Keegan Messing finally did it.
After nine seasons skating for Canada, Keegs won his first national title, doing it the hardest way possible: in a pandemic, with skates that didn’t arrive (at first), with his best friend suffering from COVID, with a trip from hell to get to the national skating championships in Ottawa.
Somehow, in front of rows of empty seats, Messing pulled it all together, winning the free program (173.65 points), the technical mark (83.09), the component mark (90.02), and the hearts of everybody who watched it virtually.
His final tally was 258.03 points, more than 10 points ahead of Roman Sadovsky, who rose from fourth after the short to take the silver medal. In the free, he was on Messing’s heels with a powerful, beautiful program that should have been accorded a standing ovation. The last time a men’s title had been won in Canada, he had done it just like this.
The surprise bronze medalist was 16-year-old Wesley Chiu, at his first senior men’s event, with a shockingly good free skate to Muse. The kid landed two quad toes, although the first one in combination was deemed slightly cheated. He singled an Axel, but to show Chiu’s mettle, he compensated by adding an unscheduled triple Lutz – Euler- triple Salchow at the end of his program. He bears watching in the future.
Messing’s win was bittersweet, he said, because his mother was not able to attend. She had come to all of his previous 18 national championships, the first bunch when he skated for the United States. Because of COVID, and restrictions at the rink, she could not come. And it was the first time ever he finished on top.
Messing, skating to “Home,” music that is close to his heart, landed a quad toe loop – double toe loo combo, before unleashing a quad toe, with a hand down. His performance was gritty. He pulled out jump landings that almost didn’t happen.
He’ll take little time off, but head home to Alaska to drill his programs into perfection. He said he had been training a quad Lutz, but it’s probably off the table. Before he came to nationals, he developed a “slight” injury to his right leg from trying too many of them. He no longer has any pain, but “I think we might have to take the quad Lutz with a grain of salt,” he said. “At this point, we’re just pushing for the best we can be.”
While Messing was flying high, his best friend, Nam Nguyen, was trying to recover from COVID. Nguyen brought back his Beatles medley program as a sort of goodbye to his fans as he planned this nationals to be his last, but he couldn’t deliver it the way he wanted.
Nguyen, said he contracted COVID last week, and “it was really tough to deal with,” he said. He first felt a sore throat, and wondered if it was the flu. It worsened a bit, and when he took a rapid antigen test, it registered negative.
“But three hours later, it just hit me hard,” said the two-time national champion, after finishing only eighth in the free and sixth overall. He decided to get another test, this time a PCR test. It showed positive.
“Oh this is not good,” Nguyen said.
He took five days off from the rink. “It just felt like my whole body was shaking from exhaustion and weakness, and I had chills all over,” he said. “I was coughing a lot, runny nose, congestion.
“It was definitely not a fun thing to deal with.”
He said he felt better last Sunday. On day five, on Monday, he had a second test, and it showed negative. On Tuesday morning, he had another test that was negative, so he went back to the rink.
“The first session was really scary because I felt dizzy after doing a double Axel,” he said.
But he was on a time crunchy to get to the national championships, so he kept going. He did two or three more sessions on Tuesday, feeling better every day, took another test on Wednesday (negative) and headed to Ottawa. Still he said, COVID has affected his lungs the most. ‘I feel that’s the worst kind of aftermath of getting COVID,” he said.
He sat dejectedly in the kiss and cry because he was sad at what he had produced in Ottawa. “I wanted to finish on a really high note,” he said. In December, he had been training well, going at it hard to get back to where he used to be.
Although he said at the beginning of the season that it would be his last, he said on Saturday that he was in a different mindset then than he is now. “A lot has happened from then to now,” he said. “So I’m not quite sure yet what my future holds. I really do not want to leave on such a bad note, like I’ve done this week. But we’ll see what happens. If I continue, I continue. If I don’t, I don’t.”
He said he was just happy to be in Ottawa.
Messing was also asked if this would be his last season, too. Although he doesn’t have time to think about it much now – his focus is elsewhere – he said that in the back of his mind he would like to do 20 national championships. That would mean he’d have to stay another year.
“There is a real possibility this could be my last,” he said. “But I’m starting to get a little older and depending on what happens in the rest of the season, everything is up in the air…I might have one more in me. We’ll leave it for another day to decide.”
If both Messing and Nguyen continue for another year, it will be a pleasant reunion. Messing feels badly about Nguyen’s illness. “He’s one of the best friends I ever had,” Messing said. “He’s really like a brother to me. We go through ups and downs like siblings and we joke. We’re really close and honestly, everything he’s going through with the pandemic, because the pandemic hit him harder than most and my heart goes out to him. I wish I could be there for him more than I have been.”
Beyond the drama of friends was Sadovsky, skating out of his skin, deciding to carry his disappointment about being fourth in the short program to the long, where he used it as energy to do what he did. And what he did was splendid, the highlight being a quad Salchow-Euler-triple Salchow, done to the music highlight.
“At the end of last night [after the short program],” I was on a mission to do a much better skate and just to prove that I am a better skater.”
Should Sadovsky make the Olympic team (announcement Sunday), it will only be fitting for him to make the team. Under new IOC rules, Sadovsky had to go to the Nebelhorn Trophy last fall to confirm Canada’s second spot. And he did.
Other bright moments: Joseph Phan, who has had a challenging season and no longer has quads in his arsenal, skated an almost clean program – and finished fourth, – for the third time. He skated last.
He doesn’t like skating last. “It’s my worst nightmare,” he said. Before he skated, he asked Messing if he had any tips on skating last. Messing didn’t; he said he hates skating last, too. So Phan said he dealt with it by pretending other skaters were still to come after him. It seemed to work. He skated to Beethoven and charmed … the crowd? At last virtually.
Perennial hopeful Stephen Gogolev didn’t make it to the arena. He trains in California, and tested negative before his journey to Ottawa. When he arrived in Ottawa, he was randomly selected for a PCR test – and tested positive. Provincial guidelines mandate that he must immediately isolate for a time. He never set foot in the TD arena.
Corey Circelli, in his second season as a senior, finished fourth in the free skate and fifth overall with a gorgeous routine to “The Nutcracker.” The 19-year-old attempted a quad, but landed it on two feet and was award a “q” or a slight cheat on it.
“This season, that’s the best I have done when all the marbles are on the table,” he said. “And it’s a big year, so that adds some spice.”
Circelli described the whole situation as a “surreal” moment. “I felt like I was living in a Youtube video,” he said.
Indeed, everyone was, during nationals week.