For the first time in years, athletes at the national team training camp in Mississauga this week, are bunking up with roommates in the hotels, like in the old days. And having buffets.
It seems, well, rather normal.
COVID-19 hit Canadian skaters harder than many, as dominos of competitions were cancelled domestically. They hit the international scene with no competition experience behind them. It showed.
The team is thin these days with post-Olympic retirements, but there’s a sense of hope in the frigid Paramount Fine Foods Centre building. And some of that hope rests in a multitude of new faces on the team. Of the 29 athletes attending – high-performance director Michael Slipchuk said the camp usually fields 20 to 23 skaters – half of them are first-time seniors.
Stephen Gogolev is one of the new faces, although he signalled years ago, he was a bit of a wunderkid.
Gogolev hasn’t been seen much here in years, overcoming injuries and growth spurts. Finally recovered, Gogolev was heading to the Canadian championships last season, hoping to snare one of two Olympic spots, when he tested positive for COVID-19 at a random testing at the airport. He had to withdraw.
“He would have been in the fight for the Olympics,” Slipchuk said Wednesday., “And the fight for Four Continents and maybe worlds. Definitely we saw him being in there.”
Because of his withdrawal, Gogolev couldn’t get the minimum scores that would allow him to compete at the world championships. “It knocked him out of eligibility for worlds,” Slipchuk sighed.
For the past three years, Gogolev has been training in California with Rafael Arutunian alongside Nathan Chen for the past few years, and emerged just long enough to win the Skate Canada Challenge – qualifying event for nationals – and finish fifth at world juniors. He hasn’t been to a Canadian championship since January of 2019.
But he showed up yesterday in Mississauga at the camp, unrecognizable from the pint-sized kid with a mop of blond hair. He now stands six feet all in his socks, has his hair clipped like a movie star and has a dreamy look about him. (In fact many of the members of Canada’s men’s team are six-footers – Roman Sadovsky, Conrad Orzel, Corey Circelli,).
He says he’s more prepared at this time of the season than he has ever been. He showed it at the Glacier Falls competition in Anaheim, Ca. a month ago, when he won the short program with a flawless skate, tossing off two quads, a quad Salchow, and a quad toe loop – double toe loop, and a crisp triple Axel. His first two big jumping elements earned him lots of bonus points. And he finished with 88.68 points, which is the highest point total among any of the Canadian men so far in this young season.
It was a program choreographed by Shae-Lynn Bourne to the music, “Dream State,” by Son Lux.
“I think he’s grown a lot,” Slipchuk said. “He’s gone through a lot of injuries. We just haven’t seen him compete. I think that is what everybody is missing. But I think he’s back…He’s doing pretty much everything. It’s a start. For him, it’s a beginning of his senior path. Last year we hoped would have been his start, but it just didn’t materialize. For a year, he’s been healthy.”
“It’s been quite difficult for the past couple of years,” Gogolev said. He doesn’t think his growth spurt hampered his jumps much. He already had the jumps in his pocket, he said.
For the first time, he will compete at senior Grand Prix events. And at age 17, he gets two of them, Skate Canada International and NHK Trophy.
Gogolev said he had been prepared for nationals last season, and the disappointment clouded his brow for a couple of weeks until he realized that he couldn’t do anything about it. He watched the Olympics from home, but watching them didn’t slay him psychologically.
He enjoys the hard work of training with Arutunian and finds motivation there. His mother, Irina, lives with him there, and his father visits on weekends.
“I’m feeling pretty confident this season,” he said. “I’m quite ready for it.”
He does quad toe and quad Salchow and is training the quad loop, flip and Lutz. How many quads he’ll have in the long program depends on his training. Perhaps three. It depends.
Gogolev will be at the forefront of this new generation. Slipchuk says the national team is going through one of its biggest real transition years since he’s been in the job.
“We’ve had gradual transitions, but this is a lot of the new young skaters moving up that we see being with us through one, two quadrennials, maybe more moving forward,” he said. “It’s a good way to start, so we get a sense of how they are doing.”
There is a lot of opportunity in the Grand Prix events this year, what with Russians not being part of it, and other top skaters stepping aside. A lot of Canadian skaters are getting chances to go out to international events, and “it’s a chance for them to set their course,” Slipchuk said.
He felt that the Canadian team finish at events last year was evidence of not being able to do things in person. It affected team chemistry. Finally, there are no restrictions at this camp. The normal world is back. “I think you can feel that here,” he said. “Everyone is just exited to be here….and getting that team chemistry that has been missing.
He said there have been bigger crowds at summer competitions than Canada has had for the past two years. He thinks that will have a big impact on skaters. Canadian champion Madeline Schizas didn’t encounter a big crowd until she competed at Rostelecom Cup in Russia last year – and then she was off to worlds.
On the other hand, Canadian men’s champion Keegan Messing thrives off a crowd – and he didn’t have one very often.
“I think that’s going to play a big part on the team this year,” Slipshuk said. “I think the rinks are going to be a lot more full. I think Skate Ameirca is sold out and I know we’re doing well on tickets.”
The camp this week has only one woman at it: Schizas. But Gabby Daleman has been injured, Slipchuk said and wasn’t ready to perform here. “For the athletes to come and not show what they are able to do doesn’t really benefit them, it doesn’t benefit our officials.”
Daleman hasn’t been able to compete this summer and “ just wasn’t at a point that we felt ready to be here. ”
Alas, Daleman’s mother, Rhonda Raby tweeted out earlier Wednesday, saying that her daughter suffered a severe abdominal muscle tear earlier this year. Got back on the ice, contracted COVID, got back on the ice again. and then was in a “serious car accident” two weeks ago. This accident jammed her back, but she has been getting treatment and is back on the ice again.
Has any skater on the planet had worse luck?
Alison Schumacher is evaluating her future.
Canadian ice dancing silver medalists Lawrence and Nikolaj Sorensen had a bad fall in practice about a week ago, and feel a bit banged up. “They’ll be fine, but it’s just better for them to stay home and not travel, and get healthy,” Slipchuk said. “It’s a long season ahead.”
All of the skaters at the camp are going to a Challenger event in the next five to six weeks, and some have one or two Grand Prix. They are getting opportunities.
Canada has only three pairs at the camp, but pairs skaters are scarce throughout the world. Slipchuk said for a long time, they had skaters like Eric Radford in the sport for a long time. Three years ago, Canada had a group of teams that sprouted, did one season, then stopped. “It’s been a bit of an ebb and flow,” he said.
The youngest of the three teams, Brooke McIntosh, 17 and Benjamin Mimar, 21, were national junior pair champions last year and won the bronze medal at the world junior championships. They joined forces in March of 2020, just two weeks before the shutdowns from COVID. “We just have to build,” Slipchuk said.
Numbers of pair skaters in junior Grand Prix are low – and that doesn’t bode well for the future, world-wide. “We’re always looking,” Slipchuk said. Trennt Michaud, currently without a partner with the retirement of Evelyn Walsh, is looking. Slipchuk expects developments in a couple of weeks, but does not want to rush anything. “You don’t want to go out unless you are ready,” he said. “Hopefully, if all goes well, there will be a challenge at Canadians.
“I think we’ll develop a good group that can take us through the next quad for sure.”
As Deanna Stellato-Dudek says: “The [low] number of pairs in Canada and worldwide is a year of opportunity.”