A little more than one year later, Patrick Chan has no regrets about his decision to retire from competitive figure skating. But retirement has not meant the 28-year-old is kicking back in a rocking chair, putting his feet up and taking it easy. If anything, Chan has been busier than ever the last 12 months.
It has been 18 months since he last stepped onto competitive ice, but, for the most part, Canada’s Patrick Chan is looking forward not back. Though the change of lifestyle can be daunting for many, Chan appears to be managing the transition from elite-level athlete to his new life rather well. He does admit, however, that there are still occasional brief moments when he feels the tug to his skating past.
What has helped with his transition is the presence of his girlfriend Elizabeth Putnam, with whom he lives in Vancouver. A two-time national bronze medalist in pairs with Sean Wirtz, Putnam performed on cruise ships for a number of years following her retirement from competitive skating. She now works as a choreographer in the Vancouver area.
“I retired at a relatively normal age in terms of skating. I’m not saying it has been an easy transition,” Chan admitted. “I find myself having moments, especially when I’m watching something like the World Championships on TV to see what the next generation is doing. It does rekindle that competitive fire a little bit. But then, seeing what they’re doing now, reality kicks in and I realize it wouldn’t work in this lifetime for me to compete again.”
Chan credits Putnam for playing a major role in his transition to a life outside of skating. “We’ve spent many, many nights sitting on the patio, drinking wine and talking about our careers,” he said with a smile. “Sometimes it’s tough getting a perspective. I had an illustrious career, an amazing career with no shortage of results. For some other skaters, including Liz … it wasn’t that way. But to see what she has done with her life and how happy she is, it just makes me realize there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. I got everything I wanted out of skating. There are no resentments, unlike post-2014. So, it’s been a really nice transition.”
After winning two silver medals at the 2014 Olympic Winter Games, Chan took a year off from the competitive circuit, but there was always a sense back then that he was not done. However, the mindset in his first year after the 2018 Olympic Games — where he was a member of Canada’s gold-medal winning entry in the Team Event — is nowhere near the same. “I still had a bit of that hunger in 2015,” Chan recalled. “The training schedule was manageable, and it was a commitment I wanted to make. Whereas now, it’s very different … going to skate at a rink every day just doesn’t seem appealing anymore. That does not mean I’m not going to be involved in skating going forward, it will just be in a different capacity.
While Chan still skates two or three days a week — he ramped that up to four days at times prior to the Canadian Stars On Ice (SOI) tour — he admits he really does enjoy the days when he does not have to skate. “Sometimes when Liz has to go to the rink, I’ll tag along. It’s kind of funny how my appreciation for skating has changed,” Chan said. “Liz and I created one of my show numbers for Stars together. There were days when we went to the rink at 10 p.m. and skated, and it was kind of nice to have quiet, private ice and be creative. Working together was a lot of fun. It was a really good learning experience for me.”
Originally, he intended to continue as a show skater until at least 2022, but a ski accident he suffered in Vail, Colorado, in December has given him pause to re-evaluate that plan. Chan tore the medial collateral and posterior collateral ligaments in his left knee, which kept him off the ice until the end of February.
Though he is currently managing the injury through physiotherapy, Chan knows that for his long-term health, surgery is quite likely down the road. Following his return home from the ski trip, he sought opinions from surgeons in Toronto and Vancouver. “There’s just a lot of instability in the knee. The range of motion is more than it should be in certain situations but because I had two tours booked they said surgery was maybe not the best option,” Chan explained. “It’s a complex surgery — they said it’s about six-hours — and then a nine-month recovery period.”
Chan wore a brace to provide support for the knee during the SOI tour. He admitted to being extremely nervous, especially at the beginning of the tour. “You don’t know what to expect. But with every show, my confidence kept building, and it felt better and better. I kind of forget about it when I’m skating, other than feeling the brace — that’s the only thing that reminds me that my knee is injured. Right now, it’s a bit of an unknown as to how long I’ll be doing this. Luckily, on the tour, I was able to do as much as I had planned to do before the injury. The pain is manageable, but I have to consider that surgery is possible down the road.
“If I choose to do that, it will affect my skating career, at least for the current year. I would hope to skate up until the next Olympic cycle, but right now I just look until 2020 and I’ll go from there.”
During the Ottawa stop of the SOI tour, Chan received a “Key to the City” from the mayor, Jim Watson. Chan was born in Canada’s capital, but moved to Toronto at a young age. He described the honor as “unexpected and special.”
“It was amazing. They had a pipe band; 250 people were at City Hall. My mom, Liz, Mike (Slipchuk, Skate Canada’s high-performance director) and Debra (Armstrong, Skate Canada’s CEO) were there. I felt very appreciative of such an honor.”
Last December, Chan served as athlete ambassador at the Grand Prix Final, which he described as “a really fun experience.” It also gave him a chance to catch up with two of his former rivals, Brian Joubert and Stéphane Lambiel, who have both moved into full-time coaching and had students competing in Vancouver. “It was very much a realization that there’s been a changing of the guard,” Chan said. “I grew up competing against that generation for a long time. I’m the last one of that group to step away from the competitive level. They’re both very successful now and to see them grow as coaches … it was amazing to watch and catch up with them.”
Chan does not see himself following their path into full-time coaching in the near future. He thinks the time and patience and the pace of that type of work would not fit his lifestyle right now. But, he has let Skate Canada know that he is available as a consultant for any skater they think might benefit from his knowledge and experience. “I would love to give my two cents to someone like Stephen Gogolev, and see if I could maybe play a role in helping him grow as a skater, and help him deal with any challenges that he may have to go through,” said Chan. “I tell Mike all the time, ‘if you want me to talk to skaters, if you want me to come in and give a lesson or something … anything in that capacity, I’d be happy to help.’”
Chan always prided himself on being a well-rounded athlete, one whose skating skills were the foundation for everything he achieved on the ice. It is in that area that he believes he can help the next generation of competitors. Working in a camp/seminar setting is something that appeals to Chan, who said there are times when he works with skaters and is not looking at the clock. “It’s really an enjoyable process, to come in and see how excited the kids are and to be able to give them a little bit of inspiration of any kind … it’s great.
“I want to help skaters realize how important skating skills are,” he said. “I’ve seen far too many who are trying to get through their list of jumps and get so carried away with it that, they’re not even able to hold a proper back edge going into an Axel. It’s just shocking what coaches are getting these kids to do without the proper foundation. That’s kind of my message: guys, just slow down a bit. My goal is to help skaters be their best and I want them to walk away from the sport, at whatever age they decide to do so, being able to say, ‘hey, I felt what it was like to master the blade and master the ice.’”
Chan and Putnam had a busy summer. In early June they hosted a seminar in China and later that month worked with Elladj Baldé at his Skate Global seminar series in Montréal. They also attended Eric Radford’s wedding in Spain in mid-July, and then then headed to France for a two-week camp with young skaters. “It doesn’t feel like it’s slowed down. I have a very, very busy schedule,” said Chan.
He and Putnam are also enthused about the camp they will host in August for 30 aspiring young skaters from China. It is part of that country’s push to boost winter sports participation in advance of the 2022 Olympic Winter Games. “We want to build a bit of a cool experience for them and their families in Vancouver,” Chan said. “Canada has a long history in figure skating, and we’ve had a lot of years to develop it, and we want to share that knowledge with them.”
Now that the dust has settled on his competitive life, Chan has gained a deeper appreciation for what he achieved in his 14-year career. Winning his first World title in 2011 in Moscow is one that stands out in his mind, and “winning 10 national titles is up there as well,” he said. “What I’m so grateful for from this career is I was lucky enough to have a platform to demonstrate my abilities and how amazing it felt to skate. Beyond that — and it’s a really cheesy quote — it’s truly the friends you make. Someone like Eric Radford … Eric is going to be in my life forever. And Liz — I wouldn’t be happy in Vancouver if it wasn’t for her.
“A lot of beautiful things happened … skating has given me a very, very happy and a very comfortable life. I get to do what I like and I’m financially secure enough that I can live in a place I chose, and one that I’m passionate about.”
(Originally published in the IFS July/August 2019 issue)