Amble into the Scotiabank Pond arena complex for a mid-August Skate Ontario summer competition, and a voice from a corner rings out greetings.
It’s Nam Nguyen, and he’s helping to set up the displays for the Figure Skating Boutique booth. Really?
Yes, really. The 20-year-old former Canadian champion (2015) has got a job, working at fixing skates, sharpening them, “building stuff.” For the skating boutique. He has more than one job, actually. He’s also coaching. “Just because I’m paying for my own stuff this season,” he said. “I need the funds for that. The funding I get from Skate Canada is definitely sufficient, but I need more to get to the next level.”
Translation: he is on the national team, but his parents Sony and Thu have gently shoved him out of the nest for any extras. He still lives at home, but now he’s come of age. He must fend for himself.
And he is. This year, he has chosen his own music for the first time. Before this, he had no input. “This season, I went 100 per cent into research mode,” he said.
He did the Spotify Shuffle. In his library, he has downloaded all sorts of musical gems: classical, jazz, to “whatever we listen to today,” he said. One day he was listening to his library, and up bubbled “That’s life,” a Frank Sinatra tune.
“I’m like: ‘Wow, I really like it,’” Nguyen said. “Four weeks I listened to it on repeat and that I didn’t get sick of it after three days definitely meant something for me.”
So after this extremely careful consideration, Ngyuyen has chosen this iconic Sinatra song for his short program. ”I listen to it in bed,” Nguyen said. “I listen to it in the car and on the ice, I skate to it. And so I think it’s a good move to get this out.”
It’s easy to see why Nguyen loves this music. Listen to the words and you can see it is the story of his own life: a crackerjack kid who swept through juvenile, pre-novice and novice national titles. When he won the junior title, he was the youngest to do it. Others towered above him on the podium. He was a sensation when he did a gala performance at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, where he lived at the time, garbed in giant glasses. A ham.
He set the world on its heels when he became the 2014 world junior champion, won a bronze medal in his senior Grand Prix debut at Skate America, and then by year’s end, he finished fifth at the world senior championships. What couldn’t he do?
And then things got difficult. His body suddenly lurched up a foot to 5-foot-11. His jumps slipped away. Everything slipped through his fingers. He changed coaches and training venues several times. Nguyen hated his life.
He was named to the Canadian team to the 2016 world championships after Liam Firus stepped aside. But Nguyen didn’t get past the short program, failing to qualify for the long. He missed the world championships altogether in 2017, then finished 25th at the past world championships. There were signs of life when he finished third at the past two Canadian championships. But the shine had gone off the skate blades.
“That’s life,” Sinatra sings. “That’s what people say
You’re riding high in April
Shot down in May
But I know I’m going to change that tune
When I’m back on top. Back on top in June.”
And on he continues and so true it is for Nguyen:
“I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate
A poet, a pawn and a king.
I’ve been up and down and over and out and I know one thing
Each time I find myself flat on my face
I pick myself up and get back in the race!”
See what I mean? The song continues in this vein. “It’s almost as if this program is a joke and I’m just trying to interact with the audience as much as I can,” said Nguyen (but it’s not a joke.) On his day at the Pond competition, the audience was almost non-existent. But Nguyen wants to have a connection with the audience that has been missing the past few years.
It’s a new start.
He also chose the music for his long program: “La La Land.”
“I listened to it for 3 ½ weeks,” Nguyen said.
At first coach Robert Burk seemed hesitant. People had skated to it before, lots of them from last season. “And its very hard,” Burk told him. “You can’t hide any weaknesses.”
So Nguyen worked very hard over the summer to connect himself to it, to interpret the movements in the music, rather than to tell a story.
At this new GTSA Summer Skate at the Scotiabank Pond, Nguyen delivered, winning the event over Keegan Messing, who had won the short with a thundering 97.97 points.
Nguyen was on fire in the free skate, getting positive GOE on everything he did. His biggest money-maker was his opening quadruple Salchow- double toe loop combo (14.69 points!) and he repeated a healthy quad Salchow after that.
He had started off his season at the Minto Skate in Ottawa, and won that, too, but not with the sort of performance that he delivered in Toronto. In his Ottawa free skate, he attempted a quad toe loop and a quad Salchow, but fell on both. His GOE hardly made it past +3. He wanted to step things up in Toronto and he did.
And his jump story this summer has been encouraging, solid, as he puts it. “Robert [Burk] and I have had this discussion that in the past, it’s always in the summer time that it’s been a bit of a struggle. And it’s a little hard for me to get going,” Nguyen said.
“But this summer, I’ve been very focused and I am trying to stay committed to what I do each day. And that makes the job a little bit easier. It doesn’t let my thoughts scatter, which happens very easily,” he said. The spins have been going well too, he said.
It all bodes well for a season bereft of Patrick Chan: the men’s title is wide open, with Messing and even Kevin Reynolds still in the mix.
“I’m really excited this season,” Nguyen said. “I wanted to show everyone my work in terms of choosing the music and listening to it at night and I was even part of the choreographic process. It’s just really cool.”
“It wasn’t choreography as much as it was collaboration,” said Tracey Robertson-Hanford, who helped him choreograph his short program and who worked with Kurt Browning to design his long. “I’m sure you could see some touches [in the free] that remind you a little bit of how Kurt would approach it. There’s more to be done with that.” (Note Nguyen’s hands in the pockets at the start of his program, conjuring up images of Browning doing his iconic “Casablanca” routine in 1993.)
Robertson-Hanford came to the rink to work to fill in for another choreographer that suffered a fall and is still recovering. At first, it was just to offer up blade skills work. She has been working with Nguyen with his blade skills. And then when this season began, Robertson-Hanford (who has worked as a choreographer in the past) helped Browning with the long. Next thing she knew, she was choreographing Nguyen’s short program.
Robertson-Hanford was the 1981 novice women’s champion of Canada, and bronze junior medalist two years later, skating on the same ice in Barrie, Ont., with Brian Orser and Tracey Wainman.
She is one part of Nguyen’s puzzle. Will he pick himself up and get back in the race?
“That’s life,” the song says.
“I thought of quitting baby
But my heart just ain’t going to buy it
And if I didn’t think it was worth one single try
I’d jump right on a big bird and then I’d fly.”