In the grey of winter, and the stillness of days, Corey Circelli was on watch: for his costumes.
They didn’t come in time for the videotaping of his routines for the Skate Canada Challenge. They were to be the icing on the cake of all he had done during a pandemic.
In fact, they arrived three days later, the delivery bogged down by online shopping and the advent of Christmas. No worries. Circelli wore the same costume for both his short and long programs: plain, unadorned simple black. Not a furbelow or a sequin to be seen.
“When you take away the glitz and glamour of it, there is nothing more,” Circelli said. “You just have to go for it.”
Circelli, himself, was all the sparkle needed. He would have been happy to have made it into the top five in the senior men’s event at Challlenge. After all, he was last year’s junior champion and making his first step up to seniors. It’s a big step. But it was a pleasant surprise when he finished fourth in the short program.
But even more so, when he finished third in the free and third overall, ahead of his more seasoned clubmates, Joseph Pfan, and Conrad Orzel, both of whom have an array of quads.
Circelli did not even do a triple Axel last year when he won juniors. He had duct-taped himself together, in a manner of words, after suffering a knee injury just before nationals. His win, under the circumstances, was epic.
So was this effort. “I wasn’t really expecting a medal,” Circelli, 18, said later. “I knew when I finished, I was like, wow, I did it all. I put everything out that I was planning, so I felt like I was going to have a nice score.”
But he said it was a “complete shock” to come third.
Pfan and Orzel allowed that to happen by making mistakes. Circelli skated clean. He let his classic programs unfold like flowers, and with patience and beautiful lines, let every element fly, as it should.
Circelli’s first task after nationals last year was to get his body healed and to treat it like the temple it is. “Last year I felt a little immature about that,” he said. “Maybe I won’t go to physio this week. I feel fine. Maybe I don’t need to do that extra stretching. Maybe I don’t need to do self care.
“This year, I was like: ‘This is not going to happen.’”
During the first lockdown, when Circelli was sequestered at home, like everybody else, he was not idle. He planned for a season in which he did not have to stop because of injuries, and a season where maximum effort would provide results.
Fortunately , Circelli had a gym setup in his basement, and a nice big backyard with flat ground so that he could do off-ice jumps. Coaches Brian Orser, Paige Aistrop, and Oula Jaaskelainen, a former Finnish competitor, all at the Toronto Cricket Skating and Curling Club, staged off-ice classes three times a week. “I really just did my day like I was in training,” Circelli said. He convinced himself he was skating, although he was not.
Also as luck would have it, David Wilson choreographed both of Circelli’s programs in the two weeks before the world figure skating championships in Montreal were cancelled. Wilson had some time; Circelli’s junior season was finished. He had been at home for a month repairing his knee, then he switched to a pair of Jackson boots, which to him, has been “life changing,” he said. And off they went together, creating, unaware a pandemic was in the offing.
Wilson and Circelli had no real deadlines to finish the choreography, which gave them freedom. “We had these long hours together,” said Circelli, who has worked with Wilson since he was 10. “It was the most fun,” he said. “Every year I get excited.”
Both programs were based on Circelli’s own ideas. He has an Italian background, so he thought it would be “super sweet” to do something for his family. He loves singer Andrea Bocelli, and fell in love with one of his songs: “Io Ci Saro,” which translated means: “I Will Be There.”
“Every time you hear a piano, you’ll remember,” the song goes. “If you will suffer/I will find myself beside you.”
The minute that his junior career and season were over, Circelli knew this music was it. “Choreographing it was super fun,” he said.
For his free, he turned to Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker” ballet. Circelli loves ballet. You can see it in his classic lines when he skates. You can see it in his opening pose, before he even moves. “I am obsessed,” he said. “I think it is the hardest performance art, so fascinating and mesmerizing and I will take as many classes as possible.”
Before the lockdown he was taking drop-in classes at the National Ballet of Canada on Friday nights, and felt he needed to do this piece. He already had an idea of what the program was going to look like. David Wilson was on board. Orser and Tracy Wilson liked the idea of Circelli doing a ballet piece because it’s good to play to one’s strengths. “You have the long ballet legs,” they told him. “You may as well use them.”
When the skaters were able to return to the Cricket Club, Orser made them all take things slow for the first couple of weeks. “At the moment, you feel like, oh my god, I want to do it all,” Circelli said. “In hindsight, thank god he did that.” Overdoing it after months away can open a skater up to injury.
When the Cricket club reopened, it did so without all of the international skaters, except for American Jason Brown. But it was good for Circelli: he got to spend so much more time working with Orser every day. And they set out to try new things and to push for more.
For one thing, he has added that triple Axel, but he does it with a difficult entry, out of a spread eagle. He did it in both programs flawlessly. “I feel quite confident with it,” he said. “I find that the jumps that you work on, that are the hardest, end up being your best in a way. The ones you work the hardest, that have the ups and downs with them, feel the most satisfying to me.”
Just before Skate Canada taped the short program on Dec. 12, Circelli was doing quad toe loops, too. He started landing them in November, and was planning to put the jump into the free skate for nationals in February. It was to be the opening element of the long program. “We were just starting to train that together with the long program, the quad toe and the triple Axel,” he said.
He did not do it at Challenge, but there is obviously a spot for it – in place of the triple toe loop he did early in the Nutcracker routine.
When the national championships were cancelled, that gave Circelli more time to work on other quads, too. He said he’s always trained the quad Lutz, with his arms above his head. “To me, it’s one of the more fun ones to try,” he said. He has yet to land it cleanly, but he says it feels comfortable.
“I wouldn’t say it’s perfectly consistent quite yet, but I’m excited to have more time to get that consistency up and make it like the other jumps for next season,” he said.
He has also been dipping his toe in the waters with a quad loop.
The Salchow has never been his favourite jump, but Orser has worked to change the entrance to it and change his technique. Circelli does the triple Salchow with both arms above his head – he did so in his free program at Challenge, perfectly – and he finds that lifting his arms above his head actually gives him lift on the jump. “It’s kind of turned a jump that I’m not so much into, into being, wait a second, is this going to work right now?” Circelli said. And it does.
Being able to land multiple quads at a practice would be a personal victory, he said. “Given the time, I see no reason why I can’t get that,” he said.
Next on his table for next season is still to compete at the Junior Grand Prix level. He won’t compete again until that season starts (In a normal year, that would be late summer. But we aren’t living in normal times.)
Fortunately, he has a late-in-the-season birthday, so he still has two seasons of eligibility. He is keeping both programs next year – hurray for us to be able to see them again – wanting familiar territory when he adds new elements. But he’ll also have to adjust them to junior level specifications. The spins will be different. The program will be shorter by 30 seconds. The jumps will switch around.
This will keep him occupied and give him a goal. The hardest thing he will have to let go of when changing his routine for the junior world is giving up the choreographic sequence that is a senior feature. “It became the thing I cherished in every program,” he said. “The spread eagles that change edge, and the spiral at the end, like ballet hop. Every time I did it, I didn’t care if I was tired. [He told himself], you are so going to sell this bit, because it just made me feel so like I finished the program perfectly.” (He did.)
He’d like to find a way to work them in anyway.
Hopefully next year, he’d like to offer up the long program with two triple Axels and a quad toe loop. “It’s something I’m pretty set on,” he said.
He says he’s lucky that the Ontario government allowed the Cricket Club to remain open for high performance. He knows so many skaters, even at top levels, who struggle to find ice. “Every day I feel fortunate,” he said. He lives a short walk to the rink. He’s been able to stay in a tiny bubble of people, at home and his little world at the rink where only 10 people, including coaches are allowed.
It has all worked for Circelli. Right now, the world is his pearl.