He barely is 5-foot-8; a 138-pound spitfire with a plume of blond hair fashioned in an elegant tousle that makes him look more like the kid next door than a budding national figure skating star. Jeff Buttle, Canadian champion and now world silver medallist, has found a way to be comfortable in both roles.
"The medal? It's sitting in my pocket," said Buttle, in Toronto yesterday to promote his addition to the Stars On Ice tour. "I've been showing it off a lot but sometimes it's with the rest of my medals."
That would be in a back-lit, gilded trophy case, right?
He laughs. "They're hanging off my television set or in a box. I suppose I need to start displaying them with a little more pride."
Buttle is just nudging his way into the pantheon of Canada's great male figure skaters, following the aesthetic beauty that was Toller Cranston, the elegant precision of Kurt Browning and the macho renaissance of Elvis Stojko.
But at age 22 he's like a lot of single guys. "To understand where he is in life it may be necessary to step over a few pizza boxes. "I have a townhouse in Barrie ... ahhh, it's not tooooo bad ... although I'm not sure about just inviting people inside. They might be a bit disgusted. Sometimes the newspapers accumulate outside the door so that you can't even get too it. It depends what day you come over."
Suffice to say, he has done his best cleaning up on the ice. It has been a surprising turnabout for Buttle, who a year ago was wondering if he even had a future in this sport. He had finished third at the 2004 nationals and failed to make the worlds team. "It was devastating. If I hadn't felt so badly maybe it would've been time to retire. But I was still passionate about the sport. I felt I was capable of more."
He told his coach in Barrie, Lee Berkell, that he needed a change. Berkell suggested Buttle go to California for two months to train with Rafael Arutunian, who also coaches American star Michelle Kwan. "I wasn't expecting results right away but (winning the Canadian championships and a silver at the worlds) makes me feel I've made the right decisions. This medal means a lot more than all the other ones I've won, but it's still just a medal."
"The best thing that can come from this is the motivation that it gives me for training, knowing the gold is within my grasp at the Olympics."
In skating's new cumulative-points scoring system, Buttle has more moves than most. He gets credit for precise spins and intricate footwork that others don't, so even if he falls it still is possible for him to win a medal. One thing he doesn't have is a quad jump. It will be the focal point of his training this summer.
"Last year I made so many other changes. Now, I'm comfortable in my situation and I'll be able to drill (the quad) as much as I can. It's at the stage now where I can land it, so it's just about getting the confidence to do it consistently. I will need it to get on the podium at the Olympics."
And Skate Canada has big Olympic expectations. At the nationals in London in January, Skate Canada CEO Pam Coburn promised two medals in Moscow and four more at the worlds and Olympics in 2006. "We need our CEO to show optimism. Maybe it wasn't a reality. Maybe a bit idealistic," Buttle said of the rest of the Canadian team that imploded in Moscow.
It was as if the teen angels who had flown so majestically at the national championships the past two years suddenly were blinded by the limelight. "That's sort of where the sport becomes interesting," Buttle said of the psychological game all elite athletes play. "When you're young enough you don't realize the pressure and just do the job. But you get to a point where you feel the pressure.
"And Joannie (Rochette, who finished 11th at the words) is coming to terms with that. She's learning to become a real competitor."
Cynthia Phaneuf just turned 17 and battled a growth spurt all winter, Buttle said. "Cynthia (20th at the worlds) had a lot to deal with ... and in the sport we're in, it's very important to feel comfortable with your body. She'll do much better next year."
Buttle seems to have found his own comfort zone. "It gets to the point where you've learned the jumps you need to be a champion. You just have to mentally hold it together. When you get to the Olympics it isn't so much a difference in the physical ability of the athletes as it is about mental strength.
"I've developed that mental strength." Not to mention some nifty footwork dancing through those newspapers on his doorstep.