For two years, Gabby Daleman has been treading the quaking edge of a bog, trying to find her way out of it, sliding back in. Two steps forward, three steps back.
Or is it three steps backward and one step forward, fortified by spirit alone? Always, no matter what happens, Daleman has no intention of singing small.
Tally up all of her moments in deep waters and it’s all like an overwhelming tidal wave. How does the girl, who will turn 22 this week, get out of bed?
The latest blow to her spirit is that she has developed pneumonia on the eve of the Canadian Tire National Skating Championships in Mississauga, which takes place Jan. 13 to 19. You could hear the congestion in her voice across the phone.
On paper she should win her third title. (She was part of the team that won Olympic gold in 2018, and was the 2017 world bronze medalist). But in the winds of what is actually happening with her, winning is not the thought foremost in her mind. (She was fifth last year at nationals after missing the entire Grand Prix season.)
“I don’t feel like there’s any pressure,” she said. “I’m just going to skate for me.” She has purposely put herself into a blind spot, a bubble. She’s not focusing on other skaters, on any of those Russian teenyboppers who land quad Lutzes as easily as breathing, on anything other than the path before her, one day at a time, even one session at a time.
“My goal is to show everyone how hard I’ve been working and after two awful years personally, physically and mentally,” she said, finally unbuttoning her soul, at least a bit. “My main goal is just to get out and skate and be happy and in love with the sport, and show everyone that I’m back and that I’m strong again and that even though I’ve been through the highest highs and the lowest lows, nothing can hold me back of break me.” (That’s the old Gabby we know talking!)
She says she’s feeling about 80 per cent of her best at the moment, even though three weeks ago, she began to feel sick. She saw doctors three times. They told her they thought she had a sinus infection and suggested antibiotics to treat it. But this past Wednesday, she returned, still suffering, and “as it turns out, I have pneumonia from not getting treated.”
She’s doing extra cardio in training to make up for it. “Everyone knows how I am with that,” she said. She’s been in this place before.
For many years, Daleman has been trying to fill pails with a teaspoon, hampered by injury and illness. She has always been one to jump high, to dazzle with her triple toe loop – triple toe loop combination, to knock socks off with her energy, to flourish from any underdog position.
But with Daleman, there has always been something.
Never mind the toll taken on her mental health by being bullied as a young child in school, with classmates pooh-poohing her ability to be a figure skater: too muscular, not attractive enough, the old destructive saws. She proved this to be not true. Still, the hurts stick.
At the 2015 Canadian championships, she competed with a strep throat, won the short program, finished second in the free, just losing the gold by 1.78 points to Alaine Chartrand.
The following year, she skated despite swelling in her right foot, due to arthritis and tendonitis. There was physio and all the rest. She finished second at those nationals in Halifax, then made it to the top 10 (ninth) at the world championships in Boston in 2016.
During the 2017-2018 season, she had to deal with abdominal cysts, which required surgery in May of 2017. And they came back early the next season. She had a virus infection during her first Grand Prix at Skate America, when she finished third in the short program – and then it all took its toll as she finished eighth in the free.
She competed at Cup of China with a kidney infection.
Daleman won the 2018 national title over Kaetlyn Osmond with stunning performances, considering – once again – she had pneumonia and a strep throat. All week, she skated like a bullet. However, when she went to the Pyeongchang Olympics, all came unraveled: after being seventh in the short program, she fell three times in the long, finished 19th in the free, and 15th overall. Kurt Browning threw her a kiss from the commentator’s stand.
At the world championships that followed in Milan, she finished sixth in the short program, then injured her ankle before the free skate.
During the 2018-2019 season, things got much, much worse. She fell and hit her head during practice at the U.S. International Classic, but didn’t report it. Then the blurring vision, anxiety, depression, severe headaches followed: she had a concussion, then skipped the entire Grand Prix season. When she competed at nationals in Saint John, N.B., her first competition in months, she didn’t speak to the media until after the event, so that she could manage her mental health. She described her skates there as “honestly crap.”
She did compete at the world championships in Saitama, Japan, just well enough to save Canada two spots for the world championships this March in Montreal. She finished in the top 12, a victory, considering everything.
Then at the World Team Trophy the next month, she collided with French skater Laurine Lecavalier, and finished 10th with many falls. In this fall, she had actually broken two ribs and suffered another concussion, which has hampered her season this year, too. It’s not something she talks about often, although she has been vocal about it online, referring to it as a “severe” concussion.
She describes the early part of this season as “a bumpy fall.” At the Finlandia Trophy, she struggled, having hurt an ankle only to find out later, she had torn ligaments. At Skate Canada in Kelowna, B.C., Daleman fell four times in the free. Afterward, while training, she tore two ligaments and partially tore another, and all of this stressed her Achilles tendon as well.
“I ended up in a boot for three weeks and was off the ice for a total of five,” she said. “Then I had to go back to just stroking for two weeks.”
She says she’s feeling better, injury-wise, but now there’s this pneumonia.
“I’m not letting anything stop me,” she said. “These health problems and injury problems have made me stronger, work harder mentally and do different exercises in the gym to work the muscles.”
She admits that all of her setbacks have frustrated her beyond belief. “I spent a few nights crying to my parents how frustrated I am about it,” she said. “But they just remind me to keep pushing and that I’m on the road to recovery, and I think long term.” Her coach, Lee Barkell, has kept her eye on the ball, telling her just to stay to the plan. Others have reminded her to look to the long view. The next Olympics is two years away. There is still time for her to blossom.
“The past few years have been absolute hell,” she said.
If she has any warm feelings about this event, it’s that the arena in Mississauga was also the site of her first senior national competition in 2013. She had been the junior champion the previous year, but in 2013, she burst onto the scene by finishing second to Kaetlyn Osmond at the Mississauga event, seven years ago.
So no, Daleman may be hobbled squaring circles these days, but she’s not defeated. For her free skate, she’ll be skating to Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” – appropriate in itself, hopefully – but it means even more.
Last May, her grandmother (mother of her father Michael Daleman) died suddenly “out of the blue,” Daleman said. She refers to her grandmother, Charlotte Anne Daleman, as her best friend.
“It’s All Coming Back to Me,” was her grandmother’s favourite song. Daleman used to sing it and play it on the piano for her.
While thinking about what to skate for in a year leading up to a world championship at home in Canada – in Montreal – Daleman thought it important to skate to Dion, who is from Montreal. “It’s kind of like, brownie points,” Daleman said.
She and her choreographer had been considering three different Dion tunes, but after her grandmother died, Daleman insisted on “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now.”
“This is the music we’re doing,” Daleman told Nichol. “There’s no argument about it. I’m dedicating it to my grandmother.
“It was such a special moment creating this program,” Daleman said. “It was emotional. We were crying, but we were having so much fun. It’s so powerful and I just absolutely love it.
“That program means the absolute world to me.”
It may just lift her from the gnarly roots.