A youthful Patrick Chan, then a neophyte to figure skating but already dreaming in golden hues, sat tying his skates at a suburban Toronto arena, watching a solitary figure glide effortlessly across the ice.
Prepping for another training session that would one day lead to a world championship, Chan looked on, almost in awe, as the skater landed jump after jump. It was done with such ease, so smooth, that it almost overwhelmed him.
Watching Ken Rose that winter day also spurred Chan on. It provided, in some small way, the inspiration that would drive him to become the best skater in the world.
"I was in the lounge watching him skate while getting ready and he was nailing these triples like nothing, like butter," Chan recalled in an interview with QMI Agency. "I was, like, 'One day I hope that I can do the same thing.' I just wanted to come into a rink one day and just nail these triples like it's nothing. I look back at that day and think, 'Wow, look at where I am now.' I never knew I'd be where I am now."
Rose topped out as the Canadian junior champion in 2003, and had middling success as a senior skater. He's now a skating coach, working with another generation of up-and-comers.
And Chan, as the curtain comes down on a year that quite possibly has been the finest in Canadian figure skating history, finds himself on top of the world.
• • •
Chan's year, a two-part drama split by a summer intermission, couldn't have been scripted better if left in the hands of Hollywood's hottest screenwriters.
The 20-year-old from Toronto finished the calendar year unbeaten on the ice, though maybe a little bruised off it (more on that later).
Five events, five gold medals. Nothing short of perfect.
Even Chan, as honest and forthright an individual you'll find on the often seedy world of fun and games, didn't see it coming. Well, not really.
"Not this well, for sure," he admitted. "I didn't think I would be, say, undefeated. I was just taking it one competition at a time. I had no idea. But I knew that something good was going to happen."
Something good started early in 2011.
In January, at the unfortunately named Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre in Victoria, B.C., Chan lapped the field to win his fourth consecutive national championship, finishing with a Canadian-record 285.85 points. Silver medalist Shawn Sawyer, a 26-year-old from Quebec whose best results came as a junior, finished 55 points behind, a blowout loss if there ever was one.
Three months later at the world championships, an event that was postponed and moved to Russia from Japan after that country was ravaged by an earthquake and tsnunami, Chan topped himself.
After back-to-back silver-medal showings, Chan finally broke through for the world title in Moscow. And he did it in record fashion, setting new world marks with his scores in the short program (93.02 points), long program (187.96) and overall (280.98).
The summer break from competition did nothing to slow Chan's momentum. In a span of less than two months, Chan won the Skate Canada International in Mississauga, Ont., the Trophee Eric Bompard in Paris and, earlier this month, the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final in Quebec City.
"It's been a long road. It hasn't been just by luck, like the stars all aligned properly and I had a great season," Chan said. "I did a lot of different things, I tried new things. After the Olympics, especially, I changed a lot. I changed my nutrition, the way I ate; I changed the way I trained off ice. I explored another dimension of skating, in dance and movements, doing more modern dance. And of course I changed coaches and went to a new training rink in Colorado, where there is tons of motivation, tons of great skaters.
"It's been a combination of everything. Everything has come together and it's had time to brew and then sit and settle. That's why this season has been successful."
• • •
Confidence is a funny thing for athletes. It can be fleeting, tough to nail down and even tougher to hang on to. Even for the very best in sport.
In addition to riding a wave of momentum, Chan is being carried along by a what he's called in the past a "new wave" of confidence. But it hasn't always been that way for Chan, though, and that could be why he finds himself stepping to the top of the podium so frequently, even at the major events that previously to ended in tears, not titles.
Remember that fifth-place finish at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010? Not medaling on home ice might have crushed others. Not Chan.
Maybe it's maturity. Perhaps it comes from learning hard lessons. Whatever the case, the "nervous skater" Chan admits he was when he broke onto the international skating scene has disappeared, replaced by a self-assured and upbeat personality on the ice.
"I'm always striving for a type of confidence, a quiet confidence," Chan said. "As long as you work hard and you do the right things and you stick to your guns and you don't veer off of it, then confidence will come from the repetition and, of course, the success at competitions. Winning comptitions means you are doing the right things. I have a lot more confidence going into competitions. But it's a confidence I don't necessarily use to intimidate or use against people.
"It's more of a confidence that allows me to relax and go to the competition and be friendly. Instead of giving all my competitors the cold shoulder like some other people would, I try to be much more relaxed and interactive."
• • •
Initially, Chan didn't recall the interview that started the firestorm of controversy days before he was skate in the Grand Prix Final.
The words, spoken months ago soon after Chan had returned from a trip to China, his parents' home country, appeared in a Reuters piece meant to act as a preview to the high-profile event in Quebec City. The quotes painted Chan in an anti-Canadian light -- he intimated that his skills were unappreciated in Canada and if he skated for China, "things would have been very different" -- and appeared to be another example of a petulent athlete complaining that hockey gets all the press in this country.
When the story broke, though, Chan didn't dodge it. At a hastily-arranged press conference, he apologized. Then moved on.
"I was a bit shocked (at the backlash). Yeah, of course," Chan admitted. "It's completely understandable. It's what happened, a life lesson. I definitely learned a lot from that, which is great. I just accepted it and said, 'Of course I said these things.'
"But I didn't mean it in that way and I left it up in the air to interpret it on their own, which is my mistake and totally my fault. I'm a very excitable person who likes to talk about their latest experience, so that's what I was doing. I was voicing what I was feeling at the time. I can't change who I am. I think that's what makes me different and makes people remember me. Being honest is very important."
Effectively, confronting it head on took the momentum out of a story that could have raged on for days.
• • •
Kurt Browning recently called Chan the best male figure skater he's ever seen. Pretty heady stuff considering Browning's own resume. Or that of Elvis Stojko, Brian Orser and Toller Cranston.
The comparison to any of Canada's figure skating legends, deserving though it may be, seems to embarrass Chan.
"First of all, Kurt doesn't remember what he says," Chan said with a laugh. "He may regret saying that. Maybe it's a good thing but I don't even think I'm at that point yet. As much as these guys tell me I'm at that point ... I could never compare myself to Kurt. I'm telling myself every day, that's what I'm working to. I'm still working on it, I'm still working for that point of being a showman, not just being a competitor. As much as people may tell me I'm one of the best, it's still not enough for me."
As Chan himself said, he feels like he's still being chased. And being chased, could spur him on to even greater things.
"There's still a lot of competition and I can't rest on my laurels," he said. "I have to constantly make improvements, constantly strive (to move) forward so the rest of the pack can't catch up to me."
• • •
Patrick Chan, world champ.
It has a nice ring to it. But the reality is, Chan is still the same guy he was when he attended Ecole secondaire Etienne-Brule in North York. The same guy who finished fifth at the Olympics. The same guy who, all those years ago, was mesmerized by the sight of Ken Rose spinning through the air and dancing across the ice.
"When it happened, when I won worlds last year, I was waiting for something to hit me, a eureka moment," Chan explained. "But nothing happened. It was completely normal and that's amazing. It's not like you're going to be a different person the next day. How are you going to wake up and be a different person? It's a very funny thing. Something so prestigious is so normal once you get it. Everything around you changes, maybe the people who surround you change. Overall, you're the same.
"I knew I had the ability to be world champion. With all the new training regime, with my mentality, I had been focused on it, I had been expecting it. I think that's why it wasn't much of a difference."
GOLD, GOLD, GOLD
Patrick Chan won all five events he entered to finish 2011 undefeated. The last time he didn't step to the top of the podium was at the 2010 Grand Prix Cup of Russia, when he finished second to Tomas Verner of the Czech Republic. Since then, it's been nothing but gold, baby.
World Championships (Moscow): Gold medal, set records for scores in the short and long program, plus combined score
ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final (Quebec City): Gold medal for second consecutive year
Canadian Championships (Victoria, B.C.): Gold medal for four straight year
Skate Canada International (Mississauga, Ont.): Gold medal for second straight year
Trophee Eric Bompard (Paris): Gold medal
On the ice the kerfuffle had little effect on Chan as he won his second straight Grand Prix Final. Though his performance wan't flawless, it showed his new-found mettle and reaffirmed his status as the world's best figure skater.