Bright future for skaters

TERRY JONES, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:52 AM ET

SASKATOON -- Is it an outhouse to powerhouse story?

Has Canada really gone from a train wreck to being back on track in the sequined sport?

Last year was a delicious, almost delirious season of success for Skate Canada, digging itself out of a hole in time to find hope for Vancouver 2010.

Canada ended a run of 22 consecutive years managing to manufacture medals at the World Figure Skating Championships by failing to put anybody on the podium in Dortmund, Germany in 2004. Then, seemingly out of nowhere last year, our nation hit for the cycle - gold, silver and bronze - a medal in each of three different disciplines in Goteborg, Sweden.

But was it a happy hat trick which could only happen once and would have been better to have happened in Vancouver 2010? Or was it the real deal?

That is the question which supplies the background music as the Canadian Figure Skating Championships opened here yesterday.

William Thompson and Michael Slipchuk, the two jockey-sized executives who took over Skate Canada two years ago and totally turned it around, believe after what we see here and at the World Figure Skating Championships in March in Los Angeles that our nation could be going into an Olympics in the sport like we never have before.

"Two years ago, when we took over, and gave a great deal of the ownership to the coaches, we were hoping we might be able go into Vancouver 2010 with a shot at two medals. I'm expecting when we're done here, and by the end of this year's world championships in Los Angeles, we could go into Vancouver with a shot at medals in all four disciplines. I didn't see that coming a year and a half ago," high performance director Slipchuk told Sun Media.

Thompson, the new CEO, says as much as the focus is on Vancouver 2010, it's also about a much bigger picture.

"It's about 2014 and 2018. It's about a big step up to becoming a country which can be dominant."

How often in the history of any sport does the defending world champion retire a year and a half before a home country Olympics? Retire because while he's world champion, he knows he's not the best skater in his own country?

Jeffrey Buttle lost the Canadian title to Patrick Chan, at 17 the youngest to ever win it, last year. But Buttle shocked the world by winning the Worlds. Then he quit!

"Jeff had a dream week. He couldn't put a foot down wrong. No doubt about that," said Thompson.

Could Canada lose a world champion and not miss him?

Chan, looking very much like he could be the next Kurt Browning, won two Grand Prix events.

"Patrick has proved he can challenge. At age 18, he's a threat right now," said Thompson.

Joannie Rochette will be under the microscope to see if the recent signs she's shown of becoming the first Canadian woman to have Olympic podium potential since Liz Manley are or are not an illusion.

"Joannie has had a break-through season," said Slipchuk. "She won two Grand Prix events, beating the world champion in the second one. She's found a confidence that's great to see.

"She stayed the course. She proved you don't have to be 15 and a jumping machine. She's 20 and getting stronger every year."

Last year Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir won silver at the Worlds in dance.

"They launched in sixth place the year before. That's unheard of in dance," said Thompson.

Despite getting beat for the Canadian title by Annabelle Langlois and Cody Hay, the pairs team of Jessica Dube and Bryce Davison won bronze at Worlds.

"They're a world class team," said Thompson.

Normally our nation picks the World team by podium position at Canadians.

But because of the Vancouver Four Continents test event in February, it will be done there, not here.

"The key to Saskatoon will be who finishes second and third. The world championships in Los Angeles determine the number of skaters we'll get in each discipline and we want to get three in as many events as possible. It's important we have the strongest team in L.A."

For a lot of skaters here who are not named Chan, Rochette, Virtue, Moir, Dube or Davison, it's a chance to get a skate up on becoming an Olympian.

"Saskatoon opens an opportunity to get to Worlds and then to the Olympics," says Slipchuk. "Everybody has to earn their way. Nobody is going to go on cruise control."

TERRY.JONES@SUNMEDIA.CA


Photos