Canada's Olympians: Patrick Chan, Figure Skating

A sudden coaching change - even H1N1 - hasn’t derailed Chan

Canada's Olympians: Patrick Chan

Patrick Chan has a typical teenager’s appetite for burgers and fries, a love compounded by his sponsorship by McDonald’s, and by a belief that, as he told Maclean’s this summer, “I don’t have to watch my diet.” But in recent months, the 19-year-old three-time national skating champion and world silver medallist made some major life changes. Not only did he switch coaches barely a month before the Olympics, but the ex-nighthawk is going to bed at a reasonable hour—and he’s eating his veggies.

“I used to eat poor and go to bed late, and the practice days were inconsistent,” Chan said in a conference call last week from his new high-altitude training base in Colorado Springs, Colo. “Now I’m doing everything almost like a robot: eat at the same time, sleep at the same time, over and over. Repetition.” Trusting the plan, he says, “that’s key to overcoming your fears at the Olympics.”

Three women—coaches Lori Nichol and Christy Krall, and his mother Karen Chan—share much of the credit for pulling Chan out of a funk this autumn, the result of a suspected case of H1N1, and a tear in his left calf muscle that wreaked havoc with his early-season training and competition schedule. He placed a dismal sixth at Skate Canada in November, falling three times in his free skate, leaving many to wonder if he could turn things around in time for the Olympics.

Chan’s need for a quadruple jump in his repertoire, even though he admits he’s unlikely to use it at the Olympics, drew him to Krall, his Colorado-based technical specialist. She’s a proponent of Dartfish, a slow-motion video system that lets her analyze his technique and forward the video to Nichol, whose coaching and choreography commitments keep her in Toronto. “I can minimize the amount of attempts and minimize the chances of getting hurt in a fall,” Chan says of Dartfish. “She can pinpoint a mistake instead of guessing what I did wrong.”

Perhaps inevitably, his quest for a quad triggered a separation last month from Don Laws, his long-time Florida-based coach. Laws, in what even Chan concedes was a surprise, resigned just a week before the Canadian national championships last month, saying it was untenable to coach from Florida while Chan was training in Colorado. The split, while amiable on the surface at least, could hardly have come at a worse time. The London, Ont., event was only his second competition of the season and a strong performance was essential to making the Olympics. “I’m not, like, devastated,” Chan said at the time. “You can only move on.”

Stepping into the void was Nichol, Chan’s choreographer, a certified coach, and the woman responsible for his riveting long program, set to the music of Phantom of the Opera. Nichol is well positioned to prevent what Chan calls “paralysis by analysis.” There comes a point where you have to relax, drop the shoulders and let the music take you, he says. “We’re such competitive athletes you sometimes forget the simplest of things. For me, it’s rhythm,” he says. “If I have the rhythm it usually works out great.”

Still, the coaching change heaped extra pressure on Chan at the nationals. He seemed tight in the opening moments of his crucial long program, but within 30 seconds he indeed found his rhythm. His jumps gained confidence, his footwork near the end of the program was assured, artistic and enormously complex. He credits the altitude training in Colorado with giving him the stamina and preventing the “face of pain” that can detract from an exhausting long program. “I was so happy after nationals, and relieved,” he says. “Mostly relieved to know that with everything that happened, the great team around me has come together and is working great. I don’t have to fiddle with anything prior to the Olympics. I just have to be consistent,” he says, “and be like a machine.”

After years of male coaches, it’s been an adjustment to have two women, he says. “I’m going to be careful with this subject,” he adds with a laugh. “I’ve had so much fun. Also, they’re much more strict. They’re on my case all the time, making sure I’m eating right, sleeping right . . . skating right.”

Then there’s his mother Karen, who’s often credited with drafting a strategy that’s carried her son to the Olympics. She put him on figure skates 13 years ago at the Granite Club in Toronto, in part to divert her slightly built boy from hockey. “Thank God I was young or I wouldn’t have done it,” he says. “Every day she’d drop me off at the rink; it was just a daily routine.” An after-school activity, he now realizes, was his parents’ way of keeping their high-energy kid out of trouble.

The Olympics weren’t top of mind back then. “It was just to be doing something fun and physical to keep me in shape.” Karen may have had higher aspirations. Though she avoids media interviews, in private conversation she’s as charming and ebullient as her son, and every bit as driven and process-oriented. For all that, Patrick says his mother, and his father Lewis, a lawyer, have never wanted his life to be defined by skating. “My parents aren’t super-strict. Some Chinese parents are very hard on their children, wanting the best for them,” he says. “As long as I work hard and I come out happy, they feel accomplished.”

He may be living “almost like a robot” in advance of the Games, but it’s a plan he endorsed. After all, you go onto the ice alone. If he wasn’t thrown by his coaching switch, that’s because he knows what he wants. “I surround myself with my parents,” he says, “and people I’ve done research on and checked out.” He’s not a robot, but there’s way more steel to Patrick Chan than his skate blades.

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