A full season of figure skating, like so many other sports, can become quite the grind. Practice after practice after practice, mixed in with the occasional competition here and there, and then right back to the drawing board, to refine and improve all over again.
Small wonder then that the collection of figure skating talent from across northern Ontario that congregated at the Garson Arena for a day long seminar with Canadian Olympians Meagan Duhamel and Eric Radford was so excited to insert something different as a break into their skating routine.
It's a state of mind that is certainly not lost on the stars of skating that these kids so admire. “For me, personally, I really like teaching with a group of kids like that,” said Radford. “It's fun to see their competitive instincts come out. When somebody masters a new skill and they're surrounded by their friends, it's really really exciting.”
“It's important for us to try and inspire the next generation of skaters, and try and get more people in the community involved in figure skating,” he added. "We like to leave them with a couple of technical tips that are going to help them, but I think the biggest thing is maybe a deepened interest in the sport, and above all else, make sure that there is still a sense of fun."
"The idea is that you can work hard, and that it can still be fun," emphasized Radford. While the format allows for limited one on one time with any of the individual skaters, that doesn't mean that there isn't an opportunity for the young athletes to glean very helpful information from the two-time world champions.
“The key thing is rotation, any sort of exercise that is teaching them rotational skills,” noted Duhamel. “That's something you can do at any level, with one, two or three rotations. Teaching them the focus of body control, learning where the balance is and understanding core stabilization - these are things that will help them in any sport.”
"There are varying levels out here, from Can Skaters all the up to an adult skater," added Duhamel. "And there were four or five boys in figure skates today, not just "Learn to Skate" boys in hockey skates."
"We haven't seen that in this area in a long time. It's really nice to see, it's encouraging. If you ever want to create a dance or a pairs team out here, you have to have boys that figure skate."
The students, meanwhile, were quick to note an appreciation for the contrasting styles of the recently retired pairs team. “Meagan and Eric even each other out,” said 15 year-old Kapuskasing Skating Club veteran Marion Miller. “Meagan is more on the intense side and Eric is more relaxed. It makes them a good team. If they see us on the ice struggling with something, they just go straight ahead and tell us what's wrong and how to fix it. You do it the way she wants you to and it's all good from there.”
This was not the first time that Miller had worked with the duo that dominated the national pairs scene for the better part of a decade. Taking their advice, and working closely with her club coaches back home, the grade 10 student at Kapuskasing District High School entered the 2018-2019 season with a solid handle on skills that required improvement.
“I am working on consistently landing my double salchow, and starting a new double,” said Miller. “I tend to rush into my salchow. I like to do my three turn and then go up really quickly, when really, I have to slow down, break it up and then go up. You really have to focus and take your time with it, especially in my case.”
Just nine years of age, Alexia Tackaberry of the host Nickel Blades Skating Club in Nickel Centre pretty much exemplifies the enthusiastic passion for the sport that so captivates the likes of Duhamel and Radford. With about two thirds of the day completed, the grade four student at Camille Perron in Markstay had already garnered a positive takeway from the event.
“I learned that when I do my back spin, I can also do a loop at the same time, one right after the other,” noted the talkative youngster. Mind you, that is but the start of her continued development. “I want to do an axel, like them, perfect, maybe a double axel,” Tackaberry continued.
“Right now, I am working on only one axel. We have to do a waltz jump, but in the air, we have to do a back spin. It's pretty tricky, because I can't do a backspin in the air. I have to cross my foot over and also spin in the air.”
The challenges, however, are but part of the fun for Tackaberry. "I like figure skating because I can do all kinds of jumps and spins, multiple jumps," she said. "We skate around the ice at competitions, close to the boards, and then we get to do solos, we get to do tricks that we need to practice on."
Just a few years older than Tackaberry, Chelmsford Skating Club representative Jocelyn Jolette can very much relate to the jump challenges that the former had alluded to. “I definitely want to land my axel, but I don't know if that's going to happen, because it's all over the place,” said Jolette, a grade 7 student at Marymount Academy.
“I try and jump, but my limbs just kind of go insane. My coach tells me that I can jump really high, but when it comes to spinning, my legs go everywhere and I can't spin. But I can do really good sit spins. I seem to be able to compact myself into small areas. I can crunch up this way, but not the other way.”
While Jolette enjoys the competitive nature of figure skating, most notably when it comes to taking to the ice with her club mates, a trio of whom are cousins at about the same level, there is one relatively new facet of skating that most appeals to her. “My interpretive and creative are most fun, because there's no pressure to land something, there's no jumps,” stated the well-spoken 12 year old.
“With creative, you just go out on the ice, they give you the music and you have to skate to it. Everybody has the same music. They play it once and you just listen to it, and the second time, you're supposed to just skate around. By the third time, you go out and skate to it, one by one.”
Forced to back out of a workshop last summer with the Olympians due to sickness, Jolette was thrilled to experience the entire format of the sessions on Friday. "They're really interesting to skate with," she said. "They see things with a whole different perspective."
"Usually the seminars we go to, we just sit and listen to somebody talk," Jolette continued. "I like how today, we only had to sit for ten minutes, and then we were always moving and doing stuff. I'm really fidgety."
The elder statesman of this group at 16 years of age, Stephanie Prior (Nickel Blades) summarized the inevitable balancing act, when it comes to jumps, that are part and parcel of pursuing figure skating well into your teenage years. “I would say that I am powerful, I skate fast and have a lot of strength, and I like being in the air and taking off,” she said.
“But you have to have it in the back of your head that you might fall. If you're afraid to fall, then you're never going to push yourself. I've had coaches that have taught me that you can't be afraid, you have to just go for it.”
Looking across her inventory of jumps, Prior acknowledged that there are certainly some that provide a greater sense of comfort at takeoff. "My loop and double loop - I just find that those are so much easier, to ride off my edge and just go, rather than my axel and double salchow."
Sometimes, the proper musical accompaniment can go a long way in helping the process along, providing a little extra motivation. “I have two solos,” said Prior. “One is very slow, one is very fast. I won't say that I have a particular style of music that I like more, but I like to pick music that isn't very popular. For example, I would never pick Let it Go (from Frozen).”
As for Duhamel and Radford, they now have completely free rein on the music they select as they remain busy on the skating show circuit. It's but one area of involvement that is keeping them super busy. “I really struggle right now, because my “to do” list is just too long,” said Duhamel with a smile.
A very natural inteview, she is looking forward to reprising a role that she performed during a stop in the Grand Prix circuit before Christmas. "I worked on commentary and I'm doing it again at Canadians," she said. "I get to talk, I get to talk about skating, and I get to watch skating, and those are all things I enjoy."
“I just want to do so many things, but that's a good problem to have.” The young skaters in Garson on Friday were simply thankful that one of those things remains spending a little time with the grassroots athletes in her own hometown and area.