Pressure

For the first time in decades, there is only one precious ticket available for a Canadian man at the upcoming 2020 World Championships in Montréal, and as expected, two best friends lead the chase for that lone spot — and the Canadian title that goes along with it. But have no doubt, they will be cheering each other all the way to the finish line — and feeling the pressure.

It is Keegan Messing, in search of his first national crown, who leads with an edge heading into Saturday’s free skate finale. With his wife Lane and his parents in the stands, Messing laid down an emotional short program performance to “Perfect” by Ed Sheeran, posting a 92.61 score to take a 4.57-point lead over defending champion Nam Nguyen (88.04). Roman Sadovsky stands third (85.02), and Joseph Phan is also within striking distance of the podium (82.74).

Messing′s short program has special meaning for the 27-year-old. It is the music that accompanied his first dance with his bride at their wedding last year.

The Alaska native roared out of the gate with a quad toe-triple toe combination and triple Axel, but later in the program had to put two hands down to keep from falling on a triple Lutz. “That triple Lutz … it’s the most consistent jump that I have,” said Messing who nonetheless earned a standing ovation for his performance. “I just got a little bit of the wobbly legs, but I managed to save it.”

Nguyen, meanwhile, downgraded his opening combination to a quad-double, which accounted for a good chunk of the gap between he and Messing on the score sheet. “I was a little bit tentative, but I was still able to push everything through,” he said. “I was a little intimate with the boards on the (triple Salchow), but I just wanted to focus on performing to the audience.”

Both Messing and Nguyen acknowledge that, given the high stakes in Saturday’s long program, the pressure they are feeling is palpable. “You’ve got one of the most amazing competitors, who is our reigning national champion, so that definitely puts pressure on for Worlds,” said Messing. “But you know, I’ve got to say even if this guy comes in front of me, Worlds is in good hands.”

When Nguyen, the last skater of the competition, arrived in the mixed zone he also admitted feeling the pressure while acknowledging his best friend. “It’s normal to have that pressure, right? If I ever met the person who doesn’t feel that kind of pressure, I have a lot of questions to ask them about what medication they’re on. That pressure is really what gives us that extra push in a competition atmosphere. Keegan did his job tonight, so it’ll definitely be interesting tomorrow.”

Sadovsky was not entirely pleased with his performance, which included a pair of under-rotated jumps. But he is hopeful about rebounding in the long program. “It doesn’t completely reflect how I’ve been training. I kind of broke under the pressure I put on myself,” the 20-year-old admitted.

LADIES

As the old saying goes, what a difference a year makes.

This time last year, Alicia Pineault was sitting in the stands in Saint John, New Brunswick, nursing a badly sprained ankle that kept her from competing at the 2019 Canadian Championships. 

This year, the 20-year-old from Montréal skated confidently onto the ice Friday afternoon and seized top spot in the ladies’ short program, posting a score of 63.15 that put her 2.49 points in front of senior debutante Madeline Schizas (60.66) and former Canadian champion Gabrielle Daleman (59.51)

Pineault, whose best previous finish at nationals was seventh in Ottawa in 2017, suddenly finds herself in position to claim the Canadian title. There was a certain bounce in her step as she laid down a relatively clean performance, which seems to come from an attitude of knowing she is now in a much better place than she was 12 months ago.

Hours before she departed for Saint John in 2019, Pineault sprained her left ankle in two places. Though she tried to push through practices, she was forced to withdraw from the competition. But she stayed to watch the event and said it made her realize how much she loved skating.

Needless to say, she has great appreciation for where she stands today. “Last year, I couldn’t skate. Today, it was already better than last year,” she said when asked if she feels any pressure. “The improvement is crazy already. I just have a whole new perspective about skating … I have everything to win and nothing to lose. I don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow, but I’m still going to be 100 percent committed. The only thing I can control is my intention and not my results.”

Schizas, a 16-year-old from nearby Oakville, Ontario, arrived at these nationals with not much in the way of expectations. But instead, she finds herself right in the thick of the battle for the title in her senior debut. “It was a really big jump. Last year I was in juniors, so I’m just so excited to be here,” she said. “I’m really excited for tomorrow. I’m excited to get the chance to perform again … that’s my favorite part of skating — to perform for people. I’m just so happy.”

Daleman, meanwhile, has some work to do if she hopes to win a third Canadian title. While she stayed upright throughout her performance, it was anything but clean and lacked an element of sharpness when it came to the landing of the jumps. “I am absolutely pissed off with how I skated,” Daleman said. “It was awful. It was not me or how I’ve been training. I’m going to put it behind me and focus on tomorrow and what I need to do.”

ICE DANCE

Talk about a hair-raising experience.

While Piper Gilles and Paul Poirier took a commanding lead in the ice dance competition, pretty much all the talk afterward was about a brief moment when her hair became entangled in one of the buttons of Poirier’s shirt. The duo recovered and did not miss another beat as they sailed through their “Mack and Mabel” short dance.

As they arrived to face the media, Gilles, just shook her head and said “there better be some good memes of that! I’m sure it’ll be on YouTube for a long time. But it’s all in good fun and we had a great performance after it, so I can’t really be upset with what happened. It’s a laugh, that’s for sure.”

While the wardrobe malfunction caused a brief moment of concern, it did not stop Gilles and Poirier from posting an 88.86 score, good for an 11.06-point lead heading into Saturday’s free dance. “That’s part of sport. Weird things happen and you just have to keep skating,” said Poirier. “Overall, it was a really great skate for us and I think in some way, it was a distraction that kind of settled us. We were really pleased with the skate, that we were able to overcome that and performed really solidly.”

The short dance also marked the senior debut at nationals of Marjorie Lajoie and Zachary Lagha, the reigning World Junior champions and winners of the junior title at the last three Canadian championships. Though Lagha had an issue with a twizzle, the couple stands second with 77.26 points, slightly ahead of Carolane Soucisse and Shane Firus (75.83).

“Marjorie thought it was very good. I thought it was OK,” Lagha said. “I was a little bit disappointed with that twizzle, but that’s OK. I’ll have it tomorrow. I don’t know why, but the magic number 77 came to my mind at the beginning of the competition. After that mistake in the twizzle, I thought maybe we would get 75 or something, but we still got 77. It’s a really good score and we’re really happy. We’ll take it.”

Soucisse and Firus came to Mississauga looking for a second-place finish — and a potential trip to the World Championships in Montréal — in their minds. They were happy with their short dance. “Overall, we really like the attack we skated with, the confidence. We just left some little ice dance points on the table. We were happy with the score … 75 is good for us,” said Firus.

PAIRS

The defending champions were a little bit wobbly. The “newcomers” were elated. And a third entry chose just the right time to have their skate of the season. Add it all up, and there’s quite the battling brewing for the top step of the pairs podium.

Defending champions Kirsten Moore-Towers and Michael Marinaro had one “glaring error” — to use her words — on the side-by-side jumps, but hold the lead after winning the short program with a 73.73 score. That is 2.50 points better than Lubov Ilyushechkina and Charlie Bilodeau (71.23), with Evelyn Walsh and Trennt Michaud rounding out the top three (70.34).

Moore-Towers was still fretting about the step out on her triple toe as she spoke about their performance afterward, which the couple was happy with for the most part. “I’m a little bummed,” she said. “I don’t usually miss my jumps. I think it was a minor lack of focus that led to an unfortunate step out. Overall, we have a lot of a good takeaways, but I’m obviously focused a little bit on my glaring error.”

However, Marinaro believes he and Moore-Towers are set up well for Saturday’s long program, which will decide not only the medal positions but probably the World assignments. “Overall, we’re happy with the performance and the mindset and the attack today,” he said. “It wasn’t perfect out there today but we’re headed in the right direction. We’re ready to come out tomorrow to bring our A game and bring a special moment to the event, hopefully.”

Ilyushechkina and Bilodeau, meanwhile, were thrilled with their first outing as a team on the national championships stage (both have been here before with previous partners) checking off each element in a positive way. Even before their marks came up on the scoreboard, they were sure they had done the job. “We knew that we had put out a good skate,” said Bilodeau. “We have to wait for the scores, but at the end when the music finished, we thought OK, yes, we did what we were supposed to do. We did it well and let’s be happy about that.”

Walsh and Michaud, the 2019 silver medalists, had a rough fall season but found their footing Friday at what Michaud calls “their favorite event” of the year. “Honestly, it was a relief,” said Walsh. “We love this program and we wanted to share that feeling with everyone and tell that story. Of course, when the elements are going better, it’s easier to do that. It just felt like we did every element to the best of our abilities, which is all you can ask for as an athlete.”

The pressure will be in overdrive mode on Saturday with the free skates in all disciplines deciding who goes to home Worlds…and who stays home.   

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2020 CANADIAN NATIONALS