Patrick Chan’s comeback

He’s perfected the quad, is injury free, and has a new attitude. Next up: world domination

Fire and ice
Photography Chris Bolin; Dmitry Korotayev/Epsilon/Getty Images

A furious Patrick Chan is hard to imagine. Downcast, maybe. Buffeted enough by a bad performance, or the vagaries of figure skating judging, to temporarily lose that wide grin. But the 20-year-old throwing a foot-stomping tantrum, complete with screams and curses, is a mental image about as difficult to reconcile as a fuzzy bunny with a machine gun. It simply doesn’t compute.

Still, the affable four-time Canadian figure skating champion (once as a junior, and for the past three years running, the senior men’s winner) swears it happened, out of public view, at the Vancouver Games, last Feb. 16. On the biggest stage of his career, in front of a hyped-up home crowd and an expectant nation, Chan had bombed in the short program. He bobbled the landing on his opening triple axel, stumbled during a step sequence—usually his bread-and-butter—and even received a penalty for finishing his routine after the music, a mistake he had never before made in competition. The score of 81.12 was good enough for seventh place, but a death blow to his Olympic medal hopes. So Chan smiled, waved, threw some kisses to the fans and cameras, then slipped behind the curtains and erupted. “My coaches had never seen me so mad,” he says. “I just said to myself, that’s not the way it was supposed to turn out.” Thirteen years of skating, building toward one ultimate dream, only to see it dashed in just under three minutes. You’d drop a couple of f-bombs, too.

Of course, by the time Chan came out to meet the media a few minutes later, the uncharacteristic fit of temper had faded. He was subdued, by his own admission “really lost,” and as is so often the case with Canada’s Olympians, unnecessarily apologetic. Two nights later, he returned to the ice and delivered an impassioned free skate, moving up two spots and finishing the Games in fifth—neither a disaster, nor a victory. Almost a year later, the bitterness is gone, but the disappointment lingers. “It’s like an ‘I didn’t get what I wanted for Christmas’ sort of thing,” Chan explains.

There were lots of reasons why the Toronto skater shouldn’t have been favoured to hit the podium at his first Olympics last winter. He was recovering from a suspected case of H1N1 and a serious tear of his calf muscle, and missed much of the season. Just over a month before the opening ceremonies, he split with his coach of more than two years, American Don Laws. (His choreographer Lori Nichol and spin guru Christy Krall stepped into the breach, and continue to share coaching duties.) He was 19, and facing off against the toughest field he had ever encountered. But that didn’t change his own—or Canadians’—golden expectations.

After a summer of soul searching, and several months of hard work, Chan returned to the ice this fall with an impressive victory at Skate Canada. In late November in Moscow, he came second at the ISU Grand Prix Cup of Russia. Last month in Beijing, he topped the podium at the Grand Prix Final—a tournament of champions—for his first major win in almost two years. On Jan. 22, he will begin the defence of his Canadian championship. But the season’s goal is to peak for the World Championship in Tokyo the last week of March.

Patrick Chan is healthy. He’s got a new attitude. And he’s finally mastered the quadruple jump that is the calling card of figure skating’s most exciting champions. Maybe he should get angry more often.

The first quad came in July, during a summer tune-up competition in Philadelphia, but it doesn’t count. “It was a bit more luck than skill,” says Chan. What seemed like a fluke, however, turned out to be a harbinger.

In the spring, the skater’s movement adviser, Kathy Johnson, a Juilliard dance graduate, had suggested he look to the great Mikhail Baryshnikov for jumping inspiration. Chan found a video of the Russian performing a classic solo from Don Quixote on YouTube. He was impressed with his fluidity, perfect balance, and above all, the strength that allows a premier ballet dancer to soar and spin, even without the glide and speed that aids a figure skater’s takeoff.

During an August practice in Colorado Springs, Co.—Chan’s base since the coaching change last year—with Johnson and Krall, there was a simple suggestion that he stop using his arms so much. The right-hand punch as he was entering the jump seemed a little early and too strong. Holding it back, as it turned out, forced him to use his legs more, and jump higher. “It went up perfect, and I could really feel the lightness of the jump and I just landed it,” says Chan. Years of frustration were banished in a single session as everything suddenly clicked. Soon he was ripping off quads more reliably than his triple axel (a jump that still sometimes bedevils the skater). At the Skate Canada competition in October, he missed the quadruple in his short program, but nailed it in his free skate. That’s the one that counts in his memory. Afterwards, he even joked with reporters about getting a plaque made. It was, he is certain, the start of something big.

Chan had won major competitions before without the jump, relying on his accomplished footwork, spins and high presentation scores. At the Olympics, American Evan Lysacek even won a gold with only triples, and flawless routines that played to the sport’s newish judging system, defeating Russian quad machine Evgeni Plushenko. But there remains a strong belief—among many fans, athletes and coaches—that four complete rotations in the air is what sets the men apart from the boys. (“More feathers, head-flinging and so-called step sequences done at walking speed—that’s what the system wants,” Elvis Stojko, Canada’s three-time World Champion, and a charter member of the quad-squad, fumed in Vancouver. “I’m going to watch hockey, where athletes are allowed to push the envelope. A real sport.”)

Chan, whose fifth-place Olympic finish was also a target of the Stojko broadside—given that he didn’t even attempt a quad—maintains he wasn’t phased by the criticism, but admits being part of the elite club changes one’s perspective. “The quad is so nerve-racking, so high-risk, but there’s a big payoff,” he says. “I can really see both sides of the argument now.”

For a young man who has been figure skating since his mom Karen enrolled him in lessons at Toronto’s Granite Club at age six, looking for a way to keep her eager but skinny boy off the hockey rink, the jumping breakthrough was probably just a matter of time. The bigger leap may end up being the mental one that promises to allow him to nail it consistently under pressure in front of the judges. At the Grand Prix event in Moscow in November, Chan won silver, but lost gold. Sitting in first place after the short, where he delivered a flawless quad toe, the Toronto skater buckled during his long program, falling to the ice on his opening quad, on a triple axel, and yet again on his usually reliable triple Lutz. Even after the Zamboni impression, he ended up only 3.1 points behind Tomas Verner of the Czech Republic. The long flight back home was spent kicking himself in the butt. “It really bothered me,” he says. “The week before Russia, I did four clean long programs in a row in practice. I just couldn’t grasp why I wasn’t doing it in competition.”

Chan has never been much of a believer in the head games that are now such a huge part of Olympic sport. The only words of advice and motivation he has sought throughout his career have come from his father Lewis, a Toronto lawyer, usually delivered during a quiet pre-competition walk. When Krall suggested it might be time to call in some outside help, Chan had just one name on his wish list—Brian Boitano. The U.S. skater never successfully landed a quad in competition, but he did win when it counted most, besting Canada’s Brian Orser for the gold at both the 1988 Olympics and the World Championship. The two ended up talking the day before Chan left for the Grand Prix Final in China—a single phone conversation that quickly put everything in perspective.

“As a young athlete I did so well that I didn’t even have to think about anything. Just go out and have fun,” says Chan. But as he got older, and the competition got better, the Canadian champion sometimes found himself grasping for what used to come naturally, searching for his elusive “groove.” Boitano offered a new definition of focus, advising Chan to concentrate on “being conscious through the whole program.” Think about the footwork, breathing, the jump sequence, it doesn’t really matter—the key is to always stay in the moment, choosing hyper-consciousness over unconsciousness. For Chan, that nugget—and some other advice he prefers to keep to himself—provided the same type of epiphany as the counsel to put less arm into his quad. “I had to find another way to force my technique, force my mind to do it properly, even through the times where I didn’t feel well,” he says. The plan is for him and Boitano to keep chatting on a regular basis in the buildup to the Worlds. “I still don’t believe in a shrink,” says Chan. “They haven’t been in our situation, on the ice standing in front of thousands of people. They don’t understand.”

For many fans, last season’s winter sports ended with Vancouver’s closing ceremony. The athletes, however, toiled on for months, even if few noticed. In Turin, at the World Championships that March, Chan won silver behind Daisuke Takahashi, the Olympic bronze medallist. (Lysacek and Plushenko both gave the event a pass.) The skate wasn’t great, but it was good enough, and it provided Chan with US$27,000 in prize money, some of which he spent on a flashy new Brodie mountain bike.

In his oh-so-short off-season, he travelled to Singapore with his mom, visiting relatives, and then on to Thailand. The three-week trip was the longest break from skating he had taken since he still had his baby teeth. He thought briefly about quitting the sport. Chan misses school, and having a normal life. He’s preparing to take his SATs, and would eventually like to study business at a U.S. university like Stanford or the University of Pennsylvania. Back in Colorado, he played some golf—another passion. And he biked a lot.

In early September, a few days before the opening of Skate Canada’s national training camp in Mississauga, Ont., he went off a trail and landed on some rocks. The pain was so bad that he initially though he might have broken his back, but it was just severely bruised. He took two days off, then returned to the ice and promptly nailed a quad.

Motivation was never in short supply for Chan, but now it seems to flow from somewhere deeper. “I think he’s a bit more focused,” his father Lewis says in a lawyer’s measured way. “His general approach is more disciplined. It’s probably a combo of more maturity and drive.”

The skater says a training program that has been tweaked since his calf injury to provide him with more rest and recovery time is paying dividends. He feels stronger, invigorated. This June, he and his mother are organizing a camp in Calgary with his coaches and support team, to share their recent breakthroughs in technique and off-ice workouts.

Looking back, the Olympic year already seems like a dream. The media buildup, McDonald’s commercials, people cheering him in the streets, now all pleasant memories. What’s not so fondly recalled is how he let it get the better of him. How the hype began to colour his own thoughts, and the medal glory became more of a fixation than the difficult process of getting there.

Surely that’s why he bats away questions about Sochi in 2014. He’ll only be 23, but that’s three World championships away. Ask him what he learned from Vancouver and there’s a pause. “How to overcome disappointment,” he says finally. Patrick Chan is committed to looking forward. The view from the top of the podium is always better.