When I first met Patrick Chan, he was peering over the Hershey Centre rink boards from the ice with only his eyes in sight. He was 10 years old but looked eight, maybe less, at the Canadian national junior championships. As a juvenile, the category on the lowest rung, he took a bronze medal.
His gravelly voiced coach, Osborne Colson, introduced him, and confided: ‘I have this boy.
“You are going to be hearing about him in the future.” So I paid attention.
Back then, Colson knew. Long before anyone guessed that Chan would make an Olympic team, Colson said he intended to be by Chan’s side at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Sadly, he died in 2006 at age 90.
Colson groomed Chan for everything, even for a chance he might meet the Queen on his journey through the stars. We’re talking etiquette, taught by a coach who was a natty dresser. On the ice, Colson drilled edges and stroking and balance and turns into the youngster, 30 minutes a day, every day. It has made Chan the skater that he is.
And what is he? Chan is the current-day proprietor of the lost art of actual skating that Colson loved and taught, working with top-drawer folks such as choreographer Sarah Kawahara, Donald Jackson, Barbara Ann Scott in their professional incarnations. Too many skaters these days don’t know how to work the blade properly. Too many skate on the flats of their blades, not the edges, which allow great sweeping curves. Too many now focus on learning jumps, rather than on skating. And it’s impossible, as Chan says, to work in a lot of blade expertise, when you are tearing up and down the ice, doing quad after quad. Nathan Chen? Watch him. He goes up and down the ice. How else to accomplish six quads in a program?
But Chan, thanks to Colson, is a throwback to a different world. And he may be the best that ever was.
“I think that years from now, you’ll look back on his skating and his career, and he’ll be like a legend,” said coach Ravi Walia, who has been guiding Chan in his final run-up to the Pyeongchang Olympics. “He’ll be remembered for sure, like [Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir]. They will have a place in the history of the sport that is a very special place.”
Walia’s words have value because not only has he watched Chan over the years, but he also trained as a technical specialist. And he recalls being astonished when watching Chan for the first time as a 13-year-old with fancy feet. “I was blown away then,” Walia said. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Back then, I had never seen anything like that: this skater that could just fly across the ice, doing really difficult turns that you would think you would have to do a lot slower. And then it became the norm for him. Doing this complex type of movements with speed: no other skater does it like him.”
Ice dancers –they who must use edges and turns and Choctaws and all the rest – respect Chan in spades. They bow to him. “I’m lucky that Patrick can jump,” Moir said. “Because if he switched over, I’d be in trouble.”
“The quality of Patrick’s skating is something else,” Virtue said. “Everyone knows he’s a rare talent and the glide of the blade he has, the command of the ice, his speed and power is every skater’s dream. I think we would all love to skate like that and fly around the ice like he does so effortlessly. He’s a skater’s skater.”
Moir says he and Virtue will look back at their career’s end – coming soon – and they’ll look back fondly at having a front row seat to witness Chan’s skating prowess. “The way he can move across the ice is second to none – while doing difficult turns and gaining speed effortlessly is something I’ve never ever seen in another skater,” Moir said.
Judge Sally Rehorick says the beauty of his skating has brought her to tears, as she was dealt “the impossible task of finding mere numbers for his other-worldly skating.”
So what is this other-worldly skating? What are they talking about? “I think it’s the mix of power, but also he’s so strong and light at the same time,” Moir said. “He places his feet perfectly and it’s just driving every single edge. It’s such a joy to watch.”
One must see Chan skate live, he added. “If you see him on TV, you can’t feel your hair blow back when you are close to him on the ice, because he has so much speed and command. That’s what makes him Patrick Chan. We’ve been blessed to have that.”
Strangely enough, Andrew Poje says the same thing: It is more special to watch Chan in person than on television.
Perhaps this is why, at one time when Chan ruled the world (a three-time world champion from 2011 to 2013), despite a number of falls, fans coined the phrase “Chanflation.” It wasn’t complimentary. It suggested judges were giving Chan extra component marks to ensure that he won even with falls. Favouring him somehow. Even NBC commentator Johnny Weir surprisingly got into the act, charging Chanflation. But Chanflation didn’t exist. Chan’s skating skills truly were superior.
Jeffrey Buttle, who skated with Chan as a competitor, and worked with him as a choreographer, says: “People who talk about ‘Chanflation’ have probably never been competitive skaters. My legs hurt watching him sustain those ridiculous edges and turns. He is literally a master of skating.”
Walia says Chan’s basic skating was so far superior to his competitors, there should have been a gap between his marks and theirs. “And there should also have been a gap if he made a mistake. There should have been a gap [technically] for that if he made a mistake. He would lose credit for a mistake and mathematically, he did. But if he made a mistake, he still had his skills to fall back on.”
And as Chan took his final bow as a competitive skater on Feb. 16 (in an other-worldly time zone), the tributes began to ring in.
“Patrick skates like a musician who is part of the composition,” said renowned choreographer Sandra Bezic. “He doesn’t sell. He just is. So beautiful.”
“That was incredible, true, beautiful skating…Thank you for all you have given skating. Men’s figure skating is better because of you.” Grant Hochstein, U.S. men’s singles skater.
“Honestly, I can watch Patrick Chan do crossovers and I’d be happy.” Ashley Wagner, U.S. women’s skater, a world silver medalist.
“Perfect? No. Breathtaking? Absolutely! [Patrick Chan] your quality and presence are the perfect complement to your grace and power. Thank you for that free. Hallelujah.” Zach Donohue, U.S. ice dancer.
“Thank you [Patrick Chan], That is all.” Rod Garossino, former Canadian Olympic ice dancer.
“I don’t care who is crowned Olympic champion, no one – NO ONE – has the matchless artistry, finesse and grace of [Patrick Chan.]” Fan.
“Patrick is special,” said Poje. “Just knowing how difficult his movement is, and the way he does it with such ease and such grace is something that is very unique to him and that all skaters strive to have.”
Weaver says Chan makes everything look so easy, and that fools spectators into thinking his work is only easy. If anything, it is efficient. “He covers the ice unlike anybody else in the sport that I’ve seen,” she said. “I feel like there should be someone else on the ice with him at the same time, so you can compare. He’s the best of the best.”
She’s noticed one thing: while skating on the same ice at a Stars on Ice rehearsal, you must keep your eye on Chan. “Or you’ll get run over,” she said. “You think he’s at one end of the ice and you turn your head and he’s in front of your face in one second. He just flies with such an effortlessness that is so smart.”
His turns are so complex that Weaver says: “I couldn’t do that if I worked on it for 10 years.”
Poje says most skaters need crossovers to gain speed, but Chan can do the same thing with turns like a rocker or a counter.
“Or on one foot,” Weaver said. “On one foot, he can cover the ice with no loss of speed from end to end. I’ve seen him do it. He can teach the world a lesson when it comes to edge quality and complexity.”
Walia says Chan is a rare combination of great technique with artistry. “His basic skating quality is unmatched,” he said, speaking of the complex transitions done with speed and little effort.
Hanyu, on the other hand, has a different skating style. Walia doesn’t believe his skating skills are as strong as those of Chan, although the Japanese skater is an effortless jumper.
Chan’s transitions? “It’s a combination of different footwork and turns,” Walia said. “It’s not one turn. It’s the way maybe he does something with a lean, how he can take a basic movement and make it so difficult, do really difficult things with it, that no one else can do. It’s quite special.”
In spite of all this, Chan found he was unable to keep pace with the explosion of quads that have happened in the past three years. As Adam Rippon says, men’s skating has gone “out of control.” And Chan, with his skills have been caught in the middle of it. While in the past, he could rely on his presentation marks to give him an edge, he can no longer do so, because now a male skater can rack up so many points – through quads – on the technical side.
The judging system back in the 6.0 era was constructed to allow equal weight to technical and artistic prowess with two sets of marks. When the new judging system, the code of points, was instituted in the early 2000s, it was constructed in such a way to continue the equal weighting. But quads have changed everything.
When Evan Lysacek won the 2010 Olympics with no quads, his technical marks for the long program (84.57) almost mirrored his presentation or component marks (82.80). Even Evgeni Plushenko’s marks – with a rare quad toe loop – triple toe loop – followed a similar path: he earned 82.71 and 82.80. Chan’s presentation marks were slightly higher: (79.30 for technique and 82.00 for components.) Chan finished fourth in the free skate, a young kid at his first Olympics.
After those Olympics, Chan got busy with Christy Krall in Colorado Springs to learn quads – they were worth more the next season – and became a force, powerful enough to dominate and win three world titles in an era in which repeat champions were not the norm. Everybody else was playing catch-up.
By 2014, he was still in the mix with two quads, one in combination. At the Sochi Games, Hanyu won with two quads, none in combination, but two falls, earnings 89.66 technically and 90.98 on the presentation side. Chan had difficulties too, and lost the gold medal with mistakes and ended up second with 85.40 technically in the free program and 92.70 in components. Note: at the time, Chan had higher component marks than Hanyu.
But the story has become altogether different since Sochi. This week, Nathan Chen won the men’s free skate with a phenomenal, record-setting technical score of 127.64 and component score of 87.44, with five clean quads and an unprecedented sixth quad, a flawed quad flip (two hands down) that still earned him 10 technical points.
Hanyu wasn’t clean either, but still earned 109.55 points with three clean quads, 18.09 points less technically than Chen. Hanyu was able to win the gold medal because of the points he had earned in the short program, while Chen had to come from 17th place.
Boyang Jin with his onslaught of four quads, including a quad Lutz (Hanyu did versions of only two of the easiest quads, trying to be kind to his right ankle injury) and outfinished the Japanese skater technically by .09 points. In all, six skaters cleared more than 100 points technically in the free skate. And they finished in the top six positions.
Chan finished eighth in the free skate, with mistakes and only one quad, and thankfully in combination with a triple toe loop, and he tripled a second one. A triple Axel continued to give him grief, as usual. Chan was deemed to have the fourth best component marks of 91.86, behind Hanyu (winner of the gold medal), Shoma Uno (silver medal) and Javier Fernandez (bronze).
But technically, Chan’s 81.56 points fell short of Chen’s spine-chilling mark by 46.08 points. And Chan fell 27.99 points technically behind Hanyu and 29.45 points behind Uno. He was also 19.96 points behind Fernandez, who does three quads in the free, and only two different ones.
Chan knew this going in. “The technical is totally overriding the components right now,” Walia said.
Walia, who has been known to do a quad toe loop – triple toe loop in his day, is not against the proliferation of quads. He doesn’t believe anyone should try to limit progress. “It’s very impressive what is happening out there with the multiple quad jumps in one program,” he said. “Some of these athletes are doing quadruples so effortlessly, it’s hard to believe. “
Still, Walia would prefer more of a balance between the technical and the presentation side. “That is why I really enjoy Patrick’s skating,” he said. “I’m saying that if someone can do all those quads, with the artistry, then I would love watching that. But I don’t see that yet.
“It’s great. It’s amazing. But it’s creating a lot of messy programs that I personally do not like watching.”
For this quadrennial, Chan has been caught in a system that does not reward his strengths. He knew he could not win. Partway through the system, he readjusted his goals to win his tenth Canadian men’s title, a record, and help his teammates win the team gold medal. He accomplished both those missions before he even started the individual event, which became his goodbye wave.
Before the season ended, he had already begun to look to his future in Vancouver, starting up a skating academy, getting his real estate licence, having a life that doesn’t involve the stresses of skating in front of judges. The world can only hope that he will start up that skating academy to pass along what Colson taught him so many years ago. It’s important to the future of skating.
And finally, from Hayley Wickenheiser, Canada’s iconic female Olympic champion hockey player: “Got a little teary, watching [Patrick Chan] skate his final Olympics.” Just like the rest of us.