Patrick Chan exposed

When the world is watching, he’s faltered. This time, he says, it will be different.

Christopher Wahl

After the introduction and the applause, in the silent few seconds before the music begins, Patrick Chan knows where he will be going this February: his happy place, a clean sheet some 9,000 km away from the Iceberg Skating Palace in Sochi, where he can jump, step and spin, and where only a few friends—rather than the entire planet—are watching. It’s a mental refuge from the pressure of trying to become the first Canadian man to convert a world championship into an Olympic figure-skating gold.

“I’ll picture myself at the rink in Detroit. I’ll stand in the exact same spot on the ice and face the same direction. And I’ll think of the one place I look when I’m training—some metal scaffolding for the stairs and bleachers beyond the glass and the barrier in the rink,” says the 23-year-old Torontonian. “That’s my cue to say, ‘Okay, this is just like what I do every day.’ And I’ll think about my friends who sometimes watch me and how they clap along the way. I’ll think about how good that makes me feel. It’s a comfort zone. It’s like your blankie.”

Chan has long felt as though his best performances are the ones that come before the fewest witnesses—which is saying something, given his three consecutive World titles, seven Canadian championships and the trophy case chocked with hardware earned at figure skating’s biggest events. But winning has rarely been as much fun—or as satisfying—as those ebullient skates in practice, where he soars through the quads and gets lost in the music. In competition, he has a tendency to sweat both the small and the large stuff, from the location of his family’s seats in the stands to the position of his right arm on takeoff. And despite the wide grin that almost never leaves his face, deep-down inside, the dominant emotion is often dread. “Even when I’m winning; hands-down the best, it’s a struggle,” he says. “I’m thinking, ‘Oh, God! Just get me through this.’ It’s like surgery.”

At the Vancouver 2010 Games, his first Olympics, it all became overwhelming. After months of stressing about living up to his and his country’s podium expectations, the then-19-year-old stepped out onto the ice for his short program and fell apart. He bobbled the landing on his opening triple axel, then stumbled through his usually sure-footed step sequence. Chan was so thoroughly discombobulated by the end that he earned a penalty for finishing after the music—a career first. A solid free skate a few nights later moved him from seventh place to fifth overall, but it was cold comfort. At Canada’s most successful Winter Olympics ever, he was one of the few home favourites who failed to launch.

Just over a year later, he found himself atop the podium in Moscow, crowned the new world champion. Finally adding the quad to his arsenal of jumps—a breakthrough that came the summer after Vancouver—certainly helped lift him to a record score. Yet Chan felt his sense of ease and comfort that week was almost as important. “No one was watching. It was after the Olympics. There was no pressure,” he says. “I was motivated to compete and show off my new tricks.”

Over the last three years, Chan has emerged as the best men’s skater in the world, offering the judges a combination of athleticism, technical skills and artistry that his rivals are hard put to match. It would be a stretch to call him dominant, however. After a flawless 2011-12 season, capped with his second world title, Chan struggled to keep up the pace last year, finishing sixth at an invitational in Japan, taking silver at Skate Canada and winning his third world championship by the skin of his teeth. And while his run-up to Sochi has so far been more successful—a gold at Skate Canada, then a new world record at the Trophée Eric Bompard in Paris, he finished the pre-Christmas season with an uneven performance that left him with a silver at the Grand-Prix Final in Japan. At the time, he blamed the long months of pre-Olympic preparation—his quads were tight and his knees were hurting him at the event. But after a couple of weeks of reflection, Chan believes the real difference between this season’s triumphs and its disappointment is a more familiar foe: his mindset. “In Paris, I didn’t have any distractions. There was nothing outside the rink to worry about,” he says. “It was so much how like I train at home every day. It was just perfect.” (Chan’s next test comes at the 2014 nationals in Ottawa on Jan. 9 and 10.)

From the outside, his continuing search for that Goldilocks just-right zone at competitions looks like it’s part of a larger quest to find comfort in his own skin. Chan is polite, friendly and open to a fault, even though his unedited musings sometimes overshadow his on-ice feats. In 2011, for example, an off-the-cuff remark about how he might be better appreciated if he skated for less-hockey-obsessed China—the country of his parents’ birth—spun into a minor PR crisis. Then, last spring, he sent a frisson through the figure-skating community by suggesting it might be time for the athletes to unionize.

But by any measure, he’s led a unique and sheltered life. Despite being raised in Ottawa and Toronto, English is his third language. His father, Lewis, who grew up in Montreal, speaks French to him, while he and his mother, Karen, converse in Cantonese. Chan’s entire formal education has so far been in French. And ever since he first strapped on figure skates at Toronto’s Granite Club at the age of six, it’s been apparent that he possesses a talent that sets him apart from others. Chan has been working toward his gold-medal dream for 17 years now, putting in thousand of hours at the rink under the watchful eyes of his parents and coaches, while his peers played, goofed off and moved on. His brief time at the athletes’ village in Vancouver was his first real taste of freedom. “I felt a bit scared, because it was kind of like I was a loose cannon. I could do whatever I wanted because I was by myself,” he says, “and I had never been by myself.”

He enjoyed a close relationship with his first coach, Osborne Colson, a Canadian figure-skating legend who trained champions dating back to Barbara Ann Scott and Donald Jackson. “Mr. Colson,” as the skater still reverentially refers to him, was more like a grandfather, and when he died in 2006 at the age of 90, the young Chan was at his bedside. (His long program for this Olympic season, performed to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, is a tribute to his late mentor, filled with elements they worked on together over the years.)

But Chan has had difficulty in establishing an enduring partnership with the coaches who have followed. He parted ways with Don Laws—the American who helped Scott Hamilton to the gold in 1984 in Sarajevo, and whom he met at Colson’s funeral—in 2010, just five weeks before the Vancouver Games. Then, in the spring of 2012, Chan split with Christy Krall, one-half of the team that helped him master the quad and win his first two world titles. This past winter, Chan abandoned his training base in Colorado Springs, Colo., and followed his other coach, Kathy Johnson, to a rink in suburban Detroit.

Mike Slipchuk, Skate Canada’s director of high performance, says it became apparent during the disappointing 2012-13 season that Chan needed another change of scenery. “He just didn’t seem to be in a good, positive place.” The training environment that fits a 15- or 16-year-old perfectly, doesn’t necessarily work for an athlete in his 20s, he notes. “Part of it is the growing-up process.”

In Colorado, Chan shared a condo with his mother, who managed his career and looked after all his needs. In Detroit, he has his own apartment. A one-bedroom, “for just one person,” Chan stresses. He says he felt as though he had to strike out on his own in order to become an Olympic champion, and prepare for life after skating. “I need to have some control over my success, and I have to have some responsibilities, even if it’s just picking up the mail, paying my bills and cooking my meals.”

Dig a little deeper, however, and it becomes clear that, for Chan, the real problem was with the environment at the rink. It was an on-ice confrontation with a younger skater that pushed him over the edge, he says. After the world champion chided her for getting in his way while he practised, she returned fire and the other athletes took her side in the argument. “I felt so lonely. People that I had trained with for a year-and-a-half, they became my worst enemies. They turned their backs on me,” says Chan, still smarting at the memory. “If I ever got in the way of Kurt Browning or Elvis Stojko and they got mad and yelled at me, I’d be, ‘Oh my God! I’m so sorry!’ ”

The atmosphere at the Detroit Skating Club, where he trains alongside fellow Canadian Olympians such as ice dancers Kaitlyn Weaver and Andrew Poje, and national team member Elladj Balde, is much more supportive, he says. “Now I’ve identified what makes me happy: during the breaks, just getting off the ice and talking with the other skaters; mingling; kicking the soccer ball or throwing the football around. It keeps it light, so you’re not dreading what’s coming.”

As he builds toward the most stressful two weeks of his young life, Chan is determined to stay in his comfort zone. His short program, performed to Rachmaninoff’s Elegie in E-Flat Minor, remains unchanged from the past season. He’s even wearing last year’s skates—something pretty much unheard of at the elite level—because he never broke in the new pairs to his liking.

Sochi will be different, he swears. He’s going to get out and meet his fellow athletes, watch other events, and simply enjoy the Olympic experience. And there’s the whole business of finally bringing home men’s figure-skating gold for Canada, a feat that Browning, Stojko and Brian Orser—all themselves world champions—never managed. Chan is confident he can break the curse. “I’ve put the work in. I just need to believe in it when I get to Sochi,” he says. And maybe, for a few minutes, just pretend he’s somewhere else.