He packed his bags in Colorado Springs and moved to Detroit over the summer. He and his coach, Kathy Johnson, formed a little caravan of two cars, both packed to the brim, his bicycle perched atop a roof, chugging across the U.S. Midwest plains. He finished unpacking it all only in mid-August. Chan and Johnson made a vacation out of the trip, breaking up what would normally be a two-day journey by stopping in Kansas City and Chicago on the way. It’s a new beginning for Chan, skating out of the Detroit Skating Club.
The Olympic program that he unleashed Aug. 18 at the Thornhill Summer Skate near Toronto is new too, but then again, it’s not. He’s skating to Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons”, an exuberant and flamboyant piece of Italian baroque music that he used to finish second at the world junior championships in 2006-2007. And he used it again to make his debut at the world championships in Sweden where he finished ninth during the 2007-2008 season. The original routine was choreographed by Lori Nichol, this one by David Wilson.
“I’ve had a lot of success with Vivaldi,” Chan said. “The last time I skated that program, I knew I was doing this again for the Olympics.” The first version of the Vivaldi routine was Osborne Colson’s last gift to Chan. Colson died at age 90 in 2006, and he had always doubled as a choreographer, but in 2006-07, he urged Chan to let Nichol choreograph the long program for the first time.
Therefore the Vivaldi routine will be a tribute to Colson, who taught Chan his skating skills. Chan refers to the new version as his Greatest Hits, because it incorporates tones and leitmotifs from the past, even some basic moves that Colson designed for him years ago.
“I’m not trying to do crazy things,” Chan said. “I’m not trying to push the envelope this season. This is not the season to do that. This is the season to go back to what is comfortable, what makes you enjoy skating and what makes you skate the best.” Chan picked the music, and he played a role in the choreography, particularly the skating patterns and the comfortable bits that he loved from previous programs. It feels like a comfy shoe in a way, although it’s loaded with intricate details and turns and moves. Because it’s a challenging routine, Chan still has to learn how to pace himself through it and find a rhythm for himself.
Chan is keeping his short program from last year, but why not? Skating to “Elegie in E Flat Minor” by Rachmaninoff, he set a world record score of 98.37 at the world championships in London, Ont. last March. He did not skate his short program at Thornhill, only his long just to get it in front of audiences and judges early, so that he can build a momentum to Sochi.
With a revived Nobunari Oda in the field (he won the event, to a standing ovation), Chan felt it was almost like a Grand Prix event.
And when Chan did skate, the packed crowd witnessed his virtuosity with the blade in a program designed to show all of his wares. It wasn’t a perfect skate - he doubled and singled some of his triples - but Chan intended only to deliver crisp footwork, spins and transitions. No rink is big enough for Chan’s power; his jumps were pressed against the boards of the small hockey rink. He ripped off two quads, one in combination with a triple toe loop, made easier this year by changing his pattern into the quads. Yes, the quads are even easier for him to do right now, Johnson said.
Chan admitted to fighting a mental battle when he presented his Olympic program for the first time. He was nervous, wondering if people would like it. But then, he does like it, so he knew others would, too. They did. He got a standing ovation.
He terms his troubled season of last year - when he fumbled and bumbled and finished second in the free skate at the world championships with a host of miscues - an “experimental year.” While Chan usually has only one new program every season, last season, he opted for new choreographers, Jeff Buttle and Wilson, and had two new programs to master. Wilson’s first routine for Chan was “La Boheme,” and now Chan admits he struggled with it. “I loved ‘La Boheme,’” he said. “But it wasn’t me.” He and Wilson were only just getting to know each other. Now they do.
La Boheme, Chan said, felt like “it dragged along. The way the music was cut, the footwork was a bit slower than normal and the ending choreographic step sequence wasn’t necessarily fast and upbeat.” He’s now doing his signature footwork sequence at the very end of the program to uplift the crowd and judges and perhaps even himself.
In Detroit, he’s at peace and he feels free. He trains alongside former U.S. champions Jeremy Abbott and Alissa Czisny and Canadian teammate Elladj Balde. “We all get along tremendously well,” Chan said. “We are all there for each other. You can tell. All of us are improving together.
“We all push ourselves. And I’ve never laughed so much on sessions with Elladj.” They go to dinner together and play video games. Chan loves classic and muscle cars and he’s moved to the right city for that.
Chan has never competed so early and he’s never had his quads down pat so soon in the season. “It’s all coming together,” he said. “I’m seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.” He feels a responsibility, of perhaps being the first Canadian man to win an Olympic gold medal.