He is one of his sport’s ultimate travelling men, a coaching savant whose desire to develop the world’s best figure skaters is hardly constrained by his own country’s borders. In ordinary times, Brian Orser would be bouncing across Asia or Europe countless times over, racking up the frequent flier miles. It has been his life and his livelihood for almost 14 years.
But these are not ordinary times. In a COVID-19 world, international travel is almost at a standstill. And so Orser’s passport has been starved of travel stamps for most of 2020 — at least since the global pandemic’s tentacles fully extended their reach into North America back in the spring. “I have not been on an airplane since Junior Worlds, so that would be the beginning of March,” said Orser of his trip to Estonia. “I would normally have done a couple hundred thousand miles by now.”
For coaches such as Orser, however, that is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to adapting to a new world. While COVID restrictions in Canada vary from province to province — sometimes even city to city — the bottom line is that conditions are vastly different for everyone and ‘normal’ now takes on a new definition. In Toronto, those restrictions were tightened in late November with a lockdown — the second since the start of the pandemic — that shuttered many arenas across Canada’s largest city. However, the Province of Ontario granted an exemption for high- performance athletes, meaning training could continue at the Cricket Club, but with strict regulations. Only 10 people were allowed on the ice during a single session, and that number included skaters and coaches.
As Orser sees it, though, the fact that training can continue at all is vital for his club’s skaters, and he views every opportunity as a blessing these days — no matter what level of restrictions must be adhered to by one and all. “We are grateful that we can open for elite athletes. We are following the guidelines and not pushing anything,” he said. “This is the way it has been since March. When we got back on the ice on May 27 (after sports venues were allowed to re-open in Toronto), we had certain guidelines to follow — and they keep changing.
“It has been a major task for our skating coordinator because at first five people were allowed on the ice at the same time, then 10, then 25, and now we are back to 10. It is always a challenge for her because we are trying to keep the coaches busy. We have to adjust, so there is no sense in complaining about anything. We just have to go with the flow, go with the hand we are dealt and follow the rules.”
Those rules extend to virtually every aspect of a skater’s daily routine at the Cricket Club. There are strict directions about entering and exiting the club, and masks must be worn everywhere except when skaters are on the ice for their training sessions. “There is a certain protocol to the direction of flow, that continues in one direction,” said Orser, the 1987 World champion and two-time Olympic silver medalist. “That includes where the kids put their bags, put on their skates and go on to the ice; where they come off the ice and take off their skates, and then exit the building. Everybody has the routine down, everybody follows it … it’s not really much of an inconvenience. It has a nice flow to it, and everybody wears their masks.”
While coaches are not required to wear masks while on the ice, Orser said he and the rest of the club’s staff have made the decision to do so. “When you are out of your house, it almost feels strange not to be wearing a mask,” he said. “If I go into a store or any building I have to wear one. In any common space in my condo building I have to wear one. All the coaches feel like it’s a good practice.”
With that as a backdrop, Orser and the Cricket team are pushing forward as best as they can, but the group is still not quite whole. The club is known as a training base for some of the world’s top skaters, but most of Orser’s current international students still remain in their homelands. Two-time Olympic champion Yuzuru Hanyu is in Japan; Jun-Hwan Cha is skating on his own in South Korea and Polish champion Ekaterina Kurakova is also still on the other side of the world.
None of this is likely to change until the pandemic shows signs of abating in a significant way. The biggest obstacle for all of them are the ongoing international travel restrictions imposed by the Canadian government for “non-essential” entry, which will remain in place until at least Jan. 21. The rules are different for Americans crossing the border by car, which is how skaters such as Jason Brown and Yi Zhu (an American who represents China) made their way into Canada.
“With land travel, you can have all your documents ready — letters from our government and another government like the U.S., letters from your federation and Olympic committee, from me and Tracy (Wilson, who directs the skating program at the Cricket with Orser) and a quarantine plan — and you can state your case to a live person. Then the COVID task force will assess you,” he explained. “When you try to do this from an airport, you don’t even get to a task force. They are conditioned to say no, it’s not essential. It has been a bit frustrating. I know they would all prefer to be living and training here.”
Orser had worked with Evgenia Medvedeva in Toronto for two seasons, but the Russian star returned to Moscow in July, and has re-joined the camp of renowned coach Eteri Tutberidze. Orser believes the effects of the pandemic were “100 percent” responsible for Medvedeva’s move. “She has a visa that is different than her mother’s visa. There were no guarantees, but there was a better chance for her to come back … she was in Japan at the time,” said Orser. “But she didn’t want to travel here without her mom who is a big part of her day-to-day routine. So she decided to go back to Russia. We were doing classes regularly on FaceTime, but it was just getting too difficult for her, and that is why she made the move she did.”
For many of us, the pandemic has shifted the way we go about our daily tasks, and it is no different with coaches such as Orser and Wilson. With technology such as Zoom and FaceTime now available, they have been able to extend their instruction to all parts of the globe with virtual coaching. “I have done tons of it,” Orser said. “Tracy and I have a contract with the Chinese federation, so we have done quite a bit of work with them virtually by Zoom and it’s live. We are dealing with a 13-hour time difference, so it’s an early morning or late-night session, but it has been really well organized and manageable, with somebody following the skater on the ice, and a big screen so they can see any instructions or corrections.”
Orser has also had some of his skaters send videos for him to analyze. As well, he organizes ways for his international students to be part of group classes with skaters in Toronto, so they have a connection with their training mates. “I have been doing a lot of Zoom classes with them, or they send me videos and I will make an assessment and send back my comments. That is the best we can do,” he said. “We do a stroking class that is taped, and different exercises, and I will fire off to these guys some of the new exercises that we are doing. They get to see the whole class doing it, so they can have a sense of home and the team.”
Without doubt, it is a very different way of coaching, but Orser can see it being a bridge for the future beyond the end of the pandemic. He believes there are benefits to a hybrid of live and virtual coaching and said he has “actually learned a lot about working this way and it’s not bad. It is not as inconvenient as I thought it was going to be. You just kind of put things into words. And when I look to the future … Tracy and I do a lot of seminars at certain times of the year. So, if I do a seminar somewhere in the world, I can follow up a month later by doing a Zoom class with the group and sort of remind them of a few things. So that might be the way of the future.”
In some ways, Orser feels, it has helped him become an even better coach. He is also inspired by the effort his skaters have been putting in to maintain a connection across the waters. Then again, it is a somewhat common sentiment, the need to connect in a time when so many find themselves in isolation to help mitigate the spread of the virus. “First of all, I can understand and deal with technology a lot better. That was a big tall order for me and maybe a lot of us from my age group,” Orser said in explaining what the virtual coaching world has taught him. “You just have to think more, you have to process things differently and try to find the right words. But maybe it creates a better connection with the skater, believe it or not. Even though we are halfway around the world from each other, there is just something about it … everyone is making such a special effort as well.”
That effort and that ability to connect proved especially important between mid-March and May 27, when the club was closed due to COVID restrictions in Ontario. While some skaters already had breaks from training built into their schedules around that time, there was still the matter of making sure they were ready to resume activity when the doors of the Cricket were eventually flung open again.
Orser and his fellow coaches were amazed by what they saw almost from the day training sessions resumed at the club. “We had them stay very active with off- ice jump classes and some ballet classes during the lockdown — different experts that they could tap into to do things that would keep them safe,” he said. “To be honest, most of them came back at the end of May in better shape than they have ever been. They were doing the off- ice jumping, the fitness and ballet classes and they were managing their time.
“We had people talking to them about nutrition and psychology … there were a lot of things that athletes sometimes overlook because they are focusing on their triple Axel. They were all freaking out thinking they would lose their quad toe or their triple Axel or their double Axel, but after a few days, they actually came back stronger than ever with all those jumps. It was pretty cool to see.”
With his top international stars absent from the Cricket, Orser has had more time to work with his Canadian students, such as rising seniors Conrad Orzel and Joseph Phan, and others whom he normally would not work with.
Orser said that due to the limited number of training hours and people are permitted on the ice at any one time, a schedule was set to keep all the coaches working. “I might get the shift from 8 until 11 in the morning and I may not have any of my kids on that shift. So, I work with Karen Preston’s kids, or with Ernest Pryhitka’s or Joey Russell’s skaters,” he explained. “And then, later in the day, when those people have a shift, maybe one of them will work with Conrad. The coaching team that we have is really strong and we are all helping each other. I trust putting any of my kids with any of these coaches, and they trust all the other coaches with their kids, too. Tracy and I work four days a week and Jeff Buttle works three or four days a week. We try to make it fair. We want everybody to get their hours.”
This arrangement has also proven beneficial for the skaters themselves. Orser said the coaches have all noticed over the past six or seven months that their skaters are doing so well because of the diverse coaching they are getting. “For me, it is kind of fun to see some of the kids who have come up through our program, who I don’t normally get to see. But I do miss the big guns. I do miss Yuzu and Jun and Katia. It’s too bad for now, but it will be a great day when they are all back.”
While training continues, so, too, does the itch for an actual live competition, but there has yet to be any such opportunities for skaters in Canada, due to the restrictions. A group of five competitors from the Cricket — Brown, Zhu, Orzel, Phan and Alison Schumacher — thought that chance would come at Skate Canada International in late October (Cha and Kurakova were also on the original entry list, but that was dependent on them being able to return to Canada). However, those hopes were dashed when, two weeks before the event, Skate Canada was cancelled due to increased COVID restrictions in Ottawa, where the competition was to have been held. It was one of only two Grand Prix events dropped from the schedule in the fall (the other being in France).
“That was hard. I know that, as an athlete, you always have something you are revving up for,” said Orser. “We were excited to get five of our elite skaters ready for Skate Canada. They were training hard for it. They were so disappointed because it looked like the one competition that was going to happen in real time, and they were skating well. The cancellation took a lot of wind out of their sails. That was a tough one for them and it was hard to get them motivated after that, to be honest with you. Sectionals was coming but that really was not a lot to get them going, compared to what they had been getting revved up for.”
The Ontario Sectional Championships was unlike anything anyone had ever known. It was held virtually, with competitors presenting their programs at various rinks throughout the province, with Skate Canada referees monitoring all the performances. “Everything was packaged into a file with skaters from the entire province, which judges and a technical panel watched simultaneously from their homes like they would at an event. It was pretty well done, and it was fair. Some of the skaters were in different rinks — that was the only difference. There was a draw, so skaters from Ottawa, Toronto and other places were mixed in the starting orders. The judges all got the same videos; they all had the same software, so they could put in the marks the same way they would at a (normal) competition. It’s kind of the best they could do.”
For the skaters, who had to perform without the things that make live competitions so unique and so exhilarating for them, it was far from ideal Orser lamented. “It was hard for the kids because it was pretty sterile. There was no panel of judges, no fans, no people. Even their own parents couldn’t watch them skate. Skaters had to go out the back door of the rink and walk around, and could only re-enter when it was time for their event. It was pretty strict, but it was the best they could do, and we got something done.”
Skate Canada used the same virtual format for Challenge, the qualifying competition for the Canadian Championships, but that competition was cancelled in mid-January. The rising case numbers in British Columbia and the level of restrictions associated therewith ultimately dictated that the event could not take place. Orser, for one, could not imagine holding a national championship virtually. “I don’t think we could crown a national champion this way. My feeling is no. You could package it for television but … it’s a tough one. That is the hard part for these kids. It’s just one disappointment after the next.”
The international calendar in early 2021 is already a mess. The Four Continents ,World Junior and European Championships have been cancelled, along with the Grand Prix Final, which was to be the test event for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games.
The 2021 World Championships are still scheduled to take place in Stockholm in March. Organizers in Sweden plan to hold the event in a “bubble” environment. Of all events this season, this is the most important as the results will determine the allocations for each nation for the 2022 Olympic Winter Games. With no Canadian Championships this year, skaters could arrive in Stockholm with no live competition experience this season. Keegan Messing, the bronze medalist at Skate America in October, was the lone Canadian representative on the Grand Prix circuit in the fall.
“It is frustrating for us and it is frustrating for me as a coach,” said Orser. “I see every weekend a competition in Russia. Whether it is a qualifier for their nationals, or Rostelecom Cup or their test skates … it is a bit frustrating that they have been competing and they have been doing their domestic competitions and we have not. And you know what, the Olympics are looming, so good for them. If this goes on much longer, we need to create a high-performance bubble with Skate Canada to push through and work, train and isolate as a team. That needs to be done if this situation is going to continue. You have got to bring the best athletes from all over the country to train together. That is kind of what they do in China; that is what they do in Russia.”
In the meantime, Orser will keep plugging away at the Cricket. He contented himself with the thought that he was able to spend the holiday season at home in Canada, which is a rarity in his world. “I like being home, I like working with the kids. Sure, I miss my travel, but it does make me realize how crazy and hectic it was,” he said. “Almost every week or almost every other week, I was doing a long haul, whether it was to Asia or Europe. It was a lot. Too much. I had not been home at Christmas in the longest time. The last two years I was in Russia — and not just Russia, I was in Siberia for the last two national championships. That was tough at Christmas time. And before that, I was at Japan nationals, and that is at Christmas as well.”
As the calendar flipped over to 2021, everyone involved with the sport in his homeland no doubt shares Orser’s dream. “After this past year, we will take anything,” he said. “It we get some normalcy starting into next season, that would be good. Then it is going to be full steam ahead.”
(This article was originally published in the IFS Jan/Feb 2021 issue)
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