HALIFAX — Stephen Gogolev uncorked a gargantuan triple Axel at the Canadian figure skating championships.
In practice, he’s landed quads. You can watch his feat of the feet — up, around, down — on YouTube.
The kid has just turned 11. He stands four-foot-nine.
Last week, Stephen captured the novice men’s title. Boy-toy might more accurately describe his category.
“Right now he’s met our benchmark for junior Grand Prix,” notes Mike Slipchuk, high performance director at Skate Canada. “But he’s not old enough to go yet. He’s one of those who’s fun to watch. He’s skating above his age. He’s skating like a 17-year-old, 18-year-old.’’
And he’s coached by Brian Orser at the Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club. Orser churns out champions: Canadians, Europeans, worlds, Olympics.
A step above novice, at the junior level, the title was claimed by Joseph Phan. He’s 14 and has all the jumping tricks.
But figure skating is a sport that runs contrary to the normal development of human bodies. It punishes height. It likes teeny, narrow hips on males and females, dimensions conducive to jumping rotations.
It tends towards munchkins, miniatures.
So what will happen to Stephen in the coming years? After two inches of added height, four inches, good lord maybe a whole foot?
That’s the cautionary tale – though it’s ending has certainly not yet been written — of 17-year-old Nam Nguyen, one year ago a first-time Canadian champion, albeit in the sabbatical absence of Patrick Chan, and this past weekend fourth overall, thus excluded from the worlds squad despite a fifth-place debut there in 2015.
A couple of years ago, Nguyen and Roman Sadovsky were the shortest, teensiest participants among the senior crew at nationals. Now they’re the tallest. Nguyen is five-foot-10 — four-inch sprout since last winter — and his body bewilders him.
But he can live with it, the teen insists. He will adjust to it.
On Saturday, Nguyen fell on both his quad attempts in the free skate segment, though he did receive scoring credit for turning four rotations on each jump. Afterwards, he stood with a reporter in the bowels of the Scotiabank Arena, watching Kevin Reynolds perform.
“I’m a little bit panicking right now,” Nguyen admitted.
Rightly so, as Reynolds claimed bronze behind eight-time victor Chan (who tied Orser’s record) and silver medallist Liam Firus. Canada has two world spots: Chan and Firus.
So, a year after all that celebrity, the feel-good spectacle Nguyen embodied, he’s slipped back into also-ran territory.
It’s not fair. And it’s certainly not from lack of will or training commitment. Nguyen is simply an entirely different person — an adolescent growing up as nature intended.
“I have to change the way I train, the way I think, especially in competition. I need to push myself harder. This season requires a lot more and that’s something I need to get familiar with. Nothing ever comes easy.’’
The good thing, Slipchuk pointed out, is that Nguyen is still landing his big jumps — the triple Axel, quad toe and quad Salchow — in practice, though Nguyen has frankly disputed this in at least one conversation with a reporter. Perhaps the issue isn’t at lofty head level but rather inside that head.
“He’s still technically doing what he has to do,” insists Slipchuk. “It’s an adjustment, getting comfortable with his body.’’
Slipchuk adds: “Defending a title is not easy. You have to go through it at least once.’’
The regression of Nguyen aside, Skate Canada was delighted by this weekend’s display — strong pairs and dance teams challenging each other, the senior women suddenly deep in talent, such that defending title-holder Kaetlyn Osmond, recovered from a hideously broken leg, finished third behind Alaine Chartrand and Gabrielle Daleman, which means no ticket to Boston. And Osmond was eighth at worlds in 2013.
Chartrand, by the way, trains triple Axels — still a rarity for female skaters — though she’s not landed it in competition.
“The ladies event was probably one of the best we’ve had from a depth point of view,” said Slipchuk. “With Alaine and Gabrielle and Kaetlyn, it’s going to be a good two years leading into the Olympics. They’re going to push each other and that’s what’s going to make us stronger.
“When you have to score close to 200 to win a Canadian championship and the other two are nipping at your heels, I think we’re moving in the right direction.’’
Last time Canada had two women finish in the top 10 at worlds was 22 years ago. If not with this threesome, then perchance with the next cohort moving up through the ranks, the precocious on-the-cusp teens who are already test-driving triple-triple combinations.
Fourteen-year-old Sarah Tamura widened eyes here winning junior novice, as did her BFF training partner Megan Yim (bronze), both coached out in Burnaby by Joanne McLeod. After all those years dealing with the skittish, eccentric and diva-prone Emanuel Sandhu, McLeod has more than earned a shot at stress-free skating rewards.
Alas, teensy girls grow up, too — taller, rounder, heavier — as they damn well should. It’s called healthy. Still, Skate Canada is optimistic about its fledglings.
Slipchuk: “We’re happy with what’s coming down the pipeline and every year it’s getting stronger.”