A furious Patrick Chan is hard to imagine. Downcast, maybe. Buffeted enough by a bad performance, or the vagaries of figure skating judging, to temporarily lose that wide grin. But the 20-year-old throwing a foot-stomping tantrum, complete with screams and curses, is a mental image about as difficult to reconcile as a fuzzy bunny with a machine gun. It simply doesn’t compute.
Still, the affable four-time Canadian figure skating champion (once as a junior, and for the past three years running, the senior men’s winner) swears it happened, out of public view, at the Vancouver Games, last Feb. 16. On the biggest stage of his career, in front of a hyped-up home crowd and an expectant nation, Chan had bombed in the short program. He bobbled the landing on his opening triple axel, stumbled during a step sequence—usually his bread-and-butter—and even received a penalty for finishing his routine after the music, a mistake he had never before made in competition. The score of 81.12 was good enough for seventh place, but a death blow to his Olympic medal hopes. So Chan smiled, waved, threw some kisses to the fans and cameras, then slipped behind the curtains and erupted. “My coaches had never seen me so mad,” he says. “I just said to myself, that’s not the way it was supposed to turn out.” Thirteen years of skating, building toward one ultimate dream, only to see it dashed in just under three minutes. You’d drop a couple of f-bombs, too.
Of course, by the time Chan came out to meet the media a few minutes later, the uncharacteristic fit of temper had faded. He was subdued, by his own admission “really lost,” and as is so often the case with Canada’s Olympians, unnecessarily apologetic. Two nights later, he returned to the ice and delivered an impassioned free skate, moving up two spots and finishing the Games in fifth—neither a disaster, nor a victory. Almost a year later, the bitterness is gone, but the disappointment lingers. “It’s like an ‘I didn’t get what I wanted for Christmas’ sort of thing,” Chan explains.
There were lots of reasons why the Toronto skater shouldn’t have been favoured to hit the podium at his first Olympics last winter. He was recovering from a suspected case of H1N1 and a serious tear of his calf muscle, and missed much of the season. Just over a month before the opening ceremonies, he split with his coach of more than two years, American Don Laws. (His choreographer Lori Nichol and spin guru Christy Krall stepped into the breach, and continue to share coaching duties.) He was 19, and facing off against the toughest field he had ever encountered. But that didn’t change his own—or Canadians’—golden expectations.
After a summer of soul searching, and several months of hard work, Chan returned to the ice this fall with an impressive victory at Skate Canada. In late November in Moscow, he came second at the ISU Grand Prix Cup of Russia. Last month in Beijing, he topped the podium at the Grand Prix Final—a tournament of champions—for his first major win in almost two years. On Jan. 22, he will begin the defence of his Canadian championship. But the season’s goal is to peak for the World Championship in Tokyo the last week of March.
Patrick Chan is healthy. He’s got a new attitude. And he’s ﬁnally mastered the quadruple jump that is the calling card of figure skating’s most exciting champions. Maybe he should get angry more often.
The first quad came in July, during a summer tune-up competition in Philadelphia, but it doesn’t count. “It was a bit more luck than skill,” says Chan. What seemed like a fluke, however, turned out to be a harbinger.
In the spring, the skater’s movement adviser, Kathy Johnson, a Juilliard dance graduate, had suggested he look to the great Mikhail Baryshnikov for jumping inspiration. Chan found a video of the Russian performing a classic solo from Don Quixote on YouTube. He was impressed with his fluidity, perfect balance, and above all, the strength that allows a premier ballet dancer to soar and spin, even without the glide and speed that aids a figure skater’s takeoff.
During an August practice in Colorado Springs, Co.—Chan’s base since the coaching change last year—with Johnson and Krall, there was a simple suggestion that he stop using his arms so much. The right-hand punch as he was entering the jump seemed a little early and too strong. Holding it back, as it turned out, forced him to use his legs more, and jump higher. “It went up perfect, and I could really feel the lightness of the jump and I just landed it,” says Chan. Years of frustration were banished in a single session as everything suddenly clicked. Soon he was ripping off quads more reliably than his triple axel (a jump that still sometimes bedevils the skater). At the Skate Canada competition in October, he missed the quadruple in his short program, but nailed it in his free skate. That’s the one that counts in his memory. Afterwards, he even joked with reporters about getting a plaque made. It was, he is certain, the start of something big.
Chan had won major competitions before without the jump, relying on his accomplished footwork, spins and high presentation scores. At the Olympics, American Evan Lysacek even won a gold with only triples, and flawless routines that played to the sport’s newish judging system, defeating Russian quad machine Evgeni Plushenko. But there remains a strong belief—among many fans, athletes and coaches—that four complete rotations in the air is what sets the men apart from the boys. (“More feathers, head-flinging and so-called step sequences done at walking speed—that’s what the system wants,” Elvis Stojko, Canada’s three-time World Champion, and a charter member of the quad-squad, fumed in Vancouver. “I’m going to watch hockey, where athletes are allowed to push the envelope. A real sport.”)
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