September preparation is key to a successful season

No doubt, there is a bit of a buzz in the air as officials sit in chilly rinks, clad in mittens and scarfs, watching Canada’s national team members go through their paces in early September at the high performance camp.

MISSISSAUGA, Ont. – No doubt, there is a bit of a buzz in the air as officials sit in chilly rinks, clad in mittens and scarfs, watching Canada’s national team members go through their paces in early September at the high performance camp.

But it’s not just a training camp. It’s a competitive simulation experience. When the camps began in 2006, Michael Slipchuk came as a technical specialist, and he saw skaters doing all sorts: some did full programs, some did partial programs. Some people were injured. Many didn’t have their costumes yet. “I didn’t find it very effective,” Slipchuk said.

The following year, when he became Skate Canada’s High Performance Director and met with “the team,” they began to talk about what Skate Canada wanted to get out of these excursions. The upshot, after talking to coaches and athletes, was that Skate Canada wanted to change the focus of the event, and make it a simulation and “really raise the level of what this camp is in preparation,” Slipchuk said. Skate Canada did such a camp at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver in the lead-up to the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, and it was a perfect fit.

The three-day camp, (the U.S. camp is seven days long) packed full of activities, is taken very seriously. “If skaters aren’t prepared for whatever reason, they are not part of it,” Slipchuk said. “There’s an expectation of preparation and readiness. For a lot of skaters, this is their first chance in front of judges for the season.”

The schedule is complex and organized. Skate Canada flies in its top ISU officials and technical people, not only from Canada, but from countries around the world. At this event in Mississauga – in a season that is an important buildup to the Sochi Olympic Winter Games – Skate Canada brought in Britain’s Simon Briggs, who served as a technical specialist for the pairs event at the Vancouver Olympics. “We want to have the best people available to give that input for athletes so that when they step out for their first event – which for some is next week – they’re prepared and at least they won’t be caught off guard with some technical requirements,” Slipchuk said.

Skaters do short programs one day, long programs the next, in front of judges and technical specialists or controllers or whatever discipline guru can up the ante. These experts sit and scratch (with pens) and chat and discuss and tap their knees to test timing. The skaters are videotaped. Then comes the tough part as officials go rinkside and niggle over every little detail, technical and choreographic, too. “They watch for levels and they go over every little bitty detail,” said dancer Alexandra Paul, who with partner Mitchell Islam will fight for one of the three spots for ice dancing at the Sochi Games. “They look at different aspects of your program, like flow and then specific things like timing. It really matters.”

Slipchuck said programs, filled with important details, all to gain as many points as possible, take time to evolve. And it takes a long time to master them. “If you get feedback along the way, it’s a lot easier to input and keep building, rather than trying to do mass changes later in the season,” he said.

“That’s what this is about,” Islam said. “It’s about perfection. You’ve had some time with your programs and it’s time to take that next step and make them perfect and get them ready for internationals.”

Paul and Islam feel more ready than they’ve ever felt at this point of the season and they need to be: they are doing the Nebelhorn Trophy in Obertsdorf, Germany on Sept. 25 to 28. So do Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, who have already shown off their programs at a Quebec provincial competition, but they’re also planning to do Finlandia Trophy in Espoo, Finland Oct. 5 to 7. Canada isn’t the only nation to send out skaters early to prepare: world pair champions Tatiana  Volosozhar and Maxim Trankov of Russia are scheduled to compete at Nebelhorn and former world bronze medalist Yuzuru Hanyu of Japan is going to Finlandia, as well as Elizaveta Tuktamysheva of Russia, Mirai Nagasu of the United States, current world dance bronze medalists Ekaterina Bobrova and Dmitri Sokolov of Russia and rising stars Madison Chock and Evan Bates of the United States. 

The plan for Canadian skaters, said Slipchuk, especially in an Olympic year, is to get to December and know that you’ve got all the mileage you need and you feel ready. “Once you hit January, there is only Canadians and then the Games. There is not an opportunity to compete more. So you’ve got to maximize any opportunities at this time of year, to get the programs out and get into that competitive environment.”

The camp kick-starts the season for skaters, said Louis Stong, a skating development consultant for Skate Canada. “If they do well, it’s a confidence builder. If not, it’s a kick in the [butt].”

There was also a huge media scrum on the first day of the camp, and a media summit on the third day with a handful of major outlets, similar to the one done by the Canadian Olympic Committee. That’s worth its weight in gold, said Stong, to prepare skaters for the onslaught of interest to come this season. Two members of the official Russian Olympic network showed up in Mississauga, too. They would have liked to have attended the Russian camp, but media were not allowed.

And also, importantly, the camp is a team-building opportunity.  “Most skaters are somewhere in the world, skating by themselves, and it can be a lonely existence,” said Sally Rehorick, who was chef de mission at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games, and a five-time Olympic judge. “It’s fun to see them get together at the same time.” Islam said it was motivating to be a part of all the talent gathered from across the country. “It’s great for the confidence,” he said. “You get great feedback from the judges and officials and you feel like Skate Canada is behind everybody and supportive.”

Rehorick says the skaters are “like sponges,” eager to get the best advice. Officials don’t gloss over anything. “Nothing is perfect at this time of year,” she said. “And they want to know exactly where the head should be, where the foot should be. They’re shooting high and we are shooting high with them, with everybody believing that everything has to be excellent.”

The camp is good for officials as well, Rehorick said. At competitions, judges and officials don’t have a lot of time to discuss broader issues while their noses are to the grindstone. The camp ensures that Canada’s judges are on the same page about how to interpret rules. The event has a spilloff effect across the country.

For skaters on the national team, the details they learn at the camp may help them reach a podium at the Olympics, or just to get onto the Olympic or world team.

And Slipchuk likes what he sees so far. He’s been out and about in July and August, looking at programs. He already sees improvements. “It’s good to see that physically, everyone is in good shape and the programs have a lot of energy,” he said. “The programs are at a level where you’d like to see them at this time of year.”

Beverley Smith

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