Finally, they got Keegan Messing, a 24-year-old high-flying, quad-jumping, tousle-headed guy from Alaska, who is just not like anybody else at all. At all.
Messing has been skating to Pink Panther for a couple of years now. I can’t explain how it fits, but it does. And what he did with The Pink (actually it’s a renewed version) in the crowded TD Place at the Canadian figure skating championships on Saturday defies description.
Surely the Canadian fans had seen nothing like it. As soon as he finished this memo to silliness, the crowd jumped to foot, cheering noisily. It was the loudest standing ovation of the week, all this for an American-turned Canadian who stands 5-foot-4.
He’s been skating for Canada for a few years now, but for the first time, Canada took notice.
How did it feel to finally be warmed by the embrace of the storied Canadian crowd? “It feels pretty danged awesome,” he said. And that’s the nut of Messing, not all chrome and glitter. He’s very real. Around the rink, he wears a black cowpoke hat.
“I really felt like I gave 110 per cent,” he said after he sped about the rink, springing up into quads and triple Axels with no warning and seemingly no preparation.
“The reason I say above 100 per cent is that I actually threw different choreography moves inside that program that I’ve never done before,” he said proudly, the flush of excitement sitting on his brow.
He did it because of a symbiotic meeting of minds, forged in a few instants. “The crowd was giving it back to me,” he said. “They were fuelling me and I was fuelling them. It was, I have to say, the best performance I have ever given. Not the strongest skate, but it definitely was the best performance I have ever given.”
At one point, Messing skidded onto his behind after a triple flip near the end of his routine. But he brushed the ice off his boots with a thought, got up, shrugged and continued. A large section of the crowd burst into loud laughter.
“I could see their faces when I fell,” he said. “I came up and their faces were kind of down. They were disappointed. I came up and smiled. I looked at them, and their faces lit right back up. And the support was there and it was a fantastic feeling.”
He knew he had the crowd by the quadruple toe loop, the first jump in his routine, one that earned him a mass of +2s and a couple of +3s. He learned something from Alberta choreographer Lance Vipond (the architect of Kaetlyn Osmond’s stunning short program to Edith Piaf), who revamped the centre portion of his Pink Panther routine and made it shiny new.
Vipond told him he had to capture the crowd early in a routine. The earlier the better. As soon as the music starts. He had only 20 seconds from the start of his routine to the quad toe loop. And that’s when he laid the groundwork.
“Going into it, I have to be pretty out, like from the heart, with the same amount of effort that I put into a quad,” he said. “And it really seemed like the audience fed off of it and it was great.”
Messing has never been so ready for these moments although he trains by himself with Austrian-born coach Ralph Burghart, a tall slender reed of a man with tousle hair, too, down his shoulders, a rock-band look.
“My practices coming into this, this whole year have been building to this point,” Messing said. Because he trains alone, his practices have an up and down swing, good one day, not so good another time. But this year, he’s dug in, able to keep competitive fires burning in the north. “I came here feeling ready,” he said.
He wasn’t so pleased about his short program, in which he finished eighth with a couple of falls. It was a rough go. When he hit the ice for the long, he could see that the crowd had looked past his earlier miscues and appreciated the performance. “That was amazing,” he said. He finished fifth overall, good enough to make the national team.
Messing lives in a world far removed from skyscrapers and bistros. It has made him what he is. He jokes that he has a secret compartment in his knees with hidden springs and that’s what gives him that quick lift into big jumps.
But really, it’s the athletic side of his youth that perhaps led him to this. No figure skater on the planet has ever prepared for a career in the sport like this guy. “We have an 18-foot wing set in our backyard with ropes and swing sets on,” he said.
“We have a 20-foot climbing tree . We took all the branches off and then we drilled holes into it.”
He and his brothers would swing their way up the tree, using pegs planted into the holes. The rule was: you can’t use your feet to make the climb.
“When kids my age were using the monkey bars, me and my brothers were on top of the monkey bar, walking on top of it and giving our parents heart attacks,” he recalled.
“My babysitter always made us wear helmets when she watched us,” he said.
“Get your bike helmets on. NOW!” she’d say.
This would take place on the swing, made of angle irons and a beam across the top. The beam had a swing and a rope that one could put ones foot in, through something that looked like a fishing buoy. There was a platform up there, where they could do backflips. Helmets indeed!
Whatever it all taught him, it is made him entirely likeable. Moments after his rousing free, he peered at a TV set, watching the next contender, cheering him on. The skater was attempting a quad Salchow, could have defeated Messing in fact.
“Come on, you’ve got this,” he said to the tiny figure on the screen.
“We all train too hard,” he said. “I really wish the best for everyone. It’s too hard to wish ill on anyone.”