HALIFAX — It’s been all about the Patrick Chan comeback. But it might also be about the Patrick Chan takeaway.
For the 25-year-old Olympic silver medallist to capture his eighth national title on the weekend would mean 17-year-old Nam Nguyen losing his: one-and-done, at least for now.
So, while there’s poignancy to Chan potentially reclaiming his laurels after some 20 months away from competition — committed anew to the perchance quixotic quest for gold in Pyeongchang two years hence — there’s also an element of pathos in the eclipse of Nguyen which that would necessitate.
Chan is no longer the boy-wonder of figure skating. The era of his superlative status in the sport came to a screeching halt in Sochi, courtesy of Japan’s incomparable Yuzuru Hanyu, who’s gone on to smash all of the Canadian’s international records. Though there was never much doubt Chan would return to the fray, Nguyen shone in his elder’s absence, topping the podium at the Canadian championships in 2015 and heralding a new epoch for men in this country.
He doesn’t have Chan’s elegance, the grace-note style, but he’s one heck of a jumper and has two quads (like Chan) scheduled for his free skate. Yet skating cognoscenti have seen enough of Nguyen’s artistic bits — he’s unquestionably a showman, as demonstrated during his precocious 11-year-old featured turn at the Vancouver Games exhibition gala — to confidently predict future greatness.
Certainly he was on that path. Now it’s almost preordained that Nguyen will be detoured into the passing lane. Unless Chan completely falls apart here Friday and Saturday, the sense is that he must be ushered along to the world championships in March as a reigning national champion because there’s eclat to that distinction. And Chan needs a boost to re-assert his bona fides after finishing last at December’s Grand Prix final.
It’s understandable that Chan’s looming presence would get inside Nguyen’s head, an added factor to the normal pressure of defending one’s title. “Sometimes in training, whenever I’m having a down day, all of a sudden in my head it pops up that Patrick Chan is coming back for nationals,” Nguyen admitted to reporters. “Something inside just makes me stress out. I can’t really pinpoint it.”
Well, that’s hardly difficult to figure out. Chan has been the sine qua non of men’s skating in Canada for nearly a decade. Even a Chan in rusty re-boot form would intimidate.
Likely easing the anxiety is Nguyen’s daily exposure to the very best in the game as part of the elite stable training under Brian Orser at the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club. Hanyu is a disciple. Ditto reigning world champion Javier Fernandez, from Spain.
“Training with Javi and Yuzu is so cool and it’s very motivating for me,” enthuses Nguyen. “The way they jump and the way they skate is so effortless. Those are the kinds of things that I try to learn from them. They push me too. Javi, when he sees me mash up my jumps, he’ll come by and just give me a pat on the back, say everything is going to be all right. With Yuzu, he tells me not to give up, I have to keep fighting and not let anything negative bring me down.”
For his part, Chan has indicated he would like to be a “mentor” for Nguyen. But he also recognizes the teenager as a tangible threat.
“There’s always pressure going into nationals, especially with Nam having come in very quickly up the ranks since my year off,” says the veteran. “He’s very much a competitor. Of course he should be, as the previous national champion.”
The challenge for Chan is that he’s now surrounded by a younger generation of skaters — Nguyen included — who’ve pushed the envelope vigorously during his hiatus. Indeed, he’s astonished at what the men are doing and with such composure, ratcheting up stratospheric scores for technique and presentation. Meanwhile, he’s been on a tentative back foot, trying to stick with a methodical plan of incremental improvement. It’s catch-up on a three-season timeline to South Korea. “This whole year, I feel like I have to be at Yuzuru’s and Javi’s level. But I have to be smart and intelligent and understand what kind of situation I’m in and how different it is.”
He adds: “The level of skating has increased tremendously, which can be frustrating and stressful for older skaters, as I think I now am. They have what I don’t have. But we all bring something different to the table. I still have some of my weapons. How do I say this? I still have stuff that I haven’t shown yet.”
Resurrecting the old Chan, however, may no longer be enough to go quad-toe to quad-toe with the current luminaries. Re-tread Chan won’t cut it. Thus he’s added a second triple Axel — always a dicey element; many skaters claim it’s harder than a quad — to his long program. He hasn’t done two of those in several years. The number-crunchers at Skate Canada have assured Chan that triple Axel times two, integrated into the technical components, should go a considerable way towards “closing the gap” with Yuzuru on the score sheet.
A more mature, ripened Chan has also gained a wider frame of reference.
“The perspective of the reality of skating among the rest of my life. I think that’s what I learned in that year (off). I’m at a point where I have to start looking at what am I going to do and preparing myself for what I’m going to do after my competitive career. Because two years will go by very fast.’’
And Nam Nguyen, the shadow-Chan, will be skating step-by-step alongside.