Though Skate Canada is in a rebuilding stage in its senior ranks, its junior men’s program is at the opposite end of the spectrum.
Conrad Orzel is one of a quad of talented juniors that train with the team at the Cricket Club in Toronto. Orzel joined the club at the end of last season after working with Ana Najarro in York Region for 15 years.
“I feel that throughout the years I made so much progress at my old club with Eva. She put in so much work and really helped me progress with my skating,” Orzel said. “She taught me all the basics and all my triple jumps and everything. But, I felt that if I wanted to go to the next level with my skating, I really needed to make a change and I knew that moving to the Cricket would help me progress to that next level.”
Orzel said his lack of success and results on the junior circuit the past two years was a factor in making the coaching change. In the 2016-2017 season he landed in a distant 10th at his first junior Grand Prix in France and claimed silver at his second assignment in Germany. Last year, he placed seventh at his first Grand Prix in Austria and captured bronze at the second in Poland. Both seasons he skated into 13th place at the World Junior Championships. Under-rotated jumps were his nemesis.
“I think the problem was how I was preparing for competitions and strategizing my programs. I was too ambitious with my programs and that led me to make mistakes at my competitions,” Orzel explained. “Now I am really focused on skating clean to get the points. With the new scoring system it really matters if you make a mistake and I know now that if we are going to add new things to my programs they have to be consistent. Before, even if elements were not consistent I would still put them in my programs.”
Orzel has embraced his new training environment at the Cricket Club and said he is more inspired than ever before skating alongside the likes of Yuzuru Hanyu, Evgenia Medvedeva, Jason Brown and Jun-Hwan Cha. “There are a lot of other amazing skaters there and that creates a really positive environment. Everyone is trying to get better and we all help each other improve. I see that Jun’s skating skills and jumps are so good and that really motivates me to improve and become a better skater as well.”
Lee Barkell, who coached Jeffrey Buttle to the 2008 World title, is now his primary coach. “When I was thinking about making the change I thought Lee would be the best person for me to work with,” the 18-year-old said. “I have always had this kind of personality of being an anxious person who gets really nervous and stuff, but Lee is really calm and that helps me to calm down. I think that is one thing that has really improved — just staying calm at competitions and controlling my nerves.”
Orzel is competing at his first junior Grand Prix event of the season this week in Austria. He is hoping for a better result than the one he earned last time he competed in Linz. “My goal is to make top three, or preferably top two so I have a better chance of making the Junior Grand Prix Final. I think this is a reasonable goal. I feel I have the technical content to get this result. And really, a second goal would be to just stay calm and really perform how I do in practice. My practices have been really good in preparation for this competition.”
Barkell was in Slovakia with Stephen Gogolev last week, but was back at the Cricket Club on Monday for Orzel’s practice session. “Lee came back from Slovakia right after the competition finished on Saturday, so he could see me once more in practice before we left for Austria,” said Orzel. Skater and coach left for Austria on a 9 p.m. flight Monday evening.
The Toronto teenager has been training the quad toe and quad Salchow the past year and his hoping all the hard work he has invested in those jumps will pay off this season. He said they are now consistent and he is “really trying not to pop the jumps anymore. The number of times I pop jumps has gone down drastically since I made the coaching change. I have also been working on doing more repetitions.
“In the spring and summer I was working on the quad Lutz and quad flip on the sidelines, but then I started just focusing on the quad toe and quad Salchow for this season.”
Orzel said that training alongside three of his junior rivals — Stephen Gogolev, Joseph Phan and Corey Circelli — is an inspiring scene to be part of. “It is great. We really support one another and we are all really motivated. Every single skater at the Cricket is so motivated. It never bothers any of us that we are competing against each other because we all have our own personal goals. Off the ice we are able to put competition aside and have a really great friendship with each other.
“When we are training we are always watching each other and trying to improve off one another. For example, if one person is doing stroking or jumps and they are improving, I reflect on that myself and think, ‘can I improve this, or can I do that better? How can I incorporate that into my element or jump or whatever I am doing?’”
The junior skaters train in the elite sessions alongside the senior skaters at the Cricket Club. Orzel said everyone has the same schedule “so we are all in the highest session category together. It’s really cool.”
This season his short program is to “In My Blood,” which Buttle choreographed. “Lee suggested I go to Jeffrey for my short. I always looked up to Jeff when I was a younger skater,” Orzel said. “He always inspired me and was like my idol so we thought he having a program done by him would be a really good vehicle for me for the next season or two or however long I keep this short program.
“I skated to this music in a show at the Cricket Club and I think Jeff saw that and thought it would be great for my short. I already knew the music well with all the beats and stuff so it was really easy for me to grasp the program he was designing for me.”
His long, set to “Romeo and Juliet” by Nino Rota, was designed by Joey Russell. Orzel had never worked with him before but did take a few lessons with Russell when he first moved to the Cricket Club.
“My short is something I can relate to more because it is really raw and emotional and it really shows one side of my skating. It is about someone who has a lot of anxiety and is going through change,” Orzel explained. “I had such a huge change this year … as I said, I am kind of a nervous and anxious person and that is what this music is about. I think I like it more because I can relate to it. My long program is more sophisticated and has this elegant vibe to it. It is an amazing piece and I really love skating to it as well.”
Orzel knows he had been more of a technical skater and that his artistry “was kind of lacking in the past.” That is one aspect he knows has improved since he made the coaching change. “I started appreciating skating as a whole — like the spins and everything and not just the jumps,” he said. “I am really committed to this transition and believe I have really improved. I think that showed in my programs at the summer competitions. I work so hard on stroking and skating with Tracy Wilson, Brian Orser, Lee and everyone at the Cricket and am really trying to improve my grade of execution on different elements.
“My summer competitions were a bit rough because I was training much better than what I showed technically but, in general, I have had a lot of positive feedback from all the Skate Canada people and the coaches at the Cricket as well so that is really great.
“I am really grateful to the Cricket for taking me on, putting so much work into me and for giving me the opportunity to skate with all the other amazing athletes there. It was kind of rough … when I was not skating my best, but moving to the Cricket Club and getting the reassurance that I can progress has helped me find my love for skating again
“Skating has been my only passion since I was a young kid. This was my only competitive sport. I played soccer when I was younger but skating has been my life and I have had a lot of fortune and success in the sport.”
Orzel will head to Ljubljana, Slovenia, for his second assignment. His main goal this year is to earn a berth at the Junior Grand Prix Final, which he said would mean everything to him. “When I compete at my Grand Prix events I know I have to put that aside and perform to the best of my ability, but that is what I have been working for and making the Final is definitely my ultimate goal this year. That would be my best accomplishment at this point.”
He placed 11th at his senior nationals debut last January but is aiming for a top five finish in 2019. “I feel comfortable skating at the senior level, and I think it will give me more exposure and I could have good results. Top five would be an amazing achievement.
“There is so much talent in Canada. Even at the lower levels you see a lot of kids doing tougher jumps like triple Axels now. This also motivates me because to get on the podium at senior nationals in Canada, I really need to improve. That would set me up for international competitions much better as there is such a competitive environment in Canada.
“This season is like a new start for me. It has been a huge change and I am still figuring out how to incorporate everything I am learning into my skating. I have to learn to stay calm so I can show all the work I have done and just perform it at competitions.”