You have your Patrick Chans, your Kevin Reynolds, your Keegan Messings. All good.
But Elladj Balde stole the show in the men’s short program at the National Skating Championships Friday night.
He expected nothing. Perhaps no more than a fond farewell. This is his final season as a competitor. He so wanted this season and this night to be special.
And it was.
The crowd who witnessed Balde’s miracle thanked him the only way they could: a standing ovation that started before he had even finished his final spin. He finished fourth with a fat mark of 84.91, only 1.29 points out of second place. His was the performance of the day, a performance among performances among all disciplines.
“About a month ago, I didn’t even know if I was going to be here,” he said, with no small amount of emotion. He’d had the best summer of his life, with the quads clicking, the programs humming and he was in the best shape of his life.
Then, in early September, in the strangest of accidents, he hit his head while simply doing a Mohawk turn, and slammed into the boards. And within a moment, he had suffered his fifth concussion in three or four years.
His first concussion occurred in 2014 just before Skate Canada International. He had to withdraw.
It took a lot longer to heal than he expected. Two and a half months went by with no improvement. Mainly, the condition stagnated, no matter what he did. “I went through a lot of emotional and psychological pain because this season was so important to me,” he said.
Time was running out, and if Balde wanted to get to the national championships, he had to qualify through the Challenge event in Montreal in early December. He was no longer on the national team and he had had no Grand Prix events.
Balde’s life up to that moment? He tried everything to improve his condition. He’d try one thing and it didn’t work. Another. Forget it. “We tried everything until I literally was at the point of giving up,” he said.
One person changed all of that: Jennifer Ann Scott, who is one of the authors of Quebec’s protocol that guides athletic therapists how to manage concussions.
“She is an angel,” Balde said. “The moment she came into my life, she taught me how to manage the symptoms…She teaches you how to go through your day without triggering too many symptoms.”
Before Balde met her, he would find that if he felt better, he’d skate for 15 minutes, then end up in bed for three days. Next time, skate for 10 minutes, bedridden for another three days.
The first three days that Balde was allowed back on the ice with her, he was allowed to skate only forwards. Not backwards. Not sideways. He could not even turn his head. Eyes were to be straight ahead.
He began eventually to skate in circles, and this did not trigger symptoms. But if he tried to turn a little bit, the symptoms would return immediately.
“We had to teach my body how to turn this way and that way,”Balde said. And he was trying to learn these things two weeks before Challenge.
Everything started coming back about a week before Challenge, he said. His goal was only to qualify for the national championships. He didn’t have to get fancy.
He did make it through. “It was a lot of falls and a lot of mistakes,” he said. “But I made it through.”
After that, his symptoms improved markedly and he “just grinded hard” to prepare for this week. “I had so many obstacles to deal with this year,” he said.
When he stepped out on the ice on Friday, his only thought was to be “in the moment.” He had no expectations. Normally, he would be hoping to perhaps make the Olympic or world team, or at least dazzle everybody with his charisma. But he had no pressure this time. But that is when Balde is at his best.
Then something unusual happened. When Balde landed his first triple jump, the crowd roared. It was as if they knew. “The second jump, it was more. The third, even more,” he said.
“Then halfway through my footwork [toward the end of the routine], I could already feel the energy of everyone,” Balde said.
“I was trying to contain it a little because I was starting to raise my energy with them, but I had to remember, I still had to finish because now is not the time to make any mistakes.”
Before his final spin, he could see the people standing up. “The whole time that I was in the spin, I was just: ‘Okay, just focus on the spin. Just do your rotations.”
Balde says the crowd reaction was “the most beautiful gift they could ever have given me.
“My performance here was for my audience. I mean all the fans that were there watching, all the skaters that were watching, the coaches, the judges. The judges were the audience for me. They weren’t judges. I was performing for my audience, for myself.”
So yes, he walked away pleased. Some people who witnessed it, were in tears. Coach included.
“My whole goal was to come here,” Balde said. “And I am here.
“I did it. I did it. I did it.”