‘Round about midnight Saturday, Karen Chan sent her son an email: Good luck.
By which time Patrick [Chan] had already performed his long program – quite well – and retrieved the Skate Canada title he lost a year ago.
“I’m, like, I’ve already skated!” the three-time world champion was saying the following morning, bemused by his mother’s inability to figure out the time difference between New Brunswick and Europe, where Karen Chan is travelling.
This is her way of coping with an only child’s insistence on growing up, snipping the apron strings, carving out a life away from the cocoon of family.
Patrick began that independence process last season when, after three years of begging his mother to let him buy a car, he went out and just did it – a charcoal-grey BMW that he stresses was purchased used. “After I won worlds (the first time), I said, ‘Mom, can I get a car?’ She was, no, but if you win a second worlds you can get a car. So I won the second one. ‘Can I get a car?’ And she’s like, no. So finally I did all the research, looked online and found a used car to buy. I needed a car!”
Like most figure skating parents, Chan’s mom and dad have sacrificed immensely to further their kid’s career. He’s immeasurably grateful. But he’s also, at 22, an adult now. Relocating his training base from Colorado Springs to Detroit over the summer advanced that emancipation.
“It was a transition from locations and also a transition in my life,” he explains. “I’d turned 22. This was time for me to take ownership. It’s a step I had to take to prepare for the Olympics.”
Mom acquiesced, unhappily.
“It was really hard for her. If it was her choice, she would definitely want to live with me. I had to draw the line.”
Chan has his own apartment in Motown but spend lots of time with his closest friend, compatriot skater Elladj Balde, who also trains out of the Detroit Skating Club. Briefly, they’d considered being roomies until wiser heads prevailed. “That would be a little crazy,” Chan concedes, two guys likely having a bit too much fun with new-found freedoms.
Chan describes life as a party of one:
“I have to cook my own meals. I have to look after the bills. I have to make sure my accounts have money and I can write cheques. That’s stuff my mom did my whole life. Having those tools, outside of skating, is going to take me a long way, I think, in the Olympic Village.”
“In Vancouver, I was very lost. I needed someone to guide me, whereas now I can go into the village, be comfortable, know that, yes, I should eat this, no, I shouldn’t eat that, or I feel the need to go to the gym or do some recovery. I’m in control of everything.”
One of his favourite dishes is quinoa, a high-protein grain. It cracked Chan up to watch – while saying nothing – as Balde attempted to make the same dish, for three straight weeks cooking a cup of quinoa a day, and rapidly gaining weight. Finally he asked Chan: “Man, how many scoops of quinoa do you eat?” Chan responded that one cup was enough to last a week because it expands when cooked. “Finally he learned – and lost six pounds.”
The learning curve applies also to Chan’s skating, which has always been precociously mature and self-assured. At Skate Canada, the launch of the competitive season that will build up to Sochi, Chan executed a powerful free skate that featured two quads, one in combination with a triple. He missed his triple Axel however. But these are early days on the Grand Prix circuit.
What Chan has absorbed are some of the lessons from last year when, despite copping another world crown, his skating was less than typically dynamic, especially in the long programs. As a result, he’s ditched La Boheme and gone back to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, though choreographed quite differently from how he performed it way back in 2008.
“The notation of the music (in La Boheme) was not up to my rhythm,” Chan reveals. “I’m very much an upbeat, up-paced skater. If you look at all my successful programs, they were upbeat and brought energy to the end of the program.”
La Boheme was nuanced but slow. And by the end of the program, he’d be exhausted.
With Four Seasons, as shown on the weekend, there was no wilting. “I didn’t have to compromise the performance in order to save the gas. I’ve learned how to breathe in the footwork yet conserve energy.”
Chan’s next Grand Prix assignment is the Trophee Eric Bompard in Paris in mid-November. His plan is to amass momentum and roll into Sochi on a mental and physically optimum high. Vancouver taught him what not to do.
“Honestly, I approached the Vancouver Olympics very narrow-mindedly. It had to be exactly this way or I’m going to lose the medal, perfection in life and perfection in skating.
“This Olympics I’m approaching differently. I’m teaching my body to adapt to different situations so that when I get to Sochi I’m not so focused on, oh my God, because I ate pasta that’s not gluten-free I’m going to lose this competition.”
And then, interview over, Chan devoured a hamburger – with quinoa salad on the side.