matter of time before someone does one. I don’t know how soon. Not in the too-distant future. There are some skaters out there who have really good triple Axels that could probably get that other turn if they had to.”

Canadian Kurt Browning was the first man to land a quadruple jump – a toe loop – at the 1988 world championship. But a decade lapsed before Tim Goebel of the United States landed a different one, a quadruple Salchow. Another 13 years passed before Brandon Mroz, an American, got credit in 2011 for landing an extremely difficult quadruple Lutz in competition. But now the quads are coming thick and fast.

Tom Zakrajsek, U.S. coach of Brandon Mroz and former U.S. champion Max Aaron:

“Having worked the past two years with Max Aaron for brief periods of time on the quad Axel and watching 2015 world team member Josh Farris resume performing his beautiful triple Axel which flies effortlessly through the air, I definitely think it’s possible and will surely happen someday.

“Even Chen, when asked by a journalist about a quadruple Axel said: ‘The quad Axel is not impossible. I’ve seen Max Aaron do a quad Axel.’”

Conrad Orzel, 16, new Canadian junior silver medalist who landed a quadruple toe loop in his long program at the Canadian championships this month (January):

“The way skating is, I wouldn’t be surprised. I think the sport has gone up and inspired so much that we now see people in Canada in juniors that do quad Salchow and quad toe loop. So it’s crazy.

“That would be something to think about in the future. I landed a quad Lutz [in training] so I guess the next step would be quad Axel.”

Brian Orser, 1987 world champion and coach of 2014 Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu, two-time world champion Javier Fernandez of Spain and 2010 women’s Olympic champion Kim Yu Na, of South Korea, his first student:

“A quad Axel is a tall order, but never say never.”

At 17, Chen is the Western world’s answer to Jin. Chen has landed quadruple toe loop, quadruple Salchow, quadruple flip and quadruple Lutz. The only four-rotation quad left was the loop. And last September in Montreal, Yuzuru Hanyu, the 2014 Olympic champion from Japan, became the first to land that one. Current Japanese champion Shoma Uno (Hanyu was out with the flu) at age 19, was the first to land a quad flip earlier this season.  

But the quadruple Axel is another matter altogether. On the scale of difficulty, it is beyond the pale. The quadruple toe loop is considered the easiest quad (and the most common), while the others range in order of risk: quad Salchow, quad loop, quad flip and quad Lutz. Some skaters  find the triple Axel – a t 3 ½ rotations – sometimes trickier to master than the easiest quad. It is the jump that 1988 Olympic silver medalist Brian Orser ushered into common use in 1980 as a junior.

Why is the triple Axel – or any Axel – so difficult?

Kurt Browning, four-time world champion:

“The Axel is hard. It’s a lot of momentum off an edge going forward, with a swinging foot, not assisted by a toe pick. And it’s not a transfer of weight like other jumps. And with other jumps, we’re used to going backward [into them]. The Axel is the only jump that you enter going forwards. It’s technically half a rotation more.

“The triple Axel is still the king of jumps.”

Brian Orser:

“There are different ways to do an Axel. You have those that go in off an edge. You have those who skid into an Axel. There is no way better than another.  Javi [Fernandez] has a skid. Yuzuru has an edge. Stephen [Gogolev, 12, who has landed a quad Salchow this season] has an edge. I had a skid. Some coaches prefer to teach a skid, some prefer to teach an edge. There’s a lot of torque in the foot with a skid, and it kind of releases your rotation.”

Michael Slipchuk:

“It’s obviously a tougher one for people to do because of the time you need in the air and with the triple Axel being as hard as it is. It’s a thing you will see. There are some skaters out there who have really good triple Axels that could probably get that other turn if they had to.

When you see skaters learning quad toe loop, and quad flip, you can see the triples develop with room for the quad. But I don’t think many people have worked a triple Axel to find that space for an extra turn.”

What is the lure of doing such a formidable jump as the quad Axel? Isn’t the quad Lutz enough?

Kurt Browning:

“There is only one quad left. And it’s kind of interesting because there’s only one left and there’s a little notoriety in who does it.”

Michael Slipchuk:

I think we will start to see a different Axel, where you start to see room [to do an extra rotation.] Everyone always wants to be the first to do something.”

Tom Zakrajsek:

“To put it into perspective, the quad Axel is worth 15 points if landed, roughly one-fifth of the average man’s technical element score for the long program (75 points) and a little less than half of the average man’s [technical] score for the short program (35 points). [With four points off for a fall], the quad Axel is still worth more than a landed quad Salchow or quad toe loop and almost as much as a quad loop or quad flip. Clearly, the International Skating Union has made it worth the risk.”

Kurt Browning:

“I’ve tried it, when I was a kid. I spent three or four days on it. Not a full week. Out of curiosity. It was kind of bragging rights. Can I do it?

“I don’t think I got real close to it. It literally felt like I was in the air forever. And that I must be done by now. And I kept coming out of it early. I wasn’t hitting the ice short [of complete rotation.] I was actually opening up just too darned soon. Had I stayed on, I might have been close, but I would have been short on rotation. I only tried five or six in my life.

“And then it got close to competition and my coach went: ‘What are you doing? You are going to hurt yourself. Stop that.’

“So I stopped. So is it possible? I must have to say yes, because I was trying the darned thing. I wouldn’t have tried it if I thought it was impossible.”

Tom Zakrajsek:

“Videos of quad Axel attempts in the pole harness can be found on the internet by Max Aaron and Australian Brendan Kerry…But probably the best attempt is by Russian Artur Dmitriev Jr. – whose father is two-time Olympic pair champion of the same name – off the pole and clearly with enough rotation all on his own.

“Brandon and I had many conversations about learning them [quads] – even the Axel – especially on days when his triple Axel was feeling easy and floating and the timing was effortless.

“During the last month, I have been helping 16-year-old Vincent Zhou [second at the U.S. championship this January to Chen], with many of his quadruples and there are days when I can see it in his triple Axel.  As soon as he is stronger to achieve a bit more airtime, the timing, technique and super-tight rotation position are already there, as is the desire!”

Kurt Browning:

“So if somebody did it, who would it be? Generally, everyone gravitates to Hanyu. He carries a lot of speed into his triple Axel and he has the ability. His Axel is beautiful. It looks like there might be room for it. I’m not sure his triple Axel is high enough. But I don’t think he’s trying to get it higher. Maybe he could. Maybe it only has to be this much [a couple of inches.]

“How talented is he? So talented that I didn’t fathom that he could be that good. Like when I see his stuff online, the stuff that he does at the end of shows, like a triple Axel – triple Axel [combination.] Just goofy stuff. But it’s the edgework as he goes into these beautiful things. It’s the way he shifts his weight. It’s like watching an animal. It’s like you are staring down into the water. You can see a fish and then it’s gone. And you don’t really how how that fish left. I put Hanyu on a pedestal.”

Brian Orser:

I don’t know how many people you would put into the ability pool. Yuzuru would be at the top of the list. If anybody could do it, it would be him. I think he tried one in the finale of a show [in Japan.] He splatted on it. But it was not a bad attempt. His triple Axel is so good. It climbs. It’s powerful. He’s in charge on that jump.

“All of a sudden now, you see all quads. Mabye one of these young guys will do it. Stephen [Gogolev, Orser’s student] is doing [in training] a quad Lutz and a quad toe loop and a quad Salchow. I think Conrad Orzell is trying a quad Lutz and then there are guys in senior who are doing quad flips and quad Lutzes. It’s exciting.”

Conrad Orzel:

“You have lots of a talent like Stephen [Gogolev] who will probably pull it off.”

Michael Slipchuk:

“Who could do it? Off hand, no one that I could say right now.

And quintuples? You never know. Maybe someone will do that before they do quad Axel. Younger kids are learning quads earlier, trying maybe to be the ones that will do it.”

Tom Zakrajsek:

“Skating fans all over the world will be waiting for the day when the quad Axel is landed in competition and quintuples are added to the ISU scale of values.”

 

 

 

James and Cipres turn a corner

From across the sea, we are told that a set of hair clippers is at the ready to sheer pair coach John Zimmerman into baldness.

Didn’t Zimmerman say – we’re sure he did – that he would shave his head if his new team, Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres of France won a medal at the European championships in Ostrava, Czech Republic?

Well, they did, in dramatic fashion on Thursday. The medal was bronze, but it felt like gold, looked like gold, sounded like gold. The Czech crowd adopted them, screamed for them, cheered for them like they were their own, gave them a standing ovation. The joy of James and Cipres in both the short and long program was infectious. At the end of the free skate, Cipres fell to the ice, his face to the freeze, hands over his head, drinking it in. James was in tears, almost in disbelief.

It had been a long time coming. And with the switch to Zimmerman’s school in Coral Gables, Fla., last June, James and Cipres are finally finding their stride. And they are exciting to watch, to boot. They skated one of those routines that will live in the memory – much like what Zimmerman did himself at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City when he and partner Kyoko Ina skated out of their skins, one of the performances of the night, unheralded unfortunately, as they finished fourth, just off the podium.

So Zimmerman knows how to do it, to face the pressure head on, to insinuate all sorts of cool, difficult tricks into the equation. Last summer, James and Cipres picked Zimmerman to lead them out of the wilderness they had been in for five years, showing hints of athletic prowess, never quite getting it.

“We picked him because when John skated with Kyoko, they were the classic Russian team, classic and pretty,” James said. “They were athletic and did crazy lifts and crazy elements. I felt like we look like them and we just needed a little bit more help to bring it out. It’s working really well.”

They had spent only three months with Zimmerman before they went to the Autumn Classic in Montreal last October. Zimmerman said he didn’t want to change too much – what time did he have? – but just take what they had and heap layers of good things on it all.

In Florida, James and Cipres work with Zimmerman’s entire team, which includes his wife Silvia Fontana, Jeremy Barrett (who won the U.S. championship title in 2010 with Caydee Denney), and former British ice dancer John Kerr. “We are happy to come to the rink,” Cipres said. “We find it good because our team is like a family. It’s a big team and we are together. That’s what made it for me. I want to find this before, but it’s life.”

Zimmerman and friends knew little about James and Cipres, other than they had seen this French team skate. Still, they presented them with music that was new for them and that they thought would just do the trick: “Earned It” by The Weeknd for the short program and “The Sound of Silence,” performed by noise-blasting band Disturbed for the long.

“They said we think this will work for you guys,” James said, speaking of Disturbed’s intense but uncharacteristically quiet music. “And we’re like: ‘Ummmmm, we’ll see.’

“And then I started liking it. And then Morgan didn’t know because we’re so used to skating to slow, strong music like “The Temptation of Christ.” That’s what we wanted to skate to. And this was completely different. It was a whole song.

“So finally, okay, the more they did the choreography and all the in-between elements and transitions, we started to just blend with the music. And when we skate like that, it just brings everything out in us.”

Zimmerman and his team also choreographed steps into their triple twist and added choreography after it, too. No longer did the choreography stop while they executed a difficult element. During Autumn Classic, they had been training a crazy throw triple flip that James did with her arms raised in the air. It didn’t prove consistent, so they dropped it later.

Also the throw quad Salchow became an element they tried in the free skate at every event this year, without being quite able to land it cleanly, also drawing negative GOE on it. But it’s a process. It’s becoming more and more consistent as they train it. They landed it on two feet in Ostrava. Judges deemed it rotated.

“We didn’t want to change too much our technique,” James said. “We wanted to make what we already had better: which was skating skills and transitions. We can see a complete difference since the beginning of the season. Our components are much higher than last season.”

For eons, James and Cipres fired off impressive elements – or tried to – all the time looking like two single skaters performing the same program. In Zimmerman’s hands, the relationship between them improved and magically so did their elements. By Autumn Classic, they were an exciting team, together, an emotional unit. The look was magic. When they do it, the crowds feel it.

At Autumn Classic they finished to a standing ovation. “That was amazing,” James said. “It wasn’t the cleanest program, but we got that standing ovation. It means a lot.”

Still, they did not qualify for the Grand Prix Final after finishing fourth at Skate America (short program was infected by a loss of levels, in the long they fell three times to finish seventh); and third at Trophee de France, although they did finish second to Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot in the free skate, while defeating Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov.

Cipres has always skated for France, but as a junior singles skater before he was matched up with James in September of 2010. They didn’t skate the first year because Cipres had to learn pair elements. And because they started late, too.

James had already skated pairs with Yannick Bonheur for two seasons and before that, she had been a singles skater for Britain, winning the 2006 British championships and silver in 2007. Her last event as a singles skater was at the 2007 Coupe de Nice, when she won a bronze medal.

Yes, James is a woman of the world. She was born in Canada, in a borough of Toronto called Scarborough. James began skating in Virginia, admiring Michelle Kwan, held a permanent resident card in the United States, but also held a British passport by virtue of her father being from Bermuda. Now she holds French citizenship.

She found her first partner on a pair search website. “We were either going to skate for Canada, U.S., or England because my parents came from all of them,” she said. “I’m a French girl now.”

In Ostrava, James and Cipres blasted their previous best free skate score by about 12 points to 145.85 for a final score of 220.02, the eighth highest score ever. The bronze medal was their first at a European championship and the first by a French pair skater in 14 years.

“We were never as happy as we are today,” James said. “Of course, we were also happy yesterday, but we needed to stay concentrated for today and we are so proud of us now. It’s just fantastic. We have worked and sacrificed so much over the last years. This third place finish is for sure another step in the right direction.”

Their excitement and joy is contagious at the reach they have finally made into medal territory. “It’s good timing,” James said. “A year before the Olympics.”

As for Zimmerman, the loss of his locks will be a shock. He has worked as a model in the past.

 

Nicolas Nadeau and his Blue Suede Shoes

Send Nicolas Nadeau out onto a big ice surface, and you do him a favour. There, he’s at home. He may as well have the slippers on and – with a ready smile and some catchy music – offer up a few drinks to his guests. It’s where he belongs.

But he has skates on, and he’s attempting quads, all very interesting and difficult for a commanding form like Nadeau, who has grown a little lately, now standing about 6-foot-1. For a figure skater, that’s tall.

At 19, he’s causing a ripple in the senior men’s ranks in Canada, and perhaps even the world, considering he was the only man that represented Canada at the world junior championships last year and won the silver medal – and three spots for Canadian men this year, all by himself. Last week at the Canadian championships, he finished third in the senior division free skate behind Patrick Chan and Kevin Reynolds after a memorable routine and fourth overall.

Even though he didn’t make the podium – it was one of this season’s goals – it’s unlikely that anybody will forget him soon. That long program? Unforgettable.

As soon as Nadeau took his opening pose, looking up from under his brow, white studded moto jacket with the collar flipped up, hand holding an imaginary microphone, people started to smile. They couldn’t help it. Of course, he was skating to Elvis Presley. Who would do that? (Well, Javier Fernandez is doing it this year too, so why not?) Of all the Elvis Impersonators there ever were in the world, Nadeau is a most intriguing one, even though Presley died 40 years ago, and Nadeau is from a generation that may hardly know who he is.

“Well, he was the king,” Nadeau said afterwards, now somewhat educated.  “And today I really felt like I was the king. Maybe not winning the competition, but in my own heart, doing these kind of programs at Canadians, I felt like the king.”

The standing ovation started before Nadeau had taken his final pose. “I saw that,” he said. “It was amazing.

“The crowd was so nice tonight. They were cheering during the footwork. I love that footwork. I love this choreography. It’s amazing.” He received 86.42 for his component marks (79.98 for technical), second highest among senior men at the event.

He’s the kind of guy who can take any sort of music and pull it off. Last year, he skated to Mary Poppins and made it work, although it wasn’t his idea and he wasn’t sold on it either, at first. “’He said: ‘It’s about a girl,’” said his coach Yvan Desjardins. “No, no, you’re not going to BE Mary Poppins,” Desjardins persuaded him. You are going to be Chim Chim Char-ee.” In other words, the chimney sweep. And with that program, he achieved much.

After junior worlds, Desjardins said he was casting about for this season’s encore when his wife suggested Elvis Presley. “But we need a story for that,” she said.

The story? It is a reflection of Presley’s last concert on June 26, 1977 in Indianapolis. And if you’re wondering why Nadeau doesn’t start out skating to Presley’s singing voice, actually, he’s skating to “Thus Spake Zarathustra,” written in 1896 by Richard Strauss, a score best-known as the opening fanfare to the 1968 film 2001: A Space Odyssey. From 1971 until his death in 1977, Presley used the movie’s opening fanfare as his opening fanfare, as he made his way out onto the stage. Nadeau follows the tradition and also skates to some of the music that Presley sang in that last concert.

Skating to Presley wasn’t Nadeau’s idea, either. “It was my coach’s idea,” Nadeau said. “He always finds my ideas all the time. I don’t know how he does it, but he always finds a way to impress me more. And it’s always better and better. Sometimes it’s just weird music, but it’s: ‘All right, I’ll do it,’ and it comes out super good.”

Because Shae-Lynn Bourne had done such a crack job on his short program, the little group wanted her to do Elvis, too.

Nadeau really isn’t hugely familiar with Presley’s schtick: the curled lip, the swivelling hips, the voice that can’t be measured in octave reach. Nadeau has viewed a few Youtube videos to get a taste of him. His father is in the know. Bourne did the choreography and he just followed her. “It is her Elvis on ice,” he said. “She’s so good.” Recently, Bourne sent him some photographs of Elvis, just to set the mood for him.

“It was nice of her to do that,” Desjardins said.

The routine, mind you, is very difficult because it’s so fast that Nadeau has no time to rest. He’s really only now getting it under his belt, hampered this season with an injury.

Nadeau has been seldom seen this season because just before the Junior Grand Prix season started, he injured himself, trying to do a quadruple toe loop. He landed the quad on two feet, and because the landing was cheated, the ankle twisted.

Bad timing. Nadeau had set a goal for this season to become the first skater in the world to land a quadruple loop, but his injury took him out of competitions. In the meantime, Yuzuru Hanyu jumped up at the Autumn Classic in October and became the first man to land a quad loop.

“I was like: ‘NO!’” Nadeau said.

Nadeau said it took about three months for his ankle injury to right itself, and he didn’t compete again until the Golden Spin in Zagreb, Croatia in early December. Skating in front of empty stands, it was a disaster. He hadn’t competed in months. “My foot was feeling good,” he said. “I wasn’t injured any more. We figure out that we missed some training.” He had only three weeks to train before going there and as Nadeau said, it really wasn’t enough time if you wanted to try “normal” jumps, let alone quads.

He had trained better than that, Desjardin said. He landed one of his enormous triple Axels at Golden Spin and popped another one, something he never does. His triple Axel shoots up into the air like a geyser. All of the misses gave him a wakeup call. It focused him. He was hungry for competition.

At last year’s junior worlds, he had attempted a quad toe loop, but cheated it. For this season, he intended to do two quads in his Elvis program, but with the injury scaled it back to one, the magical quad loop, leaving the quad toe loop for the short program.

He hadn’t been training the quad toe loop when he first got back on the ice, because frankly it scared him: it was the jump that caused his injury. But after Challenge – only about a month ago – he started to train it again. The first one he tried, he landed. He had been trying quad loops, because they didn’t affect his injured foot. His Salchow, toe loop and Axels had been affected by his injury.

Nadeau sailed into the Canadian championships, feeling confident, with the goal of finishing in the top three. But in the short program, he finished fifth, after an explosive triple Axel. But then he landed his quad toe loop on two feet and stepped out of it. Then he singled a loop. Because he hadn’t been able to make the quad into a combination, he had to try and make the loop one, but he was able only to eke out a single toe loop. He earned zero points for that element.

“I was not stressed, but I was really pumped to try the quad toe and I was really happy about that, even though it was not the best landing in town,” he said. “At least it turned and I got it clean for the first time.

“So finally, the quad is the next step. It is so hard. When you are going about it, you are like: ‘Oh my god, it’s the quad now. It’s the quad.’ And now I didn’t feel like that today. It was more like the rest of my program. I was going into it relaxed.

“Then I didn’t do a worse entry into the triple loop, ever,” he said. “I knew. I did my crosscut and I was like: ‘Oh no, It’s so going to be bad. My entry was so bad and then it popped into a SINGLE! And since you need to do a triple-double at least, I thought: ‘I can’t even do my combination. It was kind of messed up.”

“But the spins were great. It was a good program in general, just the loop. I lost 10 points there. So it’s like, dumb. Like [72.82] with 10 points gone. That’s crazy. And such the worst error – the loop. Like I’m trying the quad loop in the long program and I’m missing the triple in the short? “

If he’d landed the loop the way he intended, he would have finished second in the short program, behind Patrick Chan.

But Nadeau made up for it in the long, shocking the crowd with a quad loop landed on two feet. Judges deemed it rotated. “The quad turned in the program,” he said. “It was clean. I guess I can’t really say I was first in all of Canada to land it on one foot with zero GOE, but I guess we can say I was the first one to land it.” (It had -2 GOE across the board.)

In all, Nadeau has taken a big step up from last year. It’s what he does. He needed to get a triple Axel for a chance to get to junior worlds a couple of years ago, and he not only perfected one, he perfected a second one in combination and won the spot. “At the beginning, it was difficult,” Desjardins said. “But in the last year, it was easy.”

Same with the rest, he said. Because Nadeau is so tall, “we need to work on edges,” Desjardins said. “I think the edges work a lot better now than last year.” Working with Shae-Lynn has really helped him.”

The program may not have been perfect, Desjardins said. But it was a big step. And they know the program will grow, be even more explosive. After all, in ways, the Desjardins picked Elvis music because both the singer and the skater are showmen. They like to entertain a crowd.

“It is really him,” Desjardins said.

So off Nadeau goes once again to the world junior figure skating championships in Taipei City March 15 to 19. In his Blue Suede Shoes.

Keegan Messing: his excellent adventure

OTTAWA

Finally, they got Keegan Messing, a 24-year-old high-flying, quad-jumping, tousle-headed guy from Alaska, who is just not like anybody else at all. At all.

Messing has been skating to Pink Panther for a couple of years now. I can’t explain how it fits, but it does. And what he did with The Pink (actually it’s a renewed version) in the crowded TD Place at the Canadian figure skating championships on Saturday defies description.

Surely the Canadian fans had seen nothing like it. As soon as he finished this memo to silliness, the crowd jumped to foot, cheering noisily. It was the loudest standing ovation of the week, all this for an American-turned Canadian who stands 5-foot-4.

He’s been skating for Canada for a few years now, but for the first time, Canada took notice.

How did it feel to finally be warmed by the embrace of the storied Canadian crowd? “It feels pretty danged awesome,” he said. And that’s the nut of Messing, not all chrome and glitter. He’s very real. Around the rink, he wears a black cowpoke hat.

“I really felt like I gave 110 per cent,” he said after he sped about the rink, springing up into quads and triple Axels with no warning and seemingly no preparation.

“The reason I say above 100 per cent is that I actually threw different choreography moves inside that program that I’ve never done before,” he said proudly, the flush of excitement sitting on his brow.

He did it because of a symbiotic meeting of minds, forged in a few instants. “The crowd was giving it back to me,” he said. “They were fuelling me and I was fuelling them. It was, I have to say, the best performance I have ever given. Not the strongest skate, but it definitely was the best performance I have ever given.”

At one point, Messing skidded onto his behind after a triple flip near the end of his routine. But he brushed the ice off his boots with a thought, got up, shrugged and continued. A large section of the crowd burst into loud laughter.

“I could see their faces when I fell,” he said. “I came up and their faces were kind of down. They were disappointed. I came up and smiled. I looked at them, and their faces lit right back up. And the support was there and it was a fantastic feeling.”

He knew he had the crowd by the quadruple toe loop, the first jump in his routine, one that earned him a mass of +2s and a couple of +3s. He learned something from Alberta choreographer Lance Vipond (the architect of Kaetlyn Osmond’s stunning short program to Edith Piaf), who revamped the centre portion of his Pink Panther routine and made it shiny new.

Vipond told him he had to capture the crowd early in a routine. The earlier the better. As soon as the music starts. He had only 20 seconds from the start of his routine to the quad toe loop. And that’s when he laid the groundwork.

“Going into it, I have to be pretty out, like from the heart, with the same amount of effort that I put into a quad,” he said. “And it really seemed like the audience fed off of it and it was great.”

Messing has never been so ready for these moments although he trains by himself with Austrian-born coach Ralph Burghart, a tall slender reed of a man with tousle hair, too, down his shoulders, a rock-band look.

“My practices coming into this, this whole year have been building to this point,” Messing said. Because he trains alone, his practices have an up and down swing, good one day, not so good another time. But this year, he’s dug in, able to keep competitive fires burning in the north. “I came here feeling ready,” he said.

He wasn’t so pleased about his short program, in which he finished eighth with a couple of falls. It was a rough go. When he hit the ice for the long, he could see that the crowd had looked past his earlier miscues and appreciated the performance. “That was amazing,” he said. He finished fifth overall, good enough to make the national team.

Messing lives in a world far removed from skyscrapers and bistros. It has made him what he is. He jokes that he has a secret compartment in his knees with hidden springs and that’s what gives him that quick lift into big jumps.

But really, it’s the athletic side of his youth that perhaps led him to this. No figure skater on the planet has ever prepared for a career in the sport like this guy. “We have an 18-foot wing set in our backyard with ropes and swing sets on,” he said.

“We have a 20-foot climbing tree . We took all the branches off and then we drilled holes into it.”

He and his brothers would swing their way up the tree, using pegs planted into the holes. The rule was: you can’t use your feet to make the climb.

“When kids my age were using the monkey bars, me and my brothers were on top of the monkey bar, walking on top of it and giving our parents heart attacks,” he recalled.

“My babysitter always made us wear helmets when she watched us,” he said.
“Get your bike helmets on. NOW!” she’d say.

This would take place on the swing, made of angle irons and a beam across the top. The beam had a swing and a rope that one could put ones foot in, through something that looked like a fishing buoy. There was a platform up there, where they could do backflips. Helmets indeed!

Whatever it all taught him, it is made him entirely likeable. Moments after his rousing free, he peered at a TV set, watching the next contender, cheering him on. The skater was attempting a quad Salchow, could have defeated Messing in fact.

“Come on, you’ve got this,” he said to the tiny figure on the screen.

“We all train too hard,” he said. “I really wish the best for everyone. It’s too hard to wish ill on anyone.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Moore-Towers and Marinaro, their broken Hallelujah

OTTAWA

They look ready. Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro fly around the ice, all velvet black and frothy grey-pink – and sparkle, too, of course. But it hasn’t been an easy road to this Canadian figure skating championship for this team looking to finally make a mark.

Concussion. Nuff said. Neither knew how hard it could be.

It all started innocuously enough. They were training in Montreal last Aug. 3, attempting a jump combination when Moore-Towers fell – right in the path of her partner. It all happened in a split second, so quickly. There was no avoiding it. Marinaro collided with her head, her temple actually.

“It was such a silly, small thing,” she said. “If you were watching it from the side, you wouldn’t think anything was wrong. But it was just so right on my temple and it shifted everything just so.”

Moore-Towers had suffered a concussion earlier in her career – as it turns out, not nearly so serious as this one – so she knew immediately what had happened. Nobody else really noticed how painfully dramatic this little accident was. It didn’t look like a train wreck.

They had a competition in two days, and Moore-Towers burst into tears. Coach Bruno Marcotte, concerned, asked her if she was nervous, perhaps with this test in the offing.

Moore-Towers likes to think of herself as tough. Most pair skaters are, particularly gusty pair females. She did not feel well. She threw up immediately and felt very dizzy.

“I was a little bit in denial,” she admitted. “I thought it would be fine.”

They actually competed at that summer provincial event, and they competed well.

Afterward, Moore-Towers took about three days off and the team devised a plan for them to train a little bit, day by day.

They thought they’d be better by the time the national training camp rolled around a month later. They went out on the ice, but kept the big dramatic elements under wraps. They were to have competed at the U.S. International Classic at Salt Lake City. They wanted to. They had to skip it. Of course, Salt Lake City is at altitude, too. Not the best plan to go.

She wasn’t improving. “I don’t think we shut it down enough,” she said. “The difficult part about concussions is sometimes in the mornings, I felt really good, and so we would do a little bit more and a little bit more. And then it gets to be the night and it’s very not okay.” Those brief good times proved to be nasty teasers.

The worst were the constant headaches. Still, Moore-Towers convinced herself she could push through those the way she always pushed through injury. But even difficult were the bouts of dizziness and disorientation and the feeling of nausea that wrapped her like a heavy blanket. That scared her more.

Having a high heart rate is not the way to go for someone with a head injury. Training was not the bet thing.

‘It’s a very frustrating injury because I can’t physio it, really,” she said. “I can’t rehab it. The only thing I could do is rest and not read a book and not really be in the sunlight. “

She had just started to take French lessons at university and she loved it, could see the progress. But that was all put on hold. Best not to make the brain active, at all, at all. Frustrating.

‘It’s tough because it changes your whole life,” she said.

She heard from those close to her that her personality had changed as well. But she liked her perky self. “I don’t want to be dramatic about it, but it’s something that changes more than injuries I’ve had in the past,” she said. “It really has a lot more to do with everything.” Marinaro tried to tell her. He’s been the voice of reason through it all.

“Patience is a virtue I have none of,” she admitted.

Finally it began to sink in, especially since Moore-Towers’ symptoms got worse. Her head got worse. Her nausea got worse.

Finally on Sept. 23, the coaching team took Moore-Towers off the ice altogether. She didn’t get back on the ice until early November. She spent all of October off the ice.

They had been assigned to two Grand Prix events and they got back onto the ice just before the first one, Cup of Russia. But it was too late to be ready for that one so they had to withdraw.

But next, they eyed NHK Trophy. “It’s my most favourite place,” she said. “There was extra incentive to really get better.”

They were skating well. Maybe they could have gone. But Moore-Towers and her doctor decided that the long flight, the jet lap, the air pressure and all wouldn’t do her any favours. If she had done it, she would have lost a couple of days completely. The choice was to do either NHK or Challenge. With Challenge they had an extra 1 ½ weeks to train and repair themselves – and no travel. They opted for Challenge. “It sucked, but it was the smarter decision,” Moore-Towers said.

They had run through their free skate only three times before they competed at Challenge. Their short program was a welcome breeze. The long program? Not so much.

“The long was extremely tough,” Marinaro said. “It was extremely demanding but it was what we needed. We needed to get that under our belt to come here so this wouldn’t be our first event.”

They ran up against their anguish and attitudes and learned from it. At Challenge, they wanted to chalk up big scores, to make a mark, to prove they were back and get a little recognition. The problem was: they went in with zero confidence.

“We didn’t believe in our long program because we didn’t have a lot of mileage on it,” Moore-Towers said. “We didn’t believe in our ability to get through the long. And when you don’t think you can get through it, the elements became much more challenging.”

They learned from this. They did not embarrass themselves. They don’t regret it. They found a clearer picture of what they needed to do. Choreographer Julie Marcotte worked steadfastly with them to understand their routine, what had to shine from their faces.

And it does.

After being away from a sport they love for three months, Marinaro says they do not enjoy it more than they did. “But we definitely cherish it more.”

And they cherish each other more. “If the concussion taught me anything, it improved our relationship in areas that I didn’t even know we needed improvement,” Moore-Towers said.

It forced them to communicate with each other. It forced Moore-Towers to be honest about how she was feeling, rather than button it up, as she was accustomed to do. She calls it “sugar coating” things. In doing so, she appreciated Marinaro more for the way he acted throughout the journey.

He didn’t put pressure on her. He was understanding. “I felt extremely lucky to have Mike through it all,” she said.

And it has made Marinaro grow as a person as well. Before the accident, he admits he took their career together for granted. Why wouldn’t he? The sun would come up each day, just the same, wouldn’t it?

Marinaro found this is not so. There are no guarantees in life. “I thought it was just going to be like this forever,” he said. “But then I realized this is not the case. This is going to end some day. I don’t want it to be right now but there will definitely be an end some day.”

And so they need to take in each moment, they say. They need to strive for the stars every day. These thoughts have made them improve even faster. They are trying to make some magic. Maybe now they can.

 

 

 

 

The magic of Canada’s junior men

OTTAWA

Stephen Gogolev looks like somebody’s lost little brother who wandered up on the medal podium for junior men, slipping out unnoticed from the cheap seats, looking for ice cream.

But no. The 12-year-old with the shy glance won the darned thing. He could have taken his opponents out by the knees, because he stood so close to that part of their anatomies. But no, he became the Canadian junior men’s champion with stealth and talent, two triple Axels and a quad Salchow attempt and a jump series he never should have landed but did.

On the night in question (Wednesday), Gogolv set out to do an ambitious triple flip – loop – triple Salchow thing, but when he landed the triple flip, he appeared in big trouble. It just didn’t come down well. But he didn’t stop. He did it, somehow. And up in the stands, watching incredulously were multiple world champion Kurt Browning, his old friend Mike Slipchuck, now the high-performance director for Skate Canada (and winner of the men’s senior title 25 years ago) and the ever-cheerful songbird Scott Rachuk, a man with his eyes on talent for Skate Ontario.

All three almost fell out of their seats at the utter audacity of tiny Gogolev. “God!” they all voiced.

Had they just witnessed him pulling it off? It seemed unbelievable. ‘He had no earthly right to try that last triple,” said Browning, still reeling from the display. “And he still did it. He didn’t give up. It’s not like you need this, you don’t need this. Maybe he thinks he did.”

Gogolev, second after the short program, won the long program with 142.88 points, almost five points ahead of the spectacular 16-year-old Conrad Orzel. Overall, Gogolev won the gold medal with 210.06 points over Orzel with 206.06. It was a most entertaining contest.

Browning extended his hand to Gogolev off the ice. Gogolev’s eyes lit up at the sight of him. They know each other. Browning first saw Gogolev at a summer camp when he was about eight years old. They spent 20 minutes together. Gogolev scarcely seemed to know what to think: Browning was loud and unpredictable and lively. Gogolev is a person of another ilk.

“He’s got a very kind heart,” Browning said of the youngster. “He’s a good boy. He donates triple Axels to charity.”

And although he did not land the quad Salchow in his free – he landed his first one in a qualifying event leading to Canadians last month – coach Brian Orser said it wasn’t far off.

“It looks like everything is where it should be,” said Browning, the first man to land a quad almost 28 years ago. “He’s like a well-organized kitchen. You don’t have to look for that paring knife. It’s always where it is.

“It’s just very under control. With him, you can sit back and relax and watch him skate and you know it’s going to be 95 per cent of what the potential is.”

Browning told Gogolev what he thought of him: “”You’re not big on the ice,” he said. “But you share. You don’t keep it to yourself. You’re very humble but you share. And it’s not gregarious and it’s not outgoing but it’s real. It is really nice to watch.”

Gogolev unleashed two triple Axels and they are as textbook a jump as one will see – and he’s coached by a guy – Brian Orser – who broke ground as one of the first to do a jump that some find more difficult than a quad.

As for that magical triple flip – loop – triple Salchow, Slipchuk said that Gogolev has a keen sense of rotation and knows instinctively where he is in the air. “That’s something you either have or you don’t,” Slipchuk said. “He obviously has that quick twitch. It’s fun to watch him.”

Gogolev is currently training a quad Lutz and a quad toe as well as the quad Salchow. So is his new nemesis, Orzel, who defeated him in the short program and finished with the silver medal. Gogolev is too young to even go out on the junior circuit, but Orzel would like a spot at the world junior championships in Taipei City. It’s crowded at the top, though, with a couple of guys of junior age, who currently compete nationally at the senior level (last year’s world silver medalist Nicholas Nadeau, and Roman Sadovsky, now a clubmate.)

Orzel has been an explosive new addition to the ranks pushing up against the big senior boys. He’s extremely talented and showed grit in his long-program effort.

He didn’t go into it with all of his limbs intact.

“I had a tough time in the practice,” he admitted. He did something to his knee, perhaps on a quad toe attempt, because the knee hurt most when he tried that jump again. He was in such pain, he could barely do a triple Axel. “Thanks to adrenalin and the whole crowd and the energy, I just really focused on my training and not on the pain,” he said. “And that’s why I was able to pull it off.”

Orzel landed that magical quad in the long program (even though he hadn’t been able to do a quad toe in practice), and a couple of triple Axels too, one in combination with a triple toe loop. He sailed along at the top of his game and only in the closing moments did he fall on a triple loop.

He landed his first quad toe at a Junior Grand Prix in Dresden, Germany, but found that his nerves kicked in for the first couple of times he tried it in competition. Now, it almost seems old hat.

Next year, he’d like to qualify for the Junior Grand Prix Final, but sometime in the summer, he may start working on his other quads. He says his quad Salchow, quad loop and quad Lutz are all there. He’s landed each one at least once. His main focus will be a quad Lutz.

All this despite the fact that he has grown about nine inches over the past two years. He’s a different person from the boy who skated to tumbleweeds a few years ago.

They are the future, these two. For now, they looked so very fascinating, Gogolev as Little Lord Fauntleroy, creamy jabot and all; Orzel blazing onto the stage in the brightest of bright emerald greens. That’s just the way they are. Certainly not two peas in a pod.

 

Bugs and ice dancers

OTTAWA

Paul Poirier and his moustache were ready to go at the first practice session for senior ice dancers today at the revamped TD Place arena. But his partner, Piper Gilles wasn’t.

Poirier had to face the music alone, since Gilles fell ill yesterday after arriving in Ottawa and was busy upchucking elsewhere.

“We think it’s the flu,” Poirier said today after practice. “Right now we are just taking it practice to practice. And we’ve been just trying to do everything we can to compete at our best [in the short dance Friday].”

Gilles is battling this virus with rest. Because it’s a virus, there’s not much you can do about it, Poirier said. “But I think we are extremely well prepared. We’ve done run-throughs sick this year. It’s a matter of getting as much energy and fluid and food back into her body for tomorrow.”

Poirier spends a lot of time in Gilles’ arms, breathing the same air she breathes, and he’s probably embraced that bug as much as anybody can. He said he’s taking as many precautions as possible. Washing hands. Staying as far away from his partner as possible, perhaps. “So far, so good,” he said.

Today he had to practice the free dance alone, and that proved terribly difficult, since it’s a tango. “It’s very reactionary so a lot of my movements don’t make much sense without her, and some aren’t certainly possible.”

So Poirier focused on what he could do: some twizzles, marvelous stroking about the rink, some footwork. “Make sure that I’m just in the best place physically and mentally to get on the ice,” he said. “I just wanted to get on the ice and feel what it feels like.”

It’s hour by hour. Viruses have their own time schedule. Hopefully Gilles can will it into bay.

And if she does decide to go for it, she won’t be the first skater who felt a lump in the throat through all the strenuous elements of skating. Once at junior nationals, a young male skater pushed himself to the utmost, and suddenly took a detour to the boards, and left his lunch on the other side. Stuff happens.

 

Where have all the pair skaters gone

OTTAWA

Patricia Andrew is a 4-foot-8 dynamo, looks a tad like 2002 Olympic pair champion Jamie Sale, and is an emerging force in pair skating.

She’s only 11 years old.

She and her partner Paxton Knott surprised everybody, perhaps even themselves, perhaps anybody who put reason above spirit, when they won the silver medal at the novice level at the national figure skating championships on Wednesday.

They had been third to Quebec-trained Chloe Panetta and Steven Lapointe in the short program. (Should we mention there were only five pairs in the novice event?)

Andrew and Knott had been together only since September. Somehow, in the four months that whizzed by as they toiled at the London Competitive Skating Centre, they learned how to set sail a nice little double twist, a floating lift, and a throw double Salchow, just as the music launched into “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” and forgive me if I misplaced a consonant or two.

They were like, together, the little engine that could. When they launched their side-by-side spins, tiny Andrew made the vocal calls for the team to shift positions, her little voice delivering the message quite well enough. As coach Alison Purkiss says, she’s the boss.

Knott couldn’t stop grinning through the whole thing. He had found his home.

They out-finished teams from Quebec and Alberta, chalking up 92.91 points, their best score ever, to win that silver medal, about 20 points behind the more experienced gold medalists. Mind you, Panetta is only 13, Lapointe, 19, but they train every day with talented senior skaters, such as two-time world champions Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford and world team candidates Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro.

The secret weapon possessed by Andrew and Knott is coach Purkiss, a former pair skater who is an unsung gem in the skating world. She also coached new junior gold medalists Evelyn Walsh and Trennt Michaud, crowned within an hour of the novice contest. Neither Andrew nor Walsh had skated pairs before Purkiss gently gathered them into the pair fold. Both had been lifted – for fun – by experienced male pair skaters during club shows. They had been exposed to it all at an early age.

Walsh and the very talented Michaud got together only four months ago. Walsh, who also competes in the junior women’s event, which ends Thursday night, never imagined she’d be standing atop a national podium a few months after she signed up. She gritted her teeth through the steep learning curve she experienced with death spirals – and she hasn’t had time to learn all four of them, just the ones she needed at hand. She still hasn’t been taught all the lifts – just the ones needed to get to Ottawa. The first lift Walsh learned was one of the most difficult. She skipped all the rest of the steps, just to be ready.

“She did her job,” Purkiss said. Michaud sells it. He’s also a good patient partner, a budding star, as is Andrew with her partner. She’s led him gently to success, too. They’ve all done what they could in the time they had, with what they had, a little collection of happy misfits.

Last year, Michaud won the novice title with partner Hope McLean, and they lit up the Halifax arena with their emotional Tango Roxanne, from the Moulin Rouge list. The piece, choreographed by Purkiss, sent shivers down spines. In the end, the crowd gave a standing ovation to a novice pair. After they finished, a judge walked by Purkiss and blurted: “That gave me goosebumps.”

Right now, pair skaters are as scarce as fiddlesticks on a frosty January day. Only five pairs contested the novice event. Also only five showed up for the junior event. And Wednesday, rising Canadian senior stars Julianne Seguin and Charlie Bilodeau were forced to withdraw after Seguin suffered a concussion in December – and hasn’t yet been cleared to compete. That withdrawal drops the senior numbers to seven.

Yes, Canada, traditionally a force in pairs at the highest levels, is running a little short. And the country has never been so short of teams.

“I come from a time when we needed to eliminate pairs [leading to the national championships in qualifying events called divisionals, now called Challenge],” Purkiss said. “There were alternate spots, particularly in novice and junior.”

Actually, this week, there had been seven pairs listed to start juniors, but some dropped out along the way for reasons that had nothing to do with the perceived dangers of pair skating. Missing in action from pairs competition this week: One had a blister that became infected from an ill-fitting skating boot. One got an ankle injury that occurred during a foot fumble while walking. In shoes. A young pair trained by former Olympic pair competitor Annabelle Langlois dropped a coffee mug on his foot and suffered a stress fracture. Really? Really.

There are so few pairs on the national scene (actually it’s a world problem) that Skate Canada had a meeting of pair coaches this week to discuss the problem and figure out how they could change things.

“It’s hard to get people involved in pairs,” said Langlois, based in Calgary with husband and former pair partner Cody Hay.

It seems that folk think it best to fulfill their singles career until they can’t do it any more, then switch to pairs. But pair skating requires many more sorts of skills that can’t be learned overnight. If they show up later in their careers, it can just be too late.

Strangely enough, there is a statistic showing that some skaters that have doubled up on disciplines, are not going to route of the more usual singles/pairs combination, but are moving more toward singles/ice dancing.

Case in point: junior singles skater Bruce Waddell also skates with Natalie D’Allessandro, with whom he won the novice dance title this week. In fact, there is only one team around Canada that is currently doing singles/pairs doubles right now.

Michaud lost his former pair partner to dance. She no longer wished to be thrown or tossed or generally soar through the air any more. Pair females have to like this sort of thing.

Still, Purkiss says parents need to know that if skaters are taught the skills when they are very young, they don’t have to start out with dangerous feats. “Everybody seems to think you have to be like Meagan and Eric, but we have to remember that they are two-time world champions and they had to start somewhere as well,” she said.

Another problem? Canada is a large country. And if an intrepid coach finds a male skater from Vancouver, who is just the one for a female skater in Toronto, somebody has to relocate, leave home, and incur extra expenses. “That’s a big hurdle at a young age,” Langlois said.

Her novice team did, too, even if the miles weren’t vast. Novice pair Josh Venema moved to Calgary from Edmonton. Langlois scouted out his partner, Takara Dei, who she found in Grand Prairie. They’ve been together only since July. “It’s a big commitment,” Langlois said.

It’s just easier in Montreal, which has a large population and the most powerful pair school in the country.

To salve the fears of worried parents, Canada has a clever juvenile pair program that does not allow overhead lifts. Purkiss has a juvenile team that has spent a year learning how to do an overhead lift off the ice in preparation for moving up to the pre-novice level.

Langlois feels that some pair scouting is in order, whether nationally or regionally. “People need to have a talent identification so they know what their best opportunity in skating is, because unless parents are educated about it, they may miss the boat completely,” she said.

All these potential teams need is a start, even if they are ultimately mismatched in the beginning. Few skaters stay with the same partners throughout their careers. Dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir are an exception (19 years in the trenches,) Purkiss says. Breakups need not be traumatic. Hopefully, by the time they are junior skaters, they will have met their matches.

 

 

 

Conrad Orzel: his head in the game

OTTAWA

 

These days, one has to look up, way up, to meet Conrad Orzel’s gaze. Yes, he’s grown, in many ways really.

This new Orzel, now statuesque at 5-foot-11, at age 16, has taken the lead in a very very tough junior men’s division after the short program at the Canadian championships this week. With 68.16 points, he’s 1.98 points ahead of wonderkid Stephen Gogolev, who is competing at the junior level for the first time this year, after dominating the novice championships last year in Halifax.

Gogolev is only 12, for heaven’s sake. And just turned 12 last month. He won’t even be able to go out on the junior international circuit until the 2018-2019 season. He lands quads with aplomb. He comes up to Orzel’s armpit.

They couldn’t be more different. Gogolev has that softly flowing blond silky hair that flutters in the breeze he creates. He floats about the ice, hardly making a sound. Orzel is an explosion.

In the short, Gogolev stepped out of a triple Axel that went so high, maybe almost too high, and he squeaked out a triple Lutz –triple toe loop after almost coming to a stop after the Lutz. Miraculous. Orzel landed his triple Axel, which didn’t flow out, nailed that triple Lutz – triple toe loop, and landed a triple loop, as easy as pie. (although I’ve never found pie easy, but there you go.). Little things make a difference in this game.

Besides, for the past week, Gogolev has been ill, suffering a fever and coughing his lungs out. All of this hasn’t helped the Gogolev magic. We’re not quite seeing vintage Gogolev, if you can say “vintage” and “12-year-old” in the same sentence.

Last month, Gogolev won the qualifying event, Challenge, with 215.01 points, getting there with 76.24 for the short program. Orzel was third.

Yes, Orzel has grown.

“Over the past few years, since I’ve been in high school, I’ve had a growth spurt,” he said. “A lot of people struggle with this, but I think it has actually benefitted me. I think it has given me more strength and for some reason, more core control.”

Orzel landed the first quad in his life (a quad toe loop) at his second Junior Grand Prix event in Dresden Germany during the fall. Huge. He intends to try one in the long program on Wednesday.

But he is so talented, so precocious, he has more up his sleeve that we may see in years to come. Just for fun, he’s been playing with the ultra difficult quad Lutz – and he’s landed one. During a team day for Ontario, Orzel told his coach he was actually going to land one. And he did. “It was really exciting,” said Najarro, who has been coaching him since he was five years old.

He’s dabbled with the quad Salchow. He’s done a quad loop. He has very very fast twitch muscle, He can explode, like nobody’s business. Sometimes too quick. His coach, Eva Najarro, works to keep him calm and patient.

He came to the table in the short program with music he loves: “Secrets” by One Republic and “Beethoven’s Five Secrets” by The Piano Guys.” Who found it? Former skater Alexandra Najarro, daughter of Eva. Spotify proved a gold mine. Orzel listened to it for five minutes and knew it was perfect. Former ice dancer, Shae Zukiwsky, choreographed both his programs for the first time.

“They are really good together,” (Eva) Najarro said. “I can see Conrad in that program. I think this program is really him and that’s why he feels it.”

Najarro has called on the help of coach Joanne McLeod in Vancouver to help with Orzel’s quad education. He goes there in the summers. He has’t been working on quads so much this season because Najarro wanted to prepare him for the work at hand. But maybe in the spring.

“It’s going to be something to think about next year,” Orzel said. Najarro said his practices have improved this year and so have his spins, footwork and edges. It’s all important.

Last year, Orzel took a hard fall during the men’s event, and landed on his head. Miraculously, he picked himself up and continued. And even more miraculously, he did not suffer a concussion and all the aftereffects that come with it.

The next week, his friends had wondered about his black eye. He had to tell them he had fallen on his head at nationals. “I guess I have a hard head,” he said.