What is the Olympic readiness of Canada's champions after their first Grand Prix event? Are they on track or in trouble early in this Olympic season? The results from Skate Canada International in Saint John, New Brunswick, though mixed, bode well and while we are still over three months out, there are some encouraging signs and lots of reasons for optimism heading to Sochi.
The one thing we know for sure is that Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir's new free dance has Olympics written all over it. Their music is by Russian composer Alexander Glazunov, who is described as a Romantic Classicist. It is an emotionally poignant and uplifting piece that plays to Tessa and Scott's strengths and is bound to captivate the Sochi audience. Last year, the reviews for their provocative Carmen free dance were mixed. The daring darkness of the dance brought either "love it or hate it" kind of reactions. The reviews of the new Olympic free dance have been universal in their praise. Artistically and creatively, it is a winner and a crowd pleaser that is vintage Virtue and Moir. The gold will demand endless hours now of drilling and refining in preparation for challenging U.S. rivals Meryl Davis and Charlie White. The stage is set for an intriguing showdown.
In an Olympic year, one cannot underestimate the value of a stable and supportive training environment and Patrick Chan has found that place in Detroit with coach Kathy Johnson. In his words, he is "happy" and it shows. He is patient and confident in practice, not perfect by any stretch but unfazed by any stumbles or jumping errors. In a warmup at Skate Canada, he had a jarring fall on a quad, shrugged, circled and did it again as it was intended. It was a decisive win at Skate Canada. His demeanour spoke of confidence, preparedness and experience, qualities that were missing heading into Vancouver. As he builds to Sochi and expectations rise and demands on him increase, it is the balance he has built in his life outside the rink and the foundation he has built in it that will, he hopes, make the difference.
For Canadian pairs champions Meagan Duhammel and Eric Radford, it was a bit of a case of, you'd better "dance with the one who brung you". In the past, it was their feisty ability to maximize technical risk and capitalize on it that got them to the world podium and it is the technical mark that let them down at Skate Canada International. In what Meagan called their lowest technical score ever, they dropped to third in their long program. Their focus in Saint John was on artistry and character development and, while they delivered emotionally charged performances, their new focus distracted them from what they do best and their challenge over the next few weeks will be to bring the old and new together. The one thing I know about these two is that they are fighters and, with the less than stellar start and their backs to the wall, they will come out swinging. Don't drop your hands, don't count them out.
Just when Kaetlyn Osmond thought she could begin her Olympic quest in earnest, she suffered another setback. Having missed a number of weeks due to an injured foot heading into Skate Canada, Kaetlyn woke up after the short program with a sore hamstring and was unable to compete in the free skate. The word is, she has tears in two tendons in her hamstring and will see limited ice and training time for the next 7-10 days, at which time it is expected to have healed. It adds up to a lot of training missed and can set up the cycle of overtraining to catch up and then reinjuring. She is young and has a bubbly personality so it will be tough to contain her. Kaetlyn has three weeks until her next Grand Prix and it is their plan that she will compete.
Other Canadian honorable mentions and notable performances were those of Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje who finished second in the Ice Dance event, Amelie Lacoste's short program and Eladje Balde's quad in the short.
One of the most compelling performances for me at Skate Canada International was that of 28-year-old Akiko Suzuki from Japan, who critics often dismiss as being too old and past her prime. Her performances were captivating and her joy was palpable every time she took the ice. Watching her compete, I was reminded of a conversation I had with Elvis Stojko before one of his Olympic Games. When discussing dealing with Olympic pressure, he said, "I just want to remember why it is I love to skate and, if I can think of that, I will have the right frame of mind to compete." Canada's skaters would do well to take that phrase to heart. Through all the hype and the weight of pressure and expectations of an Olympic season, it is remembering the pure joy of skating that can keep things in perspective, calm the nerves and inspire break-out performances on the road to Sochi.