Keegan Messing lived the best of times and the worst of times, all within a couple of months; married in a charming Alaska-style wedding in August, then stunned by the loss of his younger brother, Paxon, in a motorcycle accident in September.
Life seemed to stop. In his heart, you could hear a moth pass.
“It’s been a very eventful year,” he said Thursday, on the eve of competing at the Canadian Tire National Skating Championships in Mississauga, Ont. “with the highest highs of my life and probably the lowest of the lows.”
The fact that he is in Mississauga this week at all is tribute to how well he has muddled his way through grief, step by step, harboured by friends and family.
“The biggest decision of the year was whether to skate the Grand Prix season this year or not,” he said. “That decision to skate honestly fell with what my little brother would have thought.”
Messing explained that Paxon was one of the best snowboarders he ever knew, a U.S. gold medalist in the giant slalom and bronze medalist in the open class, too. “So he knew what it meant to train to compete,” Messing said.
After Paxon won his national medal, the United States dropped the program, leaving Paxon adrift in his dream to make it to the Olympics. It was a dream that was never really spoken, but it lived in his heart all the time. And Keegan knew it.
So skating didn’t entirely belong to Keegan, he reasoned. Paxon lived vicariously through Keegan’s success. And Keegan did make it to the Olympics in 2018.
Had Keegan decided to cancel his Grand Prix season, it would not have gone well with the spirit of Paxon. “He would have come back down and beat me up for having him responsible for an early retirement or a loss of a competition,” Keegan said. “There was no way.”
So Messing resolved to go to Skate America the following month, and then off to Cup of China. Not that it was an easy ride. Not at all.
In Las Vegas, he delivered an amazing short program, earning 96.34 points, finishing third to Nathan Chen.
But he couldn’t hold it together for the long program, finishing eighth. He blames it on being unprepared in his training. For one thing, coach Ralph Burghart left for U.S. regionals with skaters in the Alaska rink three days after Messing’s brother died.
“So I had Tuesday through Friday alone on the ice with all the skaters gone to competition,” Messing said. He had gone to the ice the day after his brother died because he just didn’t know what else to do.
He wasn’t seeking solace in his sport. Actually, the effect was the opposite. He was haunted by the question of why he was still skating at all – especially when he took count of the grand scheme of things.
Enter Piper Gilles, whose mother, Bonnie, died of a brain tumour in May of 2018. Gilles had had to deal with her own grief. “Piper was one of the biggest helps in that time,” Messing said. “She had the experience of working through loss.
“She gave me some fantastic advice on how to work through pain, how to find new meaning because when you deal with such loss, you question everything, like: ‘Why am I still doing this?’”
Paxon’s death has taught Messing this: “In the big picture, skating is nothing.”
Since Messing felt left without a reason to continue, Gilles gave him insight on how to find new reasons, and how to find strength to continue to do a difficult sport through a difficult time.
His other guardian angel was buddy Nam Nguyen, two-time Canadian champion. “Nam was right there with me,” Messing said. “He called me almost every day.”
Nguyen called him at least three or four times a week. He called Messing while he was at Skate America. just to check in, to make sure his friend was okay.
If Nguyen and Messing were best buddies before the accident, they were even better friends afterward.
“I’m so glad our skating community is so tightly knit,” Messing said. “It’s what made the best of a bad situation.”
Nguyen seemed to feel he had no choice but to reach out to his pained friend. “What can you do?” said Nguyen. “For him, especially, I think he deserves the absolute most in this world. To go through that was really tough to see.” It made Nguyen realize that sport was only a small thing in life, too.
“At one point, there’s only so much you can do, especially when you live on the other end of the friggin’ earth from him.” But then, Nguyen made the distance shorter, also calling him at Cup of China.
“Yes, you get such a rush from it, but at the end of the day, life is a lot bigger than that. I think for Keegan, it hit him pretty hard.”
Nguyen said it doesn’t matter if he and Messing often compete against each other for the same prize. “We always have to be there to support each other,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who gets to go to worlds. We’ll always be there.”
They have discussed it. They discuss everything. “We joke around a lot, but there are moments when we talk about seriously how we feel about each other. At this point in our career, it’s kind of useless to hold a grudge. I think we both experience that at different points in our lives, growing up, but now it’s so important to stick together.”
Invited to skate the gala at Skate America, Messing resolved to perform a tribute to his brother. He kept the plan close to his vest, telling only his parents and wife, Lane, as well as choreographer Lance Vipond and coach Burghart, because after all, he had to ask for their help. “I wanted as little outside help as possible,” he said.
He felt the need to do it, because at his brother’s funeral, he hadn’t understood that he had an opportunity to speak. He was unprepared. He was also still training at the time, and in a bubble.
It was one of his most difficult routines to skate. He had never put more work into a show program. “It was my way of saying goodbye in my own words, although no words were spoken,” Messing said.
But in the following weeks, he was hobbled, just trying to find the will to skate, and finding a reason to dig and drive to push through the pain of training.
“When your mind is broken and weak, the question of why and personal experiences of other people can help,” he said. And Gilles put him on the right track. His wife was the “greatest strength of all time,” with him every day.
But she wasn’t with him at Cup of China, when he most needed her. Messing found Cup of China the hardest competition of the season, because it was the first time he was away from his wife after the accident.
“It was the first time I had to sleep alone and deal with complete and utter solitude because I had been surrounding myself with all the people in my life. To go to China was to sleep alone and deal with a lot of stuff alone.”
He did have coach Burghart, his coach of 23 years. “He’s a second father to me,” Messing said. “I had some very close people around me at the same time. But having your main person gone, that was another one. I think that’s why the short program struggled a little bit there.”
After the Grand Prix season, Messing had a bit of a letdown. He took a week off. He didn’t even unpack his skates. As soon as he came home, his skating stopped. He went for a hike. He went for little drives or trips with his wife and friends. He hadn’t had time to take his own temperature as one Grand Prix task followed another in quick succession. “I never had the moment to stop, to let it hit me really,” he said.
He diverted the unpleasant thoughts as soon as they swelled up. He sought comfort from his wife and got his mind on a different topic. In China, those thoughts had been hard to divert, he said. “Dreams were terrible,” he added.
In that week off, Messing let himself feel and breathe, and take in the thoughts he had suppressed.
Still, when he returned, the aspens sighed anew. “To go back and lace up the skates again, when it became time, I had to almost remember why I was skating again,” he said.
What short-term goals to grasp? Nationals were still weeks away.
Another ally strode in: choreographer Vipond. “He looks out for me much more than he probably should,” Messing said. “But Lance is just a fantastic man.”
Vipond had to spend a week working in Edmonton, so he called Messing and suggested it would be a good idea to change venues and skate with Ravi Walia’s group. He talked to Burghout, too. This flea in Messing’s ear came at the right time.
Messing booked a ticket. And when the week ended, he advised Burghart that he would like to stay an additional week.
In Edmonton, Messing had turned unmotivated, pained skating performances into a mindset that set him back on a path to success. “I was in a good environment and headspace of people and of work ethic,” he said. “I was able to keep me in the right track. By the time I got home, I was in the right mindset to train for nationals.”
Then in early December, he broke the blade of one boot. His best training had been in Edmonton, but he began to struggle, especially on one foot for about a week and a half. He blamed it on his old boots that were breaking down.
When he returned home to Alaska, he got new boots. But Messing’s father, Bob, who is his “skate guru,” found the broken blade when he pulled it off the boot. It came as a complete surprise to Messing.
He figures it happened when he landed a triple Lutz. The base plate of the blade was allowing the blade to flex.
But even with the new blade, Messing struggled for a time with the correct placement of the blade on the boot. “I’m still not extremely happy with how the left one is set up.”
All of this means that Messing will not likely be trying the quad Lutz this week. He’s just not very confident with his boots, although he has landed them in these new boots. He rotated one in practice on Thursday in Mississauga, but still, Messing wants to go for a solid program. He will do two quad toe loops and two triple Axels.
A cold spell in Alaska has also made it difficult for Messing to train, particularly because the heater in his rink stopped working. Some of the coaches did a test; they poured a little water on top of the rink boards. In 10 minutes, the water had frozen. And the cold hasn’t been kind of Messing’s old knees. He and his coach have been seeking out different ice rinks to train.
He’s been in the Toronto area since Monday, training with Nguyen “mainly because we are just buds,” Messing said. And it’s a lot warmer, at the moment.