What a night. Keegan Messing finished third in the men’s short program at Skate America. But he won much more than a placing.
About a month ago, his younger brother, Paxon, a father of three little ones, was killed in a motorcycle accident in Alaska. I heard the news by text in the waiting room of Pearson airport in Toronto, as I awaited a flight to Scotland. I had to swallow that news, hard.
Messing, the skater, had an early Grand Prix assignment at Skate America in Las Vegas this weekend. And he showed up. With a smile, as usual. Ready to go, somehow.
“Just being on the ice the last few weeks has been one of the hardest things I’ve had to do,” he said afterwards. “This was a very hard skate to come to.”
He skated to Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect,” the music he used as his first dance at his wedding during the summer in Alaska. He said that for the first time, he felt like he was not skating alone when he used this music for his skate. He felt it had the potential to bring tears. And he was not just talking about the audience. He was talking about himself. But when it came time to perform it at a Grand Prix event for the first time, it drew tears for various reasons.
So out went Messing, skating right after the wildly successful world champion Nathan Chen. He took a deep breath, and then laid out a program that earned him 96.34 points: tossing off a quadruple toe loop-triple toe loop that earned him 2.58 bonus points, a ripping triple Axel (+2.06), a triple Lutz (+2.11) and then those spins.
When he finished, he held back tears, and raised his finger to the sky. The crowd roared.
“Just putting this out in the universe,” tweeted Canadian Olympic bronze pair medalist Meagan Duhamel. “Keegan Messing is my new hero.”
Messing is only .23 points away from second place, held by Russian Dmitri Aliev and 6.37 points behind the leading Chen.
Chen is a giant among giants, having won the most recent world title by 22.45 points over Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu. And last night was his debut party (He skated only the long program at Japan Open.)
Skate America is the first of six Grand Prix events. The top six point earners in each discipline advance to a final in December.
Despite the fact that Chen is in his second year at Yale, finding the courses more difficult and intense, and training thousands of miles away from his coach Rafael Arutunian, the 20-year-old American continues to amaze.
Just as he stood in position to start, an unruly curl sprang loose and dangled over his forehead. No worries. Dressed in a black vest, with a proper red pocket hankie, Chen became French, skating to La Boheme, as performed by Charles Aznavour, France’s most popular and enduring of singers, dubbed by some as France’s Frank Sinatra, with 180 million records sold.
We love this: Jean Cocteau once said: “Before Aznavour, despair was unpopular.” He died about a year ago at age 94, his last concert a few weeks before that.
So with all of this in his pocket, Chen showed a new side to his skating. Intrepid to the max, Chen landed a quad Lutz, squeaking it out, then his least favourite jump, the triple Axel, actually getting 2.40 bonus. The points poured in for his quad toe loop – triple toe loop. He left some points on the table with difficult levels of two and three for two final spins (level four being most difficult) – so there is room to grow. A standing ovation followed. And for an early event, he broke 100 points, with officials awarding him 102.71.
Sitting fourth with 83.45 points after singling a triple Axel is American Jason Brown, with heavenly spins. During his final change combo spin, he sunk into a low position, those rose again, all while continuing to rotate. A thing of beauty.
Dmitri Aliev was most impressive in the quad category. He landed an easy quad Lutz – triple toe loop with a swish, getting 3.29 bonus points on top of the 15.70 points that combo is worth. Many quads died on the ice at this event, but it’s early in the season.
As for Messing, he has a tougher road ahead tomorrow in the free skate.
“This is definitely the easier of the two programs, mainly because I can focus on my wife for this one,” he said. “I feel like the real test is going to be in the free skate.
“I’m going to focus on a support group I have around me and try to skate how I want to skate,” he said. In the audience was his wife, Lane, seeing the “Perfect” program competed at an event for the first time. His parents were there too, as well as some friends. And of course, there was long-time coach Ralph Burghart, who embraced Messing as he came off the ice as the crowd gave him a standing ovation.
“Keegs,” tweeted Kirsten Moore-Towers. And we all know what she meant.