The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION
Patrick Chan quickly rises to top of men's figure skating
TORONTO - In a sport that's infamous for its pecking order, Patrick Chan simply decided to jump the queue.
That comes as no surprise to Kurt Browning. The two figure skaters became good friends during their years training together at Toronto's swanky Granite Club and Browning watched as the precocious 18-year-old Chan has quickly muscled his way to the top of men's skating.
"Before he became a name or had pressures and expectations, he was just this great kid. I would always give him a hard time teasing him. . . 'Your jumps, you land like a pregnant elephant,' stuff like that," Browning says laughing. "But he would hand it right back.
"I'm thinking, 'My four world titles aren't taking me very far with this kid,' he hands it right back to me."
World titles don't seem to intimidate Chan. At the world championships last month in Los Angeles, the young Canadian topped perennial world medallist Brian Joubert of France.
The stunning silver-medal performance came a couple of days after Chan - who's quickly become a favourite with the media for his refreshing candour - made headlines for his war of words with Joubert. The spat was sparked by the Frenchman's comments about the lack of quad jumps in men's skating.
It was the kind of adversity that could have spelled disaster for another skater, but it was business as usual for Chan. If there were any questions about whether he could keep himself together under the harsh glare of the spotlight, he scribbled an emphatic answer with his near-flawless long program in L.A.
His success at the world championships was a good sign with the 2010 Olympics quickly approaching. Canadian Olympic officials are looking to the host country to win the most medals in Vancouver and Chan will be among the top hopefuls come next February.
"You're used to seeing skaters go to the competition and the level drops, because it's competition, you're nervous," Browning says. "It didn't with him, and I'm starting to get used to it now.
"He just has a way of going out there under different and difficult situations and being able to lay down a really high percentage of his planned content. . . it's rare, really rare."
Chan was born in Ottawa and speaks English, French and Cantonese. He's the only child of mom Karen and dad Lewis, both from Hong Kong and both big sports enthusiasts. The two met at a table tennis tournament. They ski, play tennis and golf together as a family.
Chan originally had dreams of playing hockey but took up skating at the age of five at the urging of his mom, who thought some skating lessons might help him on his way to a budding hockey career. He never did play hockey.
Chan stuck with skating and quickly rose to the top of the novice and junior ranks. By 16 he was considered among the best in the world for his age, his superior skills honed painstakingly under legendary coach Osborne Colson.
"Mr. Colson," as Chan still refers to him, died in the summer of 2006 at the age of 90.
"Everyone says he's looking down on me and just probably smiling," Chan says of his quirky former coach, who was a stickler for perfection. "He never said it straight forward, that 'You're going to be a world champion, but he said 'One day there's going to be an Asian Canadian that's going to be world champion,' and having that in the back of my mind, I always remember that.
"He wasn't a person that said things like that very easily, he was very tough, so the fact that he said that, I knew he really meant it."
Chan now works with U.S. Hall of Fame coach Don Laws, whom he met at Colson's funeral and who coached American Scott Hamilton to Olympic gold.
He's often compared to Browning, with his impeccable footwork, graceful ease, his command of the music and the way he can capture the crowd. Some say he's the perfect blend of Browning's grace and showmanship with the athleticism of another Canadian star - Elvis Stojko.
Canadian Lori Nichol, Chan's choreographer, says he can't be compared to other skaters.
What makes him special?
"That he's Patrick," Nichol says. "He's fresh and full of life and he represents freedom and abandonment in skating. He has such mastery of his blades and of all the things blades can do, but he's also incredibly strong and so he can take it to all sorts of levels he's only discovering now.
"For me, when somebody has that kind of strength and mastery of the actual skill of skating. . . he has the real essence of skating and when he keeps letting that out more and more, it's going to be remarkable."
Chan launched himself onto the senior scene last season. At 17, Chan upset reigning champ Jeffrey Buttle to become Canada's youngest male national champion. Then Buttle suddenly retired in the fall, handing the torch to Chan, who took it and ran.
"He's been thrown into the pressure-cooker fast," says Mike Slipchuk, Skate Canada's high performance director. "He didn't have a lot of time to cruise along and adjust in the system, he was thrown in. . . win a Canadian title, go to worlds, win two Grand Prix (events), it's just kind of fast-tracked."
Buttle knew he was leaving the sport in good hands.
"He skates like he's 10 years older than he actually is," Buttle says. "In terms of maturity, he has skating skills and edges and posture that are head and shoulders ahead of the rest of the competition."
Much of Chan's success, says Browning, comes from a healthy dose of self-confidence that the young skater possessed even way back when he was starting out.
"He would say, 'I want to be part of the reason people come back to figure skating, so watch,"' Browning recalls. "I want to be part of what keeps figure skating in this country great.' Occasionally his quotes come off as a bit full-headed, but I'm sorry, you're in a performer sport, if you don't have self-confidence you look like crap out there. He has a healthy dose of self-confidence, but also has a great sense of humour where he makes fun of himself."
Laws credits Chan's overall work ethic. When he's not on the ice, he's doing pilates and yoga, and taking care of his aching limbs in the whirlpool and ice bath. He's also a normal kid who's hooked on Facebook and video games. After winning silver at the world championships, he looked forward to getting back to school - he's in Grade 12 at Etienne-Brule in Toronto - but griped about having an English paper due.
The 42-year-old Browning, who's assumed a sort of mentoring role with the young star, says Chan's ability to flip the switch from goofy kid to super-serious skater is remarkable. One minute he'll be down in the bowels of the rink doing cartwheels and handstands and joking with passersby. Then he steps on the ice and the transformation is magical.
"You'll be talking to him backstage, and he's 18, he's a little bit nervous and he's joking and goofy," Browning said. "And then he steps on the ice and you go, 'Woah. . . That's the same kid I was talking to 40 minutes ago?' He's commanding the ice and has amazing presence and this big music, and he can carry it off. He's special, he really is."
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