Chan, whose fifth-place Olympic finish was also a target of the Stojko broadside—given that he didn’t even attempt a quad—maintains he wasn’t phased by the criticism, but admits being part of the elite club changes one’s perspective. “The quad is so nerve-racking, so high-risk, but there’s a big payoff,” he says. “I can really see both sides of the argument now.”
For a young man who has been figure skating since his mom Karen enrolled him in lessons at Toronto’s Granite Club at age six, looking for a way to keep her eager but skinny boy off the hockey rink, the jumping breakthrough was probably just a matter of time. The bigger leap may end up being the mental one that promises to allow him to nail it consistently under pressure in front of the judges. At the Grand Prix event in Moscow in November, Chan won silver, but lost gold. Sitting in first place after the short, where he delivered a flawless quad toe, the Toronto skater buckled during his long program, falling to the ice on his opening quad, on a triple axel, and yet again on his usually reliable triple Lutz. Even after the Zamboni impression, he ended up only 3.1 points behind Tomas Verner of the Czech Republic. The long flight back home was spent kicking himself in the butt. “It really bothered me,” he says. “The week before Russia, I did four clean long programs in a row in practice. I just couldn’t grasp why I wasn’t doing it in competition.”
Chan has never been much of a believer in the head games that are now such a huge part of Olympic sport. The only words of advice and motivation he has sought throughout his career have come from his father Lewis, a Toronto lawyer, usually delivered during a quiet pre-competition walk. When Krall suggested it might be time to call in some outside help, Chan had just one name on his wish list—Brian Boitano. The U.S. skater never successfully landed a quad in competition, but he did win when it counted most, besting Canada’s Brian Orser for the gold at both the 1988 Olympics and the World Championship. The two ended up talking the day before Chan left for the Grand Prix Final in China—a single phone conversation that quickly put everything in perspective.
“As a young athlete I did so well that I didn’t even have to think about anything. Just go out and have fun,” says Chan. But as he got older, and the competition got better, the Canadian champion sometimes found himself grasping for what used to come naturally, searching for his elusive “groove.” Boitano offered a new definition of focus, advising Chan to concentrate on “being conscious through the whole program.” Think about the footwork, breathing, the jump sequence, it doesn’t really matter—the key is to always stay in the moment, choosing hyper-consciousness over unconsciousness. For Chan, that nugget—and some other advice he prefers to keep to himself—provided the same type of epiphany as the counsel to put less arm into his quad. “I had to find another way to force my technique, force my mind to do it properly, even through the times where I didn’t feel well,” he says. The plan is for him and Boitano to keep chatting on a regular basis in the buildup to the Worlds. “I still don’t believe in a shrink,” says Chan. “They haven’t been in our situation, on the ice standing in front of thousands of people. They don’t understand.”
For many fans, last season’s winter sports ended with Vancouver’s closing ceremony. The athletes, however, toiled on for months, even if few noticed. In Turin, at the World Championships that March, Chan won silver behind Daisuke Takahashi, the Olympic bronze medallist. (Lysacek and Plushenko both gave the event a pass.) The skate wasn’t great, but it was good enough, and it provided Chan with US$27,000 in prize money, some of which he spent on a flashy new Brodie mountain bike.
In his oh-so-short off-season, he travelled to Singapore with his mom, visiting relatives, and then on to Thailand. The three-week trip was the longest break from skating he had taken since he still had his baby teeth. He thought briefly about quitting the sport. Chan misses school, and having a normal life. He’s preparing to take his SATs, and would eventually like to study business at a U.S. university like Stanford or the University of Pennsylvania. Back in Colorado, he played some golf—another passion. And he biked a lot.
In early September, a few days before the opening of Skate Canada’s national training camp in Mississauga, Ont., he went off a trail and landed on some rocks. The pain was so bad that he initially though he might have broken his back, but it was just severely bruised. He took two days off, then returned to the ice and promptly nailed a quad.
Motivation was never in short supply for Chan, but now it seems to flow from somewhere deeper. “I think he’s a bit more focused,” his father Lewis says in a lawyer’s measured way. “His general approach is more disciplined. It’s probably a combo of more maturity and drive.”
The skater says a training program that has been tweaked since his calf injury to provide him with more rest and recovery time is paying dividends. He feels stronger, invigorated. This June, he and his mother are organizing a camp in Calgary with his coaches and support team, to share their recent breakthroughs in technique and off-ice workouts.
Looking back, the Olympic year already seems like a dream. The media buildup, McDonald’s commercials, people cheering him in the streets, now all pleasant memories. What’s not so fondly recalled is how he let it get the better of him. How the hype began to colour his own thoughts, and the medal glory became more of a fixation than the difficult process of getting there.
Surely that’s why he bats away questions about Sochi in 2014. He’ll only be 23, but that’s three World championships away. Ask him what he learned from Vancouver and there’s a pause. “How to overcome disappointment,” he says finally. Patrick Chan is committed to looking forward. The view from the top of the podium is always better.
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