If you came to the 2018 Canadian Figure Skating Championships in search of some high drama … stick around. There is plenty of it yet to unfold over the next 24 hours at the Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre in rainy Vancouver.
Friday’s short programs set the stage for a number of fierce battles to determine the composition of the team that Canada will send to the upcoming Olympic Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Nowhere will that be more evident than in the men’s event, where just two tickets are up for grabs. While one appears clearly reserved for Patrick Chan — who can claim a record 10th Canadian title on Saturday night — it is most definitely game on to decide who will join Chan on the plane headed to South Korea next month.
Chan, who has not competed since Skate Canada in October, admittedly spent a night trying to shed some rust as he struggled through a short program that produced a score of 90.98 points, despite taking an awkward tumble to the ice on the quad toe loop, and stepping out of the triple Axel.
“I think it’s just needing to get out more, getting out to compete more,” Chan said in assessing his performance. “I’ll just make the best of today and tomorrow. I’m excited for tomorrow, as opposed to dreading it.”
The battle for the second Olympic berth on Saturday should be fascinating, if the short program was any indication. Kevin Reynolds, skating in front of a home crowd, holds that spot at the moment with 86.20 points; however, it is anything but secure. Breathing down his neck are Keegan Messing (85.65), Elladj Baldé (84.91) and Nam Nguyen (83.39).
“It’s neck and neck,” Reynolds admitted. “You can lose it in the short program, but you can’t win it. Tomorrow’s a new day and I’ll have to battle hard for that spot.”
Nguyen said he feels like “everybody is really going for that second spot. Everyone has an equal chance. What matters is the person who is going to be able to deliver it on the day. It’ll be interesting tomorrow.”
The most inspiring performance Friday night was delivered by Baldé, who suffered a concussion back in September — the fifth of his career — and considered it a victory just to be able to compete this week in Vancouver. His emotional short program, which left Baldé in tears, had the crowd rising to its feet in appreciation even before his performance was finished.
“My only goal was to come here, and I’m here … I had no expectations,” Baldé said. “(The standing ovation) was the most beautiful gift this crowd could have ever given me. My performance here was for my audience. These are my last (Canadian Championships), so I’m enjoying it.”
Kaetlyn Osmond’s reign as Canadian champion is in serious jeopardy, with Gabrielle Daleman stealing the show in the short program with a near-flawless performance.
Daleman, the 2015 national champion, has been battling illness since before Christmas and was diagnosed with pneumonia on Thursday. But despite that, she was able to deliver perhaps her best short program performance ever at a Canadian Championships. She was rewarded with a score of 77.78 points and said it was the perfect way to end her teenage years (she celebrates her 20th birthday on Saturday).
“It was, honestly, one of the best skates that I’ve had. I’m just most proud of how I’ve handled everything,” said Daleman, who needed antibiotics to be able to skate Friday. “I didn’t find out how sick I was (until Thursday) … I just knew I couldn’t breathe properly.
“If I can do this when I’m feeling this crappy, I can do anything. I’m just so happy and I couldn’t have asked for a better short program and I’m so excited … This was just a great confidence booster.”
The feeling was hardly the same for Osmond, the reigning World silver medalist, who fretted over an “uncharacteristic” fall on her triple flip, which pushed her score down to 71.41. For the first time this season in a competition, she is not the leader after the short program and has major work to do to retain her national crown.
“It was a fluke. It was a random mistake,” she said of the fall on the flip. “I felt really comfortable and really confident. I did feel the nerves, but no more than I usually do in competitions. I just felt ready to compete, but maybe I was a little too ready for the first jump
“It’s the first time this season that I’ve been behind after the short program, so I’m really motivated to skate a clean long and put as much out as I can and redeem myself for today.”
For the first time in 50 years, Canada has three ladies’ berths for the Olympics, and the extra spot seemed like Alaine Chartrand’s for the taking. But the 2016 Canadian champion endured a disastrous short program that included two falls, and her 52.19 score left her in ninth place.
That opened the door for a major battle to make the Olympic team. A mere 2.39 points separates third and 10th place, with eight skaters in the mix for that coveted third Olympic spot. Hometown favourite Sarah Tamura (54.34) currently occupies third place, but her edge is narrow over Michelle Long (54.11), Triena Robinson (53.96) and Larkyn Austman (53.96).
Perhaps the one discipline in which the Olympic team spots seemed (almost) etched in stone — at least going into the competition — was ice dance. But that storyline did not play out in the short dance on Friday.
Mind you, there will little surprise at the top, with seven-time national champions Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir scoring 85.12 points for their efforts. While domestic scores tend to be inflated, Virtue still called it “really exciting, validating and reassuring this close to the Games … it’s a great boost and we’ll have to maintain that momentum.”
Sitting in second heading into Saturday’s free dance final are Paul Poirier and Piper Gilles (78.37), but the shock result was Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje who fell to fourth (70.31), less than a point behind the Québec-based team of Carolane Soucisse and Shane Firus (70.97).
For Gilles and Poirier, placing well in front of Weaver and Poje is admittedly a different position – a team they have yet to beat. But that seems highly likely to change when all is said and done on Saturday.
“There’s still another day in the competition,” said Poirier. “This is going to be a new place for us, being ahead of Kaitlyn and Andrew going into the free dance, but we’re going to have to make sure we’re in the right frame of mind and trust the training that we’ve done. Don’t try to do anything extra to try to cement that.”
Weaver and Poje, meanwhile, paid a heavy price for his fall on a twizzle, which resulted in a score of 0.00 for the element. “It’s extremely disappointing,” admitted Poje. “To be honest, it happened so quick that it’s hard to analyze it right away. I lost an edge and all of a sudden it was hands on the ice. It’s something that I’ll definitely make sure never happens again.”
With the composer of their short dance music in the house, an inspired Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford moved a step closer to seizing their seventh straight Canadian title.
Duhamel and Radford had barely a wobble in posting an 81.78 score while skating to “With Or Without You,” by American singer/songwriter April Meservy, who took in her first figure skating competition on Friday night in Vancouver.
“Overall, I think it was a heartfelt performance,” said Duhamel. “April Meservy was in the crowd watching and we couldn’t have asked for a better interpretation of her music than we did tonight.”
Added Radford: “We were really happy to show her that kind of performance.”
Meanwhile, the battle is on for the final two Olympic berths, with Quebec-based Julianne Séguin and Charlie Bilodeau (68.51) holding a narrow edge over Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro (68.28), and Lubov Ilyuschechkina and Dylan Moscovitch (65.45).
Bilodeau said he and Seguin know what has to be done to put a lock on one of those spots.
“Those Olympic spots … of course, we want one of them, but we don’t want to focus on that,” he said. “We want to perform like we did tonight on the ice. Of course, there was a mistake (on their side-by-side triple Salchows), but the performance itself, we really liked the connection we had with the crowd and the connection we had together. So, we want to do the same thing tomorrow without the big mistake.”
Moore-Towers and Marinaro especially like their position, given that they have supreme confidence in their free program, which they consider superior to the short.
“Today was about keeping ourselves in the conversation and tomorrow is when we will thrive,” said Moore-Towers. “We know that our long program is our strength, and we’ve really, really been working hard in having our short program be competitive as well. We knew coming in it would be a long program competition, and we’re prepared to fight tomorrow.
“These top four teams are extremely competitive with each other, and we knew we were not going to come in here and waltz into an Olympic spot. We’ve been training for this situation and this circumstance, and we’re prepared to fight for it.”
Ilyuschechkina and Moscovitch were downcast after their subpar performance, with Moscovitch admitting, “we were definitely ready to do better.” Though they are not giving up hope on landing an Olympic berth, it is surely an uphill climb now.
“The event is definitely not over, and we’ve just got to rebuild ourselves and re-centre ourselves and bring all of us tomorrow.”