Keegan Messing got the call late Saturday night, hours after the men’s final at the National Skating Championships.
His coach, Ralph Burghart called him to tell him that yes, he was on Canada’s Olympic team and he’d better be ready to pack his bags for Pyeongchang next month.
Because it was so late, Messing, 25, could only mouth the words: “I’m going to the Olympics.”
“I couldn’t scream or yell or anything,” he said. “I couldn’t really do anything like jump up and down.”
After that, he barely slept. Maybe three hours. He’s burning through the gala today on adrenalin.
Today, he can say the words, but “It still feels foreign coming out of my mouth. At this point it’s a dream come true.
“I’m living the dream.”
As he told reporters yesterday: “I’m in hog heaven.” This while wearing his leather Stetson, something he sports all the time at home in Alaska. He’s a different kind of cat on this Olympic team, but a fast-footed, smooth-spinning, charismatic Charlie Chaplin/Gene Kelly sort of a guy. This guy can skate.
He finished the men’s event in second place behind Patrick Chan, and earned 259.25 points, only a point ahead of Nam Nguyen, who skated so splendidly that he doubled over in tears in mid-ice and rained them all the way to the kiss and cry and beyond. It was a tough loss, but hints that Nguyen is back.
Messing punctuated his routine by letting fly a back flip on his way out of the rink. “Honestly, when I was getting off the ice after the short program, I wanted to do a back flip,” he said. But no, he thought better of it and decided to do it after the long.
And then Elladj Balde did one after his free. And he skated just before Messing. They embraced as Balde exited the rink and Messing was about to step in.
“Well, I’ve got to do one now,” Messing said. And he did.
And guess what? They will be doing side-by-side back flips in the gala on Sunday. Choreographer Shae-Lynn Bourne was quick to use material that flashed before her eyes during the week.
Messing has been friends with Balde since Messing used to skate with the United States, mostly as a junior. “He’s a down-to-earth guy [so is Messing], and just a fantastic, great sportsman.
“Oh my gosh, he’s an amazing guy. I’m so proud of what he did [Saturday. – Balde finished fourth overall, despite having to overcome a serious concussion].”
Messing says he never watches another skater skate. But he watched Balde. “His performance helped my nerves just go away,” Messing said. “And I was able to just go out there and perform like a show. I’m excited. I can’t talk. It’s so cool.”
Making the Olympic team means everything to Messing. He’ll turn 26 in nine days. He’s been skating for 23 years. He’s had the same coach, skating in isolation in Alaska, for 20 years.
It takes him eons to fly anywhere out of there to compete. He broke in a new pair of boots recently, and says they’re just starting to feel comfortable after five weeks. It takes longer for boots to break in while in a cold rink.
Making the Olympic team recalls “every day of hard work I pushed through,”Messing said. “I took every hard fall and got up and kept pushing my body.”
.And with the help of Balde’s free-wheeling performance, and after his first quad, “something sparked in me,” Messing said. “And I fought for every step and position.
“I don’t think I’ve fought this hard for a long program in my life.”
Messing will accompany 16 other Canadians heading to Pyeongchang. He’s considered a rookie, having never been to a Games. He’s one of only five rookies on the team. The rest are all seasoned Olympic veterans, some more seasoned than others.
There will be a tide of retirements after this Olympics, but Messing won’t be one of them. He said this week that he does not know if he will go to another Olympics, but he will stick around for at least another two – until the world championships in Montreal. He’s just starting to roll, late in his career.
“It’s going to be a real change of the guard,” said Skate Canada high performance director Michael Slipchuk. “We haven’t had times like this since I can remember. We will see a wholesale change in all disciplines.”
Canada won’t be alone in going through this evolution, this loss of veterans. It will be a world-wide phenomenon.
It will be time, said Slipchuk, for the next generation to step up. Canada may find itself doing through more of a medal drought than it has for years, but there is development behind it all.
Nguyen signaled a return to the year – four years ago – when he finished fifth in a world as a young teenager. Joseph Pfan, only 16, finished fifth in the free and sixth overall at nationals. He has a quad and has been a consistent skater this year, landing jump after jump at both Challenge and the national championships. And of course, there is 13-year-old Stephen Gogolev, who landed a quadruple Salchow-triple toe loop in his first year as a senior – and attempted a quad Lutz.
In pairs, two of the three teams who made the Olympic team are young skaters who will stick around for another quadrennial. Ice dance still has Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier, who took the silver medal this year, a fraction ahead of Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje. (Weaver and Poje have no idea if they will stay or continue.) And fourth-placed Carolane Soucisse and Shane Firus have stepped things up a notch and show a lot of promise.
“Are we going to have people on the podium right away?” Slipchuk mused. “No. But we feel as we build for the next four years that we will have a good base of building back up.”
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The Olympics is next up. And Meagan Duhamel says Canada is going hard for a team gold medal., after just missing the first one in Sochi.