Patrick Chan hopes to live up to heavy expectations in men's figure skating
Few labels as a medal favorite seem quite as heavy as this one. Patrick Chan is the reigning three-time world champion in men’s singles figure skating, and in 2009 and '10, he won the silver medal. He won his sixth Canadian national title in 2013. He has a cool nickname, PChiddy, that rolls off the tongues of even his Russian rivals.
Yet when the men’s competition kicks off Thursday night at the Iceberg Arena, Chan will need a rally to keep from falling a step short of the hardware that separates him from an elevated place in the sport’s history: an Olympic gold medal. The Canadian has skated inconsistently during this season and during the team competition in Sochi, he struggled into third place for his team in the short program and sat out the free skate.
“The favorite’s label doesn’t really mean anything once the next competition arrives,” Chan says. “For me, every competition in the past, good and bad, has been leading up to this one.
For Chan, the world championships in London, Ont. last March was really a tale of two competitions. He skated brilliantly in the short program, hitting a quadruple toe loop-triple toe loop combination and two more triples, a Lutz and an Axel, which are much more difficult than what's required in a short program. On top of that, he received level fours, the top marks, for all of his spins and footwork. This added up to a world-record 98.37 points for his short program, building a huge lead entering the free skate. Chan’s long program began just as strongly, as he landed two quads in the first minute, giving himself significant breathing room for a mistake or two during the rest of the program. But instead, he nearly gave away his entire cushion, botching three subsequent jumps and barely holding off Denis Ten, a Kazakh skater who trains in California, to win the title.
Here in Sochi, Chan will be facing foes who have either emerged, such as Japan’s 20-year-old Yusuru Hanyu, or re-emerged, such as Russia’s history-making 31-year-old Evgeni Plushenko.
Hanyu beat Chan at a Grand Prix event in Paris this season and then topped his world-record score, earning 99.84 at the Grand Prix final in Fukuoka, Japan later in the season. Hanyu is actually coached by a Canadian, two-time world champion Brian Orser.
Plushenko already had his Olympic moment. He helped his country win gold in the first ever Olympic team competition, earning his fourth medal at his fourth Olympics. But Plushenko was up in the air about participating in the individual event -- he said after the competition on Sunday that he had some spinal pain.
Chan at his best should top the field, with precise footwork and spins that are speedy and stylish. But ice is slippery. His fifth-place showing before the home crowd in Vancouver four years ago was a mere warm-up. By Chan’s admission, he needed to grow up after his Vancouver experience.
“I was like a puppy in puppy day care,” he says. “Everything was so big and impressive and new ... These feel like a first Olympics for me. I feel like I’ve grown so much since Vancouver.”
In August, Chan made the move from Colorado Springs, where he had trained and lived with his mother, to Michigan, for a new start. The greater Detroit area had become a mecca for skating, with seven of the world’s top eight dance teams in the area and three world-class training rinks to pick from.
When asked about his 20-hour drive from Colorado to Michigan, he said, “It was a good chance to be with my thoughts about things ... to understand why I was in this position and what I needed to do to keep being successful. It will be more normal in Sochi because I live on my own. I had the chance to have that excitement of going to the grocery store and being like, ‘I want Oreo cookies today.’ ... I’m in complete control of what I want, so going into the Olympics will be more of a comfortable feeling as opposed to a summer-camp kind of feel.”
Chan doesn’t want to suffer the same fate as his fellow Canadian figure skaters. Kurt Browning, a stylish skater who racked up world titles in 1989, 1990, 1991 and 1993 with a silver in 1992. Yet even with the Winter Games in 1992 and 1994 -- due to the unusual reshuffling of the Olympic calendar -- Browning finished eighth, sixth and fifth in three tries at the Olympics. Brian Orser entered the 1988 Olympics in Calgary as the world champion, but lost out in the Battle of the Brians to American Brian Boitano. Elvis Stojko, a karate kicking super jumper who wasn’t a great artist, also won world titles in 1994, 1995 and 1997, but settled for a pair of silvers at two Olympics. In all, Canadian men have amassed 13 world titles, yet they have captured six medals, but no golds, at Olympic Games.
Chan has spent the last six months training fulltime with Marina Zueva, who also coaches both of the world’s top dance teams, Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir and the U.S.' Meryl Davis and Charlie White.
“Patrick is a very smooth skater,” says Zueva, “very soft on the ice, like his skates barely contact the ice at all. It is a very peaceful, happy experience to watch him skate.”
It is that happy place that Chan was seeking when he chose the music for his long program this season. He skated to the selection of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons in 2005 when he won his first Canadian junior title, and he decided to resurrect it as a tribute to Osborne Colson, his first coach who died in '06 at the age of 90. In his memory, Chan wears a gold medallion engraved with Colson’s initials. He also took the unusual step of keeping his short program music, an Elegy by Rachmaninoff, that brought him success last season. It was Colson, Chan says, who taught him to love the sport.
“I really wanted to go back to the joy of skating when you see how much fun I was having just by watching,” he says.
Soon the world will be.