Were we dreaming?
Was it a mirage: the vision of young men classified as juniors sliding down the ice to impress?
It all happened last weekend at the Skate Canada Challenge, an event with no venue, no spectators, no judges, no skaters, except by way of online streaming, firmly in the virtual world. They skated in the dark, without knowing who had won the short program before they skated the long. They delivered the best they could, considering that they hadn’t competed in as major event in a year, with some losing ice time for months, others relegated to outside rinks, none of them coming up to the starting line at the same stage of readiness.
They competed although they weren’t anywhere. But they were everywhere, across the country.
And the darndest thing: the final groups of junior men in the free skate delivered the most consistent programs of all events last weekend. They are a fascinating bunch, and too bad we have seen little of them before now.
Rio Morita, 16, let fly. He tackled jazz, impressive for a youngster, and carried it off. Skating to Peter Gunn, from the very best of the very best, Dave Grusin, pianist, arranger, producer, composer, Morita was brilliant. He went for the triple Axel, his mountain-top element at the moment. You name it: he got level four on three spins, rattled off a triple Lutz – triple toe loop, a triple flip, a triple Lutz, a triple flip-Euler- double Salchow, a triple loop-double toe loop, a triple Salchow, and a step sequence that got level four. Mission absolutely accomplished. That’s how you win.
It was a triumph for Morita, who had slogged through last season, when he finished 13th among junior men, after being fifth in novice men the year before. At last year’s event, he finished 15th in the short program and 13th in the free.
He was always tiny, but last season, he had a growth spurt, shooting up five or six inches, according to Toronto Cricket, Skating and Curling Club coach Ernest Pryhitka.
“Last year was a rocky road for him,” Pryhitka said. “He had a huge growth spurt, and his back was sore. He got through that…Everything is stabilized now and he’s doing a lot of training off-ice and it’s all worked out.”
Tracy Wilson, also listed as a coach, said Morita has learned how to handle the growth. But his year last season was a wild scramble to keep up with it. Team Cricket had to keep sending costumes back and getting new ones, several times within a few months. “He had outgrown the pants, and they ordered new ones,” she said. “And by Canadians, we had to redo it again. We couldn’t keep him in a costume.”
Morita has spent a lot of time working with Pryhitka, a talented developer of young skaters who has an eye for talent. “I’ve always 100 per cent believed in his ability,” Pryhitka said. He’s the supportive, patient type. Fortunately, Morita’s parents were supportive too. They remained unruffled as their youngest son showed a lot of dismal results.
“When he came to the club, he went through a time where he had difficulty rotating jumps,” Wilson said. “And that was really, really hard. And he was able to get over that.
“He did a lot of work on skating skills. He had done a lot of work, and last year, it was just was one of those years when he wasn’t getting the results. You can only say: “Stick with it,” because it’s there. It doesn’t all come at once. He really worked on the spins and all the quality stuff.”
It showed last weekend, finally.
This season, Morita didn’t have a lot of competitions that he could use to iron out the kinks, Pryhitka said. “I was really pleased with him at our sectionals , because he did three [triple Axels] on practice, both short and long. And he did one in the six-minute warmup and le landed both in the short and the long. It was clean in the long program.
He was one of only two junior men who attempted a triple Axel in the short program at Challenge, but didn’t get full points for it. It’s still a relatively new element for him.
Last year Morita tried triple Axels at competitions, but “they weren’t quite there,” Pryhitka said. “They were in development.
“Now he has a quad Salchow that is kind of in the same place in development. It’s very close, a little underrortated but it’s nice and straight and he stands up on a lot of them. We’ll keep pushing what we need. We know what in the world we need.”
Fortunately for Morita, he trains at a club with a lot of elite skaters, and sees them doing difficult jumps every day. And he learns: “it’s not whether I can. It’s I have to. I have to find a way. And I can do them and it’s not that hard,” Pryhitka said.
Morita was born in Canada to parents who were born in Japan. He has a brother and sister who do not skate, but he’s far younger than both of them. “He gets so much support,” Pryhitka said.
Wilson, who is in Las Vegas with Jason Brown at the US figure skating championships up coming this weekend, said Morita is “the coolest kid.
“He’s like this wise old soul,” she said. “He’s got this calm cool and he’s wise. I talk to him pretty much like he’s an adult. If you’re going to problem solve, ‘well, what do you think? What do you do here?’ He’s right on. He has a good sense of it.”
And he works hard. He’s a nose-to-the-grindstone kind of guy. Diligent. “He’s really worked at figuring it out,” Wilson said. And that’s what Wilson and Pryhitka intend for him: They help him take the lead. “You don’t have to fill his head with a lot of things,” Wilson said. “Then it just gets cluttered. And he’s got a very supportive family. They were obviously patient with him last year and this year, we can see what he is capable of.”
Most fascinating: although Wilson hasn’t done a lot of choreography, she worked with Morita on a program for a club show at one point. If Wilson knows choreography, it’s from the ice dance world.
“I was actually startled at how musical he is,” she said. “It’s real genuine. He could take little steps. I’d say something like this and he could do it and make it work. And he knew exactly in terms of getting it on the music, the intricacies of the rhythm and syncopation.”
David Wilson choreographed both of his programs. They, too, have a great relationship. And Wilson was pleased that Morita followed his choreography: it’s so tempting in the heat of the competitive moment to focus on the technical aspects, forgetting the design of it all, especially for a young skater.
His future? “I’ve had a long history with international kids,” Pryhitka said. “And I always believe in him.
“He’s fearless so he’s willing to go out there and try the quads. That’s a big thing for a lot of skaters, that they are not afraid. He has very nice air position, he rotates quickly, with a good axis, all stretched up. Everything is organized,” he said.
Pryhitka said Morita still has to develop the component side of his skating. But he has focus and commitment to the sport.
Morita won the junior men’s Challenge event decidedly, with 186.95 points, 7.30 points ahead of red-headed Albertan Matthew Newnham, who was third in both the short and the long. Newnham finished only .35 points overall ahead of the intrepid Wesley Chiu, 15.
Newnham skated ambitiously to the very serious opera “Tosca,” and if any 17-year-old could carry off “Tosca,” it would be Newnham. Tall, with sweeping arms, and beautiful balance moves, he was a picture, skating in front of windows that let the light fall on all the drama. Newnham, coached by Ravi Walia, earned the highest component mark at 65.66 points for the free. It was another masterpiece by choreographer Lance Vipond.
Chiu, trained by Keegan and Eileen Murphy in British Columbia, was the silver medalist in junior men last year.
Chiu dropped to fifth after mistakes in the short program, but he thundered back in the free. He was the only skater to attempt a quad, but he fell on an underrotated quad Salchow. He and Morita were the only skaters to attempt a triple Axel, too. Chiu, out on the Junior Grand Prix circuit last year, saw what the young men from other countries were doing and marvelled. Within a week, he had mastered the triple Axel. However, last weekend, he fell trying it in the free.
But there was plenty of other technical content. He did land a triple toe loop – triple toe loop, a triple flip – double toe loop, a double Axel-Euler-triple Salchow and a triple Lutz. He nailed level fours on a couple of spins and a step sequence, skating to “I Belong to You” by Muse. Chiu finished second in the free.
Shohei Law, 15, who trains with Joanne McLeod in British Columbia, finished second in the short program and fifth in the free to be fourth overall. But he was unforgettable, skating to a mature theme, the music of “Cabaret,” a program choreographed by Mark Pillay.
Law was mesmerizing in a black suit and white gloves that took the spectator on an interesting journey. He fell twice, obviously having an argument with his triple toe loops. But he did land a triple Lutz – double toe loop, a triple loop, a triple flip, a triple Salchow and earned level fours on two of his spins.
Tim Pomares, who came to the sport late, starting at age nine, finished seventh in the short program and fourth in the free, to finish fifth overall. He lost no time jumping from novice men last year (7th) to junior this year. Pomares, 18, from Okotoks, Alta., choreographed his own programs and although he made an array of little mistakes, showed quality skating to “February.” He did a triple Lutz – triple toe loop combination, with his arms raised in the air on both jumps. All three spins earned level fours from the judges.
Alex Guinzbourg, 16, from Aurora, Ont., was the novice men’s champion in 2018, and third in junior last year, while finishing second in the free.
But this year, having grown a lot, the normally consistent skater couldn’t find his feet, and ended up sixth overall, after being sixth in the short and seventh in the long. Skating to a grand piece by Mendelssohn, Guinzbourg flipped out of a triple Lutz, and fell on a triple flip. He’ll be back to fight another day.
And we can’t forget little Brandon Wong, seventh overall, after being fourth in the short program, but experiencing a fall and a time violation that proved costly, losing him a couple of places. The 14-year-old raced out wearing a shirt with Jungle Book characters on it, and skated to a Jungle Book tune: “I Wanna be Just Like You.” With his purple gloves punctuating his choreography (done by Mark Pillay), Wong was entertaining to say the least.
He was the novice bronze medalist last year and this is his first year in junior.
Unfortunately the season for all these spunky characters ended at Challenge. A couple of days later, Skate Canada was forced to cancel the national championships, to be held in Vancouver next month. It would have meant that 88 per cent of the competitors would have had to jump on a plane and fly to the west coast at a time when lockdowns due to the pandemic were the rule. Safety ruled.
As for Morita, he’s already set that aside, and is looking at music choices for next season. There is always hope.
All of the photos used in this story are from last season, before growth spurts happened. We will not see them again until next year, when there could well be more growth spurts.
So for a moment, we had a fleeting glimpse of these young stars as they are now. And then they were gone. We must have been dreaming.