Corey Circelli isn’t the norm. He’s a junior skater who stands 6-foot-1 in his socks. And he seems to be an overachiever, energetic enough to compete in both dance and men’s singles at high levels.
Throw all of that into the mix with a bum knee, and it’s astonishing that the 17-year-old skater was able to win two medals this week at the Canadian Tire National Skating Championships at the Paramount Fine Foods Centre in Mississauga, Ont.
Circelli and his dance partner, Olivia McIsaac, won the bronze medal at junior dance on Tuesday. And Wednesday, he won the gold medal in junior men’s singles. It took him three shots to win that gold: he was second two years ago, and third last year.
And he did it all with a torn meniscus in his right knee.
Everything was going swimmingly for Circelli this season until just after Christmas, during a normal practice day, he felt “a bit of a tingle” in his knee. For 20 minutes, he and his choreographer were fiddling with the choreography of his long program to add a bit more flair and a few more transitions. He kept repeating the same strange positions over and over when the tingling began.
He finished his task, went home, had a bath, then suddenly discovered that he couldn’t walk. He couldn’t go downstairs.
Concerned, especially with the Canadian championships only a couple of weeks away, Circelli headed to his sports medicine doctor the next day. She said nothing to calm his nerves. “That seems a little alarming,” she said.
He had an MRI, which showed a tear in his right meniscus, which is a piece of cartilage that provides a cushion between the thighbone and the shinbone. A knee has two menisci. One of Circelli’s just wasn’t working.
What to do? He braced his right knee up with a lot of tape, took Tylenol and Advil. He has been able to train for only four days leading up to nationals. He altered his programs to make sure that he could do whatever he needed to do without having to train more than four times.
The injury most affected his training time. He could skate for only 20 to 25 minutes a day. Then he got off the ice, pronto. “Fitting everything into the session was really challenging,” he said.
Brian Orser and Tracy Wilson, directors of the Toronto Cricket Skating and Curling Club where Circelli trains, set up a thorough plan of what he needed to do each session.
He had planned to do triple Axels in both his short and long programs in men’s singles. But he just didn’t have time to fit training for it into the plan, considering that it would take five minutes to warm up for it, do the program and then repeat other things and sections. “And I didn’t want to risk compensating for the jump, to not hurt my knee,” he said. He played the numbers to see where he could make up the points for the lack of the big-point Axel.
He got level fours (highest difficulty) on all of his spins and steps. Although Alec Guinzbourg earned higher technical points, Circelli won the free skate on the component marks. Guinzbourg finished second in the long program and third overall. Interestingly enough, Guinzbourg had missed the qualifying Challenge event because of a medical issue, but because there were not a full complement of 18 skaters in the junior men’s event, Guinzbourg became the 15th skater. And he was delightful.
Circelli said that he learned that to win, “the cleaner the better, the crisper,” he said. “Sometimes it’s not going for the most crazy thing, but doing what I could do in this moment, the best I could do.”
Circelli won the junior men’s event with 203.13 points, a healthy 4.69 points ahead of tiny Wesley Chiu, only 14, who did two triple Axels in his free skate, but lost points on a spin, had an underrotated jump (triple Lutz) on which he fell, and a few other errors that just ate away the lead he had created after the short program. Chiu was fourth in the free skate, and took the silver medal.
Circelli won a hotly contested event over a final group that sparkled. Gabriel Blumenthal, an 18-year-old that trains with Joanne McLeod in Burnaby, B.C., earned a standing ovation for a decidedly classical routine: Les Patineurs, a ballet composed by Johannes Meyerbeer, played by the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Blumenthal, rather Emmanuel Sandhu-esque or perhaps more Toller Cranston-esque, in this routine, scored 124.04 points, the best long-program score in his life, enough to place his third in the free and fourth overall.
And although Matthew Newnham finished sixth in the free with a couple of falls, the redhead from the school of Ravi Walia skated to Fred Astaire, in tails no less, with choreography by Lance Vipond. Worth a replay. He was fifth overall.
But Circelli ruled in the artistic department He chose to skate to Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” because it was music close to his heart. A year ago, he decided to teach himself to play the piano. After all, his uncle used to play piano at La Scala in Milan. He visited Toronto one summer and Circelli was inspired.
A year ago, Circelli taught himself to play the opening chords of the “Moonlight Sonata.”
“It was such an empowering kind of song,” he said.
He offered up the music to choreographer David Wilson, who was all for it for the free dance. “He didn’t even want to hear anything else,” Circelli said. Besides, Wilson wanted to do something classical to take advantage of Circelli’s height and long lines.
Circelli plays the piano by ear. He tried to learn the keys, one hand at a time. Scales are a little challenging for him. But there are so many Youtubes about to help. “Sometimes if a song is really catchy, I’ll try to play it,” he said. He’s been watching the Oscar-nominated movies, and saw one of the movies last week when he couldn’t’ skate. “I was trying to keep my brain occupied,” he said. Next thing, he was trying to learn “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
“It’s so much fun,” he said.
A big question he will have to face: can he continue to do both dance and men’s singles? “It’s been difficult,” he admits. “More mentally, but also physically. I find myself more injured and hurt throughout the year and more physically fatigued. So yeah, I guess there’s a reason you don’t really see it done a lot.”
He said the injuries come from both disciplines, although one would think men’s singles more dangerous, especially if you take a nasty fall on a jump. “But most of the time, it’s little things that creep in and then you wake up the next morning and you go: ‘it hurts,’” he said.
As for the knee, he doesn’t think he will need to have surgery on it: he’s fortunate in that he gets a long break before another event. He plans to rest, for now.