Kurt Browning, the four-time world and Canadian champion, says Patrick Chan may be the best figure skater of all time. In January, Chan clinched his fifth national title in Moncton, earning the highest marks ever in the modern scoring era. Now 21, the Toronto native exudes a quiet confidence—and who wouldn’t? Since November 2010, he’s won every competition he’s entered, including last year’s World Championships. But getting here, Chan says, meant first losing big in Vancouver.
Q: You worked 13 years toward the Olympics, missed sleepovers, school, and poured more than 10,000 hours into practice. Then, within seconds of the start of the short program in Vancouver, your dream of Olympic gold unravelled. What happened next?
A: I was furious. I wasn’t angry at anyone in particular. I was frustrated that something I’d trained and done so many times, I couldn’t do right on the day it counted most. I didn’t yell, or swear, or kick. I was just pacing, pacing, trying to figure out, “What did I do wrong? What could make it right?”
Q: Some say we should embrace the valuable insight failure brings. Two years after Vancouver, you are a much better skater, arguably the best the world has ever seen. What did failing to reach the Olympic podium teach you?
A: I got so much more out of the bad results than had I won an Olympic medal. After the Olympics, I thought: “Why am I doing what I’m doing? Why am I skating?” I had the wrong intentions, the wrong mentality. I wasn’t really skating for myself; I was skating for other people. The biggest thing it did was force me to find that passion again. I didn’t find it again until last season, when I started doing a lot more off-ice dance—dancing to music I like, challenging my balance, my strength. Through that, I realized why I like doing what I do. I love drawing the audience in, touching them. There’s a hush, or silence I just love.
Q: What else do you hear on the ice?
A: The music—that’s why it’s so important to pick music you love. But I love the hits, the thump when you land. And I love hearing the ice cut, the crackle, as you push into it.
Q: Do you hear the crowd gasp?
A: Sometimes—it’s funny. People know me so well now, they know which jumps are really shaky, where I’m unsure. Like the triple axel in Moncton [at the nationals]. I’ve worked a lot on it, so I wasn’t as nervous as usual. But when I landed it, I heard someone go: “Yesss!”
Q: It’s funny—that silence used to be your kryptonite.
A: I was scared of silence. I felt uncomfortable hearing that quiet, especially going into the quad [a quadruple jump, figure skating’s most difficult element].
Q: Last year, you sought out U.S. figure skater Brian Boitano, the former world champion. What did Boitano teach you about battling the quiet?
A: I can’t tell you. Basically it’s all about self-dialogue, telling myself: “Okay, this is where I’m going to breathe,” or, “This is where I’m going to turn toward that sign on the boards.” I have an overactive mind. It’s keeping my mind at ease, so I’m not thinking, “Oh my God, quad’s coming up, oh my God, quad’s coming up—quad, quad quad!”
Q: The biggest critique against you had been that you had no quad in your program. You’ve since mastered the jump.
A: Kathy [Johnson, his movement adviser] said, “Don’t use your arms so much.” I wanted to rotate so quickly, I would be over-rotating. I would twist my body past my legs. Your legs should always lead, then your arms will follow. It’s about delaying my body. I remember the day so clearly when it all clicked, and I landed it.
Eddie [Shipstad, his Colorado-based coach] has a harness attached to a rod, like a fishing pole; so you’re hooked in, and he’ll follow you and guide you. So if you didn’t go up well, and didn’t get the right speed, height, takeoff, you won’t kill yourself on the landing. You won’t destroy your hips, or smash your head on the ice. That’s somewhat of a comfort. Q: Recently, you were heavily criticized for a Reuters interview in which you said ideally you’d skate for both Canada and China. What did you learn from the episode?
A: Just be careful. Be more prepared for every interview, even if it’s very casual. I tend to be very personal and really get into the conversation. I’ll always be the person I am. But I’m learning what not to say.
Q: What were you trying to say?
A: There’s no doubt in my mind. I’ll always represent Canada. I was born here, and my parents chose to immigrate here. There are so many things I don’t see in other countries, I see here. I love having the Maple Leaf behind me.
Q: Pound for pound, your trainer, Andy O’Brien [also Sidney Crosby’s trainer] says you have more leg strength than almost any athlete he has ever seen. How did you build that?
A: Genetics [laughs, pointing to his mom and dad, Karen and Lewis, seated next to him]. I tend to bulk up really easily. I remember going to the National Ballet School. You have wear a unitard and I always looked so funny—these big, big quads. I actually have to be careful not to bulk up too much.
Q: You now treat your body as a temple. What do you avoid?
A: My big rule is no white pasta, no white rice, especially in the evenings. And reducing salt intake, big time, because salt automatically retains water, so you gain a lot of weight just with water. But my family believes in balance: you have to take things seriously, but sometimes you balance it out by eating some bad food.
Q: You seem so comfortable with yourself on the ice these days; you didn’t always.
A: When I go to competitions, I don’t have so much confidence that I don’t worry, or get nervous about the other skaters doing well. I still feel that way. I still feel the same as at the Olympics. I’m still nervous I’m going to fall.
Q: In hockey, the more you score the more likely you are to keep scoring. The reverse is also true: when you’re slumping, you’re more likely to get stuck there. Is the same true of figure skating?
A: Yeah, I see it a lot in my fellow skaters. You get comfortable either doing well, or not. When you’re not doing well, you have to break that pattern. That’s what I did after the Olympics: I ate differently, trained differently, started doing modern dance, even started recovering with compression pants.
Q: Do you have any pre-competition rituals?
A: If it’s not too cold, [my dad and I] will take a stroll, and just talk; maybe it’s about skating. Sometimes we just talk about regular stuff. Sometimes, we just walk; we don’t talk about anything.
Q: And how do you unwind afterwards?
A: I like to be with a very small group of friends. I have no real urge to go to the bar or to a club, even though I can now. I’d rather go to my friend’s, and just play games or talk. Last night, I went to my friend’s to play video games, to get away from it all. It’s kind of like my Zen moment. I need it, I need it.
Q: You’re so far ahead of the competition now. Who are you competing against? Yourself?
A: Of course—especially since I won Worlds last year. Usually, you say: “I want to beat this person, or I want to knock that person off the podium.” But I’m that person right now.
Q: Why do you tie your skates so loosely? You don’t see that in figure skating.
A: Traditionally, skaters tend to tie their skates very tightly. I tend to just tie my foot down, then in the ankle area I tend to keep it loose. It gives me better mobility. But also, you’re relying on your own strength, as opposed to resting on the boot.
Q: I know you have a favourite skate sharpener in Mississauga, Ont. How do you get your skates to and from Colorado Springs for sharpening?
A: Luck. The good thing about Colorado is, there’s a lot of skaters from Toronto coming and leaving. By chance, I’ll be like: “Please, can you take my skates?” Most of the time they don’t mind [laughs]. My sharpener lives close to the airport. Sometimes, if I’m just coming to Toronto briefly, he’ll meet me at the airport and sharpen my skates right away.
Q: What sport would you be playing if you weren’t figure skating?
A: I get mad at my mom. I really wish she’d put me into hockey. I’m not gifted with height, but look at Martin St-Louis. He’s unbelievable. He’s small, but he’s so fast, so skilful. I think I could have been pretty good.
Q: We’re two years from Sochi, and so far, you’ve hesitated to commit. Do you think you’ll be skating for Canada in Russia?
A: Yeah, chances are quite good [laughs]. I can’t wait to go back as this new-found athlete, with all these new skills, talents. All that’s left is making the team.