VICTORIA — The crowd was getting ugly on Saturday just before Quebec’s Cynthia Phaneuf began her freeskate program.
Well, as ugly as a figure skating crowd can get.
There were some sporadic boos and the selection of teddy bears tossed on to the ice was much thinner than usual.
Vaughan teenager Alexandra Najarro, who was second after Friday’s short program, had just completed an impressive free and her marks, announced to the Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre gathering, were lower than expected.
On top of that, the judges’ computer system crashed right after Najarro’s skate and the spectators were miffed that the unfortunate Miss Phaneuf, the last skater in the field, had to wait an extra long time to start her program.
But in the end, it worked out for Phaneuf, who completed her long-awaited comeback by winning the women’s singles title — seven years after she won her first Canadian championship, in 2004, at the age of 15. At those nationals, the young Contrecoeur, Que., skater defeated eventual Olympic bronze medallist Joannie Rochette, who is two years her senior, and six-time Canadian champion Jennifer Robinson.
She also captured a silver at the prestigious Four Continents championships later that season.
“Finally, finally, finally,” said a relieved Phaneuf, after completing her Rachmaninoff-inspired freeskate, which earned her marks of 111.55 points, for a total of 172.32. “I have been waiting so long for this moment. It’s such a relief.”
There was every hope in the Phaneuf camp after she won her first nationals as a 15-year-old that her reign as the Queen of Canadian ice would be a long one. But it never happened. A stress fracture in her ankle, suffered in 2005, along with a knee injury and a late growth spurt, forced her to take the entire 2005-06 season off.
Rochette, meanwhile, began to climb up the rankings and embarked on a six-year run as the national champion. The last two Canadian championships, Phaneuf placed second to her Quebec rival, who took this season off after last year’s emotional performance at the Vancouver Olympics, where she captured the bronze right after the death of her mother.
With Rochette out, this year’s nationals was wide open, though Phaneuf was on a mission to prove that, at 22, she was still a force.
“I had this little voice telling me that I couldn’t be over with skating this way, that I had to show something more,” she said of her early struggles. “The year I was injured (2005) I was getting so bad that nobody thought I would be Canadian champion again. But you just have to believe in what you can do and believe in yourself.”
Phaneuf insisted that the delay before her free didn’t throw her off, though she faltered on her first element, over-rotating a triple toe loop. But she kept it together and skated a strong program, save for a couple of other minor mistakes, including touching on her triple salchow and down-grading a double Axel.
As for Najarro, the 17-year-old skated a marvellous free, interpreting a piece by Argentine jazz pianist Raul di Blasio, or, at least, she appeared to skate a marvelous free. She didn’t fall, but her triple flip was under-rotated and her double Axel was downgraded to a single.
Nevertheless, she landed a triple toe, another flip and two Salchows and pumped her first in triumph when she finished. The crowd also responded enthusiastically, but then booed when her scores (93.64 for the long and 145.76 overall) were announced, dropping her to fourth overall, behind a trio of Quebec skaters, Phaneuf, Myriane Samson (157.82) and Amelie Lacoste (151.72).
But the Grade 12 student at Richmond Hill’s Langstaff Secondary School was not disappointed with the scores, nor was Skate Canada president Benoit Lavoie, who took her aside afterward and told her that she “is the future” of women’s skating.
“I didn’t have as hard a long program, but I definitely tried to do what I could do, so I’m very happy,” said Najarro, who is coached by former skating phenom Tracey Wainman.