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.